The Reading of the Will

A death in the family is accompanied by a multitude of tasks for the survivors. The details of the visitation, the funeral, the estate, leave little time for genuine grieving.
My best friend’s husband died this winter.  She has to sell her house, which suddenly needs major repairs; she has to sell his business, a veterinarian clinic.  She has to sell his coin collection.  She is finally going to sell her father’s WW II uniforms–Wilbur was a personal aid to General MacArthur. She has to sell the family guns.  She has to buy a new home closer to her daughter.  She has to sort through forty years worth of sweet memories that must be distributed to assorted charities.  She eventually has to say goodbye to her friends and colleagues at work and at church; she has to find a new church, make new friends, find new ways to spend her time.
The good news: they had up-to-date wills.
Then there is Prince.  The singer. No will. He has brothers and sisters, nieces nephews, and, lately, some offspring, if the DNA tests support recent claims. I don’t know that much about probate and estate law, but I know enough to understand that estate may never be settled.
Death and wills may seem like unlikely topics for the celebration of Pentecost.  How did I get from there to here?  The Romans passage sent me in this direction.
14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
We are heirs.  We are in the will.  How far can we carry this metaphor?  I’d like to play with it.
The first question we ask when we find out we are in a will is “How much do I get?”  Other questions arise as we discover who gets what.  We’ve all seen families who weren’t happy with the directions in the will. “Why did she get the diamond bracelet? She doesn’t have any children; our daughter should have it.”  “Why did he get more money?”  And then, you might here something like, “I should have the rocking chair; the person who got it is just going to sell it for the money. She won’t appreciate it.” Or, “Mom paid a lot of money for that; why is it going to the Salvation Army?”
Then, on top of all the business and legal details, comes the challenge of learning a new way to live.  Now, you have to figure out how to live without that person.  Even if you ended up being more nurse and caregiver than spouse or parent or child, that person had a role in your life and you in his/her life.  Now that role is gone.  What are you supposed to do when you’re no longer celebrating birthdays or doing laundry or going back and forth to the doctor?
The irony of the emptiness and the busyness fighting for your attention wears you out. And then add in the grief that brings you to your knees.

