Sermon for June 2, 2013

Sermon for June 2, 2013
1 Kings 18:20-39, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

I.


      As Paul said to the ancient church in Galatia this morning, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”  As Paul begins his letter, for generations, Lutheran pastors have begun sermons with these words, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”

     Notice that after the Amen, suddenly the letter takes a strident tone. The usual complements and greetings which begin ancient letters such as this are missing. Paul is so angry that he dispenses with the pleasantries and gets straight to the point. Basically that point is, “You idiots. Why do you fall away from the grace of God offered in Christ Jesus, and insist on following custom, religious traditions and habits, as if those things will bring you peace and happiness. What lunacy. Happiness can only come through graceful love and forgiveness as revealed in Jesus. No matter how well you perform all those little details of life, if you have not graceful love, have not compassion, your well crafted castle is empty.”

Paul is hot under the collar, because the gospel of graceful, compassionate love is in danger of being lost to habits, customs, and traditions. Fortunately perhaps, most Lutheran pastors have not followed the greeting at the beginning of the letter with such angry words. But make no mistake about it: the Greek is intense. Paul’s on the side of love, not the side of obedience to convention. The stakes are high, as two religious views collide.

II.

     The stakes are even higher as two religions collide in I Kings today. Here we have the confrontation of two primitive faith traditions, a thousand years or more perhaps before the time of Paul. In this story two faith traditions collide: the desert God YHWH and the agricultural God BAAL are contesting for the hearts of the people in the land of Canaan.  The detail of the story preserves the prehistoric echoes of this confrontation in the ancient history of the Middle East.

     YHWH, called the LORD in our passage, was a desert deity, worshipped by desert nomadic tribes. As the prehistoric Hebrew people wandered in the desert wilderness and lived the nomadic life, YHWH was their God. The desert God was the God of wind and fire. YHWH was elusive, so illusive that God’s name could not be pronounced or spoken, and was worshipped with the sacrifice of goats. A goat would be selected from the flocks. Hands would be laid upon the head of the goat, transferring the sins of the tribe to the animal. The animal was killed as an offering to God. The meat was shared in a feast or community meal.
YHWH spoke to people in fire and wind, burning bushes, and the appearance of strangers. People found faith in wilderness retreats and wandering. Hospitality was a divine command since survival in harsh desert conditions demanded it.

Eventually the Hebrew people came out of the desert into Canaan to settle and to take up agriculture. In the Bible this shift from desert nomadic life into agricultural society is called entering the Promised Land. The book of Joshua is perhaps the Bible’s record of people moving from a nomadic into an agricultural society with cities, and temples, priests and formal sacrifices, and emerging authority figures, money and armies. More people were in charge of more things.

BAAL was an agricultural God indigenous to Canaan where crops were grown and communities were established and fortified. Not given to wind and fire, BAAL was more concerned with the success of the harvest. Fertility was the important theme of the culture and of BAAL. Without fertility humanity would not flourish. Blood was a part of the faith as the source of life. Goats gave way to cows. Agricultural abundance allowed for the creation of wealth, art including statues such as golden calves, the construction of temples, and the creation of a priestly cast. Sacrifice, supervised now by professionals, was needed to insure a successful harvest. It may have been the case that human sacrifice was called for, and may be the story behind Genesis 22, what we know as the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.

As these desert nomads settled into agricultural communities and cities, and as life became more complex, the tendency was to abandon the old God of the desert for the new God of fertile promise. The religious struggle between the two faith traditions was carried on for some time. And it was intense. Today, we have a story from the time of King Ahab when it seems like everybody was giving up on YHWH and going for the new faith. Indeed, the faith of YHWH is being persecuted by the growing majority. Elijah the prophet of YHWH is in opposition to the great numbers professional prophets of BAAL. It’s a bull burning contest filled with anthropological detail. The first God to light the sacrificial fire wins.

At first it seems like BAAL has all the advantages: 450 professional prophets verses the rag tag Elijah. The BAAL group picks the bull, the wood, and receives the ball first. It’s even a bull rather than a goat. Their altar and sacrifice is bone dry. So they call on the name of their God, they dance in ecstasy and self mutilate, all part of the religion of the time.

