2016

12/11/16

Scripture: Luke 1:39-55

3nd Sunday of Advent: Mary’s Song

It’s been called Gaudete Sunday for hundreds of years – this– the third Sunday of Advent. Gaudete is the Latin word for Rejoice. Historically, Advent, like Lent, was a season of repentance – in preparation of the Holy event to come.

     Songs were sung in minor key. The tone was somber and reflective. But halfway through each season, everybody took a break. There was a pause in the fasting for feasting.

     Today is that day—the  Sunday of the pink candle – the candle of Joy. Traditionally on Gaudete Sunday in the Catholic Church, priests wear rose-colored vestments and the chancel is similarly adorned.  Like a sudden exclamation of joy in a quiet room, people enter the sanctuary to see a splash of unusual color bursting forth. The dawn is breaking across the dark night sky. The Lord is drawing near. The mood shifts.

     Mary’s mood has shifted too.  

Last week as she received the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she, an unwed young girl, would give birth by God’s decree, the news shook her to the core. Janet McKenzie’s painting of this scene shows Mary – downcast, her hands closed, clutching a bouquet of lilies.

     Why are there lilies in portraits of Mary?

Lilies say beauty, elegance, sweetness… according to the Language of Flowers, and white lilies say purity, majesty. Giving someone a bouquet of white lilies says: it’s heavenly to be with you.

English Poet William Blake wrote:   

     The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble sheep a threat’ning horn:
While the Lily white shall in love delight,
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.

     Mary clutches the lilies with concern in Annunciation – the news is indeed a crisis — a threat to her perceived innocence – to her very personhood.

     And this week, she sings. The portrait on the cover of the bulletin illustrates the shift. Calla lilies flank her with strength, a symbol of magnificence, and Mary’s hands are open – reaching out to the world. She is cloaked in rose – she is cloaked in joy:

     My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!

     The circumstances around Mary have not changed. She is still an unwed young girl socially shamed by pregnancy. The reality of her debased reputation in Nazareth still exists. And yet… and yet within her, everything has changed.

     Her song exemplifies joy in the midst of struggle… joy that transcends suffering.

Something happened to Mary between last week and this week… actually someone happened. That someone was Elizabeth —  Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth. We read about her the first Sunday of Advent – she’s also unexpectedly expecting — pregnant with a child endowed with the spirit and power of Elijah. Yet another special child, he is the One who will baptize in the Judean wilderness – the messenger who will prepare people for the coming of the Lord.

     What happened between last week and this week is that the stories of these two women collided, as Mary ran to Elizabeth in the Judean hills—seeking counsel, courage… safety.

     Blessing was the very first word out of Elizabeth’s mouth – maybe even before she saw Mary – she blessed her. With a loud voice for all to hear Elizabeth proclaimed: You are blessed… the One you carry is blessed… I am blessed that you came to visit me.

     The opening of the visit sets the tone. Especially when circumstances are tense and hard. Think about the importance of those very first words.

     The Deacons have studied a little book together put out by the founder of Stephen Ministries, Kenneth C. Haugk called: Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart: How to Relate to Those Who Are Suffering. The title comes from a Proverb:

“Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day,
or like vinegar poured on soda,
is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”

     The author wrote it when his own wife was suffering from a serious illness. Everybody wanted to be helpful, but as they together reflected on things people said and did, some were more helpful than others. So he wrote a handbook for all of us who come alongside people who hurt.

Chapter 5 is entitled: What do you do after you say hello?
Words matter – especially those first words spoken to a heavy heart. It’s good to see you. Just that. It’s good to see you.

     I’m blessed to be with you.

Those first words are more than a Wal-Mart greeting, they’re meant to convey belovedness. Elizabeth’s full-throated welcome of blessing says that to Mary. And in that moment all other voices to the contrary are drowned out.

     Think about how transformative that is. Remember a time in your own life when someone stood with you while the ground beneath your feet was shifting and looked you full in the eyes and reminded you of your value… your inherent worth… the gift that is you.

     Blessed are you, Elizabeth said loudly and confidently to Mary, and Mary believed it.

     Mary’s song – the Magnificat – titled by the first phrase:
My soul magnifies the Lord – begins with praise – rejoicing that God has literally seen her in her low estate. God sees who she truly is – not socially defined or categorized by her circumstances – God sees her in her purity… in her innocence – as undefiled… worthy to bear the One they’ve all been waiting for.

    Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Elizabeth says, and she calls Mary Mother of my Lord. Elizabeth and Mary share a faith tradition that for hundreds of years has been waiting for the one foretold by the prophets– the Messiah – the one through whom God will fulfill God’s promises to save them – from tyranny… from oppression… from exploitation… from violence… from shame… and lift them up… overthrowing every other human power that thwarts God’s reign.

Could it be? Could this be the One? Could I be the one to bring God’s chosen king into the world?

     From then on, Mary’s song describes a vision of God’s reign – a great leveling of power and resource – where those without are filled and those with excess will open their hands and deplete their selfish stores.

She sings of a dream where no one uses societal estate to claim privilege or to legitimize abuse. She proclaims God’s economy… God’s community… God’s vision for humanity: no brokers or broken… no bullies or battered… no one over the other – but one with the other:

Lion lying down with the lamb… a peaceable kingdom. And she rejoices. For the One to usher in that day is coming.

     Mary sang a song she never saw fulfilled in her lifetime.
She sang a song while she carried the baby Jesus – only to watch in horror as he was nailed some thirty years later to a cross. She sang a song that might have ended there – but – by the power of the resurrection continues to endure.

     Janet McKenzie’s painting on the cover of this week’s bulletin is called Mary, Mother of Enduring Love. Wherever this image is on display, it communicates the enduring promise of God’s reign opened out to us in love with it’s full invitation: to see it, to take hold of it, and to rejoice in the yet unrealized potential of it… even as we do our part to live into it.

     It’s Gaudete Sunday today. But the rose-colored decorations and candle don’t mean we’re people who look at the world through rose-colored glasses. We know suffering is real. We know power corrupts. We know classism and sexism and racism continue to drive wedges between people who cannot see the humanity in one another.

     And we also know that every time we put up a nativity and we place the shepherds next to the kings in the same space – equally on bended knee – that we are depicting an image of radical leveling – a scene where social status has no significance, but God’s community means everyone has a front row seat – one with another – side by side. Each equally loved by the Holy One in the manger.

     Joy, said the late Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen  is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.

     When he was in prison, tortured and beaten for his refusal to stop proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul wrote these words:

     Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything,
but in everything
by prayer and supplication
with thanksgiving
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God
which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds
in Christ Jesus.
I know what it is to have little,
and I know what it is to have plenty.
In any and all circumstances I have learned
the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry,
of having plenty and of being in need.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

12/4/16

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

2nd Sunday of Advent: Annunciation

        It wasn’t posed as a question. It was more of a proclamation actually.

     Canadian Mennonite pastor Carol Penner creatively imagines it like a call from the nominating committee or an invitation to serve on a non-profit board or coordinate a new ministry – like it’s an option. And I included her reflection: The Anti-Magnificat in the bulletin because it’s so good – and so full of grace – you’ll want to keep it and borrow lines from it in the future – I know I will:  

     The Anti-Magnificat (if I had been Mary)

 

 

     I am not knocking any of these very valid reasons we say no to opportunities. In fact, I’ve known many people – myself included – who need examples just like this to help us say no better and more often… to encourage us to manage our boundaries so we do less but with greater effectiveness.

     But at least the way Luke tells the story, Gabriel is not presenting an opportunity to Mary that she can graciously decline.

     As gently as he can, he’s telling her what’s happening. It’s an announcement – an annunciation – not an offer. And there’s no way she hears this as good news – at least not initially.

     Gabriel can tell her she’s favored and he can say God is with her. He can tell her not to be afraid. But the truth is, in a moment, this young girl’s life has completely changed.

     Her family made a contract with another family for her marriage. Getting pregnant between the time of the contract and the actual marriage is sure to bring shame on her, her family and the family of the man to whom she is betrothed. She will not be safe in Nazareth. More than her reputation, her very life is in danger.

     Mary was most troubled, the hymn says.

     You think?

     Most troubled.

     On Tuesday at our First Look Over Lunch, we compared this verse across a variety of translations:

     Much perplexed, says the New Revised Standard.  Confused and disturbed, The Living Bible says. The Voice translation says: The heavenly messenger’s words baffled Mary. Closest to the Greek was the Message: She was thoroughly shaken.

     This news messed her up from head to toe.

     And she has to live through it. As do we when life deals us a blow that we never saw coming… never asked for… would never have chosen… but one that takes our life on an entirely different course.      

Like the middle-of-the-night phone call about a son’s arrest or a daughter’s auto accident… or the news of an unanticipated job loss, or the sudden death of a family member…Or a life-threatening diagnosis… the kind of announcement that in a moment, completely interrupts our lives. It happens to all of us.

     We know what it’s like to be thoroughly shaken… thrown a curve without a choice. Mary is an incredibly empowering witness for women and men alike—not because she said yes, but precisely because she lived into her annunciation with all its life-altering consequences with grace and strength.

     How can it be? She asked. And surely she meant more than how biologically can this be. How will she do this?

          That’s the moment I see captured in Janet McKenzie’s Annunciation. As the gravity of the situation settles on Mary – the overwhelming, disquieting, life-upending reality of it all… Gabriel leans in: The Holy Spirit will come upon you…

     And as he encircles her with his embrace, he embodies what he says next: the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

     There’s a poem I often read at memorial services by hymn writer Susan Palo Cherwien. It’s called The Present Pilgrimage:

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.

     Gabriel embodies the promise of God’s steadfast presence as he stands with Mary.  

     The power of the most high will overshadow you, he said to her. Literally in the Greek: The power of the most high will throw shade on you.

     Imagine the shade that will be thrown on Mary by all the men and women of Nazareth – the putdowns, whispers and stares; the insults and demeaning shame.

     But God’s shade is so very different. It comes from a light that knows no darkness. It will empower her… lift her up…protect and shelter her. It will enable her to live into this most holy calling.

     In Janet’s painting, Gabriel doesn’t have a halo. He’s not wearing some kind of glowing raiment. He’s not floating in a surreal, otherworldly way. Gabriel is a messenger… the one sent to be with Mary…Don’t be afraid.

     He could be you. He could be me. Sent to stand with someone shaken. Sent to embody God’s peace. Sent to throw God’s shade – with grace. Look at him standing there with her… close… touching, yet giving her the dignity to hold her own thoughts…

     Let it be, she says – not a yes I’ll allow it to be, but a prayer for that overshadowing that must come…that shade that will come from the Most High, through the agency of many messengers who will walk this journey with her.

     In a moment we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. Here it is our custom to come forward, from the pew, up the center aisle to receive the bread and to dip it in a common cup. I’m reminded of a story once told to me by a pastoral colleague.

     His father had died only days before and he was sitting in church during a seminary chapel service. He was bereft. When the invitation came to go forward for communion, he had no strength to move on his own. But, he said, he felt the Holy Spirit come upon him, and with a power that could only be described as God’s shade thrown upon him from behind and before, from the left and from the right he stood.

     We are the body of Christ. He is our peace: now and always. May we embody this for one another as we come to this, his table of grace, peace, love, hope, joy.

 

11/27/16

Scripture: Luke 1:5-11

1st Sunday of Advent: The Spirit of Elijah

        The time is drawing near. The day is surely coming. The heavens are shifting. God is on the move. The Spirit is in the air.

     Something big is about to happen.

     But not yet.

     We’re holding back on the Christmas carols…

     There’s no baby in the manger…

     Not yet.

     Today, we wait. We wait with anticipation. We prepare with great expectation. For the day is not yet here. Not yet.

     The name of this season in the Christian year says it all: Advent… To Come.

     We introduced a new art exhibit in the Gathering Space this morning called Jesus of the People: In him was life, the light of all people. I’ll be preaching on four of the pieces and associated Scripture throughout this season of Advent. The exhibit features seven selections from Vermont artist Janet McKenzie. Six of them I expected. The seventh was a surprise.

     Who is he? I asked Breinne and Kailah on the morning I first saw the opened artwork. Who is the intriguing stranger, featured deep in listening prayer?

     Elijah, they said.

     Elijah? What happened to Ephiphany?

     Janet and I had been corresponding by email about the exhibit and the last email I’d received from her included images of each of the prints she planned to send. Epiphany was in the list, but I’d never seen nor heard about this print of Elijah.

     Earlier that morning Brienne and Kailah inventoried the pieces as they opened them. Since both titles started with E, they thought maybe the artist had pulled the wrong one.  

     But Janet’s far too thoughtful… too intentional.

     Yes, she responded to my email inquiry, I meant to send Elijah.

     He’s not a prophet we usually think of in association with the Christmas story. He never appears in traditional Advent texts. Isaiah yes. Jeremiah yes. Elijah? no.

     But wait – there he is in the very first chapter of the gospel of Luke. Of the child who will be born to the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, the angel Gabriel says:

     With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

     Luke’s quoting the prophet Malachi who hundreds of years before spoke of a messenger to come, saying:

     Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

     Jewish tradition holds that the great prophet Elijah never actually died but was taken up into heaven by a horse drawn chariot of fire. Before the Messiah comes, it’s believed that Elijah will reappear to usher in a new era of shalom… of peace.

     Even now, Jewish families leave a chair open for Elijah at the table when they celebrate the Sabbath anticipating his arrival.

     The earliest Christians reinterpreted Elijah’s coming in the person of John the Baptist – the messenger appointed to prepare the way of the Lord.

     So Elijah is a fitting place for us to start this Advent season. Long ago his spirit and power readied a people for the coming of God. Could it do the same for us today?

     In 2010, I visited the small chapel and gardens at the top of Mt. Carmel – near Haifa in Israel. It’s called Murhaka, the scorching.

     Owned and managed by the Carmelites, a Catholic Order, it marks the site where it’s believed the prophet Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal. On the walls in the chapel, carved in relief, is the story. It was an epic contest. As God’s lone prophet, Elijah set up an altar. Baal’s 450 prophets set up their own altar.  

     Elijah gave the instructions:

     You call on the name of your god and I’ll call on the name of the Lord and the one who answers by fire is indeed God. Then, to make it even more dramatic, Elijah raised the stakes.  He poured water all over his altar – thoroughly soaking it.

     And the story goes that while Baal’s altar remained stone cold, a great fire came from heaven and after licking up all the water it set the Lord’s altar ablaze. And all the people fell down on their knees and worshiped the Lord: There is no God like Jehovah! They all proclaimed.

     Outside the chapel in the garden marking the entrance to the Carmelite monastery stands a huge statue of Elijah—sword held high over one of the prophets of Baal. The inscription on the statue, written in Latin, Hebrew and Arabic reads: And Elias the prophet stood up, as a fire, and his word burnt like a torch.

     You see, immediately following this victorious contest, Elijah rounded up all of the prophets of Baal and killed every last one. Such was his burning passion for the Lord. Carmelites begin their vespers with the line: With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord God of hosts…

     This statue is a striking and ironic image to be associated with a Catholic order of desert hermits.  

In fact their deepest connection with the prophet Elijah comes not from his power and might but from his wilderness spirit. After the blockbuster contest, after his devastating vengeance, Elijah fled for his life –deep into the wilderness – deep into a cave — deep into hiding he went – afraid and alone.  

     This fiery champion: bold, courageous victorious, lamented his overzealousness. His fervor was always and only for the Lord, but at what cost?

     And there –even there in that dark cave in the desert — God found him:

     What are you doing here, Elijah? the voice of the Lord came to him. Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord. In the wilderness God met Elijah – not in a roaring wind or a thunderous earthquake… not in a raging fire, but in the sound of sheer silence.

          That’s the enigma of Elijah — blustery and zealous, quiet and contemplative. As a religious hero, he could be dangerously misunderstood with grave consequence. Even the followers of Jesus were confused:

     They were traveling through Samaria on their way to Jerusalem hundreds of years after Elijah. Jews and Samaritans are like the Hatfields and McCoys – there’s generational hostility.

     So it was no surprise that the Samaritans failed to welcome Jesus and his band of Jewish disciples as they passed through.

     Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them? James and John asked Jesus, hearkening back to Elijah. Jesus rebuked them. Raining down consuming fire – exacting violent vengeance – was never his way.

     It is this Messiah that we anticipate during Advent… this savior for whom we seek to prepare and ready our hearts.

     With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord, the angel Gabriel said to Zechariah.

     This is a heart-turning-toward time. Beginning in our nuclear families and moving out into the wider society and world. This is a time for generational healing… listening… seeking deeper understanding and empathy – parents and elders to children and youth and the other way around as well.

     How many of you had either implicit or explicit “no talking politics” rules in place for your family gatherings this weekend? This election split through households and generations. Husbands and wives and parents and children split votes and the season was exhausting.

     Immediately following the election, people unfriended each other on Facebook. My brother-in-law talked about how two of his long-time morning Starbuck’s coffee friends nearly came to blows over it. He fears the friendship between these men and the dynamic of the whole group will be changed forever.

     Many families called a truce to get through the holidays together; a time to pray together and give thanks together and remember all that we love about each other. That was the pastoral response: turning our hearts toward one another with love.

     But – and there is a but – there’s a prophetic response too.

     In the spirit and power of Elijah, we’re called  to name disobedience and lean toward wisdom and righteousness. Real healing and reconciliation won’t happen in our families, in our churches, in our society and in our world if the difficult conversations never take place.

     If we don’t move from our echo-chambers of like-mindedness into purposefully constructed deeper and diverse dialogue, our divisions will only become more and more calcified and entrenched. We are called in the Spirit of Elijah to be zealous for truth, but not so locked in the certainty of our own understanding of truth that we fail to plumb the depths of God’s way in Christ together:

     The way of life, the way of peace, the way of truth, the way of love.

     It’s a challenge to engage in hard and uncomfortable listening – focused and concentrated listening that involves both people and God. But that’s ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst and in that kind of work lies the hope of real conversion.

     I’ve been thinking about that chair for Elijah that our Jewish brothers and sisters set at their Sabbath tables. Couldn’t it be a symbol for us as well?

     A chair at our family tables… a chair at our church fellowship tables… a chair at our lunch tables…

     A chair in every room that reminds us of the pastoral and prophetic spirit and power of Elijah in our midst… that calls us to deeper and respectful listening and speaking – a turning-hearts-toward whoever is there among us… a chair that symbolizes the courageous, zealous, contemplative, honest Spirit of Elijah ever pressing us forward toward Jesus and his reign of peace.

     With the spirit and power of Elijah we move into this Advent season as a church, hosting an exhibit that opens the door to a deeper and courageous conversation about sacred imagery and racial consciousness.

     It’s an exhibit designed to open our hearts to different ways of conceiving of the person and work of Jesus – ways that transcend culture, ethnicity and tradition.

     I invited my in-laws to come to the Open House on December 2nd. They’re deeply traditioned Catholics – familiar with many images of the Holy Family – in fact, they attend a church by that name. But my father-in-law admitted this is a stretch for him. And then he said: But this is how we grow in our ability to relate to others today.

     In the words of the famous Carmelite nun, Theresa of Avila:

     Always think of yourself as everyone’s servant; look for Christ Our Lord in everyone and you will then have respect and reverence for them all.

     That’s our hope for this Advent season and the exhibit: that we explore together opportunities to grow in our ability to listen, empathize and relate to one another… that there will be a deep and meaningful heart-turning-toward that prepares the way for genuine healing and reconciliation in the name of Christ.

        

11/20/16

Scripture: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Sermon Series: Who’s Who and Where Are You? 

Scene 11: At the Altar of the Lord: Festival of First Fruit

        Anybody who has ever farmed or gardened –or even had a single tomato plant in a pot – anybody who has ever grown their own food knows what it’s like when that first fruit appears and it’s finally ready to be eaten.

     Long before that day, you work the ground – and I mean work the ground – turning it over and over – pulling out the rocks and deep rooted weeds and chunks of clay. Maybe you even get down on your hands and knees with a soil sifter getting rid of pebbles and weed roots and other debris – prepping the dirt for its best chance of success.

     You mix in fertilizer and compost and dig trenches and build retaining walls… And then the day comes when you drop the seeds one by one, into the soft earth and cover them gently with soil. And then you wait and wait… water and wait. Water and wait.

     The day they begin to pop their tiny little heads out of the soil is surely a happy day – but it’ll still be weeks until that first fruit is ready. And any number of things can happen in the meantime – bugs and slugs, mildew and drought, poor soil, choking weeds…

     We long for that day when blossoms turn to baby eggplants and tiny tomatoes and miniature peppers. Our excitement grows every day as they get bigger and bigger. They plump up and their color turns and we begin to salivate – because we know the difference in taste between a grocery store tomato and one still warm from the sun.

     Finally that day arrives and it’s time to harvest! Out we go with our baskets. We move up and down the rows, eagerly picking and plucking away. These days we celebrate that first harvest by posting attractively arranged photos on Facebook then we get to work slicing and dicing and feasting.

     Not so for our Hebrew ancestors of the faith. Instead of taking their baskets into their kitchens, they took them to the priest. They set baskets full of their long awaited very first fruit before the altar of the LORD and they gave it away as an offering.

     To get the magnitude of this, remember they were slaves in Egypt for generations. There, they worked other people’s land and harvested other people’s crops. Their labor set their oppressor’s tables.

     After leaving Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness 40 years eating manna day after day after day. How they must have yearned to work their own farms as free people… dreamed of sitting under their own fig trees and gathering their own grapes!

     Finally their hopes became real. And in a radical declaration of worship and thanksgiving, they gave their very first harvest to the LORD.

     In other words, they didn’t drop the leftover change from their pockets into the offering plate on Sunday mornings after they went out on Friday and Saturday nights, I used to tell the teenagers in the youth group years ago, that’s called last fruit.  

     The first fruit, the best fruit is given away in a ritual of heart-filled gratitude and selfless love… an upfront commitment to trust in the providence of God.

     The ancient Hebrews built this practice into the rhythm of their worship life together so they would never forget: land, food, freedom, life – all come only by the hand of God. Later it would be known as the Festival of Weeks – held every year –7 weeks after Passover. Pentecost, the Greeks called it.

     According to Jewish tradition, first fruit offerings were made from seven types of produce: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates – all native to the land – the very soil given to them by the hand of God.

     They tell their story as they set their baskets down before the altar of the LORD. This timeless story of their ancestry reminds them from where they came: once a people without a land… refugees… once a people treated poorly – enslaved, oppressed, silenced, beaten down… they know what it is to cry and and be heard crying… they were a people led out of awful circumstances into freedom… and they were given a land of possibilities and new beginnings… a chance for a new life. That was their story. They all knew it. They told it to their children. They repeated it in their worship.

     It was who they were.

     Our son Alex turned 25 last week. For his birthday he asked for one thing: his profile on Ancestry.com. He wants to know where he came from – what his cultural background is—he wants to know what’s in his DNA that might connect him with other ethnicities. He wants to know more about his family.

     Recently I saw a video clip of a group of people who engaged in a DNA experiment to learn their countries of origin. It was neat to watch them open up their envelopes and to see the look of shock on their faces as they learned that their lineage traces much further and broader than they ever imagined; that their neighbors who may look and sound different may not actually be as different from them as they once thought.

     Imagine how an experiment like this could revolutionize our relationships with each other!

     How could it not break down the walls we’ve erected between us – now more than ever? Most of us would discover immigrant roots from countries we never imagined.

     Maybe we have distant relatives who fled their homes like Abram because of famines or sickness or lost job opportunities. Maybe family members relocated over economic hardships or because they sought a safer place to raise their children. It would be humbling to know wouldn’t it?

     The first fruit offering of our Hebrew ancestors culminated with a feast — a wide and inclusive table that welcomed the priests and strangers, the orphans and widows in their midst to share their bounty. A deep connection with their own story grounded them with humility and enabled them to see others as people with a common story… families who wandered as they once did in a home not their own, depending on the hospitality of their hosts.

What could this mean for us today?

     I’ve said before that worship is formational. That means what we do in worship shapes and forms us as God’s people:

     See how this festival of first fruit is formational:

  •      how freely offering to God that which has been so long awaited – and doing so in community – binds brothers and sisters together and bears witness to their common devotion to God…
  •      how speaking a shared story aloud teaches theology, reinforces identity and grounds people of God with humility and compassion for the other – the stranger in the midst…
  •      how feasting at an ever-widening table fills our hearts with joy — while bearing witness to an abundant God of mercy and grace.

     We share their story, but we have our own story too – a contemporary experience of what it means to be a family of faith. What we’ve been through as individuals and what we’ve been through as a church influences our mission… our passion… and the way we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our working mission statement says:

We are a loving community of faith
following the teachings of Jesus Christ,
where everyone has a place and a face,
a story and a voice.
Our minds and our hearts are engaged
as we live the gospel together.
We welcome you!

Will you say that with me?

Do you hear our history in these words? Everyone has a place… and a face… a story… and a voice…

We all play a part in this ever evolving mission.

     We’ve each been called to this place at this time for a purpose – a part of the whole – to bring the best of ourselves – our first fruit to the table.  

This morning we dedicate our 2017 pledges – our vows… our promises of financial support for the next year of our life together as church. And while there’s a certain pragmatism to this – there are real costs to doing ministry – financial needs that depend on all of us contributing our part in order to keep the doors open and the lights on… offerings are so much more.

     What is the first fruit of your life? The best you have to offer? What’s native to your soil? What are the natural gifts God has bestowed upon you – upon each one of us in order to be shared to strengthen the wider community?

     Today we dedicate more than financial gifts. We commit ourselves and the best we have to offer to the One who gave us life. 

 

 

11/13/16

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8

Sermon Series: Who’s Who and Where Are You? 

Scene 10: In the Presence of the Holy

Every Tuesday at noon I get together with whoever comes to look at the text for the next Sunday. I call it a First Look Over Lunch. It’s not actually my first look.

Most weeks, by the time we meet, I’ve already put together the bulletin and chosen a sermon title. Last Monday night, I chose all the liturgy – the Call to Worship, the Prayer of Confession, and the Assurance of Forgiveness. Sandy and I picked today’s hymns the Tuesday before last.

So the First Look Over Lunch isn’t my first look, but it is my first real discussion about the text with others in this faith community, as together we wrestle with what it may mean for us today.

We always start with first impressions:

  • what strikes you?
  • what questions emerge for you?
  • what troubles you?

Unlike other Bible studies, we’re not rushing to answers, but rather letting the questions linger before us – letting them lead to new questions. Sometimes people have Study Bibles – with lots and lots of footnotes. Don’t look down there, I say – not just yet. Sit with the questions.

These first impressions of the biblical text go up on one side of the white board. And then we begin building another column:

  • What’s going on in our world today?
  • What’s going on in the nation, in our community?
  • in our church?
  • in our lives?

And then we begin to make connections between the ancient text and today.

I hear sometimes from people who come to this that by Sunday’s sermon they can hardly see evidence of the Tuesday discussion. It’s there – it’s always there – it’s just that from Tuesday to Sunday a lot can happen.

Take this week for example.

Often I’ll ask the Tuesday group – As I stand in the pulpit on Sunday, what is the sermon you most need to hear from this text right now? Or

What is the sermon you think this community – the people down the pews from you need to hear? And I revisit the text throughout the week – waiting to hear what I believe the Lord is calling me to preach.

It was hard this week. Emotions ran deep. What people may have thought they needed to hear on Tuesday was very different by Wednesday. Reactions to the election varied widely. It was extraordinarily painful for many people and it challenged faith.

I started lots of different sermons this week – all of which seemed to stall. There just weren’t words.
I stepped away often and walked and kayaked and listened for some kind of word from the Lord – who remained quite silent- to me.

I returned again and again to the text.

And then, there it was:

In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.

It was an image – not a word… a vision that broke through the numbness of Isaiah’s grief.

King Uzziah’s death shook Isaiah and all of Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel. Crowned as a 16 year old, King Uzziah was king over Judah for 52 years.

For most of his life he’d been faithful – doing right in the eyes of the Lord. And Judah had prospered. But King Uzziah’s life and reign came to a tragic end. His strength led to pride… his power to destruction.

Believing there were no limits to what he could do – no boundaries to his power – Uzziah brazenly entered the Temple without a priest.

80 priests went in after him – You can’t be in here! You’re not a consecrated priest! You can’t make sacrifices for the people. Uzziah refused to listen. As he stood down the priests, he became leprous. And this long-term faithful and successful king died alone.

Isaiah sat in the Temple in the year King Uzziah died – feeling the enormous knowledge that no earthly leader – even one who for nearly 52 years did right – was exempt from the seduction of power. No human leader has power without limits.

Earthly authority is fleeting. Human kings die. Their rule comes to an end.

Isaiah sat in the Temple in the year King Uzziah died and he saw the Lord.

The juxtaposition… the paradox is right there. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says it this way: Precisely in the year of the death of the so-called king does the prophet and the prophet’s company see the real king high and lifted up.

Today we come together in the presence of all of the symbols around us – the cross, the Christ candle, the Bible, the font, the stained glass, the vaulted ceilings, the pulpit, the table…

Today the light streams in around us and we sit in the company of our brothers and sisters beside us… as we confess hard truths together, as we encourage each other with the assurance of forgiveness and grace… today as we pass the peace of Christ with each other – a deep and abiding peace for a restless and anxious time… there is a dizzying grandeur that blows us away.

We are here in the presence of the Holy and we are reminded once again of the timeless story that transcends the headlines; a story of which we are a part.

There is a creative power in the universe all around us – always around us — that relentlessly pursues justice by working through everyday people like you and me.

As the Imago Dei filled the Temple and painted 1000 words for Isaiah: Holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy, holy – the whole earth is full of his glory…
may it also speak to us this day – the image of God. Here. Now. Before us. All around us. Limitless.

And in the presence of the Holy we are convicted. We, like Isaiah, are a people of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips. Each of us in our own way.

As for me– I am a woman of unclean lips as it relates to the objectification of women – not by what I’ve said but by what I’ve left unsaid. It was a way of life in the corporate world and I let it be. And when it happened in the church, I let it go there too.

Once several years ago, robed and on my way into the sanctuary with my teenage son at my side, a man in his late 70’s – one of my parishioners – said to me: I don’t like it when you wear your robe – it covers up too much.

I was embarrassed. And I laughed it off – in front of my son — who turned to me as soon as the man walked away and said: How could you let him say that to you? And I said – it’s just talk.

Shame on me. Just talk? Locker room talk? No. Never again. Burn my lips, O Lord. Give me a new set of Hot Lips – a courageous voice for this day.

Speaking of Hot Lips – remember her?

Major Margaret Hot Lips Houlihan: head nurse in the 4077th Medical Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. She was introduced in a 1968 book, walked on the big screen in the 1970 movie M.A.S.H., and entered our living rooms through an 11 year TV series.

Last week I ran across a 2011 Ms. Magazine article written by a woman named Elline Lipkin about how Hot Lips Houlihan made her a feminist.

Elline talked about how as a young girl she remembers being impressed by Major Houlihan’s nursing competency in the TV show—her steady hand in crisis, her management of the other nurses, her assistance in critical decisions. One night she watched a rerun of the original movie.

In her article, she described a scene from the movie. The shower scene – you might remember it?
I do. While Major Houlihan enters the shower, Hawkeye and a sidekick set up lawn chairs, pour cocktails and gather together a small crowd.

Once everyone was in place, as Hot Lips sang away in the shower, one of the guys cut the cord and the whole structure fell around her exposing her, fully naked, as the crowd jeered and mocked and laughed at her.

She shrieked and covered herself, crawling on the floor, her face streaked with tears while they raised their glasses, toasting each other. Elline remembers watching stunned. She knew Houlihan wasn’t their equal, but they depended on her professional expertise.

How could they humiliate her so? And ashamed, she realized she was expected as an American movie audience to laugh.

it would be years before Elline went to college and pursued a career in women’s studies.

All she knew at that moment was that a woman’s career competency as a head nurse, her dignity as a person could be undone in a moment by the exposure of her body. In that moment I knew there was injustice between the sexes, she wrote, injustice that could be casually portrayed, and I was supposed to laugh along. Something was very wrong with this picture.

The movie was filmed in 1970 but almost 50 years later, objectification of women is still going strong – too strong. This is one of my takeaways of this election season.

We aren’t just experiencing an external shift in the leadership of our country, there’s an internal stirring in our hearts as well. With every change comes an opportunity for new awakening and this is a sea change. A hallmark of our democracy is the freedom to lift our voices. A hallmark of biblical prophecy is the courage to speak with grace and strength and determination – to say: How will we treat one another with dignity and honor and love?

The voice of the Lord is calling: Whom shall I send?? Who will go for us??

         What will you say?

 

11/06/16

Scripture: Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10

Sermon Series: Who’s Who and Where Are You? 

Scene 9: In the Boat

Prophets play an important role in our story of faith. They are the voices of truth… the voices of change… the voices of God.

Their job it to get our attention – to get us to stop what we’re doing and listen. Because maybe what we’re doing or what we’re saying or what we’re feeling isn’t God’s dream for us.

Today we meet the prophet Jonah.

Come with me to the port in Joppa.

We’re sailors. The place you’re sitting in right now – according to church architecture – is called The Nave from the Latin word meaning ship. Literally, we’re in the boat together.
We’re getting ready to set sail for Tarshish. Nobody knows where that is really, just that it’s far away from here.

He never should have been on our boat in the first place.

Because he was, we almost died.

Because he was, we are now more alive than we ever were before.

Listen as David tells the story. We’re players in it, so we’ll react accordingly. And when we have lines to say, they’ll come up on the screen.

Get ready. A storm is coming. (Jonah 1:1-17)

 

What about the sailors in this story? This morning, let’s ignore the whale in the room… and let’s turn to this group of guys in the boat with Jonah. If the role of a prophet is to reveal truth, convict hearts, and call forth change, these sailors are God’s prophets for Jonah.

They ask Jonah 5 questions: 5 pointed and personal questions that cut to his heart. In this, Jonah remembers who he is and whose he is.

Let’s take a look at these questions again – one by one — only this time, as if they’re being asked of us, as we’re being tossed in turbulent waters. Because these days, we are – aren’t we??

The first question:

Who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?

Is it Hillary? Is it James Comey? Is it Billy Bush, ISIS, Mexicans or climate change? Is it Barack Obama, Sean Hannity, Facebook or the Russians?

Who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?

Is it Black lives or Blue lives or Brown lives or Rainbow lives? Is it Wall Street or Citizen’s United or the Alt-Right or Liberals?

Who is responsible????

I’m exhausted by all this finger pointing. Aren’t you? There’s no shortage of people willing to throw other people under the bus or over the boat.

But not in this story of Jonah.

The sailors cast lots to find out who was responsible – they threw dice or drew straws – or shook the magic 8-ball – they did whatever it was they did in their day to turn to the powers of the universe for an answer and the divine finger pointed right into Jonah’s chest.

But they didn’t throw him over then. Instead they asked him a question:

Who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?

It’s his question and it’s our question – asked by God through the mouths of the swarthy sailors, and it sits with us in the middle of our boat as together we’re tossed to and fro by storms.

In 1908 The Times of London posed the question, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ and the Catholic writer and philosopher G. K. Chesterton turned in the briefest essay as his response:

‘Dear Sirs:
I am.
Sincerely Yours
G.K. Chesterton.’

There is a shortage today of people willing to claim this. And not claim it in some unhealthy self-abusive kind of way, but in a way that honestly admits, claims and owns some responsibility for the troubles we face.

         Who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? When we answer I am to the great I am, our confession begins.

What kind of work do you do? Is the second question. Let’s open that up – beyond business or occupation to service, mission, witness. The Hebrew root for the word translated as work is messenger or ambassador.

To whom are we sent to speak or act when we work? What is the sphere of our influence? What is expected of us according to our title or our department or our credentials?

What does this question have to do with our gifts? or our passions? What is the nature of our work? How do we present ourselves as we work?

It’s about vocation and avocation; it encompasses all that we are called upon to accomplish with our lives. It’s a question of character and discipline and intention – a what and how and where and why kind of question.

What kind of work do you do?

Where do you come from? The sailors ask – and again, is it the sailors’ question or are they speaking for Another? God knows from where Jonah comes, but asking the question calls forth a response. More than geography, this is a question of orientation… motivation… perspective.
Where do you come from:

         What informs your thought process? Throughout your life, what have you learned or experienced? What have you seen? And how have you seen it?

Last week I attended a luncheon with a group of pastors in our county.

Members of the Catherine Cobb staff were there and we were talking about cycles of violence. We were all talking together about how to break it. Catherine Cobb’s Executive Director Laura Pipis shared with us that Community Mental Health is focusing on healing trauma.They believe the common denominator in cycles of violence is trauma: trauma seen, felt, learned, lived.
Where do you come from? Health, hurt, unhealed wounds, unresolved anger, fear, distrust?

Our recent guests George and his wife Najwa, Palestinian Christians, come from a very different place than Rami, and Israeli Jew. They talked about their experiences – religious, economic, political – they’re so very different.

And yet through their common grief, they’ve come to know one another as friends, family. For them, that changes everything.
Where do you come from?

What is your country? In Hebrew, the word is eretz: land. And as we’ve come to know, land is so much more than a piece of ground.

This is a question of patriotic allegiance.

For us, the simple answer is The United States of America – but like all the other questions in this list it goes deeper—especially if we think of it as God asking. Where are our borders? Who are our neighbors? What is our concern… our responsibility as citizens of a particular land, a global world and a kingdom of God?

We’re in this boat together – red states, blue states, and gray states.

What will happen after this election? Talk about healing from trauma!
What is your country?

From what people are you? The final question of the set.

Who is your family, your tribe, your clan, your kin? It’s our biological family and so much more. It’s a baptismal question when it’s asked by God.

These 5 questions are all about identity – who and whose we are, wherever we are. They remind us and they convict us. They humble us and they empower us.

I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land, said Jonah. And you can pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm for I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.

Answering their questions brought clarity to Jonah… as it does to us when we take the time to reflect on them and stand up with them; when we come out of hiding and find our voices; when we come before the Lord our God with an honest and humble heart in confession.

We stand on the brink of choosing new leadership for this country. We’re in the boat together and the seas are turbulent. Tuesday will come and then there will be Wednesday. And these five questions will continue to be before us:

Who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?
         What kind of work do you do?
Where do you come from?
What is your country?
From what people are you?

It is up to all of us to take responsibility, to be ambassadors of peace and reconciliation wherever we are, in whatever way we can … to heal the wounds of a nation in trauma…

To listen with our ears and our hearts to people who come from different places than we do… and to get deeply grounded in our baptismal identity – remembering who we are and whose we are.

It begins with confession. Please pray with me: 

Epilogue: Jonah 3:1-10

3 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

            3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

            6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.

Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

            10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

 

The ancient city of Nineveh is on the outskirts of Mosul in Northern Iraq. Since October 17th, Iraqi army and police forces, US-led coalition forces, Shia militias and Kurdish troops have been involved in a steadfast battle.

Its code name is: “We Are Coming, Nineveh”. Its purpose is to liberate the city of Mosul, IS’s last stronghold in Iraq.

The Iraqi Christian Relief Council announced its plans to launch a massive campaign called #operationreturntoninevah this month to fund the return of 150,000 Iraqi Assyrian Christians to their ancestral homeland in the Nineveh Plain.

The Iraqi news reported this week that 76 displaced families have now returned home. They say this is a slow and cautious process.

We pray for and we trust in God’s mercy.

 

10/23/16

Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:1-17

Sermon Series: Who’s Who and Where Are You? 

Scene 7: In Jerusalem: God’s House

2 Samuel 7:1-3: After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him,  he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.”

That’s right. That’s what I said earlier today when I stood next to the King on his rooftop looking down on the tent of God. It made sense at the time…

Here he is in his magnificent palace – made out of the best wood money can buy – cedar from Lebanon… hand-crafted by carpenters and masons selected by the King of Tyre himself. They’d cut no corners… left no details unattended. It is a wonder to behold.

And there covered by a desert worn, patchwork canvas sits the house of God. In the heat of the afternoon sun, it looked bleached and tattered. I’m sure one day long ago, it stretched tight and taut with all the pegs in tact, but now it looks pretty weary. There are holes where the wind has torn the fabric free from its stakes…holes that have been patched and re-patched until there’s just not much to work with anymore.

The King’s palace boasts the latest and greatest of everything. God’s house was lack-luster in comparison.

In the middle of the desert it probably fit in better. But here in Jerusalem it seemed strangely out of place… so completely unsophisticated.

And so it felt right that King David would want to build a more fitting house for God… a house that would make all of God’s people proud.

But now, as the sun sets, and I’m sitting quietly alone outside the opening to the Tabernacle, I’m seeing it in a different light. This is no ordinary tent. It was built by the hands of God’s children.

Long ago, so the story goes, deep in the wilderness, the Lord spoke to Moses: Take an offering from the people: gold, silver, bronze, blue, purple, crimson yarn, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, fine leather, acacia wood… oil, spices, onyx, gems…  From all whose hearts prompt them to give… The Lord told Moses.

I imagine them coming: women carefully unwrapping their outer shawls… daughters taking off their gold bracelets one by one. I see men working together to harvest the strong and hearty wood of the acacia tree – no cedar to be found in the wilderness – only acacia — but a more perfect wood to withstand the harsh conditions of the desert you’ll never find. That acacia wood – never decays…

I imagine them coming men and women… young and old – slowly at first then building as each new family comes forth from their camp with more to give – table cloths and linen capes, animal skins and bowls of sweet smelling spices. Piece by piece the pile grows and grows and now the people dance toward it with their gifts to the sound of tambourines and singing. They grasp one another’s hands and form a circle around the offering. Bigger and bigger it grows.

They’re making sacrifices – giving out of the precious little they brought with them – but they do it with joy. There’s a purpose for every gift. This house they’re building for the Lord their God will have a piece of each one of them in it – a patchwork of their lives in gratitude and love.

My attention shifts to the tabernacle before me. As the light of day changes, it looks as if the furnishings are catching fire. Light and life bursts forth from within. The colors are vibrant – alive. How could I have ever thought this looked weary and worn? Now it pulses with a holiness – every piece within it shimmering. Precious. Priceless.

This is no ordinary tent. God’s people built this house from their very hearts. Could any house be more fitting?

Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, I said to the King – just this afternoon.

But what is in his mind? Does he think he can replace all of this with expensive luxury materials? That the skilled artisans he’ll hire will produce something more valuable than the hands of the very children God led out of slavery?

For hundreds of years they were beaten into submission putting brick upon brick building projects for an oppressive and ruthless Pharoah. Finally, in the wilderness, they built something that mattered to them – as their hearts prompted them to give.

The whole process of freely giving and creating was an act of worship. It formed them as a people, united them with purpose.

And this – this Tabernacle is a witness… A testimony to their freedom… to their sacrifice… to their love and belovedness and to their new identity as God’s people.

The whole time they wandered in that chaotic wilderness, this Holy Tent moved with them. Every time they stopped, they came together to set it up — right in the middle of their camp. The Lord, their God dwelt there with them… right in the heart of them.

Could anything be more fitting?

Did the King or did I ever stop to ask what God wanted? We both stood there on the top of all that money could buy and assumed God deserved the same. But their story… their legacy is here with this… this portable tent.

What does that say about God?

To be walled in by bricks and mortar or set free to move in and among and through the people? What does the Lord God desire?

Now as I look upon this sacred dwelling a gentle breeze moves through and the untethered flaps move with it.

How foolish to think a house – even a house built by the finest carpenters and masons with cedar from Lebanon –no matter how magnificent — could ever, will ever contain the Lord our God, creator of the universe.

Up in the fields in the distance I see a shepherd. His sheep are flung far and wide. But he moves in and among them. Even now as the night falls, he’s gathering them. He’ll bring every last one of them home… home to a safe space… home to rest… home…

David was a shepherd once like that lad on the hillside. That’s who you are O King. You are the one to gather the scattered sheep. God hasn’t called you to build the home…God is the home… has always been the home for all God’s children.

The Tabernacle is that reminder – it is the physical place in the center of our worship life together – reminding us who and whose we are.

David, O my King David… you don’t make a house for the Lord God. God makes a house for you; establishes rest and security for you and for all the children scattered far and wide… A place to come together and remember… to come together and know: know God’s love, know God’s grace, know God’s welcome.

It will be the challenge of your next generation to bless this foundation and build on it – remembering always the legacy of our ancestors.

Isn’t that really the challenge of every new generation of God’s people?

How do we build a fitting house for the Lord our God? How do we honor all who have come before us… all who have formed and shaped us… while opening an ever widening circle… inviting all God’s children, whose hearts prompt them to give, to bring forth their offerings… and to find their way home.

Speak, O Lord, speak to your servant Nathan.

What shall I say to the King?

 

 

<2 Samuel 7:5-17>

 

 

10/16/16

Scripture: 1 Samuel 1: 9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10

Sermon Series: Who’s Who and Where Are You? 

Scene 6: In the Temple: For Our Children

The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Moses died before they ever entered the Promised Land. Led by his apprentice Joshua, they eventually settled in the land of Canaan. But the tribes were loosely connected at best. After Joshua’s death, things became even more tenuous.

They appointed “judges” as their military leaders and they battled neighboring peoples and even each other for the next 400 years. Their unifying story of faith became weak. The book of Judges ends with these words: In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

It was a time of chaos and crisis.

God has a habit of sending light into darkness… order into chaos.

It’s here that Hannah enters the story, Hannah whose name means grace. She is yet another of the biblical women who can’t have children – married to a man who has another wife who is abundantly fertile. Hannah’s husband loves Hannah more than his other wife – which actually makes things worse.

Peninnah, the other wife, whose name ironically means Jewel, is nasty to Hannah. She’s jealous and she knows she has lots of exactly that which Hannah wants most. Peninnah taunts Hannah constantly. She makes her life miserable.

Every year they all went up to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice to the Lord. The Tabernacle with the Ark of the Covenant was in Shiloh, the ancient town whose name means Place of Rest.

Hannah was restless. She’d had it. She was tired of the abuse… resentful about her social situation… brokenhearted about her life.

After they’d eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Eli, the priest was sitting next to the doorpost of the temple. Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord through her bitter tears. As she prayed, she made this vow:

         O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and bring me to your mind… don’t ignore me… if you will but give to me a male child… I will set him before you… I will dedicate him to you…

The Lord heard her prayer and Hannah conceived a son. She named him Samuel.

Hannah waited until the child was weaned, and she returned to Shiloh to present her son to the priest Eli. As Hannah dedicated her son Samuel to the Lord, she prayed:

“My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.[a]
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my[b] victory.

“There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.

Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,

but those who stumble are lifted up with strength.

Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,

but those who were hungry, hunger no more.
The barren has borne seven,   

but she who has many children is desolate.
The Lord causes to die

and brings to life;   
The Lord takes down to the grave

and raises up.

The Lord dispossesses

and showers abundance;

The Lord brings low,

and also lifts up high.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.[c]

For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.

“The Lord God will guard the feet of his faithful ones,  

but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.

Adversaries of the Lord shall be shattered;
the Most High[d] will thunder in heaven.

The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
giving strength to his king,
and exalting the power of his anointed.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

This is no ordinary prayer to dedicate a child. And it is no ordinary prayer of thanksgiving. Hannah’s prayer is a prophetic song. It proclaims the next chapter in the life of God’s people.

It’s a song of answered prayer and vindication for Hannah for sure, and it’s so much more. It’s a song of deliverance… a song of salvation for the poor, the lowly, the downcast and disheartened, the forgotten, neglected, voiceless and for all who feel bullied and threatened and vulnerable. And its a song of judgment for all who exploit their power.

Hannah’s song describes a type of world not ordered by culture or society – not based on human superiority and might.

It sings of a world where the advantage does not automatically go to those with status and wealth and privilege, but considers the quality and character of the heart.

Hannah’s song proclaims a world ordered by God’s heart and God’s vision and God’s hand. She sings out a song of reversal that will be echoed by the prophets who come after her, Mary the Mother of Jesus in her song and by Jesus himself in parable after parable, sermon after sermon.

The Mighty One has scattered the proud,
brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.
Blessed are the poor and the meek and the hungry…
theirs is the kingdom of heaven, they will inherit the earth, they will be filled.
The last shall be first.
The first shall be last.

All who exalt themselves will be humbled.
All who humble themselves will be exalted.

Hannah’s song isn’t exactly reflected in the world around her… any more than it is in ours.

The Canaanite territories were ordered by class with a clear hierarchy between the rulers and the ruled, the rich and the poor, merchants and peasants. Hannah’s people, the Israelites, were farmers and shepherds… at the bottom of the social ladder. They faced constant threats… nightly raids on their fields… looting and destruction. But Hannah sings with courage and strength about a fairer world, a safer world, a more grace-filled world, a world of God’s creation.

Hannah sings this song as she dedicates her young son Samuel to God. She sings it for him and for his generation and for future generations to come. Hannah sings her song for all God’s people, including you and me. Now’s a great time to hear those words again:
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.

Truer words could not be spoken.

As Hannah watched her son walk away hand in hand with the priest Eli, she sang boldly. She knew what lay before him. The actions of Eli’s sons were deplorable. They were scoundrels and had no regard for God or for priestly responsibilities. They were greedy. They abused women. And Hannah knew about abuse.

As this mother dedicated her precious son to the Lord, handing him over to Eli and into his toxic household, she sang: God sees. God knows. God will lift you up. Stay faithful. Have courage. Hold fast to truth. The wicked will fall… by God’s hand.

She sang the promise of God’s great reversal.

I saw Birth of a Nation this weekend, the story of Nat Turner, an African American slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. As a young boy, Nat taught himself to read, but when Elizabeth Turner, the mistress of the plantation learned about it, she insisted on taking him into her home and teaching him herself.

Down at the cabin, Nat’s mother and grandmother dressed him and prepared to let him go. When the Mistress Elizabeth came to fetch him, Nat’s mother watched them walk away. You could feel her complex emotions: fear, pride, hope, dread… Like Hannah, she knew her son was walking into a world where power corrupts– and it hurts — and kills. His safety would be threatened and his very soul would be tested — but she believed he was chosen by God for something special, so she prayed, and in her heart she sang the song: God sees. God knows. Stay faithful. Have courage. Hold fast to truth.

She sang of God’s great reversal.

How many communities of people throughout the history of humankind have derived strength and solidarity from God’s great song of justice, freedom and hope – pointing to a day beyond this day?

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month – and has been for almost 30 years, since the US Congress made it into law in 1989. It focuses on three themes:

  • Mourning those who have died because of domestic violence
  • Celebrating those who have survived
  • Connecting those who work to end domestic violence

Last week, I was asked to speak at the Catherine Cobb annual Walk-A-Mile-In-Her-Shoes event. We held that event here last year, but this year it was in Blissfield. I spoke about the important partnership of churches.

Our church works with Catherine Cobb shelter in lots of ways:

From time to time we coordinate food and non-perishable drives.
We financially support overnight hotel accommodations for women and children at risk when the shelter is full.
We send painting teams to paint the shelter dorm rooms.
Ellen painted a mural in their activity room this summer.
Sherry and her team made curtains for all of their windows.
Ann is working on leading a series of on-site cooking and nutrition classes.

But, I said, I believe the best way we as a church can partner with Catherine Cobb to end domestic violence is by teaching our children 5-95 how to speak, how to act, how to live honorably, treating each and every person with dignity.

The language of our prayers, our educational offerings, our sermons, our congregational events –every aspect of our lives together as church is an opportunity to shape and form who we are as God’s people: to practice humility, to listen with compassion, and to embody a presence of grace; to sing Hannah’s song into reality.

When we baptize a child into God’s family and into our faith family, we make promises: to guide and nurture, by word and deed, with love and prayer… to encourage each one to know and follow Christ faithfully. That means we promise to teach them God’s song.

A song of hope for the hopeless, dignity for the degraded… strength for the weak, comfort for the brokenhearted… blessing for the shamed.
And we sing it for them as they walk into a world ordered very differently.

I looked out at the audience last week in Blissfield and there were maybe 15 students from Sienna Heights. They got school credit for attending the Walk-A-Mile event. What a week to be attending an event to advocate against abuse of women.

I was the last of six people to speak and no one had said a word about the elephant in the room.

I thanked them for the opportunity to speak and I began to read from my prepared remarks with a letter written by Christian women faith leaders:

         We are appalled by recorded remarks that disparage women and condone sexual assault. Such language cannot be dismissed as “locker room talk.”      Christian leaders cannot condone such violent speech about women as a minor mistake or an innocent attempt to be “macho.” These excuses teach our young people that such language is acceptable and do further harm to those who have been abused.    

         While we are disheartened by these toxic words, we believe this moment presents an opportunity to teach our daughters and sons that they are loved, and to teach all Americans how to speak out against sexually violent language.

We have a song to sing: a song that proclaims a different world… a just world… a humble world… a world that lifts up not tears down… and that calls out actions and words not people as deplorable.
We have a song to sing for our children and their children’s children: to keep faith, to speak truth, to hold on to hope, to walk with courage, following the one who:
never regarded equality with God as something
to be exploited,
but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness…
he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point
of death—even death on a cross.

This one, God highly exalted,
giving him the name that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess: Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

That finally is God’s great reversal prophetically sung by Hannah so long ago:

The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
giving strength to his king,
and exalting the power of his anointed – 
his Messiah.

And so, we sing.

10/9/16

Scripture: Exodus 32:1-14

Sermon Series: Who’s Who and Where Are You? 

Scene 5: In the Wilderness: The People

Scene 4 ended last week with Moses instructing the people about how to prepare for the Passover of the Lord. Well, it happened and that night, Moses led some 600,000 Israelite people out of Egypt to freedom. And there was dancing and singing and praising God and then reality set in. They were in the wilderness. Nothing was familiar – everything unknown. But Moses promised their God was
with them.

When they cried out in hunger, their God rained down manna from heaven. When they complained of thirst, their God poured forth water from a rock. When they demanded meat, their God provided quail.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery – Their God spoke through the sound of thunder and flash of lightning… and spoke to Moses a new set of laws for God’s people to live. And when Moses gathered them all together, he read aloud God’s commandments and the people said together:

“All that the LORD has spoken
we will do, and we will be obedient.”

Then the Lord God summoned Moses up the mountain to receive the commandments on stone tablets. Moses left Aaron in charge and headed up the mountain as the people watched him go.

The mountain was covered with a cloud and “the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” They watched as Moses entered the cloud and he vanished.

A month and a half passed with no sign of Moses. What do you think happened next? Let’s listen: Exodus 32:1-14

The choice people have to make is never between slavery and freedom, wrote Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, We will always have to choose between slavery and the unknown. It was her grandfather’s insight on the Exodus story.