17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
My question is “How seriously do we take that statement?” We are heirs.  We are promised something.  Is this just another promise that is great on a philosophical level but has nothing to do with the grind of daily life?
Yeah, God. Thanks for the Ten Commandments.  I do my best, but you don’t know my boss/ my neighbor/ my kid/ my family. They don’t deserve…  Or, yeah, Jesus, thanks for dying on the cross.  Get over it.  You came through death in shining glory.  You don’t know what it’s like to have to go on, day after day, with less help, with less money, with nobody to love.  Yeah, God, thanks for the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit doesn’t put food on the table or pay the taxes.
That sounds like blasphemy, doesn’t it?  Would you dare to even think those thoughts?  Knowing what it’s like to be human and imperfect, you may not verbally express those thoughts, but I bet your actions sometimes reflect such cynicism.
That cynicism comes from watching promises be trashed, from losing in the game of life, from feeling abandoned, even by God.
How many of your prayers have NOT been answered?  You’ll never know.  Because the whole time you’ve felt like God is too far away to be interested in your day-to-day struggles, God’s been walking beside you.
15 Jesus said to his disciples:
If you love me, you will do as I command. 16 Then I will ask the Father to send you the Holy Spirit who will help[a] you and always be with you. 17 The Spirit will show you what is true. The people of this world cannot accept the Spirit, because they don’t see or know him. But you know the Spirit, who is with you and will keep on living in you.
18 I won’t leave you like orphans. I will come back to you. 19 In a little while the people of this world won’t be able to see me, but you will see me. And because I live, you will live. 20 Then you will know that I am one with the Father. You will know that you are one with me, and I am one with you. 21 If you love me, you will do what I have said, and my Father will love you. I will also love you and show you what I am like.
Jesus prepared the disciples for his death, just as the writer of the will prepares us for his or her death.  The difference is that Jesus was operating on a cosmic level.  He had command not just of thirty-three years of life in one geographic location. He had command of the entire, timeless universe.
When God wrote the will, when God made promises, God had a lot more to offer than the family farm.  I don’t know about you, but, frankly, I can’t comprehend what that means and I can’t comprehend what difference it makes, anyway.  So let’s not think about heaven as property.
What God gave us that helps me the most is the promise to always be right next to me in the form of the Holy Spirit.  One of the words used in Scripture to name the Holy Spirit is “Paraclete.” That’s Greek for one who walks with someone or constantly accompanies someone.
I like, I love, I cherish the knowledge that God, in the form of the Paraclete, in the form of the Holy Spirit, is as close to me as my skin. How many of you have a picture hanging in your home that shows a series of footprints pressed into the sand? It’s usually the background for a poem that assures us that Jesus is walking with us, sometimes even carrying us.
I will grant you, that takes a stretch of the imagination.  The presence of God is in another dimension than the presence of your kitchen table or your favorite beach. But, because we are Christians, our imaginations carry us into true recognition and acceptance of God’s presence.
For me, that presence is not always on my radar.  I have to constantly remind myself that I am adopted by God, that I am part of God’s family, that my inheritance is already supporting me.  Many people call themselves Christian.  All people are loved by God, no matter how many or how few church bulletins they’ve tossed over the years. But I can’t imagine getting much strength or courage or comfort from claiming Christian beliefs if you aren’t surrounded by constant reminders.  We live in the world of justice for all who can afford it, we live in the world of buy the latest, we live in a world filled with manufactured fear.  We live in a world that wants our sweat and our money.
For me, it’s pretty easy to let the world form me and fit me into paranoid box of insecurity.  If it weren’t for daily and weekly reminders of God’s love for me, I’d be a mean, selfish, bigot most of the time.  So, I keep my Bible lying on my desk, I have pictures of what some artist thinks Jesus might look like, I have pretty crosses and plain crosses that I wear around my neck or hang on the wall.  I keep a book of daily devotions on my desk.  And I spend as much time as I can with friends who like to talk about Jesus.  I would be a poor specimen of a believer if I didn’t have all these crutches.
The other crutch I have is the Holy Spirit. I truly do believe that the Holy Spirit has been a major influence in my life.  Either that, or I am the luckiest person in the world. But it’s not luck; it’s God, walking with me, pushing me, pulling me, throwing me a life preserver, yanking me out of the trees when I climb too high, putting on a path that intersects with the paths of other heirs.
That’s the thing about God.  God doesn’t give each of us a mansion in a gated community.  God puts us in the middle of humanity.  Sometimes we are put in a seat right next to a person we’d rather avoid.  Sometimes we are summoned to befriend someone who scares the blood out of us.  Sometimes we end up in very dangerous place.  But we are always accompanied, like a body guard, by an interpreter, by a handyman, –the Holy Spirit.
I do love Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit is my favorite part of the Holy Trinity.  Yes, God created an awesome world for me.  Yes, Jesus became the best role model anyone could ask for.  But the Holy Spirit is on the ground with me, saving me from disaster, connecting me with great people and challenging me with fascinating opportunities.
And I will never be abandoned.  I will never, ever be alone.  I am provided for into eternity.
One other advantage that I see in God’s promises is that we are able to see the “big picture.”  We are able to see beyond the news on the television, beyond the bills in the mail, to embrace a world, a creation bigger than the limits of hours and minutes and boundaries and borders.
Praise be to God that we are God’s heirs, as fully vested in God’s creation as Jesus.  We aren’t left out.  All we have to do is stay in touch with the family, the Family God has created.  Amen.
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Acts 2:1-4Contemporary English Version (CEV)
On the day of Pentecost1 all the Lord’s followers were together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from heaven like the sound of a mighty wind! It filled the house where they were meeting. Then they saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and a tongue came and settled on each person there. The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit let them speak.
Romans 8:14-17New International Version (NIV)
14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
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Power and Peace Acts 16:6-15 John 14:23-29