But their so-called advantages are superficial. Notice that it is YHWH’s team that sets the challenge and defines the struggle in the first place. This is a challenge of fire, and YHWH is a god of desert wind and fire. And sometimes it is not to one’s advantage to go first. And Elijah creates spiritual distraction with all his taunting throughout their liturgy.

Notice the prehistoric detail of Elijah’s ritual. The people are called to come close. God is present in the gathering, not in professional priestly ecstasy.  The altar is constructed of twelve stones symbolizing the inclusion of all the tribes of the nomads, and making present the power of the many. The prophet’s prayer is simple, not complex. It remembers the past. In humility it makes a request, and then waits for a response. Elijah has the better liturgy.

And so his altar explodes with fire. No amount of water is a match for the intense heat of the God of the desert.  The stakes are high as two religions collide. YHWH prevails, and the faith that continues eventually gives rise to two of the world’s great religions. To this day we sustain these prehistoric values in our rituals: the coming together, the drawing close, the presence of all the hosts of heaven, the simple and straightforward prayer of the lay person rather than the professional prayer of the priest.

III.

       The stakes are high as two cultures collide in the gospel of Luke. The Romans are occupying Judea and are hated as foreign conquerors are always despised. The Romans were not gentle in their occupation. The penalty for standing against Rome was crucifixion. And many were crucified, including Jesus. So we have a story grounded in this confrontation. There should be conflict here, but there is not. How could that be?

Well this is an unusual Roman Centurion. He has compassion for those who work for him. He is humble in his office. He does what he can for his people. He helps the Jews he governs build a meeting place called a synagogue. He defers to Jesus, and his humility and gentleness is a key to his success and accomplishments. It’s still that way today for all leaders regardless of their backgrounds, cultures, situations, or convictions. The lack of presumption, the presence of humility, the sense of cooperation and gentle affection serve all leaders well. But make no mistake about it. This man leads. And he leads efficiently. As a leader, speaking to a religious leader, he just assumes that Jesus can handle this with a simple word. And Jesus does.

So where there should be an intense clash between cultures, between oppressor and oppressed, there is not. Jesus, it seems in Luke, can work with both Jews and Gentiles. And instead of that hostility being the focus, Luke points Jesus into the deeper conflict, not between Jew and Roman, but between good and evil, between brokenness and healing, between compassion and fear, between Jesus and the forces that would destroy hope. And make no mistake about it. That struggle in Luke and in all of these lessons is intense.

Reflection for May 26, 2013, Holy Trinity

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

The God complex
Last week was Pentecost.  We recalled the coming of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts from the Bible.  The wind blew, people spoke in different languages. Sparks ignited fires. Hearts were changed. A church was born.

The spirit’s coming completes our vision of divine trinity. We say Sunday after Sunday, “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” God, we say, is creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. In the creeds we say we believe in God the Father Almighty, Jesus Christ the Son of God and in God the Holy Spirit.

We say we don’t believe in three gods, but rather three expressions of the one God. Each year on this Sunday after Pentecost, we set aside time to talk about this Triune God.

We may think of the Trinity as something that has been in existence forever or an expression of the way God is. That is fine. But we also know that the idea of the Trinity is something that slowly takes shape in the first few centuries of the church. For at least three hundred years what we know as a basic and static belief was really something that was in flux, in the works, in process, as early Christians thought about how Jesus and something called the spirit and the creator God of the Jewish faith were all linked together. A complex of divine things was used to construct the Christian vision of the Holy. It might be said that Christians believe in a God beyond description but also in a God that can be somewhat described with three different impulses, actions, or relationships. The divine is creative. The divine is compassionate. The divine is still present with us.