The wilderness journey was their 40-year training camp to learn to live as God’s people, freely, into the unknown.

Every morning God rains Manna down from heaven and the people eat it. Every night they shelter beneath the great wing of His presence. Day after day they worry and doubt and day after day God is there, her grandfather said.

It was one thing for the people to learn to trust in daily manna and nightly shelter when Moses was around, but another thing entirely when he wasn’t.

Whose people are they? Are they God’s people? or are they Moses’ people? That’s the question of today’s story… today’s wilderness lesson.

When it opens, it appears they’re nobody’s people. The people, the text says:
The people demand… the people throw their gold jewelry in a pile… the people claim the golden calf as god… the people sacrificed offerings, ate and drank and danced before their god – the god they made.

It’s as if they have no collective identity. They belong to no one. In that sense, they’re free, yet they’re lost… adrift.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Moses told them that over and over again, but it’s as if that memory vanished when Moses did.

Or, was their concept of God was so intertwined with Moses that in their minds, if Moses was gone, so too was God?

This is one of the great leadership challenges facing Moses and any leader of a faith community.

The goal is to invite people into a relationship with God… to help people to know that it is God who leads and sustains… God who calls and convicts… God who encourages and forgives. It is God who is steadfast and never failing in love and grace. It is God whose presence is sure. The pastor… the leader… is merely an instrument.
The people hadn’t learned that yet. It’s obvious. Because when Moses disappeared, they fell apart.

Your people, the people you brought up out of Egypt have become very sinful, the Lord God said to Moses. Their primary sin is idolatry, but not just of the golden calf. They’ve made an idol out of Moses. Without him, they don’t turn to their God, it’s like they forgot they had one.
Their community structure reinforces the confusion. Moses is the only one allowed into the audience of God. Moses is God’s voice to the people. Moses is their advocate, their arbiter and their agent. How are they to learn to trust in God independently of him?

One of my mentors gave me a book in 2007 called The Art of Pastoring. Inside he wrote: My sister, friend and colleague, may the wisdom in this little book guide and sustain you.
The book is filled with short reflections like these:

The more the pastor tries to teach about God,
the less the people know God.
Talk about God can create the illusion
that holiness is being fostered.
But experience of the Word is quite different
than knowledge of words about God.
The pastor does not give answers;
she helps God’s people
find their own answers inside.

And:

The pastor refuses to impose her mind.
Instead she honors the minds of God’s people.
She treats all within the parish
as lovable and trustworthy,
even when they are not.
This makes her difficult to understand.
People wait for her to lead.
Instead she waits for them to know
the voice within their own soul
which will lead them perfectly.

Your people, the Lord God said to Moses, for the people had made of him an idol.
Your people, the Lord God said, and the words rang with a painful truth.
Your people, your church, your vision, your call… It’s an important and vital reminder: We are, all of us, God’s people, gathered together as God’s church, seeking together God’s vision, living out in our own lives and in our life together, God’s call.

My people?? These are your people, says Moses. And as he says the words – as he speaks the truth — Moses realizes the work that still needs to be done.

On behalf of these stubborn unlovable people whom he loves, Moses appeals to God’s heart of mercy: remember your promise to your people. And the story ends with this affirmation: The Lord took pity on his people.

Recently we completed a labyrinth in a pine grove on our property. A labyrinth is an ancient prayer walking practice. It’s designed as a single path that moves circuitously toward the center. You can’t get lost in a labyrinth as long as you stay on the path, but the path will at times draw you closer to the center and at other times lead you further away. It’s designed to imitate the spiritual journey.

Like the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings there are times when God’s presence feels very near and we can sense the power, the peace, the love, the strength of our creator like a pillar of fire, like daily manna, like the whisper of the wind on our cheek… and there are times when God seems silent, distant, absent even.
Once we’ve known God’s presence, God’s absence is all the more acute, all the more painful. We yearn for what we miss. With the Psalmist we cry out: How long O Lord will you remain silent?? O Lord, do not be far from me.

The longer these times go on, the more tempted we become to fashion our own gods — something, anything that we can cling to, to bring us hope: a new program, a new marketing campaign, a new pill, a new building, a new president, a new pastor…
It was a deep and profound yearning for God that led the Israelites to rip off their earrings and throw them at Aaron’s feet: Make for us a god! For this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him. Even false hope feels like something.

But it was Moses who left, not God. The labyrinth reminds us that the center never moves, we do. And when we’re farthest away, it’s important to keep walking – keep walking toward it.

Today begins our 2017 stewardship season. I’ve written you a letter.
In it, I talk about the delight I feel in being in ministry with you. I also talk about the importance of our investment in the future of this church together. But I say, and I could not mean this more, the most important investment for all of us and for each one of us is our walk with God.

As your pastor, it is my prayer to come alongside you as you come to know our God more deeply, learn to trust our God more honestly, and seek to follow our God more closely.
After forty years, even the most doubting of them had learned that God can be trusted. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen’s grandfather said, And then they came to the Promised Land.

I sat for awhile thinking of this story, Rachel said, my mind full of pictures. One of them was an image of a long ragged line of people, moving out from the land where they had lived for generations into the darkness and emptiness of the desert, with all their bundles of belongings, their dogs and their cats and their crying children. And at the head of this procession of complaining, worrying, and doubting people is God, their God, in the form of a Pillar of Fire.

Where are you? Whose are you?
I am the Lord Your God who brought you out of the house of slavery, our God said.
Out of slavery into the unknown, where we learn together to walk in confidence, in courage and in freedom, trusting always in the one who leads us on.

10/2/16

Scripture: Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8

Sermon Series: Who’s Who and Where Are You? 

Scene 4: Out of Egypt

Final instructions for the journey out of Egypt: sacrifice a pure lamb and share it in your last supper as slaves. Be ready to leave quickly. And when you settle in your new land, a land flowing with milk and honey… a land of freedom… a land of promise, remember your God and remember this night.

Hundreds of years later, the Rabbi Jesus and his disciples made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival described in this text: Passover.

Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near… Luke begins his story of the last week of Jesus’ life.

Like generations of faithful Jews before them, Jesus and his disciples traveled to Jerusalem to relive the story again… the story of God’s Passover… remembering that night so long ago when God acted decisively to break the chains of slavery. People came from the east and the west and the north and the south, converging on the Temple in the Holy City. Most of them arrived about a week before the actual night of the Passover meal.

To give you a sense of numbers – according to historian Josephus, for the Passover Festival of 66 AD – only 30 some years after Jesus, Temple priests slaughtered 256,500 lambs. Each lamb fed a group of 10-20 people, so Josephus calculates there were as many as 2.7 mil people in Jerusalem for Passover that year.

For one week a year, in the Spring, Jewish pilgrims from all over the Empire filled the streets of Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover. There was only one Temple… only one legitimate location for sacrifice for observant Jews… and if they could, they went there. They weren’t the only ones.

Extra Roman soldiers came down from Caesarea to keep peace in the crowds. Stationed all around the city, they were a constant visual reminder of the oppressive reign of the Empire.

Extra Temple staff came in that week too. Money-changers, and animal vendors filled the marketplace, each depending on the big crowds to put food on their tables. And rotations of extra priests were needed too. Every lamb had to be examined to make sure it was perfect before it was processed and timing was tight.

256,500 lambs – how long would that take?
5 hours, said one source – using 144 priests, 10 seconds a lamb – assuming there’s an efficient assembly line of lamb handlers who move them through throat up. This Passover thing was big business.

It was during this particular Jewish Festival that Jesus instituted what we as Christians celebrate as the Lord’s Supper. He and his disciples were gathered together in an upstairs furnished guest room. It was the last meal he would share with his disciples. He was arrested later that night.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all say it took place on the day the Passover lamb was sacrificed – that their last supper was actually the Passover feast. John says it was the night before.

It was a common practice to gather together with a close-knit small group of friends the night before a formal religious feast. Together they’d share a quiet time of devotion and charitable action – a way to prepare by purifying mind, body and soul.
That night before, they’d share a simple meal of unleavened bread and wine.
At the table, the host of the meal, or the leader of the group took the bread, offered thanks to God, and broke it – giving a piece to everyone around the table. At the end of the meal, the host would take a final cup of wine – called The Cup of Blessing. After giving thanks over the cup, the host would take a sip and pass it around the table to his friends. The meal ended with the singing of a psalm.

But that night wasn’t like any other chaburah – supper of friends. That night, as Jesus took the bread and broke it he said:
This is my body, broken for you.
And as he lifted the cup of blessing he said:
This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood for the forgiveness of sin. Do this, he said, and remember me.

As John tells the story, Jesus was arrested after that meal and crucified the next day – the day of the Passover — at the same time as all the other lambs — lambs without blemish were sacrificed.
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

That night Jesus set a table of peace in the midst of chaos. He set a table of justice in the midst of Roman occupation and Temple corruption. He set a table of reconciliation, washing the feet of his disciples and calling them to do the same for one another. He set a table of transformation— revealing the promise of a new way: where the last shall be first, the outcast welcome, the oppressed set free. He set a table of grace with his own freely given self-offering of love and forgiveness.

Today we come to this, his table in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, fellow friends of Jesus around the world. Together in spirit we remember Jesus as we participate in our Festival to the one and the same Lord who transcends language, culture, and nation.

According to Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, festivals function as vehicles for an alternative imagination of the world through faith. We step out of our everyday life and into a dramatic remembering of a different theological reality – shaped by songs and prayers and actions.

Participating in the Festival to the Lord that is World Communion Sunday invites us to imagine a world differently arranged and ordered according to God’s dream for it.

The Table of Christ is so much bigger than the one here in our sanctuary. We’re part of a global family that is the Body of Christ. Today as we remember him at the table, we remember them: all of our brothers and sisters around the world. We remember them in song and we remember them in prayer. As we come to the table we’ll see photos of some of them at the Lord’s Table in their own countries.

Where are you? We might ask as we look at their faces, their clothing, their worship spaces. What is life like around you? What does it mean to you, there, to come to Our Lord’s Table?

What does it mean in places like:

  • the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where just this week, the US State Department ordered the immediate departure of all nonessential personnel due to continued unrest. Violence surrounds their election process. And Jesus calls: Come to the table of peace.

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  • Madagascar, where they’re still reeling from a grenade explosion in a stadium this summer that killed 2 and wounded 80. The president of Madagascar, acknowledging political differences within their population, said: Divergences in point of view may exist between us… [But] if the leader does not suit you… you cannot kill the population. And Jesus calls: Come to the table of reconciliation.

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  • Bethlehem, where this spring saw the continued expansion of the separation wall through the Christian town of Beit Jala next to Bethlehem – the security wall designed to keep Palestinians and Jews apart. The wall carves around a 100+ year old monastery, winery, convent and school and it separates Beit Jala families from their own land and olive groves. Father Hijazin, a Beit Jala priest said: They are not just taking a church, they are cutting our land, our future and our history. And Jesus calls: Come to the table of justice.

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  • Egypt, where they mourn the sinking of a migrant ship bound for Italy and the loss of approximately 300 of the 450 onboard; people desperate for an exodus out of Egypt for themselves and their children – safety and a new way of life. And Jesus calls: Come to the table of transformation.

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South Africa, South Asia, Cuba, Peru, New Zealand, Argentina, Korea – from the North, South, East and West we come together in spirit today to the one table of Jesus the Christ.
This is our Festival to the Lord.
This is our Communion.
Where are you? What is life like around you?  What does it mean to you here to come to the Lord’s Table?

9/25/16

Scripture:  Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21

Sermon Series: Who’s Who and Where Are You? 

Scene 3: In Egypt

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

              That was the promise the Lord God gave to Abram. That was the promise and that was the call: Blessed to be a blessing.

Now here we are, three generations later, looking at the dysfunction that is Abram’s grandson Jacob’s family. Jacob had twelve sons borne by four women. As the story goes, Jacob loved one woman more than the others, and he loved her firstborn son, Joseph, more than any of his other sons too. And he was obvious about it.

We know right out of the gate that’s gonna be trouble. We know families. We know favoritism. That’s not fair! How come I never got one of those? How come she gets to do that? We’ve all said it. We’ve all felt it. It’s the foreshadowing of badness to come and man does the Joseph story get ugly.

Joseph doesn’t help his case. He talked trash to his father about Bilhah’s boys – his step-brothers Dan and Naphtali. Did he think that wouldn’t get back to them?

Sure he loved the beautiful coat his father gave him – it made him feel special. But none of his brothers got one.

Jacob – really? What were you thinking? And Joseph? You wear it around your brothers and you’re kind of asking for it.

But the dreams – that’s the real icing.

Hey guys listen to these two cool dreams I had: In one you all bow down to me and in the other one, the sun, moon and stars bow down to me – isn’t that awesome?! Who likes people like that? Not his brothers. In fact, they hate him.

              Hate, hate, hate him.

They hate him to the moon and back.

They hate him so much, if he were on fire and they had a bucket of water, they’d drink the water.

They hate him so much, if he were hit by a camel, they’d be riding the camel.

They hate him so much, they cannot even speak peace to him. And that doesn’t mean they can’t say anything nice so they don’t say anything at all. It means they can’t even wish him well. That’s how much they hate him.

One of the younger girls on the golf team came to me last week – Coach, she said, you know how I told you I broke up with my boyfriend? Now he’s saying mean things about me to everybody. He’s making up stuff and trying to turn my friends against me.

You know why he’s doing that? I asked her.

No, why?

Because he hurts. And he thinks if he hurts you, he’ll somehow feel better. He’s jealous, he’s angry, I’m sorry. I said.

But it’s not true! she said. The things he’s saying about me aren’t true!

I know. And you know. So you be you. Stand up and be you.

Thanks Coach. She said.

He’s only 14 or 15 — I’d like to say he’ll grow out of it, but these days, I’m not so sure.

Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet, said Maya Angelou, and isn’t that the truth.

Hatred roots deep in hearts and chokes out the good, the pure, the holy, the potential for blessing, the life that might otherwise grow there. Throughout history hatred has splintered families, neighborhoods, communities, churches. Its foot soldiers set their sights on destroying entire ethnic groups and cultures and building walls to show their power. Memorial monuments and museums bear witness to hatred’s enduring legacy.

But generation after generation, people march hand-in-hand against its future – determined to one day bless and overcome it.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech of 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. said: Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.…

When we were in Bethlehem meeting with Mitri Raheb, the Pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church, he asked: Which culture will reign? The culture of violence, exclusion and at its most lethal expression, apartheid? Or the culture of peace, freedom and justice?

When once again we hear the news of more bombings, another mass shooting—this time in Washington State, new police shootings, another collapsed ceasefire in Syria, it can feel like the culture of violence is winning… reigning.

But that’s not the message of the Joseph story.

Even though you intended harm, God intended it for good. Joseph said to his brothers. What does that mean?

Does it mean God planned for Joseph’s brothers to do such heinous things? That God planned for Joseph to be thrown in a pit… sold as a slave… planned for his father’s heart to break in a thousand pieces while he clutched the blood stained coat of his beloved boy? Would God conceive of that kind of diabolical plot in order to get Joseph to Egypt to Pharoah’s court so he could have access to the grain stores to feed his family?

What do you think?

Did God engineer apartheid in South Africa in order that government sponsored Truth and Reconciliation would be instituted and practiced for generations to come?

Did God provoke a young man living with mental illness to open fire on a school full of children in order to more tightly knit a community together and to awaken a nation to its responsibility for its most vulnerable?

Does God raise up xenophobic leaders so that a nation is led into chaos in order that it will repent and learn to live more hospitably toward the stranger? What do you think?

I think it’s like this: God doesn’t set in motion things that are completely inconsistent with God’s character, but God is always working on the next chapter – wanting the story to end well.

God’s hand is at work throughout history: bringing order to chaos, shining light into darkness, revealing truth in the midst of lies, creating life from death… always purposing, intending, imagining, conceiving good.

We’re in a crazy election season – aren’t we? – the likes of which we’ve never seen. Here and abroad people are calling it a referendum on the whole system – a lament for all that’s broken – a deep yearning for something new.

It’s exposing a number of things about us: fear, anger, distrust, frustration… there’s deep philosophical and ideological divides surfacing…

Questions about the role of America in the world… debates about our identity and responsibility as national and global citizens… genuine concern over how firm or how porous our borders should be and how to honor life — and whose life.

I saw a quote this week from Detroit artist and author Adrienne Maree Brown:

Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

In his Nobel acceptance speech of 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.

Maybe that’s what’s happening. And if it is, we can be sure that God’s hand is at work intending it for good.

Joseph’s story ends in Egypt. His whole family is there. His father has died and his brothers are worried. Will Joseph remember all that they’ve done. Will he seek revenge?

They don’t know how much Joseph’s changed.

He’s not the same naïve, arrogant, spoiled 17-year old child. He’s spent time in a pit, in slavery, in prison and in the court of Egypt’s Pharoah. And God’s been working on him – everywhere he’s been — transforming him from the inside out… preparing him to forgive… blessing him to be a blessing.

Remember that image of the Season of Peace? The table set in the midst of wilderness? Joseph embodies that table for his brothers.

The streets of their hearts are littered with guilt, fear, anxiety, hunger and he blesses them, feeds them and loves them well.

Joseph’s dream has indeed become reality –not in a self-serving, arrogant, power-seeking way, but in a self-offering, giving, nourishing way. I will provide for you myself – for you and your children. Peace, my dear brothers, shalom.

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn
– (wrote Langston Hughes)
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.

A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!

Where are you?

Even now God is dreaming for good in your life and in mine. In our families, our church, in our nation, and in our world. You and I are invited into it: blessed to be a blessing – to be a table in the wilderness… a table of grace, justice and transformation… a table of peace.

9/18/16

Scripture: Genesis 15:1-6

Sermon Series: Who’s Who and Where Are You? 

Scene 2: Under the Dome

Today our journey through the Great Story of God and God’s people continues as we meet a man named Abram. Abram’s a descendant of Noah’s son Shem. That makes him Semitic. In fact, he’s an epic hero of Semitic people.

Originally, his family was from Ur – an ancient city of Mesopotamia – modern day Iraq. Located midway between Bagdad and the Persian Gulf, the 5000 year old city of Ur was heavily damaged in the Gulf Wars. The story goes that Abram’s father left Ur with Abram and his wife Sarai and Abram’s nephew Lot and settled in Haran – modern day Turkey.

After his father’s death, God called out to Abram: Lech L’cha!

It’s a wonderful Hebrew wordplay that describes the type of journey God had in mind for Abram: Lech L’cha – literally means Go forth toward yourself… a kind of outward bound and inward unbind… a geographical and spiritual journey to an unknown land and a God who will reveal it.

From Haran, Abram went west and south along the Mediterranean Sea.

God spoke to Abram as he came into Canaan, saying: To your offspring, I will give this land. So, Abram stopped there and set up an altar to God. And later he pitched his tent and settled his tribe there — in Hebron, the center of Canaan.

I will make of you a great nation, God said to Abram, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Canaan was and is a desirable land. It literally sits in the middle of 3 continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. It’s a perfect place to settle a particular people in order to be a blessing to the nations. Because in that day, all the nations passed through it.

Indeed ancient tradition holds that Abram’s tent was open on all four sides – open to the north, the south, the east and the west to strangers and travelers from every direction – a station of hospitality and welcome. He was blessed to be a blessing.

The problem for Abram was that he didn’t feel very blessed. He was wealthy: he had gold and silver and lots of livestock. Over the years, the size of his household staff had grown large. He had more than enough men to form a successful army as well as tend the flocks… more than enough women to take care of the needs of the household. He was respected by kings and priests alike. But despite all of his treasures and wealth, military success and royal acclaim, Abram had no children. And no prospects of children. His wife Sarah was barren.

In the ancient Semitic world, that was the bottom line. Everything transferred to biological sons. Without offspring, there was no legacy, no security, and no enduring name. You knew you really were blessed and held in favor by the gods if you had lots of children. And if you had none, you must be cursed.

So you can see Abram’s confusion. His name in Hebrew means Exalted Father. Exalted he was, but father, he was not. At least not in the way that really mattered in his day.

Inside his tent that night Abram lay awake. Thoughts of the inevitability of his downfall and that of his wife would not leave him alone. Not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day he would die. As the years passed, that reality loomed closer.

And there was no heir. All around him were evidences of his success – gold, silver, people, livestock… There were children in his camp many of them – babies and toddlers and youth –his household staff kept growing. Yet as each new birth was celebrated, the pain in his own heart intensified – still none of my own. This was Abram’s greatest insecurity… his most pressing personal fear.
We know how fears and anxious thoughts can settle in around us as unwelcome visitors in the middle of the night. They come with their insistence, interrupting our rest and peace.

In the waking hours they remain patiently on the sidelines while we tend to the busyness of our day, but in the dark they come demanding our attention… most inconveniently.

In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark—that many of us studied last Lent — Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

What if I could follow one of my great fears all the way to the edge of the abyss, take a breath, and keep going?  Isn’t there a chance of being surprised by what happens next?  Better than that, what if I could learn how to stay in the present instead of letting my anxieties run on fast-forward? 

By day I can outfox questions like these – racing from one appointment to the next, answering e-mails… taking the suddenly sick dog to the vet, rummaging through the freezer for something to thaw for supper.  By day, I am a servant of the urgent.  Nothing important has a chance with me…  But in the middle of the night…  I am a captive audience.

Most of the time we greet interruptions to our sleep with irritation. We just want to get back to sleep. Getting up is like giving in. But Barbara Brown Taylor advocates for our attention. There may indeed be a greater voice calling.

Where are you? Lost? Confused? Afraid? Come outside and let me show you something… Come out under the dome of heaven and look up… look up at the stars covering the night sky…

Seeing stars saved me that first winter we lived in Tipton. You remember the winter of 2013? It lasted 5 months or so – and for most of it there was at least 40 inches of snow on the ground. An external wood-burning furnace heats our house. We were sure we had enough stacked wood – in the fall. But as the weeks and months rolled on that winter with no relief, I know Andy laid awake at night thinking about which pieces of furniture he’d burn first.

I know he feared our family would freeze to death – on his watch. His anxiety was my anxiety as we struggled through the winter of our discontent.

But every night I’d walk Zeus and every night I was overcome by the brilliance of the stars in the clear dark sky. God had called us here, I was convinced of it… the very same God who hung the stars. Seeing their constant brilliance was like a promise confirmed – night after night.

The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim his handiwork, sings the Psalmist. And indeed they do.

God speaks through the majesty of the mountains, the timbered choir of the forest, and the breathtaking quiet of a sunrise. On that night, God spoke to Abram under the dome of the night sky and seeing stars… so many stars… too many to count… Abram believed. This is a God who doesn’t break promises. Don’t know how… don’t know when… but it will be…

There’s a simplicity in this story… a peace… a tranquil assurance that settles upon Abram as he stands star-gazing. None of his children have yet been born, but they will be. At this point, they are merely twinkles in their father’s eye… none shines brighter than any other. There’s not even a hint of the enmity that will rise between his children and their children’s children… not that night. All is well. Would that it could have stayed that way.

Today Hebron, the scene of that idyllic night, is one of the most volatile places in the region.

About 208,000 Palestinians call Hebron home, as do about 800 Jewish Settlers. The city is split into two sectors with the Palestinian Authority governing an area of about 170,000 Palestinians and the Israeli Military governing an area of about 30,000 Palestinians living alongside the Jewish settlement.

There is an entire Jewish brigade in place to protect the settlement and 18 military checkpoints exist throughout the city center. Soldiers and global peacekeepers accompany Palestinian children to and from school to protect them from daily taunting and rock slinging as their path takes them past the settlement.

Blessed to be a blessing to the nations was the promise and the call. What happened?

Over the centuries Abraham’s family has given birth to three major religious communities: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Like most families, different children tell different versions of the family story.

In this case, for most of history, their versions have led to bitter and violent conflict. They’ve argued over such things as legitimate inheritance, God’s will, right to land and resources, and which line of descendants is more righteous and holy and faithful. Not only has the fighting torn the family apart, it’s torn the whole world apart.

The Bible ends Abraham’s story with these words:

Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah. The brothers, sons of Abraham were there together, honoring their father, face to face.

Yet ironically today, the epicenter of tension in Hebron is the tomb of Abraham. He purchased the burial plot 4000 years ago and adherents of the three faiths established by his children’s children: Judaism, Christianity and Islam continue to honor him there, no longer face to face but separated by barred windows and bulletproof glass.

A couple of weeks ago we launched the Season of Peace. Each week in September, there is a different theme for us to consider related to peace:

Today’s theme is Come to the Table of Reconciliation. Is reconciliation possible for Abraham’s broken family?

The Parents Circle Families Forum says yes. They’ve witnessed it first hand. Born out of personal grief, the Parents Circle began in 1995. A group of Israeli parents who had lost children to the conflict came together to find a way to speak out against the violence in honor of their children. In 1998 they welcomed Palestinian parents from Gaza into their circle. After the second intifada, all contact with Gazan parents was forbidden.

But in 2000 the group welcomed Palestinian parents from the West Bank and E. Jerusalem into the circle. There are now over 600 families working together side by side, face to face for peace.

On October 26, we have the special blessing to hear from three of these parents: a Jewish father and a Palestinian Christian mother and father – strangers who have become friends… reconciled brothers and sisters. At 7pm on that Wednesday night they’ll share their stories and hopes with us here.

Abraham’s family- our family- is broken and in need of mending.

Again we hear God’s call: Where are you?

How will we seek to embody that image of Abraham’s tent with all four sides open – open to the north, open to the south, open to the east, open to the west… open to welcome the stranger and the weary traveler in need of rest and peace? On October 26 at 7pm we’ll set a table of reconciliation here for the community to welcome George, Najwa and Rami.

That night we’ll see stars face to face – each of us, Abraham’s children at the table together. We are blessed to be a blessing to the nations. May it be so for you and for me and for us as church together.

9/11/16

Scripture: Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17, 3:1-9

Sermon Series: Who’s Who and Where Are You? 

Scene 1: In the Garden

Our eyes were opened on September 11, 2001. Most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when it happened. We remember what we felt and the very first thing we did after hearing the news.

I was on my computer and the Internet froze. Everything locked up. I turned on the television and saw the horrifying images. Then I picked up the phone and called my best friend. Turn on the TV, I said. And together we watched – each in our own houses – weeping into the phone.

Sue Washburn, a Presbyterian pastor in Pennsylvania remembers.

She was in the playroom of her parent’s house with her two small children. Her husband’s flight to NYC had been cancelled. He was stranded in Seattle and she went to be with her family. She kept thinking of the people lost in the towers, realizing there wouldn’t be another day for them to say I love you… another day for them to say I forgive you and that day she decided she would try to live her life reconciled to the people around her and to God. She wanted to end each day in peace so that if tomorrow never came, her family and friends would know she loved them.

The type of parent she became grew out of that event. The type of pastor too — teaching discipleship through reconciliation.

Erin Counihan remembers. Now she’s a pastor in St. Louis, then she was a young adult living in an apartment off Broadway. In the days after September 11, 2001, Erin says she holed up in what she called the bunker: sleeping bags laid out in front of the TV. Nightly she’d watch Tom Brokaw and as she silently observed the images on the screen she’d pray: pray for peace and for God to fix it – fix us.

The answer that always returned to her came from the Psalms: Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it. Leave the bunker and get to work.

Our eyes as a nation and our eyes as individuals were opened that day – not for the first time, but in a cataclysmic way – our eyes were opened to the preciousness of life, the treasure of our families, the gift of each day. That day we saw good and evil in stark contrast and it hurt. As a nation we grieved together and the world came alongside us in our pain.

I lived in Plymouth at the time and our community, like many others around the country, came together in the center of town to stand side by side and pray and hold each other and share stories of heroism and courage and hope.

Yesterday as our community gathered to commemorate the 15th anniversary, Dan Swallow our City Manager reminded us that in the beginning, for a time, a far too short time, we were united. What happened?

(ssss) You won’t die – your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

That serpent’s a crafty one. Everything it said was true, and yet not the whole truth. The devil is in the details. There’s a big difference between being aware of good and evil and knowing them… a difference between acknowledging their existence and discerning what to do with them… a difference between objectifying, externalizing, projecting them and recognizing that they both co-exist – good and evil – in each and every human heart.

Our eyes were open to good and evil that day as they have been many days before and since.

And the serpent’s claim that we won’t die from them is not entirely true; our interpretation of what we see is so flawed it kills us over and over again.

After September 11th 2001 people flocked to churches. Why? What were they hungering for, thirsting for? Assurances? Comfort? Answers? Deeper questions? Did people want to be reminded that they were on the right side, that they were the good people God’s favored and chosen nation… did they seek strength in their resolve to fight the bad people? Did people come to church to be led in confession, to learn humility and to practice forgiveness? Did they come to learn about the stranger through interfaith dialogue? Did they come to learn how to be agents of peace? Did they want to hear a rallying cry on how or where to exact vengeance??

God is our refuge and strength… a very present help in time of danger… We gathered together to listen for God’s voice. Yet there’s always another voice whispering…

     (ssss) Did God really say vengeance is mine?

     (ssss) Did God really say love your neighbor?

(ssss) Did God really say he would judge between the nations and arbitrate for the peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks…

(ssss) Did God really say nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore?

The churches were packed after 9/11/01 for a time… a far too short time.

(ssss) Did God really say be still and know that I am God?

I was in my first year of seminary in 2001. And as a person of faith this was such a gift. Crisis calls for theological reflection – calls for honesty, humility, & hard questions – for the acknowledgement of our collective nakedness and a patient and steadfast turning toward God. I was grateful to be part of such a diverse faith community in which to pray and reflect through those difficult days. It shaped and formed me as a disciple and a pastor.

The Shock and Awe campaign against Iraq happened during my second year of seminary. I was a student intern at a church in E. Dearborn. Leading up to the campaign we held candle-lit vigils and interfaith prayer gatherings. We stood hand-in-hand, praying alongside people whose family members lived in Iraq… we prayed fervently for peace… we cried tears of lament…

All the while my professors lifted up the prophets, led us in conversations about restorative justice – justice steeped in mercy with a steady drumbeat toward shalom – biblical peace and wholeness for all. We read articles and books by post-World War II theologian Reinhold Niebuhr urging us to acknowledge the depravity and duplicity within the human heart and turn toward God for wisdom:

         Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply.

Niebuhr said as he called all of us to see the good and evil in each of our hearts.

         Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. 

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. 

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.  

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Where was the Reinhold Niebuhr of post 9/11? Where was the public voice with the courage to say what he did: that the tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism?

That tempting, sweet looking fruit loomed large then, now, always, with the serpent’s seductive hiss: You won’t die… you’ll be like God knowing good from evil. It tantalizes us, provokes us, manipulates us and exploits our hunger for control, revenge, certainty, exceptionalism, and security – all of which are only well crafted illusions.

God entered the garden in the cool of the evening breeze and called out to the man and the woman: Where are you? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?

God asked Adam and Eve – the first man and woman – the two who’d been placed together as partners in the beautiful garden from the beginning to tend it and care for it.

She gave it to me, Adam said.

The serpent tricked me, Eve said.

And just like that, the beauty tarnished, relationships severed, trust was broken, and the man and the woman were driven out of the garden with the gate locked behind them.

Where are you? God calls: Where are we?

Are we hiding behind trees and big shrubs – hiding from God, hiding from our own selves and our role in this world? Are we picking from that low hanging sweet looking dishonest fruit that bite by bite is poisoning us? turning us further away from God and from each other?

Are we coming out of hiding, falling on our knees, humbly ready to be an ambassador for God’s shalom? The prophet Isaiah writes:

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

              The biblical story from here on out is a roadmap home, back to the garden, back to shalom. We’ll explore it together, praying for wide open eyes and hearts to all that God would have us see and live.

We’ll meet a cast of characters – a Who’s Who of our faith. And week after week God’s question will hover: Where are you? The One who most definitely already knows the answer, wants us to figure it out and answer with humility and honesty that we may be found.

 

9/04/16

Scripture: Mark 4:35-41

Sermon Title: Why are you afraid?

Earlier that day Jesus began to teach along the shore of the Galilee. As was often the case when he started talking, crowds gathered. As they pressed in, he backed up until his sandaled feet were under water. Someone had the great idea that Jesus should get in a boat and push off a little bit from shore. That way, people could see and hear him while not suffocating him.

Jesus taught from that boat all day long and when it was evening, he invited his disciples to climb in with him: Let’s go across to the other side, he said to them and they left the crowd behind and sailed into the sea.

That night one of those things the locals call a sharkia in Arabic – bore down upon them. Howling winds rushed down the cliffs of the desert from the east, stirring up the waters. Sharkia – shark they call it. It often eats boats and their passengers, leaving nothing but scattered debris in its wake. Unexpected… uncontrollable even for the most experienced fishermen… in an instant there are waves as high as 6 feet tall.

About this night, Mark wrote: A great gale arose… waves beat into the boat… crashing over the top… covering the deck with water. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him up and said to him: Teacher! Do you not care that we’re perishing? Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and he said to the sea: Peace! Be still!

Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to his disciples: Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? And they were filled with great awe and said to one another: Who is this??? Even the wind and the sea obey him!

This is the word of the Lord.

Why are you afraid? Jesus asked them.

Why weren’t you? They must have wondered. Who are you??

When we were in Galilee last summer we went to see The Jesus Boat. It was on display in a kibbutz in Tiberius.

Two brothers Moshe and Yuval Lufan – 2nd generation fishermen first saw the boat in 1986 when it emerged as waters receded during a drought. They said when they saw it, a double rainbow appeared in the sky. Pottery and nails found on the boat date it back to the 1st century AD.

There’s no evidence that Jesus ever rode in that boat, but he could have. Looking at the boat and its dimensions, it helps us imagine more of the story: 25.5 feet long… 7.5 feet wide… 4.1 feet high… it held a maximum of 20 people.

IMG_1255 IMG_1256

Even if we allow that people in Jesus’ day were smaller – and they were – still – it’s tight quarters for 13 men.

Imagine that night: 12 men scrambling and yelling… giving all they have to battle the gale-force winds and waves… and one is sleeping??

Sure he was tired from a day of teaching in the hot sun, but seriously?

A dozen adult men, his disciples, frantically bailing and rowing, and straining with all their might – in a boat that size… They’re either stepping on or over their miracle-working rabbi passed out on the floor of the boat.

It’s like Zeus on the kitchen floor while we’re cooking dinner for company – Could you be more in the way?

Come on! Wake up would you?? Need a little help here! Jesus! Everything’s going to hell in a hand basket while you dream on.

They’re all in the same boat but they could not have been farther apart. It’s a story of extreme opposites: chaos and calm. To the frantic disciples Jesus seems apathetic, tuned out, indifferent to their suffering.

Don’t you care? We’re losing everything!

         Why are you afraid? He asks them. Have you still no faith?

What’s he saying? Is fear a sign of faithlessness? Is it a sin to be afraid?

Scientists say fear is an adaptive behavior that helps us. We see, smell or hear something that alarms us and instantly a response from the brain is triggered.

Last week when Lynn Bova from the presbytery was peacefully walking our new labyrinth, suddenly she shrieked, jumped and ran out of the labyrinth. Why? She saw a garden snake. She didn’t stop to think about what kind of snake it was… that it wasn’t a python, rattler, or cobra… that it had no intention of harming her — or that it might actually be much more afraid of her.

No — her reaction was immediate. I hate snakes, she said. Was she born with that fear?

On the farm we have a half dozen hens and a rooster. Our rooster guards the hens. When something or someone he perceives as a threat comes near, he’ll charge.

People who visit us who know nothing about roosters are totally comfortable casually walking over to the hens like it’s a petting zoo. They do that once. The next time, when they see our rooster, they react differently. We weren’t born to fear roosters. But learning an adaptive response to a trigger of fear can serve a beneficial purpose. It can save us from harm.

Most of our fears are learned, but studies done on infants and young animals show we’re actually born with two: a fear of falling and a fear of loud noises.

If fear can help us, save us from harm… and if we are naturally born with the ability to fear, how can it be sin?

The phrases Fear Not and Do Not be Afraid occur over 100 times in the King James Bible. But physiologically it’s not possible and in fact not beneficial for us to fear not. So what’s up?

Was Jesus actually calling out his disciples for their fear of the sharkia – a fear that as fishermen they had learned… a fear that drove them to swift life-saving action? Did he really expect them to lay down in the bottom of the boat with him as the winds tore at their sails and the waves beat furiously against the wooden sides– a behavior that for them would be completely counterintuitive to every survival instinct and skill they had learned?

Or was Jesus getting at something else?

Think about this with me. I can’t tell you how many people say to me: I know I shouldn’t be afraid

And I wonder what we think of a God who would endow us with the gift of something and then not want it acknowledged or used for our good?

I don’t believe it’s that we fear that’s the problem, but rather how we fear and what we fear. Do we let our fears inform us or control us? Are they real or imaginary? Do we allow them to be manipulated and exploited by others? Do we exaggerate them or let them to hang around longer than they’re needed?

Why are you afraid? Jesus asks.

In the 2nd letter of Paul to Timothy we read: God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. Other translations:

God did not give us a spirit of cowardice… of timidity… of dread.

Do you not care that we’re perishing? They shout at Jesus over the shriek of the wind. Perishing? Other translations: drowning, going down, ruined, destroyed, utterly lost. In the Greek it implies complete and total devastation.

They’ve gone beyond productive and healthy fear, they’re wallowing in dread. Sinking – and not because the boat is taking on water, but because a growing fear that now consumes them.

All is not lost. All is never lost.

Have you still no faith? Jesus asks them.

From the upper room on the night of his arrest – a night of chaos if there ever were one – Jesus said to his disciples: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them sink in fear. All is not lost. All is never lost.

Today along with Presbyterian churches around the country we begin a season of peace. Over the next four weeks we’ll be actively studying, praying, and practicing peacemaking as we’ve been called by Christ to do.

The peace of Christ is the antithesis and the antidote to sinking fear.

It is calm in the midst of chaos. It is courage for cowardice, strength for timidity, faith for dread.

We’ve held some courageous conversations here, advocating for an end to violence.

In October of 2014, this church hosted a courageous conversation about violence against creation. We showed a movie about industrial and agricultural water contamination: Last Call at the Oasis. After the movie a panel answered questions.

Someone who attended left a note saying how good it was that a church was willing to talk about controversial issues.

Last October we hosted a courageous conversation about gender-based violence. For the first time ever, Catherine Cobb held their Walk-A-Mile-in-Her-Shoes event in Tecumseh –at this church.

We have photos of the event on our website, but pictures don’t quite capture the real life experience of the men in our church in heels – preparing to walk a mile through the streets of this town in public protest against a practice that is far more pervasive than we think it is.

The police chief of the Adrian Department was here. He called us to speak out with courage in public places when violent language is overheard. A tearful yet strong victim spoke as her adult daughters listened.

We provided a safe space here to fight fear with love.

This October 26th there will be another courageous conversation here – held by parents from Israel and Bethlehem who have lost children to violence in the Middle East. Their pain drew them together. Their friendship advocates for peace.

God did not give you a spirit of cowardice, timidity, dread, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Let’s not forget that last one.

Power, love and a sound mind.

To his disciples, Jesus could just as easily have said: Why are you afraid? Have you lost your minds?

Irrational fears are common. Everybody has them. Most of them are minor – not particularly helpful or harmful – like Lynn’s fear of the garden snake. There’s a list on Buzzfeed – of 25 Irrational Fears We All Share. I’m not sure who we all are…

I’ll give you a few and see what you think:

  • Thinking the cables will snap every time you ride an elevator.
  • Dropping your keys or your phone down the elevator shaft. Even if they’re in your pocket.
  • Falling into the abyss of a sidewalk grate.
  • Drifting to sleep with gum in your mouth, and choking on it.
  • Wearing your necklace to bed and fearing it will choke you in your sleep.
  • Getting your bag caught in the subway door and being whisked away into the underworld.
  • Eating so much that you think your stomach lining might slowly tear apart.
  • While using a knife in the kitchen, are you afraid you might get the urge to stab something close to you?
  • Accidentally slipping your hands into your hoop earrings and yanking your earlobes off.

Is this a thing? These irrational fears are goofy, but others are far more consequential.

         In this season of peace, let’s be mindful of the mindlessness of fear. Singer Robbie Williams got it right: I didn’t lose my mind, it was mine to give away. And in today’s political climate, a real threat to enduring peace is the willful yielding of rational thought. Why are you afraid? Jesus asks.

Jesus, the one with the power to still a storm with a word, speaks peace to the wind, peace to the waves and peace to us. Peace. A courageous, loving, thoughtful, decent, powerful and reconciling peace.

The image for this year’s season of peace is a table—a table set with the Lord’s Supper—a table in the middle of a street of rubble devastated by war.

image

Calm, strength, hope in the midst of chaos.

The centering verse is from Psalm 78: Can God spread a table in the wilderness? The answer is a resounding yes – over and over and over again. All is not lost. All is never lost. The table is set again today – set for you, set for me, set for all of us together: manna in the wilderness. Come to the table of peace.

8/28/16

Scripture: Mark 8:14-21

Sermon Title: Do you still not understand?

A little backstory to lead into this Scripture:

We’re in the center of the gospel of Mark and Jesus is in the prime of his Galilean ministry. He’s been busy teaching his disciples by word and action, healing the masses, feeding the crowds. They’ve traveled back and forth across the Sea of Galilee.

Some say the sea itself is a metaphor for confusion on the part of the disciples – that the storms and waves are Mark’s literary motif for inner turmoil… the tossing to and fro of strange new ideas… the adverse winds representative of their struggle to understand this unconventional rabbi from Nazareth.

Indeed they’re in the boat on the sea as today’s story unfolds:

14 The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”16 They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

17 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

“Twelve,” they replied.

20 “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” They answered, “Seven.” 21 He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

We hear your questions to the disciples, Jesus, and we realize with conviction and shame that you are talking to us. Like them:

we jump to quick and ill-founded conclusions,  our hardened hearts fail to understand, we have eyes yet fail to see and ears yet fail to hear… and over and over again we fail to remember your mighty and gracious acts throughout history and your steadfast faithfulness in our lives.

We’re dim-witted knuckleheads but please don’t leave us this way. Don’t give up on us. Wake us up. Speak a fresh word to us. Remind us again of your grace and love. Forgive us, we pray…

ASSURANCE OF GOD’S LOVE AND FORGIVENESS

It’s unbelievable really, yet it’s true:

God’s steadfast love for us is from everlasting to everlasting.

Great is God’s faithfulness.

It is renewed day by day by day.

Hear this good news: God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness in Christ is more than enough to cover our failures.

Thanks be to God we are forgiven.

The hope and possibility of new life is ours. Hard to believe,

yet true. Thanks be to God!

Hymn #39  (v. 1)          Great is Thy Faithfulness

“The Lesson”, Don Linehan (Canadian Poet)

the lesson

Jesus was their teacher and they were his students and Galilee was their classroom. He taught with urgency. He knew his time with them was limited. At stake was the Missio Dei – the very Mission of God. The baton would soon pass to them. The students would become the teachers.

After all they had seen and heard, how could they still not get it??

         Do you still not understand??

They always seemed to be a step or two behind.

They remind me of Phil. Phil was one of the middle-school campers we had years ago when I directed a Christian golf and tennis camp. We could always count on Phil to interrupt the thoughtful silence of the lesson. Just when we thought we’d made the turn and heads were nodding and hearts were opening – Phil would chime in with his signature: What are we talking about right now? And the group would collectively groan: Phil!

         But it was great really because it gave us an opportunity to reinforce the lesson – rather, it gave us an opportunity to invite the students to reinforce the lesson with each other.

Which is exactly what Jesus does here. After he upbraids them:

Are you seriously talking about having no bread?? Have you been with me? Have you seen what I’ve seen? How is this possible?

The boat they’re in together is feeling pretty small about now. Jesus’ eyes are on them – moving from one to another. Their eyes are on their sandals. This is serious. You wonder if in this moment Jesus looked up to heaven and silently asked: Father, are you sure there aren’t any alternates? any one else on the bench?

Ah, but he knows them all by now and he loves them.

Don’t you remember?

         You could hear a pin drop on the boat as it rocks gently on the sea. Jesus has their full attention.

         Will one of you hand me the single loaf of bread please?

And holding it out so they all could see, Jesus asked them: Remember when there were 5 loaves like this one and 5000 people? How many baskets of leftovers did we collect after everyone ate their fill?  Twelve.

         Twelve – and that number floats in the center of the boat as Jesus looks at each one of his students – one by one: Simon, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, Judas, James, Simon and Judas – twelve.

And do you remember that other time when there were seven loaves like this one and four thousand hungry people? How many baskets of scraps did we collect that day?  Seven.

         Seven – Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday – seven.

Do you remember? Bread for each day – and only that day, sufficient for each and every person… Manna for the wilderness journey.

And then, although the text doesn’t specifically say it, I believe Jesus held the bread, lifted his eyes toward heaven and prayed:

Barukh atah Adonai Elohaynu melekh ha-olam
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe
ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz. (Amein)
who brings forth bread from the earth. (Amen)

And then he broke it and gave it to them – each one of them until they were satisfied. Take – bless – break – give. Do you still not understand?

         The truth is, Jesus, there’s a lot we don’t understand: why young friends die in car accidents, why whole communities are washed away in floods, and why the very people entrusted to raise children sometimes abuse them… we don’t understand how it is that good and faithful people get cancer and why vulnerable, fragile people get exploited; why innocent people are sent to prison and guilty ones live free. We don’t understand why someone walks into a nightclub or movie theater or gas station or office building or church or anywhere and randomly shoots people. We don’t understand why viruses consume whole villages and wars never seem to end.

Manna for the wilderness journey… sufficient for the day, Jesus says.

Even the name manna is a question. What is it? is the literal translation of manna: what is it?

         That’s funny. It sustained them every day for 40 years in the desert and they didn’t understand how or what it was – just that it was and it was enough.

         Enough for each day.

That’s the promise fulfilled in the ancient story – God provides: Jehovah Jireh — enough strength, enough grace, enough courage, enough will, enough food for this day.

It’s been said that 93% of communication is nonverbal. Think about that as it relates to interpreting a biblical text. There are no facial expressions or hand gestures. We hear no voice inflections – no nuance. There are no accompanying emojis to give us a clue.

It’s hard for us to imagine Jesus being completely exasperated with the disciples – maybe even ranting at them. It’s not as hard if we’ve ever been a teacher or a coach. We’ve said it one way, another way, and even a third way. We’ve illustrated it with pictures and diagrams. We’ve assigned background reading to support it. And they are still not understanding.

More than any other gospel, Mark tells it like it is – Jesus is frustrated. Do they not get the urgency? Are they really that thick-headed and hearted?

But – and teachers also get this – Jesus loves his students and when he says Don’t you remember? we can feel his heart shift. Remember this with me…

I think it’s in that moment that Jesus leans in as pastor and prays with and for them…for us…that we will remember God’s ever-present steadfast love, new every morning –even when… especially when we don’t understand.

What are we talking about right now?

PHIL!

We’re talking about grace, Phil– just enough grace for this day.

 

8/21/16

Scripture: Mark 8:22-26

Sermon Title: Do you see anything?

            They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.  He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

            He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

            Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into[a] the village.”

This is a story about Jesus helping a blind man to see.

Tell me how he did it. What did he do first?  He took him by the hand and led him out of his village.

There are some things we will never see until we leave our village. There’s a big world out there – lots of different kinds of people and languages… different kinds of plants and animals and weather and clothing and food.

 

Getting out of the village is the first step toward learning to see God’s world more clearly and better understanding our place in it. But getting out of the village can be hard. Leaving what we know… stretching our minds… letting go of what feels familiar and comfortable. We fear we might be changed and then what? Maybe our fears hold us back – and we stay put – refusing to stretch and grow and change… We all do it – it’s easier. But what does it do to our ability to see as Jesus would have us see?

Today along with the other member churches of the Presbyterian Church USA we celebrate youth in the church and world. And we remember together that we made a covenant promise when each child was baptized. We heard the question:

Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture them, by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ?

And all together we said: We do.

We say it every time for every child.

Babies are not born seeing clearly. Their vision skills develop over time as their eyes learn to focus and work together, and their eyes learn to work with their hands – interpreting things like depth perception and tracking movement.

It’s not until about 3 months old that babies begin to track a moving object and reach for it. Their depth perception takes a few more months to develop into a comprehensive 3-dimensional view of the world.

Eye-hand-foot-body coordination will pave the way for crawling at about 8 months and their ability to judge distances in order to accurately throw something will take a month or two longer. Somewhere between one and two years old they’ll recognize familiar objects in books and begin to draw.

But the way they’ll perceive the world… interpret their surroundings… and evaluate the culture around them will take several years. We hope it’ll take a lifetime… we hope they’ll never stop learning.

Parents play a primary role in helping their children learn to see. But the church into which they’ve been baptized does too.

As long as they are among us, we’ve promised to guide them and nurture them and teach them by word and action: to love, pray, work for justice and follow Jesus into the world.

Do you see anything? Jesus asks – and along the way the children among us see a lot.

They see how we interact with each other – and how we interact with them. They see the way we love our neighbor and the way we clean up after a potluck. They see what we sign up for and if we pause to read bulletin boards. They see our faces when we lead worship and they see how we pray. They see how we care for people that we know and don’t know; that are like us and not like us… they see how husbands treat wives and wives treat husbands and they see how other mothers and fathers sit in worship with their children. They see how we sing and how we take communion and how we include them in what we do. They see how we love them… our body language when we listen to them… how we show interest in their learning. They see how we make the Bible stories come to life with and for them.

But our responsibility to and for their nurture and learning to see doesn’t stop inside these walls.

We take them by the hand and help them to see the bigger world around them and to learn their responsibility to it and for it in the name of Christ.

To this day if you ask my children in what way the church most impacted their lives, they’d both say mission trips. It was through mission trips that Church members led our children out of their village to Mexico and Costa Rica and Israel and the West Bank of Palestine. We led them to inner city Chicago, Cleveland, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Detroit and Dearborn. Guided by men and women of their faith family they saw poverty, and homelessness, people living with disabilities and children their age who wore hijabs.

They saw the conditions of a variety of nursing homes and asked why some people got to live in hotel like places and others in places that smelled so bad. They saw missionary children whose parents were learning Spanish so they could preach the gospel in villages other than their own.

They saw the inside of a mosque and they watched people pray in different ways. They saw people who lived in cardboard houses able to move into brick ones made by their hands.

They saw a world much bigger than their own village and it made a difference in their lives even as they made a difference in it. They always came back home wanting to see more.

Like the time we took a group of middle-schoolers to East Dearborn – to the church where I had worked as an intern. We helped them with Peace Camp, an outreach ministry to their Muslim neighbors.

It was the summer of 2006. Courtney had just turned 11. It was the same summer that a conflict broke out between Israel and Lebanon. On July 12th Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon fired rockets at an Israeli border town, killing two people. They took two more as prisoners. Five more were killed during a failed rescue. Israel responded with airstrikes.

The bombings lasted 34 days during which between 1200 and 1300 Lebanese citizens were killed and 165 Israelis. A million and a half more people were displaced because of the severe infrastructure damage.

Many of the families attending Peace Camp were Lebanese. One of the little girls – maybe she was in 2nd or 3rd grade – had just returned from visiting her grandmother in Lebanon. She talked of going to sleep with the sounds of bombs and screaming. She talked of her grandmother’s building being hit and how they had to move to somewhere safer. She talked about how afraid she was.

The camp ran from August 8-10 and the United Nations-negotiated ceasefire went into effect August 14. My eleven year old daughter couldn’t wait to watch the 11:00pm news the night we came home—the local news filmed our peace parade through the streets of E. Dearborn – filmed us waving to neighbors who stood hugging each other in front of their homes where Lebanese flags waved.

And for the first time as she watched the news and they showed maps of the conflict and people crying in the streets and bombed out buildings – she paid attention. She’d met people at Peace Camp – children her age whose grandmas and grandpas and cousins lived there and she began asking why.

Why are people’s homes being destroyed?

Why do they look so angry?

Why are all of those people dying?

We’d just come back from Peace Camp and she saw why it mattered.

Do you see anything? Jesus asked the man after he’d led him outside his village… after he’d led him out of the familiar… after he’d led him out of the box in which he’d lived as a blind man in a culture that looked unfavorably upon the disabled… after he’d led him out of judgment and prejudice and disdain… out of a village that daily taught him he had no value… after he’d led him to freedom:

Do you see anything?

Jesus asked, and the man began to see… to really see.

Go home, but don’t go back to the village, Jesus said. Anyone who’s been on a mission trip knows that going back is the hardest part because the people who never left have not seen what you’ve seen. Stories will help, but they’ll never quite do it justice.

The Littlefield Presbyterian Church in East Dearborn is still holding Peace Camp. They don’t have a youth group so they depend on a partner church to bring middle-school and senior high youth to help.

It’s part of their mission to choose different churches each year to lead new youth out of their village to learn to see. It could be us next summer. It really could. We made a promise to teach them to follow Christ into the world – learning to love their neighbors.

Some of our youth have never seen children whose families are from Lebanon and Iraq and other parts of the Arabic world, let alone shared pizza with them, sang with them and built a neighborhood of peace with them. They’re blind to the possibility. Leading them out of the village is the first step toward learning to see.

8/14/16

Scripture: Mark 8:27

Sermon Title: Who do people say that I am?

One:                  Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi;                                          and on the way he asked his disciples: Who do people say that I am? And they answered him:

Two:          When you say people, who do you mean?

Three:       Because there’s lots of different kinds of  people. I can’t speak for them all.

Four:         There’s French people and Russian people and British people. I can’t speak for them.  Even Texans and Oklahomans and Alaskans – I’m pretty sure I don’t know                            what they’d say either.

Three:       And there’s Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Atheists – I can’t say what they would say – Probably they’d all say something different.

One:                  Jesus asked: Who do people say that I  am?

 Two:          People – that’s really broad. I’m thinking there’s old people and                                children and wealthy people and people who live on the streets.                                                 There’s healthy people and angry people and disillusioned people and                                          scientific people. There’s deep thinkers and people who are working                                          too many jobs to think much beyond what’s right in front of them.                                           Maybe even the circumstances in life change the way someone would                                 answer that question.

One:                  He asked: Who do people say that I am? 

Four:                  It’s a personal question.

Three:       Is it? Because it seems like I hear people  saying things like Christians                                      believe this or Christians stand against that. In fact, that’s one of the                                       things that really frustrates me – so much of the time I’m not on the same page.

Two:          But if it’s going to make a world-changing difference, it’s got to be more than                                personal doesn’t it?  I mean we’re talking about Jesus.

Four:                  Are we? Most of my friends don’t talk about Jesus. Do yours?