It’s been one of those weeks.  My calendar was perfectly planned. On Monday, April 25, I planned to clean my house and prepare lunch for twenty people.  On Tuesday, I would welcome twenty fellow clergy members to my home for a fine meal and finer conversation.
On Wednesday, I would have coffee with friends, work on the DeWitt UCC Beef Dinner plans and later attend a grief workshop in Davenport.
On Thursday, I would visit shut-ins. It was all sewed up.   Until I received a text late Sunday afternoon from my sister.  “We are in ER.  Dad fell.”
All plans were forgotten as I threw some things in a suitcase and headed down to the farm.  I spent Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday very differently from the plans noted in my calendar.  I cancelled and substituted and notified everyone who was counting on me for one thing or another for the next two weeks.
Everything turned out fine.   I enjoyed the days I spent with my parents. I learned a lot, like what it’s like to be 90+ and continue in the roles 70 years of marriage engraves into daily life. Even though my father had fallen, I figured out that the visit benefitted my mother as well; it gave her a break from the demands of caring for not only her husband, but her household. But I didn’t have the pleasure of spending time with friends, of working on projects and responsibilities.  It was very strange to have very limited access to the internet.
Sometimes our plans evaporate with one phone call.
Paul and Silas had plans.  They had completed their first missionary trip, finding, converting and baptizing new believers at every stop.  Now they wanted to travel in a new direction, further from Jerusalem, into Asia Minor, specifically into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not let them.   Luke gives no hint at how the Spirit prevented them–bad weather?  war?  no money?  But they are not left stranded.  Paul has a vision of man calling him to Macedonia, a much different direction, further west into present day Greece. So they pack up and head for Greece.
The vision of a man is replaced by the reality of a wealthy woman, a leader in her community.  Nowadays, running into a wealthy woman who was recognized as a leader in her community would not surprise us at all. But women back in those days were more of a footnote to their husbands, seldom allowed to own property or conduct business. Lydia was unique.  Lydia ran a lucrative business.  She sold purple cloth, a color of cloth that was very expensive and whose use was limited to the richest, most powerful people in the community. Therefore, she was used to dealing with powerful people, and that may have been part of the reason that others in the community accepted her leadership.
She was not the kind of person Paul would have sought out. She was not Jewish. She was not male.   Paul was simply looking for the local synagogue when he stumbled upon a gathering of people on the outskirts of town who had somehow discovered the God of Abraham and Moses and were spending the Sabbath worshiping the God of the Jews.
Paul’s trip to Macedonia, to Philippi, resulted in the baptism of Lydia and her entire household, which would have included family, servants, and slaves. Paul completed this missionary trip, one other trip and made a final trip to Rome.  He had plans to go onto Spain. But sometimes plans are altered by reality.
Everything turned out fine for my parents and for me. I’d like to say everything turned out fine for Paul and Silas, but sometimes they were welcomed and sometimes they were beaten and arrested.
Though they were beaten, condemned, questioned, imprisoned, they refused to quit preaching and teaching the good news of the Gospel.  Why?  How? Perhaps today’s gospel lesson can give us a clue.
26 But the Holy Spirit will come and help you, because the Father will send the Spirit to take my place. The Spirit will teach you everything and will remind you of what I said while I was with you.
27 I give you peace, the kind of peace that only I can give. It isn’t like the peace that this world can give. So don’t be worried or afraid.”
In his Farewell Discourse, as the words of this Last Supper evening are called, Jesus promises to give peace.  No safety.  Not understanding. Not joy.  Peace.
Peace, you know, is not the absence of conflict.  Peace is not empty. It is as real and solid and firm as any state of mind.  Peace is not the absence of anxiety or anger or revenge.  It is the presence of assurance, acceptance, and compassion.  it is wholeness.  When we are at peace, we are strong and confident and wise.
We live in a country that offers us a kind of externally-imposed peace in the form of laws that are written to protect the majority. We live in a world that has never known complete peace.  Yet because we are Children of God, we an claim a peace passes all understanding,
Philippians 4:73 7 Then, because you belong to Christ Jesus, God will bless you with peace that no one can completely understand. And this peace will control the way you think and feel.
We cannot completely, intellectually, understand this peace, but we can claim it, we can know it.  It is our gift, not only in the middle of joy and quiet, but in the midst of pain and conflict. This peace will control the way we think and feel, even when we are beaten down and  emotionally imprisoned by the injustice and oppression of daily life.
One of my heroes is Corrie ten Boom.  She was a young woman living in Holland when the German Nazis invaded her country.  Her family went out of their way to share the Gospel. They did not share the Gospel by preaching, by converting, by baptizing.  They shared the Gospel by protecting Jewish friends, and later, friends of friends, from capture by the Nazis. Eventually, they were betrayed and Corrie, her sister, her father and her brother were arrested and sent to concentration camps. If you have read her book, The Hiding Place, you may recall that Corrie survived the camps. But she did much more than survive. She ministered to her fellow prisoners, with prayer and care, no matter where she was imprisoned. In the midst of conditions fraught not only with physical pain and punishment, but with intellectual, psychological and emotional torture, she emanated peace. The foundation of that peace was her faith.  She was a companion and an inspiration to all those around her. She had nothing but the clothes on her back. But she was as rich as Lydia, rich in Scripture, in compassion, in initiative, in courage. When I think of myself in that situation, I wonder if the peace of Christ would control the way I thought an felt.  Would I succumb to despair, to anger, to selfishness? Or would I find that peace and share it with my fellow prisoners?
Every generation has its people who can sing in prison. Paul did. Corrie did. Once one of you asked me why we pray for prisoners to be released in one of our prayers.  Not all prisoners are criminals. Paul was not a criminal.  Corrie ten Boom was not a criminal.  And there are people imprisoned all over the world, either behind bars or in slave labor or by oppressive governments, whose only crime is being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Our lives seem rather peaceful compared to some of our brothers and sisters.  Yet we have our own prisons of illness, anxiety, insecurity.  We gather here because we know that we can sing in prison, too.  We can sing, not about broken hearts or cheating friends or a night on the town, but about that peace that passes all understanding.  The world offers us lots of choices when it comes to curing the blues, getting out of debt, preparing for the future, curing illness, but nothing compares to what Jesus offers us.  It can’t be packaged and labeled. You can’t buy it off the shelf.  It has no commercial value.  But you can be as generous with it as your time and intention allow. That peace, that solid, strong, real-as-the-butter-on-your-bread peace, is not only yours. It is so voluminous that you can share it over and over and over and never run out.
And God means for us to share that peace.  Some people stir up trouble wherever they go. Some people leave a trail of sorrow behind them. Christians intentionally plant peace, reassurance, confidence, courage wherever they go. Christians seek out the Lydias, the slaves, the lonely, the lost, the confused.
The media will tell you that Christians are known for their intolerance, for their lack of vision, for their hatred of people not like them, for their “my way or the highway” attitude. But let us Christians, in our little part of the world, be known for our love, for our compassion, for our peace that passes all understanding.  Amen.

