2018

April 1

Scripture: John 21:1-19    Word of the Day

It is the largest national video network, boasting more viewers than 99% of all programming on television. Every month it delivers 276 million impressions (pieces of information): advertisements, sports news, headlines, interviews, weather, trivia and more to hundreds of millions of viewers. It claims twice the recall rate of televised information and double digit increases in advertising effectiveness. 1 in 3 adults over 18 are exposed to it every month… as they fuel up their cars. It’s called Gas Station TV.

     Last Thursday morning, before the sun came up, I stopped at the Shell just before the cell lot of the South Terminal at Metro Airport, and as I swiped my credit card, across the Gas Station TV screen I read: “The Word of the Day: Convivial.” And because I had nothing better to do while I was standing there – which they count on – I read the definition. And I thought this is perfect.

     A review of a trendy restaurant might call its atmosphere convivial. While scanning tripadvisor comments, you might read about convivial hosts of a seaside bed and breakfast. Convivial might show up in a crossword puzzle. But otherwise, it’s not like it appears in our regular everyday conversation. Although it is what we’re called to be.

     Convivial. It’s an old word with Latin roots… an adjective that literally means life with and with life. So it’s both innately social, in that it’s meaningless for a solo person — it requires interconnectedness, and it’s intrinsically fully alive. It’s exactly what the followers of the Way of Jesus are called to be: convivial: lively in our life together.

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     That night on the lake was anything but convivial for the disciples. Their net mirrored their hearts: empty.
They were lost, heartbroken, guilt-ridden, confused, exhausted and sad. He was gone. What now? How could they go forward? And going back to fishing? That didn’t work either.

     Those first few days after the death of Jesus were crucial; the gospel movement vulnerable. But with the dawning of that next new day, there he stands on the shore, the embodiment of life, enthusiastically holding out the promise of new possibilities… new potential… new life… abundant life. Not going back, but going forward into uncharted waters: Friends! he calls from the shore, Try throwing your net on the other side of the boat! Look! Now the net is full, teeming with life.

     That’s when they know it’s him. Because no one else does things with such flourish! It’s like the wedding in Cana when they first met him. This is what God’s glory among us looks like: bigger, fuller life… blessed excess. Jesus never does anything less than… always more than… love overflowing. At that wedding party, six jars of water became six jars of the best wine – filled to the brim – enough to serve another cup of wine to 400 people… grace exaggerated.

     Here a net empty of fish from a long night of trying – by people who’d fished their whole lives – becomes a net so full they can’t haul it in – they have to tow it in behind the boat and then drag in ashore. And not one tear in the net – not one lost fish.

     They don’t even pause to consider how it’s impossible that it’s him. They just know it is. And when they see him and know him, light shines across their darkened hearts and death is a distant memory. That’s a convivial sight for sore eyes.

There’s fish already cooking on a charcoal fire, but he knows fishermen. They’re happiest when they can contribute what they’ve personally caught to the meal. After a frustrating night with nothing to show for it, to be fed only his fish is nice but kind of feels like salt in the wound to a fisherman. Those of you who fish – you know what I mean.

     We go to a remote lake in Canada with friends in August. Sketchy cell service, limited electricity, no indoor plumbing, amazing sunrises and sunsets and great fresh fish. There are 4 cabins clustered together in the camp and one big bonfire on the rocks surrounded by Adirondack chairs – a convivial setting if there ever was one.

     At the end of the week, we have a Puzzle breakfast – named for the lake, which from the air looks like a giant jigsaw puzzle piece. Everybody fishes throughout the week and the biggest and best fish are put on ice, saved to be shared for the Puzzle breakfast. Fishing hasn’t been as easy in the last few years. It’s not uncommon to see the diehard fishermen in the camp up early that last morning for one more try to catch a Puzzle-breakfast worthy fish.

     Bring some of the fish you just caught, Jesus says, inviting them to contribute… to share… to provide a part of the meal… a part of themselves… to serve and be served. That’s a convivial host.

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     In its earliest use, the word convivial described feasts or festivals. Spirited, jovial, lots of food and drink and good company and laughter… A convivial party was a lively party. It didn’t have to be big or pretentious. Thanksgiving at grandma’s house could be convivial depending upon the relations around the table. But funerals would not be considered convivial – even the best ones. It’s about levity and pleasure and life.

     Over time, the word began to describe individual people. So while a funeral itself wouldn’t be convivial, it wouldn’t be inappropriate for a person at a funeral to be — if that person brought life into the room… with a welcoming, open, warm and generous spirit. If that person made an effort to put people at ease, regardless of the circumstances. About that kind of a person, we might say: when he or she enters the room, the mood shifts, light shines, and there’s more peace and good will than before.

     Again, we wouldn’t call a person convivial who simply enjoys being by him or herself… it is always in the context of life with and for others.

     When Jesus reconnects with his disciples that morning on the beach, this is his primary purpose: to be life and restore life in each one of them, so that his ministry of life can change the world.

     Simon son of John, do you love me? Feed my lambs. See how the interchange with Peter is described? It’s not just about Peter’s reconciliation with Jesus – although it starts there. Three times back in the high priest’s courtyard during the trial of Jesus Peter denied being a disciple. Three times on the beach, Jesus asks about his love. Three times in the courtyard, Peter’s word was no – No, I’m not one of his disciples. Three times on the beach, Peter’s word is yes. – Yes, I love you. And it doesn’t stop there.

     If you love me, feed my lambs. The new way of fishing, throwing the net on the other side of the boat, was a preview to this: a new way of discipleship. Come and see! Jesus said to his would-be disciples at the beginning of their journey together. 

Now they’ve seen. Now it’s time to be good shepherds… to be imitators of Jesus… to abide in him… to be with life in order to bring forth life in the world as convivial community.  This is the call for the church – the people of the Way of Jesus – to be a convivial community: a community of life, with life and for life.

     How will you grow the church? I was asked in my interview to be pastor here – over four years ago.

     People will come here if you love to come here. They’ll see it in your face and hear it in your voice. You’ll invite people to be a part of this because you’re excited to be a part of this, I said.

     That’s how conviviality works. It’s contagious. It’s a vibe. You can feel it. It’s authentic and heart-felt and honest and real… it’s boisterous… people laugh and have fun together… there’s always room for more at the table. It’s not perfect or boastful or sanctimonious… people matter… persons matter… relationships matter.

     A convivial community is a port in the storm, a welcome home, a safe haven… it is family for the forsaken and friendship for the lonely… it is a healing balm and a place where truth is spoken with grace… where people can begin again and know that new life is not only possible but real… it advocates for the homeless, fights for justice, and loves openly. It is joyful and playful and hopeful and light. In a convivial community, people come together because they like to be together.

     When the power was still out in some neighborhoods last winter and the hospital was supposed to be open for emergency shelter, it wasn’t. Our church had power and it was warm, so we made a snap decision to open the doors to allow people to come in from the cold for the night.

The police announced it on their website and the local radio station announced it. And the call went out to church members to come to the church to host members of the community.

     People brought games and we ordered pizza and we created a wonderfully convivial atmosphere. Nobody came from the community but we were ready and we had so much fun eating and playing and laughing and being together! That’s being lively in our life together. That’s convivial.

     These days in which we live can be inhospitable, divisive, depressing, confusing, violent, dark. We are people of the Word. We are people of the day. We are people of the Word of the Day.

     In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

     Does God still speak? Always and in all ways. Even before the break of day to a pastor struggling for a Word for her Easter Sunday sermon… even through Gas Station TV. Thanks be to God!

March 25

Scripture: John 19:16b-22    Two Parades

Two parades took place outside Jerusalem that year before the festival of the Passover. One was peasant… the other imperial. In their book entitled: The Last Week, theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe the parade honorees as if they were boxing opponents:

        From the east, is Jesus, from the village of Nazareth. He’s entering Jerusalem riding a donkey, coming down from the Mount of Olives, surrounded by a crowd of peasants.

        From the west, is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria. He’s entering Jerusalem on the back of a stallion, leading a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.

        Pilate’s entourage hailed from the beautiful coastal city of Caesarea… home to a Roman outpost. From time to time they’d come to Jerusalem… as peace-keepers and reminders of who’s in charge. The Passover festival was one of those times.

        Two parades: One for the top brass, the empire’s elite… the other for the frustrated, the worn out, the hurting and angry and fed up. “Save us now!” cried the crowd surrounding Jesus as they waved their palms.

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        All the gospels tell about Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem, but palms are only mentioned in John. We can thank him or blame him for the Christian annual tradition of waving palm branches. Ornithologists and conservationists are among those who aren’t so crazy about it. Because until recently, palm harvesting has been done without thought to sustainability, destruction of habitat, or overall environmental impact. Largely because of this tradition, the world nearly lost the yellow-eared parrot.

        Native to the high cloudforests of the Northern Andes, the yellow-eared parrot of Columbia depends on one species of wax palm. It is the only place they’ll nest.

More than a century ago, tens of thousands of yellow-eared parrots lived in the forests of Columbia and Ecuador, but deforestation and Palm parades almost completely decimated its population. In fact they were thought to be extinct until a state forester found one in 1999 in Jardin, Columbia. There were actually a grand total of 22.

        Three months after this amazing discovery, on an April Sunday morning, conservationists who’d moved to Jardin to tend this little flock looked down in horror on the town square as hundreds of people paraded behind Pastor Raul Ortiz waving their wax palm branches. In their heads they calculated the damage: for this many branches you’d need 200-300 wax palms —  trees that take 25 years to mature … for this one parade.

        A team of ornithologists met with the priest and pleaded with him to use a different branch. Please, their lives are at stake.

        We have used this palm for 1000 years, proclaimed Padre Ortiz. It is God’s will that we use it. He will never let the wax palm die out.

        The conservationists refused to quit. They set up public awareness campaigns and school programs… hired lawyers and talked with landowners.

Pastor Ortiz insisted it was all lies. A propaganda war broke out. Positions hardened. Then came the day when Padre Ortiz was transferred.

        God doesn’t care what branches we use, the new priest proclaimed and he chose bamboo. 

It wasn’t that easy. Church members rebelled. Trash! That bamboo was trash! said Doña Adela, a widow in the church. Every year for Palm Sunday I arrange beautiful palm branches everywhere. They are magnificent! Bamboo? No.

        It was their tradition to save the palms after the priest blessed them and to tuck them behind the door. When a storm is coming, they take a leaf, burn it on the patio and recite three prayers. Then they draw three crosses on the ground with the ash, and the storm clouds pass away. With bamboo, the first day it was green and the second day it was brown. Then the dried leaves fall off and –poof- it’s useless.

        Still, the bird advocates would not quit. With time and patience and steadfast work, the tide turned.These days, the children paint and carry banners and they use branches from a native and abundant tree called the iraka. Yes, we used to carry wax palms on Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) but we don’t anymore, says a 60-year old man of the church, because the yellow-eared parrot makes his little nest in the tree and in no other. So now we use a different branch. Not as good against storms though, he said.

        There are now over 1000 yellow-eared parrots. And Doña Adela? The iraka are puny, she says, but I guess they’re pretty.      

        Take heart, says a birder who has dedicated nearly 20 years of his life to saving their lives. Sometimes people feel so daunted. It turns out the yellow-eared parrot was suffering from challenges that could be addressed, so take heart.