Two:          Yes – but a lot of the time they don’t  speak for me.

One:                  Jesus asked: Who do people say that I am?

Three:       Justice-seeker. Peace-maker.

Two:          Inclusive. Courageous. Defiant. Love.

Four:                  It’s complicated. He’s complicated and the world is complicated. It’s a good question.

It is a good question. A few weeks ago when we celebrated the 150th anniversary the question of the sermon was: Who do you say that I am?

         But today the question is a different one – Who do people say that I am? Classmates and golf partners, work colleagues and neighbors, hairdressers, dentists and people you meet at a pub. Who’s talking about Jesus – anyone?

What do you hear about him on Facebook? What do the poets, the bloggers and the musicians say? What about scientists and college professors? How does the answer vary by nationality or culture, income or education? And what about age demographics? Does the answer change generation to generation?

Who do people say that I am? Jesus asks.

Today, Sunday August 14th, 2016, the Presbyterian Church USA celebrates College and Young Adult Sunday. Member churches across the country are talking about 18-29 year olds – Millennials they’re called. Who here has a Millennial in their family? Who do they say Jesus is? It’s a good question isn’t it?

Millennials are the largest generation in Western history. They’re also on track to be the most educated generation. Pew Research calls them Digital Natives in a land of Digital Immigrants because they are the first generation to grow up constantly connected to the world.

Consequently, they view technology in a much more positive light than generations before them, saying it makes life easier rather than harder, brings people closer together rather than driving them apart, and allows people to use their time much more efficiently.

Millennials are politically engaged, and they are focused on larger societal needs. When it comes to health, social and environmental issues they are the most conscious generation to date. They see themselves as citizens of the world – less patriotic and more globally minded. They value diversity and are outraged by social injustice.

Millennials are dissatisfied with the status quo and constantly ready to challenge the system. They’re independent thinkers, questioners and innovators. They’re team oriented, impatient, adventurous and practical.

And they are the least religious generation to date.

Last week I told a story about a 20-something-year-old man who sat next to my mother-in-law on the plane from Edinburgh to Cork. They talked about life and politics, career aspirations and education, but when it came to religion he told her he didn’t believe in God, wasn’t raised in church and didn’t know anyone who practiced religion.

He said: It’s not a thing here. A 2013 survey done in the UK on Millennials and religion found that 38% agree with him: they don’t believe in God or any kind of spiritual power. And 41% believe religion is the cause of more evil than good in the world.

The numbers are lower in this country. Compared to their 38%, our number is 29%, but the trend is rising. And in this country 59% of people ages 18-29 who grew up in church have dropped out.

American religious leaders know this statistic. It’s disheartening. It’s a wakeup call that requires response. Some have responded with style changes.

Mimicking other successful entertainment venues they invest in bands and light shows, they incorporate the latest and greatest technology. Their worship is hipper, edgier. They’ve hired people with Marketing degrees to rebrand and repackage church.

Last December, GQ published a behind-the-scenes look at Hillsong NYC, one of the fastest growing mega-churches in America. It’s Justin Bieber and Kevin Durant’s church. It’s where the cool kids spend Sunday morning after Saturday night at the club, says the author of the article Taffy Brodesser-Akner. On any given Sunday you’ll find 8000 people there. But to say Cool Jesus is the Millennial answer to the question Who do they say that I am? would be wrong.

By now we should know enough about Millennials that there’s not one answer to any question.

A recent survey conducted by Barna group found that 67% of their respondents aged 18-29 actually preferred a “classic” church over a “trendy” one and 77% preferred a sanctuary over an auditorium. According to NYTimes bestselling author and American Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans, millennials exhibit an increasing aversion to exclusive, closed-minded religious communities masquerading as the hip new places in town.

         David Kinnaman of Barna group said of young adults: they’re “not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion.” And yet another millennial blogger Amy Peterson put it this way: I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.

         That is, a community that remembers and reenacts the ancient story of God while interpreting the present world and looking with hope to the future.

Young adults are looking for a truer and more authentic spirituality, one that honors questions of faith and science, considers doubt a genuine part of the journey, delves into the real issues of life, community, and identity and calls forth life-changing and world-changing response.

Over the last 22 years, 1250 young adults have spent a year of their lives in the Presbyterian Church USA Young Adult Volunteer program. Their motto is a year of service for a lifetime of change. YAVs work alongside mission partners confronting issues of poverty, violence and racism in 20 locations across the United States and abroad.

They’ve served as HIV/AIDS counselors in West Africa, community reconcilers in Northern Ireland, agents of social policy reform in Washington DC, humanitarian activists in Tuscon, and a host of other meaningful missions.

While they serve they live simply in intentional communities, examining their own lives in light of cross-cultural challenges of race, gender and power. They learn and practice leadership and they discern what they’re called to do; who they’re called to be.     Throughout the year and well afterwards, these young adult volunteers are supported and encouraged as they explore for themselves who Jesus is.

         Of her YAV year in Kenya, Grace Lindvall wrote:

I found a year of change—a year that changed my life—a year that redirected the course of my life—an experience that changed the way I understood the world, the way I experienced my relationship with God, the way I saw other people. It’s not the thing we expected – a year we would change the world but not change us. Changing the world requires us to change ourselves too.

His way, his life, his truth – changes us from the inside out. It is personal. And it has far reaching global impact.

         Who do they say that I am? Jesus asked.

Think again about the core values that describe 19-30 year olds: intellectually, politically, socially engaged, they question, challenge and work for global change. Who better to be their role model, their mentor, their guide but Jesus: Champion of the underdog, he welcomed the stranger, widened the circle to include all who were cast off, fed the hungry, broke the chains of those in prison and ushered in a whole new social order. He confronted the halls of power, turned the tables of injustice, and exposed the hypocrisy within established religion.

To know him and make him known – that’s our call as church.

The church needs millennials to keep us focused. We need their voices, their questions, their passion, and their hope. We need their dissatisfaction and their discontent and we need their global perspective. We need their anger over hypocrisy and injustice and abuse of power. Missing them is missing a vital part of our body.

And they need us too. They need the long view that comes with age and seasoning. They need to see couples married for 60+ years and learn want it means to sacrifice. They need to hear the stories of veterans who know what delayed gratification is all about– what it means to wait: to wait on education, wait on a family, wait on a job because service to country came first. They need the rhythms and seasons of sacred life – the quiet candlelit holiness on Christmas Eve, the mystery of broken bread shared. Family and belonging that extends far beyond biological connections.

From the Greatest Generation to Generation Z, we are family, all of us united together, the Body of Christ.

7/24/16

Scripture: Mark 4:30-32

Sermon Title: With what can we compare the kingdom of God?

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. These are the first words out of Jesus’ mouth according to the gospel of Mark.

         The Kingdom of God has come near.

         His first century Jewish audience in Roman occupied Palestine knew about the Kingdom of God– they’d prayed for it to come for centuries.

Their children were taught early on about a day long past when God was king and the people were free in a land of milk and honey. How they longed to return to that day.

Their history was filled with evil kings that led them into ill-conceived wars, false securities, burdensome taxes, and religious idolatry. As a people they’d suffered greatly from poor leadership.

At the time of Jesus, their King was Herod, a client King of the Roman Emperor Caesar. He was paranoid, ruthless and cruel. To inflate himself, he built grand and expensive projects and the people paid for them. They longed for a coming day when God would send his anointed one to restore justice, establish peace and make them truly free.

The Kingdom of God has come near – Jesus proclaimed.

And they leaned closer – could it be??

Could that time they’d dreamed about, longed and prayed about – this idealized future promise when God is King and all will be as God intends – that long ago vision of their hero Daniel: The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever – Could it really be near??

         When – when is it coming? the religious leaders asked Jesus – and he answered paradoxically: The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say,

         ‘Look here it is’ or ‘There it is’ – in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.

         They lived in desperate times. Who was this Galilean peasant rabbi? Why did he talk in riddles? We can almost imagine them then – looking around – at the Roman Soldiers posted everywhere with their complete and utter disregard for anything holy… How could the kingdom of God be among us?

         It’s kind of like how we might feel. We watch the news, listen to political speeches and say: What? The kingdom of God is among us? Why then Orlando and Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas? Why Kabul, Baghdad, Nice and Munich –Where’s the peace? Why so much hatred, fear and violence?

         No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above –Jesus said No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. So is this kingdom Jesus proclaimed merely a spiritual kingdom? Something only lived within our own hearts while the kingdoms of the world rage on?

Isis soldiers believe they’re agents of the kingdom of God on earth – that’s how they see it. They fight as those enlisted to bring about a cleansing of the world in pursuit of holiness. We look on the havoc they wreak in horror. We are not citizens of that kingdom of God, but surely of something else entirely.

With what can we compare the kingdom of God? Jesus asks in the 4th chapter of the gospel of Mark — what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three-parts flour until all of it was leavened.

It’s like a merchant in search of fine pearls – and on finding one pearl of great value he sells all that he has and buys that one pearl.

From the field to the home to the market Jesus described the Kingdom of God with parables – picture stories — relatable images that his listeners could, in their mind’s eye, see.

Jesus said: The kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field which someone found and then hid and sold everything he had to buy that field.

It’s like a net thrown into sea that catches fish of every kind.

The kingdom of God is as if someone scattered seed on the ground and would sleep and rise, night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow and the one who scattered it does not know how.

The kingdom of God is a different kind of reality all around us – It’s happening all the time – can you see it?

Abundant life – exponential life– bursting forth from the most unlikely places. Not by our design or by our control. It’s like the one relentless red flower that keeps popping up in the garden we planned to be blue. Unexpected, surprising, resilient, determined, life – not forced… not coerced… not manipulated or exploited… it’s a treasure hidden for those with eyes to see.

Every example Jesus gives is from practical life – gritty, grounded, in the real world where people live and work. The Kingdom of God is not some other place but every place – among us – all around us.

Years ago I taught a Bible study on the Kingdom of God. After taking a look at the different images Jesus offers, I asked the group to come up with a contemporary metaphor: to what shall we compare the kingdom of God today? I asked.

A silence followed. It was one of those silences that go on long enough to start to feel awkward and uncomfortable. And there’s this incredible pressure as a teacher in this circumstance to fill the void.      Maybe they didn’t understand the question and I need to rephrase it. Or maybe they just need an example to help prime the pump- I can give them one. Or maybe they’re thinking and they just need a little more time. I took a breath and held my tongue.

And an older gentleman spoke. He was one of those guys that attends every Bible study and almost never talks. And he was the first to respond.

The kingdom of God is like the assembly line, he said.

I have never worked on an assembly line. But if I had to describe it, I would have used words like repetitive, monotonous, demanding, dehumanizing… In my mind an assembly line was nothing like the Kingdom of God.

Tell us more, I said.

When I worked on Mr. Ford’s assembly line, I worked next to people from every culture, every place you can imagine, he said. He gave people from all over the world the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, we were all equal on the line and we were all working together to make something – each doing our part.  On the line, we got to know each other.  We talked about each other’s children and what our lives were like. We laughed and cried with each other. We never would have come together except for that line, but when we did, we were like family. It’s been years since I worked on that line, he said, and some of the people I met there have been my friends for life.

         Do you see what he did for us? He painted a picture of life, of joy, of diversity and equality, of individuality yet common purpose – a picture we hadn’t seen that he helped us to see – from everyday life. He made the Kingdom of God come to life for us through the fabric of common circumstance.

Even he had never thought of the assembly line in that way until that day and it lit him up so much that for weeks afterwards he talked with me about it – pushing out the metaphor further and further. There was a place for everyone, he said. Nobody judged anyone as better or worse, he said. When one person suffered, we all suffered. We cheered each other on. Everyone felt needed – every person mattered. The Kingdom of God is like that.

         These are anxious times for many. We hold a dual citizenship – in this country and in the kingdom of God, and we live squarely in both all the time. How we see the Kingdom of God and our part in it informs how we live as citizens of the nation.

We have but one King who does not change. The presidency will change. Laws of this land will change. Tyrants will rise and fall. Storms will come upon us and the ground may shake beneath us, but we have a King whose hand is mighty and whose grip upon us is secure… a King of Kings who relentlessly brings forth life and beauty… whose master plan is ever evolving in a way that is always for us – for all of us – for abundance not scarcity, for hope not fear, for joy not despair, for love not hatred, for shalom.

The Kingdom of God is among us – waiting for us to see it and participate in it – in the common circumstances of our every day: in the garden, in the mall, in the workplace, in the kitchen, in the church…

With what can we compare the kingdom of God today? What parable – what image will we use for it?

 

 

 

7/17/16 – 150th Anniversary of the Cornerstone

Scripture: Mark 8: 27-29

Sermon Title: But whom say ye that I am?

What manner of man is this??? That question swirled around Jesus everywhere he went.

Who is this that even the wind and seas obey him?

Who is this that makes the deaf hear and the mute speak?

Who is this that even the unclean spirits obey him; even the demons know his name?

Isn’t this Mary’s son the carpenter? Isn’t this the brother of James and Joses, Judas and Simon? Aren’t these his sisters? Where did this man get all this power?

Who is this that eats with sinners and tax collectors and holds the crowds spellbound?

You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes, said the young man born blind. All I know is this – I was blind and now I see.

         He told me everything I had ever done! said the Samaritan woman, He can’t be the Messiah, can he?

Then and now in every generation and with every new innovation, the question comes around again – who is Jesus of Nazareth?

His miracles defy logic and reason.

His actions and teachings unnerve the religious establishment.

With a word he calms the storm and comforts the afflicted and with a word he disturbs the complacent.

He teaches in parables – seeking to leave his listeners off kilter, yet inviting them into newer, deeper truth and life.

He speaks and we’re puzzled, yet we hunger for more.

You have the words of life, we say with Peter, where else can we go? But who is this Jesus? Since his mysterious birth, we’ve wanted to know.

Fully God and fully human – the mystery we’ll never get our heads around, yet we proclaim it in faith and have for centuries.

Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father… words from the Nicene Creed. The council that met in Nicaea in the 4th century hashed over language – seeking to define or at least clarify for the church the nature of Jesus, but inquiring minds want more.

Traditionally the focus in the Church has been on the deity of Christ – the other-worldly Jesus serenely depicted in marble and frescos as the Alpha and Omega – the One worthy of our worship and our praise. But what of the human Jesus? The suffering Jesus? The one who walked this earth with us? We want to know him – we are human after all.

In recent decades, we’ve seen renewed quests for the historical Jesus.

Developments in archaeology and cultural studies expose us to the first century Palestinian peasant life of Jesus.

Jewish scholars like Amy-Jill Levine teach us the New Testament through Jewish eyes – helping us understand the religious background of Jesus.

And geo-political studies about life under Roman occupation in the Galilee provide context to his teachings.

So what becomes of the blond haired, blue eyed European Jesus the Western Christian church has known, or thought it knew for centuries? A historically more accurate Jesus emerges: dark-skinned, dark haired, dark eyed.

In 1999 a Vermont artist named Janet McKenzie entered a contest sponsored by the National Catholic Reporter inviting an image of Jesus for the next millennium.

She wanted to give her dark-skinned nephew an image of Jesus he could relate to. And although her finished portrait was masculine, her model was a woman. It allowed me to bring us as women into an image of Jesus, she said.

Her painting entitled: Jesus of the People won the contest.

http://www.janetmckenzie.com/joppage1.html

This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus, said one of the judges – dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence.

         Over His white robe He draws the darkness of our lack of love, holding it to Himself, prepared to transform all sorrows if we will let Him.

Reacting to McKenzie’s portrait, a woman from India wrote:

Who is this Jesus? There was something strongly masculine about it, and yet there was a feminine gentleness, compassion, eyes that held a depth of meaning – looking at me. I had never been able to see these qualities in any other depiction of Jesus. Yes, I had read of Jesus’ compassion, but the visual has a totally different effect from the written word. As I was held spellbound in front of the painting, I began to ask myself: Was this a man or a woman? He was dark skinned, bore a high-cheek bone structure, and lips – while very typical of an African American, it could be a Dalit face, a Tribal Indian face – the marginalized face of society – particularly women… This was a Jesus for the dark continents, the dark spaces in society, the darkness in our lives. This Jesus was definitely one with the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized and women.”

In 1906 a French-German theologian named Albert Schweitzer said: the truth is, it is not Jesus as historically known, but Jesus as spiritually arisen with men, who is significant for our time and can help it. Not the historical Jesus, but the spirit which goes forth from Him and in the spirits of men strives for new influence and rule, is that which overcomes the world.  He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He Is.

Asian, Native American, Latino, white, black – Jesus the Christ transcends culture and time. Yet context matters in the interpretation of his life and teaching. Jesus of Nazareth entered the world at a particular moment in a particular culture practicing a particular tribal religion.

Who do you say that I am? Jesus asks but he doesn’t mean we have some kind of power to determine who he is… to create him in our image… to package him in a way that appeals to us. Magazine covers of Jesus love to do this.

Like the Christianity Today cover that featured a hipster Jesus knocking on the door with sunglasses and the headline: what happens when cool meets Christ?

Or the New Statesman magazine that boasted a cover of “The Radical Jesus” wearing a rebel beret.

Or blogger Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover of a plaid shirted, leather jacketed Jesus and the headline: Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.

Or what about the image of Jesus cloaked in the American flag with a rifle cocked and ready?

Who do you say that I am? Isn’t an invitation to define Jesus as we would have him be, but an invitation to fall on our knees and profess ultimate authority to the one we’ll spend a lifetime studying and seeking to pattern our lives after yet never really fully know until we meet him face to face.

150 years ago, on this spot, disciples of Jesus laid a cornerstone. In it, they placed a box and in the box they left behind key symbols to tell future generations what they believed. Someday maybe we’ll find that cornerstone and that box.

In the meantime, the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia had a copy of maybe the most significant item in the box and they sent it to me. It’s called Manual of Religious Worship with the Confession of Faith and Covenant of the First Presbyterian Church of Tecumseh Michigan, 1866.

In the Covenant are these words: You cordially acknowledge and receive the Lord Jesus Christ to be your only and all-sufficient Saviour—your Prophet to teach you – your Priest to atone and intercede for you – your King to reign over you and protect you.

Who do you say that I am? Jesus asks.

Lord, Savior, Prophet, Priest, King.

A lot has changed in the world in 150 years. The 279 members of this church in 1866, many of whom probably gathered together here on that day – walking some number of miles with children in tow – or maybe in a horse drawn carriage – what would they make of all the changes?

Yet, much remains the same. They actively preached justice working in their day toward an end to slavery. They prioritized taking the gospel out into the community – visiting people in their homes and inviting them into new community in Christ.

As a connectional church, they supported struggling churches in the presbytery – working in partnership, providing financial support for their missions and sharing people and resources. Today’s liturgy for both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is their liturgy. The Hymn of Praise is their hymn. The covenant we proclaim, their covenant. Words through the ages that still ring true.

Today we remember the beginning of what was a three-year building project. On July 16th, 1866 they stood together and prayed and you know, they prayed for us. A cornerstone ceremony is oriented toward the future. Not all of the people that stood there on that day ever worshipped in this space.         Some had died by 1869. Others had moved on to another town. Even Rev. Wishard was pastoring a different church by the time this building was finished and dedicated. What that group of people did 150 years ago they did in faith for us. They endured deep financial sacrifice to build a church that would weather storms. And with a longing to be seen by each new settling family they chose a prominent, visible location with a steeple that would bring the lost home.

They had vision. They had courage. They had faith.

And they knew the answer to the question posed by Jesus: Whom say ye that I am?

Our all-sufficient savior, our prophet and teacher, our priest who forgives us and prays for us, our king who reigns over us with grace and love… then, now, always.

From their words to our hearts, may it be so.

7/10/16 – Invisible City Stories

Scripture: Mark 10:35-38, 46-52

Sermon Title: What do you want me to do for you?

What do you want us to do for you? members of the Invisible City planning team asked the 30 some homeowners. What are your needs? How can we help? We asked the staff of our partner agencies: Department on Aging, Catherine Cobb, Tecumseh Service Club.

         The answers varied: light carpentry, painting, yard work, ramp repair, curtains…

         Our team met with each neighbor and surveyed every site. They listened and logged each request. Often they left with a sense that the need was much greater than what was expressed.

But of course, the answer to a question like this depends on who’s asking.

If instead of our Invisible City mission team members, it was a doctor, or a lawyer or the President of the United States the answers would be different. What do I believe you can do for me?

What do you want me to do for you? – Jesus asked. To brothers James and John – 2 of his disciples – and to a blind beggar on the side of the road, Jesus asked the same question: What do you want me to do for you? It was Jesus asking and they believed he could do a lot.

         You’re on your way to glory! Share it with us! said James and John. But knowing he was headed to the cross, Jesus said You have no idea what you’re asking.

         I want to see, said the beggar. Knowing he was asking for a complete life change, Jesus said: your faith has made you well. In this story, only the beggar gets his request. Only the beggar knows he’s blind.

         A few weeks ago we commissioned Invisible City 2016. We prayed, like that blind beggar, let us see. We prayed to the One who indeed could cause the scales to fall from our eyes. We prayed to see our neighbor and our neighbor’s heart more clearly… to see ourselves more honestly… to see God’s grace in unexpected and surprising ways… and to see the world around us with all it’s beauty and brokenness, potential and frailty, vulnerability and resilience.

         What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asked.

         Lord, we prayed, we want to see.

         And we saw.

I’ve invited people to share their stories from Invisible City this morning. David – what did you see? Stephanie- what did you see? Robert- what did you see?

So, now what? Now that Invisible City 2016 is over – now what? What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asks.

Dennis Boman of Tecumseh Service Club said to me: I want our work together with Invisible City to be transformational rather than transactional. Transformational rather than transactional.

Transaction is the site survey, the task list, the checked off projects, the stated needs asked and answered; Invisible City as an event with a start and end date.

Transactional ministry will always leave us sensing that the need is so much greater than what was accomplished – the surface barely scratched.

         Transformation is concerned with bigger fish: isolation, vulnerability, loss, working toward greater security, health, and restored community.         Transformation digs deep and builds up. Transformational ministry is about life change and it’s ongoing.

Transactions are an important way to build relationships toward transformation, but if the shift never happens to transformation, it might be like perpetually rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

         What do you want us to do for you? The answer to the question depends on who’s asking. And who is asking? How would the answers change if homeowners and neighbors and agency staff – and we – began to believe it was actually Jesus asking –

…through all of us as his agents, representatives, ambassadors on earth? If we believe he’s asking the question, how does that change the whole enterprise?

         As disciples of Jesus, we are sent to be his hands, his feet, his heart, his body – his voice, his ears, his eyes.

What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asks. Live through us. Heal through us. Be seen in us. That not what we will, but what you will, be done – in your name Jesus, and for your glory.

7/3/16

Scripture: Mark 9:33-37

Sermon Title: What are you arguing about?

In Moscow, Idaho they tell the story of Gert Rizzoli. She was one of those people who always sat in the same pew. Hers was right on the center aisle in the front row. That’s how we know she wasn’t Presbyterian.

Gert, a long-time church goer, was so devoted to her spot in the pew at Featherside Congregational church that when she passed away, her family received permission to bronze her body and set it in the pew. Now, to the consternation of some church members, her body is permanently located in the aisle seat of the front pew she occupied every Sunday for forty years.

She loved gazing at the pastor from that spot and being the first to receive Communion, says daughter Sofia. It gave her a sense of deep, spiritual comfort.

But fellow church-goers also remember Gert’s stiff response to anyone who tried to take her place. One man was shooed away by Gert on several occasions when he arrived early and inadvertently took her spot, he says. Now the bronze statue serves as an irritating reminder of the encounter. It’s like she’s still there defending her seat, he says.

When church members enter the sanctuary now, they can’t help but catch the glare of light off of Gert’s bronzed pate. Visitors find it inconvenient to climb over her, and children have stubbed their toes on her hardened shins. She was a Christ-like lady, except when it came to giving up that spot, says a family friend. She had a real sense of her turf.

Pastor Len Kerralt, who agreed to the odd memorial, looks upon Gert’s frozen smile each Sunday from the pulpit. It’s nice to know, he said, at least one person is enjoying the sermon.

But others still mumble about the nuisance. What if more people request the same thing? one woman asks. Pretty soon the church will be filled with bronze statues.

What were you arguing about? Jesus asked his disciples. And just like Gert’s bronze statue, they fell silent. His question made them flush with shame.

         It all went back to that boy – the one who couldn’t speak – the one who had such terrible seizures. His father begged the disciples to heal him and they couldn’t. They tried everything – everything they’d seen Jesus do. And the scribes, as they looked on, had a field day. They stood along the sidelines mocking. It made these disciples feel so small… so helpless… so ineffective. Was this a test of their faithfulness, their power, their readiness to take on the mantle of their beloved rabbi? If so, they had failed.

What were you arguing about? Jesus asked them. Which among them was greatest… and which among them wasn’t. 9 out of 12 couldn’t heal the boy that day. In front of crowds. In front of other religious leaders. In front of the boy’s father.

The three that were missing – Peter, James and John- were with Jesus – participating in an exclusive mountaintop experience. They had front-row seats as he transfigured before them. And when they came down the mountain, the crowd, led by a frustrated yet still hopeful father ran to greet them, leaving the other 9 in the dust.

It’s easy when you’re not there to think you would have done it better, right? It’s hard not to say anything too isn’t it… The conversation starts so innocently: Peter asks: So what happened? What did you do? And John chimes in: Did you pray first? Seriously? You didn’t pray first? And James asks: Did you say the name of Jesus? No- I mean, did you actually say his name of just think his name?

         Oh, like you would have remembered all the steps perfectly, one of the 9 snaps back.

Well, I would have, Peter says, I’ve been listening. I’ve been paying attention. I’ve been sitting in the front row.

         And John says: Did you try just loving the boy? Or was it all about the mechanics for you?

         You weren’t even there, John – what do you know? And just like that Jesus has a problem. Dissention and competitiveness in the ranks.

Those who failed to heal the boy already feel vulnerable – already feel ill-equipped, unworthy, useless. Those who weren’t there and think they could have done it better add salt to the wounds.     So next time what happens? The nine step back: Ok – since you think you’re so great – you do it.

But it’s not going to happen like that because Jesus sits them down together and teaches them a lesson about true greatness. It’s about emptying… about serving… about embracing the least, the last, the lost… anyone can do it… everyone can do it. Then he takes a little child by the hand and holding him in his arms, he says: It’s about how you treat one of these – receive him as a friend, teach her, accept her, listen and support him, advocate for her and stand by her side – welcome them and you welcome me.

         And here’s what a child represents in Jesus day: along with widows and aliens – they are the lowest social class. They have no legal rights. They have no voice. They have no standing. They are invisible.

This teaching is a radical reversal. In Jesus day, it was all about impressing the religious leadership – all about credentials – there was a definite hierarchy. Every studious Jewish boy dreamed of a seat on the esteemed council of the Sanhedrin – the great hall of power – the very council that eventually tried Jesus and crucified him.

Jesus said: It’s not about impressing them. It’s about welcoming and honoring the least of these. That’s true greatness.

Today we remember the Rev. Kelly S. Allen.

Up until she died unexpectedly June 5th at age 50, she was the pastor of the University Presbyterian Church in San Antonio Texas. Kelly led others to set the world a little more right, said one colleague.

She devoted her life to welcoming the least in the name of Jesus. It was while leading a workshop on Women’s Stories of Resistance and Courage that she became ill with a massive stroke. She died while lifting up the stories of immigrant women, civil rights activists and Hebrew midwives – stories of courage meant to encourage.

As chairwoman of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, Kelly advocated for the just and humane treatment of immigrant mothers and children detained in centers in Dilley and Karnes City Texas. To help the vulnerable and the weak no matter the cost, was the overriding theme of her life.

One of my friends, Rev. Traci Smith, was with Kelly at the conference and stayed with her until her death. At Kelly’s memorial, Traci asked: How will we fill those big shoes she left for us? How will we ever fill a void so big as the void she left in our hearts, in our church, and in our community? The answer is we can’t. People like Kelly are once in a lifetime people. What we can do is tell her story to ourselves and to others. We can make sure that the lessons she taught us about standing up for what we believe in, and about being brave in the face of injustice are lessons we truly take to heart.

         What are you arguing about? Jesus asked – then and now.

From Brexit to the Supreme Court, immigration is one of the biggest arguments we’re having in the world today.

The Presbyterian Church has a long and complicated history over immigration.

In 1835 Presbyterian minister, founder of the American Temperance Society and father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rev. Lyman Beecher railed against the dangerous “hive” of Catholic immigrants. Their allegiance to Rome, he feared would undermine Protestant civil and religious freedoms.

After the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, leading Protestants voiced concern over Asian immigrants. they’d bring with them Buddhist meditation and Hindu yoga practices that would lead people right out of their pews into idolatry.

But then Northern Presbyterians began to see immigration as an opportunity for evangelism – God was bringing the ends of the earth to them. That tenuous moment when new immigrants arrived on their doorsteps, vulnerable and afraid, they were ripe for conversion. Thankfully, our theology and our practices have greatly changed over the years.

In San Antonio Texas, Rev. Kelly Allen was a faithful laborer in that field. For her, immigration wasn’t about talking points, tweets, political rhetoric or religious exploitation. For her immigration was about fragile children and their mothers. It was about listening and legal rights and humanity… about education, food, shelter and safety… about collaborative partnerships and justice, freedom, friendship and welcome.

She knew that while the halls of power debate and posture and delay, there are real people in the crossfire with real stories and real needs and Kelly was there, always there, courageously present with them – a symbol of true greatness in the name of Jesus.

What are you arguing about on the way? – Jesus asked. On the way – literally to Jerusalem, which is on the way to the cross.

What are you arguing about? he asked his motley crew of disciples as they moved ever closer to the halls of power where Jesus would lay his life down in love for the least of these.

What are you arguing about? Jesus asks today to followers of his Way.

It’s not that we’re arguing that’s the problem. In fact, literally in the Greek, the word is dialogue. If anything, in today’s instant one-line culture, there’s far too little real dialogue. No, the question is, what are we arguing about? what and who are we arguing for?

The Church of Jesus Christ is nothing if it is full of bronze statues – claiming the best seat in the house – the first place in line – privilege, status, entitlement, security, comfort.

But it is everything if it is filled with humble-hearted, bold and courageous servants of the living God, loving the least in the name and for the sake of Jesus.

Gert’s story isn’t real. It’s a cautionary tale. The real stories are out there. By God’s grace, may we hear them.

6/19/16

Scripture: Mark 8:1-12a

Sermon Title: Why does this generation ask for a sign?

First there was 1… then 2, then 3… then there were 10, then 20… 50… 100 and by last Friday afternoon, there were 150 hand painted signs on the front lawn of Exit Realty Central in Orlando. Several of the employees’ friends were among the victims of the deadly shooting at the Pulse nightclub last Sunday morning.

Initially, the signs on the lawn were meant simply to honor them. But as the number of signs grew, so did their purpose. They’re all different, but they speak common themes: strength, peace, equality, love.

One woman was so moved by them as she drove by that she stopped and borrowed paint and brushes from the realty company and made her own sign of a blood-splattered broken heart. Even during hard times, there’s beauty, she said, I hope that this shows there’s more love than hate in the world.

Signs… they communicate. They guide us on highways, show us where the anchor stores are in malls and where we can park our cars – sometimes they get specific on that: compact cars and handicapped parking, visitors and employees… in some places expectant mothers get preferred parking and in other places, if you dare to claim the title “elderly” you get to park up close.

Signs point us to clearance racks and dressing rooms and check-out lines. Sometimes they’re about rules: What we can and can’t take on the airplane, who’s allowed in the hot tub and for how long, expected behavior in the classroom or on the playground. Sometimes they’re completely ignored – as if they’re suggestions – or only apply to some people. For example, I know that Cart Path Only means nothing to my dad – he cruises right past that sign and down the center of the fairway every time.

Signs warn us of impending danger: rock slides and dead ends, Keep Out! Don’t Touch! Hazardous Explosives. They publicize upcoming events, advertise jobs, promote politicians, and invite us to open houses. Signs help us navigate life. They clarify in the midst of confusion… provide order and structure to chaos. Can you imagine a sign-less world?

Sign, sign everywhere a sign… blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. We started singing that song on an Invisible City job site last week when I asked the question of the sermon for this week to my team: Why does this generation ask for a sign?

Do this, don’t do that – can’t you read the sign?? None of us could remember who sang it – anyone?? 1971 – Canadian band. We had to Google it – Five Man Electrical Band – nothing’s a mystery anymore.

Why does this generation ask for a sign? Jesus asked – after a deep sigh. This is eye-rolling Jesus. And can you blame him?

It’s the Pharisees that are asking for it – of all people. These are the ones who’ve devoted their lives to studying the law of God. It’s their job to teach and protect the people. They’ve been hoping and waiting for the Messiah for years. They know exactly what he’s supposed to look and sound like and this Jesus is not what they planned for. He’s confusing and reckless and they’re really just wanting some proof — some sign that his authority is legit.

They’re just checking his credentials – double and triple checking them.

It sounds so silly to us, though, when they ask for a sign right after this amazing story in the wilderness where he takes 7 loaves of bread and feeds 4000 people. He just kept breaking it and giving it to his disciples to hand out over and over again until every one was filled and there were baskets of crumbs leftover. Literally it was manna in the wilderness – talk about a sign! What more do you want?

This same story is repeated in Matthew’s gospel, but there, Jesus calls the Pharisees blind guides of the blind. As if nothing he ever does will be seen by them as a legitimate sign. He can cast out demons, feed multitudes, and heal people with a touch or a word even and it’s never enough.

Why does this generation ask for a sign?

To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior which is Christ the Lord, and this will be a sign unto you – we can hear Linus in the Charlie Brown Christmas – we can see him standing in the middle of that stage with his blue blanket at his feet this will be a sign unto you – you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

A child wrapped in swaddling clothes? A manger? Nothing like they expected.

Years go by – centuries even – and the questions continue:

For God’s sake, where is God?? Where is he??? was the haunting question of the holocaust asked in survivor and Nobel Prize Winner Elie Wiesel’s book Night.

Is God Dead? asked the big red bold letters on the black background of the famous 1966 Time Magazine cover. And the author of the article inside, religion editor John T. Elson, wrote: all too many pews are filled on Sunday with practical atheists—disguised nonbelievers who behave during the rest of the week as if God did not exist.

And then the 1980’s and 90’s saw the birth of the Jesus Seminar with its search for the historical Jesus. Who was Jesus really? What did he actually say?

Show us a sign! We want to if you mean what you say – if you are the Genuine Article– we need to be sure. There’s so much at stake.

Every generation… every age as it faces its unique challenges and crises… asks for a sign. It’s why people packed churches immediately following September 11th – and somewhat again during the global financial crisis of 2008. But what about this generation? Why does this generation ask for a sign?

Born in the mid-1990’s experts in generational theory call them the i-generation. It’s kind of a nod to the i-pod and i-phone, i-watch and i-tunes. This generation’s identity is directly linked to their use of technology, multi-media and electronic communication. They grow up IM-ing, snap-chatting and Facebook messaging. To them, a phone is not a phone. It is a personal, portable computer. Everything and everyone is accessible.

They also grew up in the aftermath of September 11th, they’re coming of age when gay marriage is legal everywhere, global climate change matters to them and ISIS is real.

Why does this generation ask for a sign? It’s true that information is instantly available, but the combined talent of SIRI, Wikipedia and Google do not have all the answers and they know it. This generation is absolutely aware of the gravity and complexity of the world and they want their lives to matter. They long to believe that love really is stronger than hate – hope greater than despair.

Longing in the human heart is universal. The God-sized hole that human beings seek to fill by whatever means is available in every generation – that hole which can only be filled by the one who created us – transcends generation and technology.

But, and here’s the kicker, Jesus says – after the deep sigh toward heaven he says: Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.

No sign will be given, he said. Interpret that.

Another song was sung on an Invisible City job site last week. This one was by Barry Manilow from 1974:

It’s a miracle (miracle) a true blue spectacle a miracle come true.

One of our team members started singing it at the end of an emotionally and physically draining day – when she stood back and looked around her.

Three of us went on ahead of the rest of our team to a woman’s house—hearing there was much work to be done there.

I rang her doorbell – no response. I rang it again. I called her name. Eventually she came to the door. It was obvious she needed help. I called 911 and waited with her until EMS came. Watching the ambulance drive her away, our team was shaken. But one by one, we began to pick up our tools and get to work.

It was evident she’d been an avid gardener once. Her landscaping was beautiful although badly overgrown. Her health was failing and the whole thing was overwhelming. We all stayed in the front yard – there was more than enough of a challenge there.

But the backyard gate was open — beckoning. I wandered back to take a look. It was magical. Hidden beneath piles of leaves and heavy overgrowth you could barely perceive what once had been a place of beauty. But it would take so much work to restore it. I went back to work in the front yard. As people on our team took breaks, they’d wander back and then return. Did you see the backyard?

At some point, we noticed one of our team members had gone missing.

We found her in the back, rake in hand tackling the patio. Another member went missing. We found him on the side of the house pruning and clearing the sidewalk to the back gate. One thing led to another… more team members ventured into the back yard to work – and there was a weed whacker and a leaf blower and lo and behold a winding brick walkway emerged.

There were all kinds of exotic plants and garden boxes, an old hot tub, a kiln and a hanging swing. We all swept and raked and the space was transformed. That was Friday.

Over the last couple of days her story is coming together piece by piece. She lives alone.   Compromised health and emotional crises left her fragile, overwhelmed and isolated. Her blinds were drawn, her house was dark, she lived among its shadows.

After she went into the hospital, our partner from Tecumseh Service Club- the agency who referred her to us went into her house –with her permission– to collect some information. She had directed him to a small black notebook. On the first page, written in elegant script were the words from the French short story Little Prince: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.

Our team member took a rake to the back yard and with every pile of leaves and debris she imagined a story in her mind of this woman at another time when life was easier and lighter and free, and she was determined to do her part to restore it – at least the space for it – so that when the woman comes home, she’ll find it: a miracle – a true blue spectacle – a sign that even during hard times there’s beauty, strength, hope, life, love.

The sign has already been given. The author of life walks among us still – whispering, teaching, guiding, revealing – a hidden grace. And we, with our hands, hearts, voices, lives – we are signs for this generation – in his name, for his sake.

We have a story to tell – a faith to pass on – of a living, loving truth. A sign has been given unto us and by the Holy Spirit, engraved upon us. St. Augustine calls the sacraments outward and visible signs of an inward and invisible grace. May our lives be sacraments – that all who see us see in us the story of God’s amazing grace.

6/12/16 – Commissioning Sunday

Scripture: Mark 2:1-12

Sermon Title: Which is Easier?

         My brother, Charles, is not able to read or write, so on his behalf, his family would like to thank First Presbyterian Church of Tecumseh for sending three gentlemen to his home to repair and replace the walkway of his ramp.

         I am sending this letter to say thanks for the group that came to my home and did a wonderful job cleaning my lawn.

         My heartfelt thanks goes to the 6 people on the committee who cleaned my yard, gutters, burning bush and all the work they did to make my home and surroundings look so beautiful.

         I want to thank the team of people from your church for the wonderful work they did in my yard and inside.

         The help you gave me of tree trimming and removing stones in front of my home was appreciated so very, very much.

Invisible City is hard work. If you happen to be assigned to a yard-work team, you’ll be pruning and raking and weeding and lopping and clearing away huge piles of debris.

If painting is your assignment, you’ll be prepping and mixing and taping and edging and rolling and cleaning everything when you’re done.

If you’re organizing the inside of a home, you’ll be clearing a path and sorting and piling and carrying and replacing or removing- it’ll be multiple trips to the dumpster.

Your back and arms and feet and legs will ache at the end of each day and we’ll all be filthy with sweat and dirt. But the truth is, it’s far easier for us to do what we’ll be doing than it is for the people we’re helping. In fact, what we’ll be doing is impossible to do for most if not all of them.

People in wheelchairs can’t fix their own ramps. Those recovering from surgery can’t do their own yard-work. A woman who needs a walker for balance can’t climb a ladder to paint. And a lifetime’s accumulation of things is overwhelming; yet sometimes needs to be dealt with.

The man’s friends in today’s gospel story do all the up-front heavy lifting too. They carried him to the house and then hoisted him up to the roof. They dug through the clay and thatch to make a man-sized hole – then figured out some kind of pulley system to lower him down. Then – without falling in themselves or dropping him, they gently let him down through the roof to place him before Jesus.

Think of the wear and tear on their bodies – their backs and their shoulders – their legs, hands and upper arms.  Oh, but how much easier it was for them than for him.

Through our hard work we make it easier for them. We take off their hands and minds the things we’re able to do… then, with the branches removed, they can see out their front window… with the ramp repaired, they can safely move in and out of their house, with the weeds eliminated, they can enjoy their gardens… with new curtains and freshly painted walls, they can breathe in positive energy. In these ways and others, through Invisible City, we help them.

But is that what Invisible City is really about?

         Which is easier, Jesus asked, to say to the paralytic ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or to say ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk.’

Which is easier? Literally which is the easier work. The man’s healing involves work. Up until this point, it’s been the labor of faith and love of his friends. Jesus now turns to the man. This work is his: the spiritual hard work of accepting forgiveness and the physical and psychological work of leaving the mat and its identity behind.

Which is easier?

We’re coming alongside people this week. Every single one has a story. And each one is different.

Most, at one time, could do and even enjoyed doing the very things we’ll be doing for them, but because of any number of circumstances, their abilities are different today. Loss is the common element. Some have lost spouses. Others are not as strong as they once were, illness or surgeries have left them with limited mobility, still others have lost mental focus.

We’ll encounter loneliness and estrangement, bitterness and frustration. There are far deeper needs than what’s on paper hidden just below the surface. Will we have the eyes to see?

Several of us worked at a job site last year – weeding and weeding and weeding.

While we sweated and toiled away, the home-owner sat on her patio. You missed a spot, she’d say. You have to pull those out by the roots – it’s not doing any good if you do it that way, she’d say.

It felt like she was ungrateful – rude even. Seriously?? our team members grumbled – not loud enough that she could hear of course. It was challenging. You can imagine.

A couple of us worked around the patio. She welcomed conversation. She’d lost her husband a couple of years before and her own illness and surgeries now made the yard work more than she could handle. But oh how she used to love doing it.

I’d spend hours and hours in it, she said, I’d make sure everything was just so.

She wasn’t able to do any of it anymore. You could hear the pain in her voice. We began to see her heart – her deep sense of loss.

Jesus is in the business of restoration. More than restoration of yards or homes or ramps, he’s interested in restoring dignity and voice and purpose and humanity this week – in and through all of us.

Which is easier – weeding, pruning, painting, cleaning, sewing, cooking or learning to see ourselves and others more clearly, more honestly, more empathically – learning to really see in each one a heart yearning to be loved well.

When do I get to be part of the circle? my friend Pauline asked. When will someone notice that week after week, when you ask people to circle up to pray before dinner, I am left alone at the table in my wheelchair while you all pray together?

Every week someone wheeled her in for our community meal and pushed her up to a table. Every week someone prepared a plate and took it to her.

And every week when we all gathered to offer thanks to God, no one noticed that she was left behind by herself – unable on her own to get to the circle. It wasn’t intentional.

Had anyone seen her and thought about the fact that she couldn’t wheel herself, they’d have brought her in. But we didn’t see. Until she asked the question: When do I get to be part of the circle?

In 1999 at the 211th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, it was the stated expectation for all commissioners wishing to speak to walk to a microphone where they could be seen and heard. So when one of the commissioners raised her hand and began to speak, the moderator stopped her and asked her to walk to a microphone. She said that as a paraplegic she was unable to get to the microphone. Later in that same meeting when she raised her hand and began to speak again, again the moderator instructed her to walk to a microphone. She explained a second time that she was a paraplegic.

She said she would walk to the microphone if she could but unless the moderator was Jesus it wasn’t going to happen.

Like my friend Pauline’s question, this was a wakeup call for the Church – to see… really see.

Out of this, came a resolution to develop a disability social witness policy. And in 2006 the policy: Living into the Body of Christ: Towards Full Inclusion of People with Disabilities was approved.

But that policy didn’t go far enough.

Story after story over the last 10 years revealed how hard it is to live together, differently abled, fully honoring one another in the church and in society.

Today is Disability Inclusion Sunday. Not that every Sunday shouldn’t be, but for one Sunday a year, the 2nd Sunday of June, all of the member congregations of the PC(USA) are encouraged to shine a light on the challenges and barriers to full inclusion of all God’s children in our life together.

Inclusion means more than architectural accessibility, says a new study document released in 2015 called “Better Together”.

An inclusive church respects, welcomes, and celebrates the abilities of all its members.

         Why doesn’t anyone ask me to help? Pauline asked another time. I can do something. Wheel me into the kitchen; I can dry dishes. Give me a stapler; I can staple your handouts. Give me a book; let me read to the children. She wanted more than to be wheeled into the circle, she wanted to participate in the life and ministry of the church.

Inclusion is God’s love and justice made real in the daily lives of people of all abilities in the church and in society, the 2015 document challenges. Inclusion is a paradigm shift from us and them to a deeper practice that invites all to stand, all to speak, all to contribute, all to know more fully God’s love.

Eleven-year-old Joel says it best. Joel has autism. His family sits in the front row where he can’t kick the pew in front of him or grab someone’s hair. One Communion Sunday he watched and listened as the pastor raised the plate in the air and said: This is the body of Christ broken for you. And the pastor raised the cup in the air and said: This is the blood of Christ poured out for you.

Joel reached over and pulled on his mother’s sleeve and grinned. His face lit up as if from within. He stood up tall, and tapped himself on the chest. ‘For me! For me!’ he cried joyfully. He turned around to the people behind them. ‘For me!’ he repeated. ‘For me!’

Joel gets it. God’s love, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness is for all, no matter how differently abled.

As I prepared the sermon for today – thinking about this as Disability Inclusion Sunday, what that might mean for us with Invisible City and the challenge to include every person in the full life and ministry of the church – I wondered how many among us feel like Invisible City isn’t something we can do because we aren’t able to wield a chainsaw, navigate loppers, power wash siding or climb ladders.

Well, Sherry Peterson needs some sewers and people who will assist with making curtains for Catherine Cobb- the domestic violence shelter. She said even if you can’t sew, she needs your help.

And Marge Ward needs some cooks willing to make casseroles and other items to feed the teams this week.

And I need some people willing to be prayer partners- to pray through the week for each site-  and encouragement note writers. And we need roving photographers and people willing to be on hand to run for items. And our teams could use people who would love to have a glass of iced tea with a home-owner and listen to his or her heart.

There’s a place and a space for everyone – of all abilities– as we minister in the name of Jesus.

We’ll be entering sacred space this week. We’re invited into people’s homes and yards. I pray we’ll also be invited into each other’s hearts for the real work of restoration. Imagine the kinds of notes that would generate from everyone involved.

 

 

6/5/16 – Graduation Sunday

Scripture: John 1:19-23, 29-38a

Sermon Title: What are you looking for?

What are you looking for? The first words the gospel writer John attributes to Jesus come in the form of an enigmatic question:

What are you looking for?

If he asked that question here, today, some among us would say: the cornerstone. Because ironically, we don’t know where it is. Yes, it’s true. We’re preparing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of this church on this corner and we can’t find it.

We know a dedication service took place here on July 16, 1866.

We believe that a box about (so) big was laid in it.

And we know the inventory of its contents: a Bible, hymnal, Religious Manual, Covenant of Faith, Membership roster, etc. we don’t know where it is.

It’s the big mystery and this weekend through Promenade, we’re inviting the community to join us on the Quest for the Holy Cornerstone. Aurora from the Tecumseh Historical Society is convinced that in a small town like this one, somebody knows somebody whose ancestor worked on this and if we ask around enough, we’ll find just the clue we need. In the meantime, the search continues.

I’ve often said if I could have the time back I’ve spent looking for stuff I’ve misplaced, I would add years to my life: keys, shoes, purse, glasses, cell phone, car in the parking lot…

Where are my shoes?? our kids yelled frequently as they were growing up – usually when we were already running late. I don’t know – I don’t wear your shoes, Andy and I would yell in response. Funny how now that they’re older and back at home they feed that right back to us—Anybody seen my purse? No mom—I don’t wear your purse.

What are you looking for? Jesus asked.

This is one of those questions where context and circumstance matter.

Last week I had the privilege of meeting Beth McCullough. Many of you may know Beth – she’s the Lenawee County Home and School liaison for homeless children or Families in Transition. She advocates for school-aged children whose families live in shelters, motels, campgrounds, cars, on other people’s couches… There are currently over 700 children and youth who fit that category in this county. What are they looking for? Their answers might include things like: a safe place to stay for the night, my next meal, shoes that fit my feet, a way out.

Depending upon what we’re going through at any given point in our lives, our answers vary:

A job, a cure, hope, a decent night’s sleep, a girlfriend or boyfriend, community, meaningful conversation, cheap air fare, a good book, peace and quiet, adventure…

It’s a multi-leveled question – as are many of the questions Jesus asked – and we can be sure he never intends for us to remain at the surface level.         It’s a question of expectations, but there’s no qualification. It isn’t What are you looking for in a Messiah? or What are you looking for out of life? or What are you looking for in this relationship? It transcends categories and begs for deeper reflection.

What are you looking for? What are you searching for? What are you yearning for? Jesus asked the two disciples… his first two disciples according to the gospel writer John.

They were John’s disciples first. Intrigued by something in the eccentric baptizer’s message they’d left their homes and journeyed into the Judaean wilderness. Something wasn’t right to them — wasn’t right with the world, wasn’t right with their religion or wasn’t right within themselves… or maybe all three – they were restless and needed a change.

John the Baptist critiqued society, leadership and religion, and called people to a radical return to God: to justice and mercy and concern for the poor. He wasn’t talking about pretending to be holy – saying one thing and doing something different; he was calling for authentic lives of faith and action.

This morning we gave the high school graduates a book – not a Bible – a book called The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.

The author Shane Claiborne writes: Welcome to the irresistible revolution, a new and ancient way of life that is so attractive, who would settle for anything else? The revolution begins inside each of us, and through little acts of love, it will take over the world.

I don’t know of a better book to make real this journey of following Christ – particularly for young adults. Like John the Baptist and Jesus after him, Shane Claiborne strikes a cord with people who want to be part of a bigger story… want their lives to make a difference in the lives of others…want to believe that this faith they’ve learned as children is real and life changing and world healing… people who want to take Jesus at his word and who want to be a part of a community that doesn’t play church but is church… people who speak and act in bold, selfless love.

What does a fully devoted Christian look like? Shane Claiborne asked, and that launched a search for him that led him to study the lives of the desert fathers and mothers of the 5th century, St. Francis and Clare of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa. At the time of his quest in the 1990’s, Mother Teresa was still alive.

When people asked about her work in Calcutta, she would say Come and see.

So at 2am one night Shane placed a call from his dorm lounge on a pay phone. A raspy voice answered the phone. Hi-I’m-calling-from the USA-trying-to-reach-Mother-Teresa-or-the-Missionaries-of-Charity-I’m wanting-to-visit, Shane said into the receiver.

This is the Missionaries of Charity. This is Mother Teresa, said the voice on the other end.

After a shocked pause, Shane continued. He explained he’d like to spend the summer in Calcutta. She said Come.

He went to Calcutta searching for Christianity, hoping to find an old nun who believed Jesus actually meant what he said. After her death, a reporter asked Shane if Mother Teresa’s spirit will live on. He said: To be honest, Mother Teresa died a long time ago, when she gave her life to Jesus. The joy and compassion and love that the world finds so magnetic are only Jesus, and that is eternal. I saw that eternal love all over Calcutta. I found Christ in the lepers, the children, the destitute, the workers. I even began to recognize that Christ lives in me. Mother Teresa always said: Calcuttas are everywhere if only we have eyes to see. Find your Calcutta.

What are you looking for? Jesus asked the two disciples. They don’t answer his question directly. Maybe it took them off guard. Maybe they were afraid they’d say the wrong answer. Maybe they really didn’t know. Maybe it’s left unanswered so that it can be our question:

What are you looking for?

The intention of this summer preaching series that starts today is to open up the questions of Jesus in the gospels – to say a bit about their context, and then to engage them – individually and as a church. It’s not my intention to answer them, but to release them and invite each of us, and all of us to respond.

For John, it’s the first question and throughout his gospel, he makes the case that Jesus is the answer:

If you’re hungry – Jesus says: I am bread.

If you’re walking in darkness – I am light.

If you’re tired of fraud and deception– I am truth.

If you’re searching for a different path – I am the  way.

If you’re lost – I am the gate.

If you’re weary – I am life.

What are you looking for? Jesus asks, and then he says: Come and see.

Looking for the cornerstone? Jesus says: I am.

5/29/16 – Memorial Day

Scripture: Selected verses Hebrews 11-12

Sermon Title: Roll Call

I couldn’t believe they were all there. I mean I invited them so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see them – but people are busy and it was a Sunday afternoon in August.

So many of them came: colleagues from seminary, people I’d studied the Bible with from the church in Plymouth where we’d raised our children, leaders from the camp ministry I co-founded in the late 90’s, friends who’d gone on mission trips with me, and brothers and sisters in Christ from my internship church where I first learned to preach. My family was there too of course… even some of the parents from our son’s travel baseball team came and my college roommate was there too.

My great cloud of witnesses came from all different parts of my life – they came –on August 28th 2005 to celebrate my ordination to ministry with me.        The sanctuary of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor was packed. As people came forward one by one to take communion, I was overwhelmed by face after face – every person there in some way or another shaped me into the person I was becoming – helped form my ministry by God’s grace– and they were there – cheering me on to the next leg of the race stretching out before me.

We are all surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses – seen and unseen in our lives – people God has brought alongside us to teach, inspire and change us- that we might be about God’s work together.

The author of Hebrews reminds us: when we’re talking about our faith family, the great cloud of witnesses is ever so much greater. Abel and Noah, Abraham and Moses, Sarah and Rahab, Jacob and Joseph and on and on it goes – the Roll Call of the faithful whose legacy we bear – whose baton we carry forth – even as they cheer us on.

In 2008, iconographer Mark Dukes created an amazing visual representation of this for the people of Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Slide01His 3000 square foot painting wraps around the entire church and includes portraits of 90 saints Slide02connected in a giant line-dance with a 12-foot dancing Christ in the center.Slide03

What makes this particularly interesting is its cast of characters: Dostoevsky and Anne Frank, Francis of Assisi and Ella Fitzgerald, Desmond Tutu and Abraham Heschel, King David and Julian of Norwich.Slide04

 

Back when the project was conceived, congregation members nominated 350 people. Of these, 90 saints of deep conviction and courageous action were chosen: Slide05singers and poets, civil rights leaders and social activists,Slide06 biblical heroes and mystics, martyrs and environmentalists… Slide07They line the walls of this church – dancing, cheering, emboldening the faithful witness of the gathered flock below – reminding them that they too have a part in God’s cosmic dance.

