Saturday, March 28, 2015

I Love a Parade Redo

I used to preach Palm Sunday sermons.  It’s been so long since I did that I don’t really remember when I stopped.  I know that many of you have heard the story of why I stopped already, but I guess I wanted to tell it again.  

Early in my ministry I was determined to let Palm Sunday be Palm Sunday.  None of this “slash” stuff for me.  We needed to focus on the Triumphal entry.  The passion of Christ would come during the holy week services - Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  That would get us in the proper frame of mind, the proper spirit to really experience - not to mention, really need Easter.  So, The Passion never appeared on Palm Sunday.  

Until I started paying attention to what people were actually doing.  Or not doing, in this case.  The crowd for Thursday and Friday was significantly smaller than the Sunday crowd.  Which meant that many folks were going from Palm Sunday to Easter, from a parade to a party without the passion in between.  Without walking alongside Jesus as he let his love for us fall like great drops of blood.  

So, I gave up preaching Palm Sunday for Lent.  And never picked it up again.  Many have commented on how moving the reading of the Passion story is for them.  And many others over the years have told me that Easter was different for them because of my surrendering of the Palm Sunday sermon in favor of telling the passion story.  I don’t regret it in the least.  But I sometimes feel like I give Palm Sunday short shrift.  So, I decided to dust off a Palm Sunday sermon from the way back machine and put it here for you.  It’s a little longer than my usual bible study, but on the other hand it is a full sermon.  What I preached once upon a time, and might preach again if you all would promise me you’ll be there on Thursday and Friday without fail. ... Didn’t think so.  I understand, really I do.  Life is busy, we can’t all the things we want to do let alone the things we think we should do.  Besides it is a powerful story that needs to be told.  

At the same time, I miss the parade.  So, here is a sermon from when you were a kid (not really) about Palm Sunday.  
Mark 11:1-11  When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples  2 and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.  3 If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'"  4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,  5 some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?"  6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.  7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.  8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"  11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. 

I have always wanted to be in a parade.  I don't know why really, it's just one of those things.  Of course, what I would do in a parade is anybody's guess.  I don't really meet the criteria for Rose Bowl or Homecoming Queen or any other royalty for that matter.  Although, I can do the requisite parade wave.  It is one of my few talents.  But I don't get much opportunity to exercise it.  Which is why I decided to talk about parades today.  Just so I could wave like this for a while.  

La Donna came in while I was working on this and told me she had been in lots of parades.  Oh, thank you very much, just rub it in.  The girl scouts, apparently, used to march in the Memorial Day parade in South Bend.  I forgot to ask if she got to wave.  She then proceeded to tell me that I couldn't be in the Easter Parade because I didn't have a bonnet.  But I told her that I wasn't talking about the Easter Parade because it wasn't Easter yet.  I was talking about the Palm Sunday parade.  "There's no such thing as a Palm Sunday Parade," she told me and then on her way out of the room she offered to make me a bonnet, if I wanted her to.  No thank you.

And there is too a Palm Sunday Parade.  Isn't there?  Of course there is.  In fact Palm Sunday itself is a parade.  And according to Mark that's about all there was to it.  This little parade down the streets of Jerusalem.  No floats, no marching bands, no Spider-Man balloons, no homecoming Queen, no royalty at all, just a guy on a borrowed donkey.  Not much of a parade, I guess.  

But that was the whole deal.  That's all there is to Palm Sunday, a ride into town.  Hardly worth getting so excited about, it would seem.  It does make a nice entry into holy week, I supposed.  It gets us ready for the real show that begins later.  Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter.  Those are the real parades.  Palm Sunday is just a road trip, just getting from there to here.  There's no such thing as a Palm Sunday Parade.