United

One of the many gifts of Scripture is the number of prayers that are recorded.  We are especially blessed to be able read the prayers that Jesus prayed. He even left one for us specifically, the prayer that starts with Our Father.

But we also have prayers from the most significant days of His life, especially the prayers that He prayed on that pivotal Thursday evening, the day before Passover, the day before His death.

On that night of solemn celebration, Jesus prayed for three things: He prayed for himself; He prayed for the disciples; and He prayed for us.

Imagine! When He is facing betrayal, arrest, torture, imprisonment, death, He prays for those followers whom He has never met, who have not yet been born.

He is not praying out of vanity. He is not praying out of fear. He is not praying for His legacy, for posterity, for fame. He is not praying to be remembered in the annals of history.  He is praying for people, people like us, for us.

The only reason I can think of for that strange, illogical request to His Father is love.  Jesus’ love is not just for the moment, not just for people who drop everything to follow after him.  His love is universal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, timeless. Time and space cannot limit His love.

We, by contrast, are limited in our ability to love.  Our love is limited to those with whom we are intimately acquainted, family, close friends, dear neighbors.  We can speak of loving all our brothers and sisters in Christ, but that is more a philosophy than a possibility.

I am not praying just for these followers.
I am also praying for everyone else who will have faith because of what my followers will say about me.
I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me.
I also want them to be one with us.

Jesus is asking specifically that we all be united with Him and the Father. What does that mean?  If all of us, each of us is united with Jesus and the Father, that assumes some kind of permanent connection, permanent belonging. It says to me that we are never abandoned, even in our our worst times.

When Jesus says, “I want all of them to be one with each other,” what does that mean?  Are  we supposed to all act and think alike?

In my denomination, the United Church of Christ, our motto is taken from this verse: That they may all be one.  If you attend church at St. James up the street, you will also hear the priest pray, “that they may all be one.”  When our denominational leaders use this phrase, the implication is that there should be only one denomination.  My denomination chose that phrase, I believe, because we are a  merger of many smaller denominations. When your local priest prays that, He is praying that every Christian will recognize the Catholic Church as the only denomination.