Every year on All-Saints Day, Saint Gregory’s worship leader leads the people in a parade through the church – naming every one of the silent witnesses with the repetitive refrain:

The saints dance above and we dance below. Give praise for the lives of the saints! Give thanks for all prophets and messengers, the cantor sings, and the roll call continues. Give thanks for all martyrs… for all artists, writers and singers… give thanks for those who work to do justice…praise for all mystics, apostles and pastors…for all scientists and for all healers… After each section names of the portraits above are read and the refrain is sung and the people move around the space together:

         The saints dance above and we dance below. Give praise for the lives of the saints!

The litany ends with these words:

Give praise for ancestors and those still to come

Give praise for the nameless and for the well- known

Give praise for heretics, for workers, for slackers

for poets and soldiers and farmers and teachers

Give praise for children, give praise for elders

Give praise for strangers and for our best friends

The saints dance above and we dance below give praise for the lives of the saints.

         The stories of heroes and heroines of the faith are told and their legacies are lived on through the lives of the faithful below.

That was the hope of the writer of Hebrews too. Written near the end of the first century, followers of Jesus desperately needed encouragement.

Almost all of the original apostles were dead – most brutally killed; tortured and beaten like their Savior. Savage Roman emperors burned Christians as human torches to light their garden parties. Many entered the coliseum as bait for starved animals.

It was much easier to deny Christ and worship the Emperor. But the movement depended upon followers; the world wouldn’t change without them. Written as a litany to be shared with believers, the letter to the Hebrews cheered them on.

Imagine the worship leader telling each story – of obedience, of faith, of victory, of courage while the congregation responded over and over again – with increasing conviction the words: By Faith!

         This church has its great cloud of witness too – going way back to its beginning:

By faith in 1825, Noah Wells preached the first sermon ever heard by a Presbyterian minister in Tecumseh.

By faith in 1826, Rev. Alanson Darwin from Shelby New York visited this place uncertain of what God may have in mind, yet faithful to God’s purpose, and became a Home Missionary to this frontier.

By faith in 1828, under the leadership of Rev. Darwin, the First Presbyterian Church of Tecumseh was organized.

By faith in 1833, needing a place to worship and learn, they built their first church building.

By faith the same year that building called The Session House was completed, they began work on a new church – the Spirit was moving in a mighty way. They called this new church The White Frame Meeting House. It had 67 pews! It could hold up to 400 people.

By faith they dedicated that building in 1840, and by 1863, they were on the move again.

By faith, in 1864 the Society purchased a piece of property on the corner of Maiden Lane and Chicago.

By faith, the 279 members of the church raised $15000 and the cornerstone was laid in 1866.

By the end of the year, the walls were up, the roof was on and the money was spent.

By faith in 1868, $8000 more was raised.

By faith, in early 1869 there was $11000 more and work was able to be completed.

And what of the stories of faith that can be told about the next 150 years of our church? Of mission trips and youth events… of Sunday school celebrations and music festivals… of revivals and baptisms… of weddings and deaths… of war and struggles for freedom… of robust growth and economic hardship… of joy and sorrow, anger and hurt, life and love and faith…

The saints dance above as we dance below – we the members and friends of First Presbyterian Church Tecumseh in 2016 honor their legacy.

Today, in conjunction with our celebration of the 150th anniversary of the laying of our cornerstone, we introduce the Legacy Fund. It’s a way to honor the people of our lives who have inspired our faith by continuing their legacy through new ministries and expressions of discipleship.

A couple of our artists are creating a canvas legacy wall. It will be temporarily installed in the hallway leading to the sanctuary with a faux brick backdrop and the block numbers 150.

Inscribed on the bricks will be the names of our Great Cloud of Witnesses. And a photo collage will cover the numbers. We’ll dedicate this wall in worship on July 17.

Maybe there’s not a single person you want to honor, but an area of ministry that impacted your life. If you are who you are because God became known to you through youth group or mission trips or singing in the choir, you can flip the card and make a legacy gift to an area of ministry.

More than names, or a checked box, we want to share stories. Please, tell a story about this person or ministry’s impact on your life. Let’s tell these stories in worship so they can inspire us all.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church provides a booklet with a paragraph story on each of their silent witnesses.

Who is the woman in the red robe with the white wavy hair? Slide09That’s Donaldina Cameron, Scottish Presbyterian who by faith, founded Cameron House in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She was a social worker who took on Chinese gangs and crime lords, corrupt police and complacent politicians to rescue girls kidnapped from China for the sex trade in San Francisco.

Who is the woman with the blue dress with the little girl?Slide10

That’s Nellie and Dorothy Lincoln. By faith, Nellie and her husband James founded a camp for chronically ill children in honor of their daughter Dorothy who died as a child.

What about the man with the walking stick and the maroon vest?Slide11 That’s John Muir, the “Wilderness Prophet” and founder of the modern environmentalist movement, who by faith, in spite of an abusive religious upbringing, remained fervently committed to our sacred responsibility to creation.

We could publish a booklet of stories to go along with our legacy wall too. For my brick, I’m naming  my cousin Dr. Murray Thurston Titus.

He was my grandfather’s first cousin and a missionary to India for almost 50 years. On fire to convert the world for Jesus, he left everything to enter the mission field in 1910 with his new bride Olive. He realized very early what he didn’t know about the Muslim people he was sent to love– their language, religion, culture.

He devoted himself to learning and eventually opened the Henry Martyn School of Islamic Studies in what is now Pakistan. A deeply Christian man, he rejected aggressive attitudes of missionaries. He believed there was more danger in exclusiveness among Christians than there was in adopting a courageous openness toward non-Christian faiths.   Murray’s fervent aim: to make Christ better understood by his Christian and non-Christian friends through friendly, loving contact in simple human terms.

In seminary I researched his life and work. I didn’t know a thing about him until I was in my early 40’s but he greatly influenced my life and my call to ministry – as he has done for many pastors and missionaries. The school he founded still exists. Now it’s in Hyderabad in India and it’s an international center for research, interfaith relations and reconciliation. Murray couldn’t have known then how desperately the world would need that witness today. He did what he did by faith.

Who’s in your Great Cloud of Witnesses? Who will you honor on the Legacy Wall? A grandmother? Sunday school teacher? Coach? Student? Mentor? Friend? They pass the baton of faith to us and we carry it while we can and give it to others along the way, working to make Christ better understood.

The roll call of faith sounds forth throughout the generations in myriad ways thanks to the ingenuity and imagination of the Holy Spirit. How exciting to be a part of it, how humbling.

5/22/16 – Trinity Sunday

Scripture: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Sermon Title: Where is the Wisdom of this Age?

Where is the wisdom of this age? I floated that sermon title around last week to several people and the reaction was almost identical time after time: Where is the wisdom of this age? eye roll, groan.

An easier question might be: Where is the foolishness of this age? Oh we know that answer. But that’s not today’s question.

Where is the wisdom of this age? What do you think? Where do people go to find wisdom today? Take a minute and jot down your answers on some blank space in your bulletin. Now – just for fun– turn to your neighbor – maybe 2 or 3 of you – and share your answers with each other: Where is the wisdom of this age?

              I have my top 10 here – we’ll play a little game of Family Feud.

My Top 10 (in no particular order):

  1. Social Media – Wikipedia, Google, bloggers
  2. TED – Technology Entertainment and Design – known for its short (18 minutes or less) impactful talks on a wide variety of topics –
  3. Poets – Maya Angelou, W.H. Auden, Billy Collins
  4. Scientists – Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall
  5. Organic Farmers – Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver
  6. Higher Education – the halls of Harvard, Yale, Oxford?
  7. late night comedy – Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon
  8. Song writers – Bono, Leonard Cohen, Taylor Swift?
  9. journalists – Christiane Amanpour, Anderson Cooper?
  10. theologians – the study of God and God’s relation to the world – the study of faith and practice –

There’s lots of wisdom out there – so why the universal eye roll and groan? Maybe we’re looking for a more universally accessible wisdom… a more highly publicized wisdom… a more widely practiced wisdom… Maybe in this political season, we’re simply starved for genuine wisdom.

Where is the one who is wise?, the apostle Paul asked the same question to the church in Corinth, Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? Jews demand signs. Greeks desire wisdom. We, Paul wrote, we proclaim Christ crucified – a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles: Christ – the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.

              My mom took issue with that verse years ago. God’s foolishness? she said– How can that be? God’s not foolish. But that’s the point Paul’s making – even God’s foolishness – should there be such a thing– is wiser than the greatest human wisdom.

Socrates, that giant of Greek philosophy said: The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.

              NY Times political journalist David Brooks calls wisdom the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.

Indeed, the ultimate foolishness of humanity may well be the belief and trust in the arrogance of human wisdom.

Today’s reading from Proverbs is about a wholly different kind of wisdom. Unlike human wisdom, it is completely trustworthy. It’s unlike human wisdom in a few other ways too:

  1. Biblical Wisdom – sometimes referred to as “Lady Wisdom” because wisdom is personified as a woman in Proverbs – calls out to everyone.

You don’t need to be online, in an ivory tower, or up past 11 o’clock to hear her. You don’t need to be either right-brained or left brained – she speaks simply and plainly to all kinds of brains. You don’t need a PhD or MA or BA or even any level of formal education to understand her.

She calls from the middle of life. She speaks at the crossroads… before an open or closed door, wherever decisions need to be made. She speaks along the road – after a decision’s been made – maybe about the time second-guessing begins.        

              She calls out boldly and courageously and continuously from the highest peak. Nothing stands in her way. I love that about her – and I love that the biblical writer portrays her as one unafraid to speak – in a culture where women were so often silenced.

              She’s not the only one calling out in the book of Proverbs. There’s another woman. Sometimes called the strange, loose, immoral woman, and she’s a smooth talker. She embodies foolishness and lurks just around the corner, like the Sirens of Greek mythology, beautiful yet luring onto a dangerous path – one that will surely lead to a crash on the rocks.

Both of these women are portrayed in Proverbs as seductive. That’s par for the course in ancient patriarchal societies.

Which one will you follow? That’s the million-dollar question. The first several chapters of Proverbs reads like an urgent plea from a father to his son: choose the finer temptress – listen to her voice – wrap your arms around her and hold her close – never stray from her — wear her around your neck – she will always be faithful to you — she will always lead you into life.

Lady Wisdom calls to all people everywhere with plain simple speech: Live with honor, she says. Speak truth. Work for justice. Remain steadfast and loyal. Deal fairly, honestly and openly. Life… abundant life awaits. Sounds a lot like Jesus.

  1. Unlike human wisdom – Lady Wisdom is eternal.

The writer of Proverbs says she was begotten of the Father – and she was there – right alongside the Creator before anything else came into being – just like Jesus. This is why some conclude she is none other than the Holy Spirit. Breathed into being by God before anything else began, she was there.

Wisdom informed every choice – every decision God made… instilling everything with purpose: mountains, hills, springs, fields — everything. A co-creator, Lady Wisdom ensured that all would be declared good.

Proverbs offers an answer to the age-old question: What does it mean to be made in the image of God? At least one thing it means is that we’re splashed with wisdom.

Why, then is there so much foolishness on the part of human beings? Ask the other woman.

  1. Finally, unlike human wisdom, Lady Wisdom delights.

We might say – by and large – that human wisdom is cloaked in seriousness… stoic… reserved – as if there’s simply not time for the frivolity of play – there are too many problems to solve – too much work to do – too much to analyze, compute, synthesize, organize, debate, digest.

Lady Wisdom invites quite the opposite. Beside the Creator like a master worker, daily she is his delight – his muse – his inspiration – his joy. Eugene Peterson, author of the Message translation says it this way:

           I was right there with him, making sure everything fit.

              Day after day I was there, with my joyful applause, always enjoying his company, Delighted with the world of things and creatures, happily celebrating the human family.

We can imagine her laughing with abandon at the duck billed platypus, tickled with amusement at guinea hens, frolicking in the waves, tumbling down sand dunes, lying under the stars with awe.

She rejoices in God and all God made. She even delights in humankind. Delights in us?? Seems foolish! Ah, but that’s God’s love.

So, where is the wisdom of this age? Where is the wisdom of any/every age? Her grace, her touch, her imprint is upon everything that lives and breathes – calling us – all of us – to live in joy: not to take ourselves so seriously – but to play and laugh and let down our hair and to have fun!

To rejoice in our creator – rejoice always in the one who gave us life. And… and to delight in each other… delight in each other.

Wouldn’t you love it if that were our reputation in town? First Presbyterian Church Tecumseh? They love God and they delight in people. What a witness to the glory of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

5/15/16 – Pentecost

Scripture: Acts 2:1-4, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13

Sermon Title: Common Good

This is the season of awards banquets. How many of you will be present at some kind of year-end banquet some time in the next two months? Graduations, sports banquets, honors ceremonies…

There will be trophies and medals, plaques and embossed certificates. Some people will stand out in the crowd for their special achievements – they’ll lead the procession or be given seats of honor… they’ll wear different color cords, a hood on their gown, or a special stole… they’ll have extra asterisks or italicized letters after their name in the program.

We value achievement. We reward statistical measures of success – things like: Grade Point Averages, batting averages, goals scored, articles published, patents awarded, contracts won, books written.

And along comes this Rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus teaching a different way – with his talk of the last being first and the least being the greatest and the little children welcomed and the unclean blessed and the poor inheriting heaven… and everything is turned upside down.

And it’s hard for us as his followers – to practice his way – in a society that has so much pressure to be the other way. First century Corinth wasn’t all that different than us. Its heroes were the philosophers and sages – the intellectually elite.

Master orators were revered in the public square. They commanded respect when they opened their mouths to pontificate on some issue of the day. They held political offices and were religious leaders. They were people of significant influence.  Corinth worshipped their athletes too. It was, after all, the home of the Isthmian games every other year. Athletes from around the Roman Empire came to Corinth to compete for coveted wreaths of pine and the adoration of crowds.

It was hard for those who were so respected outside the church to humble themselves and accept that they were no better than anyone else in the Body of Christ.

Years ago there was a man in the church I served. He was a retired Professor and a renowned international chemist. He’d devoted his life to science, traveling the world speaking in conferences. He’d been a member of the church his whole adult life, and although he’d been asked several times along the way to be an elder or a deacon, he always declined. He was a very busy… a very important man.

But as he aged, his social capital weakened. Where there used to be lines of students waiting to talk with him during his office hours, no one came anymore. He stopped traveling and no one asked him to speak much. He still wanted to be somebody that people looked up to, but his spheres of influence were all but gone.

His identity was changing. As a result, he was becoming an angry and sullen man. I had a genius idea. I’d ask him to teach a class on the Holy Spirit to the teenagers in the church. It was perfect. Years ago he’d chaperoned teenagers on canoe trips. They were a great group and I figured this was a chance for them to learn from probably the smartest man in the church.

He was a big reader – a life-long learner. I loaned him some books on the Holy Spirit and he ordered some of his own. He was so excited. He poured himself into this project and when the day came, I introduced him to the class and he began to speak.

It was a disaster. He had done his homework and his lecture was brilliant, but they thought he was boring and it was early in the morning. Some of them actually fell asleep. Others rolled their eyes. They wrote notes to each other and poked each other and giggled. They couldn’t care less about him or his talk and he could tell. And I wanted to cry. Couldn’t they just suck it up for one hour? Just sit up straight and give him their undivided attention and respect for one hour?

But they couldn’t and they didn’t.

What happened?

The Apostle Paul wrote: The Spirit gives one person the ability to speak with wisdom. And this was a wise man – undoubtedly one of the wisest people I’ve ever known. In his prime he was sought after by government officials from around the world to consult with their scientists, to weigh in on policy matters, to analyze the impact of global decisions. But he did not and could not speak the language of teenagers.

The Apostle Paul also wrote: The same Spirit gives another person the ability to speak in different languages and to another the ability to interpret those languages.

         Teen ministry needs people who get teens – who can speak their language and meet them where they are. Earlier in that man’s life he had chaperoned youth events, but that was probably 30 years ago and its so different today. A cultural interpreter was needed to bridge that gap. In my planning for this, I skipped right over that step – and it was a big step to skip.

Also- that group of teens and that man, while part of the same body of Christ, hardly knew each other. When he walked into the room that day, his global credentials were not enough to bridge the relationship gap. Had they known him… had he known them… it would have been a far different experience.

The church is one of the last places left where people of different generations that are not related by blood to each other come together to share a significant part of their lives. But if Sunday morning is the only time we’re physically in the same space with people of a different generation, we’re missing the opportunity to get to know each other.

I love our church-wide education events and our local Invisible City mission experience for just this reason.

The more we can be intentional about bringing together children, teens, young adults, older adults, men, women, everybody, the better for all of us.

To the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote: Something from the Spirit can be seen in each person, for the common good. To each one of us has been given something to share with each other for the betterment of all of us… for the common good.

That may be at the heart of why my genius idea was such an epic failure. I wanted to give that esteemed man a way to be honored and respected in the church – to fill the void he felt from what he had lost. Like the sages in Corinth, I wanted him to have his audience of devoted listeners in the church.

This was not an idea for the common good. It was for his good over theirs. Actually, it wasn’t for anyone’s good.

His hunger for respect continued to grow as did his bitterness. A few years later his son came to me with a strange request. Could we make his dad an honorary deacon – like colleges give honorary degrees? Other institutions had done it for him because of his renowned status. Couldn’t the church do that? he asked. It would mean a lot to him.

         He wasn’t interested in actually being a deacon, just being recognized as one. And the answer was no. Instead we’d work to demonstrate to him, for him and with him, love and acceptance as a member of our family of faith – no more and no less.

It’s hard for those who are so respected outside the church to accept that we are the Body of Christ and no one person is esteemed higher than another here.

It is the same spirit who gives each person different gifts – according to what the Spirit deems is needed to equip the whole body for the purpose God has prepared for it, for this time and this place.

It is not by accident or coincidence that each of us is here. God is actively bringing together just who and just what is needed. We’ve had some interesting changes to our membership in the last couple of years.

Several people are among us now who have not been in church for many years – some have never been a member of a church. What is happening? Are they called to be interpreters to reach others outside the church with new language?

We’ve had several artists join our church family. What could that mean? As Tecumseh continues to grow as a community of artists, are they called to speak the gospel of Jesus to it and among it?

We’ve had several come into our family from other Presbyterian churches. What could that mean? Do they bring gifts of knowledge and reconnection to a larger church family?

Each of us has gifts to share for the common good – that by the Holy Spirit’s power, we may grow together and grow in Christ. What about you? Why are you here? Think about that question. Why are you here – in this church – at this time? What purpose does God have in mind for you – for us for here?

Each of you has been given a piece of flame colored material and there are markers in the pews. Please take a moment to complete the following phrase on your piece of fabric: I’m here because…     

         While we sing this next hymn, you’re invited to take your piece of material out the front door, tie it on the arch and return to your seat for the remainder of the service.

Again—the phrase each of us is completing: I’m here because…

         For we are the Body of Christ and each one of us is a part of it with gifts of the Spirit to share for the common good.

5/1/16

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Sermon Title: A More Excellent Way

On the front page of last Sunday’s New York Times appeared an article, entitled: In New Age of Privilege, Not All Are in Same Boat.

With disparities in wealth greater than at any time since the Gilded Age, the article said, with a degree of economic and social stratification unseen in America since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan and the rigidly separated classes on the Titanic a century ago, companies are looking to capitalize by strategically marketing to the elite and they know which psychological buttons to push.

In the newest among the Norwegian Cruise Line’s fleet, for example, there is a ship within the ship. It’s called the Haven.

In it, 275 crème de la crème guests enjoy 24-hour butler service and a private pool, sundeck, and restaurant. It is designed in such a way that they do not ever have to see the other 4200 passengers on the boat. If they did want to venture out, perhaps to see a show or to leave the boat for some sightseeing, a flash of their gold card gets them ushered to the best seats in the house and allows them to disembark before the rest of the rabble.

That’s not the mojo or the culture of Royal Caribbean, said its president. Segmenting people into a class system is un-American.

         Instead, their pinnacle passengers come face to face with the others when they walk out of their rooms, and everyone comes face to face with the difference in their cruise experiences. Royal Caribbean is marketing to the psychology of comparative exceptionalism. They believe their elite guests are looking for constant validation that they are a higher-value customer than the others on board. So in addition to larger rooms and softer sheets, their room service calls move to the top of the queue and next month, when the Royal Genie program is introduced, they’ll have their own personal servants on board.

         The article calls this trend the rise of the velvet rope. The goal is to create and promote exclusivity and excellence for the select few on the one side of the rope, even if it stirs up resentment on the other side of the rope. In fact, research has shown, a little envy can be good for the bottom line. But, as Barry Nalebuff, professor of management at Yale concludes: If I’m at the back of the plane, I want to hiss at the people in first class and if I’m up front, I cringe as people walk by.

         There was a steep social pyramid in first century Corinth too. A small percentage of nouveau-riche elite occupied the peak.

Just below them was a small group of moderately wealthy people striving to climb to the peak. Most of the population supported the city – they were at the base of the social class pyramid: hands-on workers, slaves and artisans. It took a lot of people working hard to make life pleasant for those at the top. As a port city, Corinth was a major transportation hub and the lowest class worked the trade business. Sailors came in and out of the city. Their exploits while in port gave Corinth the name “Sin City.”

Not unlike other cities throughout the Roman empire, Corinthians were status-conscious and unabashedly flaunted their rank.

Everyone knew who in the city were the smartest, richest, cleanest, most talented, and greatest. But they behaved badly. According to the Greek historian Alciphron: the wealthy people’s behavior was disgusting, coarse, objectionable and rude while the abject, wretched poor groveled for the smallest morsels of food. The velvet rope is not new.

And to Paul’s chagrin, the velvet rope was in the Corinthian church too. The church’s membership mirrored the diversity of their surrounding culture. There were rich and poor, slave and free, women and men, elders and children, merchants and artisans in the flock.

While they met in wealthy people’s houses –the only houses big enough to hold everybody — most of the church members were from the lower classes. When they gathered for Communion, they had 2 seatings: one for the elite – people not of the working class, who could come early when the food was fresh and the table was full and the best wine was served. Then there was a seating for everybody else — with cheap wine and leftovers. And they called this – this divided meal — The Lord’s Supper.

Who they were in society meant something – meant everything – in the past– before they converted to Christianity. Now who they were in Christ was different – and apparently they hadn’t figured it out yet. And Paul was exasperated.

We are so used to hearing these beautiful verses of love from 1 Corinthians 13 in weddings – it was in mine… yours? Or in funerals – it will be in tomorrow’s memorial service I’m leading for my brother-in-law’s mother in New Jersey…

We’re so used to being inspired by its lofty aims for our personal relationships and our memories, that we give no regard to its 1st century context. And while I will continue to craft wedding and funeral messages around it, today we honor it in its original place:

In the middle of a letter – a letter written by a disappointed and frustrated pastor to the family of faith he co-founded that has become dysfunctional. They profess faith in Jesus Christ yet they do not demonstrate love for one another and that is unacceptable… anathema to Paul.

Most of the time we read these words softly, gently, tenderly, when really, we’d be more honest to their original application if we read them with an edge:

Awards, pedigrees, estates, money, intellect, letters after your name, jewels, clothing, power, status – you seek it, you revel in it, you boast about it, you exploit it and flaunt it. And you call yourselves a church in the name of Jesus Christ? No. Paul rebukes this community beginning with himself: Despite it all, without love, I am, you are, we are nothing.

         Love, for Paul, is the single highest community ethic. It’s not sappy or Hallmarky or romantic – it’s the essential value for a healthy and honest community grounded in Christ. It is the living symbol of God’s amazing grace and unconditional acceptance. It’s what Paul calls A More Excellent Way.

         In Greek, the original language of the letter to the Corinthians, the word Paul chose was huperbole. From where we get our word hyperbole. To us, hyperbole is exaggeration, extravagance, over the top. And it’s essentially the same in Greek. It’s a compound word that literally means to cast or throw or pour over, beyond.

The kind of love Paul is talking about comes from God and is poured into the hearts of individuals so extravagantly and so abundantly that it pours over the top and out into another and from there, into another, and another and another until the whole community is filled with it. And of course, by its nature, it keeps overflowing from the community out into the neighborhood, city, empire, world. Love, this kind of love, changes everything.

While I was working with this text I remembered a short video I saw over 15 years ago of a speech given by a man named Dr. Dale Milligan. He was the founder of Youth Club which later became Logos Systems Associates – now GenOn ministries. Some of you may be familiar with the Logos program. It’s a midweek program – both of our children – Alex and Courtney- grew up in it through the First Presbyterian Church in Plymouth.

Anyway, I dug up this video and watched it again and cried again, like I do every time I see it.

Dr. Milligan talks about how he grew up in the church, the youngest of four boys – all of whom were accomplished, respected, and highly esteemed in the church – except him. No one called him by name. Because of his last name, they expected great things of him—expected he would be like his brothers before him, but alas he never quite measured up.

It’s too bad about that fourth Milligan boy, they’d say — in the church.

He said if he’d had an option, he’d have left that church. Who voluntarily goes somewhere they don’t feel welcome… don’t feel loved? he asked. But as a child he had no option.

Fundamental to the Christian gospel is unconditional love and acceptance and yet, that was far from his experience in the church of his youth. He remembers so clearly when that changed.

A new pastor came to the church. He sought out Milligan and when he found him, he came up behind him and put his arm around him. He flinched and turned ready to defend himself and came face to face with the pastor who smiled at him and said: Your name is Dale Milligan, isn’t it?

         And Dr. Milligan, with emotion in his voice – still 50 years later – said:

The arm around my shoulders… calling me by name… my real name – not that fourth Milligan boy, you know – too bad about him… and life and the church… nothing has ever been the same for me ever since. He took the time to go looking for me – thought I was important enough to find out who I was. And when he found me he gave me his friendship and then he asked me to help him do something – me – the one everyone wanted to get rid of. He was imaging God in Christ you see. God who made that man his friend now makes this boy his friend for God’s sake and everything is transformed.

This pastor lived out to and lived out through his relationship with Dale Milligan a more excellent way: Love: life-giving, restorative, and genuinely affirming love. And Dale went on to start a ministry to love other children in Christ.

There can be no velvet ropes here.

         Our life together presumes we are all in the same boat – all equally yet differently loved by God because we are all equally yet differently created. We are all in the same boat – – young, old, short, tall, women, men, farmers, accountants, teachers, nurses, mechanics, engineers, athletes, artists, hungry for acceptance and meaning and purpose and belonging.

We are all in the same boat hearing in the call of Jesus something real, something true, something fundamentally counter-cultural: Love.

The first question of the one practicing Christ-centered love is not What’s in it for me? but rather, What would be helpful for you? What will lift you up? And that goes for everyone in the community – not just for the ones we like… not just for the ones who think like us…dress like us…come from the same station of life as us…but for everyone of every age and every background in the name and for the sake of Christ.

Love is not self-indulgence, but other-indulgent. Not self-absorbed but self-emptying, not arrogant, but accommodating, not ego-driven but other-uplifting. When we embody this love together we are the Church Alive.

It is fitting that on the day we talk about this text, we come to the table of Love together. We will leave our seats and come face to face with each other. Invariably we’ll be aware of our differences – some seen, others unseen. Yet when we move toward the table set with the gifts of God for the people of God we move as one: one heart, one faith, one hope, one calling; beloved, forgiven, made new… seeking to embody with one another and for one another a more excellent way.

4/24/16

 

Scripture: Acts 18:1-4

Sermon Title: Turning the World Upside Down

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success- is a popular saying of uncertain authorship, said President Calvin Coolidge in 1927.

Most people nowadays think Henry Ford said it, but he probably didn’t – he just resaid it. Back in the day, before 1950, it was generally credited to a nineteenth century American author and Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale. But its possible he just resaid it too because no one can find any proof he was the first.

It’s been quoted in government, education and leadership forums – even cited in 1937 by a Texas Homemaker Club.

About the founders of the Corinthian Christian church, it could well be said: Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.

Coming together is a beginning. It was the coming together of three people that marked the beginning of the Christian church in Corinth around 50AD: Paul, Aquila and Priscilla.

It wasn’t surprising they would meet. Upon entering Corinth, Paul, a leather-worker by trade went to the artisan quarter of the city, bag in hand, to look for a job. The booths of the tentmakers were bustling, preparing for the Isthmian games to be held the next spring.

Every two years athletes from all over Greece came to Corinth to compete in footraces, wrestling, boxing, discus, javelin, long jump – the ever popular chariot racing… they even had contests in poetry and singing. There was a permanent stadium, theater and hippodrome for the event, but the spectators stayed in tents. Paul, armed with his awls, cutting tools and a sharpening stone looked for a way to get in on the action.

Aquila and Priscilla were a husband and wife tentmaking team from Pontus, a client kingdom of the Roman Empire along the Black Sea. They, like Paul were Jewish. In fact, that’s why they weren’t in Pontus anymore.

Tired of the rioting between Jews and Christians, the Roman Emperor Claudius kicked them all out – forcing them to leave Rome around 49AD. Refugees Aquila and Priscilla resettled in Corinth, setting up their leather-working shop there – about a year before Paul arrived.

That Paul met Aquila and Priscilla is not surprising. Historians believe the games drew temporary migrant leather-workers from all around the empire. Corinth even had an association or a guild of them. That Paul stayed with Aquila and Priscilla said something about each of them: their willingness to accommodate, to collaborate, to share, and to risk.

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress… Tentmakers, like most artisans, are proud of their workmanship. They pour themselves into their craft, developing and showcasing signature artistry. Despite the demand in Corinth, it’s a competitive business. It takes time for newcomers, especially foreign ones, to make a name for themselves.

Aquila and Priscilla may just be hitting their stride in this new town. Adding a team member means sharing resources and revenue, accommodating new ideas and a different work ethic, risking damage to a barely established reputation.

How much easier might it have been to say: We’re all set, thanks, when Paul came knocking. But what if they had?

Religious differences between the couple and Paul may have been even more of a reason to disassociate. We know that Aquila and Priscilla became important leaders of the Christian church, but whether or not they were converts when they first met Paul, we don’t know. If not, he’s a living reminder of the turmoil they left in Pontus–the last kind of person they want to see in their new life in Corinth. They might not know he’s a Christian when they first meet, but by the next Sabbath, they’ll know when he stands up to argue in the synagogue. And by then, maybe he’s already working for them, already living with them – then what?

Many scholars conclude Aquila and Priscilla must have already been Christians when they met Paul – that’s why they were so accommodating – so ready to open their business, their homes, their hearts to him, for as soon as they met it was like meeting the brother you didn’t know you had.

But what if that wasn’t the case… what if it wasn’t easy… if they weren’t yet converts to the Way of Christ and actually carried an animosity in their hearts toward Christians – blaming them for their exile… What if they really were hesitant about taking a new person into their business…

What if it took Paul being willing to humble himself in slave labor for this couple to demonstrate his gentle character and solid work ethic…

What if theirs was a challenging relationship, developing slowly side by side as they shared tools and worked late into the night, building trust, patiently answering questions and providing hospitable space to listen and learn?

What if it was about slowing melting hardened hearts, healing deep wounds, opening minds to new ways of conceiving God and grace and reconciliation… doesn’t that make for an even better story?

What a witness that friendship would be to the new church in Corinth – to the church in any age!

That they met – not surprising. That they stayed together – allowed the possibility of growth. That they learned to work – really work together – side by side as partners in ministry – that was the living witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Last week CBS ran a story about a challenging partnership like this. Two men from Benton Harbor – one white, one black. The white man is 33 year old Andrew Collins, a former Benton Harbor police officer. The black man is 35 year old Jameel McGee.

In 2005, Andrew arrested Jameel – the charge: cocaine possession. The drugs didn’t belong to McGee. Collins falsified the reports.

Jameel McGee spent 4 years in prison before Andrew’s crimes caught up with him. Andrew Collins was a dirty cop.

In his short 5-year tenure with the force, he and his supervisor were involved with about 50 cases of wrongful arrest. He served 18 months for his crimes.

The two met again in 2011 in Benton Harbor’s Broadway Park. Collins was volunteering with a church when McGee approached him with his 5 year old son in tow. Remember me? McGee asked.

Collins shook his hand and McGee wouldn’t let go. He looked at his son and said:

I want you to explain to my son why his dad hasn’t been in his whole life. Collins said all he could do was apologize.

Coming together is a beginning…

McGee said he thought he’d made peace with what had happened while in prison, but face to face, he was angry all over again. He walked away.

In 2012 McGee seriously injured his hand on a job. Unable to continue that job and unable to find and hold another one because of surgeries, therapy and persistent swelling, in 2015 McGee met with a woman from the Southwest Michigan Disability Network.

She talked him into taking a job with the Mosaic Café, a Benton Harbor coffee house sponsored by the Christian Community Development Association. Someone who did not know their history paired him with Andrew Collins as his mentor.

Keeping together is progress…

         When McGee saw he’d be working for Collins he stayed in the program because he said holding onto anger and bitterness against Collins wasn’t doing anything positive in his life.

         Face to face again, Andrew began to apologize. Jameel told him to stop. We’ve already had that discussion. It’s forgotten, he said. And they began a new conversation: about prison and freedom, restoration and forgiveness, love and new life.

When Steve Hartman of CBS asked Jameel why he forgave Andrew, he said I did it for us… I did it for all of us.

Now Jameel and Andrew work together at Mosaic Cafe and they speak to groups together about the power and possibility of forgiveness.

Working together is success.

         Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success, could well be said of the church in Corinth as well. Paul and Aquila and Priscilla came together to begin that church. The letters Paul wrote to them a year or two later, show they were struggling to stay together.

They were a church caught up in competitiveness and judgment. All gifts weren’t equally celebrated. Nor were all people. Paul called on Aquila– to equip the leadership in the way of Christ and to remind and encourage the people not to work against each other but with each other – for the building up of the church.

The three of them went on to start the church in Ephesus and Aquila and Priscilla held its meetings in their home. Paul closed the last letter he wrote with these words:         Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house.

         In Christ they became partners…tentmakers building the household of God.

God brings people together to reveal the way, the truth, and the life of the risen Christ.

Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes we don’t want to come together. We’re not ready. We’re still hurting. We’re still angry. We are risk averse. We’d rather work alone. We like it the way we do it. Different styles and ideas unnerve us. We’re all set, thanks.

         God may just have something different in mind.

God has this amazing and relentless way of continuing to poke and prod us until we make room in our hearts and in our lives for the relationships and community God intends so that the heart of Christ may be revealed in us and through us.

How has that happened in your life? Who has God brought into your life just when encouragement, healing, hope, love is needed?

What strange and unique partnership has God forged with you and another (or others) to proclaim by its nature the way of Jesus?

When Andrew and Jameel stand up in front of people now and speak, their audiences literally see the gospel of grace and forgiveness alive. How and where Is that happening in your life? Could it?

Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success. May it be so for you and for me and for us together as the Church Alive in Jesus Christ.

4/17/16

Call to Worship: (spoken by current elders and deacons):

“To the church on Chicago Blvd. in Tecumseh Michigan: May grace and peace be yours from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We always thank God for all of you in                                    our prayers: Your actions on behalf of the faith,  your tireless toil of love and your unfailing, unwavering, unending hope in our Lord Jesus Christ before God our Father.   The Word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Tecumseh and                                   Lenawee County but in every place your faith in God has become known.   So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our very  selves; you are very dear to us.  May the Lord make you increase in love                         for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” — 1 Thess. 1

Scripture: Acts 17:1-9

Sermon Title: Turning the World Upside Down

It’s a wonder that some churches make it given the way they start. Take the church of Thessalonica.

Its founders were Paul and Silas: two missionaries who met each other a few years earlier in Antioch. Ironically, in his first career, Paul – who at the time went by Saul – worked for the High Priest in Jerusalem. He used to go town to town, breathing murderous threats – waving his arrest warrants and literally dragging people out of the house churches and arresting them.

In his first career, he was all about stopping the followers of Jesus. Until one day he met the risen Jesus on his way to Damascus and Saul became Paul with a new call.

Paul and Silas were only in Thessalonica three weeks before they left town in the middle of the night – the night all hell broke loose for that fledgling church. Listen with me to their story: Acts 17:1-9:

         After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews.  And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures. (Using a traditional 3 point sermon): Paul explained and proved that it was necessary:

  1. for the Messiah to suffer
  2. and to rise from the dead, and finally that
  3. the Messiah is Jesus

         Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.  But some of the Jews who didn’t buy his arguments became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar.

         While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.”  

         The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.

         –The Word of the Lord.

           At the most the new believers of Thessalonica had 3 weeks of education before their founders left town. Add to that the disturbing events at Jason’s house – with those ruffians. After all, these new converts were upstanding devout Greeks and leading women – what about their reputation in the market place? let alone with the city authorities?

The faint at heart would have dropped the whole enterprise. But these believers were not faint at heart.

When Paul wrote to them a year or so later, he remembered the way they first received the Word – with power and with the Holy Spirit – with full conviction. In fact, this church became an example throughout Macedonia — their faith in God sounding forth.

Maybe the crisis at their beginning actually served to galvanize them. Maybe face to face with the hatred of the mob – the shouting and the fear – they felt deep within their spirits the overwhelming truth of God’s grace in Jesus – a counter-cultural peace unlike the world has ever known that literally has the power to turn it upside down.

Have you read about the very beginning of this church? It’s a wonder it survived. There were only 10 members when this church first started in 1828. Three years later a malaria outbreak ripped through the town leaving many dead – including the pastor. The next pastor died just after he was called and before he even started his ministry here. How devastating!

This young church faced all kinds of leadership challenges, financial hardships, harsh winters and internal strife. But, the early church historians proclaimed, after every crisis and difficulty, there was an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

From 1833-1834 they testified to frequent conversions and constant additions to the church. They said it was almost one continuous revival scene. Membership grew to 149 and Presbyterian churches were planted in Tipton, Clinton, Macon and Raisin.

         After the winter of 1843 they wrote: the Holy Spirit appeared to come down with great power. 83 were added to the church at one communion on the 14th of April 1844.

         In the spring of 1852 there began to be indications of the special presence of the Holy Spirit, the historian wrote. The blessing of God attended the preaching of the word, the prayers of God’s people were heard and their labor honored. At the communion of April 15th 35 people were received to the fellowship of the Lord’s people.

         And after weathering a financial crises in 1858 spiritual blessings descended upon the people again in large measures. 50 new members joined on July 4, 1858.

         The first point of Paul’s sermon to the synagogue in Thessalonica: it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer. Who wants to suffer? And who wants a Messiah who suffers? We proclaim Christ crucified, Paul wrote, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. What sense does it make that the anointed one of the God of the universe would suffer?

And yet, time and time again we see evidence that new life – more robust and resilient life – emerges from crisis. When times are easy and money is flowing we get complacent. In the difficult times we dig deep.

Hellen Keller, one well versed in struggle, once said: Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

         A year ago I attended a conference of PCUSA pastors in Chicago. I co-facilitated a group of pastors serving remnant churches after a split. It was amazing how similar our experiences were. We all spoke of passion and grace, flexibility and courage.

One woman in our circle sat quietly listening until the end of our conversation when she said: I’m an Executive Presbyter and I came to this discussion simply to encourage you. Of the churches in my presbytery, she said, the ones who have endured the pain and struggle of a split are the very same ones where the Holy Spirit is the most visible. In their ministry and in their testimony, these churches are so very much alive – they are resurrection churches.

         Paul’s second sermon point: it was necessary for him to rise from the dead. And as Christ has risen, so have you risen. What these elders and deacons said at the beginning of today’s worship – these are not just words – they’re true of you. You’ve found your voices and you are raising them.

The Word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Tecumseh and Lenawee County but in every place your faith in God has become known.

During our indoor golf outing in March, Beth from Department on Aging told me that the reputation of our local mission event has spread to Adrian.

She said Cornerstone Church, that large nondenominational church in Adrian patterned their local mission project after a church in Tecumseh who did something called “Invisible City”. And she said thank you for what you started.

         Last week David Hammond, an elder of the mission committee announced that Catherine Cobb selected this church as the winner of the faith-based category of their Everyday Heroes award for our dedicated support for women and children in abusive relationships.

And how your faith and witness has changed lives at Cambrian and Fieldstone and Tecumseh Place!

Throughout the Maumee Valley Presbytery they talk about your faith and perseverance. They ask about you all the time and I brag to them about your life in Christ. They pray for you constantly.

The Word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Tecumseh and Lenawee County but down into Ohio of all places.

Just this week I received an email from a visitor from last Sunday who took his experience of Sunday worship here back with him to Manhattan. He was inspired and encouraged in his faith and he will sow seeds of God’s grace in New York City.

Bill Plitt, member of the Israel Palestine mission network wrote about the tears that rolled down his cheeks as First Presbyterian Tecumseh was named as a grant recipient during their conference last November in Chicago.

The women of Nahalin, outside Bethlehem, will not only be excited to receive the funds to support their cookbook project, he wrote, but by your recognition as a church of them as a viable group of women in the village. Their cook book project is more than a collection of personal stories, and wonderful Palestinian foods, but a symbol of empowerment for each of the women who contributed to the project.  There is the victory. Great job of persistence in a worthy cause, he wrote, In Arabic, the word “sammud” means persisting through, not around the issue.  Your faith and commitment to justice and equality “rolled  down again like a river”.  May it be so.

The Word of the Lord has sounded forth from you half way around the world.

I tell you these things not to puff you up. But to encourage you. The gospel of Jesus Christ really is spreading forth through you. You are making a difference in the lives of people. You are a church alive in Christ.

These people are turning the world upside down, cried the mob, of the believers in Thessalonica.

And indeed they were – their intentional communities included slave and free, women and men, Jew and Gentile. They broke all kinds of social and religious conventional rules to practice radical welcome in the name of Jesus.

They threatened income and job security of the gold and silversmiths when they rejected their man-made idols and called people to worship the one and only living God.

They were turning the world upside down. Isn’t that our call too? What would that look like today?

I asked the Disciple Sunday night Bible study: what would it look like to turn the world upside down in the name of Jesus here in Tecumseh?

Someone said supporting refugee resettlement. Bringing them here into our town and coming alongside them. That just might turn Tecumseh upside down.

Well, it turns out Lenawee County is not resettling refugees at this time because of transportation and resource issues.

But Maumee Valley Presbytery is partnering with Lutheran Refugee Resettlement, and their outreach coordinator, Rev. Ken Fout is eager to talk with churches – even churches like ours in areas not currently taking refugees to answer questions about the process and explain ways we can help.

Refugee resettlement is not new to this church.

Just in the history I know about, you’ve helped settle four different families:

After the second world war when 80,000 displaced persons from Ukraine came to the US, this church came alongside Peter Michajlenko and his wife, and their three children Peter, Vera and Alla in 1950. In the annual report of that year, pastor Donald Wilson wrote: The sponsoring of a family from Europe indicates in a genuine way the concern of our members for those caught in the toils of a terror for which we bear a burden of responsibility. The next year he wrote: This resettling has literally brought new life to 5 people.

Then, when 200,000 Hungarians fled the Soviet suppression of their student led revolution in 1956, First Presbyterian Tecumseh helped resettle Mike and Barbara Benko when they came to this country in 1957.

Twenty five years later, Catholic Social Services approached this church among others to assist Vietnamese families coming in from Hong Kong in December of 1982. This church joined with others to form TARC:

Tecumseh Area Resettlement Commisssion came alongside two families. TARC’s goal: to aid the family until they can become independent and then to continue with friendship. The first family relocated to Spokane, WA shortly after they arrived to be with other family members, but Nen Tran of the second family still lives in the area. His son is buried in our columbarium.

We might say refugee resettlement is a part of our church’s historical DNA. Hmmm—what will that mean in the future?

         Despite a rocky start, this church, like the young church in Thessalonica began with boldness and with the power of the Holy Spirit and it has endured with an unfailing, unwavering, unending hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. The third and most important point in Paul’s sermon to the church: The Messiah is Jesus.

         150 years ago when the cornerstone was laid for this building in 1866, Rev. Samuel Wishard wrote a song that the church sang to the tune Truro – the same tune we sang this morning to the opening hymn Christ is Alive. The congregation sang this song the day they laid the cornerstone — which, to date, we can’t locate. Although as one of our elders reminded us, echoing Paul: it’s not where the cornerstone is, it’s who the cornerstone is: Jesus. This church is built on that Rock.

         Quoting Rev. Wishard’s Hymn of Praise:

We praise Him for foundations laid

         In days agone – for Sovereign aid;

         We praise Him for the Spirit’s power

         In many a dark and threatening hour.

 

         To Him who gave His only Son

         The tried and precious “Corner Stone”,

         In whom the building fitly framed

         His power and love has e’er proclaimed.

May it always be so.

4/10/16

Children’s Story: “Sidney and Norman: A Tale of Two Pigs”

Scripture: Acts 3:1-10

Sermon Title: Through My Eyes

Since September, I’ve been preaching a continuous series called “The Great Story of God: Live it!” It’s a three-act play.

Act 1: The Forming of a People, explored stories from Genesis through the Old Testament.

Act 2: And then… Jesus introduced Jesus of Nazareth through the gospel of Mark.

Now we’re in the final act:

Act 3: The Church Alive! From now until Pentecost we’ll take a look at the post Easter disciples and the earliest Christian churches as they carry on the mission of Jesus.

As we hear their stories, let’s think about our own discipleship, our own church – our own community – our challenges and joys of living the gospel of Jesus Christ today.  

Acts 3:1-2

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple.

That’s the way it used to work. People – maybe family members, friends, caregivers, household servants – would carry those who were disabled – broken – in some way “less than” – to lay them at the entrance of the gate, so that those who were clean, whole, well-healed, would have to pass them in order to go to prayer.

In this way, the ones on their way to prayer could fulfill their holy obligation of giving alms to the poor – literally on their way in to worship.

It was convenient for everybody. Convenient but dehumanizing. Convenient but dishonoring. Convenient but deeply flawed.

People like this man – this beloved child of God – were left outside – lying at the beautiful gate, destined to reside at the border, forsaken in desolation, barred from the real beauty – a rich and full participation in the worship life of God’s people – happening just on the other side of the gate.

Day after day after day they heard and felt loud and clear the same message: you’re not worthy.

This established system of alms-giving was most unholy, yet it was blindly legitimized by its very practitioners. This was one of those things Jesus of Nazareth came to change.

         Blessed are the poor, Jesus said, yours is the kingdom of God.

People like this man lying at the gate have seats of honor at the banquet table. They’re not broken or worthless — they’re not to be left outside.

Jesus said: Go out into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled the blind, and the lame. They are not “less than” – they are God’s beloved.

As Peter and John and the others carry on the mission of Jesus, they remember his charge:

When you see them, love them as I have loved them. When you see them, reach out to them with grace and joy and healing; welcome them home.

         When you see them, see them through my eyes they are your brothers and your sisters – your family in my name. Do this in remembrance of me.

 Acts 3:3

            3When the man saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms.

         As he did every single day. He didn’t expect to be healed. Didn’t ever expect to actually enter the gate to pray. Reaching out with his cup – begging for money was his role.

He and the others like him were the Sidneys and they made the Normans feel better about themselves on their way to pray.

Acts 3:4

4Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’

         The healing begins when their eyes meet – when they really see each other:

Not as pious vs. beggar – but rather, in the words of D.T. Niles, as one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.

         The love of Christ urges us on, wrote the apostle Paul to the young church in Corinth, because we are convinced that one has died for all… so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

         From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view… If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.

The way it used to work doesn’t fly anymore in the new age of Christ. Old categories no longer hold.

There is a deep and abiding call for new family… new community… the healing of old wounds and new eyes to see.

God said to Norman the “good pig” – You’re not as good as you think you are Don’t look down on the ones I love.

         The more the Normans really see the Sidneys and love them; the more the Sidneys really see the Normans and love them – the more God’s love is seen and known and believed by all.

I have a friend in this town who grew up in this church and has been away for many years. He’s made it into the Gathering Space and into my office, but so far, he’s not made it back into the sanctuary. It’s too hard for him. The experience in here was too painful. It’s hard to feel and believe God’s love is real when you don’t feel loved by God’s people.

He’s not the only one I know like this. We all know people like this. Friends, family members, neighbors.

For them, the church is like a gated community and they’re on the other side.

What will it take to heal those wounds?

Look at us, Peter said. Maybe it starts by seeing one another– really seeing each other – with new eyes – as brothers… as sisters… as family in Christ.

Several years ago a couple dozen young Christians got together to collaborate on a project they called: Through My Eyes. All of them were raised in the church. All of them profess a determined faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. All of them are gay.         They videotaped their stories for the church so that we could hear the struggles, the hurts, the joys and the hope of gay Christians.

Each story is unique and only theirs to tell. They don’t debate the Scriptures. There’s no narrator interpreting their stories. It’s just pure testimony:

Giving voice to brothers and sisters who long to be heard…

Giving faces to brothers and sisters who long to be seen.

So many gay Christians remain outside the church – hurt, confused, angry, feeling forsaken. One of my dear friends, a gay young man who grew up in the youth program I led and later served as a counselor in the Christian camp I co-directed used to say of the institutional church: It’s not Jesus I have the problem with, it’s the people I’ll encounter when I go to his church.       

When you see them, love them as I have loved them. When you see them, reach out to them with grace and joy and welcome them home.

         When you see them, see them through my eyes they are your brothers and your sisters – your family in my name. Do this in remembrance of me.

 Acts 3:4-7

         4Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ 5And the man fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.

         He still saw with old eyes – Sidney not yet seeing a new Norman –

6But Peter (now seeing him through different eyes) said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,* stand up and walk.’ 7And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.  

In Bloomington, Illinois last summer a police officer got a call about a 21 year old mentally disabled woman who’d gone missing.

She’d wandered away from the facility where she lived and she was lost and alone. He and his partner went with haste to find her.

As soon as they saw her, they parked the car and went to go get her. But she was scared and upset and she quickly walked away from them.

27-year-old officer Mike Giovenco decided to try something different. He gently struck up a conversation with her. I just tried to get to know her, he said.

I asked her what she liked to do for fun. “I like to walk the trails” she said.

And so, he asked her if she’d like to take a walk with him. Her face lit up. He stood in amazement. A moment before she seemed inconsolable. And now – he’d never seen anyone so excited over the simple invitation to take a walk.

They began to walk together and the more they walked, the calmer she became.

When they reached a busy intersection, he held her hand to cross. On the other side, she asked if they could keep holding hands as they walked. She told him about her stuffed teddy bear and he told her about how he grew up playing baseball – and they continued walking together all the way back to her home. His partner trailed behind them awestruck – capturing the pair walking hand in hand on video.

Once up on the department’s Facebook page it got over 800,000 views.

Officer Giovenco said he never set out to do anything extraordinary that July day.

He said: If that were one of my family members who I loved, I would have treated them the same way.

God said to Norman: Love the ones I love.

Compel them to come to my banquet. Walk with them or carry them, stay with them and lead them home.

Crossing the threshold and entering the sanctuary is step one. Staying inside- that’s step two.

Acts 3:8

8Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.

We all know all kinds of people wounded by the church – The Church and this church.

People who say they believe the ceiling’s going to collapse if they walk into the sanctuary…that they’ve lost interest in God because God’s people have judged them, or ignored them or left them feeling awkward and out of place.

It’s not walking through the doors that unsettles them the most, it’s what they’ll encounter when they get inside. What will they hear from the pulpit? How will people look at them? What will happen at the passing of the peace? What will they feel when they sing the songs? What will the space itself trigger?

We don’t hear the details of what happened on the other side of the gate – when Peter and John and the man who used to lay outside the gate now stood together inside.

         Born lame from birth, this was his first time in. He was dressed differently than the others, probably smelled differently – and he didn’t know the routine.

Undoubtedly many in the congregation recognized him. Isn’t this the guy we walked over to get in here? – imagine the looks and the whispers.

Peter and John never left his side. Verse 11 says he clung to Peter and John. Being an ambassador of reconciliation can be a full contact sport.

Their steadfast presence right alongside him showed how serious they were in their welcome. Come – meet our newest brother, they may well have said.

For a while before they moved out of state my friend and his now husband used to attend a Christian young adult group at a coffee shop in Ann Arbor. Occasionally they’d come to church together.

His spouse, a young man who’d been away from the church since he left home recounts seeing a group member smile and wave at him across the sanctuary the first time. It made all the difference to me that my friends from the group were excited to see me, he said they made me feel like I belonged there.

And the Word of the Lord for today concludes:

 Acts 3:9-10

         All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

What had happened to him? In the name of Jesus, he was loved well. He was welcomed home.

Peter and John looked at him through the eyes of Christ and no longer saw a beggar, but a brother, and he, likewise, saw in them the same. And the kingdom of God was revealed that day – at the Beautiful Gate.

When you see them, love them as I have loved them. When you see them, reach out to them with grace and joy. When you see them, at the threshold –your brothers, your sisters– lost, scared, angry, hurt, discouraged — welcome them home.

         Do this, Jesus said, in remembrance of me.

3/27/16- Easter Sunday

Scripture: Mark 16:1-8

Sermon Title: He is Not Here.

The women were there – they were always there – caring for him. When he ministered in Galilee, they were there. When he went to Jerusalem that final time, they followed him there. When others fled, they were there – in the shadows—at the foot of the cross. They watched as he was laid in the tomb. And after the Sabbath was over, as soon as the sun came up, the women ran to where they last saw him, to finish caring for him – to treat him with the dignity and respect he deserved – give him a burial fit for the living symbol of love he was.

They were there, but he wasn’t.

Someone else was there – a young man wearing a white robe.

Are you looking for Jesus of Nazareth? The one who was crucified? He’s not here. He was here – see—that’s where they laid him. He’s not here anymore.

         And he was right. Jesus of Nazareth – the one the late great theologian Marcus Borg called the Pre-Easter Jesus – the one I’ve been preaching about for the last several weeks – that rebellious rabbi who shook up the crowds with his healing touch and redefined the Torah to the utter frustration of the Jewish establishment… that radical reformer who cared far more about connecting people with the heart of God than he did about washing his hands before eating…

That revolutionary who proclaimed the kingdom of God here and now, turned over the tables of the temple, and pulled back the curtains on hypocrisy and idolatry… that Jesus the one who came from Nazareth ­ – that thorn in the side troublemaker was nailed to a cross and executed – some say for treason – others for blasphemy.