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        Our palms came from Ginny – and I think they’re from Florida. But next year, we’re in the gospel of Matthew. The crowd in his story throws coats. Maybe we’ll start a different tradition next year on the Sunday before Easter– a coat drive?

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        So, why did John specify palms when no other gospel writers did? Knowing what we know about John, it was probably symbolic more than literal.

In ancient Rome, palms symbolized victory — waved regularly in Roman military parades. The date palm was also the symbol of Judaea; the prized fruit of the region.  Date palms appeared on the imperial coins printed for Judaea.

        Judaean peasants raising and waving palms could mean a few things:

  • Waving the symbol of their precious natural resource could mean they were calling for freedom from an empire who harvested at will… employing peasants to work for unfair wages, under oppressive labor laws… waving palm branches could have been a show of resistance to ruthless landowners in the pockets of Rome. Or
  • Raising palm branches, the symbol that appeared on their imperial coins could mean they were protesting life under Roman occupation… heavy taxation… economic hardship. Or
  • With their palm branches flying high, it could mean they finally believed the day had come. Victory against the Roman empire was near.

        Save us now! They cried urgently, expectedly, defiantly – pinning their hopes on this Jesus from Nazareth: Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!

        Here’s what else John says about the crowd in this parade:

  •   They were great in number
  •   They were diverse in culture – Jews and Greeks
  •   And they shook up the religious leadership. Speaking to each other about this crowd, the Pharisees said: We can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!

        Yet, less than a week after this great demonstration, Jesus walked out of Jerusalem toward Golgotha carrying on his back the instrument of his own execution.
He wasn’t surprised by this. Are we?

        There were two parades. One peasant, the other imperial… one powerless, yet frustrated, hurting, hopeful for change, relief, salvation… and the other powerful, traditioned, authoritarian, and in control.

        The parade that came from the east – the parade of the peasants looked and sounded like a rebellion. And so, it was treated as one by Pilate. Jesus received a harsh and swift punishment, designed to be both public and shameful: crucifixion, a death sentence reserved for the least and the worst… a slow, painful death… intended to shut down his movement by killing its head and to be a deterrent for anyone else.

        Above his crown of thorns hung the sign of his treasonous sentence: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. Written in three languages: Greek, Hebrew and Latin– that all may know what he stood for was finished.

        The truth is, it wasn’t a rebellion, at least in the way the people in power thought of it. And the great crowd that followed him into Jerusalem? They fell away as soon as he gave his final public speech, and they realized he wasn’t their kind of king.

        Jesus didn’t go to Jerusalem to overthrow Rome, but to expose it. He lived his kingdom of love, truth and forgiveness until the end, in stark and visible contrast to the hatred and vitriol and dehumanizing power of the kingdoms of this world.

        I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness, Jesus cried aloud to the crowd in Jerusalem.

        I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.

        The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.

        I speak what the father gives me to say, and I know his commandment is eternal life.

        He was fearless. He was clear-minded, He was truth in the flesh.

        And they did not believe and they could not believe because, John said: they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.

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        When I was about 10, I remember listening to the album Jesus Christ Superstar over and over. I cried every time I listened to it.

        When Mel Gibson’s movie: The Passion of Christ came out, I didn’t see it for years. I was in seminary at the time and one of my friends had to see it for a class. She said she stood at the back of the theater holding her stomach and crying as Jesus was brutally beaten for 45 minutes.

        I’ve had similar reactions watching Twelve Years a Slave, Mudbound, The Birth of a Nation – and any movie or newsreel that shows pure hatred in the form of violence inflicted by humans against each other or against creation– as abusive power and exploitation of privilege.

        Why do we cry and feel sick as we watch things like this?

        Because we know it’s wrong… because we know it’s evil… because we know it’s not the world God intended…  The trial, the crucifixion – it’s a mirror reflecting the worst of humanity… the darkness and hardness of the human heart. And when we see it for what it is, we cannot abide it. We’re called to renounce it and turn toward light and life and love in Christ.

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        The African American spiritual: Were You There arose out of the communal slave experience. It calls to mind both the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of humanity. It is at once both a song of condemnation of and solidarity in suffering. By his wounds we are healed.

        But it goes far beyond the African American context. Civil Rights leader Howard Thurman shared a story of a visit with Mahatma Ghandi in India: before we left, he asked, ‘Will you do me a favor? Will you sing one of your songs for me? Will you sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”’ He continued, ‘I feel that this song gets to the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering.’”

        Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? O! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

        And it should… cause us to tremble… and by our trembling to be moved to choose with even greater conviction a different way: to love, to serve, to forgive, and to stand on the side of truth… to march in the parade that’s coming down from the east… Hosanna is our cry: Save us now! Save us from destroying the world as you have dreamed it to be. Save us for a hopeful and God-filled future.

March 18

Scripture: John 19:1-16a What’s in a Name?

     In his book, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales, author Peter Rollins tells a story that he says was inspired after he saw a car speed by with a bumper sticker that read: If Christianity were illegal would there be enough evidence to convict you?  And so the story begins:

     In a world where following Christ is decreed to be a subversive and illegal activity you have been accused of being a believer, arrested and dragged before a court.

     You have been under clandestine surveillance… the prosecution has built up quite a case against you. They begin the trial by offering the judge dozens of photographs of you attending church meetings, speaking at religious events, and participating in various prayer and worship services. From your home, they’ve confiscated: religious books, worship CDs and other Christian artifacts. They found poems, pieces of prose, and journal entries that you lovingly wrote about your faith.

     The prosecution closes by offering your Bible to the judge: a well-worn book with scribbles, notes, drawings, and underlining throughout; evidence that you have read and reread this sacred text many times.

     Throughout the case you have been sitting silently in fear and trembling. You know deep in your heart that with the large body of evidence that has been amassed by the prosecution you face the possibility of a long imprisonment or even execution. At times you’ve lost confidence and been on the edge of standing up and denying Christ. But instead, you’ve resisted and remained focused.

     The judge asks if you have anything to add, but you remain silent and resolute, terrified that if you open your mouth, even for a moment, you might deny the charges made against you. Like Christ, you remain silent before your accusers.

     The hours pass slowly as you sit under guard in the foyer waiting for the judge to summon you back. Eventually a young man in uniform appears and leads you back into the courtroom. The verdict is in. The judge, a harsh and unyielding man, enters the room, stands before you, looks deep into your eyes and begins to speak:

     “Of the charges that have been brought forward I find the accused not guilty.”

     “Not guilty?” your heart freezes. Then, in a split second, the fear and terror that had moments before threatened to strip your resolve are swallowed up by confusion and rage.

     You stand defiantly before the judge and demand that he give an account concerning why you are innocent of the charges in light of the evidence.

     “What evidence?” he replies in shock.

     “What about the poems and prose that I wrote?” you reply.

     “They simply show that you think of yourself as a poet, nothing more.”

     “But what about the services I spoke at, the times I wept in church and the long, sleepless nights of prayer?”

     “Evidence that you are a good speaker and actor, nothing more.” replied the judge, “It is obvious that you deluded those around you, and perhaps at times you even deluded yourself, but this foolishness is not enough to convict you in a court of law.”   

“But this is madness!” you shout. “It would seem that no evidence would convince you!”

     “Not so,” replies the judge as if informing you of a great, long forgotten secret.

     “The court is indifferent toward your Bible reading and church attendance; it has no concern for worship with words and a pen. Continue to develop your theology, and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world.

     We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christ-like endeavor to create it. So, until you live as Christ and his followers, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then my friend, you are no enemy of ours.”

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     Lest we be distracted by the seeming equivocation and ambivalence of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, his decision to convict Jesus to die on a cross was intentional. Jesus posed a threat to the empire. Twice in John’s telling of the trial, charges were leveled against Jesus. Two titles he’s claimed, they said. Two names that carry such weight and implication that Pilate physically moved to his touchstones of power to think.

     He claims to be the Son of God.

     Son of God… What’s in that name? From the heads of Chinese dynasties to Egyptian pharaohs to Greek and Roman emperors, earthly rulers have claimed this title, understanding themselves to be delegates or representatives or even embodiments of the divine. Roman coins during the reign of Caesar Augustus bore his name and the title: Son of God.

     This man… this Jesus… makes himself out to be the Son of God? But Jesus was Jewish. Pilate had never heard of a Jewish person claiming to be the Son of God. They didn’t do that. Sons of God, yes – all of Judaism as a people of faith were God’s sons… heirs of God’s promise. But that wasn’t a claim of divinity. It was a claim of blessing.

     Yet they said he claimed to be The Son of God… not a Son of God. Who is this man? Where is he from? What does he want? This title can only mean one thing to a Roman mind: power… divine power. And that’s frightening. So Pilate, greatly afraid, retreated to his sanctuary… his praetorium to think.  

     In Latin, the word Praetor means first. Within the Roman Empire, praetoriums were established for top political officials. When important Romans like Pilate traveled to Jerusalem, he stayed in Herod’s palace, but within Herod’s palace was an inner sanctum, a holy of holies so to speak where the highest ranking political officer executed his power. In our lingo, it would be like the oval office.

     Surrounded by symbols of the empire: leather, armor, weapons, banners and golden eagles on poles, inside the preaetorium, this praetor, knew who he was… he could feel his power. He was second to no one there. This was his throne room. He was in charge.

     But not because Caesar appointed him. Any authority you have over me comes from above, said the man in chains standing before him.

     This is the moment of reckoning… the moment of choice for Pilate: how will he use his God-given authority?

     If you release this man, they shouted, you betray Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a King threatens Caesar’s throne.

     King? What’s in that name? Son of God was a threat to the imperial religion, but King is a threat to imperial rule… a threat to the whole enterprise. What would this Son of God’s kingdom be like?

     For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Jesus said. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

     A kingdom of truth tellers: every corruption, every exploitation, every economic system that disproportionately favors some over others, every abuse of power, every oppressive law, every scheme and trick of evasion, every idolatry, every demoralizing human construct revealed… exposed for what it is and the damage it does.

     That has the power to topple kingdoms and shatter empires.

     So now Pilate moves to the stone of judgment: Gabbatha they called it in Hebrew – meaning elevated place. Here, lifted up for all to witness, the irony is at its peak: Pilate, the symbol of empire assumes the role of judge. Standing before him, wearing a crown of thorns and a purple robe, beaten and bleeding is Jesus, the beleaguered king. Appearing for all to see: the powerful and the powerless.     

     Pilate renders the verdict, but John tells the story in such a way as to convict the Jewish authorities for their own choice… their ultimate blasphemy: We have no king but Caesar.

     And the truth is revealed. Who serves who?

     He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God… born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of men, but of God.

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     What’s in the name Christian? Who’s in the name? First used to identify members of a new community in Antioch, the name Christian literally means belonging to the anointed one. This new community broke convention by bringing together Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, women and men. They erased class and race lines. Despite their differences they all shared an identity with Christ.

     They called themselves People of the Way. From the beginning, they believed that following Jesus meant living a new way of life; challenging the status quo and creating a new social order.

     Historian Justin Martyr of the end of the 1st century described it this way: We who formerly valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possession, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.

     This way was not the Roman way. These Christians, with their strange customs and social inclusiveness were seen as radical and culturally disruptive. They were a threat to the empire. Sound familiar?

