Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Liturgy for the Festival of the Christian Home: A Blessing for All People and All Families

Since beginning pastoral ministry in 2003, it has always been my tradition to celebrate, not just Mother's Day, but "Festival of the Christian Home," which is a beautiful way to consider the inclusiveness of this particular day. This is a United Methodist term, and our tradition believes that we can use this as an opportunity to strengthen our homes as a place for living justly, celebrating the fullness of our creation as individuals and families of all compositions. 

It has always been true - from Biblical times until today - that families have had a variety of ways in which they are expressed. Many of us have dear and close relationships with our families of origin, but so many of us do not. In light of that, we have found ways to create families of choice, form covenant relationships with spouses and partners, and become loving and caring people to children of all ages. 

This Sunday at Laguna Beach United Methodist Church, we will offer a Blessing of Families liturgy, in which we, as individuals, couples, families of choice and families with children, are invited to come forward to be anointed and blessed. This ritual serves a dual purpose, both to honor the people who have mothered and loved us, as well as to honor the many ways in which we have created our families. I wrote this liturgy in 2008 for use at Saint Mark United Methodist Church, as a way to recognize the covenant relationships that existed, but had never had the opportunity of being blessed or recognized in the church. 

I pray that you will bring those dear to you to our service of worship, so that we can celebrate this special day together. 


Fathering God, you have searched us and known us. You know when we lie down and when we rise up; you discern our thoughts from far away.

Mothering God, it was you who formed our inward parts, you who knit us together in our mother’s womb. We praise you, for we are fearfully and wonderfully made!

Holy Son, you have come into the world as the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, as a constant and abiding reminder that God is always with us, even to the ends of the earth. You are the light that has shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Creating Spirit: Where can we go that you are not with us? If we ascend to heaven, you are there. If we make our bed in the depths, you are there. If we perceive the darkness overwhelming us, we know that even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. You hem us in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon us. When we come to the end, you are still with us.

Let us pray:
Loving God, in your wisdom you have created us and given us many gifts.  Today, we thank you for all that we mean to each other and to our friends and families.  We thank you for the love that has brought us to this time and place, and for your love which abides to tie us all together. Where you are, O God, there is love. Amen.


God, in your wisdom and love, you have created us and called us good. You have created us in your image, and blessed us as men and women. Today we celebrate the joy that we have found in relationship with one another. As you have created us and called us good, so have you said that it is not good that we should be alone, so you have given us helpers as partners. You have given us choice in who we build our relationships with, and we are able to say to one another, as Ruth said to Naomi:
          Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;
          your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.

Let us pray:
God, your strength is sufficient for us all. We have committed ourselves one to the other in your presence, so we pray that you will continue to be with us in the unfolding of our future.  Give us strength and courage in times of difficulty, wisdom and love in times of opportunity and challenge, and the sharing of joy in times of happiness and success.  May we continue to grow in your love; through the power of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Incarnate Christ: You have modelled to us what it is to be in relationship with one another. You have broken bread with the weary, comforted the lonely, healed the sick, and wept with friends. We see in your witness what it means to love one another as God has loved us. We thank you for calling us friends, because you have made known to us everything that you have heard from our Father in heaven. Thank you for sharing in relationship with us as equals, and help us to continue to love our friends as you have loved us. Bless us as we form relationships with one another that, as we speak, our souls will be bound up in one another, so that we may love our friends as our own souls, just as Jonathan loved David.

Let us Pray:
God of friends and families, we are linked together in a community of friendship and support.  We pray for one another. We remember those who cannot be with us today. May we all continue to share in your gifts of love, strength, courage and wisdom, and to know your joy.  Give us growing understanding, sympathy with each other's difficulties, patience with each other's faults, and grace to walk in your ways. Amen.