At the time today’s passages of the Bible were written, the doctrine of the Trinity had not yet been established. But the passages reveal how the first Christians were beginning to assemble this idea. The book of Proverbs from the Hebrew Scripture recalls the tradition that the Holy Spirit was a voice of wisdom.  It comes from a time when primitive prophetic spirit and speech was shifting from ecstatic utterance and sacred babbling to words of wisdom, insight and understanding. From ecstasy to insight. Prophets were changing from people who said crazy things to people who said important things. Prophetic wisdom could be shared regarding the best course of action for people and groups.  In Proverbs, wisdom is a mystical metaphysical figure, created by God at the very beginning of all things. She is an allegorical hostess who offers a banquet of wisdom to all who would come to her table.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome there is no Trinity yet, but notice how three divine dimensions of God are worked together. In Romans 5 we are restored to God by the work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, completing the intentions of the God of creation.

In early Christian congregations, like the one in Rome, it was hard to find common ground between Jewish members and Gentile members. The idea of the spirit was helpful to both Jews and Gentiles. Both Jews and Gentiles used the term “spirit” to talk about God. And in mixed congregations where there may not have been much common ground, talking about Jesus and the Holy Spirit would be helpful in building a common understanding.  The Holy Spirit and the name of Jesus became important parts of ancient baptism.

In the passage from John, there is not a Holy Spirit as such, but there is an Advocate, Helper, or Paraclete, who remains with us and sustains us, and advocates for us. This sustainer in John later informs much of our later understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, especially in our Lutheran tradition in which we say that the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and preserves us in the faith.

So together the passages point us into the mysteries of this complex thing known as God, an emerging triune vision of God, a vision that will a couple of centuries later become the Trinity we use these days in church.

Intertwining
     One could say a great deal about this ancient theological mix of Jesus, God, and Spirit.  I would like to
just lift up one thing because I think it is important for us still in our faith and lives: intertwining. There is an intertwining of these three visions of God, a weaving, and a working together of three strands into one idea.

Whenever God is active in human lives, and whenever something important is going on, there seems to be an intertwining of things. We never really get just one strand to work with. There are always two, three or four things that need to be woven together to make a life or to make sense of living.

There are the strands of family, friends, work, health, sorrow, joy, aging, youth, conflict, peace, money, national responsibilities, civic life, grief, history, and hope. Usually some of these things are intertwined in the fabric we make of life; just as Jesus, God, and Spirit are also intertwined and woven together as the church gets started.

What strands are you working with in your life these days? Could you name two, three, or four themes that are currently being woven together in the life you are leading? And how are those strands coming together for you? What is the twisting and turning, the pattern of that weaving?  Are there tangles in the webs we weave?  At certain times in every intertwining, there are those days when it all seems to be one tangled mess. And who really is doing your weaving? Sometimes it seems we are in control. Sometimes not. How is your intertwining going?

There is another question about the intertwining upon which meaning and purpose is constructed. Are you able to weave the divine strands of God into your life? What role does God play in the intertwining of the strands of the life you weave?  Is there creativity? Compassion? A fresh wind blowing?  New wisdom or insight?

Intentions of the spirit
      And that brings us to the intentions of the spirit.  As we wrap the themes of life together to make new meanings, the divine threads are twisted into all those other things that occupy our minds.  As we think on the presence of the spirit, we discover that the spirit of God, the presence of God brings several things to us weavers.

In these passages today the intentions of the spirit include wise ways, declaration, creativity, restoring, and union.

Wise ways. In Proverbs the spirit is wise. It is a practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is based on living out basic principles such as fairness, freedom, honesty, and love.  God’s spirit calls you to live your life and to weave your fabric with a practical wisdom.

Declaration.  In Proverbs, wisdom calls out in the public places. Wisdom declares, or is declared. Think about that. The spirit is expressed. What needs to be expressed, or to be declared, or shared, or talked about right now, in our private lives and public spaces?  The spirit intends a declaration. What needs to be said or proclaimed?

Creativity.  The Hebrew God is a creative God. So much so that God creates creative creatures. The spirit, present in creation, intends creativity. We think religion is about traditions. I suppose it is. But the spirit intends creativity. What new, fresh, innovative thing needs to be nurtured in your life?