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     As Peter Rollins imagined that world where Christianity was illegal, he realized that a better bumper sticker might read: Christianity is illegal: is there enough evidence to convict you?

Because he said, if we really live lives that reflect the subversive and radical message of love that give a voice to the voiceless and a place to those who are displaced… if we really take on systemic injustice and oppression and expose all that’s undermining God’s dream for the world… we’ll be a thorn in the side of those who’ve made the rules.

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     I got a call last week from a woman who said: I hear from friends in town that you’ve got quite an activist church.

     Active… engaged… living out our beliefs… praying for and working toward a more compassionate, more hospitable, more honest, more just, more Christ-like world.

     What a compliment. What an encouragement. What a challenge.

     The Rev. David Montgomery stood in this pulpit several months ago and reminded us to stand in our baptismal power. Through our baptism, we are born into a family of God — not subject to the will of people or institutions, but free to live and love and question… free to renounce evil in the pursuit of truth. Let it be so for you and for me and for us as People of the Way of the crucified Christ.

 

March 11

Scripture: John 18:28-40 Dual Citizenship

What accusation do you bring against this man?

What accusation…

        In the Greek, the word is kategoria – from which we get our English word category. With whom will you group him? What name will you give him? Criminal they said. Nothing specific, just that he’s a bad man… troublesome… destructive.

        The scene is his trial, but really, he’s the only one not on trial. He’s the witness – the only witness. He testifies to truth: exposing hypocrisy, corruption, duplicity, and façade – in every category of the world. Not to condemn it but to save it. It’s what he was born to do. It’s the essence of his kingdom.

        Each one: the high priests, leaders and participants of the religious establishment, the governor and soldiers and political officials, people in the crowd and his disciples– you and me and every reader of the gospel of John comes under the light of this testimony.

All that’s hidden is revealed; secrets unveiled: words and silence… posturing and pretense… action and conviction… violence and courage and fear.  

        From the beginning, the religious authorities stand accused — exposed for their hypocrisy: not going into Pilate’s headquarters so that they could remain clean and undefiled for the Passover feast –while they condemned the embodiment of truth to die. Whitewashed tombs they were – clean and shiny on the outside for public display, but below the surface plotting and conniving to maintain their place in the kingdom of the world.

        Pilate too, the face of government, stands trial before Jesus, revealing his own ignorance: What is truth? he asks. Rhetorically? Cynically? Sarcastically? A man in his position – a partisan agent of the empire – a talking head for what Caesar spins as truth…Does this Galilean represent something more? Could there be such a thing as objective, absolute truth? If this man is king of that kingdom – what is the future of Rome?

        And then there’s the irony of the final outcry for the release of Barabbas – whose name literally means Son of the Father.  Unlike Jesus, he actually is a criminal – guilty of some thievery – a physical manifestation of what they who run the Temple have become.

        Remember Jesus’ words? My Father’s House has become a den of bandits.

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        What do you possess and what possesses you? I asked the group last Thursday night. Our Bible story was about the rich young ruler who asked Jesus: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

To which Jesus replied: You know the law of Moses, but there’s still one thing you lack: Go sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor, so that you will have treasure in heaven and then you can follow me. And the young man turned and walked away… sick at heart… for he was very wealthy.

        As a group, we gave thanks for the riches in our lives: health, friends, family, church, jobs, homes… and we confessed that our riches can also be a distraction, a false sense of security, a source of pride and privilege and entitlement… they can lead us to strive for more, to never feel contented or that we have enough of a cushion… our riches can make us lose perspective on what’s really important… anxious and self-absorbed in our own “1st world problems”.

        What do you possess and what possesses you? I asked. And a variety of answers surfaced: work, overwhelming projects, technology, time…

        Interestingly, nobody said truth.

        For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Jesus said. And then he said: Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

        To belong to the truth… is to be possessed by truth.

        What would that look like?

        Remember Jim Carrey’s character Fletcher Reede in the movie Liar Liar? – the fast-talking lawyer who’s built his career on lies and broken promises…  Would being possessed by truth look like Fletcher after his son Max blows out the candles with a birthday wish that his dad would go one whole day without the ability to tell a single lie…    

Fletcher’s held captive for the next 24 hours — incapable of even the smallest deception – telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to every co-worker, person on the street, judge, juror and witness and even to the police officer who pulled him over and asked:

     You know why I pulled you over?

Starting from the top — here goes: I sped. I followed too closely. I ran a stop sign. I almost hit a Chevy. I sped some more. I failed to yield at a crosswalk. I changed lanes at the intersection. I changed lanes without signaling while running a red light and *speeding*!

     Is that all?

     No… I have unpaid parking tickets.

        Is that what it looks like to be possessed by… to belong to truth?

        My kingdom is not from this world, Jesus said. Unlike the kingdoms of the world, it’s not a place – it doesn’t have territorial boundaries. It’s not a where, but a how – a way of being and living with God at the center. It stands in stark contrast with all the other imperial models of dominance and control. It operates by different rules.

        Jesus said: If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. There’d be a zealous contest – a power struggle – an employment of the world’s weapons and crafts – an uprising — but that’s not how his kingdom of truth works. It’s about shining light upon darkness… exposing and revealing and confession and choice.

        To be possessed by truth, is to be filled with an inner drive toward it… to be grounded in it, awakened by it and attentive to it. But to belong to the kingdom of truth is more than about us individually. Kingdom implies it’s communal and mutual – that there’s a social component to it.

It’s not just my truth or your truth or even our truth, but an interconnection to the objective truth of God.

        The PCUSA Brief Statement of Faith says it like this:

In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

        Do you hear both the individual indwelling of the Spirit of Truth and the witness in community: the revealing of hypocrisy in church and state, the listening and working and praying… We are citizens of the world. But as followers of Jesus, we hold dual citizenship. We also belong to his kingdom of truth.

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        I looked again recently at information I pulled together 5 years ago for a post-Sandy Hook conversation I facilitated at the church I served in Ann Arbor. The school shooting happened December 12, 2012, but I didn’t host the conversation until January 6. A few weeks had passed and I gathered together news clippings representing a variety of perspectives, talking about a range of contributing factors and responses.

        I remember the room was full of parents and grandparents. We started with lament: “Where was God?” and “Where wasn’t God?” We read from the psalms, we prayed and we even sang together a contemporary hymn written by Presbyterian Pastor Carolyn Gillette – set to the tune of “Ah Holy Jesus”:

God, we have heard it, sounding in the silence:
News of the children lost to this world’s violence.
Children of promise! Then without a warning,
Loved ones are mourning.

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          Then we got about the business of naming some truths. I put categories on the board:

  • Safety,
  • Mental Health,
  • Support resources for families with special needs children,
  • Fear,
  • Gun violence,
  • Media,
  • Forgiveness

We talked about the importance of community to heal social isolation. We named powers and principalities and their hold upon us.

We confessed and we talked about who we were becoming as a human community and what it meant to be children of God in it – dual citizens of the world and of the kingdom of truth.

        5 years ago I pulled together news clippings from a whole host of perspectives in preparation for that conversation. This week I looked through them all again and it’s as if, on this conversation, time has stood still.

Jesus, you came to bear our human sorrow;
You came to give us hope for each tomorrow.
You are our life, Lord God’s own love revealing.
We need your healing!

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        There was a perspective we didn’t have in the Newtown conversation – one that I saw in an article written by Aaron Stark, a stay-at-home dad and writer. It appeared in the Washington Post last week with the headline: I Would’ve Been a School Shooter if I could’ve Gotten a Gun: Laws and Love Prevented Me from Fulfilling a Dark Teenage Fantasy.

        In it, Aaron tells his story: a child of a violent and evil father… stepson of a man involved with drugs and crime. Kicked out of the house at 14 for fighting with his stepfather, this obese teenager with a passion for poetry and comic books felt alone and unloved. When the bullying became too much, he dropped out of school at 16 and sought help from a mental health clinic.

        Despite his simmering anger and thoughts of suicide, the young and inexperienced intake person at the mental health clinic, decided Aaron didn’t need to stay overnight and sent him away.

He snapped. He tried to get a gun. All he wanted to do was hurt as many people as had hurt him. He wanted to feel something other than pain… wanted to feel in control.

Too young to buy a gun from the store, he contacted a gang of drug dealers his family knew. They agreed to get him a gun. For the next three days, they talked details over the phone.

        On the third day, love intervened – in the person of Mike – a neighbor who’d grown up in an intact family… Mike who grew up rich in kindness and love… Mike who stayed in school and stayed in touch… Mike, the face of compassion to Aaron –  intervened on that third day and brought him home for the night.

        Of course Aaron’s problems didn’t vanish overnight. But Mike never knew what Aaron planned to do and it never materialized. Months later, during another dark time, Mike’s friend Amber stepped in, throwing Aaron a surprise party with blueberry peach pie, a place to clean up and a place to sleep. She literally showered him with grace.

        When you are at the bottom, being shown you matter can save you, Aaron said. His recovery took a decade and lots of intensive therapy. That was 25 years ago.

        He writes: I do not say any of this to get attention.
I’m not trying to advance a partisan anti-gun message, and I’m not trying to say that mental health is the only issue. But if I’d possessed a rifle, I would have been a killer. If I’d known love, I would never have wanted a rifle.

Heal us from giving weapons any glory;
Help us, O Prince of Peace, to hear your story;
Help us resist the evil all around here;
May love abound here!

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        I was moved by Aaron’s story. It took courage to tell it. It touched on so many elements of the conversation: social isolation, mental health, gun access laws, the ability to procure a gun illegally and that waiting can make a difference.

He confessed his teenage angst and the desire to hurt others out of his own profound hurt. His story included the impact of growing up in a broken and unsafe family, and the power of love and redemption and embodied grace.

        Then I read the comments. There was an overwhelming resonance with this article.

I wonder if this is a voice that’s been too long missing from the conversation. What name will we give this voice, what category? Troubled? Abused? Fringe? Forsaken? Forgiven? Beloved? Child of God?

This is a voice that puts us all on trial – including the voice itself – calls us all into confession and into a deeper truth about our responsibility to one another in every sphere of the world’s kingdom and a renewed call to living and abiding in God’s kingdom of truth. 

I ask again the question I ended the Newtown conversation with that day 5 years ago in the Ann Arbor church: Who are we becoming? as individuals, as neighbors, as politicians, as teachers and students, as activists and pacifists and co-workers and as church: Who are we becoming as dual citizens — of the world and the kingdom of truth?    

By your own Spirit, give your church a clear voice;
In this world’s violence, help us make a new choice.
Help us to witness to the joy your peace brings,
Until your world sings!

March 4

Scripture: John 18:12-27 The Moment of Truth

Traditional Jewish morning prayer begins with 15 blessings, the first of which goes like this:

        Blessed are Thou, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, we thank you for giving the rooster the understanding to distinguish between day and night.

        We haven’t had a rooster on our farm since the Halloween Massacre of 2016 when we lost several of our hens, a couple of guineas and our one and only rooster. They went out free-ranging and never came home.
And it’s been blessedly quiet in the mornings – that is until the guineas wake up – which is after sunrise.

        Roosters sense the coming dawn; while it is yet dark, they start. The cockcrow for Peter came at his darkest hour… a wake up call… a moment of truth.