Jesus always wanted to be in a parade too, it seems.  Why else would he orchestrate this one?  Palm Sunday was planned.  Remember, he tells his disciples to go into town and bring a colt for him to ride into town, and he even tells them what to say if anyone tries to stop them.  So off they go, worrying about their reputations as they are about to break into donkey rustling, and wondering why Jesus decided he needs to ride all the sudden when walking has been good enough for him up to now.  But they do as they were told being experts at not quite understanding what was going on.  And sure enough there is the colt, just like he said.  They untie it and start to lead it back to him, when someone, maybe the owner of the animal says, "hey, what're you guys doing?"  And the disciples look at each other and back at the donkey like they were trying to remember how it go there, and then one of them remembers what they were supposed to say, "The Lord has need of it and will send it back here as soon as he's through."  With the emphasis on sending it back.  Borrowing always sounds better than stealing.  They wait to see whether the owner of the colt is going to call the cops or raise a fuss or shout for the neighbors.  But he doesn't.  He just says, OK, and let's them go.  Now, I don't know.  Maybe it was the way it was said, or maybe he decided that they looked too simple to be pulling a fast one, or maybe he was a secret follower of Jesus and would have done anything to help, or maybe Jesus had arranged the whole thing ahead of time.  But off they go, with this unridden donkey, casting a few backward glances to make sure the owner wasn't drawing a bead on them as they left.   

They got it back to Jesus, made a saddle out of their clothes and off they went.  One unridden donkey, now carrying a rider, a rabbi from the country, and twelve guys wondering what in the world was going on.  What a scene it must have been.  And yet as they drew nearer to the city, a crowd began to gather.  A big crowd or a small one, we don't really know.  But either way it was a loud one.  They saw him coming and they began to shout.  And not just shout, but to pull off their coats and jackets and began to toss them onto the road, to make a red carpet of many colors to welcome this parade.  And that wasn't enough they ran to the trees and pulled off branches and waved them around and laid them on the road, all the while shouting, shouting at the top of their lungs, shouting their hopes and their prayers and their joy in the recognition of the answer to that prayer riding on a donkey.  What a scene it must have been.

Because this was the moment, you see, where Jesus decided that it was time to make his claim.  That's what was going on here.  It wasn't that Jesus though riding would be a pleasant change from walking.  There was something more significant going on here.

I remember once talking to a young man about faith and church and after listening to me for a bit he finally said, "well, I don't do religion."  You know, like "I don't do fish" or "I don't do country music."  "I don't do religion."  Oh.  
Well, Palm Sunday was when Jesus decided to do Messiahship, or Messiahdom.  It wasn't enough for him to say "Hey, by the way, I am, you know, the one."  No it was time to make that claim in a way that everyone would understand.  It was time to risk his life by telling the world who he was.

By choosing a donkey to ride on Jesus was not humbling himself in the way that we would suppose.  The donkey was not the symbol of slow, stubbornness that it might be today, fit only for grizzled prospectors who have been out in the sun too long.  No, in this culture the donkey was a noble beast and a ride fit for kings.  But, you see, a king would ride a horse only when he was going off or returning from war.  The king on a horse was a sign that blood was to be shed and enemies to be vanquished.  On the other hand, when the king rode a donkey it was a symbol of peace.  So Jesus announced himself as the king of peace.  And the people; the poor, the hurt, the lost, the lonely, the hopeless, the sinner, they saw and heard and they got the message and for a moment at least they were moved to praise this king of peace.   Blessed is the one who comes, the one who comes was the awaited one, the Messiah.  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  But it wasn't just praise that they shouted that day.  It was a plea, it was a prayer, Hosanna, they said with as much hope as they could muster, Save us now.  Bring us peace, bring us wholeness bring us a way to live that we might join in this parade with you always.  That's what the shouting was about - that they might be able to get on board, to march in time, to ride with him in this parade for peace.

We love a parade.  I remember watching a parade a number of years ago.  It was while we were in Yell County, Arkansas, serving two little country churches for a year.  It was an interesting time, to say the least.  As La Donna says, Yell county, Arkansas was not the edge of the universe, but you could see it from there.  But one fall day, I found myself in the country seat town getting ready to watch the homecoming parade.  The whole town was there, either in the parade or watching.  There were decorated trucks and wagons, a whole pack of kids on bicycles with paper streamers, some horses and carts, the high school marching band was there, the football team and homecoming queen and her court.  And I stood there watching with the parents and neighbors who laughed and waved and pointed out their little darlings as they rode by.  It was a great day.  