But there is another way to look at this phrase. Dr. Paul Simpson Duke, Baylor University, puts it this way: We are one because the one love of God surrounds, permeates, and connects us. The secret of our oneness is not that we are alike, but that we are loved alike. As each of us consents to be gathered to that love and abide in it, we are inevitably gathered to each other.1

So, the onus is not on us to think alike but to claim our identical heritage together.  We are all loved by the same God.  Hence, wars and arguments about what we believe are not necessary, and, on the other hand, a variety of denominations is not wrong.

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Father, I want everyone you have given me to be with me, wherever I am.

Think about this: Jesus wants everyone to be with him, all the time.  Again, we see how much love Jesus has for the Children of  God.

One of Jesus concerns during His earthly ministry was that His followers and His enemies alike did not understand that He was the Son of God. Hence, He prays:

Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me.

Then this world’s people will know that you sent me. They will know that you love my followers as much as you love me.
Then they will see the glory that you have given me, because you loved me before the world was created.
Good Father, the people of this world don’t know you.
But I know you, and my followers know that you sent me.
I told them what you are like, and I will tell them even more.

Jesus wants us to know God the way He knows God. This manifestation of God is different from the God that Jesus’ followers knew.  They knew a God who could be warlike, who could protect and punish and forgive.  But this God of Jesus becomes someone who is intimate with us, who is not out there making decisions and wielding His scepter, treating everyone as an amorphous, mob of nameless beings. He recognizes and interacts with us individually.
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Then the love that you have for me will become part of them, and I will be one with them.
Again, there is this plea for love to be the force that unites us.
What does unity to mean to you? We are residents of the United States.  Why did our forefathers think we should be United?  Why do we think of unity as a positive force in our communities?  And how is the unity prayed for by Jesus different from the unity we find in our own little groups?

Dr. Alan Brehm, a Presbyterian pastor, has this to say:
We think somehow that we can find unity through our own efforts.  But Jesus pointed us in a very different direction when it comes to our unity.  Jesus called the disciples to a unity that is grounded in the unity of love between Father and Son.  Jesus prays, “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (Jn. 17:21).  He says it in several different ways, and the repetition can be confusing, but essentially Jesus prayed for the disciples “that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me” (Jn. 17:22-23).  Clearly, what creates a real and lasting unity in the church is the love of the God among us.  2

In other words, we cannot create our own unity without acknowledging the unity we already have in the love of God for us.

As you know, unity is doing a different dance in our political world these days.  Newscasters and ordinary citizens alike decry the disunity among political parties, as well as among communities.  We seem to be realigning ourselves, disuniting and reuniting into different philosophies, motivated by our hopes, and, unfortunately, by our fears.

After watching the morning or evening news and being alarmed, as I am at the disparity and plain meanness we see our wannabe leaders exhibiting, perhaps I wonder if I should turn off the radio or tv and read this passage from John.  If we pledge our allegiance to Jesus Christ above all other loyalties, if we believe that we are never without the love of Jesus, perhaps the world will not be such a fearsome place.

Perhaps we will learn to see all people, no matter where they live, what they say, maybe we can see them as being equal in this one thing: they are all loved, just like us, “Fear not” appears in the Bible 365 times. Remembering that we are united in love with every person who appears on the news, with every person who garners a spot in the newspaper, with every person who is afraid of us, with every person who ticks us off, is one way to find more beauty and peace around us.

Make no mistake.  Your Christian faith makes you strong. I’m not talking about having a strong faith.  I’m talking about being strong instead of afraid, confident instead of worried.  To the world, being strong means guns and threats.  To the Christian, being strong means listening to those words “fear not” and believing them.

Jesus prayed that we would be, in every moment of our lives, united with Him and the Father.  He was not thinking about some future day when He would return and gather us followers up in His arms and carry us to heaven.  Being a Christian means being a Christian here and now.  Loving Jesus is not so much an insurance policy as a work order and a job description.

Jesus’ prayer for us, thousands of years ago and still today, is that we are united with Him.  God answers prayer, so there is no doubt that even though we, imperfect humans, are not always united in our actions toward one another, we are united in God’s love. Everyone of us sitting here, everyone of our brothers and sisters out hunting morels with a basket,  everyone of us hunting the enemy with an M16 –every one of us is united under God’s love.

I pray that these words of Scripture may inform my thoughts as I walk life’s uncertain journey.  I pray the same for you.  Amen.