        All four gospels record Peter’s denial, but John tells it uniquely. This shouldn’t surprise us by now.
We’ve been studying the gospel of John since January and we know he’s more interested in describing the Jesus experience theologically than literally or historically.

        Only John interweaves the trial of Jesus and the denial of Peter – crafting a tale of two trials that beg to be read and interpreted together. Only in John is Peter initially left outside – needing the gatekeeper’s permission to enter the courtyard of the high priest. The same Greek word is translated in English as courtyard or sheepfold depending on the context. Only John capitalizes on this word play.

        Only in John does Jesus say: Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said. And one who saw and heard everything – the best eyewitness Jesus could ask for – Peter — is there.
But what happens when he’s questioned?

        Listen how John’s account of Peter’s denials echoes the 10th chapter of John’s gospel:

        Jesus said: Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The gatekeeper opens the gate and the sheep hear his voice… the sheep follow him because they know his voice… I am the good shepherd… I know my own and my own know me.

        Peter – where are you? In whose sheepfold? Who are you following? Who do you know? Who knows you? Peter warms his hands by a charcoal fire – standing with them – the Temple servants and officials…

        In this account, Peter’s not asked if he knows Jesus. He’s asked if he’s one of his disciples.

For the gospel writer John, to know Jesus is to be in relationship with him and with God’s family… to know Jesus, is to claim allegiance to his tribe… to know Jesus is to call him friend – and to be friends with his friends… to know Jesus is to hold to his teachings… to know Jesus is to love him and through him, to love others.

        Am I one of his disciples? No – I am not, Peter answers.   

        I get that – don’t you? Not really his disciple.

        Who could get a passing grade as a student of Jesus? He demonstrates a grace that honestly-  who can imitate? Who can really love like that? Forgive like that? We lose our temper or we get weary of caring, or hope gives way to frustration and despair… Am I one of his disciples? Is anyone worthy of claiming that title?

        This is Peter who on that same night, lost it in the garden and cut off somebody’s ear – I’m not one of his disciples. He wouldn’t want me on his team. I’m too impulsive… too easily triggered… I won’t be a good spokesperson… I get that — don’t you?

        In the mid 1990’s the Christian rock band DC Talk came out with a song titled: What if I Stumble. It opened with a quote from Brennan Manning:

              “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

              What if I stumble, what if I fall?
What if I lose my step and make fools of us all?
Will the love continue when the walk becomes a crawl?

Is this one for the people?

        Is this one for the LORD?

              What if I stumble, what if I fall?

       

        Am I one of his disciples? Sometimes? When it’s convenient? When it doesn’t ask too much of me? When I won’t lose friends? When I won’t offend anyone?
Is this one for the people? Is this one for the Lord?

        Today’s text makes me think of a few moments of truth in my life — moments when I weighed the cost of discipleship… moments when I doubted or compromised:

        Like in the spring of 2004, when I gathered with fellow McCormick Theological Seminary graduates in the hall outside the auditorium. As we waited to process, several of our fellow students moved through the line, offering us rainbow ribbons to wear as stoles – showing our public support for the ordination of our gay colleagues. I took one and put it on but my best friend who I knew believed it was right – declined the ribbon. I’m not going to be pressured into that right now – this is the wrong time and place, she said.

        I wore the ribbon because during my time in seminary, I came to believe I was following Jesus by standing in that place.

And yet, because of her response I began to worry about the consequences of my choice – what would my parents think? or members of my home church? would a church not call me to be their pastor? I worried about photos and having to explain… But wasn’t that exactly the time to bear witness? Where was my courage? Where was my faith? Where was my truth?

        In the fall of 2010, I returned from Palestine after experiencing heartbreaking oppression. As a disciple of Jesus, I had to testify. But I took a tempered approach –  teaching instead of preaching about it… speaking for the rights of Palestinian Christians instead of the rights of all Palestinians. Being careful and cautious not to speak too critically of Israel. Making the message more palatable for the people in the pew.

        Is this one for the people? Is this one for the Lord?   

I returned to Israel/Palestine with people from this church in 2015. This time for deeper education on the issues of injustice and to meet Christian activists for the cause of peace. More of us now stand in solidarity, but what does the Lord require of us?

        In January of 2016, I chose to exercise my discipleship by joining the Women’s March in Washington DC the day after the inauguration. For the sake of dignity and honor and to speak out against abuse and bullying and demeaning language… for a call for civility and decency, I marched with a sign that said: We Will Hope, We Will Love, We Will Stand, We Will Speak. Several of us went from this church and there was a photo of a few of us on the front page of the newspaper. Did some leave this church because I marched? Maybe. I think so. Did others come?

That’s not why I marched. For me, it was a moment of truth.  

This January several pastors in Tecumseh came together to sign a letter of petition to the City Council asking for their support for transitional housing for women and children. One of the pastors in town declined to add his name. He said he supported the shelter, but the cost of engaging publicly for him was too great.

Moments of truth — they punctuate our lives. We have them at work and among our family members. We have them at social gatherings and at church. Courageous conversations in which we dig deep into the roots of our faith identity, into the Way and the Life and the Truth of Christ — seeking to live out the heart of God — purely… honestly… humbly and without fear or offense.

        Jesus stood before the chief priests – the religious leaders. After one of the officials slapped him in the face he said:

        “If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”

        Something Wrong means: destructive, harmful, wicked, disparaging, life-depriving…

        Truth means: beautiful, useful, commendable, honorable, genuine, precious, pure, noble, with no room for blame.

        So Jesus said: If I said something destructive, harmful, wicked, disparaging, life-depriving, tell me what it is. But if I spoke beautifully and usefully, commendably, honorably – with words that are genuine, precious, pure, noble and without blame, why do you strike me?

        We are called to take stands as followers of Jesus: to love and lift up… to fight oppression and oppressors… to speak truth… to make room and to demonstrate grace. There are many, many ways we do that – as varied as we all are. But the truth is this: We are his disciples not because of our worthiness but because of his call.

Jesus chose us, calls us friends and sends us out – as imperfect as we all are – sustained by the Spirit’s power and enduring love – to speak openly – not in secret – unafraid and free.

        Peter’s story does not end with that cockcrow. It only just begins. With the dawning of the new day comes realization and confession and a new invitation: I am yours and you are mine, says the Lord, Do you love me? feed my sheep. May it be so for you and for me and for us together as church.

February 25

Scripture: John 15:1-17  Celebrate With Me

You should have seen the look on Michael’s face when he bit into the peach.
My gardener friend Julie Conley and I were hosting a farm day for the Evans Creek homeschooling families last August. Several families signed up for it, but that day, one by one they dropped out – sick kids or schedule changes — and it became a private tour of our farm for Michael and his mom.

        Michael was about 7 and bursting with energy. He took great delight in everything we did — for about 5 minutes tops. So we just kept running – from one thing to the next: Let’s go feed the chickens! Wanna see the labyrinth? Let’s explore the gazebo! Do you like apples? Let’s pick some berries! Michael – do you like peaches? Let’s go see the orchard – maybe, just maybe there’s a peach ready to taste…

        They’re good peaches – great peaches really – Red Haven, freestone – juicy, sweet – Julie says ours are the best peaches she’s ever tasted – and that says a lot. But Michael stopped in his tracks – and maybe even the world stood still – when he took his first bite. His face shone with pure ecstasy. This tastes like God, he said. And we all stood there and took that in.

        There’s more to the story of the peaches. Our first spring at the farm, 4 years ago, we decided to build an orchard. That March we ordered about 50 fruit trees: apples and pears, plums and cherries and peaches.

The next month, the trees arrived in their boxes. It was the first week of April 2014. You may remember the ground was still frozen solid by the first week of April 2014 – still covered by a foot of snow.  For a couple of weeks they sat in the garage, in their boxes, untouched – 50 trees.

We had nowhere to put them so we didn’t want to open them. After awhile, we were afraid to open them because we knew after this long, they must all be dead.      

        Expecting the worst, Andy and I ventured, hand-in-hand into the garage. We opened the first box. It was perfect – alive and well-packed – box after box we opened – every tree was safe and protected. They stayed like that until the ground finally thawed and by the end of April we planted them in the nursery.

        They all did great, but after two years, they’d outgrown their space and had to be moved. So in April of 2016, with the help of friends, Andy built the orchard: Each hole dug and prepped … the trees transplanted one by one. We doted after these trees – watering them… praying over them.

If love was enough to save a transplanted tree, they all would have made it. But the shock of the move was too much for some. We lost about 1/3 of our trees.

        Nobody but the gardener knows the behind the scenes work that goes into producing fruit. Nobody knows the fear, the patience, and the physical effort. Nobody knows the love and the hope, the loss and the disappointment. And nobody knows the joy and delight of the harvest like the gardener. That’s the goal – that’s the prize – that makes all the rest worth it.

This tastes like God, Michael said, indeed.

        We lost 1/3 of our trees, but every peach tree made it. Of the fruit trees that made it, only the peaches bore fruit. And they bore a ton of it and it was delicious.

        If we focus on the whole orchard, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with loss, cost, frustration and urgency. If we focus on the peaches it’s about celebration and gift and joy and life. And focusing on the peaches gives us hope and strength and motivation to do what we need to do to tackle the rest of the orchard: like getting replacement trees.

        This is a metaphor for the church.

        It was one of the newest members of our church who suggested we need to celebrate the fruit of our labor more. And she’s right. It was the Tuesday Bible study and we were exploring today’s text together. She’d attended the annual congregational meeting a couple of weeks ago and later, she’d taken the time to read through the whole annual report.

She said she was amazed at all that we accomplished together last year as a church. You’ve been busy! she said. And then she said: Sure there’s lots more work to do – there’s always more work to do – but we need to celebrate the fruit of the harvest more!

        It’s the surprising abundance – the unexpected gifts – the peaches that taste like God – that we are invited to delight in. I want you to know the delight I experience, Jesus said.

The worry is not that we will forego our responsibility to the whole enterprise. The worry is that we will get overwhelmed by it… burdened by the workload of it and miss the replenishing joy… the sustaining delights.

        One of the things I’ll miss most about Susan Meier as she retires from the presbytery is that she reminded me of this on a regular basis – with her tears of all things.

        Susan is the Presbyter for Common Life of the Maumee Valley Presbytery and she’s leaving at the end of this month. Many of you know her because she played a critical role in standing with and supporting this church through the split a few years ago.  She spent a lot of time up here in Tecumseh, preaching during times of transition and praying with this church.

        The clergy women of the presbytery got together for a send-off party for her on Friday night and we shared favorite Susan stories.

I told about the first time I saw her cry. She was here for a session meeting. Before the meeting, I saw her standing in our gathering space holding the 2014 annual report for this church. Her eyes filled with tears.

        Susan, I said, why are you crying?

        You have an annual report, she said.

        Of course we have an annual report, I said.

        And then I remembered the day I first walked into this church. It was May of 2013 and Andy and I were moving to Tipton. I was delighted to see a beautiful PCUSA church right here in Tecumseh and I ventured inside to get more information. The halls were lifeless; the gathering space was bare.

        Alena, the church secretary at the time, came out of the office to introduce herself. I told her I was new to town and a Presbyterian and I asked for a visitor packet or annual report or brochure or anything that would tell me about this church and she ran to get Rev. Jim Brown.