Restoring and recovery. In the passage from Romans, the creation of God got all messed up. Jesus was God’s window into the possibilities for renewal and recovery, restoration and salvation.  Restoring, making us whole, and healing are the intentions of the spirit. Are you recovering from something? How is that going? What needs to be restored or renewed?

Union with God and others. As John says today, all this intertwining brings things together. There is a union at the end of time in the New Testament when God brings all things together into the presence of God. There is a unity of spirit in the meantime as we recall that we are meant to get along with one another because we have one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. In Romans, not even the worst argument is more important than the love of God in Christ Jesus. This love brings about our shared salvation. Is there a way for you to get connected with God again? Is there a relationship in your life that calls out for healing? For unity?

Today we recall the complex intertwining God. This Divine One intends wise ways, declarations, creativity, restoring, and union with God and others, as God weaves the strands of our lives into an unbreakable cord.

 

Welcoming People to Worship: Engaging Affiliation and Giving Points

Welcome: Engaging Affiliation and Giving Points

Version 3: Refinements of the Congregational Council Discussion and Outreach and Worship Committee Discussions

May 21, 2013

 Description: Welcome: Engaging Affiliation is the development of materials, conversation opportunities, follow-up and relationships to lift up the engagement of those who visit St. Johns and to deepen the faith of those who are in the process of affiliating with the congregation.

 Background: 90 of the 140 congregations in our synod are in numerical decline. This decline is especially prevalent in the rural edges of the synod, but is also present in communities and areas that are growing, as well as those remaining stable. St. Johns is at the edge of numerical decline, but is most like in the stable category. Our affiliation numbers have remained in the 800s over the last decade. The budget is balanced, and income is higher in the past five years than in any other time in our history. And worship attendance seems to be stable at this point. However, only a dozen of the 140 congregations in the synod are growing, and St. Johns is not in the category of a growing congregation.  Siebert Foundation has developed now an every two year conference for Lutheran congregations in Wisconsin entitled “Change or Die.”

This is part of a substantial national trend for religion in America. All denominations regardless of their political leanings or theology are experiencing decline. And the number of people classified as non-affiliated is the only and fastest growing group in America. The numbers vary according to the surveys, but at this point perhaps half of America is unaffiliated.  In the young adult category, the number of non affiliated Americans is greatest. It may be the case that only one out of four young adults are affiliating with a religious organization. The number of people who describe themselves as spiritual or as believing in God remains high. Perhaps two-thirds or more Americans describe themselves as having a belief in God or as being a spiritual person. But this spirituality is not translating into affiliation with congregations, synagogues, and other religious organizations.

Nationally the ELCA is the denomination currently experiencing the most rapid decline in numbers.  And that decline is age related as well. Ten years ago in the ELCA there were one million children in Sunday School in the ELCA. Now there are 400,000.

There is also evidence that especially among the young adult population there is far less interest in joining and belonging to all kinds of civic, religious, and social groups, and that socialization is accomplished through networking in different ways. Affiliating with groups may come in a variety of ways, including traditional membership, but many organizations are changing the way they think about membership, and are seeking ways to enhance all forms of affiliation.

Distrust of organized religion and institutions is very high. People want religion to be practical and to accomplish something for the common good.  Many emphasize building one’s personal faith on one’s own rather than adopting or belonging to a tradition.

Religions are valued when they cooperate with each other and other partners to accomplish change. Extended theological disagreements are seen as petty. Openness to all is important. Institutions are expected to be change leaders rather than preservers of tradition.

Social media and web communications are more important than print media. It is estimated that in twenty-five years three-fourths of all contributions to religious causes will be made online.

 What We Have Been Up To: All of this calls for changes in our self understanding, in the way we envision the church and in the ways we communicate with those around us about the mission and purpose of St. Johns. Change can be difficult for Lutheran congregations. Still, we will not continue to prosper and grow unless we as a larger church, synod, and congregation engage in change in almost all aspects of our life together.