It is finished, he said from the cross. And it was: he did what he came to do and he breathed his last. And that chapter ended as they laid him in the tomb and sealed it shut.

He’s not there.

         This is one of the most important statements in the Bible for us as his followers to grasp.

Jesus of Nazareth spent thirty-three years here, and in that time, he launched a movement to change the world. And then- he left it in the hands of others to carry on in his name. God never intended his kingdom movement to die with Jesus or to be enshrined with Jesus. The post-Easter Christ is alive and the mission, left in sacred trust to Peter (the Rock) and James and John – to Philip and Mary and his brother James – to generations of his followers throughout history and to you and to me lives on.

         Very truly, Jesus said, I tell you the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going…

         It is to your advantage that I go away, he said.

You will have all you need – the advocate will come to you.

         In his book Let Your Life Speak, Quaker Parker Palmer offers us a useful image: Each time a door closes – (or in this case a tomb seals), the rest of the world opens up. All we need to do is stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around—which puts the door behind us—and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls. The door that closed kept us from entering a room, but what now lies before us is the rest of reality…

         By the power of God Christ is risen! There’s no need for burial spices any more. It’s time to leave the tomb behind.

He’s not here.

         He’s gone ahead of you to Galilee.

         The gospel of Mark begins and ends with Galilee. Some say that’s code — that his gospel is intended to be read over and over again. When you reach the end with questions like: Who is this Jesus again? What did he say and what did he do and why did he die? And what am I supposed to do? Just return to Galilee, aka the beginning of the gospel – and start reading all over again.

But for Peter and Andrew and James and John and so many of his followers, Galilee was more – it was the physical place where they first met Jesus and where the home base of his ministry was. It’s where they heard him preach and watched him heal and experienced the way he calmed storms. What better place for them to remember the mission now theirs to carry forth but in the place they heard it first:

         Climb up into the hills – I’ll speak to you there…      Set sail on the sea and when the storms stir, feel my calming presence…

         Walk into the synagogue on the Sabbath and when you see someone in need of healing, reach out your hand in my name…

         When you see injustice, turn the tables.

         Enlarge the new community we practiced when we broke bread together.

         See with my eyes, feel with my heart: welcome the stranger, bless the poor, feed the hungry…

         The risen Christ will continue to teach them – in the hills, on the sea, at tables, in the synagogue. They will see him there – in Galilee.

This is why so many Christians make pilgrimages to Galilee every year: to walk where Jesus walked – to feel his presence on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee while reading the Beatitudes…To read the story of the healing of an unclean man in the synagogue in Capernaum – while standing in the synagogue in Capernaum… to be baptized, like Jesus was, in the Jordan River.

But he’s not there. I mean he was there. But he’s not enshrined forever there—the living risen Christ has gone out into the hands and feet and hearts and eyes and voices of all who are carrying on his mission to change the world in his name.

In the words of our beloved brother Daoud Nassar, the gentle Palestinian farmer from Bethlehem: Christian tourists come here to run from stone to stone looking for Jesus but he is not in the tomb.

I saw Jesus there last summer, but not at the holy sites. Instead I saw Jesus in the Christian peacemakers who came from around the world to accompany people through the checkpoints… and I saw Jesus in the fathers we met from the Bereaved Parents Circle who won’t stop speaking and working for peace and justice because they’ve lost precious children in the conflict… and I saw Jesus in Zoughbi and his team teaching reconciliation and nonviolence to the children and teenagers in the West Bank… and I saw Jesus in the children dancing for resistance in the refugee camp…

And I saw Jesus in the breaking of the bread with brothers and sisters in Christ I’d never met before but who live now in my heart forever.

Seeing Jesus there made us think again about the mission of Jesus entrusted to us in our Galilee.
Galilee was more than the first place they met Jesus. For most of his earliest followers, Galilee was home. He’s gone ahead of you to Galilee – reminds us that we begin the mission of Jesus at home.

We shall not cease from exploration, wrote T. S. Eliot, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. New eyes. New hearts. New minds. New purpose. Beginning at home, we carry on the mission of Jesus in our own backyard.

And the women fled the tomb and said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.

         It is scary taking a stand for the purpose and cause of Jesus in our own hometown – with family members, college friends, co-workers. We, like the women get tongue-tied when it comes to sharing the vision of Jesus outside of Bible studies or in church. How are we really supposed to be radical revolutionaries for Christ in Tecumseh or Clinton or Lenawee County? What does this mean for us?

On Friday I joined maybe 30 people on a walk of compassion through downtown Adrian. 20 years ago the Adrian Dominican sisters brought this walk to our county and now it is hosted by the Lenawee Interfaith Alliance, of which I am a member.

There were 9 stops along the way were we prayed for various social issues. Things like health care, homelessness, hunger, greed, human rights, the environment… We began each stop with the words: We praise you Christ Jesus, for you have brought the promise of peace into the world. Help us to turn away from hatred, violence and war, and to walk along the path of peace and love.   

         We ended each stop with a litany responding over and over again with these words: Christ, be compassion in our hearts; use our hands to uproot injustice.

         These are great words – important words – reminders of the way, the truth, the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

There was a way in which the risen Christ was there among us – 30 or so strangers – from different cultures, walking side by side. But in another way, he wasn’t there – wasn’t in the printed booklets… wasn’t in the parking lots we stood in… wasn’t in the vacant parks.

Even in this walk we enshrined him when really, he’s gone on ahead into the places where people aren’t just talking about brokenness in the world but actually living it and fighting it and changing it – actually using hands and voices to uproot injustice. He’s gone on ahead of us – we’ll see him there.

I go to prepare a place for you, Jesus said.

And he wasn’t just talking about a house in paradise – he was talking about preparing that next place you and I will go – that next conversation, next visit, next difficult encounter, that next job, next class, next home, next mission event– he goes ahead preparing that next place or that next opportunity for us and preparing us for it.

         We are God’s handiwork, it says in Ephesians, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

And there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, it says in 1 Corinthians, varieties of services, but the same Lord… varieties of activities but the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

         Put these concepts together and every single person is uniquely gifted by God, for particular work – prepared in advance – for the mission of peace, truth, justice, reconciliation, compassion begun in Jesus of Nazareth.

Everyone is needed. Every interaction and opportunity sacred. Every ground holy ground.

Are you looking for him? for Jesus of Nazareth? He’s not here, said the man in white. He was, but he’s moved on and out ahead of us – ready – waiting – to give us the words to say and the heart to feel and the courage to act – in that next place we’ll go. We’ll see him there.

He came with a message: The Kingdom of God is here. That message is now ours to carry forth: to practice radical forgiveness in his name, to stand against evil, to cultivate genuine community, to welcome home the lost and to break the yoke of oppression as together we change the world in him and for him.

And he promises: I will never leave you. Thanks be to God.

3/20/16- Palm Sunday

Scripture: Mark 11:1-11

Sermon Title: Taking it in

 

What was that? Let’s look again at that last verse, Mark 11:11. Open up your pew Bibles and let’s look at it together – when someone finds it, let everyone know the page number. Someone who’s got it – stand up and read it for us.

         Keep your finger in that verse and turn to Matthew 21: 9-12. Somebody who’s got that one, stand up and read it for us. Keep your finger in Mark, but now turn to Luke 19:45 – and when somebody has that one, stand up and read it for us. Now let’s go back to Mark 11:11. According to the gospel of Mark – the one biblical scholars conclude was written first and used as source material for Matthew and Luke –

Jesus, after coming down from the Mount of Olives surrounded by palm waving, coat throwing, cheering, expectant crowds, enters the city, then the temple, looks around and leaves. It isn’t until the next day that the tables are turned.

For the gospel writer Mark who uses the word immediately eleven times, this is an unexpected halt in the action. For the Hollywood screenplay, it just doesn’t work. The hero can’t ride in with fervor and passion, pomp and circumstance and turn around and leave – only to casually walk back in the next day. Think about all of the Jesus movies you’ve seen.

We expect Jesus to enter the temple and do something triumphant.

Instead, he acts more like a tourist, taking in the sights. What must the stoked-up crowd have thought? What must his anxious disciples have thought? What must the unnerved temple leaders have thought – as they watched Jesus not act.

Last Sunday I talked about living in anxious days. Jesus said: Don’t be alarmed. Watch and stay awake. And I said: Watch Jesus. Watch Jesus through Holy Week when tension and stress are at an all-time high. He is the perfect example of non-anxious leadership.

         They entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple and he looked around at everything.

         I played on the girls’ golf team in high school and the day before every big tournament we’d walk the course together with our coach. This wasn’t a practice round. Instead we walked through each hole taking notes: What do you see, our coach would ask – Where are the hidden hazards? Pace off yardages, where do you need your shot to land? Look at the greens. What contours do you see? What’s the best angle of approach? Does it change if the pin is over there? Where are the trees? How do they block the wind? What about those electrical wires – do they come into play? Can you use that cart path? Where do you want your drive to land to play this dogleg?

I remember one regional tournament shot that I hit right into the middle of a large bush I had identified as my target the day before in the walk through. And I’d have been pleased with my accuracy if that shot hadn’t cost me a penalty stroke.

As a team during those walk-throughs, we’d take it all in – the day before the tournament so that on the day of it, when the stress and nerves might make it harder to think, we’d have a plan.

Business leaders, military strategists, surgeons, even criminals know this. Data gathering up front leads to more informed decision-making. Walk the course. What do you see? What questions does it raise?

http://www.amazon.com/Being-Mortal-Medicine-What-Matters/dp/0805095152

         Earlier this year I read Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. I’ve referenced it before – it’s a great book about honoring every stage of life – especially later stages. It’s changed the way I come alongside people when they receive an unexpected and life threatening medical diagnosis.

Gawande stresses the importance of data gathering – not Google or Web-MD necessarily, but asking questions of doctors like: How will this disease likely progress? and What if I defer this treatment to a later time? and What impact will treatment have on the things that give me meaning and purpose in my life?

         You may not control life’s circumstances, Gawande says, but getting to be the author of your life means getting to control what you do with them. He asks: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

         Data gathering… asking important questions… naming fears and hopes… helps us assume a measure of control in the midst of anxious circumstances and leads to more informed decisions.

         Jesus entered the temple and looked around at everything. It was the festival of Passover. Religious Jews from all over the Roman Empire were there to celebrate. Roman soldiers were posted for crowd control. Religious leaders were there. He watched, taking it all in:

Who’s talking with whom?

         Who’s selling and who’s buying and how is that happening?

         Why are those people treated with such honor?       Why are these people cast aside?

         Who are the teachers?

         Who are the leaders?

         Where is prayer?

         Who can worship and who cannot?

         What about those women and what is that merchant doing and why is that statue there and what are they looking at?

         Why was that animal rejected and why was that man hauled away and why are they laughing and why is she crying?

And where is the kingdom of God here?

And how can it be revealed?

Gathering data – walking the course – What does he see? How does that inform his understanding? What is the best course of action to serve his purpose?

Maybe he looked around until dark, maybe it was already late when he got there. The fact is, evening was approaching.

Sometimes at the end of a long day biology gets in the way of clarity: hunger, fatigue, mental overstimulation. Was his energy fading, his team restless?

The gospel writers often talk about dusk and evening as a metaphor for uncertainty… transition… unsettledness.

As evening descended, the market in the Temple changed. Merchants began packing up, closing shop, pilgrims headed in for the night.

We think of Jesus as having everything planned out – and that’s the way John tells his gospel of Jesus – as if he wrote the whole script and executed it to perfection. But Mark doesn’t tell it that way.

Is it possible that Jesus really didn’t have a clear strategy when he entered Jerusalem that final week of his life? That his only plan was to reveal the kingdom of God wherever he was to whomever he saw? A plan so central to his identity, that no parade, no exuberant demanding crowds, no fearful anxious disciples, no threatening guards and religious leaders could distract him?

He maintains his composure, his inquisitiveness, his objectivity, his groundedness, his faithfulness, in an otherwise highly stressful situation, and in doing so, Jesus actually transcends the tension… de-escalates the emotion…

And he leads his team to take a step back, a step out and a step up – back up the Mount of Olives to Bethany.

That’s incredible discipline. Think about the pressure of the crowd. Peasants and outcasts – desperate for change – putting their hopes in him and him alone: Hosanna!! Save us now! Overthrow the government! Eliminate our economic hardship! Give us back our land! Take back the Temple! Give us our Dignity! Be our Messiah! Save us now!

         Theirs was a cry for national identity and supremacy.

The palm branches hearkened back to the parade of Simon Maccabeus in 142 BC when throngs of Jews threw palm branches down before him – their military victor – as he took back the citadel of Jerusalem, declaring their independence from the Seleucid-Syrian empire. Take us with you, Jesus, as you take full-scale revolution into Jerusalem!

But that wasn’t what Jesus was after. He was a revolutionary, but not for that kind of military takeover. As he looked around the Temple, his aim was not to defend it but to cleanse it – of all hypocrisy… to uproot from it all its ungodliness and injustice… to expose its duplicity, sham and pretense…

To restore it as a center of worship… a house of God, worthy of God’s residence within it.

Look around at everything here what do you see? Who do you see?

What are the symbols here and what do they convey?

Where is the action? How do we move?

Who is alone?

Who is laughing and who is crying?

Who has sagging shoulders?

Who’s spirit is contagious?

How is the stranger welcomed?

What can we learn from the empty seats?

Who is missing?

How is the kingdom of God revealed here?

         As evening approached that first day of the last week of his earthly life, Jesus and his team left Jerusalem and went up to Bethany where they stayed throughout the week. Bayt-ani.

Hebrew’s a loose language and Bayt-ani can be translated in lots of ways: Bayt means house. Beyond that, it can mean: house of the afflicted, house of the poor, house of singing, house of the answer, house of now.

They retreated to Bethany that night perhaps with more questions… new questions – to sit with together and to pray with together. To discern together. That first day, they walked the course.

Jesus looked around at everything and everyone – assessing it all – data for an informed and impactful response. The next morning, with renewed conviction and resolve they head back down the Mount of Olives; this time, no parade. As soon as they enter the Temple, the revolution begins. The time is now.

Jesus drives out the merchants and overturns the tables of the moneychangers just as their day begins. The market erupts. Chaos ensues. His message is clear: these stones must fall. The crowd is stunned. The chief priests are afraid. The tone is set. The plot thickens. As the events unfold this week, watch Jesus. Watch and take it in.

3/13/16

Scripture: Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

Sermon Title: The Great Story of God: 

Intermission: Radical Reformer

Lent 5: The World Turns

That’s the trailer from the History Channel series called Life After People. It seemed a fitting illustration after our reading. What happens 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 years after people? Every major monument or testimony to the finest human craftsmanship eventually breaks down and is covered over with organic plant life, becoming invisible to the naked eye. Our great structural triumphs – the legacies of our ingenuity:

From the Egyptian pyramids to the Empire State Building… from the Astrodome to the Golden Gate Bridge… even the Hoover Dam – eventually not one stone is left upon another.

http://www.ritmeyer.com/2010/08/10/virtual-model-of-the-temple-mount-in-the-time-of-jesus/

            Look teacher! What large stones and what large buildings! The disciples marveled as they stood just outside the temple of Jerusalem. Indeed Herod’s temple was quite a sight to behold. This video produced by the UCLA Urban Simulation team shows what the Temple Mount would have looked like at the time of Jesus.

As it unfolds, notice the scale. It’s particularly impressive when considering the time of its construction. The Persian King Cyrus authorized the construction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem in 538BC.

It took 23 years to finish it and it stood in tact until the Romans sacked it in 70AD. An earthquake in 363AD completed its devastation. Built of stones weighing up to 400 tons each, it was formidable. The plaza was the size of six football fields. It took a labor force of 10,000 people to begin the construction.

Look at it and imagine the awe of the disciples as they prepared to enter it. Surely its glory surpassed that of anything else in the Roman Empire.

            Not one stone will be left on another, Jesus said, they will all be thrown down.

            Unimaginable.

            But don’t be alarmed, he said, this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Birth pangs. Is that what’s going on in our world today? Is that what we’re living through? I’m not sure I would have described it that way. Nuts maybe. Out of control for sure. I feel like each new day’s headlines will be more shocking than the day before.

Last week Andy and I were in Pittsburgh. This past Wednesday night 6 people were shot to death, execution style, at a backyard cookout in one of the neighborhoods Andy drove near just the week before – Wilkinsburg. Police say the gunmen used heavy artillery and riddled the bodies with bullets.

From California to Kalamazoo to Kansas to Wilkinsburg, there have been 23 mass shootings (defined as 4 or more victims) in the last month.

         “Hostility works for some people – it doesn’t work for everyone”, said Republican front-runner Donald Trump on Tuesday night after winning the Michigan Republican Primary. And after he said that, the room full of his supporters erupted in laughter and then applause. Trump wears hostility like a badge of honor and the more he touts it, the more support he seems to get.

People say he’s resonating with the public and their discontent with the political system.

And so is Bernie Sanders on the other side of the aisle – an unapologetic socialist. It wasn’t long ago when even the suspicion of that was enough to nearly tank a politician’s career. Now it’s a badge of honor because it resonates with a different discontent.

            Election seasons expose all kinds of societal dis-ease:

Anger and anxiety over economic inequity. Animosity toward those responsible for job loss. Fear toward people of different cultures, religions, skin colors. These dis-eases point to deeper faults and fissures within our institutions: business, banking, government, immigration, education, healthcare…

Some people hope for an opportunity to return to better days of the past before trade agreements. Others yearn for a new future of fair wages. Still others rally around the cry that now is the time to regain our national supremacy.

We disagree on specifics, but we agree that something new is called for… that what is, isn’t working… that change is needed. We’re living through the end of what needs to end, to make way for what needs to begin. And we don’t know how the future will unfold, but it will, undoubtedly be painful. And Jesus says: Don’t be alarmed.

Birth pangs, he calls it.

            The conference I attended last week was called The Art of Transitional Ministry: Pastoring Churches in Transition. There are multiple levels to this conversation.

Within every church individuals are going through transitions: marriages and divorces, job changes, births and deaths, moving to new homes, aging, loss.

Whole churches themselves go through transitions – changes in leadership, schisms, ministries that run their course while new visions emerge. In July we’ll celebrate the 150th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of this church building. Think of the transitions this church has moved through in its life!

Christianity itself, the capital “C” Church is in transition. The institutional Church doesn’t operate in a vacuum, but in a wider community, society and culture. It’s not that the old, old story of Jesus and his love has changed, but a nimbleness and creativity is called for to communicate it into a changing world.

And that is the macro transition – the world itself is turning – always turning. History testifies to the cycles of endings and beginnings.

The gospel has power to transform any and every age, but what does that require from the messengers of it at any given time and place? What does it require from you and me? New eyes to see more clearly the water in which we swim? New ears to hear? New language?

Transitions produce anxiety. I heard a quote last week by Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, authors of the book: The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World: 

            For people in our congregations, the world is spinning. So much is happening but they have little space to process their experience and give it meaning. They come to worship with many questions and feelings that never get addressed. People sense something is wrong with the state of Christian life but don’t know how to express that feeling. They don’t know how to articulate what lies beneath the diffuse anxiety and can’t put words to the confusion. Until people can put their feelings into words and be heard, they are held captive by unarticulated anxiety.

For some, coming to church is like coming to the garden. It’s like coming to the well when the stresses and tensions and craziness of the world leave us feeling like we’re wandering in the desert — dry and parched. We meet Jesus here and we want to tarry.

The last thing we want to talk about is the mess out there. Please let us come to the garden to hear the story again of Jesus and his love.

For others of us, if the church does not in some way help interpret the events of the day, equip our engagement in them, or give space to vent them, it’s irrelevant. For us to come to church and hear nothing of the realities of life is not helpful – not healing – not worth it.

For still others of us, there’s a deep hunger for the church not to give answers, but to facilitate deeper questions… not to think for us but to encourage us to faithfully think for ourselves…

Not to defend scripture but to open it up, to let the Spirit bring it to new life in our midst, for our day.

What is church for you? Who is church for you? Where is church for you?

How might we, as church be both garden and learning laboratory… both a well for refreshment and a safe space for challenge beyond our comfort zones… a refuge and a way-station for pilgrims to resupply for the journey of life. And by church, let’s not talk just in terms of the brick and mortar – let’s talk about living stones – you and me and us together.

There they stood together – Jesus and his disciples – looking up at the massive, magnificent structure that was the temple of Jerusalem.

Jesus knows what’s coming.

No stone will be left on another – all will be thrown down. But do not be alarmed. Rather– Watch & Keep Awake! To what must end, in order that new life can begin.

When Mark wrote these words, the fall of the temple was imminent. He and his readers undoubtedly believed they were living into the end. The verses I read at the beginning of worship: Like living stones, let us be built: stone upon stone into a spiritual house – if they were written by Peter, they were written about the same time – a crazy time – and yet– a powerful witness: our faith will not be crushed when the temple falls, for we are a living church and Jesus is our living cornerstone.

What a powerful witness for us today. The world will turn and turn quickly through Holy Week.     Anxieties and tensions will be high. Watch Jesus. He goes in to the very heart of it with courage. He goes to the garden with his friends but doesn’t stay there. He goes to the cross breathing forgiveness. And a new day dawns. His work, his purpose, his radical world changing mission goes on – through a church of living stones – tethered by the spirit who joins us heart to heart in every age… in every turning.

In 1988, songwriter Rory Cooney studied the words of Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1 and began to imagine fresh language for the ancient poem.

In 2014, he wrote about this project in his blog entitled Gentle Reign:

            I decided that I wanted to use music that suggested the revolutionary spirit of the canticle, that cosmic tables are being turned over, as it were. And who has better songs of uprising than the Irish? The tune dances a bit, and there’s both joy and excitement in the melody that I think fits the spirit of Mary’s song well.

            The idea of “turning” in the title was both a nod to (the root of the word) “revolution,” and to the message of Jesus’s preaching in all three of the synoptic gospels, the core message of which was, “Repent, and believe the good news.”

            The idea, of course, is that we are all walking a particular course dictated by the gods of “this world,” for Jesus and his countrymen, the god’s name was Caesar. Jesus was saying, “Look, how is that working out for you? Happy? Well, I have good news: a God with another idea, and his name is Abba. Let’s “turn around” and walk in another direction.” So the “revolution” is both interior (a change of heart-self) and corporate and visible (a new way of living together). It is, in fact, against the prevailing set of values in society, a revolution. “Canticle of the Turning” invites us to sing around the fire in the darkness while we await the new world’s dawn.

And so we sing it together this morning – the week before Palm Sunday – during which we remember the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.

These words, written in fresh language for today, capture the hopes and dreams of Jesus’ mother Mary the beginning of her birth pangs, before he entered the world he would turn.

 

2/28/16

Scripture: Mark 12:13-17

Sermon Title: The Great Story of God: 

Intermission: Radical Reformer

Lent 3: What is Caesar’s

 

He’s at it again. Last month, Michael Newdow filed a federal lawsuit to remove In God We Trust from our money. He argues that the motto places a substantial burden on atheists.

He’s not alone in wanting it removed. According to the web-based opinion poll debate.org, when asked: Should the motto In God We Trust be removed from US Currency? 67% of those who responded said yes, while 33% said no.

People who are opposed to its removal say things like:

         Our laws emanate from God and the Bible…

         It’s the very fabric of who we are as a nation…

         God is how this nation became the great nation it is…

         It’s more than a religious phrase, it’s historic…

         It’s part of our country’s foundation – placed on our currency when this country was founded…

People who support its removal say things like:

God has nothing to do with government.

We are not a theocracy, we are a democracy. It is not in God we trust, it is in the people (democracy) we trust.

We don’t trust in God. We trust our guns, our financial system, our medicine and our education, someone else said.

Religion is a personal choice not a state choice.

I am a Christian, one said, but the United States is a melting pot of religious beliefs. It’s not necessary to print ‘In God We Trust’ on any currency. It doesn’t make it more or less valuable.

Currency is Caesar’s, another Christian said, Using ‘In God We Trust’ is using the Lord’s name in vain. The seal on the US currency is not the seal of God, it is the seal of the United States of America.

10 years ago, Newdow filed a suit to have the phrase removed and a federal judge rejected it on the grounds that the minted words amount to a secular national slogan and do not dictate anyone’s beliefs.

The next year, Newdow took it to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. They upheld the earlier decision, publishing a statement in 2010 that said the national motto is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and has no theological or ritual impact.

In God We Trust – not theological? It certainly is when we read it from a Psalm as a call to worship or sing it as a line in a hymn on Sunday morning or pray it when we are afraid or alone:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart… in all your ways acknowledge him.

         When I am afraid, I trust in you…

         Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,

         for I have put my trust in you.

         Show me the way I should go,

for to you I entrust my life.

But is it a secular national slogan, a patriotic ceremonial symbol when it appears on an instrument of the state? Does it have a completely different meaning there?

Bring me a denarius and let me look at it, Jesus said. Holding out the coin before his questioners, he challenged them to look more closely: Whose image is this and what does it say?

They’d asked him whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Caesar.

He’d asked them to look at a coin. Look at your money. Whose face do you see? What does it say?

The denarius in circulation from 14-37 CE sat in the palm of his hand. Looking up at the inquisitors was the face of Emperor Tiberius Caesar and the words Son of the Divine Augustus. Octavian Augustus Caesar – declared a god by the Roman Senate – his son Tiberius – son of god.

It used to be, before the first century BC, that all Roman coins had images of gods and goddesses and mythical scenes on them. But in 44BC, a human face appeared – that of Julius Caesar.

And with each new generation, each new Caesar, new coins were printed with increasingly divine attributes and titles. Look at the coin. What does it say?

The coins were circulated throughout the empire as a reminder of power, of control, of ultimate sovereignty.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Jesus said.

The irony, and they knew it as they stared down at the coin, is this: What’s not Caesar’s? At least according to Rome. Caesar and his political power controlled commerce and the economy, the military and the infrastructure. They administered law and oversaw religious practice.

In the eyes of Rome, all allegiance belonged to Caesar and the empire. In the eyes of Rome, it is all Caesar’s.

And give to God what is God’s, Jesus said.

Teacher we know you are a man of integrity. We know you teach the way of God in accordance with truth…

Here’s the truth: regardless what the coin says… it doesn’t matter what the empire says, everything is God’s. Love the Lord Your God with All your heart and All your mind, All your strength and All your soul.

Oh, and here’s your coin back.

Try as they might to trap Jesus with controversial questions, he was skillful in turning it back on them; never answering, always asking a new and different question. Theologian Ched Myers says:

Jesus is presented not as a sage who explains life’s mysteries but as the great interrogator of public and private arrangements of privilege and power. His queries lay bare the ‘inner conflicts’ of disciples and opponents alike. His aim is to force a crisis of faith.

Look at the coin, what do you see? What does that call forth from you?

The Jewish religious leaders tried to catch Jesus in his words and he turned the controversy personal –What about you? Where does your allegiance lie?

I’ve heard it said that the fact that these religious leaders had a Roman coin in their possession was it’s own indictment, for those associated with the Temple were only to have shekels. But even the shekel wasn’t Jewish — it came from Tyre. Had Jesus asked to see a shekel and asked them to say whose image was on it, what would they have seen?

The Tyrian shekel had on its face the face of the Phoenician god Melqarth (Baal). Yes, the coins deemed acceptable in the Temple of Jerusalem were inscribed with the image of a pagan god. And that was less offensive than Caesar’s face to them.

Rome didn’t allow Jews to mint their own coins. In fact, that was one of the big deals in the Jewish revolt of 66 CE when the Jews gathered together all of the shekels and melted them down to mint their own coins for the very first time. Scholars date the gospel of Mark around the time of that Jewish revolt.

Imagine how Mark’s audience heard this story given their historical backdrop. Holding in their hands their first ever Jewish coins inscribed with the words Jerusalem the Holy — such a dramatic symbol of their independence from Rome…

Bring me a denarius… who in the middle of the Jewish revolt against Rome would have one of those? And the guts to reveal it… Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s… and to God what is God’s! For Mark’s audience, that could well have been the revolutionary rallying cry.

It was 1861. Our nation was deeply divided in civil war when Rev. M.R. Watkinson, pastor of Ridleyville Pennsylvania’s First Particular Baptist Church wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury.

You’re probably a Christian, he wrote to Secretary Salmon P. Chase, What if our republic were now shattered beyond reconstruction?

Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? In his letter he made an appeal for the words God, Liberty and Law to be minted on US coins.

Secretary Chase was an ardent supporter of abolition. His uncle, an Episcopalian Bishop, raised him to apply his faith to his daily life and he did – defending runaway slaves and the white citizens who supported them and denouncing fugitive slave laws.    Chase was moved by Rev. Watkinson’s letter, and he wrote a letter to the Director of the Philadelphia mint with these words:

No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.

Mint Director James Pollock, a former Congressman and Pennsylvania governor, was also Vice President of the American Sunday School Union, a non-denominational group established in 1790 to develop adult Sunday schools in rural communities. He also co-founded a Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, homeless shelter and soup kitchen.

A deeply religious man, Pollock wholeheartedly supported Chase’s letter. They went back and forth on the wording of the phrase, settling on:

In God We Trust. It would be a rallying cry to unify a divided nation’s heart.

         Congress passed a resolution in 1864 and it appeared that year for the first time on a 2 cent coin. In 1956, during the Cold War, Congress and the President passed a joint resolution making it a national motto and it appeared on paper currency the next year.

It may very well now be colloquially understood as a secular, national slogan with little religious meaning, but it didn’t start out that way.

Then again, surveys from the 1960’s consistently concluded that 95% of Americans were certain in their belief in God. But by 2014, according to the Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey, the percentage of Americans certain in their belief in God? 63%.

There probably will come a day – maybe not that far in the future – when the words: In God We Trust no longer appear on our money – if money is still printed at all that is. Maybe they’ll be replaced by another motto like Liberty or Justice for all or simply E Pluribus Unum. And? So?

We may find ourselves one day looking down at a coin clearly marked with secular national authority.

Currency is, after all, an instrument of the state

regardless what’s printed on it.

Hear Jesus’ words again: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

His is a clarion call to citizenship, allegiance and sovereignty – not to Rome, not to the United States of America, not to any civil institution or human nation state. Our hearts, our minds, our strength, our soul, our lives belong to God and in that we are always and completely free. No secular law, no national motto, no human declaration can ever make it otherwise, for what ultimately is Caesar’s? nothing. and what ultimately is God’s? everything. This is the good news proclaimed by Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

 

 

 

 

 2/21/16

Scripture: Mark 10:32-52

Sermon Title: The Great Story of God: 

Intermission: Radical Reformer

Lent 2: The Blind See

         Do you know my name?

         No sir.

         I’ve lived in this quarter almost fifty years. Not a soul knows my name. Not that I would keep it a secret. God no, I should like to hear my name called. They never think to ask. You see, I am not an individual—not Pierre or Francois or Charles like the rest of them. What do I hear when I walk down the street? ‘Bonjour, Monsieur l’Aveugle.’ I have no name—only a condition. I am known, but not for who I am, only for what am, the blind man.

         This is an excerpt from John Howard Griffin’s memoir: Scattered Shadows, but it could have been spoken by the man in our gospel reading. They called him the blind man or the blind beggar too – but they also knew his father – Timaeus. In Aramaic, Bar-Timaeus simply means son of Timaeus – like Jesus’ name in Aramaic would have been Yeshua bar-Josef.

It turns out we can translate Timaeus one of two ways in Aramaic – honored or unclean. And indeed this father and son are both: deemed unclean by religious ritual and social practice, yet raised to honor by Jesus. Flawed yet precious – as are we all.

I tell you these things not to complain, l’Aveugle said to Griffin, but to show you what you must do. You must become more a man than blind. You must overpower the condition with some individuality and you must find some way not to kill your love.

         When you’re blind, you have to learn to see and to be seen.

         John Howard Griffin was going blind. Head injuries sustained during an air raid in the Pacific in 1945 were day by day, month by month darkening his world. He began writing his memoir, Scattered Shadows, after he was completely blind. He could not know that a decade later his sight would return and the memoir of a sighted man becoming blind would be a round trip journey instead of one way.

Watch your pride, an old blind Benedictine priest warned Griffin, Sometimes our deepest wound comes from hurt pride in this, because we think we do not have some great gift to offer God and the world. But the important thing, in God’s eyes, is not what we have to give, but that we hold nothing back, that we refuse to give God even our wretchedness, our stubbornness, our littleness of soul.

The blind beggar Bartimaeus cried out from the side of the road and refused to be silenced: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Sternly shushed by many in the crowd, he shouted all the louder: Have mercy on me!!! Don’t pass me by!

What did he have to lose? No pride. No shame. No holding back. A cry from the depths of his soul to the only one who really saw him – the only one who knew his name.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah on the occasion of his first sermon in the gospel of Luke: He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

         And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, sat down and said: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

         Bring good news to the poor.

Release captives.

Restore sight to the blind.

Free the oppressed.

Proclaim God’s grace.

Jesus understood this was his mission: He came for the blind beggar, son of Timaeus – the unclean.     He came to all who are lowly, despised, forgotten, overlooked, blind – to raise them to honor.

Jesus said: I came into this world for judgment – so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind. The Pharisees heard him and said: Surely we’re not blind are we? And Jesus said – If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say “We see” your sin remains. 

         Recovery of sight for the blind – we get that part – but Jesus, you came that those who see may become blind? How can that be a good thing?

What do we see when we see?

What do we not see when we see?

What do we see when we cannot see?

It came to pass on Good Friday 1947 that John Howard Griffin’s world finally plunged into complete darkness. And it was during his blindness that he became most attentive to his inner, spiritual life. He studied music, monasticism, philosophy, mysticism and psychology. He prayed and meditated, embarking on a journey that could best be described as a dark night of the soul.

After several years, he began meeting weekly with a spiritual director. Unable to drive, he called a taxi service. Week after week, a driver named Wooly took him to see the Monsignor.

From the beginning, Wooly was delighted that Griffin was blind – Can’t you see nothing at all? he asked him… not a thing

Early on, he asked Griffin how he pictured people.

Griffin explained that in the beginning of his blindness, sighted habits clung, and he would ask people to describe themselves. But after 6 years of blindness, he no longer had the slightest interest in imagining how people looked – other aspects of relationships had taken on much greater value.

Week in and week out Wooly drove Griffin – often taking side trips without running the meter. Once he stopped in a field of plum blossoms so that Griffin could enjoy the smells. He allowed him to sit in the front of the cab… he even talked of taking him fishing. Sometimes Wooly’s exaggerated kindness bewildered and embarrassed Griffin, but he had a contagious spirit.

Several months into their relationship, Wooly asked Griffin again whether he imagined in his mind how people looked. Again, Griffin answered that he doesn’t think that way anymore. The following conversation ensued:

But if you don’t remember how people look, how do you imagine somebody now?, Wooly asked.

Oh, just by the way he acts, Griffin replied.

Well, how do you think I look?

I’ve never thought about it, Wooly.

Well, just guess how you think I look.

I can tell you’re a big man. You’re strong. Probably overweight.

That’s right. But what about my face?

Well, I expect you’ve got a heavy-set face, which is probably red-nosed from drinking.

That’s right. But I wonder, do you think it’s a good face?

Oh, I know it’s a good face. Griffin said.

And Wooly chuckled.

For several weeks, Wooly continued to attentively answer Griffin’s dispatch request, until one day, another driver came. A few weeks went by before Griffin asked the manager of the taxi service about Wooly.

Don’t worry, said the manager, Wooly won’t be driving you anymore – he’s been fired. The manager wondered if Griffin was one of the customers who had called to complain.

When Griffin said he only had positive experiences with Wooly – that Wooly had always been nice to him, the manager thought he had the wrong guy – he’d never heard that Wooly had been nice to anyone.

He was a hot-head – they lost lots of business because of him. As it turns out, he had to leave town because he couldn’t keep a job… he couldn’t get along with anyone.

Griffin was confused… he investigated further and discovered that in fact, everyone who admitted knowing Wooly had the same description – Everybody knew that sob.

Finally Griffin asked another driver who knew Wooly what he looked like. Oh, he was uglier’n sin, he answered disgustedly.

He was?

Oh yeah! He had a big scar running clean down his face… it was awful. I mean it was sickening just to look at him. It screwed his face all out of kilter.

The answer slapped me in the face, Griffin wrote, Here was the missing fragment to the puzzle of this lost soul. Wooly had been on the defensive against people who drew back from him in horrorIt had soured him until he apparently hated the whole world, because the world could not see beyond his deformity, beyond his very face. This explained his jubilation that I could not see, that I could not see him as others had, but that I saw beyond his scar just as he had seen beyond my blindness. All those with whom I had spoken implied that I really did not know Wooly. But I was sure then that I was the only one who did. With me, he had been like any other man; with me, he knew that his face could not blind me to the quality of his heart.

Here’s the irony: week after week while Griffin was on his way to the Monsignor for spiritual healing, the real healing was happening in the taxi cab.

Griffin was blind and by God’s grace, he was learning to see. And what he saw in Wooly was beautiful. The unclean – honored.

What about us? Must we become blind that we may see? Or are we already blind?

Blind to our own vulnerabilities, blind to the hearts of others, blind to prejudices, fears and the way our words and actions objectify… Are we like the closest disciples of Jesus so sure that we deserve the best seats in the house that we are blind to the humble character, the servant nature of the Messiah himself? Are we so focused on our feelings and our desires that we’re blind to the heartache of others?

Do our eyes see only what we want to see and not see what we need to see? Are we blind to the kingdom of God emerging in bursts of unexpected grace all around us?

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!

Have Courage! They said. Jesus has heard you. Listen! He calls for you. Arise.

Have Courage… Take Heart… Be of Good Cheer.

What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asks then and now. What a question! What a savior.

What do you want me to do for you?  

         O teacher, let us see.

        Open the eyes of my heart, Lord,

       Open the eyes of my heart.

       I want to see you; I want to see you.

       We want to see you, Lord and learn from you – see you in the stories of Scripture and learn from you the power of touch and name… the importance of honor and dignity… the way to speak truth with grace and love and ask questions that lead to healing… we want to see you, Lord and learn from you how to forgive and be forgiven, how to make way for the unseen to be seen, the unclean to be holy. Hear our prayer:

Open the eyes of my heart Lord…

 Open our eyes, O Lord – let the scales that blind us fall. Open our eyes to the hurt and hunger before us and to the hurt and hunger within us. Open our eyes to the kingdom of God unfolding in our midst and to the ways we may reveal it and be changed by it. Open our eyes to risk and to joy… to hope and to life… to the new friends worshipping with us and to the future… Open our eyes to tradition and to innovation – and to the gospel in each. Hear our prayer:

Open the eyes of my heart Lord…

 Open the eyes of your world, O Lord we pray. Heal the blindness of our bigotry, our greed, our waste, our neglect. Heal the blindness of our hatred, our division, our insensitivity, our pride. Heal the blindness, O Lord of our exceptionalism and open our eyes to our weakness and frailty. Open our eyes to your majesty and your call upon us we pray. Hear our prayer:

We want to see you and your kingdom come. We long for sufficient bread for the hungry and clean water for those who thirst. We want to see your way of forgiveness, humility, honor, grace, peace and power reign. Hear us as we unite our voices to pray the words you taught us: Our Father…

 2/14/16

Scripture: Mark 10:17-31

Sermon Title: The Great Story of God: 

Intermission: Radical Reformer

Lent 1: Less is More

We’ve entered our second intermission in the Great Story of God. Today is the first Sunday of the six-week season of Lent.

In September we began Act 1 with Genesis. Throughout the fall we listened to stories of patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and kings. In and through each story we witnessed the hand of God at work: creating, shaping, forming a people… a community… a family. We took a short break in December – an intermission called Advent – as we prepared for the birth of the long awaited promised One.

In January, we began Act 2 with the story of Jesus as told by the gospel writer Mark. Last week the curtain closed on Act 2 as Jesus and his disciples headed down the mountain and turned fully toward Jerusalem. We’ll join them in a few weeks, as they enter the city with palms and shouts and joy. But for now, we slow down and reflect on the man called Jesus. Who do the people say that I am? Jesus asked his disciples. Who do you say that I am?

The answers were all over the map: rabbi, rebel, revolutionary, restorer, redeemer… he was unlike any they had ever met.

He was new. He was bold. He taught with authority. He was challenging and inspiring. Wherever he went, he drew a crowd. They were mesmerized by his teaching and healed by his touch. Born and raised a religious Jew, Jesus knew the Jewish law. But more than that he knew God.

Over the centuries, adherence to the law had become rigid… lifeless. Duty, obligation and righteousness often trumped love, mercy and justice. And then there was Jesus: the One who came to set the captives free… to restore sight to the blind… to proclaim good news for the poor, a welcome home for the lost and comfort for the brokenhearted. He called everyone to repent and join the kingdom of God.

He didn’t set out to form a new religion, but to reform it.

And in that, he was radical: nothing shy of returning to the root of life would do.

Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Asked the man.

He came out of nowhere – running to catch up with Jesus. Throwing himself down on his knees he cried out – perhaps with some desperation:

What must I do?

This is one of the more heartbreaking stories of the gospels. Here’s a man who like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son grew up following the rules. By his own testimony, since he was a boy, he diligently practiced his religion. But here he is, crying out for life. Something is missing for him.

Good Teacher – please – what more must I do?

You know the commandments: Jesus said, say them with me as he said them to the man: You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.

You shall not defraud?

That’s not in the top 10 from Moses, although it is in the 613 Jewish commandments. Interesting that Jesus inserts that one in the list he repeats to the man. You shall not defraud…

Yes, yes, I’ve kept them all my whole life.

         Who is this man?

Financially, he’s probably in the top 10% of his population. It’s an agrarian society where land is currency. And people like this man owned a lot of land.

Chances are, he was born into some of it. Ancestral land passed down through generations. Political support and favors were paid off in land too. But the primary way the wealthy got wealthier in Jesus’ day was by legally seizing property that belonged to small struggling landowners.

Small peasant farmers regularly went into debt. Their taxes were high and their land less fertile, so crops were inconsistent. To feed their families, they took out loans from people like the man on his knees before Jesus.

And if things didn’t get better, he’d own their land. Wealthy landowners literally made their fortunes off the misfortunes of the poor. The system was unjust, unethical, debilitating and fraudulent.

He was born into this system and into its corruption. Sometimes when we’re born into it, we’re blind to it’s evil and our participation in it.

Yes, yes, I’ve kept all the commandments my whole life, he said.

That’s when Jesus looked at him, and in looking at him, loved him – with agape love – the deepest kind of holy love there is.

He doesn’t see. He doesn’t know. He thinks he’s kept the law…

What must I do? the man prostrate before the author of life asks. And Jesus the radical reformer – because he loves him so – tells him the hard truth:

Go and make it right. Give away what you’ve made unjustly. Give back what has been defrauded – to the struggling landowners, to the tenant farmers, to the day laborers. Dismantle the corrupt system that has separated you from really seeing and knowing your brothers. The system that has made you rich, is the very system that has made you sick unto death. Make it right.

Then, and only then come and follow me.

At this the man’s face was shrouded as if overwhelmed by a threatening cloud and he went away, his spirit uneasy and heavy with grief.

It’s hard when it’s all you’ve known. It’s hard when it’s the source of your security. It’s hard when it’s your privilege.

Last month I began a book study led by a colleague from the Adrian Inter-faith Alliance. We’re reading a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates called Between the World and Me. This from the inside cover:

Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race”, a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

It’s one man’s story written as a memoir to his son, but it’s more than that, it’s a story of centuries of systemic evil, structural injustice, violence and fear alive and unwell in our day.

Of the Michael Brown verdict, Coates wrote to his 15 year old son:

You stayed up till 11pm that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay.

Our conversation around the book was hard and heavy, raw and at times tearful.

The truth is, we live and operate in a matrix of oppression. There is deep-seeded injustice in our halls of justice. Corporate greed drives our marketplace.

Sometimes when we’re born into a system, we’re blind to its corruption, and unaware of our participation in it.

For example: we buy cheap clothes made half-way around the world and in so doing, we support inhumane and unsafe labor practices.

We vote tough on crime to protect our children, and the children of others waste years of their lives under heavy burdens of mandatory sentences.

Our reluctance to place limits on freedoms leaves holes in families, classrooms and neighborhoods.

We burn more and more fossil fuels for our own entertainment, convenience and comfort and coastal communities are washed away – those of the poorest countries being the most vulnerable.

We turn a blind eye to tens of thousands of suffering people because they don’t look like us or talk like us and that makes us afraid.

We are shareholders and stakeholders of corporations that dismantle entire labor markets and relocate them to cheaper markets – leaving decimated families and communities in their wake – so that we can make a better profit.

We indoctrinate our military to protect our national interests and when they come home so badly broken, there’s not enough care to make them whole again.

And in our nation’s capital, people who clean the offices of cabinet members, live in homeless shelters because custodial crews of government officials don’t make enough money to cover the expenses of living there, and these government officials who we vote into office are the very ones responsible for wage policy.

We are the man in the story – people of privilege on our knees: What must we do to inherit life — real and abundant life here and now and forever?

         Make it right, Jesus says to us because he loves us so: Dismantle the corrupt system that keeps you from really seeing and knowing your brother and sisters. And follow me.

It’s all so overwhelming… threatening… it fills us with grief.

It’s impossible! The machine is too big to dismantle… we’ve been blind to our participation in it for too long and it hurts when we open our eyes to see…

We say along with the disciples:

Who can be saved??

And Jesus, looking upon us with agape love – that holiest and deepest of loves, and says –

         My beloved children, you’re right– it is impossible for you, but with God, all things are possible.

With God, seeds that land in good soil produce fruit 30, 60, 100 fold.

With God, a hungry crowd of 5000 people are fed on a couple of loaves of bread and a few fish with baskets of scraps leftover.

With God, what is left behind for the sake of the gospel is reconstituted and multiplied 100 times.

When we but let go of that which we have always known – when we risk uncertainty and enter the unknown way of Jesus, we meet brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers — strangers on the road with us who become our kin.

With God those who have become dead inside are raised to new life.

With God the impossible is possible.

The rich man took the first step, falling on his knees before Jesus. And just because he walked away doesn’t mean the story ended there for him. He came seeking something more and he left less sure of himself.

In our less is God’s more.

We cannot make things right if we don’t know what’s wrong. May we be the kind of church willing to learn, even and when it hurts. May we be disciples who by God’s grace and courage join the radical reformation of Jesus.

 

  1/31/16

Scripture: Mark 6:1-29

Sermon Title: The Great Story of God: Act 2: And Then… Jesus

Scene V: Revolutionary

      Mark knows how the story ends. He knows how the story ends for John the Baptist, for Jesus, for James the brother of John and James the brother of Jesus. He knows how it ends for Peter and for Paul. By the time Mark writes his gospel almost all of the earliest followers of the Way of Jesus are dead.

We just heard the gruesome details of John’s death. Jesus we know meets his earthly demise with nails driven into his hands and feet and hung up on a cross. 11 years later, James, one of the Sons of Thunder – the brother of John – dies by the sword – at the order of Herod Agrippa – not the same Herod from our story today – that’s Herod Antipas. Herod Agrippa was Herodius’ brother – still all in the family.

James, the brother of Jesus was stoned to death 18 years later by the zealous plotting of a new high priest named Ananus –son of the High Priest Annas –Caiaphas’ father-in-law – you may remember both Annas and Caiaphas had a hand in Jesus’ death.          Tradition has it that Peter and Paul died the same day –5 years later. They were part of the Roman Emperor Nero’s campaign of terror against Christians. Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded. The year was 67AD. Three years later Mark wrote his gospel.

The opening line: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

We don’t hear that opening line like Mark’s contemporaries did. They were accustomed to hearing the words “good news” or “euangellion” in the Greek in the proclamation announcing each new Roman emperor.

In 9 BC, for example, the High Priest Apollonius celebrated the advent of Caesar Augustus with these words:

Since Providence which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he Caesar by his appearance surpassing all benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news for the world that came by reason of him…

Likewise the title “Son of God” belonged to Caesar and Caesar alone in Rome.

We don’t hear it, but Mark’s contemporaries heard a challenge to the empire from the very opening line of his witness:

The beginning of the good news- not of Caesar, but— of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

From that opening line, Mark announced a different savior, a different kingdom, a different way of life. The early church simply called it The Way.

It was a way of life that stood in glaring contrast to the world, describes Shane Claiborne in his book Irresistible RevolutionWhat gave the early Christians integrity was the fact that they could denounce the empire and in the same breath say: “we have another way of living. If you are tired of what the empire has to offer, we invite you into the Way…

Mark’s story of The Way, begins with John, the voice crying in the wilderness.

Repent! John cried out, as he took the hands of the pilgrims who traveled into the Judean desert to begin their lives anew. John the baptizer led them – one at a time — into the water and held them as they went under– dying to the way they used to live – and he held them as he raised them up, dripping in new life– ready to turn toward the way of God.

Jesus came from Nazareth out to the Jordan to join the crowd… John took his hand too and lowered him below the surface… and then held him as he emerged out of the water, face upturned to the torn open heavens above and the voice: You are my Son, the Beloved. With that, Jesus too joined The Way.

Quickly the leadership mantle moved from John to Jesus. And then it’s Jesus who comes out of the wilderness proclaiming throughout Galilee: Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand.

That’s how the movement spreads. Each time the heat is turned up on one, others are sent out. John is arrested. Jesus is on the move. The crowd in Nazareth turns up the heat on Jesus, he sends out his disciples 2×2: Repent! they proclaim, as they move from house to house.

People like Herod Antipas and Herod Agrippa and Caiaphas and Ananus and Nero – they think they can stop it by killing its leaders, but they can’t because they’re multiplying… 2x2x2x2.

And with each new martyr, the passion heats up… the commitment intensifies… new recruits join. They are determined. They are focused. They are courageous. They are faithful to Jesus and his Way.

A 2nd century historian Justin Martyr wrote:

We do not give up our confession though we be executed by sword, though we be crucified, thrown to wild beasts, put in chains, and exposed to fire and every other kind of torture. Everyone knows this. On the contrary, the more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers and God-fearing people through the name of Jesus.

All week long I wondered why Mark, generally a man of scant detail, wrote so much about Herod’s birthday party and John’s grisly death… It reads like a tabloid or a Shakespearean tragedy. This from the gospel writer who says nothing about the birth of Jesus, doesn’t include a sermon on the mount or a sermon on the plain, and has very few parables.

Yet here he weaves the story as if he wants it to be forever imprinted in our imaginations. And I remember the posters we saw lining the alleys in the West Bank… posters of martyrs. They are remembered by their families and neighbors with honor – their faces, forever young… their stories inspire solidarity.

John the Baptist was the first lone voice of the movement and its first martyr. His death, while tragic, illuminates the absolute evil of the empire. Mark lays it out for all to see in vivid color: this story with all its political theater, its charade its lavish pretense… this story about a puppet king who is allegedly Jewish yet ignores religious law – and calls himself, ironically, an oath-keeper… this story of a faithful and fruitful life thrown away in a drunken abuse of power… Mark lays it all out to say: This is what empire looks like. This is what we’re turning from.

Repent. In the Greek, it literally means have another mind. But to repent is not a mere intellectual exercise. It is a complete walking away from. And more than walking away from, it is also exposing… standing against…calling out that which is counter to God’s kingdom. And it is a complete turning toward Jesus as Lord.

Last week as we welcomed new members into our church family, we gathered around the baptismal font and once again, I asked the questions:

  • Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
  • Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?        

Although we may not hear it this way, Christian discipleship is and always has been, down throughout the ages, a call to turn from the ways of empire and turn toward the Lordship of Christ and the kingdom of God – here and now.

Jesus is aiming for a life-changing, world-changing turning in the present age and into the age to come. He is a revolutionary in the truest sense of the word. In word and deed, Jesus advocates wholesale change – mind, heart, body, spirit. And not just on an individual level, but communally. Jesus calls the people of God to a new way, a new truth, a new life.

That this Way of Jesus was a threat to the empire is curious, given that scholars say by the year 200 AD Christians comprised only about 1 percent of the population, and given that Rome had a reputation of religious tolerance. But there was something about the name Christian that infuriated the empire.

An early philosopher, in defense of Christianity, wrote to the emperor Marcus Aurelius:

Why is a mere name odious to you? Names are not deserving of hatred; it is the unjust act that calls for penalty and punishment.

         And Tertullian, a 2nd century apologist wrote:       No name of a crime stands against us, but only the crime of a name. What crime, what offence, what fault is there in a name?… all that is cared about is having what the public hatred demands—the confession of a name, not examination of a charge.

That’s our history as Christians – our present in some parts of the world even today.

It’s curious that the name Christian no longer seems to be a threat to our empire. Today there are other names that elicit hatred, experience injustice and undergo trial – simply because of their names: Arab, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, Conservative, Liberal, Gay, Black, White, Ex-con, Refugee, Homeless, and the list goes on.

For the love of Jesus, we’re called to a different way.

We are sent out, just as disciples have been sent out since the days of Jesus – sent out to proclaim and live into a different kingdom. What’s not on the packing list says as much as what is on it: take no bread, no purse, no extra clothing. In other words, leave behind the currency of the empire: money, status, power – they don’t matter in this kingdom.

Go forth empty handed, and full-hearted. Go forth with honesty, humility and the authority vested in you by the Lord Jesus himself.

Go forth in love inviting others to turn from all that is life-depriving and turn toward justice and freedom and joy. Be revolutionaries in the name of Jesus.

And don’t stay too long in one place. There’s just not time. Take your walking stick and a good pair of sandals because we are on the move. There simply isn’t time to be sucked into the litany of reasons why someone may reject the invitation to step into the way of Christ. We’ve heard them all:

Christians are hypocrites and judgmental,

         -A long time ago I had a bad experience in church,

         -I just don’t think the Bible is relevant,

         -I like to sleep in on Sunday mornings,

-There’s too much wrong in the world to believe in a loving God…

Wholesale change takes a long time and a lot of work. Come be a part of us and you’ll see — by God’s grace, we’re changing the world together.

Take a step in. That water is cool and refreshing.

You’ll find it irresistible and truly life-saving.

This is the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ, son of God.

1/24/16

Scripture: Mark 5:21-43

Sermon Title: The Great Story of God: Act 2: And Then… Jesus

Scene IV: Restorer

I love it when I find out someone has the same birthday as me. From that moment on, we become birthday buddies. One of my birthday buddies is here this morning—Jack and I share September 15. When we celebrate our birthdays together it’s double the fun.

There are birthday buddies in our story today – two women. On the same day, they were both given life.

Jairus, the father of one of them, is a leader of the synagogue. He’s not a Pharisee, not a priest and not a scribe. He might be something like the Director of Congregational Life. He’s planning a party.