Jim was the interim pastor who had come out of retirement to shepherd this church through a split.

        When Jim came out of his office, he looked like he’d just climbed out of a bunker. And I don’t mean the kind on the golf course. He looked war-torn and exhausted. We don’t have anything like you’re looking for, he said. We’ve been through a difficult church split and the dust is just now settling. Alena told me later that as soon as I walked out the door, she and Jim put together a brochure.

        Susan held that 2014 annual report as if it were the holy grail. Her tears were tears of joy and hope and life. She knew we had a long way to go, but she celebrated that she held in her hands a symbol of early attempts at stability and structure – a budget and a plan.

        Over the last three years as I’ve worked with Susan, I’ve told her story after story about this church – about your forgiveness and your courage, about your engagement with the community – and your new ministries. Every time I talk about you she cries – tears of thanksgiving for the harvest. You have to tell the presbytery these stories, she told me often – they will want to celebrate with you.

        On Friday night, I gave her a gift bag with the 2017 annual report inside. And I said We’ve come a long way and we still have a lot of work yet to do. But oh how I love to celebrate every step along the way with you.

        I will miss her for the perspective she brought to me and to us.

        Celebrate the peaches. God’s got the orchard.

        Jesus didn’t talk about an orchard, he talked about a vineyard. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all referred to the people of Israel as God’s vineyard.

        50 years after the death of Jesus, when the gospel of John was written, God’s vineyard was a mess. There’d been a split in the Jewish family. The traditionalists had kicked the Jesus followers out of the synagogue. So this gospel was written to a fledgling, fragile, embattled and exiled community – a group banished from their place of worship – their home – their faith tradition — their spiritual grounding.

        Their wellbeing and the survival of their mission depended upon letting go of that past and leaning into their identity in Christ; turning from the pain and stress of schism and deeply rooting into the grounding of their being in Christ – writing a new story of love and life for the world.

        They had huge challenges ahead of them, but all along the way there were unexpected moments of abundant grace. The secret is love. Jesus said:  My commandment to you is this: love others as I have loved you. You celebrate our friendship if you obey this command.

        Jesus said: You celebrate our friendship if you love.

       We too have a lot of challenges ahead of us and hopefully we’ll always have challenges – that’s the sign of a church that’s alive – and a church that’s alive in Christ will bear fruit.

But always remember: God oversees the whole orchard- and as such, knows well the behind the scenes work that goes into producing fruit. And God knows the joy and delight of the harvest and longs to celebrate it with us. So all along the way, there are amazing unexpected abundant gifts provided for us — gifts that bring glory to God… peaches that say: O Taste And See! The Lord is Good!

Our spiritual ancestors celebrated harvest festivals together — huge feasts with family and neighbors and strangers intended to remember the faithfulness of God, to develop and strengthen holy friendships, and renew hearts and hopes and lives.

        I pray for an openness to spontaneous celebrations of God’s joy and friendship among us. Like last night’s mini golf outing. I pulled into the parking lot at 10 minutes to 6 — and found it half-full. And I went to that place — that familiar place of disappointment — wondering why more people weren’t there. But was I wrong! God is good!

People continued to pour in– filling the house with laughter and joy — playing together – the biggest field we’ve ever had – celebrating new friendships in Christ – friendships that didn’t exist a year ago – friendships that will pave the way for new ministry together – bringing hope and light and love to our church and our town.

        I give thanks to God for each and every one of you: for the opportunity to work hard alongside each other, yes, but also for the fun we have together– celebrating the goodness of God. To God be the glory now and forever.

February 11

Scripture: John 9  Learning to See

What did you think of the opening ceremony of the Olympics Friday night?

What did you think of the North and South Korean athletes walking together – the flag bearers – one from each side of the deep division together holding the Korean flag? And of the torch bearers one from each side – both women playing for the same ice hockey team… a unified Korean ice hockey team?

What did you think of the singers singing John Lennon’s Imagine: Imagine all the people… living life in peace… singing: you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one – I hope some day you’ll join us and the world will be as one – to a stadium full of people waving candles?

What did you think of the symbols – the doves, the fire, the future with hope?

     Can we dare to believe in the transformational hope that such deeply divided people on the brink might find their way to reconciliation? Could they exemplify for the world that a seemingly impossible peace can be achieved? Is this the place for miracles? For God’s work to unfold?

Or is it just propaganda – the manipulation of a tyrannical regime?

     What do you see?  How do you see?

     That’s really the better question.

We all saw the same thing – with the exception of colors maybe – but how do we perceive what we saw?

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     They all saw him standing there before them.
Some saw him as the blind beggar, others saw someone who looked like the blind beggar but couldn’t be him. Still others saw him as a sinner, a liar, a threat, maybe even a demon. His parents saw him as a son – and yet, in him, they also saw their own presumed guilt and because of him, they saw in the faces of the others, pity and shame.

Helen Keller once said, “a person who is severely impaired never knows her hidden sources of strength until she is treated like a normal human being and encouraged to shape her own life.” Jesus saw the man born blind as one in whom the glory of God waited to be revealed. He saw a witness, a beloved child. He saw him whole.

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     Today is the last Sunday before Lent begins. It is traditionally Transfiguration Sunday in the Christian Church. Preachers around the world today are turning to the 9th chapter of the gospel of Mark: Jesus on a mountaintop with his disciples Peter, James and John – and suddenly he transfigures before them… his clothing dazzling white. The glory of God shines through him.

     But we’re in the 9th chapter of the gospel of John – the only gospel of the four that doesn’t include the story of Jesus on the mountaintop. Instead, the whole gospel of John is about transfigurations – of God being made known.

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     Returning from the pool of Siloam just outside the city gates where he washed the mud from his dark eyes as they filled with light, the man came and stood among them – transfigured. What happened to him and through him is extraordinary. The glory of God poured forth from him –
but they couldn’t see it.

     They knew who he was – day after day for years they’d walked past him – sitting there with his hands out eager to receive their contributions – but standing there now in front of them it’s not what they see, but how they see – how they perceive what they’re seeing.

They just can’t believe it! It’s true. He tells them it’s true. But it’s crazy the lengths they’ll go to deny it and then finally to deny him. He’s an outsider at the beginning of the story – a beggar – destined to a life beyond the Temple gates – born blind – born in sin they believed. And he’s an outsider at the end of the story – his sight, his testimony, his challenge proving too uncomfortable for them.

     It’s not surprising, really, that they react the way they do. We all do it. It’s the way our brains work when faced with cognitive dissonance – the uneasiness that comes when new ideas collide with others we’ve deeply held.

     We are capable of changing our minds. The human brain has neuroplasticity — we can accommodate new information and our thinking can evolve. But the more entrenched our attitudes and convictions, and the stronger our emotional investment in them, the harder it is.  

     How we see the world is determined by our deeply ingrained patterns of thinking – mind-sets we were raised with… or learned overtime from our life experiences, convictions reinforced by people or institutions we trust.

The more hard-wired these are, the more difficult they are to remap. Add to that our fear of being wrong… of losing confidence… of being kicked out of our tribe… and we will ignore, deny, justify and rationalize with the best of them.

     In his book: Body, Soul and Human Life, Dr. Joel Green talks about how this plays out in the political realm: Staunch Democrats and hard-core Republicans hear the same data but, predisposed to interpreting them differently, they walk away with opposing conclusions. He cites a study conducted at Emory University prior to the 2004 presidential election:

     Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they were to evaluate damaging information about their own candidate. As the researchers studied brain activity, notably absent among the subjects was any activation of the neural circuits implicated in conscious reasoning once they were confronted with damaging evidence. Instead, emotionally biased reasoning led to reinforcement and a defending of beliefs. The participant’s “revisionist” account of the data resulted in positive emotion, relief and elimination of distress.

     The same can be said of racial bias and religious conviction – leading to an inability to see what we cannot believe to be true.

++++++++++

     Jesus is looking for a different response—a courageous faith and trust – a willingness to learn to see anew. Leaving behind the people who chose to remain blind, Jesus found the man they threw out. This one, he welcomed into his fold.

     How can we learn to see anew? How can our deeply ingrained attitudes change?

     Do not be conformed to this world, wrote the Apostle Paul to the Romans, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

     Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus, Paul wrote to the Philippians.

     This is conversion. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. This, when you really think about how stubbornly we hold onto things – returning over and over again to the deep-set patterns of our behaviors – this is where God goes to work – this is the stuff of miracles – transforming us from the inside out.

     And this is also where the church comes in – the community of faith.

When we practice living the mind of Christ together, the experiences we share actually shape and form our perceptions – literally they remap our brains, changing the way we behave and think. Think about this:

When we participate in local mission… when we step out of our comfort zones to get to know our neighbors through Invisible City, we learn to really see people… to see the love of God in and through them and our hearts change. They get a little bigger.

When we sit at the table for a Courageous Conversation – especially one that we think might really challenge what we’ve always believed… when we participate in education classes and we listen to other voices, other stories, other perspectives… we learn to see differently – learn to see God at work in and through the room and our minds change. They grow a bit wider.

When we share a prayer request or write down one that’s been shared and really pray for someone else… when we pray for eyes to see them with compassion, to hold them with care and to lift them into the light of God, we learn to sense God’s healing grace in all and through all.

When we give generously and we pay attention to the way our gifts go out of this place into the community and into parts of the world ravaged by storms and earthquakes, we feel what it is to be part of the body of Christ at work – restoring the streets and rebuilding hope. And our spirits lift.

     Two stories with parallel trajectories appear in our transfiguration text this morning. One of a man born blind who learns to see and to believe and the glory of God is revealed through him. The other of people who choose to remain in darkness, stuck in what they think they know, rigid and closed and blind to the power and presence of God right there in their midst.

Who are we and where are we? Open the eyes of our hearts, LORD we pray, and teach us to see.

     ++++++++++

February 4

Scripture: John 4  Spirit and Truth

The story of John 4 is interspersed throughout our service this morning,
introducing different parts of our worship.

GATHERING AT THE WELL
In a small Samaritan town known as Sychar, Jesus and his entourage
stopped to rest at the historic well that Jacob gave his son Joseph.
It was about noon when Jesus found a spot to sit close to the well…
From his vantage, he watched as a Samaritan woman approached
to draw some water.

We’ve gathered together again, as we do week after week, at the well.
We come to step out of the world where the rush and hurry of life can leave us parched and dry
and step into a place of grace.

Here we remember who and whose we are.
Here we hear the old, old story of Jesus and his love again:
his love for you, his love for me, his love for the world.
Here we sing songs and pray prayers that connect us to a greater reality than our own individual story
— yet one which hallows each life… each heart… each voice.
Here we are invited to experience and share a peace that passes understanding.
Here we’re encouraged to drink deeply of honesty, humility and community centered in Christ.

Like so many years ago in a small Samaritan town,
Jesus meets us here, at the well.
He’s thirsty for genuine relationships.
We’re thirsty for meaning and purpose and connection and home.

“GIVE ME SOME OF THAT WATER”
Can I have a drink of water?
You are a Jew, I am a Samaritan. How can you ask me for a drink?
If only you knew what God gives and who is asking you for a drink,
you would ask him and he would give you life-giving water,
and you would never be thirsty again.
Sir, can I have some of that water?  