Along toward the end of the parade, there was a small yellow school bus.  Before it got close enough for me to see what it was, I noticed that it was having an effect on the crowd.  It was as if it was traveling in a little cloud of silence.  For was it would pass by the smiles and the laughter would stop and the hands would drop.  As the school bus came past where I was standing I saw the words "Yell County Special Schools" printed on the side, and out of a back window was one of the school's young charges.  She was leaning somewhat precariously out over the road, and waving her arm as if she was trying to get a plane to land.  As she drew even with me, she stopped waving and to all of us standing along the road she shouted with some exasperation "Wave!"  

My hand was halfway up before I noticed that no one else was waving or even looking at her.  And in embarrassment I let my own hand drop.  The parade carried her away from me on down the street.  I watched her for as long as I could, she was still waving her palm, still looking for acknowledgment, still needing a savior.

It seems an easy thing to do, to wave our palms and join in the parade.  But it's not.  For one thing it will make us stand out, be different.  Most of the world, most of our community doesn't even realize that there is a parade going on.  For us to stand and acknowledge the parade is to take a stand against the status quo, to stick out like sore thumbs by shouting for salvation, by admitting we need a savior.  We will be different because our values will be different, because what is important to our society will not be important to us.  To join in this parade is let other parades pass us by.  

And what is worse is that this parade will take us places we may not really want to go.  Jesus made his claim to be the king of peace, but the problem was that he was riding into a war zone.  If he had to go to Jerusalem the smart thing would have been to sneak in the back door and keep very quiet.  But no, facing imprisonment, the lash and the cross, Jesus rode in as the king of peace.  And to share in this parade is to share in that suffering.  

But still, we love a parade.   Because this parade does have royalty,  and we know that this is the only one who can save us.  This is the only one to whom we can shout Hosanna.  This is the only one who can bring us through the darkness of Good Friday and death, that we might meet the Easter light of the risen Son.  

So come on and join in the parade, bonnets are optional.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Apart From Me

My son is home for Spring Break. I just went to get him yesterday.  So we are still in that readjustment phase, remembering we have a son, and he wants food and clothes washed and space.  It’s not a bad thing, but it is a thing.  Don’t you deny it, you empty nesters!

At the same time, I watch and listen and try to figure out just who this person is.  I mean, yes, there is enough of my son who shared my life for all these years and grew under my care to become someone of whom I was justifiably proud.  But then a few years ago I sent him off (ok, yes, his mother and I sent him off) to college, out of our lives probably forever, except for these parachute drops from time to time.  And the young man who drops in is not the boy I sent off not so many years ago.  Some how he continued to grow apart from me.  

No not grow apart, though that is happening too.  But he grew apart from me.  Without my help, without my presence and guidance, without my tending and shaping.  Apart from me he grew, is growing.  Like his sister who was home a week or so ago, I’m not sure about the connection anymore.  Not sure what my role is anymore.  Not sure how this abiding thing works in the end.

John 15:1-5   "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 

Jesus is on his way out.  On his way to suffering and death and life and ascension.  Out.  Away.  Apart from them.  And he knew it and told them.  Over and over he told them.  I wonder did they not get it?  Did they just glaze over whenever he talked about that departure?  Did they live each day of their new and exciting lives thinking that it was always going to be like this?  Probably.  Do any of us imagine life without us in it?  Only on our sad days.  And if we try to talk to those we love about this departure, they won’t want to hear.  I can see a field full of disciples with fingers in their ears loudly singing “la la la la, I can’t hear you!!” when Jesus started his the Son of Man will be lifted up to die routine.  

But he knew it.  He knew it as sure as he knew he was breathing now.  And he faced it with the same confidence with which he faced drawing that first ragged breath in a barn in Bethlehem.  With the same sense of presence that he faced when he rose from the muddy waters of the Jordan with a beaming John the Baptism trembling beside him.  With the same sense of possibility and responsibility that brought a sigh out of him when he healed in the face of doubt, or the groan that came when he tossed out a demon that thought it was secure with claws deep in the human psyche.  He knew what was next, and he wanted to prepare them.  Abide in me, he told them, as an antidote to his absence.  Abide in me.