Let’s listen in…

In one month, it will be one year – one year since our little princess came back to us. And we’re going to have a huge celebration. I’ve been thinking about it for some time, but I’m really planning it in earnest now – it’s right around the corner. There are so many things to think about!

She is so beautiful and so full of life. You would never know… you can not tell by looking at her that… that she…

That was so long ago and things are so good now… we are blessed and we are so thankful.

Several of the village women are planning a menu of all of her favorite foods. Some of the younger children are working on a dance. And the cantor is writing a song in her honor that soon the men of the village will begin to learn so we can all sing it for her. Then we’ll dedicate the cornerstone of the new school to be named after her.

She is a local hero for us – a symbol of life for us. It is true that when she opened her eyes, we all began to breathe again. I want the day to be perfect for her. She will be 13.

And there is someone else… Someone else who came back to life that same day. I want this to be a special celebration for her too. The last year has not been so easy for her.

A long time ago – before her illness began – she was one of us. Her husband was a man of influence. I remember when she first became ill. We prayed for them and the village doctors tried lots of different treatments. Her husband even took her to Jerusalem a few times to see specialists. After several years, when it became clear she would never have any more children, he divorced her. Soon after, he was gone.

No one else would marry her.

Someone started a rumor that her illness was connected to sexual sin, and sadly, that rumor spread. None of us wanted our wives to speak to her. Her sickness – her plague we called it — made it impossible for her to participate in synagogue life. For years she’d hover around the edges of the village. Some would see her sneak into the marketplace and quickly shuffle away.

Once someone said they thought she was living in a hillside cave.

She made us all feel awkward because we’d known her before, but we didn’t know what to say or do. Eventually she disappeared and we forgot about her.

I never said anything to anyone about this, but I had started thinking again about her. When my daughter fell ill and grew weaker and weaker… when one course of treatment after another failed and even the specialists had nothing they could do, I started thinking about her. When my closest friends stopped coming around and all we could do was weep and weep and weep and hopelessly look at our sweet beautiful child pale and frail and weak and broken, I thought of her – the  one we called the bleeding woman.

I thought of her helplessness and her despair. I thought of the way we treated her… I thought of the way I treated her… rejected her… despised her really – she was everything we most feared. And I was ashamed. I even wondered if God was punishing me for the way I was to her and all the people like her on the edges of our village.

What ever made me think I was so much better than her or than anyone?

I remember the terrible night when things got so bad, my wife turned to me and said:

What about that healer from Nazareth?

         Of course I had thought of him, but most of the other rabbis and Pharisees of our synagogue were suspicious of him. They didn’t like what he was doing. Didn’t trust him. They’d begun holding private meetings at night about him. Even though I was a leader in our synagogue, I wasn’t invited to those meetings. They were cloaked in secrecy. Someone said they’d started a list of names of people who were following Jesus.

Up until that night, every time I thought of taking my daughter to him, I thought about what they’d say, what they’d do if they saw me with him. And I couldn’t do it. But that night as I watched her struggle for breath, I thought – if there is even one more thing I can do I must do it – she is my daughter.  I kissed my wife and went to find Jesus.

For the first time in weeks I had hope as we moved through the crowd toward our house. I knew he could heal her and we were only blocks away.

And then, from a distance I saw her coming toward him. She was bent low and laboring. She pushed people out of her way with fierce determination.

For a split second I felt pity for her and hope for her too that she might find the healing she had yearned for for so long. We were kindred spirits of misery in that moment, she and I.

But then I got nervous that Jesus would be distracted by her and I became more urgent as I guided him on – away from her and toward my beloved child.

She was closing in on us. I felt it, and my anxiety grew – I only had moments – with each quickening beat of my heart I swear I felt the life ebbing from my daughter. Please, please, please keep moving – it’s not far now – we don’t have much time.

When the rabbi Jesus stopped and turned toward the bleeding woman, my world went still. My ears began to ring. Someone was tugging on my arm – it was one of my household managers and I knew when I turned and saw his face it was over. Her life, my life was over.

The thing I remember most about what happened next was the gentle hand Jesus laid on my shoulder as he confidently led me home. And I remember the words: Don’t be afraid, he said, Don’t be afraid.

Friends from the village brought her to the synagogue the very next week – the woman Jesus healed on his way to our house. And she was healed – you could see it in her complexion and in her stature. But people were unsure. The friends who brought her said they heard Jesus call her daughter. They said he made a way for her to be restored to our community… restored to our religious life… restored to our village after 12 long years and wasn’t that good news?

But a couple of scribes, rose to their feet, held up their hands and turned them away. They said they needed proof. Take her back to the doctor. She needs a thorough examination. We need professional medical evidence – by people we trust, they said.

I watched as her friends led her away.

I looked at the scribes as they shook their heads and went back to their scrolls and their rules and I swear I heard the gates on their hearts and minds swing shut. I looked at the woman as she slowly moved away from the center of our religious life.

Jesus called her daughter, I thought to myself, Who are we not to? I left the synagogue and went after them. I offered to use my position and my influence to help her. Privately, I began to raise money for her throughout the community to obtain from doctors the proof she needed for the priests and to get her back on her feet again. My wife began to accompany her to the market and introduce her to the other women.

Some of their husbands were angry—they scolded their wives and made them promise not to go near her again. Old memories die very hard. Little by little, more and more people opened their hearts and their homes to her, but even still – all these months later – many still shun her.

This one-year celebration is for her too. She will be a guest of honor. She has become one of our dearest kin. My daughter adores her – they share a birthday now — a day when they were both given life. Yes, she will be there. But if she is there and if she has a seat of honor, who will not come?

And then there’s Jesus. Without him, none of this would be possible.

There would be no celebration at all. He not only gave our daughter life and this woman who suffered for 12 years life… he gave me life and my wife and our whole household and all within our community who will allow themselves to see him for who he is – life.

How can he not be at the celebration? He is the host! And yet, I’m afraid even to speak his name to the others planning the event.

Do not be afraid, he said to me, Do not be afraid.

What are we really celebrating? The healing of my daughter and the one Jesus called daughter, yes. And so much more than that.

We are celebrating the miracle of restoration. For what I’ve seen over the last several months as so many of us have come around a woman we had all closed our hearts too – and not just come around her, but come around so many others who had been invisible to us… what I’ve seen as we’ve stood alongside each other, as we’ve made our circles wider, as we’ve risked our reputations in order to show compassion… what I’ve seen in and through all of us is nothing short of a community restored to shalom – we have been made well by Jesus.

That’s what we’re celebrating.

Because before that day our hearts were hard and cold and we had lost our selves even as we desperately clung to false ideas about who we thought we were.

We are celebrating the kingdom of God. Ha! That is what it is! The two women who share a birthday also share seats of honor. The tables will be overflowing with fruit of the harvest: grapes and dates and olives and pomegranates… fresh cheeses and fish and steaming baked bread. There will be dancing and laughing and singing… there will be brothers and strangers and strangers who become brothers…

We’ll invite people who are sick and struggling and if they can’t get here on their own, we’ll carry them.

We’ll invite people who are healthy and well-healed because why should they miss the celebration? Why should anyone?

We’ll invite the Pharisees and the scribes and the priests and every one who has ever had a question about Jesus because how can their hearts ever change if they never get to know him?

And they need healing too.

And of course, of course Jesus will be there – he has to be there. It is his kingdom. It is his party. None of us would be there if not for him.

And when we gather together to pray as we lay the cornerstone for the new school, every one of us will lay a hand on it. For although it may be named after my beloved daughter, Jesus is our cornerstone. We have all been touched by him, raised by him, restored by and in him.

And we will be, together, a symbol of life.

1/17/16

Scripture: Mark 4:1-34

Sermon Title: The Great Story of God: Act 2: And Then… Jesus

Scene III: Rabbi

         Listen! On June 17th, 2015, in Charleston South Carolina, a 21 year old white man named Dylann Storm Roof entered the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, opened fire and killed nine people including the pastor. They were all black. You remember the story. It was all over the news. Last Tuesday night, we heard about it again in South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s comments following the President’s State of the Union address. She said:

On an otherwise ordinary Wednesday evening in June, at the historic Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, twelve faithful men and women, young and old, went to Bible study. That night, someone new joined them.  He didn’t look like them, didn’t act like them, didn’t sound like them. They didn’t throw him out. They didn’t call the police. Instead, they pulled up a chair and prayed with him. For an hour.

Do you know what the text was they were studying? Mark 4:16-20. Listen carefully to what you hear:

And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.

On this, the day before the nation observes the birthday of legendary civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., when we are studying this very same text that our brothers and sisters in Christ were studying as they embodied the kingdom of God by welcoming the stranger Dylann Roof to their circle, before they were brutally and senselessly killed in an act of overt racism, it seems important to point out the irony.

I wonder if any of the Bible study members thought to themselves as they widened their circle and Dylann pulled up a chair –

We are the sowers right now.

And I wonder if Dylann thought to himself:

What kind of soil am I?

You know how Bible studies go. Everybody opens to the page in the Bible and the facilitator – probably in this case the pastor —  starts the conversation:

What about that rocky ground? We love Jesus! We believe what he says but the roots are shallow…

         What kinds of troubles do we face today?

         What kinds of persecutions?

         What tests our faith?

Maybe a member of the group shares about an ethical dilemma at work – pressure to compromise beliefs… maybe someone else shares about home life pressures – one spouse doesn’t go to church and the other does – it’s hard, she says…

What about you, Dylann? What’s troubling you?

         And the pastor continues: What about that thorny ground? What’s competing for your attention and luring you away from Jesus?

         And a member of the group talks about addiction and another talks about depression…

Dylann, honey, what’s choking you?

         We know from the news reports that he left a racist manifesto targeting blacks, Jews and Hispanics on his Web site, along with the words: someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me. I have no choice, Later he told police he almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.

Instead, a survivor said he told the church:

I have to do it. You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.

And the Word – the Word of truth, love and grace was choked out as he pulled the trigger.

I’m reminded of another seed story Jesus told:

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

         And although I know Jesus was talking about himself, I can’t help but wonder how much fruit was borne from the death of these 9 grains of wheat. Remember the footage of forgiveness? The outpouring of love that the whole nation witnessed? Dylann claimed he wanted to start an all-out race war. But Dylann honey, we’ve been in a race war for years and years – how many more will need to die before we have ears to hear?

Just this morning our church gathered in a church-wide study about this same parable – of the sower.

And I think about how many church groups throughout the centuries – nearly 2000 years – have studied this text. How many circles of groups like ours this morning and the one in Mother Emanuel Church have come together to examine this simple yet complex story told by the Rabbi Jesus? How many cultures? How many languages? How many denominations?

         A sower went out to sow…

         There are a lot of sowers these days. Sowers of discord. Sowers of hatred. Sowers of prejudice. Sowers of fear. Sowers of anger.

In the days when Mark wrote his gospel, there were a lot of sowers too:

Sowers of persecution, sowers of division, sowers of betrayal, sowers of violence. When Mark’s fledgling Christian church heard the words of the Rabbi Jesus in their day, they heard them as encouragement: keep sowing seeds of the kingdom of God – scatter them liberally – some will land on good and fertile soil… keep sowing.

This parable came to life for me last spring at our farm. It was our first season of planting and we decided we’d generously cast seeds in a variety of areas to see what grew best. We excavated small ponds and planted on terraced banks. We scattered seeds in the shady ravines of woods. We planted a vegetable garden in a former animal pen.

And then we waited. We slept and we rose, slept and rose and the gardens grew – we didn’t know how.

Most of the areas we planted failed. Some were washed away by spring rains. Some seeds fell on hard soil and before they took root, they were bird food. Some sprouted and the soil was so bad they were sickly and small, never bearing fruit. But one area had amazing and overwhelming life. Everything was growing in there – and we let it all go – undesirables next to desirables. It was an experimental year.

Our friends thought we were crazy – The weeds will choke out the vegetables! They said. We said We’ll see.
Here’s what happened: the soil was so rich nothing choked out anything. In fact, the undesirables actually turned out to be beneficial for a few reasons: They hid the vegetables from the rabbits and other hungry critters, they provided a living mulch and held water, and the vegetables climbed up on the weed stalks. The result was an incredible harvest of pumpkins, squash, zucchini, and beans – 30 fold maybe!

The difference was in the soil. The area of our robust garden had been a former deer pen and it’s also at the base of a tree line. Organic material has been composting there for years and years just waiting.

While the other areas we planted didn’t yield fruit, sowing seeds there wasn’t a waste. Plant life adds to the soil nutrition.We’ll plant more and different plants there this year to enrich what’s there for the future. We sowed seeds all over the place last spring because we didn’t know what was under the surface nor the surrounding conditions. We just kept sowing trusting that some seeds would land on really good soil. And they did.

That’s been the strategy of this church since I came as pastor two years ago. The first year I was here our session read a book together called Scattering Seeds. It’s the story of a church in Norwell Massachusetts who based their vision on the parable of the Sower.

The message of the Spirit continued to encourage us, saying, ‘You just scatter the seeds, and leave the growth to me, wrote the pastor, Stephen Chapin Garner. Scatter seeds. Toss it everywhere. Cover the ground with the word of God. Don’t leave a patch of earth unsown; then sit back and wait for the Holy Spirit to give it growth. Marvel at the unexpected nature of where growth springs up. Learn to trust that even though much of our efforts will be lost, there will be an exponential increase somewhere that will be gloriously shocking in its impact on our community.

      At our church, we’re trying a number of things – casting a variety of gospel seeds – never knowing how they’ll fall or on whom – and trusting.

We’re sowing seeds of hospitality – most recently to a new Tecumseh home-school group who meets here in the lower level classrooms during the week. Some of these moms are also in the organic food coop that meets here twice a month to distribute food. And some of these moms are in the La Leche group.

We’re sowing seeds of hope through recovery and support groups who regularly meet in our facility.

We’re sowing seeds of dignity through our deacon outreach and our Senior ministries.

We’re sowing seeds of help and compassion through our Invisible City mission.

We’re sowing gospel seeds through our education ministry through new ideas like church-wide Bible studies.

We are the sowers right now. We are the sowers right here. Only God knows the nature of the soil on which the gospel seeds fall. The Holy Spirit says: You just scatter the seeds.

1/10/16

Scripture: Mark 2:1-22

Sermon Title: The Great Story of God: Act 2: And Then… Jesus

Scene II: Rebel

I was in the synagogue that day when the stranger from Nazareth first came to Capernaum. In fact, it was my turn to read from the Torah. I was going to talk about the importance of fasting – about how to prepare oneself with the right mindset, the right schedule, and the right prayers.

The fishermen James and John, Simon and Andrew brought him in, and as we have been taught to do when a respected rabbi from another village comes, I stepped aside.

I watched as the people watched him – like they were hypnotized. I kind of was too.

When Rafiq stood up and began shouting – it wasn’t the first time. I started toward him. I was going to take him outside and settle him down, like I’d done before. But the stranger raised his hand and stopped me and then he turned toward Rafiq. He shouted back at him – but not at him, at the evil inside him. That’s what he called out.

Rafiq shuddered and shrieked and then went still. I was afraid he was dead. The rabbi from Nazareth reached out to him and helped him up and for the first time, Rafiq’s eyes were clear and his face was calm. We who had known him our whole lives were stunned and amazed.

Who was this one they called Jesus?

For the next few days, people came from all around and he healed them, one after another. And then, just as mysteriously as he had first appeared, he was gone.

If you had asked me then, I would have told you I believed he was a legitimate healer – given his healing touch by God. I believed it then. In fact, I even told my wife who told her sister whose husband’s nephew was blind to make arrangements to bring him to Jesus.

But things are different now.

It started when he came back to town. We were gathered with him at Simon Peter’s house. The house was full of people – crowds even pressing in around the door.

Jesus was talking with us – about prayer I think – when all of a sudden, chunks of clay and straw began to drop from the roof. I looked up and couldn’t see what was happening with all of the falling debris. We moved out of the way – pushing against the crowds along the walls.

There on a mat being lowered from the roof was the crippled beggar from the marketplace. What in the world? He was filthy in everyway you could imagine. I held my hand to my mouth – not even wanting to breathe the same air as him. There were people everywhere and we were trapped with this wretched creature.

But Jesus remained calm, and again he raised his hands to settle us down. I stood motionless, my hand still at my mouth and I watched as Jesus knelt down before that miserable beggar on his mat and he said these words: Son, your sins are forgiven. That’s exactly what he said – your sins are forgiven.

I wasn’t sure I heard it correctly, but I looked at my colleagues and they looked back at me – What is he saying??? He isn’t authorized to forgive sins. How dare he!

I looked down at the poor soul on the mat and his eyes fixed on Jesus with such hope. A worse deception I could not imagine. I looked around the room and all of the people were looking at Jesus with that same look of hope and my heart began to thud in my chest. He cannot do this. He cannot promise something he has no power to deliver.

And just then Jesus looked right at me and he challenged me in front of everyone. He made me look the fool. Why do you question? he asked.

Why do I question?? I’ve devoted hours and hours to studying God’s law and this man who came from the hills of Nazareth mocks me in front of my people? Why do I question? I question because I know who has the power to forgive sins – it is God alone – no one else — I’ll stake my life on that. I’ll question anyone who claims God’s power! I was outraged.

But then Jesus said he had the power and he would prove it – and he told the man on the mat to stand up, roll up his bedding and walk home. And I watched in utter disbelief as he did just that. I have seen that man in the market place day after day after day begging for years. There was no strength in his legs – none! And yet, with my own eyes, I saw him stand and walk. Who is this Jesus?

When several of us teachers of the law gathered later that night talking about it, every one of us swore Jesus had looked directly at us with his challenge. We were astonished. And we were afraid.

That night and every night since, we’ve met secretly to talk about him. The other day he defied our purity laws by eating with the wrong kind of people. We questioned his decision to take on Levi as a disciple in the first place. Levi collects taxes for the Romans and we know who lines his pockets. His hands are not clean and we’ve suspected for a long time, neither is his heart.

But Jesus went to his house – Levi’s house – for dinner. I stood at a comfortable distance with a couple of other teachers and we watched them. There sat Jesus in the middle of several people who work for the Roman establishment…

People like Levi who make money off the backs of Jewish peasants. What was he thinking? None of us would ever be seen eating with the likes of Levi’s friends. We lead by example. His indiscretion puts our reputation at stake.

The next day, one of my colleagues cautioned Jesus about his behavior. He asked Jesus to be more mindful of the company he kept. Jesus told him he’s choosing to be with those kind of people… that’s exactly who I came to call, he told my friend.

I think back to the hopefulness on the face of the marketplace beggar – and I’m afraid for him. How can Jesus be both friend to the rich and the poor – especially if the type of rich people he’s befriending are the very ones exploiting the poor ones he’s healing? What is he doing?? Men like that poor fellow on the mat are desperate – and they’re flocking to Jesus – hoping for a better life. Is he merely preying on their misery for his own popularity? If so, that may be the worst kind of treachery.

Yesterday was our day of fasting. We began with prayer in the synagogue. Jesus and his followers were nowhere to be seen. Around mid-day we saw them down by the seashore laughing and eating together – in full view. Surely he knew this was a fast day!

Why does he insist on publically shaming us?

He’s leading a full-scale rebellion against our traditions and our laws, and if that’s not bad enough, the people love him.

What shall we do, Nasir? My brother asks me tonight. Nasir al-Din, is my name. It means Defender of the FaithWhat shall we do? The people are confused.

I’m torn. I’ve seen healers but never like him. He works with a self-assurance like none other. His concern for the weak and vulnerable is contagious; his power undeniable.

I think about Rafiq who is a completely changed man now, and I think about that sickly broken panhandler and his trusting eyes and strengthened legs.

There’s a part of me that really wants to believe he is genuine and he is from God. But then he goes too far. And with an air of defiance he publically and shamelessly acts completely contrary to our laws and rituals. And I know in my heart of hearts that he’s dangerous to all we hold holy. He’s not one of us.

We teachers of the law – we’re a brotherhood. We work Capernaum together, taking turns speaking in the synagogue and leading the people in prayer. Jesus seldom spends time with us. He’d rather walk the hills and stick to the margins. He seems more comfortable at the suspect tables of sinners than at our reputable homes. He revels in his mob of misfit followers.

Last time I spoke at the synagogue, there were only a handful of people there. I used to fill the place when I spoke. Their hearts have turned. They follow him up into the hills like sheep.

I am Nasir al-Din, Defender of the Faith. God has entrusted these good people of Capernaum to me, not to this reckless rebel from Nazareth. They don’t know what I know – they have not studied as I have studied. I will not let this man lead them astray.

What shall we do?

For now, we’ll watch him – and watch him closely. We will question him in public, and challenge him before the people. We will investigate where he came from and who taught him. We will gather data. We’ll continue to meet and talk and plan and we will be faithful to God and to our people. We will wait and we will watch and we will be ready.

Be vigilant my brothers. Our people are depending on us.

That was how our meeting ended tonight. And now, as I’m walking home I see Rafiq and he’s laughing and playing with his two young nephews. I watch as he throws little Sami up on his shoulders and flips him over while he tickles him. He tussles Shadi’s hair and then he sees me.

Rafiq, the man who never used to smile… Rafiq whose face was always covered in a dark shadow and who walked hunched over, holding himself and muttering incomprehensibly…Rafiq, my childhood friend who had grown increasingly troubled through his adolescent years – never able to keep a job – never taking a wife – prone to involuntary outbursts… Rafiq – the man I’d held with all my strength through his fits until he’d collapse to the ground exhausted…

But tonight I see Rafiq, whole, healthy, happy, standing tall and waving at me. Nasir, he calls to me, Nasir, my friend shalom!

And I think again about Jesus, the one who made him well.

Who is he?

Who is he really?

And who am I?

Ah Rafiq… shalom.

         And as we embrace, I wonder:

Am I the one in need of healing?

1/03/16

Scripture: Mark 1:21-45

Sermon Title: The Great Story of God: Act 2: And Then… Jesus

Scene I: Rock Star

              In the beginning he was a huge hit. From the moment they heard him – the moment he first began to teach – from his inaugural sermon in the synagogue in Capernaum – Jesus captivated them.

Imagine the scene. It was the Sabbath – like today, in the local synagogue — a place kind of like this but more.

Ruins of synagogues dating back to the end of the first century BC dot the Galilean countryside. This is the synagogue of Capernaum:

Slide13 Slide14 Slide12

This particular synagogue dates back to the 4th-5th century and sits on top of another synagogue that dates back to the 1st century – the time of Jesus.

Every village that had a concentrated Jewish population had a synagogue. In Greek the name literally meant gathered together.

It was there that they met for school, court, charitable work and prayer. It was like a community center. On the Sabbath, faithful Jews would go to hear an interpretive reading on the Torah – offered by a well-respected teacher of the community.                        That Sabbath, a few local fishermen invited their new rabbi Jesus to speak.

Jesus walked in, sat down, and began to teach. And Mark says, they were amazed. Surprised in the Message translation, astounded in the New Revised Standard, astonished in the KJV. The Latin word for astonished, extonare, is probably closest – it means thunderstruck.

In the Greek it’s a compound word that literally means knocked out – and by that they meant all reason, rational thought, understanding driven out.

One commentary said the teaching of Jesus was in such sharp contrast to all of the other Jewish leaders, they were beside themselves.

The look on the face of my 9-month old nephew as he watched the hibachi chef Yoshi juggle his butcher knives and light the grill on fire captures it: (slide 5) incomprehensible.

Slide15

Imagine a room of adults with looks like that on their faces.

Jesus’ words must have reached right into their hearts, gripping them with a quickening force: The time is now. The kingdom of God is here – among you and through you and for you. And this is good news!

Just then – a ruckus from the back – a man, obviously disturbed – yelled out and broke the spell. But Jesus, not skipping a beat, recognized the outburst for what it was. He saw a human being enslaved by inhuman forces. And with bold assurance, Jesus set him free. At once, everybody who saw it happen began to think of suffering people they knew in town.

They thought of sick family members, and friends. They thought of neighbors locked up in their own homes – banned from community and religious life. Could this man make them well too? They could hardly wait to find out – Come and see a man who heals people with a word… with a touch…

By nightfall, it was a parade of the living dead – throngs from the whole region were at his door – you remember the scene from Jesus Christ Superstar:

              See my eyes I can hardly see… see me stand I can hardly walk… I believe you can make me whole… see my tongue I can hardly talk… See my skin I’m a mass of blood… See my legs I can hardly walk… I believe you can make me well… see my purse I’m a poor poor man…

And Jesus healed and he liberated. He restored the alienated and hurting to their communities and religious life – he loved them whole and he loved them well, and news of him spread like wildfire far and wide. His popularity made it impossible for him to go into town – people came from all over the region up into the hills looking for this amazing stranger from Nazareth.

Overnight, he’s a sensation… a phenom and his ministry is only just beginning.

His name is on everyone’s lips—he’s a rock star! His market share is at an all time high… he’d have sellout crowds at any venue… he’s the number one game in town.

It’s the dream of politicians, corporate executives, entertainers and even church leaders – to pack the house with people who want what you’re selling.

And yet, Jesus seems to be allergic to it all. He takes great pains to diminish his popularity: he silences the ones who know him, tells those he heals not to tell anyone, goes into hiding so that even his closest friends don’t know where he is.

And at the peak of his local popularity, he moves on to another town – preferring, it would seem, obscurity, mystery, secrecy.

Soon enough, we’ll see rising tensions from church and political leaders angry about his growing appeal. But here, in chapter 1… here at the start of it all, the only tension seems to be internal – he’s the one with the problem of his own fame.

What gives, Jesus? Why the enigma? Why not build on your success, leverage your appeal? Why work so hard to put the kibosh on it?

Are we seeing evidence even in these opening stories of Jesus’ desire to control his own rollout?

He who controls the medium controls the message. He who controls the message controls the masses, said Joseph Goebbels, and he would know. As the cultural director and spin-doctor of the Nazi regime, Goebbels imbedded the Nazi ideal into the minds and hearts of the German people through press, radio, film, literature, theater and music. It was top-down immersion, total control of both content and transmission, and it was hideously successful.

Getting in front of your message before it gets in front of you doesn’t have to be insidious and evil though – it’s textbook leadership. If not controlling the message, at least interpreting it. Is that what Jesus is up to?

Or is it about timing? John the Baptist has already been arrested and Jesus, having been baptized by him, is affiliated. A slower rollout of his ministry will allow him more time in the field before inevitable trouble sets in. Shhh – let’s keep this on the down low for awhile – see what happens to John…

Is it about managing access?

Only so many hours in the day – only so much energy – contain the message, limit the masses and the personal drain? That would allow more freedom of movement for Jesus.

Maybe its concern for the Lindsay Lohan or Justin Beiber syndrome – losing ones-self in bright lights and sky-rocketing fame.

If it sounds sacrilegious to link Jesus and the Bieb, let’s remember, we believe Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. It makes sense that the fully human side of Jesus would take intentional steps to keep himself grounded and centered – to ward off the destructive by-products of stardom… like going off by himself to pray before dawn.

Maybe the secrecy is a marketing ploy to keep people guessing – to keep people wondering who he really is. We might call that the Donald Trump or Stephen Colbert syndrome: a tease that keeps people on the hook longer – wondering, speculating: who is the real person behind the persona? Will the real Jesus please stand up? Ah— not yet—shhh–

I don’t know what his motivations were for what is doctrinally called the Messianic Secret. It’s been debated for over a hundred years, with as many theories about it as there are Christian denominations.

Maybe its a little of all of the above, or maybe none of it. I don’t know. But here’s what I believe:

Jesus had no interest in the lure of personality cult. Rather he downplayed attention to himself because he knew it wasn’t ultimately about him. For Jesus, it was always about God, about you and me, and about God’s kingdom present, real, now, for all people. That was the good news he came to proclaim.

Jesus knew his heart of compassion was too huge to refrain from healing and his healing would become a colossal distraction instead of a means to an end – the end being wholeness, restoration, freedom – a new way of living together: God’s reign on earth. The bling and pizzazz of the miracle overwhelms the message and it is the message that needs center stage.

Jesus knew it wasn’t about his title or his credentials – these would only and inevitably lead to misunderstandings at best, idolatry at worst.

He wanted people to understand his purpose, not be blinded by glory… wanted people to follow him, not worship him, to share God’s kingdom not exploit it.

He wanted to let his life speak the embodied truth of God’s grace and mercy. He knew he couldn’t control it, contain it, or dampen it – God’s living dream is ultimately and always free — all he could do was give his life fully to it and invite others to do the same.

This is how his ministry begins – on a high. He’s a rock star. Yet after only three years, he ends his earthly ministry alone on a cross.

Most would consider that an epic fail. We consider it God’s love story.

The story of how Jesus goes from here to here will be the substance of the next several weeks. I invite you into it.

(For sermons prior to 2016, please visit the archived sermon page)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7/27/14

Rev. Cathi King

Acts 16:25-34  Midnight Baptism

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” wrote the apostle Paul, sometime in the mid-50’s AD to the churches in Galatia.

We read these phrases of Paul as if they are well-codified doctrine – theological tomes – when they’re really personal testimony – borne out of lived experience. Paul is not writing some lofty ideal, he’s writing from what he’s seen, what he’s felt, what he knows to be true.

Five years before writing to the Galatians, Paul and his colleague Silas, a Jewish brother in Christ from Jerusalem were in the Roman colony of Philippi in Macedonia. They were deep in the bowels of prison. It was late at night. They’d been severely beaten. These two Jewish men were in chains; guarded by a Greek jailer.

The jailer followed the magistrates’ orders: Secure these prisoners well. He locked them in the innermost cell of the jail. He fastened their feet in stocks. That was probably overkill – they were so badly beaten with rods they could hardly stand.

But he made sure they were locked up tight.

As the night went on, Paul and Silas prayed and sang. Other prisoners listened. The Jailer slept.

Philippi was in an earthquake zone – in fact the city was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in the 7th century. But that night at midnight, when the tremors began to come, Paul and Silas surely believed this was no ordinary geological event. The quake broke the chains free – for every one of the prisoners – and in the process, woke the jailer.

When he saw the doors wide open, he knew he was a dead man. Losing a prisoner was an executable offense according to Roman law and for someone in his economic class, the execution would not be pretty. It would be public. It would be shameful. It would be painful. Probably in the arena – torn to pieces by hungry animals before cheering crowds. Or maybe he’d be sewn in a sack along with a snake or a wild dog and thrown in the Aegean Sea – in which case his family wouldn’t receive his body for a proper burial. Or, he could lose his head or be burned alive…

There was no good option for someone like this jailer – except the dignity of taking his own life, he thought, as he drew his sword.

Wait! Don’t hurt yourself – we’re all here.

That, in the estimation of the jailer was the first miracle.

What kind of prisoner doesn’t jump immediately at the chance for freedom? Only the kind that is already free.

It was midnight and the Greek Philippian jailer’s eyes began to adjust to the light in the darkness of this cell as the prisoners came into focus… they were all there. They saved his life by not escaping. Why? What do they know that he doesn’t? What do they have that he needs? Falling on his knees before them he asks: What must I do to be free?

What must I do to be free?

What must I do to be free of this guilt I carry?

What must I do to be free of the resentment I feel?

free of the anxiety… free of self-doubt… free of envy… free of baggage…

What must I do to be free of this sadness…

free of worry… free of frustration… free of heartache… free of loneliness…

What must I do to be free of the hatred I feel…

free of the anger… free of the fear… free from this suffering and pain…

What must I do to be free? to be well? to be whole?

An insoluble drama, they called it on NPR last week – this escalating crisis in Gaza.

Palestinian Christian Sami Awad describes it this way: We have history (selective or not), that we can refer to that proves that the other is to be feared, mistrusted, hated, and even retaliated against. When it comes to peace, respect, equality, etc., we have very little to show regarding the intentions and actions of the other. Worse, we have lots of rhetoric that has not only abused, but has even deformed these words and their meaning. Palestinians and Israelis, for the most part, have now fallen into an uncontrolled downward spiral of hatred towards the other.

I saw it first hand when we were in the region in 2010. Our Palestinian driver took my son and me to Galilee. We paid to park the car and went swimming for a couple of hours. It was beautiful and peaceful and perfect. As the sun set, it was time to go.

The man at the gate stopped our car and spoke with our driver. After a short exchange, tempers began to flare. Our driver wadded up a piece of paper and threw it at the gatekeeper. The guard responded with pointing and heated language.

Sitting in the front passenger seat, I began to get nervous. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. But I knew it was tense.

And then, just as quickly as it had flared, it settled. They offered peace to each other, spoke softly, smiled and laughed. The guard raised the gate. They waved to each other and all was well.

What was that about? I asked.

Both men could fluently speak Hebrew and Arabic. Our Palestinian driver assumed the guard was Israeli so he initiated the conversation in Hebrew. The guard then assumed he was Israeli. He asked to see the receipt, which our driver didn’t know he had to keep, so he didn’t have it. They continued speaking in Hebrew – each demanding something from the other he didn’t have or wasn’t at liberty to give, each assuming the other to be arrogant and expecting privilege.

But just as things were getting out of hand, the guard saw something in the car that clued him in: our driver was Palestinian. He began to speak in Arabic because he was Palestinian too. They mistook each other for enemies, but they were brothers. And as soon as they recognized it, they were at peace.

What must we do to be free?

Free to let go of hatred and fear.

Free to trust… free to be neighbors… free to love?

It was 2009 in the city of Ramallah.

Jewish psychologist Mark Braverman sat across the desk from Lana Abu-Hijleh a Palestinian Muslim woman and he listened as she told him her story: her mother gunned down by Israeli soldiers as she sat on the front porch of her home in Nablus, one of the largest and oldest cities of Palestine and home of Jacob’s Well, where Jesus once met a Samaritan woman. That was seven years earlier. Her daughter was one.

Lana lived in Jerusalem and commuted every day to her office in Ramallah, a route punctuated by the 28 foot high separation wall. One day her then eight-year-old daughter was in the car with her, Lana told Mark. As she looked up at the wall she said, Mommy, why do they make the Jews live behind that wall?

I knew that wall. Mark wrote as he reflected on Lana’s daughter’s question. It had been built to protect the Israelis, but this little girl knew that it was the builders of the wall who were the real prisoners.

Born and raised in Rabbinic Judaism and political Zionism, in the very system Sami Awad described, Mark said he first stood before the wall in the summer of 2006. As he looked up at it dwarfed by its height and overwhelmed by its ugliness something turned deep within him. He saw his own life, his own heart mirrored in it.

I knew that wall… it lived inside me.

That summer Mark moved back and forth between two worlds, two cultures, two languages, two peoples every day, on what he described as an urgent painful journey of self discovery, a search for the part of himself he always felt was missing. With peacemakers in the region, he entered homes, listened to stories, broke bread… back and forth… both sides of the wall… every day.

That summer, the wall in his own heart crumbled – the wall built by fear and distrust came down, stone by stone. To this day, his love for the people on both sides of the wall fuels his passion, his hope and his work for justice, for peace, for all to be well and whole. Shalom. Saalam.

What must I do to be free? The Philippian jailer asked his prisoners Paul and Silas and what followed was not just an answer, but a series of events – each step critical:

Together they went to the jailer’s home – unheard of if the previous categories hold: Jews did not enter the homes of Greeks… nor did prisoners enter the homes of their guards. Crossing the threshold into the home of the other began to tear the wall down.

They talked on into the night… all about the message of Jesus – a message this jailer did not know until that night. Together… Jew and Greek learning the way of Jesus together.

And then the jailer washed their wounds. Imagine that… earlier that day he was part of the system that hurt these two men… complicit in it… now it’s different… he’s different… now he engages in a sacrament of healing… a balm offered from the oppressor to the oppressed… from the abuser to the abused…

He’s heard the story of Jesus, but this is the first fruit of his new life in Christ – the first step toward forgiveness and a new heart. He, the offender, offering grace and mercy to the offended.

And then, the basin changed hands and Paul and Silas baptized the jailer and his family. A washing exchanged for a washing – a mutual baptism –  inaugurating something totally new in Christ for both sides.

Only then did they, could they truly break bread together as brothers. Only then, after they’d each taken up the towel for the other in self-giving love as Jesus taught his disciples in that upper room: love one another as I have loved you.

What must we do to be free? From whatever it is that binds us?

How does it begin?

One story… one person… one face… one heart… one basin… one loaf… one stone at a time….

7/20/14

Rev. Cathi King

Acts 14:8-18  Only Human

This summer, I’ve been preaching Acts – the book that comes immediately after the gospels in the New Testament and tells the story of the young Church, after the death and resurrection of Jesus and after the burst of Holy Spirit power upon them at Pentecost. It didn’t take long before these bold and defiant first disciples came under fire by the very same authorities who arrested and crucified their leader Jesus.

The persecution in Jerusalem where the church began was intense… so intense that the apostles scattered into the surrounding Roman provinces. Antioch, 250 miles away from Jerusalem, became a thriving base for the first Christians.

It was out of Antioch that Paul and Barnabas were commissioned around 46 AD as missionaries to take the gospel to Cyprus, and although their strategy at this point still began in the synagogue with their Jewish brothers and sisters, it was the Greeks who consistently received them more hospitably… sometimes too hospitably.

Our story this morning takes place in the Roman outpost of Lystra – the first city they went to where there was no synagogue… no Jewish presence. It reads like it was ripped from the pages of a book of Greek mythology. That’s in fact how the good pagan people of Lystra experienced it.

When they met Paul and Barnabas and witnessed the astounding healing of a man lame since birth, they interpreted it through the lens of their religion. The scales fell from their eyes and they recognized them immediately. They must be Zeus and Hermes! Disguised as two travelers – just like they were in the Roman poet Ovid’s legend.

A fairly obscure legend to us, unless we’re Greek mythology students, they knew it very well. Ovid’s works circulated liberally throughout the empire in the 1st Century, and this was a local legend. It was THE story behind the temple of Zeus, the one located just outside their city.

It goes like this:

Long, long ago, Zeus (my dog’s name) and his messenger Hermes came to the earth dressed as poor peasants to visit the people of that region.

They went to 1000 houses and every single one, rich and poor alike turned them away. They found, Ovid writes: “all the doors bolted and no word of kindness given, so wicked were the people of that land.” That is, until finally they came to the simple cottage of a poor old married couple named Philemon and Baucis. Philemon and his wife Baucis opened their home to the poor pilgrims, divinity in disguise. They shared their bread and their wine. They offered whatever they had.

Before Zeus and Hermes returned to Olympus, the gods flooded the entire region, turning the wicked Lycaonians into frogs. Of course they spared Philemon and Baucis and they turned their humble little cottage into the magnificent white marble and gold temple of Zeus. Legend has it that Philemon and Baucis came back after death as the two stately trees guarding either side of the Temple entrance.

And now, here are Paul and Barnabas… two foreign travelers in Lystra. And Paul has just, with a word, healed a man lame since birth. They’re back! They must have thought. Zeus and Hermes have returned! We’re not gonna make the same mistake our ancestors made – we’re not gonna be turned into frogs! We’ve learned from that story. It’s shaped and formed us. We’re not the same wicked town – we’ll show the gods hospitality like they’ve never seen!

To us it seems almost comical. To the Lycaonians it was sacred – a holy visitation – they were sure of it. To Paul and Barnabas it was idolatry.

Less grounded leaders would have exploited these people… manipulated them… used their religious zeal and adoration to gain popularity… build momentum… grow the church. Instead Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes in grief and frustration – no, no, no – we are only human – just like you… It is not about us, it is about God.

This is a cautionary tale: a warning against charismatic personality cults… a warning against blind, uncritical devotion – worship of a leader by the people… a reminder that every one of us is only human, lest anyone think or act otherwise.

What’s at stake? When a leader allows him or herself to be overly inflated… or worse, exploits the power of position… taking advantage of the people’s deepest convictions… what’s at stake?

We know what happens on the world stage when political leaders and movements do this.We’ve witnessed tyrannical dictators rise to power through manipulation of the masses and control of the media, resources and psyche.

We know what happens when athletes and entertainers rocket to fame and we spectators put them on pedestals, adoring them through obscene contracts and throngs of admirers… When they fall, and so often they do… publically, they fall hard.

What’s at stake in the church when leaders abuse their authority? The discipleship of the whole body; the heart and soul of the gospel.

Several years ago pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson wrote a book called, “The Unnecessary Pastor.” Talk about a cautionary tale.

By the title, Peterson doesn’t mean pastors are irrelevant or worthless, but necessarily unnecessary in a few key ways:

1-  we are actually unnecessary to what the culture presumes is important for us to be: custodians of moral order: useful in times of crisis, serving as symbols of meaning and purpose. Churches were packed the Sunday after September 11, 2001, and again after the     bottom fell out of the economy in 2008. Some might say all the church needs to fill its       pews and to guarantee job security for pastors is an ongoing series major crises. If that’s the truth, we’re not preaching a very empowering, transforming word.

2-  We pastors are also unnecessary to what we ourselves feel is essential: as the linchpin holding a congregation together. We can take ourselves very seriously, and our position and our authority. We have important work to do as disciples, but so do each and every one of you and we pastors are great at getting in your way – and what’s really bad is when you let us.

A friend of mine told me a story a few years back. She and several of her friends were wrapping up a Bible study at church… putting away their Bibles and books and preparing to leave, when a stranger walked in to the church.

         Can I help you? she asked. I’m lost. He said.

Where are you trying to get to? She asked.

I’m lost. He said.

Oh. None of the pastors are here right now. At least one of them should be back in an hour or two. Can I take your name and number and leave a note for one of them to call you?

         It was a week or so later when she told me the story. The pastors had tried his number a few times – ring no answer. And he hadn’t been seen since.

Did I do the right thing? She asked me.

I think that’s a great question – at least worth talking about – maybe not so much about right or wrong, but about next time and discipleship identity and equipping and empowering ministry.

3-  And we are unnecessary to what congregations insist we must do and be: the experts who help them stay ahead of the competition. Congregations want a winner… a miracle worker…

A former congregation member once told me on his way out of church – You know what will pack these pews? Dynamic preaching. And then a couple of weeks later on a Sunday I had preached, he said, That’s what I’m talking about… you keep preaching like that and these pews will be filled.

As if that’s what Jesus had in mind.

All this preys on the ego of the pastor, gets in the way of equipping disciples and results in unhealthy dynamics within the Body of Christ.

After reading several congregational descriptions of what churches are looking for in a pastor, Eugene Peterson concluded:

With hardly an exception they don’t want pastors at all—they want managers of their religious company. They want a pastor they can follow so they won’t have to bother with following Jesus.

Eugene Peterson has not met you.

You are that beautiful rare exception. You’re a passionate and engaged group of people ready and eager to do ministry together.

God’s Bread Basket, Sunday afternoon worship services at Cambrian, the Creation Care Team, men’s and women’s ministries and support groups, a church retreat this fall – your enthusiasm for ministry is contagious!

And last week about 1/3 of the church was hands-on involved with the Invisible City.

Between working at the sites and preparing and delivering food, we had over 50 people participating.

I watched you put down tools and sit with homeowners… listening to their stories with your hearts… I watched you engaged in pastoral care while I kept on trimming hedges.

I listened to you answer people’s questions about the Invisible City – what the name means… why we were doing it… I heard you preach with your lives last week.

I felt your energy and your teamwork and your support for one another and this community – I heard you testify to each other about how you saw with new eyes and felt with new hearts…

You did this… we did this… together by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is church.

As pastor I am humbled and I am inspired by you. You teach me, you encourage me, you convict me, you call me to task. You are not afraid to speak your truth to me. You treat me as a sister in Christ… as a fellow human and I thank you.

I remember my childhood minister. We called him Dr. and I don’t remember ever seeing him without his black robe. He’d swoop into choir practice every now and then and pray with us and then swoop out. I’m sure he was nice and faithful and a good man, but to me he was always “other” – not on my level – holier.. unapproachable.

We are humans just like you… sisters, brothers in Christ alongside one another… members of God’s family.

Together we are called into an amazing journey of sharing God’s love whenever and wherever we are. We each have different gifts but God has drawn us together in this time and in this place for a great purpose.

Indeed we are all only human, but that doesn’t mean we’re weak and insignificant, that our contributions to the whole of the gospel enterprise don’t matter, or that the complexities of the world are just too great and we are just too small.

God has great things in store for us. Right here. Right now. They’re unfolding even now in our midst. Isn’t it exciting?

7/13/14

Rev. Cathi King

Acts 11:19-26  Takes One to Know One

The Golden City, they called it; Antioch on the River Orontes. It was the fourth largest city in the Roman world – only Rome, Alexandria and Ephesus were larger. By the end of the first century Antioch had a population of about 150,000. It had access to the Spice Trade, the Silk Road and the Persian Royal Road; it was a bustling metropolis. The Who’s Who of Roman lore spent time there: Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Augustus and Tiberius.

Each one left behind something beautiful and ornate: buildings, theatres, colonnades, gymnasiums and circuses – hence the name The Golden City – Antioch.

Antiochenes were known throughout the Roman Empire as indulgent and excessive – they loved to eat, loved to drink and loved to love. They were quick witted and easy going and free to be themselves – whoever that was. Probably because of its open-minded tolerance and its relative closeness to Jerusalem, Antioch was home to a large Jewish community too. Unlike many other places in the Roman Empire, here Jews were given full voice and full vote and full participation, even as they were free to practice their faith.

And so, it was a logical place for refugees of the Way of Christ to go, as they fled Jerusalem when the heat turned up after Stephen’s death.

They’re Jewish and Jesus was Jewish, so its natural early in the spread of this movement that they target a Jewish audience… keep it in the family.

But then, as the Holy Spirit would have it, some Greek speaking Jewish guys from Cyprus and Cyrene – we don’t even know their names – start talking about Jesus to the Greeks in Antioch.

I’ve been preaching through Acts this summer, but I’m not preaching on every story. I’ve skipped right over some major ones in fact. I’m doing that on purpose.

I’m looking for the lesser-known stories– because the movement of Jesus doesn’t spread just by way of the big headliners: Paul, Peter, James and John, but also by the unnamed men and women. And while Paul’s dramatic conversion story on the road to Damascus (ch. 9) and Peter’s holy vision on the rooftop (ch. 10) are awesome, most of us can’t really relate to them.

Once in awhile we stumble across a biblical story – that hints at a much larger untold story – of unnamed heroes who do something that might otherwise go unnoticed except that it changes the world.

“The missionary task itself was undertaken,” says Cuban Christian historian Justo Gonzolez, “not only by Paul and others whose names are known… but also by countless and nameless Christians who went from place to place taking with them their faith and their witness… mostly these nameless Christians were merchants, slaves, and others who traveled for various reasons, but whose travel provided the opportunity for the expansion of the message.”

Maybe it happened at a tavern or while loading and unloading cargo on the docks or in the marketplace or while cleaning fish… maybe it happened while preparing food or washing clothes…

Somewhere outside the synagogue, in the back alleys and in the public square, people – not seminary trained intellectuals like Paul… not eye-witness disciples like Peter… everyday common folk who shared a city together, dared to cross sacred religious lines and talk about the good news of Jesus. They dared to believe that in Jesus there really is no longer Jew nor Greek… no longer slave nor free… no longer male nor female… but all are part of a brand new family… they really believed they were living in a new day, when the former lines of dogmatic demarcation had been erased and replaced by God’s abundant and expansive grace.

They spoke the same language- Greek. They operated within the same culture and they probably traveled in the same circles. Their common ground wasn’t their religious tradition, but their life circumstance.

Who better to know the joys, struggles, hopes and challenges of the life of a household slave than another household slave… or of a potter in the village square than another potter… or of a merchant or farmer, cook or banker… who better to speak heart to heart than one whose heart feels so many of the same things?

This has nothing to do with an ability to interpret and apply religious law or doctrine, or even the ability to read and write.

It has everything to do with the ability to relate one on one… to walk alongside another who shares a similar journey and to offer a word of grace… of hope… of love. It takes one to know one.

Remember that ridiculous adolescent phrase?

It’s etched in my mind – in word and tone:

Takes one to know one.

You’re just a cry-baby. Takes one to know one.

You’re a big scaredy cat. Takes one to know one.

You’re a pig-headed snob. Takes one to know one.

How dumb is that? It’s like you can’t think of anything else to say. Oh yeah?? Well if I’m one, you’re one too. Was it ever used positively?

I think these unnamed men and women, heroes of the faith who spread the good news of God’s love and grace in and through their daily lives one person to another: artist to artist, wine-maker to wine-maker, shopkeeper to shopkeeper, sailor to sailor…

I think they really understood the concept: It takes one to know one.

It takes one with a common life… empathetic to another’s heart and story… to know how to make that connection to the One who really knows, loves, honors, values fully each and every one of us.

There’s an untold story hinted through our text today of creativity, imagination, inspiration and faith: really, there were not just a couple of men from Cyrus and Cyrene. There were hundreds and thousands of unnamed, uncredentialed, zealous, radical, underground missionaries – men and women-  who, in those early days talked to their friends about Jesus and by the hand of God, brought them home.

The first missionary to the Greeks was not Paul and it was not Peter.

It was people who remain nameless, and the little house church in Antioch grew and grew – Jew and Gentile followers of Jesus. And word of it spread back to the mother church in Jerusalem, who, following the protocol, sent an emissary to check it out – it was, after all, Antioch – the Golden City, where things are known to get out of hand.

They sent Barnabas – the perfect choice – because it takes one to know one. Barnabas was also a Greek-speaking brother from Cyprus. His real name was Joseph but they called him Barnabas – son of encouragement.

I wanted to name our golden retriever Barnabas – like Father Tim’s big black dog in the Mitford series – the dog who settles down immediately when he hears Scripture: “Just then, the door opened, and there was Miss Sadie Baxter. Before she could speak, Barnabas had bounded across the room to extend his finest greeting, whereupon the rector shouted what came immediately to mind what Peter had told the multitude: Repent and be baptized, every one of you!

Barnabas sprawled on the floor and sighed with contentment.”

Oh if only that were true for my dog, who wasn’t named Barnabas – I was outvoted and his name is Zeus – who by the way had a temple in Antioch…

I wanted to name our golden retriever Barnabas after my favorite character in the Bible Barnabas. Barnabas doesn’t come riding into Antioch with a clipboard ready to nitpick all the ways this brand new, unique family of faith is breaking the rules… he doesn’t come ready to reign them in… he comes to see and to feel and to worship with them… to bear witness to the ways God is at work in their midst.

And when he saw what he saw and felt what he felt he rejoiced with them and he encouraged them. Literally he went alongside them, cheering them on.

Instead of immediately implementing new procedures and controls, Barnabas stepped back and fanned the flame. And again… numbers grew and grew. People want to be a part of something joyful… something new… something bold… something hopeful.

How does this text come alive for us today? Here in this time… in this place…? How do we see ourselves in it? How do we see our church in it?

In Antioch, the believers were first called Christians… little Christs. It wasn’t just another Jewish sect because there were people from completely outside the Jewish faith in it. And it wasn’t just another kind of Greco-Roman cult. They came from different spiritual backgrounds and together built a new community, united in heart and mind… and it was exciting, faithful and vibrant.

Each and every one of us is a missionary in our own homes in our work in our play in our lives. Remember this: It takes one to know one.

May our eyes see, our ears hear, our hearts feel the grace of God all around us and may we bear witness to it with joy, confidence, humility and love. May we continuously encourage one another in this gospel enterprise and in it all may God reign.

7/06/14

Rev. Cathi King

Acts 8:9-24  Priceless

We’ve been studying the early church through the stories of Acts this summer, learning about the bold witness of the apostles. They’re moving throughout the Temple courts of Jerusalem preaching and teaching about Jesus and his Way. Thousands are joining them despite constant threat.

But tension is growing.

There’s been a public stoning to death of a follower named Stephen.

On the color chart, we’ve gone from orange alert to red.

Some of the apostles stay in Jerusalem, the home base of the young church, but the rest of the followers scatter throughout the Judean countryside and into Samaria as they remember the final words of Jesus to them: You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

One of the disciples, Philip, goes up into Samaria and begins to teach about Jesus there. He too is filled with the Holy Spirit and ministers among the people, releasing those held in bondage by evil spirits and lifting the lame and paralyzed to their feet. Crowds are gathering around Philip; they like what they see and hear. He reminds them of someone else they know from their city, except he’s different…

Acts 8:9-24

We walk into this text and the setting itself telegraphs tension. We’re in Samaria. There’s inherent distrust between Jews and Samaritans. Although distant cousins, their practices of Judaism were very different. Stories in the gospels attest to great hostilities between the two groups.

So it is not surprising at all that when news of these new converts in Samaria reaches the church in Jerusalem they send in the top brass – Peter and John – to check it out. Sure enough there’s cleanup on aisle 4.

It’s not that Phillip did anything wrong. He was teaching and preaching Jesus. He was freeing people from evil spirits and raising the paralyzed to their feet in the name of the risen Christ. He was baptizing tons of new followers. I’m guessing he was delighted when Simon the magician signed up. Simon was one of those really attentive types… hanging onto his every word. Simon was Phillip’s mini-me… constantly with him – studying, learning… really engaged.

You teachers – Simon was that student – front row… eager eyes… reading the material at night… first one there in the morning… he and Phillip probably talked late into the wee hours… tell me more about this Jesus… about all the things he did

But boy did Simon blow his cover when he tried to slip Peter and John some cash – I want what you got, so when I lay my hands on people they’ll get some of that!

Imagine the conversation that night as Phillip, undoubtedly stunned and sad and maybe a little embarrassed, reclined with his brothers over pita and hummus… I had no idea… I thought he was seriously getting it… how could he think he could put a price tag on this?

But in all fairness, for Simon’s part, he lives in a culture filled with magicians and seers, astrologists and exorcists, charlatans and snake-handlers. His competition is fierce. If he doesn’t stay ahead of the game he won’t be in the game. People are fickle – then and now – they flock to the next great thing.

Simon’s hope is to get ahead of these apostles and work the next town over with their magic before they get there. Unlike the religious leaders in Jerusalem, he’s not threatened by them, he wants to use them for his own gain. Name the price… everything’s for sale…

But what the apostles have, what disciples of Jesus then and now have, cannot be commodified. It is free. It is a gift from God.

So we’re early on the journey and there’s bound to be some hiccups as the gospel gets out. Phillip’s new to this and the message is new to the listeners. It’s counter-cultural – then as it is now. And, well, its Samaria and they just expect things are going to get lost in translation there.

It’s no small thing that this story makes it into the canon of Scripture. That this writer remembers Simon the magician and tells about him says that by the time Luke’s writing this – maybe 50 years after the death of Jesus – Simon is not a one-off case. His is a cautionary tale for all time: as the kingdom of God is preached to the ends of the earth, we will be clear: unlike everything else, it is not for sale.