This morning we’re welcoming new members to our faith family.
All of their stories are different — where they’ve come from, their faith backstories,
their interests, gifts, passions and hopes.
Most of them grew up in the church.
Some walked away for awhile.
Others were driven away.
None are life-long Presbyterians.
In this group of 7, we have Jewish, Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist, Evangelical,
Methodist, Congregational, Lutheran and Presbyterian roots.

About the only constant in their stories was a spiritual hunger… …a thirst… a longing for home.
Each one of them talked about finding it here.
Here they feel welcome.
They’re excited to follow Jesus with this family of faith.

At this time I invite the new members to the baptismal font.

GRACE OVERFLOWING
Go, call your husband, and come back.
I have no husband.
You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’
for you have had five husbands,
and the one you have now is not your husband.
What you have said is true!

This part of the dialogue is heartbreaking.
It’s about loss and abandonment… social ostracism and desperation.
We don’t learn the circumstances of this woman’s life,
only that it’s been punctuated by a series of broken relationships.

Widowed? Divorced? Some combination of both?
Resist the urge to label her immoral. We don’t know her life.
We do know that patriarchy defines her social, economic and theological reality.
Jesus knows what this means for her.

That’s why he refuses to leave her alone, but instead, calls her deeper into truth and life.

We too are invited to face the truth of our lives before one who knows everything there is to know about us, sees us for who we were created to be and loves us with a deep and abiding love. Let us open our hearts before God in honest and humble confession…

THE LIVING WORD
Sir, I see that you are a prophet.
Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,
but you say that the place where people must worship is Jerusalem.
Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will
worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
You worship what you do not know;
we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.
But the hour is coming, and is not here,
when true worshipers will worship the Father
in spirit and truth.
I know that Messiah is coming.
When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.
I am he, the one who is speaking to you.

Last week we met with Al Chambers a retired journalist and educator.
He’s our speaker for the February Courageous Conversation Wednesday evening the 21st at 7pm.
The title is:
Real News Matters.

It’s about a thirst for truth… a frustrating and nagging thirst to get to the bottom — the essence
— to cut through political theater and bias
— to lay bare distortion and manipulation of data and reveal absolute and objective truth.

Al is a news junkie — he’s spent his life researching, writing, interpreting and teaching the art of journalism. He’ll talk with us about this phenomenon known as “fake news” or “alternative facts” and how we can become better equipped to navigate a story. But, he said, and we agreed, truth is much bigger than real news.

To his disciples, Jesus said: If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

I have no husband, the Samaritan woman told Jesus.
What you have said is true. Jesus said. But not the whole truth.
That’s not the end of the conversation. It’s only part of her story — the part that constrains her and keeps her self-identity slave to the way she’s perceived by others– culturally, religiously, and socially.

It’s the past reality of her life, she knows it and he knows it — and now she knows he knows it — and the terrible consequence of it — but the truth of her future sits patiently before her — embodied truth — promising living water — promising an end to her thirst — promising new life.

Her community condemned her. Orthodox Jews condemned her.

But God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. That’s the truth that led Jesus into her land to her well to sit with her and see her and reveal God’s way to her.

She asked him about worship — the great theological question of her day — where can we find God? On our mountain or in Jerusalem? No — not in a place, God is Spirit, Jesus said, those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Week after week we come into this sanctuary… this sacred space with the past realities of our lives in tow and we remind each other – through all of the movements of our worship together: songs and prayers, confessions and grace, passing of the peace, sharing of joys and concerns, the offerings of our gratitude, and breaking bread at the family table — that our past realities — who we have been and what we have done – that’s only part of the story.

The future embodied Truth in Jesus sits patiently here before us and among us, seeing us for who we really are and who we were created to be and calling us forth, emboldening our voices, strengthening our witness for each new day.

She came to the well to get water – like she did day after day after day in the only life she knew until she met him and on that day, everything changed. She even left her water jug behind — like it really didn’t matter anymore — just as he said.

In the words of Luther Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis: She left behind her ostracism, her marginalization, her loneliness, because Jesus brought her into his fold. She left behind her disgrace, her disregard, and the disrespect she has endured to enter into a new reality, a new life that is abundant life… she is not only an example of what it means to be a witness. She embodies fully the transition from darkness to light, from outsider to insider. She is reborn.”

And her voice is critical. Her story is the story of every woman who ever leaned into the Truth of Jesus to find sure footing and inner confidence to deny the boundaries and limitations put upon her by a wider society and speak.

She is crucial to the purposes of God. As Rob Bell says it: “If you don’t have her leadership,if you don’t have her wisdom, her voice, her perspective, you’re not just missing her, you’re missing something central to the very core of who God is.”

As the church of Jesus Christ, we are called by the Spirit to be practitioners of truth in all the corners of our lives — practitioners of a deeper truth — a capital T Truth – that reveals the heart of God to and for all people… to and for all creation… to and for ourselves.

We are not, as some would say, living in a post-truth world. There’s nothing post about the living Truth who is and was and ever shall be.

Come to the table set in his name and for his glory. Come and see the Body of Christ for the world.

COME AND SEE
Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!
He cannot be the Messiah, can he?

Who he is, she’s not sure. All she knows is that he knows her, truly.
And the people of her village do come and see and they believe because of her word.
And the word spread and they heard it and they came to know him as the Savior of the World.

Come and See, he said. Come and See, she said. Come and See and Know and Live.

January 28

Scripture: John 3:1-21

Sermon Title: How Can This Be?

In his book, Reaching for the Invisible God: What Can We Expect to Find, Philip Yancey tells a story about his college roommate Reiner. Reiner was from Germany and after he graduated, he returned to Germany where he taught at a camp for the disabled:

     Relying on college notes, Reiner gave a stirring speech on the Victorious Christian Life: ‘Regardless of the wheelchair you’re sitting in, you can have victory, a full life. God lives within you!’ he told his audience of paraplegics, cerebral palsy patients, and the mentally challenged.

     He found it disconcerting to address people with poor muscle control. Their heads wobbled, they slumped in their chairs, they drooled.

     The campers found listening to him equally disconcerting. Some of them went to the director of the camp and complained that they could not make sense of what he was saying. ‘Well then, tell him!’ the director said.

     One brave woman screwed up her courage and confronted Reiner: ‘It’s like you’re talking about the sun and we’re in a dark room with no windows,’ she said. ‘We can’t understand anything you say. You talk about solutions, about the flowers outside, about overcoming, about victory. These things don’t apply to us in our lives.’

     Reiner was crushed. To him the message seemed so clear. His pride wounded, he thought about coming at them with a kind of spiritual bludgeon: ‘there’s something wrong with you people. You need to grow in the Lord. You need to triumph over adversity.’

     Thankfully, instead after a night of prayer, Reiner returned with a different message: ‘I don’t know what to say,’ he told them the next morning, I’m confused. Without the message of victory, I don’t know what to say.’ He stayed silent and hung his head.

     The woman who had confronted him finally spoke up from the room of disabled people: ‘Now we understand you,’ she said, ‘Now we’re ready to listen.’ Now we can begin.

     When I came to you, brothers and sisters, the apostle Paul wrote to the church he founded in Corinth, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

++++++++++++

How can this be? Nicodemus, the learned Jewish leader and scholar, pinnacle of human wisdom, who prided himself on a lifetime of exploring and explaining Jewish law to the finest detail and application… asked Jesus. How can this be?

     There in the darkness – symbolically the place of hard-heartedness, ignorance and spiritual blindness… this renowned teacher and intellectual elite couldn’t get his head around it… this whole idea of being born again – what did it mean?

     I was raised Presbyterian but when I was a child, my mom began attending a women’s Bible study led by a Baptist and not long after, my parents joined a couples Bible study led by the Baptist minister. We never changed churches, but I started hearing about the need to be “born again”.

In middle-school, my parents sent me to a Baptist camp. I bought a King James Bible there – the only version they sold. They taught me about the need for a personal relationship with Jesus. And at every chapel, they told us we were sinners in need of forgiveness – a forgiveness that could be ours if and only if we prayed the sinner’s prayer that went something like this:

     Dear Jesus, I know I’m a sinner and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite you into my heart. I want to follow you. In your name, I pray, AMEN.

     If you prayed that prayer, sincerely, from the bottom of your heart, you were born again. You only needed to do it once – if you meant it – but at the close of every chapel when they asked again, I was never really sure if I meant it enough. This was serious business and the stakes were high because, as they reminded us over and over again, only those who are born again will go to heaven.

     I took that theology with me through high school and into college, but the world got bigger and things got more complicated and the box around God wasn’t nearly big enough. That phrase “Born Again” started to feel like a spiritual bludgeon — used as a litmus test of faithfulness.
I had a growing number of questions and the answers weren’t comfortable anymore.

     Last week I talked about a book I’m reading: Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. It’s filled with story after story told by people, most of whom were actively involved with their church, about why the church no longer felt like the place where they could grow in their faith. Every person and every story is unique, but common themes emerge.
People are looking for dialogue not lectures… meaningful conversation and an enlarging faith.

Mystery, doubt, uncertainty, questioning… people want the church to engage them in authentic conversation rather than provide predetermined canned answers.

     Mark said: I question things. It’s how I understand God.

     Jackson said: I want to think critically about my religion, and to critically challenge things.

     I do a lot more questioning now, Ella said, If the church can accept that and facilitate it, then great. I would love to go there. If it can’t, I’ll move on.

     Trying to know God by distilling him down to a set of dogmatic assertions is just crazy, said Joel.

     ++++++++++++

    I was warned when I headed off to cemetery… seminary that it would kill my faith. It didn’t. What it did, by design, was systematically challenge all of the beliefs I brought in with me – all the things I thought I knew for sure – and break them wide open, forcing me to look at them again in different contexts, with alternative interpretations… seen through other eyes. I left a lot of theology classes with a pounding headache.

     But it was there that I leaned into the counsel of poet Rainer Maria Rilke: Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

     Seminary is a journey of loosening tightly held convictions in order to gain comfort in ambiguity, to practice holding hospitable space in the midst of theological difference and to learn, by God’s grace, to speak a new language of humility and openness, what Brian McLaren calls Generous Orthodoxy.  He defines orthodoxy not as right thinking or right opinions, but rather what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which, we all have a whole lot to learn.

     Haven’t we in our education classes here at church often left with more questions than answers – or maybe a new set of questions? That’s by design — to invite us into deeper exploration and openness to the heart of God… for therein lie opportunities to be born anew.

++++++++++++

     How can this be? Nicodemus asked. And he went silent… there at the edge of human finitude is where the unbounded divine mystery waits. There is the opportunity for new life – for new eyes to see what hasn’t been seen before…  for the kingdom of God to be revealed… for faith.

     Jesus said to Nicodemus: verily verily – meaning listen up – what I am about to say is of ultimate importance: No one is able to experience the realm of God unless they are born – and here the Greek word has two meanings: again and anew.

     Nicodemus chose the first meaning – literally asking how someone could be born a second time.

     Jesus intended the second meaning – describing a different kind of birth – a new birth of the Spirit. People are born both of water – meaning biologically and of spirit – of God.