At St. Johns we have been working on these matters for some time. And we have had enough results that despite the 180 deaths in the last decade, we have remained fairly stable statistically, some numbers going up while others are going down. We have already moved from a membership model to an affiliation model. St. Johns is now an organization comprised of four interconnected groups each of which is an expression of our mission and purpose. First, it is a Sunday Assembly, what is usually thought of as the congregation. Second, it is a street and shelter community supported by the Sunday Assembly and by partnerships and contributions from individuals and organizations. Third, it is an online community with a reach and traffic that is often greater than Sunday Assembly. And fourth it is a cloud of witnesses (members and non-members alike spread out geographically) who support the congregation and/or its mission. We have established several ways to give online and electronically, and those means are being used with more frequency. More people give to St. Johns than attend worship. And giving in any form is considered a form of affiliation.

We have lifted up our identity as a congregation caring for those in need in the heart of the city, and in the last few years our efforts statistically have almost tripled. We have developed effective partnerships to accomplish this. And those partners contribute to the overall mission of St. Johns.

We have been working on our worship. Sermons are constructed keeping in mind that people are building their own faith and will approach the Bible for insight that is useful as one makes sense of one’s life.  Our web presence does bring in visitors. And we attempt in all things to keep our organizational structure lean, transparent and flat.  We have greeters, ushers, and a Welcome Center, along with fellowship on the same floor as worship, so that people are likely to engage in conversation when they come to worship. We are balancing our budgets. If a visitor leaves contact information of any kind, the pastor tries to contact them within the week. And all of that is working.

But There is Something More: In recent discussions the congregational council has sensed that our most important task is to enhance our efforts to engage those who are visiting and possibly affiliating with St. Johns. This would include the development of materials, a welcoming team, congregational discussion and training, continuing our shift from membership to affiliation, and giving points.

Materials: Additional supplementary “bulletins” or introductory brochures would be created to be distributed to those who appear to be new to the congregation, along with the regular bulletin that everyone receives. These supplementals would occasionally be revised, but a supply of them should last for several months, and would be updated after major program or worship changes.

All of the materials would have a brief description of St. Johns, contact information, a thought on spiritual or life situation questions, and information on affiliating with St. Johns. But each brochure or bulletin would have a different emphasis:

One supplemental would include more information about the worship service, describing what we do and why and the values that undergird our worship time together.

A second supplemental would be a general introduction to St. Johns and the values we have as a congregation, what we do and how one might receive more information about connecting with St. Johns.

     A third piece would be dedicated to describing our Care for Those in Need and would be modeled after our current brochure on this.

 Congregational Training for Our Welcoming Team: Our current teams of ushers, greeters, and welcome center volunteers for our Welcoming Team at St. Johns. This summer in adult forum settings, we will have three sessions for all members but especially for our ushers, greeters, and welcome center hosts to reflect together on our best ways to welcome those who come to worship, the best way to get materials to the people who might be interested. On the basis of those meetings the materials would be revised and their distribution would begin sometime in the fall.

The sessions would especially focus on conversation with those who visit, making sure that people feel welcomed without feeling pressured, ways to deepen conversation, and being sensitive to the nature of our street ministry.

     The initial plan for these three sessions is:
June 23rd Engaging Affiliation I: General Overview and Discussion of Engaging Affiliation issues, materials, and our current efforts at deepening the interest in affiliation with St. Johns;
July 7th Engaging Affiliation II:  New Directions and Approaches – A look at possible strategies to encourage involvement with St. Johns including fresh materials, conversational engagement, and shifts in our greeting programs;
July 21st Engaging Affiliation III: “Talking with Strangers” – a fun way to help us know what to say and what not to say to those who are visiting with us as well as a consideration of how our Sunday Assembly can feel as inviting as possible.

 From Membership to Affiliation: Through the summer and fall, we would continue to refine our affiliation concept. Especially in the coming year do some background work on our records, mailings, envelope distribution, and non-member giving.

Integration of those Newly Affiliating: Mentoring and follow-up groups would be offered to those affiliating with the congregation. And a member of the welcoming team would work with the pastor in follow-up email, phone calls, and letters for visitors, determining if visitors should receive weekly or monthly electronic or paper mailings.