Creator Spirit: You have worked in us to make us open to loving one another in selfless and life-giving ways. For some of us this means the responsibility and joy of raising children. For these lives, which have touched us and blessed us, we thank you. Today we bring to you our children in order that they may be blessed as Christ blessed the children of his day saying, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” And he took them up in his arms and blessed them. Help us to bless them as they have blessed us.

Let us pray:
Loving God: We come today carrying children and youth in our hearts – the children we brought into this world, the children we parent, our grandchildren, nieces, nephews, Godchildren, mentees, the children we care for in our work, and the children we speak out for in our witness. Lord, help us not to be so preoccupied with our purposes that we fail to hear their voices or see their special vision of truth. Keep us with them, ready to listen and to love even as you have loved us, your grown-up and sometimes wayward children. Amen.


  And now, with the confidence of the children of God, let us pray:

  Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
  For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.


All are welcome to come forward to be anointed individually. If you like, you may come as an individual, or with your spouse or partner, children, or with friends and family of choice.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon: This I Believe: I Believe in the Holy Spirit

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Sunday, April 26, 2015

Audio Available here.

This I Believe: I Believe in the Holy Spirit

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

‘I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

            This is our third sermon in the series on “This I Believe,” which we are studying alongside our Confirmation Class as they engage the basic theological tenets of our faith. We have taken time the last two weeks to study God and Jesus Christ, as the first two members of the Trinitarian way in which we understand God. Again, allow me to reiterate that I realize that this is a little nutty. But, if we believe that God has been revealed to us in such a way, then it is our faithful task to seek to understand it.
          That means that this week, we are focusing on the most perplexing person of the Trinity: The Holy Spirit. Many years ago, I supervised a Confirmation Class at Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceville, NJ, and there, the youth had to write out exactly what they believed about the basics of our faith. They wrote beautifully about God: I believe that God is bigger than me, created everything, loves me, wants what is best for me. They wrote directly about Jesus: I believe that Jesus is the son of God, born of Mary, and lived on earth so that I may know the fullness of God’s love and how to live on earth. And then, they had to write about the Holy Spirit: I believe the Holy Spirit is present now, and always, to remind me that God loves me and is always with me.
          I watched these youth struggle with fear and trembling over their statements. They had a lot to say about God, some fine “straight-from-the-Creed” language about Jesus, and a few vague remarks about the Holy Spirit. No one could quite pin that person of the Trinity down, which I suppose is the point. The Spirit is amorphous, androgynous, and atypical. I joke each week with my preacher friends about our sermon prep, and we have varying ways in which we describe the Holy Spirit’s presence or absence in our writing. My dear friend, Sam, once wrote that the Holy Spirit neglected to show up for inspiration until Sunday morning, at which point she dragged in wearing last night’s clothes with an unlit cigarette hanging from her lips. These images are so resonant for us, because the text is so inconclusive about how we should understand the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.
            Our text today comes to us from Jesus’ great farewell narrative to the Disciples, after the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, but before his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion. At this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ ministry has covered everything from healing to feeding to exorcism to prophecy; he has even raised Lazarus from the dead. In order for the message of Jesus’ ministry to sound like anything other than the ramblings of certifiably insane people, there must be a force on earth that can testify to the truth of it. Jesus tells his Disciples, “The Advocate is coming, whom I will send to you from the Father. The Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, and the Spirit will testify on my behalf.” The author of John uses the Greek word “Paraclete,” which is typically translated to mean “one who has been summoned or called to the side of another--literally, an ‘advocate,’ or, by extension, a helper or legal representative in a trial or other arena of judgment.”[1]
            God, in Christ, knows that the way in which God’s presence on earth has been revealed is not going to be received with assurance. So, God has elected to send this Spirit to us, that we might have help in times of judgment. This is the first way in which God ensures that we will not experience life on earth alone – outside of God’s comfort – but with the help of the One who is always with and for us.