It is a spirit birth… an awakening… a process of transformation that brings a new way of seeing the world through God’s love. This way, according to Jesus defies definition and reaches beyond the limits of human knowledge, manipulation or expectation. It doesn’t depend upon us getting the words right in a prayer or really meaning it from the bottom of our hearts, in fact, it doesn’t depend on how we do it at all… it’s a letting go and opening up to God. And it’s not a one and done thing, but a lifelong moment by moment opportunity for greater life and light and love by God’s grace and God’s Spirit at work, blowing like the wind in and through us. In this, we come to know God. By this, the realm of God is revealed.

     German theologian Meister Eckhart wrote: “I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.”

     Church refugee Cora learned this when her infant grandson died.

     Pre-packaged theological answers were not at all helpful to her. But she came to know God, experiencing God’s love through her dark and tender grief. I heard God speaking to me for the first time, Cora said, I don’t think about God in the same way anymore. It was painful, but it has deepened my understanding of the love of Christ.

     Often in graveside services I share this poem by Susan Palo Cherwien:

There is no stillness in life,
but what one holds in the heart.
There is no peace,
but what one has in the soul.
There is no calm in life,
but what one finds in God.
God has not promised us security
God has not promised us certainty
God has not promised us freedom
from sorrow
freedom from suffering
freedom from pain.
Life is a journey through all of these.
But what God has promised is…
God.
 “When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and through the rivers
they shall not overwhelm you.”
What God has promised is
God.
Have no fear.  

     How can this be?  we ask.

And Jesus says:

God loved the world so much, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who opens his or her heart, mind and soul to him in an intimate relationship would not remain lost but would have abundant, unending life, beginning now. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved over and over again through him.

What is the response to that kind of love but wonder: How can this be?

January 21

Scripture: John 2:13-25

Sermon Title: Zeal for Your House

Before I sat down to write my sermon this week,
I had to clean my closet. I don’t have that big of a closet and everything was wedged in there –
wedged to the point of hanging funny and falling off hangers and wrinkling.

Just to get something out that I wanted to wear was an effort.

I knew some things in there didn’t need to be there anymore… they were out of season, out of style or in Marie Kondo’s words: they just didn’t spark joy anymore.

I asked my 22 year-old daughter Courtney to be my consultant and we got to work. Do we need to do this right now? she asked, Yes. Right now, I said.

Sounds like procrastination to me, she said.
Really? Actually, it’s theological reflection, I said.

Hidden behind things I never wore anymore, I found a long lost sweater I love. Removing the excess clutter gave me access to the clothes I want to wear. Now I can see what’s missing and there’s room for new life.

My minor irritation at the state of my closet, pales in comparison to the zeal that consumed Jesus as he entered the Temple.

+++++++++++++++

Harvard Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy, Rabbi Shaye J.D. Cohen says this about the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus:

Everybody realized that this was the one most sacred place on earth, the one place on earth where somehow heaven and earth meet, where somehow there is a telephone connection, perhaps we would say, between heaven and earth, where the earth rises up and heavens somehow descend just enough, that they just touch….

Jesus called it “My Father’s House”.

He and his disciples came down from the seaside village of Capernaum in Galilee to join faithful Jews from around the world in Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover.   

What they found when they got there was a far cry from the Passover theme of liberation from slavery and a far cry from worship. Everything smacked of the big business of Passover… the economy of the Temple. At every turn were merchants selling animals for sacrifice. But the poorest pilgrims could only afford a bird, so there were people selling pigeons and doves too. But at two days wages for a pair of doves even that was hard. And if the doves you just bought didn’t pass inspection inside the Temple gates, you’d have to buy two more, but this time at 40 days wages.

And you can’t use your Roman coins. Coins with images of the Roman Empire had to be exchanged for Temple currency. Otherwise, it’s idolatry according to the Jewish law.

And the Money Changers don’t work for free.

And what about the cottage industries that cropped up to sell “needed” products and services to the pilgrims – to guarantee their purity or supplement their offering or give them a token to take home to remember their trip.

And everybody upped the ante by adding the religious element: you want to buy the best for God.

Yet, where was God in any of it? As Jesus looked around and took it all in – watching the pilgrims buying cheap substitutes for the real hunger that drove them there – while the religious authorities looked on, profiting from all the layers of excess and distraction… This wasn’t his Father’s house…  it was a marketplace!

+++++++++++++++

I’m reminded of a church in Denver — Connection Metro Church, it was called. Their eight satellite churches had foyer coffee bars to attract visitors. They decided to abandon ministry altogether to focus on coffee. A press release described their decision:

“People liked the coffee a lot better than the ministry, according to congregational surveys, so we’re practicing what we preached and focusing on our strengths,” says former teaching pastor and now chief marketing officer, Peter Brown.

Many in the congregation seem downright relieved.

“The sermons were okay, but the vanilla frappes were dynamite,” says one woman who regularly attended the church for two years so she could enjoy the special brews. “I even brought my Jewish neighbors and they loved them.”

The staff of Connection Metro Church began noticing last year that more money was coming in through the coffee bar than in the offering.

“People complimented us about the pastries and mochas but didn’t really mention the teaching,” says Brown. “After feeling disappointed, we got pragmatic about it and realized God was telling us where to put our efforts.”

The church renovated each of its locations into Connection Coffee Houses and removed most traces of its spiritual past. Now crowds are up and many former members are flourishing.

“Who knew I was so gifted at making foam?” says the former head usher, now the head barista, as he makes a heart-shaped design on a cappuccino.

The church’s small groups have been turned into neighborhood reading clubs, with some reading Christian titles and others following Oprah’s recommendations.

The only visible remnants of the coffee house’s past are the offering bucket which serves as a tip jar, and the greeters stationed at the door to give a more welcoming feel than the nearby Starbucks.

Some former members were stunned to arrive at church Sunday morning to find the sanctuary transformed into a seating area with newspaper racks and coffee-themed gift items.

“I guess we’ll go back to the Methodist place,” said one father who had brought his family. “But only after we try those delicious looking chocolate cream-filled croissants.”

People in the surrounding neighborhoods say they are far more likely to stop by now. One man who came occasionally says he feels less guilty standing around the coffee counter now that there is no service taking place.

“Before, we had to sit through the service and pay our dues,” he says. “Now we go right to the good stuff — the double espressos.”

The staff also feels liberated now that the pressure of ministry is off.

“The best way to be relevant is to give people what they want,” says Brown. “In our case, that’s coffee drinks.”

It’s not a real church, but it could be. It, like the story in John’s gospel is a cautionary tale, of an institution that’s lost its heart and forgotten its purpose… selling out to cheap and crowd pleasing substitutes, tangling up in rules and bureaucracy, or running itself ragged in busy work that fails to nurture faith.

We laugh at the made up coffee church, but it’s easy to get distracted… caught up in the next latest and greatest marketing idea designed to grow the church… when the best strategy is the oldest strategy: remember whose house it is.

+++++++++++++++

Rachel Held Evans is a New York Times best selling author from Tennessee. She writes about faith, doubt and life in the Bible Belt. She left the church when she was twenty-seven. Three years later, as she was trying to find her way back, she wrote a blog entitled: 15 Reasons I Left the Church.

Here is a link to her blog for the whole list https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/15-reasons-i-left-church, but for now a few excerpts:

  • I left the church because I’m better at planning Bible studies than baby showers…but they only wanted me to plan baby showers.
  • I left the church because when we talked about sin, we mostly talked about sex.
  • I left the church because my questions were seen as liabilities.
  • I left the church because sometimes it felt like a cult, or a country club, and I wasn’t sure which was worse.
  • I left the church because sometimes I doubt, and church can be the worst place to doubt.
  • I left the church because I felt like I was the only one troubled by stories of violence and misogyny and genocide found in the Bible, and I was tired of people telling me not to worry about it because “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”
  • I left the church because I knew I would never see a woman behind the pulpit, at least not in the congregation in which I grew up.
  • I left the church because I wanted to help people in my community without feeling pressure to convert them to Christianity.
  • I left the church because there are days when I’m not sure I believe in God, and no one told me that “dark nights of the soul” can be part of the faith experience.

The next day, she followed up with another list: 15 Reasons I Returned to the Church: https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/15-reasons-i-returned-church

Again – excerpts:

  • Jesus
  • The fact that when somebody gets sick or dies or has a baby or loses their job, it’s the church ladies who are the first to show up at the front door with a casserole and a hug
  • Communion
  • Sucking up my pride and embracing the fact that, like it or not, I need community…and real community isn’t about surrounding myself with people just like me
  • Liturgy that reads like poetry
  • Learned that I didn’t have to choose between my intellectual integrity and my faith
  • The Mission (our church plant), which even though it failed on paper, changed my life and gave me hope for the future of the Church
  • Friends with whom we gather each week for movies, food, and conversations about God…
  • Grace, grace, grace, grace, grace, grace, grace

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Story after story like Rachel’s appear in the book Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. https://www.amazon.com/Church-Refugees-Sociologists-reveal-people/dp/1470725924

The people they studied remarked time and again that they worked diligently for reform within the church but felt the church was exclusively focused on its own survival and resistant to change. If they stayed, they would risk further estrangement from their spiritual selves, from God, and from a religion they still believed in. Hence the word refugee.

Every church refugee’s story is unique, but the authors of this book summarized four common tensions:

  • They wanted community and got judgment.
  • They wanted to affect the life of the church and got bureaucracy.
  • They wanted conversation and got doctrine.
  • They wanted meaningful engagement with the world and got moral prescription.

Reading this book makes me want to flip some tables. I get angry and sad and reflective and humble and confessional and determined. It would be a great book for us to study together. In the words of one of our elders: Where we are any of these things, we need to fix it and where we’re not, we need to communicate it.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order defines the Calling of the Church this way:

  • The Church is the body of Christ. Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body.
  • The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.
  • The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation… a new beginning for human life and for all things.
  • The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
  • The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.

    After I put the finishing touches on my newly organized closet, I sat down to write this sermon.
From my loft office I look directly across the room at big wooden beams supporting the walls and ceilings of our log house.

In the place where two of the beams met at a 45 degree angle – where the ceiling and the wall meet, there was a huge spider web. That cannot stay there,  I thought to myself. So I left my desk, grabbed a long dust pole and swept it away. Free once more of distractions, I lit a candle, made myself a pot of Peaceful tea and got to work.

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Free from distractions… free to worship… free to question… free to experience real community… free access to the Source of all life and meaning… free to forgive and be forgiven… free to love and be loved… free to discover purpose and meaning and new life.

May all that we are and all that we do as Church bring glory to God. May zeal for Your house, O Lord, zeal for Your people, zeal for Your Kingdom and zeal for You consume us, we pray.

January 14

Scripture: John 2:1-11

Sermon Title: The Life of the Party

Oh that the stone jars could tell their story. What would they say? There they were, standing off to the side of the room like six obedient soldiers.  The all-important first stop of the evening.

It was the custom… religious ritual. First thing’s first: pay homage to the purification jars. Dip in the cup, pour the clean, pure water first over one hand and then the next… careful, careful… nothing dirty comes in contact with the water… people’s hands come into the room dirty – contaminated with who knows what… unclean! Unclean! Not welcome to the table. Not welcome to the feast until they visit the stone jars. That’s how important they were.

     All night long they worked faithfully, these jars, doing what they had always done. Accomplishing the task they were ordained to do… until that moment when everything changed.

What was inside them became totally new. And then, what a dramatic turn of purpose!