Giving Points: An important way to affiliate with St. Johns is through giving. And many continue to use our envelope system and generous giving patterns grace our congregation’s life.  However, as congregational engagement is changing so too do we need additional ways to approach especially the issue of giving to support the mission of the congregation.  For especially those newer to St. Johns,  the envelope system does not work very well. The over abundance of envelopes may actually reduce the importance of each envelope. While supporting the frequent and generous giver, a fresh approach may be needed in these new times. A Giving Point Approach would augment our current stewardship efforts.

We would begin to develop between four to six “giving points” each year when several things happen all in the same week and same Sunday:
–Everyone affiliated with the congregation receives a mailing from the congregation that contains no more than a half page fact, need, or situation, or seasonal message that encourages giving, along with an envelope and contact information if more are needed.
–The envelopes are always the same: preprinted, mailable (without postage, with St. John’s address, on one side, and a long flap with interior space for name, contact information, account number, amount, and designation, and note.
–The designations would currently be general fund, building fund, emergency relief, memorial gift, and special cause.
–Giving Point envelopes would be in the pews and available at Sunday Assemblies.
–The current Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter mailings would be folded into this approach. A particular giving point could have a seasonal theme, a memorial message, or a special cause.
–On those Giving Point Sundays, a lay person on the congregation would speak on what St. Johns means for them or one of the ministries of St. Johns.
–The Facebook and Twitter postings, as well as website and email correspondence would all be tuned to lift up the giving point mailing and opportunity. It may even be the case that “events” would be created on Facebook or hashtags on Twitter.
–Online giving through the website would be lifted up in all materials.
–The first giving point could be as early as this summer, perhaps mid-July 21.

 

Sermon for May 12, 2013

Acts 16:16-34, Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21, John 17:20-26 

      As some of you know, St. John’s has a presence on Facebook. Each week there are two short posts on something religious. About 100 people follow us on Facebook, slightly more than come to church on Sundays. And the reach of Facebook statistically is growing for us.

Fewer of us use Twitter. But we have about twenty followers on Twitter as well, about the average attendance at an adult forum. St. John’s tweets twice a week, usually on Wednesday and Friday with something religious. Facebook posts are short. Twitter tweets are shorter. You have 140 characters to make your point in a tweet.

140 characters is not much space. You need to be concise, simple, clear, and straight forward in order to tweet well. In our culture we prize brevity and clarity. Sentences are short and simply structured. Paragraphs are also concise. And so are sermons, good ones that is. Sermons are not as long as they used to be. They say today the ideal sermon length is perhaps no more than eight minutes. The shorter the better.

It all feeds into a reduction in our attention span, with an increase in the sheer number of messages that we are exposed to. Gradually in all our work we spend less and less time absorbing more and more. The important messages of our life are reduced as we have less and less time to consider things.

Sermons used to be very long. Jonathan Edwards, the great American preacher of the 18th century usually preached over an hour.  When the Civil War Cemetery at Gettysburg was dedicated, the main address of the day was given by Everett, a well known orator of the period. His oration lasted three hours. Of course what we remember from that day is the address of Abraham Lincoln, one of the shortest and greatest speeches in our American history.

In some places, long sermons and lectures are still appreciated.  When I was in Kenya and Indonesia doing consulting work with LWF, I was asked to speak now and then at worship services. Just a greeting they said. There would already be a sermon. The worship services lasted well over two hours. When I spoke, I did so using my American perspective, speaking only about five minutes, figuring that people had already had enough. It turned out that some people were offended that I had not spoken longer. So even today, there is a place for the longer oration, even if we have a great deal of trouble with it in our 140 character world.

Which brings us to chapters thirteen to seventeen of the gospel of John from which our lesson comes today. These long and complicated chapters of John are the closing oration of Jesus to his disciples just before he dies. Five chapters, if read aloud taking probably about an hour or more. That’s a long sermon even for Jonathan Edwards, even by African and Indonesian standards. It is almost impossible for us. We get lost in the verbiage. Yet every third year after Easter, our gospel lessons for these Sundays are sections of this long oration.