Wait.  What?  He was leaving so he wanted them to abide in him?  What?  Did he mean that the time is short, get your abiding in while abiding is possible?  Or worse, was it a “look what you missed!  You should have gotten closer!  You should have taken up residence, you should have gotten on board, you should have been on the team!”  But now the game is over.  The clock is ticking.  The last second shot will probably fall short, as they do more often than not.  And you will have missed it.  Too bad for you.  I’m on my way out.  You could have had more.  You could have been a contender.  But no.

No.  That can’t be it.  Jesus didn’t taunt in that way.  Jesus wept for missed opportunities, yes.  But he didn’t wag his finger at those who just didn’t get it.  No, this had to be a real opportunity, a real commandment.  Like the other commandment that is about to come in a few more verses, the love one another one.  That wasn’t a taunt.  Neither is this.  Abide in me.  Not you should have, you could have, but you didn’t abide in me.  No, there is still time, the clock hasn’t yet run out.  Abide.  Get in there and abide, there is still hope, we are still alive.

But how?  Jesus is annoyingly short on detail, even as he is rich in imagery.  Vines and branches, fruit and gardeners: there is a secret here.  Not a hidden code, but a obvious puzzle that if we could but glimpse it, then it would explode in our consciousness like a lightning bolt.  It doesn’t need a degree in ancient languages, but an ah  ha moment that unfolds the truth that was always there.  

Look again, abide in me as I abide in you.  As I abide in you.  He’s leaving, but he’s not leaving.  He is with us, even to the end of the age.  Which means we are with him come hell or high water, when the chips are down or our ship has come in.  We are with him and he is with us.  We are on the brink of Holy Week, that divine drama which is acted out as a historical remembrance year after year to our great appreciation.  Except that it isn’t an historical remembrance.  It is the rhythm of our faith.  Christ comes to us and we should for joy, and ask him to save us, because Christ comes to us.  To us.  And with tears streaming down our faces we embrace him and hope for a new start and new opportunity and new outlook on life.  And when the glow dies down and the new outlook looks a lot like the old look and takes just as much effort to hold onto, if not more.  Then our disillusionment grows and we look for someone to blame, a scapegoat who must be at fault for the rotten life we’ve been given, and we lash out and cast aside that which only recently seemed so full of possibility and hope, and now tastes like ashes instead of bread and wine.  And we turn our backs on the one we wept over, and we flee in fear and shame and doubt.  And in the darkness we feel so alone.  Again, so alone.  Like no one understands.  Like no one is on our side.  Like no one ... there’s just no one.  For us.  No one.

We are apart from him, and can do nothing.  Or nothing that we can do seems worth doing.  Or nothing that we have done seems to amount to anything anymore.  Apart from him.  Life is emptier.  The colors are muted, the air is heavy and gravity seems stronger.  Apart from him.  Nonsense?  Maybe.  Maybe it is my imagination, my overactive spiritual sensibilities.  A little bit more time in the real world might do me some good, give me some perspective on how things really work.  Sure, a little bit of Jesus is a good idea, but you can go too far.  Am I right?

I listen to my son talk to his mother and discover depths of awareness and sensibility that I had nothing to do with.  I find a young man who will make a mark in this world somehow, and would like to take credit for it, but I know it wasn’t me.  I know my failings and shortcomings all too well.  I know of opportunities missed and do overs I wish I could have.  And yet, there he is, grown somehow, in spite of me.  Matured in ways I wonder if I have even reached.  How did that happen?

John says I got the order wrong.  I got the responsibilities wrong.  I’m a branch, like my son is a branch and my daughter and wife and members of my church and my community and you.  You are a branch.  We can work together, we have the great and glorious responsibility of producing the fruit, of making things happen, of being the sustenance for the Kingdom of God.  And I can give shade when needed to the tender young branches in my vicinity, I can help collect the nutrients, I can do all that and more, but I’m not the vine.  The sustenance doesn’t come through me.  How did he grow and mature apart from me?  He wasn’t apart from the vine.  Even off on his own, in a new environment, he is still connected to the vine which will sustain him, grow him and help him mature.  