            The language of Advocate is deeply resonant to me, because it requires courage to say, in truth and love, things that are difficult to hear. Like the Disciples, we are called to testify – to tell – to proclaim what God has done in our lives, that others may come to share in it. But this is messy, and often falls on the ears of those who cannot hear or perceive it. Think how much more bold we can be when we have support and help. Jimmy Carter, in speaking out about the treatment of women world-wide, said that, “It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.”[2] The courage to challenge. This is what the Advocate does for and with us.
            The Holy Spirit, then, is about more than just the completion of a three-fold way to understand God’s abiding presence in the world. The Holy Spirit is about the gift of Hope.  David Lose writes that it is “The cross by which God dignifies and sanctifies all human suffering by promising to be there with us and for us. If God’s greatest revelation was made manifest in and through the struggle and suffering of a man hung on a tree, then what suffering of ours can ever truly be God-forsaken. Hence, God promises to be with us amid suffering, and even work through that to build character and endurance and increase our capacity for hope.”[3]
            We are still watching as the death toll from the earthquake in Nepal rises, this morning up to 2,200. There are countless ways in which we can identify the need for God’s spirit to be more mightily present in the world than it seems to be. The world’s capacity for suffering is too great, and the need for an Advocate to be in this world with us, arguing with the forces of evil, persuading the darkness to recede, and condemning the rulers of this world is paramount. How, then, do we see this happening? We need the Holy Spirit to be the answer to the looming, perpetual question of, "HOW?!" "How could you let this happen?" "How can I go forward?" "How do I tell them?" "How do I know if this is right?" 
            As I wrote and edited last night, the wind was blowing mightily outside my home. The leaves were battered endlessly as the wind whistled through the narrow passageway between the houses in Arch Beach Heights. It made us all sit still and pay attention, as the normally placid weather has become shrill and attention-seeking.
            When we speak of the Spirit, we often do so with the idea that it is sent to comfort us. This is how the word in John’s Gospel, Paraclete, is often translated: comforter, or helper. But the Spirit of God is not just a serene blanket, wrapping us in a soft, downy nest. She is also a mighty force, pushing us urgently through the darkest of nights and asking us to be more brave and courageous than we thought we could be. There are times in which the vision of Jesus as Shepherd, tender of his flock, isn’t comforting. It’s too benign. Too pastoral.
            There are times when we need the relentless and unforgiving Wind to blow across the face of the deep, so that something moves in us. We cannot be still. We cannot be herded. We can only be pushed to be, do, or become more than we ever thought possible.
            This is the gift of the Spirit, my friends. Jesus says to his disciples, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” It is almost impossible to understand how the absence of such a beloved person could be to the Disciples’ advantage. But, Jesus reminds them that if he doesn’t go away, the Advocate won’t come. It is the most painful thing in life to consider that absence may make space for something new to grow.
            The Holy Spirit is the abiding “I AM,” The substance of heaven that fills all of earth. If God has promised since the dawn of human history to be present in our life and story, then the Holy Spirit is the means in which God does this. I AM that I AM, God declares. This ontological statement of being is more than just a philosophical argument. It is the Divine Promise to be present, always, that we may never be alone.
            Jesus goes on to confess something remarkable to his Disciples: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” But, maybe if we listen carefully, we can hear what Jesus conveys. This text is so challenging, because the Spirit is too obtuse to pin down precisely. And, my experience of the Holy Spirit’s presence in my life may look very different from yours.
            So, let’s pay attention to what is here. If you do a quick survey of any Bible passage, you’ll find that the verbs dominate. “It’s what we do and don’t do that preoccupies human beings. And it’s the verbs we cannot imagine for ourselves (live, liberate, forgive, resurrect) that the church offers, and that we reach for, week after week.”[4] So, as a preacher, it is my job to preach the verbs. And, as hearers of any text, it is our job to enact them.
            The Spirit comes to speak what the Spirit hears and declare the things that are to come. Speak! Declare! Glorify! This is what the Spirit – as our Advocate - empowers us to do. And, we can do them because the things we have understood about sin and righteousness and judgment are wrong. And, it is not up to us to correct them. It is up to God – the Spirit of God – the mighty force that abides with us, which is powerful enough to move mountains and gentle enough to provide comfort to those in peril.
            So, let us be willing to let the Spirit work in our lives. Let us be open to perceiving the still, small ways in which the Spirit is present. And let us speak, declare and glorify the God who is courageous enough to abide in this world with us, now and always.
            In the name of the “God who is with us, for us, and refuses to be God without us.”[5]