The long sermon of Jesus in John parallels the customary long oration of the hero in classical Roman culture before he does battle with the forces of evil and dies. In this ancient culture, the bigger the battle, the higher the stakes, the longer the oration. Since the death of Jesus is a big deal, this final speech of Jesus takes these five chapters.  Americans, of course, find the whole thing a bit of a struggle. In her laid back way, Jo Anne Brandt, in her commentary on John says: A sustained reading of Jesus’ parting words to his disciples and final prayer presents a challenge to even the hardiest of Johannine scholars, let alone the average reader.

This parting speech of the hero Jesus is not only long, it’s also dense. The key words seem to be the words “and” or “that” or “so that” or “in” used as a word glue to combine things so that the phrases and sentences grow longer and more convoluted with each passing verse, creating just the sort of prose that confounds the practical, straightforward, and concise American mindset. We end up thinking not worthy is Christ the lamb who was slain, but wordy is Christ the lamb who was slain.

You can tell that today in John 17 we are in the very long closing prayer that concludes the parting words of Jesus. Jesus is praying to God. And the prayer too goes on and on. Its length testifies to the ancient importance and significance of it all.

It might help if we think of this speech of Jesus and this closing prayer as a poem.  It’s not an essay really that moves along in a reasonable way from point to point in a logical sequence. It just sort of turns in on itself, going over the same themes with different arrangements of words, weaving the themes together as it moves along. More like a poem than an essay.

These final remarks of the hero in ancient times were never designed to make a point or to prove one. They were weavings of the soul designed to assure the followers that things would continue after the hero was gone, that the followers would still be together, that the cause would go on, and that the struggle would bring a victory of some sort, even if the death of the hero was required in that struggle.

So in this part of the closing prayer at the end of the closing oration of the hero Jesus, we have those themes that would provide comfort and build confidence in the face of impending struggle. If you look into those convoluted phrases, you’ll see three themes: oneness or unity with God and with each other, a special insight into God or wisdom or knowing God, and finally love.

Unity, divine wisdom, and love. Those are the themes that were used to build confidence in the face of struggle. Unity here means a coming together, even in the face of disagreement for the sake of witnessing to the world. The unity is not grounded in opinion or conviction but in our being grounded in God and Jesus. Now more than ever, we Christians need to set aside our squabbles and lift up our unity in God and with one another. Many are looking at us and find our emphasis on petty differences all too unbecoming.

Holy wisdom and insight is something highly prized by the readers of John. At its core is the ability to see the long range purpose of God rather that attending so much to the disaster of the day. That second lesson from the book of Revelation reminds us to take the long view. The last half of the book of Genesis is the story of Joseph. Through its thirty chapters or so, one bad thing after another happens to Joseph. No one could really see the hand of God at work in all of those disasters. Until the end of the story, when Joseph leads a hunger program for famine relief that restores his broken family. And in that first lesson this morning from Acts, all of those events seem like a string of misfortune for the apostles. Until the end of the story when we have the very first jail ministry and the prevention of a suicide. The wisdom of God calls for taking the long view.

And love. We are called to love one another, and to love those who need our love the most. In John this love is not a duty but a joy, a calling, a delight, an ecstasy. As we discover and renew our loving hearts, we sense our own worth, what it means to be fully human, and our place in this vast plan of God.

Unity, wisdom, and love. These are themes that are woven together in this prayer and in the rest of the oration of Jesus before he dies. Unity, wisdom, and love will help us through our struggles.

Sometimes, as with Joseph in Genesis, or as these chapters of John, the struggle may go on much longer than we might hope. We thought we would heal in six weeks, but it seems to be taking six months. Our beloved may not be blessed with a quick death, but may take too long to die. Our relationships can be the story of convoluted thoughts and feelings that seem to go on and on. And will we ever really be able to do anything about the problems that seem to never go away? We all would want a quicker ending to certain chapters of our lives.  Sometimes the answer to our prayers is more complex than we would like. Sometimes it takes a decade or a century rather than a week or year to solve something. Sometimes things need to be repeated over and over as the twisting struggle seems to go on and on. And when caught in such chapters of the scripture we call our lives, Jesus still speaks to us, reminding us always of the grace of God.