I can help - metaphor notwithstanding.  I can participate in his growth and continually call him back to the vine.  But there will come a time when he is apart from me more than he is connected to me.  But I pray he won’t be apart from the one who gives him strength.  I pray, will continue to pray that he is with the one who will be with him to the end of the age.  Abide in him as he abides in you.  


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Seasoned Servants

I’m tired of sermons.  Oh, no, you’re thinking.  Another bible study whining about his job.  Get over it, dude.  Well, either that or “Now you know how WE feel!”  If that was your reaction to the first sentence, then don’t tell me about it.  OK?  

But, I repeat.  I’m tired of sermons. This was month two of my Course of Study class on preaching down in Indianapolis.  The Course of Study is for those who are in process of becoming Local Pastors.  And a Local Pastor is not the same as a pastor who is local.  Local Pastor is an official designation within the United Methodist Church, they are clergy but differentiated from Elders and Deacons.  In some ways, they are a bridge between the laity and the clergy.  They have a foot in each camp.

Their training is done over a long period of time, a course of study, where they take one class a semester that meets over three Saturdays.  This was the second of three sessions that I will have with the current group.  So, I left early this morning and drove, in the fog mind you, down to the University of Indianapolis to teach my course.  Last month I did the talking.  Gave them a crash course on everything you need to know about preaching.  And then today and next month they preach and we critique.  So, I got to hear nine sermons from 9am to 4pm Saturday.  I’m tired of sermons.

Actually, I heard ten sermons.  Because I was invited to preach at the opening devotions.  So, I heard me and then nine more.  I’m tired of sermons.  Doesn’t bode well for Sunday morning now does it?  Not to worry.  I’ll be fine by tomorrow.  I hope anyway.  Since I have to be.  Pretty much.  Kinda my job.  

Well, actually, I’ve got to deal with another sermon right now.  Right here.  The passage I chose for this week is a part of a sermon.  Perhaps the most famous sermon of them all.  The Sermon on the Mount.  

Matthew 5:13-16  "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.  14 "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 

Point two of the Sermon on the Mount.  Well, part two.  Jesus’ introduction is ear grabbing and powerful.  It stands on it’s own.  In fact you talk about the Sermon on the Mount and most people will know about the opening.  The Blesseds are.  The Beatitudes.  The Happys.  It’s a wonderful picture of how God chooses those that the world might overlook.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Blessed are the meek, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted.  Quite a team.  Good on you Jesus.  You know how to pick them.  

Now moving on, let’s look at the next group.  Salt and light Christians.  But wait a minute.  What if he isn’t moving on.  What if he’s talking about the same group.  The Beatitude group.  Except now he’s saying “you know that kingdom of heaven thing?  Yeah, well, that’s not just so that you come out ok.  You have the kingdom of heaven so you can share it.”  What if the inheriting the earth thing is not so that you can have it, but so that you can share it?  So that you can serve it?  

OK, maybe, that might work.  But the middle three, that sounds like something to keep.  Blessed are you who mourn for you shall be comforted.  That’s just helping someone get through, right?  Just a partner through the grief process, don’t you think?  And Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.  What goes around comes around, don’t you think?  You reap what you sow.  That’s what being said here.  You’ll get yours in the end, whatever it is.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for you will be filled.  Surely you can’t share your own filled-ness?  Can you?  Well, no.  But you can share from your sense of being filled.  Because you are filled you see to fill others.  Because you received mercy you offer more mercy.  Because you’ve been comforted, you can now comfort.  That’s inherent in the design of the body of Christ.  A part of what it means to be the community of faith.

You are the salt, you pure in heart, you merciful, you meek and poor in spirit.  You are the salt.  Meaning don’t keep it to yourself.  Don’t just make sure you are ok.  We are in the business of being salt of the earth.  The earth.  Catch that?  Pretty all encompassing that word.  

The idea is that you don’t parcel out little bits of salt, but that you’re like the little girl on the old Morton’s salt package, you just run around pouring it everywhere.  Rain or shine!  Just keep pouring salt.  