     People no longer came to them to be made clean. What was inside them was taken out… enjoyed, celebrated… The stewards enthusiastically dipped, served and returned to them for more and more…

People seemed genuinely surprised and amazed by what they tasted – they couldn’t get enough. What these jars held now was refreshing, desired…

They had been transformed… from the inside. And what they offered now changed the whole room.  Ordinary jars became extraordinary vessels… dispensers of something fine, something noteworthy. No longer off to the side visited out of obligation, they became the life of the party.

     What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.

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So begins John’s story of Jesus’ public ministry – not in the synagogue or on a mountaintop – not preaching or teaching – but at a wedding – a family celebration shared with the whole community.

     He was there with his mom and his disciples, as a guest alongside all the other common folk of the village. And this is the first sign of his glory, his excellence, his brightness, splendor, dignity, majesty… revealed… epiphanied – only to those close to him and the servants and us (the readers of John’s gospel). To everybody else, it was just another wedding – except for that amazing wine that came out after awhile.

     But we, we have seen his glory, the glory of a Father’s only son.

     This is what we’re in for in the gospel of John – over and over again – glimpses of God’s glory revealed in Jesus among us.

They’re signs – pointing to something bigger and fuller… signposts of that which is other and outer, C.S. Lewis says… or what theologian Stephen Webb calls blessed excess.

     God’s grace, God’s love is never just enough, but always, over the top. One of those jars would have given another cup of wine to over 400 people – instead 6 jars were filled to the rim – and not 3-buck chuck, but the best wine.

     I came that they may have life and have it abundantly, Jesus said. Come and See.

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     Can we learn to imagine more than we know, Stephen Webb asks,
Can we say more than we dare to believe,
act more boldly than we know is wise and rational,
see more than realism displays,
hope more broadly than the facts would allow?

     When the wine gave out at the wedding, his mother said: They have no wine.

     The wine came up short… failed to be enough. She made a rational observation… stated a fact. And the she in this case was his mother. A voice of human authority — to Jesus – spoke definitively: It’s done. It’s gone. The party is over. There is no. more. wine.

     And Jesus aware of an authority greater than his mother’s, answered with a question – literally What to you to me. It’s a Semitic idiomatic phrase that might best be translated: – What’s this to us?

     That’s the generative question in this story: the question that gives birth to all that happens next:

     What’s this to us?

     What’s this problem to people of hope?

     What’s this insufficiency to people of faith?

     What’s this limitation to people of light… people of life… people of God?

What are failures and dead-ends but resurrection opportunities… stone transforming possibilities… moments of epiphany… God’s glory – God’s blessed excess revealed?

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     Tomorrow night our City Council will once again vote on a proposal before them – the next step toward allowing the former Herrick Manor to be repurposed as transitional housing for women and children. A place transformed with new life.

They’ve voted against it once already, despite Promedica’s desire to gift the facility to Neighbors of Hope a non-profit ministry well experienced in managing housing and services for people in need… despite the city zoning commission’s recommendation to approve it… despite meetings held before rooms full of supportive city residents.

     Rumors abound as to the reasons some council members may not support it.

Some think there’s prejudice, racism or fear lurking under the surface. Others see politics and economics at play.

     Meanwhile there’s an empty facility and families in need of  shelter and a future with hope.

     Several of the pastors in town signed a unified statement of support last week, printed in the Herald, encouraging the city council to vote in favor:

Within our churches are volunteers standing at the ready, we wrote, eager with open hearts and willing hands to reach out with love. Through this proposal, we have the opportunity to come together to provide realistic and practical support for families in need of temporary housing. Secure shelter and compassionate neighbors can pave the way for restored hope and dignity, leading to a stronger future.  

     Still, the fact remains, the vote could come up short tomorrow night.

There could fail to be enough members on the council in support. The mayor could put down the gavel and effectively say: there is no more wine.

     If this happens, and it might happen,

     What’s this to us? As people of faith, hope, light and life… As people of God:

     What’s this to us?

     Can we learn to imagine more than we know?

     Can we see more than realism displays?

     Can we hope more broadly than the facts would allow?

     Can we act more boldly than we know is wise and rational?

     Can we dare to believe that Jesus meant it when he said:

     I came that they may have life and have it abundantly…

     What are failures and dead-ends in our personal, professional, religious or civic lives but resurrection opportunities… possibilities for new beginnings… for long-held traditions and institutions to be made new from the inside out… for stone cold hearts to be broken open … for moments of epiphany to burst forth… revealing God’s glory?

     Glory. The Greek word is doxa from which we get our word Doxology:

     I do not seek my own glory, Jesus said, If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my father who glorifies me. It is for God’s glory that the Son is glorified, he said.

     And then, in his farewell prayer recorded in the gospel of John, he said this as he prayed for us:
The glory you have given me I have given them.

     If God can be glorified through stone jars, how much more can God be glorified through our lives… through our church… through this town? In ways we’ve never even dreamed of.

     They are out of wine. Really? Look again.

     From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace upon grace upon grace.

     Let us see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God, the real life of the party that never runs out.  

January 7

Scripture: John 1:35-51

Sermon Title: Come and See

When you’re new to a town, you want to at least pronounce the name right. And when you’re interviewing for a job in a new town, you want to know how to say it before the interview – so you look like you did your homework.

        I grew up in a town named by French traders. Great White is the English translation and it should, by all rights, be Grahnd Blahnc – but to the locals, it’s Graand Blaanc – and you want to know that going in. So just over four years ago when I moved here, I asked people in the Maumee Valley Presbytery how to pronounce the name of this town – knowing even as I did that they were from Ohio where they have Layma and Bewsayrus and Versales.

        The people I asked were split in their opinions so I still wasn’t sure.  I asked Siri. She’s confident it’s pronounced Tecumseh. When I say Tecumsee into the phone, all Siri hears is To Come See. As it relates to name pronunciations, I’m not sure Siri even bats 500. Although being the First Presbyterian Church, To Come See is pretty great.

        Speaking of seeing… this weekend, Christians around the world are celebrating Epiphany. Traditionally, the gospel reading is from Matthew – about the Magi following the star – seekers looking for a special child.

        In Germany, young people – singers- in groups of three — go house to house dressed as wisemen, carrying a star. They give treats to each house, collect donations for worthy causes and mark the top of the door frame with chalk as a blessing. They write: 20+C+M+B+18 – the initials of the traditional names of the wisemen: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar inside the year.

        In the Philippines, children put shoes outside their doors on Epiphany Eve and the Wisemen leave candy and money in them.

        In Puerto Rico, children leave grass under their beds for the camels – along with a wish list for los Reyes – the kings.

        I don’t know what you did for your Epiphany parties, but this year, I went on a star scavenger hunt throughout Tecumseh – buying up all the stars I could find for 50% off. I decorated my house with stars, and hosted an Epiphany dinner party for the church staff.  Everybody got a keepsake star ornament and we topped off our dinner with starburst candies.

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        Epiphany literally means to show forth… to appear. That which was hidden, is now seen. We say we’ve had an epiphany when we experience a revelation or a flash of brilliance – a breakthrough – a moment of clarity – brand new vision. John doesn’t talk about Magi, wisemen or kings in his gospel and there aren’t any stars, yet his is a whole story of epiphany – starting with the opening verses:

        The Word was made flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

        Come and See, Jesus said, in the opening chapter of John’s gospel. Come and see, Philip said to Nathaniel. Come and see.

        John’s whole gospel unfolds as an invitation to follow Jesus and open your eyes. Where the other gospel writers give descriptive accounts of the events of Jesus’ life, John wants his readers to see themselves in the transforming stories – to see not just with our eyes but with our hearts – to look beyond the surface at the epiphanies beneath. Come. What you’ll see defies words.

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        Come and See, Mother Teresa often said when people asked about her work in Calcutta. How is it going? What is it like there? Come and See.

        In his book The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne talks about what he saw when he did.

        What are you looking for? Jesus asked his first followers. I’m looking to see Christianity really lived out, Shane Claiborne would have answered.

        Discouraged with the church of his youth, Shane went to Calcutta to see. It was, for him, one epiphany after another. About his visit to a leper colony, he wrote:

        There are no famous lepers. It is a disease of the outcasts, the untouchables. Oftentimes lepers don’t even know the words ‘thank you’ because they have never needed to say them. That gives new meaning to the story Jesus told about the 10 lepers he healed and only one returned to give thanks…

        But then, wrote Shane, there was this leper community called ‘Gandhi’s New Life’. Years ago the land had been given to Mother Teresa and she began caring for lepers. Then the lepers began caring for each other. Now there are over 150 families teaching each other ‘thank you’. They grow their own vegetables, raise animals and fish. They make their own shoes and sew their own clothes. They make saris for the sisters, blankets for the orphanage and bandages for the medical clinic. Some of the lepers who’ve been treated are doctors for other lepers.

        Shane wound the cotton bandages into balls each day as he followed the doctors during their rounds.

        I would watch intently, Shane wrote, fascinated by their love and compassion. One afternoon as things were winding down, one of the doctors had to leave early, but there were a few patients still waiting to be seen. He looked at me and emphatically said: “you know how this works; you have been watching. It’s your turn.”

        I came forward and sat in the doctor’s seat and began staring into the next patient’s eyes. I began carefully dressing the man’s wound. He stared at me with such intensity that it felt like he was looking into my soul. Every once in a while he would slowly close his eyes. When I was finished he said to me that sacred word I have come to love: “Namaste”. I smiled with tears in my eyes and whispered “Jesus”. He saw Jesus in me. And I saw Jesus in him.

        The lepers had shown me a glimpse of what God might have in mind for the world, Shane wrote: a people on the margins giving birth to another way of living, a new community marked by independence and sacrificial love.

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        Come and See. It’s that good. A compelling vision of love in action. Words don’t do it justice. Jesus went from town to town inviting people to open their eyes and see it for themselves – see it and be it.

        A few years ago, I revamped the new member class around following Jesus.

Eventually we cover our particular identity as Presbyterians and specifically this family of faith, but we start where they started – with his call to come and see.

        It’s in our mission statement as a church too.

        Let’s read it together:

We are a loving community of faith
following Jesus Christ,
where everyone has a place
and a face,
a story
and a voice.
Our minds, hearts and hands are engaged,
as we humbly serve our neighbors
near and far.
Come and See

        Without the Come and See, the rest would just be words. Good words. Great words. But just words.

        Come and See means we want to be authentic and real and practice what we preach – not play church but be church.

        Come and See means we believe in the incarnation – that Jesus is God’s Word made flesh and we are his body here and now – his hands, his feet, his heart, his mind.

        Come and See means we trust that God is at work in our midst in and through every person – each one a work in progress – being shaped and formed in the image of Jesus.

        Come and See means we believe so much in the transformative power of the Spirit of Christ and the kingdom of God that we can’t keep it to ourselves. We want to learn and practice and teach and say: You know how this works, you’ve been watching. It’s your turn.

        Come and See means we bear witness to a story that is bigger than our own individual life stories – that is even now being written by the author of life – and it’s a drama so magnificent as to cast each and every person in it.

        Come and See implies commitment, expectation and revelation.

        Come and See holds out the hope and the promise of epiphany.

        We are the First Presbyterian Church, To Come See. To come see and feel and be the love of Christ in this place, in this time, we pray, to the glory of God.

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