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sermon - This I Believe: I Believe in Jesus Christ

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, April 19, 2015

This I Believe: I Believe in Jesus Christ

Luke 24:36b-48, NRSV

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

            This is the third Sunday of our Eastertide season, and the second Sunday of our sermon series, “This I Believe.” In order to partner with our confirmation class and support the work that our youth are doing to seek and understand the theological foundation of what it means to be a Christian, we, as a congregation, are going to walk alongside them and lift up the most important parts of our faith as we know and practice it. Last week, Meg preached a beautiful sermon on what we believe about God, as Christians. This week, we turn our attention to Jesus Christ, to further explore what we believe about this person of the Trinity.
            If I’m being perfectly honest, our religion is pretty weird. We are the only religion that understands God in this particular way: as one God, expressed in three forms: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And, when we talk about Jesus, we speak of him as having two natures – being fully human and fully divine.

Guys. This is nuts.

 I realize full well that this requires an awful lot of trust in God’s ability to make these things evident to us. And, for many of us, our faith doesn’t hinge on a perfect understanding of the natures of God, or Christ. Rather, our faith is formed throughout a lifetime of openness to God and the beautiful ways in which God reveals that that God is, in fact, present in our lives. For most of us, the theological understanding of who Christ is has very little to do with our personal faith. Except, that we proclaim some bizarre things as Christians that bear some attention.
What on earth does it mean for us that we believe in a God who would become Incarnate (one-with-us), live, suffer and die, only to be resurrected on the third day?
What does it mean that God became one-with-us in the form a man – fully human and fully divine?
What are the implications for our faith when we look to the cross and see God Incarnate (one-with-us) breathe his last?
What are the possibilities for us when we see this same God, fully human and fully divine, alive and well?
            Here, two weeks after Easter Sunday, we are experiencing the same questions of Christ’s conquering of death that the Disciples are. At this point in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has appeared twice to them, once on the Road to Emmaus and now in the midst of their conversation about him. After it has been discovered that Christ’s tomb is empty, there is a lot of debate and question amongst his followers as to what has happened. Some, like Mary Magdalene and Peter, see … and believe. But many who hear of the story cannot comprehend the complexity of it. So, it seems understandable that Jesus would appear to them and introduce himself with the words, “Peace be with you.” 
            But, these words bring the opposite of comfort to his friends. Filled with fear, they look to him, terrified and afraid, certain they were seeing a ghost. For all of the things the disciples have witnessed in Jesus’ presence, including the raising of Lazarus from the dead, they have never seen a ghost. I find it such a strange and wonderful story that the illogical assumption they make is more reasonable in their minds than the truth.
            But, you know that the old saying is true. When you have lost something, you always find it in the last place you look. The Disciples weren’t looking for Jesus anywhere but the tomb. They were looking for a body to anoint, not a mouth to feed. So, when Jesus appears to them in the flesh, I can sympathize with their inability to believe that their friend has actually reappeared to them. “If the resurrection really is true, well then, there goes life as we knew it. In the words of Anna Carter Florence, “if dead people don’t even stay dead, what is there to count on?”[1]
            This is because the Resurrection is the great “yes” in the face of an all-encompassing “no.” It is the hope that not even death is final. It is the curiosity that the certainty of the end may not be certain at all. “This is what Karl Barth described as the ‘impossible possibility,’ a reality that transcends the everyday real, a Truth deeper than all else we have been told is true.”[2] So, like the disciples, we are asked to make a choice about what we believe about Jesus. For many, it requires a very clear experience – a mountain top moment – a life, changing, crystallizing, burning bush sign from God that what we have been told is true. That there IS a God, and that God is with us.