On a health kick?  Don’t like all this saltiness?  OK, then you are the light of the world.  The world!  Again, it is inherent in the design.  That’s what light is for, to be shared.  To help others see.  You are the light of the world, so don’t hide in a bucket.  Don’t be so self-effacing that no one knows that you care.  That no one knows that are present.  Or that no one knows who you work for, or why you do what you do.  Let them see your good works, let them see your meekness, your purity of heart, let them see your peacemaking and your hungering and thirsting for righteousness, so that through you they can come closer to God. 

Be a transparent light source.  No, it’s not about you.  But about the one who sent you, who sends you.  Let your light shine so that they see your good works and give glory to God.  But how do they know to give glory to God when they see what you do?  Wouldn't they be more inclined to give glory to you?  Isn’t that how this works?  Do something good and get recognition.  How do they know that your motivation, your inspiration, your passion is God?

Because you tell them.  Duh.  That’s where the sharing of faith comes in.  And you do it everywhere, to anyone, all the time.  Not to beat them down and make God another annoyance in their lives.  But to let them have an answer to the questions they ask.  Questions like “How are you able to do all this and keep a sense of equilibrium?”  Well, you say, I had help.  And then you speak somehow about what motivated you.  In church I heard ..., in my small group we were saying ..., this great book I was reading said ...  You tell them, that’s how they know.

And then you invite them.  To pray with you if that works.  To come to worship with you, if you think they might be open to that (and how will you know unless you ask?)  To join your fellowship group.  Don’t have one?  Start one.  Or ask and we’ll help put one together.  It’s time to get those things going again.

I mean there is salt going to waste because we aren't sure how to share it.  There is light behind closed doors that gets shuttered when we go out.  It’s time to make a difference in the world around us.  Season your surroundings.  Shine bright.  From your natural enthusiasm about your faith.  From your hope and your joy.  Let it shine.

To the world.  Yeah, it’s a big place.  Someone once said that all the light that ever shined is still shining as it spreads father and farther out into the universe.  Good works are like that.  They never really stop influencing, it just keeps rippling out.  No act of mercy or peacemaking ever is wasted, even if the results aren't what you hope.  But the very act of making the attempt has eternal transformative power.  Let it shine.  Let it pour.  Let it brighten.  Let it season.  

Give God glory.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Abiding in Love

The fall of 1980, I was newly married, fresh off a summer with my parents and new bride (which is a story for another time), and was newly enrolled in Perkins School of Theology for my Masters in Theology that would prepare me to launch into the ordained ministry of the United Methodist Church.  It seems like forever ago, another world, another me.  And yet there are some things That are as though they happened yesterday.  One of those was my first Ministers Week at Perkins, which might have been second semester now that I think about it. It was an impressive time with big names in theology and church history coming to shore up clergy from all over and to set seminary students heads spinning in amazement.  I don’t remember the big names who came, to be honest.  But there was one man who made a powerful impact who it seems I shall never forget.

He was not an impressive looking specimen, quite short, balding, glasses and spoke with an east Tennessee mountain twang.  His subject was preaching, and the subject was “How Loud Should the Sermon be?”  I was not sure what to expect, frankly.  But what happened was that I was held spellbound for three hour plus lectures over the course of two days.  What happened was I was caught up in the power of words and preaching as the hope of the church and the empowerment of the people of God.  What happened was that I found myself in those lectures, I finally understood this sense of call that I had and this deep love for the church and for worship that had been implanted in my very soul.  

The little man from the hills of east Tennessee what the Rev. Dr. Fred B. Craddock, the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.  And he turned my life around.  Inside out and upside down.  And I was forever grateful.  I wanted more and read everything he wrote.  I even drove to Princeton University later in my ministry to attend a workshop he was leading there and foolishly raised my hand to be one who would preach during the workshop so that he and the rest of the group could dissect my preaching like it was a dead frog in formaldehyde.  I took that risk so that I could receive his blessing on my preaching ministry.  Like Jacob disguised to fool his father into giving the blessing, I dressed up like a preacher who had a clue what he was doing hoping I could fool Dr. Craddock into blessing me.  Whether I fooled him or not, I don’t know, but he did bless me, and sent me off on my path that took me to Edinburgh for a PhD in preaching, and to Geneva to lecture, and Malaysia and Kenya and Ethiopia and then back home to Indiana, to teach and to preach and to attempt to capture a tiny fraction of the passion and power that Fred Craddock poured out like honey from that pulpit on the campus of Southern Methodist University thirty-five years ago.