May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money, Peter said, or in the Message translation:

To hell with your money and you along with it.

And a special treatment in hell, at least according to Dante’s Inferno, for there, Simonists, named after Simon the magician of Samaria will be buried upside down in a hole the size of a baptismal font and their protruding legs will be set on fire.

Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord that, if possible the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. If possible?? Peter’s even hint at the possibility of an unforgiveable sin underscores the gravity of it and the sure reality of human vulnerability – in any age – to the seduction of it.

Simony is one of the biggest sins of the church and her people throughout the ages. The buying and selling of sacred things: from holy water, to relics, to prominent pews to private sacraments promising personal holiness; using spiritual positions of authority to negotiate reduced time in Purgatory for a loved one or to lobby for political influence with guaranteed votes; accepting agenda-based donations, or even some forms of restricted gifts… selling burnt toast with the face of Christ to the highest bidder – all these practices and many more could be described as Simionical.

The power of God is not to be manipulated, coerced, exploited, coopted or possessed. It is to be revealed, shared, honored and enjoyed with humility and gratitude. God’s grace cannot be bought or sold, it is priceless – that is its intrinsic value… that is its beauty.

Irish storyteller Peter Rollins tells a story about the kingdom of God. It’s his take on a familiar parable of Jesus –

A crowd had gathered by the shores of Galilee to catch a glimpse of Jesus and to hear him speak. People from all walks of life had turned up, from the powerful to the powerless, the rich to the poor, the healthy to the sick.

Jesus looked upon them all with compassion and began to speak of God’s kingdom. Then from among the assembled people a man dressed in fine clothes shouted out, “Tell us Lord, to what would you compare the kingdom of God?”

Jesus paused for a moment before looking out toward the sea and he began to tell them a story: “There was once a rich merchant who spent his days searching for fine pearls. Then one day he found a pearl of such beauty that he immediately went away and sold everything that he possessed so that he would have enough to purchase it. This pearl is like the kingdom.”

The crowd looked satisfied with this definition of the kingdom, especially the rich young man who had asked the question, for it addressed itself to the desire that lay deep in his heart.

This kingdom must really be valuable, he thought to himself, if a wealthy merchant would sell everything that he had in order to possess it.

While all this was going on, however, there was a young woman who stood at a distance from the crowd listening intently to what Jesus had said, all the time with a smile on her face.

Jesus turned from the crowd and walked toward this unknown spectator. Then he spoke to her saying: “Others listen to what I say, yet fail to hear, for the noise of their heart’s desire drowns out my meaning. They forever listen but never understand. You, however, have listened and understood.”

“All I know,” she said, “is that if this kingdom you speak of is like that priceless pearl, then the sacrifice needed in order to grasp it will not make one rich but rather will reduce the one who has sacrificed to absolute poverty.

For you are saying that one must give up everything for the pearl, yet the pearl is itself worth nothing unless you find someone to buy it. And if you do find someone then you will no longer have the pearl. So although you may appear to be the richest person alive while you have the pearl, in reality you will have nothing to live on until you give it up.”

“Yes,” Jesus replied.

“What use then is this pearl?” replied the woman.

“Well,” replied Jesus, “the pearl has no value if all you seek is its value. But if you renounce the value of the pearl and give up everything simply because you are captivated by its beauty, then, and only then, will you discover its true value.”

Simon, who went from town to town seeking to become the world’s greatest magician, saw the signs and wonders the apostles did in the name of Jesus and dreamed if only they were mine…

The merchant who spent his days searching for the greatest pearl saw one that in order to have it would take everything he owned. If he could possess it, it could be his legacy… make his name famous the world around… if only it was mine…

If only I could tap into that power… harness it… master it… then I could be truly great…

When really only One is truly great and he didn’t get there by climbing the ladder of success or trampling others in his path, he didn’t get there by winning the gold medal or through all the accolades of athletic achievement… he didn’t get there by force or wealth or lineage or even academic credentials… he got there by faithfulness and prayerfulness, obedience and servanthood.

He got there, not by puffing himself up, but by laying his life down.

He got there, finally by God’s power.

Let us strive then, not after our own greatness, but let us strive to imitate Christ. The apostle Paul says it well in his letter to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.


Therefore God also highly exalted him
 and gave him the name
   that is above every name, 
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

6/29/14

Rev. Cathi King

Acts 5:12-39   Wise Words

Once again…

There’s a Spirit in the air… a Spirit of boldness… of courage… of witness.

There’s a voice that will not be silenced…

There’s a church that will not be stopped…

Because there’s a Savior who is alive and at work in the world… has been… and will be…

There’s a name that has power over all other names…

There’s a kingdom that is real and increasingly visible…

There’s hope that will not be quenched…

A light that will not dim…

A day that has dawned…

There’s truth that must be proclaimed…

A story that must be told…

And No one… no one… NO ONE can stop it.

Although they do try and they keep on trying.

Déjà vu? Déjà vu.

Even though Peter and the apostles were told not to speak, not to teach at all anymore in the name of Jesus, they did. They kept on talking and healing and carrying on public ministry in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. So once again they’re brought before the Council of religious leaders in Jerusalem.

Didn’t we give you strict orders? And yet here you are continuing to teach.

I love the courage of the early church. I love their boldness. They’re determined… they’re defiant… they’re on fire. Locked prison doors can’t hold them. Human authority has no power over them. They are… like the Blues Brothers… On a Mission from God.

In today’s text, Peter clearly defines the mission and the message.

Contrary to what his accusers think, it is not about bringing them down. It is not about stripping them of power so that the apostles can take over as the new legitimate religious leaders of the people.

That’s what the High Priest and the Council fear most. They fear a coup. They feel their position with the people slipping. They see a new rising star. They’re filled with jealousy, and they have no reason to be.

Peter is not after their jobs. He’s not about self-promotion. His message is about God – the God, he says, of our common ancestors. What he says about God’s intention falls in line with their shared religious tradition. His speech is consistent with the prophets of old. But they’re not listening.

Their jealous rage blinds them.

Their hard hearts become harder.

Their ears refuse to hear the message – a message that’s meant for them too: life, forgiveness, participation in a whole new way of seeing and being together patterned after God’s heart.

The text says after the Council hears Peter’s speech this time they are furious, enraged – literally in the Greek, they are sawn asunder, rent in vexation, their insides are torn apart.

Luke uses violent language and imagery to describe what happens inside the Council members, and it manifests itself externally in their desire to do violence to others. It’s what Jesus meant when he said “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” Their murderous intent toward the apostles pours forth from their ruined hearts… ripped to shreds by the claws of jealousy.

It is an age-old story… we can go all the way back to the 4th chapter of Genesis– to the killing fields of Cain and Abel.

Sin is lurking at the door, the LORD told Cain, its desire is for you, but you must master it.

The sin of envy lurking – that deep sickness that grows in our hearts when someone is favored over us… like we’re playing in a high stakes zero-sum game; for one to win, the other must lose. Cain believed God favored his brother over him and he hated him for it. The sin of envy ate away at Cain’s heart…

You must master it, says the LORD God, or it will master you.

But alas, we know Cain lured his brother Abel to the field and there, slayed him.

Jealousy was mastering the Council, destroying their hearts. Ironically the very target of their rage stood before them offering the only balm that could heal them, and they would have killed Peter and the apostles, but for Gamaliel.

Finally a voice of reason… of prudence… of wisdom. Here is a Pharisee and member of the Council willing to offer a measured response. Because of his sage advice, the apostles live to see another day and we cheer.

We bear tribute to the Wisdom of Gamaliel : If God is in this, you won’t be able to stop it, unless of course you’re ready to fight against God!

And we think – finally someone in the Council gets it – because we as the readers know this movement is of God. But are Gamaliel’s words really wise? For that day, for this day, for any day?

On the surface, they sound perfect, but take off the slick veneer.

Ignore them, he says. Ignore them.

Isn’t ignoring the ultimate power play? Adolescents have this strategy down cold but it plays out just as painfully in the adult world.

Don’t spend any more energy on them… they’re not worth it.

Don’t care enough about them to hate them…

Look the other way when you see them…

Don’t invite them to your cool parties…

Pretend they don’t exist anymore and eventually they’ll go away.

It’s dismissive, disrespectful, dishonoring.

Inherent in Gamaliel’s advice to the Council – even though it is cloaked in truth – is a belief that this really is just another lame movement like the followers of those other clowns Theudas and Judas. It’s destined to fail like theirs did… Don’t pay any mind to them… disregard them… ignore them.

If he didn’t believe this… if he really believed God was in it, he would have advised the Council to listen to them… to repent… to seek forgiveness… to act.

Ignoring is inaction thinly veiled, when action is what’s called for. In their day and in our day, God does not call us to be indifferent, passive, or unengaged. Heeding the advice of Gamaliel renders us mute as a people of God.

Let anything go, as long as it references the name of Christ?

Stand idly by while hate crimes are perpetuated in the name of Jesus, Koran’s are burned, or shootings happen at abortion clinics? Refuse to engage in critical commentary while throngs of people build their lives on bad theology? Is that prophetic witness? Is that what Jesus is about? Is that what’s expected of his followers?

Even the line: If God is in this, you won’t be able to stop it…

True… but do we really believe God is in every movement that seems unstoppable? How is that measured anyway? Economically? Numerically? Politically? Is it measured by popular opinion? How would we really ever be able to evaluate success in God’s eyes, using any human measurement?

Not that people don’t try. Not that we don’t try.

Gamaliel was respected among the Council and he sold them a masterful plan that would allow them to save face with the people, disrespect the apostles and believe they were remaining faithful to God’s sovereignty. But it wasn’t wise and it wasn’t faithful.

The wise words in our text today come from another. The Messenger of the LORD said:

Go to the Temple and stand up. Tell the people the whole message about this way of life from Jesus.

This is wisdom for their day and for our day and for any day for people of God… grounding and centering wisdom.

         Go to the Temple. Go to the Temple?

That’s where they were arrested. That’s the location of their conflict. That’s right back into the fray…

         Go to the Temple. Go to the Temple?

Today? When lots and lots of people are fleeing church — saying it’s irrelevant, and judgmental, boring, cultish, clubby, narrowminded, mean-spirited and people check their brains at the door…

         Go to the Temple…. go to the Church…

         And stand.

Refuse to hang around in the shadows ignored. Don’t sit back passively. Put yourself all in. Stand. Stand in attention. Stand in reverence. Stand in awe. Stand ready to look, listen and learn. Stand up with your heart, mind and soul. Stand for a different way of being Church.

Tell the people the whole message about the way of life from Jesus.

That’s the mission. That’s the message: Tell… about the abundant life that has been given to us and for us… all of us.

These are wise words.

Go to the church – that is where, throughout history, people have gone in search of the holy… in search of meaning… in search of real humanity and in search of God.

Stand with the people of God and for the people of God.

And tell. Tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love… it is an old, old story that never gets old. It’s a story that will change your life from the inside out, it’s a story of forgiveness that brings freedom.

And then, go forth from church, for in the words of preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor, God’s map is vast, with room on it for both a center and an edge. While the center may be the place where the stories of the faith are preserved, the edge is the place where the best of them happen.

I love the courage of Church… the boldness… the determination… the defiance. I love the fire.

Shane Claiborne, Christian author, activist and founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia reminds us: We are not just called to be candles. Candles make for nice Christmas services and for a nice peace vigil (or a pretty Elton John song). They can remind us that God’s light dwells within us and that we are to shine that light in this dark world. But we are not just called to be candles. We are called to be fire.

 Candles can be snuffed out by the slightest wind or by the smallest child on her birthday. But it’s harder to put out a fire. We are to be fire, to weave our lives together so that the Spirit’s inferno of love spreads across the earth.”

Those early days in the church were amazing days.

And these, too, are amazing days to be Church.

We are witnesses to these things.

Thanks be to God.

6/22/14

Rev. Cathi King

Acts 4:1-22    The Word is Getting Out

We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.

There’s a Spirit in the air… a Spirit of boldness… of courage… of witness.

There’s a voice that will not be silenced…

There’s a church that will not be stopped…

Because there’s a Savior who is alive and at work in the world… has been… and will be…

There’s a name that has power over all other names…

There’s a kingdom that is real and increasingly visible…

There’s hope that will not be quenched…

A light that will not dim…

A day that has dawned…

There’s truth that must be proclaimed…

and boundaries that refuse to be drawn…

There’s home for all who are restless…

family for all who are lonely…

There’s a table with a seat of honor for every one…

There’s a story that must be told… it’s too good to keep to ourselves…

There are people who have yet to hear it… have yet to be invited to the banquet… have yet to know who and whose they are…

And No one… no one… NO ONE can stop it.

Not that people don’t try.

Take our Bible story today: thousands of people are dancing and praising God in the streets of Jerusalem. There’s been a miracle at the Beautiful Gate: a man born lame now walks, leaps even… a life has been forever changed… and along come some council members, and they’re annoyed.

Remember the council? It’s that group of 71 people who are the overseers of all matters of Jewish law. In it are priests from legacy families, legal scribes from the educated elite and elders from the socially distinguished. Remember? This is the council…. this is the same council – the Sanhedrin – who got together to evaluate the credentials of Jesus. – and they decided he was no good.

Remember? This was the council who met several times throughout the Passover festival that year masterminding a plan that landed Jesus on a cross. They thought they had silenced him once and for all. But that Word would not be quiet….

Here they are again. Now they’re questioning Peter and John: “By what power… by what name did you do this?”

And darned if Peter and John don’t say exactly the name the council doesn’t want to hear: Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. It’s like whack-a-mole – just when they thought they’d beaten him down, now two more are up in his name – but beat them down and look now they’re multiplying…

They thought they could put Jesus in a sealed tomb and be done with him before things got out of hand – but now look — there’s 5000 people in Jerusalem on his bandwagon and there’s no way to hide that guy standing in the middle of them all – that guy who used to lay at the Beautiful Gate day after day begging – crippled from birth. He’s become their poster child – now healed and strong and praising God.

Shouldn’t they be happy that people are praising God? Shouldn’t that be good news to them – these members of the council – these religious leaders? They are, after all men of God themselves…

But no… they’re annoyed, and with all the authority they can muster, they call Peter and John before them and order them to stop: “Do not speak. Do not teach at all in the name of Jesus.”

These were the leaders of the Jewish faith, of which Peter and John were lifelong adherents. This was Jerusalem, their holy city. This was their voice of religious authority – that is, it was their voice of religious authority, before Jesus. But they can’t deny what they’ve seen… they can’t deny what they’ve heard… they can’t deny what they’ve felt.

This condemnation of one people of God by another people of God has gone on since the beginning. Even as the story of the new young Christian church evolved there was disagreement… hot disagreement… parting of the ways even.

Each time a leader felt led by the Spirit to open the access to God’s grace a little bit more… there was tension – how far is too far? Where are the boundaries? How do we remain a people set apart if we begin to look too much like everyone else? We used to know who we were… now we’re not sure we recognize who we’re becoming…

And there’d be efforts to reign it in… come back to what we know… things are getting a little too loose… a little too out of hand…

But all the while lives were changing and people were praising God who had never known God before or never known that God knew them and loved them…

The Word was getting out…

We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.

Thursday our denomination made headlines:

Largest U.S. Presbyterian Denomination OKs Marrying Gay Couples announced National Public Radio

USA Today and the Free Press said: Presbyterians in U.S. to allow gay marriage ceremonies

And NBC and ABC announced: Presbyterian Assembly Declares Gay Marriage Is Christian.

This is big news.

Here’s how I see it:

Now if a state declares it’s legal for one person to marry another person of the same gender, these two people can approach their Presbyterian pastor. And instead of having to leave the church to get married they can gather together with their brothers and sisters in Christ in their sanctuary where they have found a home for their faith… where they have been welcomed to praise God and exercise their discipleship as a part of the Body of Christ and they can celebrate the lifelong commitment they make to each other in the context of worship.

Within moments of this decision on Thursday afternoon, I received a text from a lesbian sister-in-Christ that said: Will you marry me?

I have known this woman for nearly 10 years and I have seen the way Jesus Christ has completely and totally changed her life. I have heard her testify to the way her heart has been broken open by her Lord and Savior Jesus and the way she sees the world and other people through different eyes because of him. I have watched her selflessly pour herself out over and over again for the poor and the hurting, the lonely and the suffering in the name of Jesus Christ. She’s preached the gospel with her life and led Spirit-filled prayers.

And now God has brought another woman into her life that loves Jesus too. Together they want to build a life of faith. They can’t wait to be married in a Christian worship service surrounded by their brothers and sisters in Christ.

With this decision the Presbyterian Church USA acknowledged and addressed an injustice to a whole group of people and some are joyful and celebrating and praising God while others are not so happy. The boundaries have shifted again and the questions are asked again: How far is too far? Who are we becoming? We need to go back to what we were before… what we knew before… the traditions that have shaped us… things are getting too loose…

But lives have changed and people are praising God more freely and more openly… people who have praised God in secret for far too long.

We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.

Our General Assembly also acted decisively on the issue of gun violence this week. With an overwhelming vote, the Presbyterian Church USA encourages all of its members to more fully engage in the public square with education, compassion, legislation and advocacy, openly talking about and working to heal the societal pain of gun-related violence from suicide to domestic violence to murder to threats of injury, from pastoral care to support groups to confessional liturgy in worship to community seminars, we will not stop speaking for the Prince of Peace.

We will not stop believing in a way of peace. We will stand in the gap in the name of Christ with those who weep, working for that day when love fully reigns.

And Friday again we hit the news with a narrow vote in favor of divesting pension investment dollars away from three companies who benefit economically from Israel’s occupation of Palestine. This action was controversial too and it’s complicated. Having personally been in the region in 2010 and seeing what I’ve seen and hearing what I’ve heard from Palestinian Christians who live and work there, I returned from that trip convicted.

I’ve remained in the conversation and I’m thankful for the engagement, courage and action of our Church.

Meanwhile, some are calling us anti-Semites and some say we have turned away from our Biblical heritage. Neither statement is true.

One of my friends Mark Braverman, a Jewish psychologist who is deeply committed to healing and enduring peace for Israel and Palestine attended General Assembly last week.

On behalf of our work he wrote:

People around the world are awakening to the grim and sad reality that all is not right with the State of Israel and that their faith requires them to respond with nonviolent direct action… not only for the sake of the suffering Palestinians but as a sign of their friendship with and love for the Jewish people.

This Jewish brother called our vote this year: nothing short of an act of love.

Some tell us to stop meddling in such political issues – stick to the gospel they say.

And what if we believe Jesus is right in the middle of it all – standing solidly against human suffering, particularly the kind of suffering inflicted by one human being upon another?

And what if we believe that the gospel… the good news of Jesus Christ is a word of hope and a word of life and a word of love for all who are bullied, silenced, and live in fear?

And what if we believe Jesus stands at each and every checkpoint with a heart breaking with compassion toward those whose lives and families and work have been systematically dismantled?

What if we believe that the Church of Jesus Christ has a word to say about creation care because God has made us stewards of the environment?

What if we believe when Jesus said Love your neighbor he meant all your neighbors – even the ones we don’t understand?

What if we believe the kingdom of God is real and is here and is for the bleeding and hungry and heartbroken and lonely and sick and tired?

And what if we believe we follow Christ when we break the barriers and boundaries that keep people from seeing this kingdom… his kingdom, knowing about it, living freely and loving fully in it?

Jesus said I am the light of the world. And he also said: You are the light of the world… you will be my witnesses to the end of the earth.

And so we will be light-bearers of his light out of this place and into every place.

The Word will continue to get out in us and through us because we will not stop speaking about what we have seen and heard… what we have experienced and felt… what has changed in our own lives and what we’ve witnessed in the lives of others because of Jesus Christ.

There’s a voice that will not be silenced…

There’s a church that will not be stopped…

Because there’s a Savior who is alive and at work in the world… has been… and always will be.

6/15/14

Rev. Cathi King

Acts 3:1-10      The Beautiful Gate

Honestly, it was the gate that first drew my attention to this church, and I thought it came with the church. It was majestic and so theologically appropriate to have a huge gate on our lawn. It was beautiful. Imagine how sad I was to learn it was part of a rotating exhibit of public art.

Now we have a butterfly. It’s also theologically awesome, but not quite as striking, not as dramatic as the beautiful gate.

Throughout history gates have symbolized transition to new worlds, new possibilities, new adventures, new identities.

Gates allow access.

An open gate says come on in… explore… you are welcome here.

A closed gate means the space you see on the other side is private, locked to those without keys, barred to the uninvited, the stranger.

And sometimes even gates that are physically open are not really open to everyone.

Every day at 3 the holy ones made their way up to the temple to pray. Every day at 3, the lame and crippled ones were carried there too– not so they could pray, but so they could beg. They were laid at the gate to the temple, because those who came to pray also had a holy obligation to give to people in need.

That’s how the system worked. So, people on their way to pray didn’t consider beggars a nuisance or shameful. Their panhandling didn’t irritate them. They saw beggars as an opportunity to exercise their faithfulness. See, the rabbis taught: The poor man does more for the householder (in accepting alms) than the householder does for the poor man (by giving him the charity) for he gives the householder the opportunity to perform a mitzvah (or command).

Pious Jews actually expected to see beggars at the temple gate on their way to prayer – in fact they counted on them being there.

So there was nothing unusual about the man lame from birth being brought to the gate at the time of prayer and there was nothing unusual about Peter and John meeting him there on their way to pray. And there was nothing unusual about the beggar asking them for money as they walked by. But their response was highly unusual. Shocking even.

Almsgiving was a finely tuned process in ancient Judaism. Great care was taken not to shame the recipient and to credit the giver with maximum blessing. Rabbinic sources identify eight ways to give alms to beggars.

Listed in order of virtue (or worst to best), they are: to give 1) sadly, 2) less than is fitting, 3) only after having been asked to, 4) before being asked, 5) in such a manner that the donor does not know who the recipient is, 6) in such a manner that the recipient does not know who the donor is, and 7) in such a way that neither the donor nor the recipient knows the identity of the other.

And the eighth way of giving alms in ancient Judaism, the best way, was not giving alms at all, but helping the poor rehabilitate themselves by lending them money, taking them into partnership, employing them or giving them work because in this way, no self-respect is lost at all.

When the man born lame from birth asked for money from Peter and John as they were about to go through the Beautiful Gate and into prayer, they were expected to keep the transaction anonymous by avoiding eye contact. Without looking at him, they were to give him alms and move through the gate.

Instead they stopped. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said ‘Look at us.’ The pause in the action on the hill at the Beautiful Gate that afternoon… the donors staring at the beggar and asking that he make eye contact in return… surely caused a collective gasp to ripple through the crowd.

Peter and John broke custom. Day after day beggars’ eyes are downcast. Day after day donors’ eyes look away as they toss their gift. Particularly if the beggar is not employable and not rehabilitatable as this one was… born lame.

Both sides protect each other’s anonymity. They participate in a system of objectification cloaked as honor… but not that day. Peter and John are witnesses to a new way – a way taught to them by their rabbi Jesus: a way of humanity and brotherhood, of new community and relationship.

They remember sitting at the feet of their Lord and Teacher when he told the story of another beggar named Lazarus.

Lazarus lay day after day at the gate of a rich man’s house, begging for even the scraps from the rich man’s overflowing banquets. They remember the irony in that story as Jesus told it — the chasm that existed between the rich man and the poor man in life became fixed in death but the expected honor was reversed when it was the beggar Lazarus who ended up in paradise.

And Peter and John remember another story. They remember sitting at the feet of Jesus when he taught about a great dinner.

When the table was set and the feast was ready, one by one those who’d been invited made weak excuses and failed to come.

Their places were given away to others — the lame and blind and poor and crippled – carried in from the back alleys. They enjoyed the bountiful dinner. They were given seats of honor.

Together with Jesus, Peter and John and the other disciples dreamed of a new day… a day of restoration for all whose inherent God-given dignities had been stripped… a day when all would be free and all would be well…

They dreamed of a day when no one would sit like this beggar, this caged bird, who has never seen the other side of the gate, and has been taught his entire life not to expect to because it’s not for him, when it is, most definitely for him.

In and through Jesus, Peter and John have seen the dawn of that new day, and they know the baton is now theirs to carry, passed to them by Christ. And now, after coming eye to eye with this brother at the gate, they can’t imagine going into pray without him, so with the power of the Holy Spirit fresh upon them, they reach out a hand to lift him up and restore him to life.

What I have, I give you, Peter said. Peter, the one given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, gives them to this man:

In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk… walk with us into the Temple to pray.

And the name of the gate is Beautiful. Literally it refers to time – that perfect hour of fulfillment when shalom – God’s complete wholeness — blooms. And so, this story bears witness to that day of perfect beauty, when we will look at one another and see, not labels and boxes and categories of people, but the face of Christ in each returning gaze; the face of love offered and received.

That day when all division will fall away, all walls will crumble as together we walk through the gate, the Beautiful Gate praising God.

How is this story made real in our hearing? In our day? In our culture?

It’s not some distant far-off fantasy, it has dawned in Christ and we, like Peter and John, are to bear witness to that new day whenever we see the old day still being lived.

Who are the caged birds today? The ones who sing, according to the late Maya Angelou:

with a fearful trill,

of things unknown, but longed for still,

(the ones whose) tune is heard on the distant hill,

as they sing for freedom?

Who are the invisible ones? The ones it hurts to look at, so as a society we avert our eyes in shame? The ones we can’t heal, we can’t fix, we can’t hire… Who are the ones we lock up and guard the gate and forget that they’re really human like us?

Who are they and where are they?

Will we seek the courage to really look at them and ask them to look at us that we might really see each other and recognize the humanity in each other’s gaze? These were the questions that drove us to put together the first Invisible City project in the summer of 2012. We wanted to see and be seen.

Our first year we had bright yellow tshirts. On the first night of the week, we met with the homeless community who used to inhabit the tent city off Wagner road in Ann Arbor. It was a Monday. The camp had been closed and all of the campers evicted and moved to temporary shelter the previous Friday. We met in a woman’s home and had dinner together – maybe about 20 of us with our bright yellow tshirts and 20-30 homeless people.

We listened to each other’s stories. And we admitted that prior to that night, most of us hadn’t actually met a homeless person, let alone eaten with one, listened to one, laughed or prayed with one.

Because of that night, we could no longer hide behind ignorance. We had seen each other and we had dared to believe that a new day had dawned, and the Word and Way of Christ was made real in our hearing. They told us they’d look for us around town in our bright yellow tshirts – they’d look for our familiar faces – they’d look for our smiles and our encouragement in a very difficult time for them – and when they saw us, they’d see hope.

We added prison ministry to last year’s Invisible City. As a result, I’m now on an advisory board for an exciting new prisoner advocacy project sponsored by the Quakers. It pairs people from the free world with incarcerated people serving life sentences.

Despite the concrete walls and the wrought iron gates, we want to see each other and to write to each other. With appropriate training and support we’ll visit with each other and work on projects together. We want to learn from each other and honor each other and speak the language of faith, hope and compassion with each other.

We choose to believe, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, especially in the criminal justice system, that a new day has dawned in Christ and that changes how we are to be with one another and who we are to be with one another.

What about this summer’s Invisible City?

What I have I give you…

That’s really all we’re asked to do… give what we’ve been given.

Author and Professor of Theology Douglas John Hall says it this way:

“It is the will of this Savior, not only that we should personally experience hope, forgiveness, life and all such positive things in a truly genuine way, but that in the process of this discovery we should come to know others who need this ‘abundance’ – and especially those whose need is greater than our own.”

Or, in the words of a former president of the World Council of Churches, D.T. Niles: Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.

We live in a world where objectification is alive and well. All around us we see evidence of ageism, racism and sexism. Injustice, bigotry and hate-filled language continue to put people in categories, boxes and cages while our fears and our phobias keep them there. Day after day it happens. And day after day we pass them as we go to pray.

What do we make of that?

Jesus said: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

He is the One True and Beautiful Gate, in him is new life. Abundant life. For all. A new day has dawned. How will this text be fulfilled in our hearing, in our being, in our living, in our loving?

Pentecost

6/8/14

Rev. Cathi King

Acts 2:1-21      Blown Away

He told them to expect it, but did they?

Could they have expected that?

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; Jesus told them… Did they think… did they ever imagine it would sound like that?

Look like that?

Feel like that?

Sheer awesome power that no words can fully describe.

Do you know what a daunting task it is to prepare for Pentecost Sunday?

No way we decorate the sanctuary is dramatic enough… no worship song bold enough… any illustration or story I feel like I could share seems small and kind of trivial in comparison to this story; this story about the mighty and completely uncontrollable, inexpressible, uncontainable, indefinable, majestic God of the universe moving in and through and among human beings.

To pick it apart… to stick it under a microscope… to apply our finite intellect in an effort to logically interpret it – to touch it even – deflates it, restrains it, can’t help but diminish it.

I don’t want to do that.

Instead, what I really wish I could do this morning is incorporate 3D computer graphics – like they do in the movies and hurl this Pentecost story visually right into the middle of our gathering – so we could hear it happening together, watch it unfolding right before our very eyes – maybe move the image around the sanctuary so everyone could get a close-up view of the extraordinariness of it and let it hover before us so we could really be in awe of it – like the very first ones who observed it.

They were, according to our English translation: bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed… Even those words fall short…

Literally in the Greek they were stirred up, unhinged, thoroughly at a loss. They looked on with wonder and complete lack of comprehension.

In short, they were blown away by it all.

This is what Annie Lamott calls an upper-case WOW story.

This is what Barbara Brown Taylor is talking about when she says: the parts of the Christian story that drew me into the Church were not the believing parts but the beholding parts.

Transcendence… that which lies beyond us….beyond our words… beyond our science… beyond the edges of all we know.

It is ironically what Alain de Botton, self-described devout atheist and author of the book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion claims the world needs. The signal danger of life in a godless society, he says, is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent.

That sounds kind odd coming from an atheist.

He goes on to say:

Our secular world is lacking in the sorts of rituals that might put us gently in our place, for without a healthy connection to that which transcends us, human beings imagine themselves to be commanders of their own destinies, they trample upon nature, forget the rhythms of the earth, deny death and shy away from valuing and honoring all that slips through their grasp.

de Botton says unlike Atheists, we practitioners of religion get this. We cultivate regular souvenirs of the transcendent in our rituals, our art, and our architecture.

But Christian author Annie Dillard wonders if we really do get it, or has it become so routine for us… so customary that we take it for granted? In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, she questions our approach to prayer and worship:

Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? she asks, It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.

Pentecost is a story of God’s transcendent power, when, for a moment, the heavens break open, the curtain is parted and the immensity of that which is wholly otherworldly is heard, seen and felt. And it is at once both thrilling and terrifying.

We want to take cover even as we draw close to it.

Because power like this does put us in our place – and not particularly gently.

But just as importantly, and this too is truly amazing, power like this does not allow us to simply stand at the side and watch in awe.

The Pentecost story is the collision of God’s transcendence and God’s immanence – million dollar theological words that really mean God’s vast out there-ness and God’s intimate in here-ness.

The Holy Spirit, the very breath of God came upon them like a violent rushing wind – and filled them… gave them the courage and language and boldness needed for that very moment… more than any of them or even all of them collectively had before that moment.

It wasn’t contrived. It wasn’t rehearsed. It was fully collaborative.

God and people working together.

It does not get more empowering than that.

If God would choose a group of Galileans: common, unpolished, peasant fishermen in that time and place to testify to people from all over the known world … if God would use that motley crew … that bumbling group that never seemed to understand what was going on, that over and over again got in the way of what Jesus was trying to do, that fought over stupid things and acted impulsively, that ran away when things got heated and locked themselves in a room because they were so afraid… if God would choose them, and get all of them in one moment immediately on the same page – calling them… each and every one of them to speak a common message in a host of different ways… so that in that one moment people from the north, the south, the east and the west would see and hear and know…

If God would choose them and do that,

Who wouldn’t God choose? And what wouldn’t God do?

We in the Reformed theological tradition have a pretty good handle on humility and personal limitation.

It was our ancestors in the faith, Calvinists, who developed the doctrine of total depravity – that being born sinful, humanity suffers from a deep character flaw, an inherent corruption; an inability to ever, on our own get it right.

Most of us don’t need scientific evidence for this; we have ample empirical evidence.

We are, generally, well acquainted with our shortcomings. I could never do that, no one would listen to me, I’m too old, I’m too young, I’ve never been very good at that, I’m not smart enough to do that, surely someone else would be better… I don’t want to let you down… I’ll probably screw it up.

Likewise, we in the Reformed tradition have a pretty good handle on the sovereignty or supremacy of God. We take great comfort in knowing that decisions regarding salvation and ultimate providence are not ours but belong to the One whose intelligence, wisdom and vision are vastly beyond ours.

But what about this place where God and humanity come together? What about this intersection, this collision of the transcendent and immanent God?

What about this idea that ordinary human beings could be filled by the Holy Spirit – work in holy collaboration with God?

I don’t think we’re so comfortable with this.

But this is where real transformation happens… this is how gathered common people become church… this is when the world takes notice… this is how the impossible is possible.

This is Pentecost.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

How can this be? Aren’t they Galileans and yet in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power….

I will pour out my Spirit upon them…

Men and women, slaves and free will preach.

Young and old will dream.

I will pour out my Spirit upon them…

that all may hear… that all may know… that all may call on the name of the Lord and be saved.

This, Alain de Botton, is truly what the world needs.

Our God is not content to remain distant, unengaged, transcendent.

Our God is not content to allow us to remain passive, unengaged, unempowered.

Our God created humanity to be in relationship with humanity… to be collaborative partners in a world-changing mission. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, blowing through and among and into us we will do things we’ve never before dreamed we could or we would do in the name of Christ.

They were all gathered together in one place… like we are.

And suddenly they heard a sound like a violent rushing wind…

Come Holy Spirit. Come.

5/25/14

Rev. Cathi King

Luke 24:33-48

Assembled Together

I was surprised to see her that Sunday. She buried her husband not 48 hours before – the man she’d been married to for over 50 years. She looked exhausted – of course she did – because she was. And she was sad – she was so sad. But she was there. Where else would I be? She said when I hugged her and said I was glad to see her. Where else could I be?

He sits in the back and never says a word to anyone on Sunday morning. He slips in a little after the service starts and he’s out before the benediction is over. You’d never know he’s there… but he is; week after week.

She sings in the choir – it’s the one place she feels special. There she has a reserved seat, her own folder and a robe… There people know her and call her by name.

She walks to church alone. Her parents don’t come. Neither do her friends from school. When she gets there she sets up her classroom with love and attention to detail. One by one as each child arrives, they hug her and she comes alive.

We come here, to church, for the story. It is what draws us together. We come to hear it. We come to feel it. We come to be changed by it. We come to make it known.

We come as individuals from wherever it is we’ve come from, and as we enter this space we are assembled together into an ad hoc group – always different week to week – of improv players. Because for one hour each week we enact a script designed to form us and shape us into a particular people – God’s people.

That’s quite a challenge, when you think about it – that our worship would be flexible, improvisational, active, formational and built on a 2000 year old script. I think we’re up for it though. Let’s pray…

They (the two disciples who left for Emmaus) ran back to Jerusalem after breaking bread with the risen Christ. Their part in the story compelled them to return to the others. They had a responsibility to them – to share what they had seen; to testify: Jesus is alive – we ate with him.

It’s like any court case – the more eyewitnesses, the more convincing the argument. And they had a compelling story to add.

You are witnesses of these things, Jesus said, and witnesses are not to remain silent. And with great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, records the Book of Acts about the early church. And many were added daily to their number. There was excitement. There was drama.      There was power in the story: the story of God, told by the people of God as they lived it.

Andy and I have been attending deacon hosted dessert and conversation small group gatherings over the month of May. While the desserts have been fantastic and are expanding my waistline, the stories are expanding our faith and our formation as a body of Christ. We laugh and get to know one another when we imagine who we’d invite to dinner or share our favorite things to do on a Sunday afternoon, or what we’d like to see in Tecumseh and why we live here… but the feel of the room changes when the question pulled out of the basket begins:

What I love about Jesus… or

How church has changed me… or

The sermon I’m preaching with my life is

There’s a moment of silence… not awkward but thoughtful. And then people begin to spontaneously speak; one after another. It’s a safe space and an encouraging space. Together we practice saying out loud what we so often keep to ourselves. By speaking it, we claim it. In that way we are testifying to ourselves. But also by speaking it, we give permission to others to do the same. We’re talking about how Jesus has changed us – has been at work in our lives — changing the way we live and see other people, the world around us and ourselves.

         You are witnesses of these things.

Honestly and humbly, each in his or her own language, we’re bearing witness to the risen Christ. It’s exciting and inspiring. There’s power in the story: the story of God as told by God’s people as they live it.

While they were talking about this, Jesus stood among them: “Peace be with you”, he said. They were startled, frightened, troubled and doubts rose in their minds  “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I” — he said – and they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement…

They were assembled together and they all saw Jesus, but even so, they all reacted differently.

Look at the range of emotions expressed in this text:   Startled, frightened, troubled, doubtful, joyful, amazed, disbelieving.

Such is always the case when the people of God gather together. There is a wide range of emotions and reactions. A song that fills the heart of one person with joy might instantly trigger something entirely different in another person.

A woman got up and left church one Sunday morning in tears when we began singing a congregational favorite because that same song was sung at both of her parents’ memorial services and she could not hear it without bursting into tears.

A pastoral prayer of lament I offered one Sunday morning was labeled a real downer by one man after worship, while another whose son was losing a battle with cancer pulled me aside to say: I felt like you were really praying for me today – thank you.

When the recent widow sits alone for the first time in the church she shared with her husband for 50 years on the same Sunday that someone else praises God for a miraculous healing… And across the church there’s a woman on the edge of divorce while someone else has just landed the job of their dreams.. and a couple has learned they can’t have children while the mother down the pew from them shows off her daughter’s prom pictures with joy…

When these and many other completely unrelated yet incredibly significant and impactful things are going on in the lives of the people who have been assembled together…

We are not going to see Jesus the same way. We’re not going to respond to music the same way. We’re not going to worship the same way.

There will be doubts among us at the same time there is joy and awe…

One will be confused right down the pew from another who’s had a great moment of clarity and insight. That’s church.

Peace be with you… touch me and see… it is I… and I am with you… Where two or more are gathered, there also is Christ.

The challenge for us as church is to remember that we are not here alone, that this worship service is not about what we alone are looking for or will get out of it. We have been assembled together, to be shaped and formed together as God’s people.

And while we will never know all that rests on the hearts of our neighbors down the pew, turning to one another and saying “the peace of Christ be with you”; engaging each other person to person – not in some frenzy to make sure we make it around to everyone, but in grace-filled personal one-to-one encounters to remind each other that there is a peace… a peace that passes all understanding… a peace unlike any the world gives– that is our script  as a people of God together.

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

Herein lies their purpose and ours for gathering: we come together to learn the story of God and to practice our parts in it… we come together to enact the peace of Christ with and for one another.

We come together to testify to the ways we’ve seen God’s face and felt God’s touch in our places of work and in our conversations, in hospital waiting rooms and in the public square – to encourage each other to persevere in faith and hope.

We come together to lift up our longings for a better world and more open hearts… for safer streets and healed minds… for an end to injustice and bigotry and violence…

We come together to rehearse our roles as citizens in the household of God so that, so that we can be sent out to:

-preach sermons with our lives

-practice forgiveness,

– demonstrate how knowing Jesus has changed us,

-be ready to see him in action, and

-make real the story of God in human community.

And next week, when we come together again, we’ll have more to say about how that went, more of the story to learn, more of our part in it to practice.

Church is my favorite place on earth, after the couch in my living room. In church, we don’t live from our minds — we live in community, which is to say, shared loss and joy, singing and praying and eating together. We don’t sit huddled together in church, thinking.” –- Anne Lamott

We are the church – each and every one of us. We have the script. We all have parts. They change every week, as does the actual cast for that week. But any given Sunday… every given Sunday, as we are assembled together, we are becoming God’s people in here so that we can take the stage out there and live the story.

5/18/14

Rev. Cathi King

John 21:15-19

More than these?

They say as much as 93% of communication is nonverbal. That is to say, only 7% of a message is conveyed with words. Voice inflection, facial expression, gestures, posture and context shape meaning. Given that, we do our best as armchair theologians to interpret the Bible, this book of ancient words devoid of advantageous nonverbal cues.

We turn to cultural commentary to help us with local customs, literary commentary to help with idioms and language, maps and atlases for clues we might pick up about the landscape. We look for parallels between a given text and other texts throughout the Bible – in other words, we let the Bible interpret itself. We employ research from historians and academics, poets, artists and sages of the ages.

We come at this task of interpretation humbly… we have to… and faithfully, because we believe these are the words of life. But it’s not easy. Whoever says The Bible clearly says must be reading a different book.

Sometimes Jesus says things that seem intended to confuse. Other times it’s the storyteller who chooses particularly poetically puzzling phrases. That’s part of the fun for sure, and part of the conviction. It’s what makes it possible to preach the same text 25 times or maybe 50 – with different sermons every time.

I believe the Spirit invites us to play in the ambiguity… to poke and prod and question and wonder…

Take for example the phrase: more than these…

Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? What is Jesus asking?

I wonder, if you wonder like I wonder: more than these what? We’re missing a gesture – right? Jesus must have been pointing at something. Like if I say to you: which do you like better: these or these, it makes no sense if I’m not referencing something.

How about this:

After breakfast, Jesus turns to Peter and says to him, while pointing to the other disciples: Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?

Then we would know. He’s asking: do you love me more than these other disciples love me? That makes sense, right? Simon Peter is, after all, the rock upon which Jesus had hoped to build his church, that is, until that whole betrayal thing.

So maybe it’s a question of leadership. Maybe he wants to know the depth of Peter’s commitment… his loyalty… his love compared to their love for him

But does Jesus go for potentially divisive comparisons like that?

Really, how would Peter know if he loved Jesus more than Thomas or Nathaniel or James loves Jesus? In fact, wouldn’t it be presumptuous of him to speculate? It seems unlikely Jesus would ask a question that would fuel a competitive dynamic in a group that he prayed would remain unified. Especially when he critiqued such debates in the past.

Voice inflection cues would be helpful here.

For example:

If Jesus turned to Peter and asked him, while pointing to the other disciples: Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?

And the question changes. Now it’s about whether Peter’s love for Jesus is greater than his love for his friends or his family. And that makes sense to us because we remember, although we don’t really like it very much, that Jesus also said: Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

And he said Let the dead bury the dead, when a man said he had to go bury his father before he could follow Jesus.

But over the centuries, awful things have been done by people standing behind this theology. It’s been used to justify spousal abuse, shunning of family members, divorce… Surely that’s not consistent with the character of Jesus – the one who elsewhere in the gospel of John said to his disciples “this is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” And from the cross, he forged new family connections between one of his disciples and his mother, so neither would be alone in their grief.

What if when Jesus asked the question of Peter, he didn’t gesture to the disciples but to something else? Let’s go back to the scene.

It was early in the morning after a long night of fruitless fishing. The disciples have hauled in a huge miraculous load of fish. They’re gathered with Jesus at a charcoal fire. Just off to the side, lies the pile of fish… not far away other fishermen – busy at work cleaning and mending their nets, assessing their work from the previous day or night, preparing for the next… also not far away, merchants are setting up their businesses for the day in this bustling seaside town that is about to begin..

What if after finishing breakfast, Jesus turns to Simon Peter while gesturing to the fish and the boats and the fishermen and the sea and asks:

  Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?

Then it becomes a question about love of vocation, hobby, livelihood.

Three years earlier, Simon along with several others, dropped their nets and left their jobs to follow Jesus. Now they’re back. Where does Simon Peter’s ultimate loyalty lie?

Do you love me more than your job? more than your income? more than your favorite pastime? Do you love me more than your hometown and your favorite sea? Do you love me more than all that is familiar? Do you love me more than these?

Is that the character of Jesus, to set up a competitive dynamic between vocation and faith?

Indeed for some, compulsion to work is unhealthy and destructive. The One who came that we would have life and have it abundantly surely grieves for those who toil away in life-depriving jobs or who are repeatedly expected to sacrifice integrity and character for the bottom line.

But what about those whose vocation is the very expression of their love of Christ?

I’ve heard some of you talk about your work and the people you minister to there – and for some of you, it is truly a ministry. You care for people who are sick and dying… you counsel families… you walk with troubled children… you teach young people with learning disabilities…You treat families who have lost loved ones with dignity and honor… you love what you do, but more importantly you love the ones you serve there.

How do you separate your love of Jesus from your love of vocation when your vocation is the purest expression of love for Jesus you can think of? And would Jesus ask you to?

What’s really happening in this conversation?

Look at it from Peter’s perspective: Here he is after publically denying Jesus… after emphatically saying he’d never do it… he denied him not once, not twice but three times. Peter knows this denial allowed him to be free while his teacher, his master, his Lord and his friend was beaten and killed. He believed he’d never see him again…. never be able to apologize… to explain… to seek his forgiveness… And now he sees him again… he knows it’s him… he leaps into the water…. he can’t get there quickly enough…

Does he love him?

Of course he loves him. More than these? More than anything … more than anyone. He says yes, yes, yes! We’d say yes too. Wouldn’t we? Can you imagine saying no?

If Jesus stood before you right now and said: Do you love me more than these? It wouldn’t matter what he was referring to would it? – the answer is yes, yes, yes, of course yes, more than anything Lord!

But I don’t think Jesus is looking for a yes to that question. He asks it again and again to make the point: it’s not about loving me more than these… it’s about loving me through these.

Here’s what I imagine:

Jesus gestured to the other disciples and to the other people on the shore – the merchants, the beggars, the fishermen, those passing through… the villagers, the Pharisees, the peasants and the landowners and said:

Simon Peter, do you love me more than these? And maybe, just maybe, the answer he was really looking for was:

No Lord… not more than… I love you by loving these… by feeding these… caring for these… by tending these… by ministering to these.

And I imagine Jesus gestured to the fish and the boats and the sea and the hometown and the familiar: Simon Peter, do you love me more than these?

And he wanted to hear:

No Lord… not more than… I love you in and by and through these… I love you through my job… by my vocation… I love you as I earn my livelihood… I love you as I love others through my work… I love you in and through my village… my neighborhood… my community. I love you in and with and by and through my love of these… all these.

For Jesus, love of God is inextricably connected to love of neighbor. That was one of his greatest critiques of the Pharisees and scribes – they claimed to love God while they failed to minister to the lost sheep of their flock.

In a later letter by John are these words: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Do you love me more than these? Jesus asks.

Not more and not less. We will love you with all our hearts, minds and souls by loving our neighbor… by loving our brother… by loving our mother… by loving our father… by loving the one who is lost and lonely, hurting and struggling… by loving the one who is goofy and awkward, boisterous and moody… by loving the ones who are easy and the ones who are challenging.

Because saying yes, yes, yes of course we love you more than these… all these Jesus — is easy.

Enacting that love… making it real to and for and with the whole community of God is what it means to love you as we follow you Jesus: to feed your lambs… to care for your flock.

May our love for you Lord take on flesh… May it be real… that your name… your name be praised.

5/11/14

Rev. Cathi King

John 21:1-14

Let’s Go Fishing!

After these things…

After these things – that’s how today’s story begins…

After these things…

Chapter 21 is John’s epilogue – the story after the official story ends. Chapter 20 closes with these words:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name

Period. The evidence has been presented. The case has been made. The defense rests.

And then there’s chapter 21: After these things…

Because there’s more to the story… what happens next…

Life, in a way, is a series of epilogues… or what happens after stories… After graduation… After a career change… After studying abroad… After a beloved family member dies.. After a marriage ends… After a move… After retirement… After a tour of duty… After a diagnosis… After returning from an impactful mission trip… After a church split… After the honeymoon… After winning the lottery… After a tragic accident…

After these things you have to go home… you have to go back to work… you have to start over… you have to put one foot in front of the other… you have to keep breathing… you have to go on after everything has changed… after the world no longer makes sense in the same way.

We want to know how the disciples lived their epilogue because we have to live ours. And we hope and pray there’s a script to help us live after these things.

And so, they go home – back to Galilee where it all began. They go home:

  • After a three-year incredible journey with a man who calms storms, feeds the hungry, lifts up the poor, heals the sick, restores sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, a man who unveils a whole new way of living in human community according to God’s dream and invites everybody into it…
  • After leaving everything behind to follow this man, this teacher, this prophet, this liberator, this One…
  • After the nightmare of Jerusalem – the arrest, the betrayals, the beatings, his brutal crucifixion…
  • After the stone was rolled into place, sealing the tomb, ending the hope…
  • After the astonishing witness of an open grave with no body inside…
  • After seeing him there, standing there before them, alive again before them, when they were together in that locked room in Jerusalem… afraid…

After all these things… they go home… to rejoin their families… to go back to work… to figure out how to pick up where they left off before these things… now that everything has changed.

I remember so clearly coming home after our first child was born. His room was all prepared and we read the baby books, but after we unloaded the car and came into the house, Andy and I stood there with blank looks.

Where’s the nurse’s call button?

         Where’s that Laleche lady?

         How do we do this?

In and through Jesus, a wholly new way of being human… of being family… of being community was born. How those first followers lived it out is the epilogue. You gotta believe when they first stood on the shore of the sea of Galilee after going home, they looked at each other with blank looks too.

How do we do this?

I’m going fishing, said Peter. It has to start somewhere, this new life… We start with what we know – right? Grasp for something… anything familiar… and the one thing Peter knows how to do and do well, is fish.

The others go with him. It’s as good an idea as any.

But the very first lesson they learn in this new life is that even what they used to know how to do and do well doesn’t work anymore. It’s a whole new life being born… they can still go fishing, but not the way they did before.

A few days ago I was on the phone with a friend of mine who will be up for parole in 16 months. He’s almost 60. He’s been in and out of prison several times and this time he really wants it to be different. He wants to live as a free man – independently, responsibly, legally.

The thing is, he can’t come home from prison and live like he lived before he went to prison. That does not work. It will land him back in prison again.

While you’re in this time, I told him, take every class you can. Get in every positive support group… get a job… surround yourself with good influences… meet regularly with the chaplain… Make it different this time. Change your pattern of thinking and living – make every day inside a day of preparation for living outside. The day will come when you’ll come home… and you’ll need to fish a new way.

Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you’ll find some, called the stranger from the shore.          And sure enough, when they did, the net filled with big fish. That’s how they knew it was Jesus.

These resurrection sightings for the first followers of Jesus were like a second call: Follow me… really… now it’s your turn… put into practice all that you learned from me over the last three years. The kingdom of God is here.

And these flaky, hard-headed disciples who never seemed to understand what was going on, got it together- by the power of the Spirit, they got it together. They were in for the in. They did not go back to life as they had known it because everything was new. Seeing him alive again made all the difference.

Convinced without a doubt that this was the real deal — worth living for and dying for – they did. They preached boldly. They lived courageously.

They went fishing for people and thousands joined their movement – the net was full. People of the Way they were called. And that’s what it was, a movement patterned after the way of Jesus. They studied together. They ate together. They prayed and worshipped together. Their lives dramatically changed.

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; wrote Justin Martyr, a 2nd century follower of the Way of Christ, 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.

And like Jesus before them, these people of his Way were a threat to other kingdoms.

In her book A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass wrote: The way, with its transformative power, challenged the status quo and infuriated ancient defenders of Roman religions, many of whom argued that the new Christian religion was an immoral sect, with secretive rites and rituals that undermined traditional Roman values of loyalty and family. Indeed, she wrote, early commentators scarcely attacked Christian doctrines, but they consistently portrayed Christian devotional practices as radical and socially divisive. These behaviors, at odds with Roman custom, earned Christians the reputation of being revolutionaries and traitors to the good order of the state.

It wasn’t easy for followers of Jesus to carry his way into the world. His way of honor… His way of forgiveness… his way of compassion… his way of courage… his way of truth… his way of love… his way of mercy.

But they were fervent and relentless. They had no fear of death and no fear of human authority. Those who were well entered the streets to care for the dying – people they didn’t even know. They called upon masters to show compassion for their ailing slaves. They held doctors accountable to caring for all in need. They took seriously and publically the commandment of Jesus to love one’s neighbor – any neighbor – regardless of class or tribe.

As John Chrysostom, one of the earliest Christian preachers said: This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good… for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.

That’s how they lived after these things.

That was their epilogue.

What about ours?

What can we learn from theirs?

The circumstances of each of our lives are different, but the foundational script is the same:

After these things, we are called to live every chapter of our lives in a new way… a way given birth by Jesus of Nazareth so many years ago:

Cast the net wide. Love without borders. Extend mercy and compassion to all who suffer. Seek the common good. Honor all. Receive grace. Live fully and free. Pray without ceasing. Forgive. Hope. Believe.

Let’s go fishing. Together. In the name and for the glory of the One who says: Follow Me. 

It’s our turn to put into practice what we’ve learned from Jesus. The kingdom of God is here. The kingdom of God is now.

5/4/14

Rev. Cathi King

Luke 24:13-33

Beyond Recognition

A few weeks ago I was at a conference in Minneapolis. NEXT Church, it was called. I guess you might say it’s an initiative within the PCUSA… a movement of the Spirit. There were 400 or so of us there… worshipping and praying… digging into the prophetic words of Jeremiah and dreaming. A pastor party, my kids would call it.

We encouraged and inspired each other; reminding each other that no matter how challenging it is to be church in a world changing so rapidly, Christ is alive with us and among us and the call to follow… the call to lead… the call to seek and find… the call to stand with and against and for…the call to testify… and the call to new life in his name is real and timeless, urgent and grace-filled.

Indeed the world has changed and keeps changing… and indeed the church must adapt… and that’s not all bad and that’s not all good either… it just is.

Change is, after all, the only constant… so they say… although, is it? Let’s pray. Open the eyes of our hearts Lord, open the eyes of our hearts. We want to see you, we want to see you…

So I’m at this conference and we’re getting ready to settle into our first worship service, and I look up when I hear my name. It takes me a minute to recognize him.

It’s been almost 20 years since I saw my friend, my former pastor, my first real mentor… the one who baptized my oldest child. Cancer has taken its toll on him, as has age – he’s definitely grayer. But I know his eyes and his smile and the way he is standing there… Could it be?

We have these amazing moments in life when Jesus just appears and walks alongside us for awhile in the flesh… never staying very long… just long enough.

I had gone to this conference with one of my good friends from seminary – both of us looking for inspiration and wisdom… both pretty new to being solo pastors…both convinced that this is a new day for church… both looking to hear some keynote presenter speak the magic words: the answer… the program… the next thing… the way to growth and health for the church.