            But, the beauty of our text today is that the disciples actually do get such a sign. They stare in amazement at the many before them, who is clearly the exact likeness of their recently deceased friend, and with joy and amazement, and they cling to their doubt. How could this be? How could this man, who they understood to be the Son of God, be standing before them? Each week, I’ve been asking for feedback on Facebook about what people believe about our topic. My friend, Colleen, wrote me and offered something beautiful. She said, “I used to think that I was a poor Christian because I doubted the divinity of Christ. I think at this point I have come to think that there are some things that we just won't KNOW for sure and maybe it might be enough for me if I can relate to the person that Jesus might have been.”
            There is much of our faith that is chalked up to mystery. Sometimes, I’m grateful for this language as the only sufficient answer I can offer for difficult questions. But, mostly, I find it completely insufficient as a reason for faith. If God remains mysterious, then how are we to grow and deepen our faith? Just exactly how did Jesus become the only son of God, born of the Virgin Mary? “It’s a mystery!” is woefully incompetent as a response. A Jesuit scholar writes that, “Mystery can more accurately be described as the reality we cannot understand with our human faculties. Doubt is not the problem. Doubt is often a very good starting place for inquiry.”[3]
            If there is one thing the Disciples in our passage have in spades, it’s doubt. The difficult thing for us is to understand what to make of our doubt. We have been conditioned to believe that doubt is bad for our lives of faith. It’s an indication that we aren’t trusting God enough. I disagree. I think we open ourselves up to deepening our faith when we realize that, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty.” I love this because it opens us up to the ability to question God and God’s presence in our lives. It allows us to engage Jesus, crucified and risen, with a skeptical raised eyebrow, to see what answers will come. And, certainty is the thing that closes us off to learning more about the nature of God. Once we decide something is true, it’s very hard to be convinced otherwise.
“doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt, in fact, is probably a necessary ingredient to faith. Faith is not knowledge. Faith is more tension-filled. It is acting as if something is true even when you have no proof that it is.”
[4] The tension in our passage is that the people who knew Jesus best cannot recognize him in his resurrection.
             But, the secret of this passage is unlocked for me when it tells us that, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
            It is in the midst of their very seeing that the Disciples’ disbelief holds fast. The beauty of this moment is that Jesus doesn’t take the time to rebuke or lecture them. He doesn’t roll his eyes or quote Isaiah. Rather, he does the one thing that could confirm their hope: the risen Christ asks if there is something to eat. This is the beauty of our incarnate God: that he sees the only way to persuade us that he is alive in this world, truly alive, is to hunger with us, to eat with us. He engages their concern that he might be a ghost, and he addresses it directly by doing the simplest and most basic of human things.
            It directs us to two things: The bizarre and blessed gift that is the Incarnation of God in Christ, as well as God’s choice to be revealed to us as such. Incarnation. Revelation. God-with-us. God abiding with us, and allowing us to see it and notice. There is no other religion that understands God in such a way, so very real and visceral and present in the world. We have a unique understanding of God. The God of all gods is not lofty and distant, but fragile and available. This is not a God who abides in the highest heaven. This is a God who eats broiled fish with the commoners.  
            And, we are the witnesses of these things. This is how the Good News is told. Jesus, upon revealing himself to the disciples, reminds them that he has fulfilled what the scriptures foretold. He reminds them, “You are witnesses of these things!” 
          Go, and tell. 
          Speak confidently about what you know to be true. 
          Open yourselves to the questions that remain. 
          Witness to the fact that Jesus is somehow real to you. 
          Try to put words to it, images around it, the smallest kernel of faith in it. 
It is in the courageous naming of these things that we find ourselves as witnesses to a God who refuses to be God without us. A God who insists on living in the world with us. A God who won't even allow death to separate us. 

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.