One of the secrets Craddock shared was that if you weren’t connected to the vine, then the fruit wouldn’t grow.  OK, he didn’t come up with that on his own.  He read it someplace.  Dr. Craddock was a New Testament scholar so he must have been aware of our text for this week about abiding.  

John 15:8-14  My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.  9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.  11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.  14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 

This is, of course, part of the larger piece called the “farewell discourse.”  This is Jesus trying to give them everything they would need to go on without him as he had been with them.  These verse follow the description of the vine.  Jesus says “I am the vine and you are branches, abide in me” That’s they only way to bear fruit.  And if we really want to glorify God, which is what we say when we worship, then we do it by bearing fruit.  But doing something.  By branching out.  Sorry, couldn’t resist.

But Jesus tells us to stay connected.  To abide in him, abide in his love.  That makes a wonderful picture.  Just hanging out with Jesus.  Just being filled up, like a buffet table with all our favorite foods.  Just being restored like a long lazy morning when you don’t have to get out of bed until you want to.  Abide in my love.  Like being wrapped up in loving arms and letting those arms be the buffer between our wounded hearts and the less than gentle world.  Abide.  Sounds nice.  Let’s get some of that.  So, Jesus, how do we go about this abiding thing?

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”  Sounds a little more involved than just hanging out with Jesus.  Sounds like another one of those doing kind of things.  Keep my commandment ... and this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  We abide in love when we love.  We receive more of Christ’s sustaining love, strengthening power, transforming presence, when we sustain others with our love, when we strengthen those around us with our love, when we work for transformation in those who we encounter.  It’s kinda like saying when we set out to love like Christ loves, we can’t ever run out.  

When Fred Craddock retired from teaching preachers to be in the seminary, he couldn’t quit sharing what he learned.  He moved back to the mountains, north Georgia this time, and set up a teaching facility where those who couldn’t go to seminary could come and work on their preaching.  He then discovered that many of the children of those mountains were under served by the public education in the area, so he established the Craddock center that ministered to children - feeding and clothing and mentoring - from Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.  He also preached regularly at Cherry Log Christian Church even into his 80's.  It was like he didn’t know how to stop loving like Christ loved. 

That’s how it happens, this abiding thing.  It is when you venture out.  When you wrap the love of Christ around you and take a step into the unknown, to give of yourself, you are abiding.  I know, it doesn’t make sense.  Abiding sounds stationary.  Abiding sounds settled.  But Jesus redefines abiding.  

Or maybe he is just giving directions so we can find him to abide.  Remember the Easter declaration?  (I know, this is the third Sunday in Lent, we shouldn’t be giving away the ending, should we?)  “He is not here, he is risen!  And he is going before you...”  You want to abide in Jesus? You have to keep moving.  Because He keeps moving.  He goes where the hurt is, He goes where the hunger is, He goes where the love is least so he can pour out more.  And he invites us to go with him.

And here’s the bonus.  This is where joy is.  This abiding on the road thing.  This stepping out in love journey.  This is where the joy is.  “I have said these things to you,” Jesus says, “so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”  Complete joy.  Wow, what would that be like?  We get glimpses, we get moments, we get a taste of joy from time to time, if we’re lucky.  But Jesus is offering something else, something more.  Complete joy.  

Complete because it is shared.  That is the nature of joy. Mark Twain said that “grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.”  Joy is a shared experience, rather than a solitary one.  Joy is of the community, even if the community is just you and Jesus.  You and one other, with whom you can share and know joy.  What a blessing.  

One other who takes up residence in your heart and helps make you who you are.  I have more than one, I suspect you do too.  But one of those, Dr. Fred Craddock, died yesterday at the age of 86 from complications of Parkinson’s disease and other issues.  I mourn his passing, even as I give God thanks for his witness and his service.  I give God thanks that he knew how to abide in Christ’s love.  And pray that to honor him and so many others, I will learn to abide as well.  Thanks be to God.