And there’s Lee suddenly standing there… nearly 20 years now a solo pastor of a church about the same size as the two churches my friend and I serve. Ready to tell us the truth: there is no silver bullet. There is Jesus.

He came out of nowhere, and catching up with them, he began to walk alongside them – these two travelers on the road to Emmaus… these two for whom so much had changed. They dared to dream… dared to follow… dared to hope…

But in what, actually?

Cleopas and his friend thought they knew what they were looking for… thought this Jesus of Nazareth was it… thought he was the long awaited Messiah… the one who would save them… It was supposed to be different with him… he was supposed to bring them victory. And now they don’t know what to do. And there is Jesus.

Clearly the Presbyterian Church won’t look like what it’s looked like. – wrote Rev. John Wilkinson, one of the candidates for moderator at this year’s GA – in a reflection on the NEXT Church conference.

Our world has gone through major paradigm shifts. We know church can’t stay the same. True, it won’t look like what it’s looked like. But does it have to be unrecognizable? Many of us serve churches with worship settings like this one… old gothic cathedrals… sacred spaces where generations have gathered to pray and sing and worship… and the stained glass and the pews resonate for us… they represent some other-worldliness… their stones speak to us.

We know it’s not just about the building. Yet we also believe space holds inherent meaning and symbol and that matters. But church is so much more, isn’t it? There is Jesus.

Leaving the tumult and upheaval of Jerusalem behind they walked and they talked. About what? he asked. Haven’t you heard? Are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s happened? He was a mighty prophet. He preached powerful messages. We thought he was the one… the liberator… and they crucified him… What do we do now?

Strategic planning isn’t helpful in these days of change… strategic thinking is, one speaker said.

Best practices are your friend in times of technical change, but not in these days. In times of adaptive change, best practices are your nemesis, another said.

Lead when you don’t know what you don’t know… yet another said.

Ok…..

A few weeks ago a small team of folks here began working on a new brochure for this church. As soon as we started trying to figure out what kind of pictures to have in it and what kind of content, we got stuck.

We aren’t who we were.

We don’t exactly know who we are.

And we don’t know who we’re becoming.

Who are we developing this brochure for?

We really don’t know.

What are we trying to accomplish with it?

Don’t know that exactly either.

What do we want it to say?

Something important. Something inviting. Something that will speak to the heart of the one reading it.

And who’s going to be reading it?

As many people as possible.

See the problem?

And we need it by Easter.

   And there is Jesus.

No silver bullet? No magic program? No 5-point plan for church growth? No catchy mission statement?

There is Jesus.

There is Jesus.

There is Jesus.

Right there. Right here. Making the Word take on flesh. Right here. Burning our hearts.

We are on the road to that next church we’re becoming. Like the two travelers, Cleopas and his friend, what we’ve left behind we’ll not be again, what we’re headed toward we don’t know.

And so we’re looking for something we can hang onto… something… anything that feels like the church we knew…

We don’t have to look very far:

The Word is not an elusive fugitive.

It does not hide from the congregation

nor does it hover just out of their reach.

Wherever genuine caring is seen,

the Word is present.

Wherever pain is genuinely felt,

and faced without fear,

the power of the Word is near.

 Whenever people hear each other

without judgment or agenda

the Word is heard.

Wherever a flower opens

or fades,

the Word is seen.

There is no need to labor

to convince people of this truth.

Simply stand quietly and point.

This and 80 other thoughts like it appear in a book my friend, my pastor and my mentor Lee gave me when I was ordained: The Art of Pastoring, it’s called, by William C. Martin. I dug it out again this week. The Art of Pastoring.

I know we want to grow. Of course we do – we’re excited – and we want people to share in our excitement. We want new families and fresh insights; new creativity… new life. But let’s resist turning too quickly to what we think we know… the programs we remember… the way we used to do church. The answer doesn’t lie in a program, but in a person.

And we are called to live like him, to love like him, to let him be known through us.

Version 1.0 of the new brochure says:

We are a work in progress.

It says that right up front – because we are. And actually, I pray we always will be.

And it says:

Learning and practicing the old, old story of Jesus and his love:

where the wandering are welcomed home

the questioning are given voice

the table-turners are heroes

quiet spaces and holy chaos are celebrated together

everyone has a place and a face, a story and a heart

family and community are redefined

young and old sing, pray, worship and serve together

healing really does happen.

And

Our Language:

forgiveness

honor

conviction

determination

flexibility

love

Is that who we are? Is that who we’re becoming? Is that Jesus?

Lee and I laughed as we remembered together the day I met him. Andy and I were new to town and had gone to the church for the first time as a young married couple. That Sunday afternoon our doorbell rang and there he was on the front porch of our house–in his late 20’s – with longish hair, a tshirt, Bermuda shorts and hightop sneakers… just standing there with a loaf of bread. He looked so awkward as he held it out to me.

A sign of welcome.

A sign of Jesus.

So dear.

At the end of the conference as we said goodbye to each other, he said – I think you are the reason I came here. Could it be?

And the friend I was traveling with and I returned home… home to be church.

We had seen the Lord — recognized in the energy, passion, conviction, creativity, hope and honesty of all of us together bearing witness to Jesus – the constant in a world of change.

I don’t have an answer for what’s next, wrote one of the attendees to the conference, but I think it will be something that seems unrecognizable to us, especially those of us who have grown up only knowing this church. It will only be when we slow down and listen for Christ to call our name, to speak a word of peace to us, or guide our actions will we be able to recognize the Risen Christ and realize he has been with us the whole time.

May our hearts and eyes be open to the gospel life that awaits us beyond this recognition.

4/27/14

Rev. Cathi King

John 20:19-31

My Lord and My God

Let’s pray:

For all of us logical, ordered thinkers… for all who question… for the late-comers and the confused… for the skeptics and the faithful and all who float somewhere between… for those who want to be, used to be, long to be disciples… who search desperately for truth and chronically miss it as it sits right in front of us, but who if we could just see it, would completely and totally give our lives to it… this story we’re about to hear is our story, O God… speak peace to us in it and through it we pray.

John 20:19-31

This is the point of the story – why John tells it, and all the others he tells– that we may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God… our Lord and our God… and that by believing we may have life in his name.

You and I are invited to see ourselves in these stories… to identify with the very humanity of the characters… and to consider if she can believe…if believe… dare to believe too? if he can believe… can I… dare to believe too?

Today the story begins with a locked room. Of course it’s locked.

It’s scary in Jerusalem and tense and people are getting crucified – and maybe even, if it’s possible, scarier yet – the tomb is empty. Inconceivable, in the words of Princess Bride’s Vizzini. Inconceivable indeed to the disciples of Jesus… how could the tomb be empty?

And suddenly, Jesus is there –  there – standing with them. In the middle of their fear… in the middle of their grief… in the middle of their hiding… in the middle of their confused holy huddle… unhindered by locked doors… he is there.

Can you imagine? We can’t, really, can we?

But this time it wasn’t just one person — they all saw him and they all heard him: Peace be with you, he said. Peace… be… with… you. Well, they didn’t all see him. Thomas didn’t. He wasn’t there.

He picked a heck of a time not to be there… makes me wonder where he was… why wasn’t he with the other disciples in that room? Hope he had a good reason, right? Heck of a thing to miss something like this…

We know what it feels like to come in after the fact… and everybody knows the inside jokes… everybody looks at each other and winks and snickers and you’re in the dark…

My favorite part of mission trips are the stories… stories only we know… that forge bonds only we share… I’ve heard youth say. I don’t want to miss a trip because I don’t want to be left out of the stories…

Nothing compares to being there. Especially when something big, funny, shocking, awkward, amazing happens and you miss it.

So, where was he? Obviously he was still in town. Did he oversleep? Get lost? Was he out looking for Jesus? Had he heard the testimony of Mary and he went to find him? Was Thomas out walking the streets – fearless – blinded by his hope… searching… searching?

We really don’t know, but here’s what seems most likely to me: he was holed up alone somewhere – trying to figure out what happened… why things went so wrong.

Everybody processes grief differently.

I kind of think Thomas, the one who not long before urged his fellow disciples on toward Jerusalem: Let us also go, that we may die with him, took a little longer to join up with the rest of them… took a little longer thinking about how, if he hadn’t said that, maybe they wouldn’t have gone to Jerusalem… maybe Jesus wouldn’t be dead… took a little longer thinking about how grand his statement had been then – what a big talker – we’ll die alongside you, Lord — and how weak he had been as he fled the scene like the rest of them… took a little longer sitting with the devastating reality that his actions didn’t live up to his word.

Psychologists over the years have attempted to apply personality profiling systems to the disciples. According to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, most say Thomas is an ISTJ.

It was Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers who first developed this inventory during World War 2 to help women entering the industrial workforce for the first time determine what kind of war-time job would be most effective and compatible for them. Since then its been used by corporations, universities, marriage counselors, non-profits and darn near everybody.

Myers Briggs helps people better understand themselves, their motivations, their decision making approaches… the way they process life, and it helps us better understand how to deal with different kinds of people. And it’s been applied back in time to categorize people of history – like the disciples.

So take it with a grain of salt, but I think it has merit. Thomas profiles as an ISTJ, along with other famous people like George Washington and George H. W. Bush; Jackie Joyner-Kersey and Evander Holyfield; Detective Sergeant Joe Friday from Dragnet – Just the Facts Ma’am, Fred Oh for Corn’s Sake Mertz from I Love Lucy, and know-it-all postal worker Cliff Clavin, from Cheers.

ISTJ’s honor commitment, they’re practical, logical, painstaking, thorough and deeply, deeply loyal.

According to psychologist David Kiersey, The word of ISTJ’s is their bond, and they experience great uneasiness by thoughts of a bankrupt nation, state, institution, or family… they can be counted on to conserve the resources of the institution they serve.

Thomas deeply believed in the cause of Jesus and thought he was willing to die with him for it, but upon entering Jerusalem he watched as Jesus turned the tables in the marketplace.

He watched as Jesus challenged the Temple system – exposing the way in which the religious institution operated unjustly and unfaithfully.

And this disciple watched as the authorities – of his religion – turned and turned quickly on his rabbi Jesus.

He watched with confusion and despair as the whole thing unraveled. Wanting… needing to trust something, what now could he be sure of? He thought he knew Jesus, but what did he know?

Lord, we don’t know where you’re going… how can we know the way? – Thomas said and after the crazy events of the last days, that couldn’t be more true for him.

Like most of the others, Thomas fled after Jesus’ arrest, and if he’s like the other ISTJs I know, he stayed away from the group, needing time to think, to process, maybe to journal, to sit with his pain and grief, his failures as well as the failures of others… for the world had come unhinged. That’s where I think he was… off somewhere holed up in his private grief.

So when he finally rejoined them and heard their news, did he buy it on face value? Absolutely not. He couldn’t afford to. It’s too much of a stretch for him… his brain power and emotional energy were spent. He’d lost too much. But he stayed with them anyway – mostly because he had nowhere else to go.

And his reaction earned him a place in history as the patron saint of doubt; his name a colloquialism for people who lack confidence, need proof, refuse to believe on someone else’s word. Sometimes the butt of a joke. Doubting Thomas.

His colleagues called him by another name: Didymus – Twin. Maybe he had a twin – but history is silent on him or her if that’s true. Could it be that the disciples had their own way of naming the personality of Thomas – the one who was known for his strident belief and his questions… his conviction and his skepticism… his fervent hope and his inner disillusionment?

Could it be that Thomas embodied I believe, help my unbelief… twins of the same heart?

Can’t you just imagine him sitting off to the side upon his return, on the fringe of the group, by his own choice sinking more and more into a place of isolation and bitterness – and yet, not knowing where else to go? Wanting to believe them… wanting to share in their joy… but incapable… locked behind the doors of his own confused and embattled spirit.

And then, Jesus was there, right there. Right there with that broken disciple, patiently offering him the wounds of his suffering to touch… to know their truth… and he said to Thomas, “stop becoming faithless.”

That’s the literal translation… from the Greek… “stop becoming faithless.”

For Jesus knew, as we know, what happens when people begin to lose faith and lose hope in a vision, in a future, in themselves…

Faithlessness isn’t the same as doubt or questions or healthy skepticism… faithlessness is a close cousin to apathy… despair… death of the spirit.

Jesus said, “stop becoming faithless, instead trust… believe…” There stood Jesus, exalted by God, vindicated… the living “yes” to the “no” of death. There stood truth for Thomas, and the twin was made whole.

Jesus spoke directly to him and he knew the voice. He saw the scarred hands reaching out to him, to him. No more would he walk in darkness – he would walk in the light of life:

“My Lord and My God!”

This is not the first time anyone used the title “lord” in reference to Jesus. Throughout his life many people called him lord – he was a respected teacher. He used the title “lord” in some of his parables and stories – in reference to heads of households or property owners. It was a general term of respect for people in authority like “sir”.

But after the resurrection, the disciples began to refer to Jesus as “The Lord” – that’s different… that’s authority over all other authorities.

The claim: “Jesus is Lord!” became the earliest creed of the church.

Either Jesus was The Lord or he wasn’t and if he was, Christians were to proclaim it, mean it, and live it publicly. That was radical, courageous and life-threatening.

When John’s gospel was in circulation, the Roman emperor Domitian referred to himself as “Our Lord and God” in historical documents. Roman citizens were expected to publically proclaim

Caesar is Lord”.

So when Christians instead proclaimed boldly, “Jesus is Lord” they faced imprisonment or death.

Thomas Didymus, The Twin was the very first to boldly declare the sovereignty of the risen Christ over his life: “My Lord and My God”. Doubter? Or Believer.

In the end, nearly every one of the first disciples including Thomas died for their faith.

Indeed he fulfilled his promise: Let us also go that we may die with Christ. He just took a little longer to get there.

Could the gospel writer John have meant for this disciple to be our spiritual twin? The one in whom we see ourselves reflected… the one who gives sanction to the two sides of our hearts — hallows our questioning skepticism and calls us into deeper conviction? That we may stop becoming faithless and instead see our belief as an inseparable twin to doubt – held together and healed together in Christ?

What causes you to lose faith?

We live in a post-resurrection world and we profess through faith that Jesus has conquered death and disarmed the powers and principalities and yet we see evidences all around us of violence and human exploitation… greed and abuses of power… environmental decay and negligence… When that’s what you see when you look around, do you lose faith?

Or when illness strikes unexpectedly or young people die or senseless tragedies destroy families and communities… school shootings and plane crashes, earthquakes and sinking ships, wildfires and floods… do you lose faith?

Or when we see the institutions we’ve known and served throughout our lives crumbling by bad policy or practice, when we fear our economic institution is a house of cards… our government permanently locked in virulent partisanship our religious institutions becoming increasingly irrelevant and losing courage…

Do we lose faith?

When like Thomas we start that cynical spiral, may we hear the voice of Jesus saying to us: “stop becoming faithless, instead trust… believe… I have risen.”

He stands before us still… Exalted by God, given the name that is above all names: King of Kings, Lord of Lords so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is LORD.

Not just The Lord: My Lord and My God. The One in whom I place ultimate authority and confidence. May it be so for you and for me and for all of us as church together.

4/20/14 Easter Sunday

Rev. Cathi King

John 20:1-18

How do you see it?

People see things differently.

The same sky is partly cloudy and partly sunny…

The glass: half full and half empty…

What’s a setback for one, to another is a new challenge.

A diamond in the rough to one, a chunk of coal to another.

There are realists and pragmatists,

idealists and nihilists,

optimists and pessimists…

scientists and artists.

Is the world beginning or ending?

Growing or shrinking?

Are resources scarce or abundant?

Is it black and white or gray

Absolute or subjective?

An exciting fix-er-upper or a money pit?

Is a path that winds into the woods scary or beautiful?

The stranger in the room someone to get to know or be suspicious of?

Risk: to be avoided or embraced?

It depends on how you see it and people see things differently.

Several people went to the tomb on that first Easter morning – even the gospel writers vary as to who was there. According to John, there were 3: Mary, Peter and another disciple (the one called “beloved”). Each of them saw something a little different.

All of their stories pointed to a completely new reality – one they had never experienced and could not understand or explain.

The resurrection is a bit like that Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant, turned into a poem by John Godfrey Saxe:

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

“God bless me!—but the

Elephant
 is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried:”Ho!—what have we here

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ‘t is mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
 Is very like a snake!

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,

And felt about the knee.

“What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
”

‘T is clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: “E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant
 Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than, seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,
”I see,” quoth he,

“the Elephant
 Is very like a rope!”

None of the six could entirely describe the elephant because each one only felt a part of it. So it was with each one who tried to describe the indescribable on that first Easter morning:

Mary saw the stone rolled away.

Someone else looked inside and saw grave linens.

Another looked inside and saw linens and a rolled up head     cloth

Then Mary looked inside and saw two angels.

And when she turned around she saw Jesus.

None of them as yet understood resurrection. They couldn’t possibly know what happened – it defied every category they knew.

And does even to this day.

They couldn’t make sense of it.

We, with all of our advanced scientific and technological advancements can’t do much better – in fact, probably worse.

They could only say what they saw… tell their own story. And as the days went on, more stories were shared and compared as the community cobbled together meaning.

I want to return to the excitement of those days… when each new story was fresh and added some new detail to the puzzle of the risen Christ.

I want to shed the years and years and years of tradition that layer over the raw beauty and faith of the original storytellers. I want to see what they saw… feel what they felt.

Where we come to church on Easter Sunday expecting Alleluias and flowers and pretty hats and shoes… they went to the tomb expecting death.      Where we expect to sing hymns about a risen savior… they went expecting to weep and mourn for a fallen friend, a lost dream, a defeated messiah.

Where we come expecting an empty tomb, they never would have conceived of it. Because of what they saw that morning, they would never see anything the same way again.

We know the story well. Maybe too well. Perhaps our familiarity with the story keeps us numb to its staggering wonder… blind to its deeper meanings.

I’d like to explore it together. Easter is not a day it’s a season. It spans several weeks so we have time to feel only parts of the elephant each week. To listen together to individual stories and let them say only what they can say.

So that we, kind of like the first disciples, can learn to see differently.

From today’s story:

A rolled away stone, discarded grave clothes, angels and a risen Lord who looks a little like the gardener.

Poet and hymnwriter Susan Palo Cherwien gives us this mental picture of that first Easter morning:

The dew dampened still the ground.

Cool air, chill on cheeks, fresh morning.

Cloth clung to weary, hurried legs.

Hems flapped. Spices trailed.

Sky grayed, lavendered.

Who would roll the stone away?

Sandaled feet marked heavy steps.

Expecting death.

Expecting death.

Indeed when Mary and the other disciples went to the tomb that very first Easter morning, they went expecting death.

They watched him suffer and die… really die. They saw his body taken off the cross, wrapped in linens and placed in a tomb. They saw the stone rolled in place. They no more expected to find the tomb empty than we would if we went to visit a loved one’s grave.

Mary went to be with him – like we would – because she loved him… she went in grief… weeping… to be with him… to sit with him… to remember and to cry… when she rounded the bend she saw a rolled away stone.

The tomb was open, accessible… no longer locked to keep robbers and animals out… no longer sealed to keep would-be messiahs in.

The stone’s been rolled away…

Closed tight by hatred and violence, opened by overpowering love and forgiveness.

The stone’s been rolled away…

The “no” of the powers of empire and institution answered with a resounding “yes.”   Nothing, not even a huge and heavy stone can separate us from the love of God… God will not be stopped. The living love of and for the world will not be contained.

         The stone’s been rolled away…

It was foolish to attempt to control, silence, condemn, erase the power of the universe.

There is no restricting that kind of love that would be poured out for all – even the ones who tried to lock it up forever.

Erik Kolbell, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York sees it this way:

In this, God as much as said, ‘Even when you turn your back on me, I still love you.

         Even when you unleash your fury and hurl it in my direction, when you pierce my hands, mock my dignity, or lash my back, I still love you.

         When you worship other gods, gods of money or fame, sabers and swords, militarism or imperialism, racism or sexism, gods of social status or small-mindedness, I will still love you.

         I will love the Roman centurion who arrested me, the one who marched me to my death, the one who nailed me to my cross, and the one who hoisted it high… I will love them in their slavish obedience to the rule of others and I will hope that one day before they die, they will experience the extravagant gift of thinking for themselves.

         I will love the blessed disciples who betrayed, denied, doubted, and abandoned me in my hours of need.

         I will love the cowardly rulers who protected their own lives by sacrificing mine, and I will love the many in distant lands, across oceans and seas, those long dead, and those not yet born, who never knew me or never will… I will love them… each and every one.. not because they are great in my eyes but because they are forgiven in my heart.”

The question: Who will roll away the stone? is no longer on the table, for the stone is gone. Love is unleashed.

Look inside the tomb – look into the very face of death itself. It is empty – stripped of power as it has been stripped of the linens… linens – lying on the ground discarded – that’s what Peter saw.

If in the rolled away stone we see the complete and total accessibility of God’s love, grace and forgiveness, what do we see in cast off grave clothes?

At the end of every life is death – real death. That could not be more true. But life is not to be lived in fear of that sting; rather life is to be lived free and bold and with courage in the face of it.

The nihilists of the world have a new spokesperson in HBO’s True Detective Rust Cohle. His name even hints at his cynicism. Rust Cohle

As a homicide detective Cohle has seen a lot of death masks. In one episode he interprets eyes like this:

You look in their eyes… even in a picture. Doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive.

         You can still read ‘em. And you know what you see? They welcomed it. Not at first, but right there in the last instant. It’s an unmistakable relief. See, ’cause they were afraid, and now they saw, for the very first time, how easy it was to just let go. And they saw in that last nanosecond, they saw… what they were. A ‘you’, ‘yourself’, this whole big drama, it was never anything but a Jerry-rig of presumption and dumb will.

         And you could just let go. Finally know that you didn’t have to hold on so tight.

Rust Cohle sees life fatalistically… worn out… like the decaying Louisiana landscape backdrop of the show.

He says he “sees the world as it really is.”

The discarded grave clothes in the empty tomb offer us a different way of seeing life:

–       not enshrouded in the eventuality of death but free to be lived abundantly in and through each moment

–       not cloaked in fear of its end but released to grasp the honor and dignity of its now and present reality

For we indeed are players in a big drama and each of our parts matter to the whole of the story. We are invited to let go, but the useless grave linens invite us to let go not into death, but into life.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, said Moses to the Israelites as they stood on the edge of the promised land, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him – that means life to you.

I came that you may have life and have it abundantly, said Jesus, so many years later.

Life has the final word, says the pile of cast off grave clothes on the floor of the empty tomb.

Angels in white, sitting where Jesus had laid – one at his head, one at his feet – that’s what Mary saw when she looked into the tomb. And she was the only one who saw them.

For us, it’s pointless to debate it, scientifically or otherwise – it’s her story. She says she saw them – ok.

From time to time when I worked with hospice, people would tell me they saw angels as they neared death. And I didn’t argue.

This was not a universal experience, and should never be interpreted that way. But sometimes as I’d be sitting with someone their eyes would focus beyond my head and they’d smile. Sometimes they’d even talk to the image they saw.

Reassurance and comfort was the primary message of these visitors and visions and they delivered it to patients and family members in ways I never could.

Why are you weeping?

They asked Mary – as if there were no reason in heaven or on earth to weep.

Why are you weeping?

They asked Mary – we’re here. All is well.

Why are you weeping?

                  In everything there is a season: a time to weep and a time to laugh…

                  Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning, wrote the Psalmist, who also wrote:

You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.

         Woman, why are you weeping?

The dawn has arrived. The night is over – now is the day.

They are not there to ridicule her emotion but to bless it, to redeem it and to raise it up.

They prepare her to turn around to greet her new day.

Mary has seen a rolled away stone, she’s seen angels in place of the body of her Lord and she is still locked in grief and confusion until the stranger standing before her calls her by name.

Can you imagine her telling this part of her story? I have seen the Lord.

She’s the first person to proclaim it – the absolutely unimaginable.

What??? 

         You’ve seen the Lord????

Where? How?

         What did he look like?

         How can you be sure it was really him?

         He called me by name.

         The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

It was his voice. It was her name. Even though she didn’t recognize him, he knew her – he always knew her.

When I was a kid, says the softspoken Presbyterian pastor from Georgia Fred Craddock, I went to church with my mother and the minister would speak to my mother, “How’re you, Miz Craddock?” and the five of us kids would go along like little ducks along after our mother.

         ‘How’re you sonny? How’re you, honey? How’re you, sonny? How’re you, honey?’ But I remember when another minister came to our church — I remember the day he said: ‘Fred, how’re you doing?’ He was the best minister that ever was at that church, because there’s a big difference between “sonny” and “Fred.”

         Mary. Jesus said to her.

And that made all the difference in how she saw it all. She saw him and believed. I have seen the Lord.

The resurrection of Jesus remains arguably the most enigmatic event in history. People see it so very differently. It’s been hotly debated and thoroughly analyzed, nit picked and scrutinized, but as one of my professors in seminary said:

The resurrection is like a stained glass window. You can get up close to it and examine the details of it. You can put the substance of it under a microscope and pick it apart piece by piece…

Like those blind men of Indostan who

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

Or, my professor suggested, you can step back and see the exquisite beauty of that stained glass window of resurrection as the light shines in it and through it for the world.

Turn around. Look up. Take it all in and listen with me to the final words of Susan Palo Cherwien’s poem:

He. Is. Not. Here.

No more stone.

No more barrier.

No more portal locked

‘Twixt death and life.

No more stone.

Do not be afraid

spoke the brightness.

Do not be afraid.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed.

4/13/14  Palm Sunday

Rev. Cathi King

After the Parade

What happened after the parade? After the shouting and the waving and the hoopla and the celebration?

It was a busy week for Jesus on the streets of Jerusalem. It was his final week and it was filled with drama… drama loaded with meaning and purpose, symbolism and challenge. He was a political activist that week, staging provocative demonstrations of defiance. He stood for God’s reign… God’s way above all other ways and that was spellbinding for some, completely unnerving and unacceptable for others. Don’t you want to know what happened?

Come with me… back in time… imagine the scene:

It’s Monday morning. There’s still remnants of yesterday’s parade in the street outside the Temple… trampled branches… matted down pieces of clothing. He’s up ahead with his band of followers. Let’s listen.

Mark 11:15-18      Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?
   But you have made it a den of robbers.’ 
18And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.

What a scene! Roman soldiers were there– standing, armed, on the edges of the Temple courtyard — posted to keep the peace.

And the place was nuts.

Birds flapping and sheep bleating… coins spilling everywhere. Merchants running like crazy trying to gather back their animals and their things…. righting their tables… cussing and carrying on.

Why did he do it?

It was flagrantly disrespectful to the whole market. To those who made a living selling sacrificial animals… to those whose job it was to convert coins from around the empire into temple currency… to those who fed their families on the backs of religious pilgrims — it was a disgrace to all of them.

He made a mockery of the temple economy. Brought shame on all whose lives were built on it.

And the pilgrims – the ones who came to worship? They were confused. How were they supposed to get ready for the Passover festival?

The whole thing was shut down for a few hours while the priests and elders tried to restore order. This Jesus of Nazareth wreaked such chaos… during a high holy time! What was his problem?

After all, everybody needs certifiably pure animals for the ritual sacrifice. And the merchants that sell in the Temple… well you know they’re stuff is good.

You can never really be sure your animal will meet the priest’s standards if you bring it from somewhere else… especially if you travel a long way… it’s always better to be sure- to buy it here – at the Temple.

So maybe you pay a little more, but it’s worth it if you can have guaranteed confidence that through this animal sacrifice your sins will really be forgiven.

And what are you supposed to do with your coins that have the face of the emperor on them? You know they’re not allowed in the Temple—it’s idolatry. You gotta get ‘em converted to the kind of coins that don’t have a face on them before you can use them to pay the temple tax.

And there isn’t anywhere else to get them changed.

So maybe the money-changers charge more than they should… but they gotta take their cut… Heck you pay whatever you need to, right?

It’s the price of faith.

Lots of people from all over the world depend upon this Temple market so that they can be prepared for the festivals… so that they can be acceptable to God. The Temple leaders run it, and they make sure it’s right.

And here comes this Jesus from Nazareth making a scene… causing a ruckus.

         My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations…

         You have made it a den of robbers.

Robbers? What robbers?… There’s just decent folk here trying to make a living off making sure people can practice their religion the right way. They’ve done it this way for years… the Romans get their cut to keep the peace… the priests get their cut, making sure it’s all holy enough…

What’s the problem?

Jesus is gone for now… slipped into the crowds… but he’ll be back tomorrow. What will he do then?

Mark 12:13-17     Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one.

Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.

What was that Pharisee doing with a denarius? That’s Roman money. No true Judaean would ever be carrying one of those here in the Temple – God’s house.

The money-changers take care of that at the entrance. This religious man is breaking his own law, hanging onto coins with the graven image of Caesar’s head and that blasphemous inscription: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus”. Blasphemy! Idolatry! Here in God’s house! In the hands of a Pharisee??

No wonder the people in the crowd looked at him, looked at all of them over there in their “holy huddle”, with such shock and disdain…. No wonder the whole lot of them flushed with shame. Jesus called them out in their hypocrisy.

The religious elders present themselves as the purest of the pure, the holiest of the holy… but are they really in cahoots with Rome and the empire? Whose interests do they serve then?

         Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s.

         And to God what is God’s.

Jesus schooled them. Get rid of that coin – and all the power it exerts over you… you are people of God, not people of Caesar.

Now the crowd is really confused. Who can they trust? Can they trust their religious leaders to truly lead them? More and more they like what they’re hearing from this Nazarene. It seems more just, it seems more right, it seems more faithful.

And the momentary shame of the Pharisees and Herodians has turned to white hot anger. And Roman soldiers on the edge of the courtyard are looking on with greater interest now that they’ve heard the name of their beloved Caesar… used with a tone they don’t like.

 Mark 12: 38-44     As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

Ah, the Temple treasury. Here’s where people are really rewarded for their faithfulness; the biggest givers embraced heartily by those in the long robes who manage the coffers… the same ones who barely notice the poor struggling to make ends meet, bent over by the weight of the Temple tax.

Something’s never really seemed right about this unholy connection between prayer and money. But it’s been this way for a very long time…

There’s an awkward scene unfolding: this poor woman is searching her bags… emptying her pockets… looking for loose coins…. her face is turned down… she’s holding up the line…

Jesus looks at her and looks at the treasurers as if he’s expecting some kind of help from them… some kind of compassion for her plight. But their arms remain crossed. In fact, their attention is already turned toward the next pilgrims and their offerings.

She’s walking away now… she doesn’t have enough… she’s heading off to beg for more… because she wants to pray… she wants to worship… and she doesn’t have enough money.

What kind of system is this? We’re in the Temple for God’s sake. What was it he said only a couple of days ago:

         My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations…

         You have made it a den of robbers.

Jesus gathers up this poor woman and welcomes her into his band of disciples… she has given all she has… how dare anyone judge that to be insufficient.

In this defiant action, he indicts the system… exposing the whole temple economy for its exploitation and immoral pandering – its classism.

And the ones in the long robes look at him and they look at the motley crew that follows him and you can see … and you can feel… the hatred.

And those of us who look on… we wonder where is this heading?

Mark 14:1-9     It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

It’s Wednesday night – for the moment, Jesus has left Jerusalem. But his arresting ways continue. Now he’s at the home and at the table of a leper… Curious. I guess it makes sense when you look at the rest of his company… peasants and fishermen, outcasts and common folk.

Why not a leper or two thrown into the mix?

But this is interesting… in comes a woman… not just any woman… one of those women. You know what I mean. You can tell by the way she looks and the way she smells — her perfume enters the room before she does. There she is, kneeling beside his head as he is reclined on the couch.

At first it looks like she’s trying to seduce him – right there at the table – but no… it’s not about that.

He’s not taken his eyes off her since she came into the room – she’s a looker that’s for sure… but no, it’s not about that.

It’s about something totally different. There is no sexual tension between them. They are two people sharing a moment of solidarity of communion.

It’s been a stressful week. Started on a high note with the parade, but then as the days went by, his mission became clearer: Jesus means to stop at nothing short of totally dismantling the Temple system: he’ll turn over one stone at a time: politics, economics, law and practice until nothing is left standing as it was. There are a lot of people invested in its present structure. They will not go down easy.

She massages his head and his face with her perfume. He closes his eyes and lets her work. Her hands move across his brow and his temples… gently… she soothes out the heat of the day with her cool touch… it’s mesmerizing really.

Until the conversation turns again to money.

All week there’s been this tension between worship and money.

Love, honor, grace – the currency of the kingdom of God.

Denarii – the currency of empire….

         She’s wasting, they say.

         She’s not thinking of the greater good, they say.

She’s beautiful and thoughtful and gracious and compassionate and she is the model for all that is good and right and true, by God, he says. Remember her.

Jesus stood, then and now for God’s reign, God’s way above all others.

At all costs, he stood for free access to God for all people… a reconciliation of all God’s children with their creator and with one another. His Passover message was the same as the prophet Moses so many years before him:

Let my people go —

so they may be free to worship.

Break any yoke of captivity that rests on them –

deliver them to me for they are mine.

And they will be free to celebrate me.

And they will be my people and I will be their God.

 Today we, in this country are not under Egyptian or Roman rule.

We pride ourselves on living in the home of the free, and yet… there are still cries among us: “Hosanna…. Save us. Deliver us. Please. Now.”

Where is the injustice of our place, our time?

Where do people suffer in silence?

Jesus proclaimed justice and mercy… a liberating gospel… that all may be free. Until that day, we, as his followers are called to turn over stones in defiance, one by one dismantling systems and ways of living that exploit, cheapen, disqualify, exclude, and enslave. That is radical. That is love and life in Christ.

Last summer I threw out a challenge to the congregation of Westminster and we handed out free copies of the Voice translation of the New Testament to every household. The challenge was this:

  • Pick one gospel to read all the way through
  • Pick a partner
  • Get together and talk about what you’re learning

One of my favorite comments over the summer was made by one of the Deacons. He said: “I’ve now read three of the four gospels and I’m wondering where is the meek and gentle Jesus of love and peace?”

He didn’t end up on a cross for nothing. He loves without exception and without limit, but not without challenge and not without cost.

When we follow him, we follow him to the cross… and beyond.

May that settle uneasily upon us.

4/06/14

Rev. Cathi King

When the Wait is Over

John 11:1-45

This time it’s personal. He’s not far away. Someone he loves is sick… very sick.

And they know he can do something about it.

They send him word. He hears it. And he doesn’t immediately go. In fact, he waits long enough that his beloved friend dies.

Back in Bethany, they’re confident at first.

It’d be like your best friend is an esteemed cardiologist and your brother is diagnosed with some kind of rare heart disease – that without quick treatment he’ll die from – and you send word to your friend – the world renown heart surgeon to come and come quickly.

For once, you know exactly who to call – and you know she’ll drop everything and come – sure she’s busy, but you know her… you know her well… and you know how much she loves you and your whole family. You send word, and you’re confident.

Back in Bethany, they send word to Jesus and they minister to their brother Lazarus… bathing his forehead in cool cloths to keep his fever down… feeding him whatever he has the strength and interest to eat… making sure he’s taking in enough water to keep him alive… just until Jesus gets here… and he’s not far away.

And time goes on… and Lazarus weakens… and they wait and watch… and wait and watch – straining their eyes toward the direction he’ll come… hurry… please… your friend needs you… we need you… hurry…

But he doesn’t come and he doesn’t come and with the wait comes fear and despair… he’s dying… it’s not supposed to go this way… is it?

Meanwhile Jesus waits… and we wonder, what could he possibly be doing that is more important than tending to a friend?

Why is he waiting? Is it for his benefit?

Let’s think about this.

For Jesus, things are getting very tense. The Pharisees and religious leaders are trumping up charges against him – it seems as if wherever he turns and whatever he does he’s in trouble. In fact, the very last time he was in Jerusalem, they threatened to stone him and although he managed to escape, they haven’t forgotten about him.

He’s actually in hiding on the other side of the Jordan when he hears the news of Lazarus. Going to Bethany, only two miles away from Jerusalem, is dangerous. His mission is greater than one person. And many are believing him right where he is… Might he want to stay and add to that number?

Could it be that his waiting had more to do with further building the kingdom than the suffering of this one family? Even a family personally beloved to him?

I get that… don’t you? We might not like it much – especially if we’re the family in need – but we get it… we make those kinds of decisions all the time. We don’t like it because we want to believe that Jesus will prioritize even just one person over the whole mission – he’s that relational and he’s that personal… although is that realistic?

And does he play favorites? Is Lazarus any more important than say the hemorrhaging woman or the man born blind? Or any of the people to whom he is ministering right where he is?

How dare Mary and Martha even play that card – when they know so much is at stake for Jesus … for the world.

And maybe, too, he’s thinking how the waiting might benefit them.

How could that be?

Two days is a matter of life and death for Lazarus. Where could the benefit possibly be in that?

Life is happening in the waiting.

As they tend to their brother, people are coming… friends… extended family… many people are coming to support them… to love them… to walk this dark valley with them.

Love is being made ever more present to them as people gather around them.

And you know as each one comes, they aren’t coming empty handed… they’re bringing food and prayer shawls and special gifts to show how much they care. There’s community and connection and kinship going on in Bethany around Mary and Martha. And that’s growing hour by hour, as they wait.

And who knows, maybe relationships, previously broken or strained are being reconciled around the bed of Lazarus.

Having worked for several months in the chaplain’s office of hospice, we spoke of dying well.

Our care teams focused on the whole family and we helped wherever possible to facilitate healing in the holistic sense of the word—healing of mind, healing of relationships, healing of spirit. Faced with the reality that they were indeed dying, many people are able to say what they need to say and receive love and care from friends and family members they otherwise may have denied. Meaningful and lasting ministry happens around people as they die.

His sickness will not bring death, but will bring glory to God.

Isn’t God’s glory also manifest in healed relationships and love and growing community and casseroles and prayer shawls and unexpected visits?

So Jesus waits two days… long enough that Lazarus is dead. Really dead. His tomb is sealed, he’s been in it for 4 days. He stinketh, according to King James.

Remove the stone! Jesus commands.

Lazarus, come out!

And the dead man walks. Still bound by his grave clothes he never-the-less walks.

What was dead, really dead, lives.

And that’s way beyond a healing. That’s resurrection.

When we moved onto our property last fall there were five beautiful swans – a mom, a dad and three cygnets. By the middle of winter, only the mom and dad remained – the others had all flown away. And this was the cycle for these swans who year after year mated and produced children and taught them to fly.

The mom and dad couldn’t fly because their wings were damaged… they were rescue swans… kept alive year after year on our pond with a bubbler to prevent the water from freezing and bags and bags of cracked corn.

One morning, in the bleak midwinter, we woke to see the pond completely frozen… the pump had stopped during the night. Without their safe pool to protect them from predators they were vulnerable and they would die. So, we fixed the pump and worked valiantly to crack open the ice while the swans looked on… but you know the winter we had… we managed to create a small opening for them but it wasn’t enough. They wandered … looking for a safer spot and I found them dead the next morning.

And for a while we cursed nature – and the weasel or coyote or whatever it was that killed these beautiful and helpless creatures.

And we grieved as we looked at the barren ponds and their lifeless bodies… And we wondered what we could have or should have done differently to keep them alive… to protect them. The truth is, we couldn’t. It really was an unsustainable system. And they died.

But after the long wait of winter we now have new life on the pond. Canada geese are coming to check it out and maybe make it their home. They were never welcome in the years the swans ruled. Swans are territorial and they don’t allow any diversity in their midst. But now they’re gone. And I say:

Come Out Geese! Now is your day!

Interestingly, while the gentle white dove is the bird we usually associate with the Holy Spirit, in the Celtic tradition it is the goose.

The wild goose is just that – wild. They cannot be tamed, contained, or controlled and they’ve been known to bite those who try. They make a lot of noise and, well, a lot of mess too. They are a fitting symbol for the Holy Spirit. For they will not be silenced. And there will be holy chaos when the Spirit moves.

In this day when the Church of Jesus Christ needs bold new voices for radical and inclusive love, why not the relentless honking of the wild goose!

Come Out, First Presbyterian Church of Tecumseh! Now is our day!

Come Out and lift up your voicesall of them!

Come Out and do not fear! Do not doubt!

Come Out into the community and love boldly and relentlessly!

Come Out and welcome all the displaced wildlife home!

Come Out for we have a new story to tell!

Come Out and shake off the grave clothes – leave behind that which is dead!

Come Out for by the power of Jesus, we live again!

Come Out, and don’t quit coming out, for all that’s left in the tomb is darkness and stink and it’s time to walk in the light!

The wait is over and the master cardiologist has arrived to breathe brand new life into our stone-cold dead hearts. Christ is here, the One sent to bring glory to God in and through your life and mine and ours together… the One… the only One with the power to bring us to life.

3/30/14

Rev. Cathi King

What can I say?

John 9:1-41

What can I say? What can you say? What can any of us say about the impact Jesus has made, and continues to make on our lives?

We’re witnesses to a whole new way of life, truth and love.  I said at the close of my sermon last week. It’s a story that must be told by you and by me… by all of us… for the sake and for the saving of the world. I said.

Will you tell how you met Jesus and how he changed your life?

Last week I was speaking for the Samaritan woman at the well – telling her story. But her story also speaks to us in our place and our time.

Polling data says a growing number of people in our surrounding communities either don’t know the story of Jesus, or the story they’ve heard, they’ve characterized as irrelevant, close-minded and judgmental. I’m convinced we’re here because we believe differently.

We need new storytellers – people who will tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love with fresh language. In fact, it’s a call given to each one of us as his disciples: to go and tell – that the world may know.

I’ve been around the block in the Presbyterian Church. A life-long Presbyterian, I’ve been in many, many conversations about sharing faith.

And it’s kind of crazy – we’re a talkative bunch, but when it comes to talking about Jesus, and particularly about how a relationship with Jesus has changed our lives personally we clam up… our tongues get tied and we don’t know what to say…

Friday night, I was playing euchre with some friends from the Plymouth Presbyterian Church where my family attended for years before I became a pastor. They talked about a class some of them were going to yesterday morning at their church about how to give your testimony. One of the most active and engaged lay leaders of that church – leading mission trips inside and outside the country, and a Sunday school teacher for years, said:

I’m going… OMG – I so need it – I have no idea what to say. And another quickly and awkwardly agreed.

And I said what’s trump?

Don’t make it harder than it needs to be – preached Rev. Jerry Cannon at the PCUSA 2013 Evangelism and Church Growth conference.

“Don’t make it harder than it needs to be.”

Turn with me now to our Bible lesson for today – the 9th chapter of the gospel of John. It’s kind of a field guide for evangelism. Listen with me for tips as John gives us the story of one man’s encounter with Jesus:

JOHN 9: 1-12

Evangelism Tip #1:  Tell your story: in your own words, about your own experience. It’s just that simple. This young man shows us how to do it. He says:

I met a man named Jesus, he put mud on my eyes and told me to go wash in the pool of Siloam, I did and now I can see.

We are the expert witnesses of our own story. We know who we were before and after we came to know Jesus. We are the only ones truly qualified to describe it.

That’s good news because it means we already have what we need right in here. We don’t need a seminary class. We don’t need theological dictionaries. We don’t need to be Bible scholars to tell how Jesus has changed our lives.

He smeared mud on my eyes, I washed, now I see.

You know your before and your after and you can tell it.

The trouble for many of us is, there wasn’t really a before and after because there wasn’t a time when we didn’t know Jesus.

Unlike the man in the story, many of us don’t have a point in time transformation story. When we’re asked why we follow Jesus, we might say; “we always have.” Or “it’s the only story we’ve ever known.”

I am one of those people. I sang in the church choir at First Presbyterian Church Flint from age 4 through high school. I attended First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor through college. In every place I have ever lived, I attended a Presbyterian Church. It is where I feel most at home and it is the rhythm of my life.

I can’t point to one moment when I met Jesus because I always knew Jesus. What I can say though, is that throughout my life of faith, I have come to know him better… I could say: to see him more clearly.

I can point to moments in my life when I was blown away by something new I learned about him… moments when I was humbled by a profound sense of being held by him… moments when I’ve become acutely aware that I am participating in a drama much bigger than my own life, speaking words that I know are not coming from me… moments when I have intentionally chosen to follow Jesus into places I’d never go without him.

I can talk about how these experiences of his call on my life have changed me and continue to change me. My whole life is a story of gradually learning to see and hear and love, and though I’ve definitely grown in my relationship with Jesus, over and over again I’m struck by how blind, deaf and hard-hearted I still am.

What can I say?

For me, salvation is the slow, painful and yet immensely joyful process of walking ever deeper into the way, truth and life of Jesus. And it is changing my life – day after day after day.

I follow Jesus by choice because his definition of community and family and his self-giving radically inclusive love makes room for everyone, everyone to have a place in his heart and to be loved freely, fully and loved well. And I believe that is world-changing.

What about you? What can you say? How would you, in your own words, tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love – as you know it and you’ve experienced it in your life? There are people who will relate to your story as you tell it and will come to know Jesus through it.

That’s the power of the Spirit through the sharing of faith.

Ok – let’s go back to the story to pick up another tip:

JOHN 9:13-23

Evangelism Tip #2: We are not to speak for someone else.

We are the expert witnesses of our own stories, but not of someone else’s story. That is theirs to tell. Note how the parents responded to the questions asked of them:

Here’s what we know: he is our son, he was blind and now he sees. The rest of the story you’ll have to get from him.

How liberating not to have to speak for someone else. And how challenging to restrain ourselves from interpreting someone else’s faith.

A couple of years ago the PCUSA made a change to our ordination standards that caused a bit of a hullabaloo. We removed the constitutional requirement that all ordained deacons, elders and ministers live in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness and we replaced it with this language:

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (F-1.02).

The new standards place the responsibility on the candidate him or herself to describe how it is that they live their life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ – all aspects of life.

It used to be that we allowed a constitutional phrase to speak for a candidate as to whether or not Jesus was truly the Lord of his/her life. Now we let the candidate speak for him or herself.

And there was an uproar from some: The PCUSA is now ordaining gay people how can that be? The PCUSA is now ordaining heterosexual people who are living together and not married, how can that be?

And the answer, we in the PCUSA decided, was – let them speak for themselves.

Let them tell their own story about how God has been at work in their lives and how they sense a call to give themselves fully to the service of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let everybody be held to this standard: tell the old, old story in your own words – of Jesus and his love for you and his call on you.

The debate hasn’t gone away, but the focus has changed – to the storytellers proclaiming the Lordship of Christ as they know it in their own lives, and in their own words. So maybe this 2nd evangelism tip is more what can’t I say… I can’t speak someone else’s story.

Let’s return to the Scripture for another tip:

JOHN 9:24-34

Evangelism Tip #3: Sometimes what we have to say is not easily heard by others.

When the formerly blind man responded to the religious authorities with his statement of faith: that the man who had healed him was from God, they banished him from their presence.

And likely not just from their presence, but from the synagogue and religious life, as they defined it, all together.

Shunning has always been a popular way to silence people.

By the end of the first century, open followers of Jesus were thrown out of the synagogue. If they continued to speak their belief in the way of Christ, they were deemed heretics to be “blotted out of the Book of Life.”        Jewish leaders concluded: this message of Jesus is not in line with our laws and traditions and his followers wreak too much havoc.

In the centuries that followed, Christians employed the same strategies against other Christians, with whole groups of people from Reformers to Quakers to Pentecostals to mystics to women to gay people shunned and silenced for their varying interpretations of the Holy Word.

Throughout the history of Christianity, people have fought to break free from culturally bound interpretations of Scripture to tell their story of God’s love and grace: through divorce, through mental illness, through tattoos –through stigma and stereotype; not without struggle… not without cost.

In 2009 the Gay Christian Network released a documentary called “Through My Eyes.”

It profiles the lives of over two dozen young gay Christians who were raised in the church. They share their feelings, their heartaches, their experiences with Jesus, the church and their families on camera and they hope their stories make a difference. A project created by Christians for Christians, this documentary is thoughtful, compassionate, inspiring and convicting.

Following in the footsteps of the Lord and convicted by the Spirit, Christians continue to challenge age-old traditions, customs, religious standards and laws. Even if some refuse to listen. And they do it because they believe so fervently in the One to whom the story points.

Which brings us to the end of the gospel story:

JOHN 9:35-41

Evangelism Tip #4: Our Lord is Jesus.

This whole new way of life and love, of truth and grace, of forgiveness and hope begins and ends with Jesus – the one who seeks us out even if the institutional church has cast us out. Our lives, the world… everything changes in and through him.

He is the final arbiter of any debate.

Surely we are not blind, are we? Asks the Pharisee, the teacher of religious law.

The 9th chapter of the gospel of John opens and closes with a blind man – the one born blind and presumed to be a sinner met Jesus and walked away changed, given new eyes to see.

The one presumed to be righteous, the Pharisee, teacher of religious law, met Jesus and walked away unchanged, hardened and blind.

Both will tell a story.

One will say “Crucify him.”

The other “I was blind, but now I see.”

What can I say? What can you say?

Don’t make it harder than it needs to be.

Come and meet a man who gives new eyes to see: to see yourself, your neighbor, God and the world in a whole new way. It changed me and continues to change me everyday. Can I tell you how? It’s a great story.

3/23/14

Rev. Cathi King

My Story

John 4:5-42

The Anointed One of GodLiberating King…  the One sent to rescue the world… saw me.  He talked to me. He listened to me. He rescued me. And not just me – He ate with the elders of our village, talked late into the night with them, and he was still there in the morning. He laughed and played with our children. He stayed with us and talked openly and freely with us. And we believed he was the One sent by God.

That was one year ago… today.

So much has changed in a year.

It was right here at this well that I met him, and I’m back at the same time – high noon. This time I’ve come, not to draw water, but memories.

I’ve been back several times of course… always hoping and yearning that he’ll return. I’ve strained my eyes looking off into the distance for him.

Over the months since he left us we’ve had so many questions. He taught us a new way to see ourselves and each other… a new way to be God’s people and to worship together…

We knew when he was with us that it was good and right and true, but then he left and time passed and we began to second-guess what had really happened and old habits came back around again.

I know that’s why I’m here today on this, the one year anniversary… I feel like somehow coming back to the time and the place and reliving the memories might unlock some deeper wisdom…. shed some light on the path forward for me and for all of us.

I don’t even know when I first noticed him sitting there by the well. It was like he just appeared… yet I’m sure he had been sitting there all along… waiting.

He spoke first. I know he did – I never would have spoken to him. He was a Jew. I could tell by his look.

He asked me for water and I didn’t even look at him as I dropped my jar down into the well. I don’t remember if I even responded – if I did, it was more to myself than to him. I really just wanted to be left alone… that’s why I went to the well in the middle of the day. And I definitely did not want to talk to a Jew.

I hated everything his people had ever said…  had ever done to my people. So when this tired thirsty man asked for water I didn’t care. I wanted nothing to do with him. That’s the truth. I’m sure I didn’t hide my feelings very well. Even now when I think about how I first treated him, I burn with shame.

As I dipped my jar into the water he spoke to me of living water and God’s gift… he said something about never being thirsty again.

I looked at him then… He didn’t even have a bucket with him– and I thought, what a fool. But oh how wrong I was.

I slowly pulled my jar up out of the well as I listened to him talk about this mysterious water, and I began to realize how thirsty I really was… thirsty for acceptance… thirsty for acknowledgement… for respect… for companionship… I was thirsty for a meaningful relationship and for love… thirsty to be recognized in my own right and I was thirsty to make a difference in the life of somebody else.

I wanted some of his living water because I was thirsty for life.

And then he said, “Go get your husband.”

And I thought – it’s always about that, isn’t it?

Last year when I came to the well, I didn’t have a husband. And if you didn’t have a husband in my village, you didn’t matter – no security, no voice, no purpose. Women without husbands were the scorn and shame of the village.

It wasn’t always that way for me, I had husbands in the past.  But none of them ever stayed with me very long. Every one of them used me and tossed me away when they were done.

Each one seemed meaner than the last… controlling what I could and could not do… who I could and could not speak with… what I should say… even how I should think.

I lost a little more of myself in each man until there wasn’t much of me left.

But, you see, I was trapped.

I needed a husband to survive.

I was desperate.

I despised what I had become.

I couldn’t stand the way the people in the village looked at me and treated me… how they judged me… men and women alike… for different reasons of course.

So when this stranger asked me to go get my husband, I hung my head in shame as I had so many times before and said, “I don’t have one.”

But he already knew.

I had never met him before that day, but he knew. He knew my story. Not just the number of men who had been in my life, but somehow he knew more… He looked at me unlike any other person ever had, as if he really saw me… without contempt… without pity… without condemnation… he saw me and knew me in a way I had never been known before.

I’d never personally known a prophet, but this man was definitely a seer… seeing into my life with perfect vision.

We talked for a few minutes then. About deep and meaningful things. For the first time in my life I felt safe. We talked together about God and worship and truth…. Just this amazing man and me.

I remember my head starting to spin and my heart starting to swell… I wanted more… I had never met a person like him before – or since.

He said “I am the one you’ve been looking for.” And he meant the Anointed One…. The Messiah… the One we’d all been looking for, waiting for, hoping for. And though it really seemed impossible, something in my heart said “yes.” And I ran to get the others.

Ha! I remember I left in such haste I knocked my jar over and left it there, pouring the water I’d drawn back into the well. I ran as fast as I could. Breathless I got to the village and shouted for them to come.

I wanted them to see… I wanted them to hear… I believed for the first time in my life that I had a voice and something important to say, and that I could be a part of the conversation… the most meaningful conversation our little village had ever had – about the Messiah… the One from God… here with us.

It must have been the urgency and the emotion in my voice that convinced them because they came back to the well with me and met him. He even stayed with us for awhile… teaching us… changing us…

But then he left. There were other villages to visit… other wells to rest beside… other lives to save.

The first few months after he left were amazing. We treated one another differently… with patience and compassion. Our worship had heart and joy… we really knew who it was we were worshipping. Our discussions were spirited and there was room for every voice in them. We had unity of purpose.

We had been… all of us… blessed with the presence of the Savior of the world. But as time went on things changed. Word began to get out to the surrounding regions.

Fellow Samaritans from neighboring villages, concerned about what they heard, sent their elders to talk with ours. Convinced this Jewish stranger had been sent to trick us, they began asking where he’d come from… who were his parents… which rabbis had he studied under… we didn’t know. We hadn’t asked. Somehow that hadn’t mattered to us.

We didn’t have answers for so many of their questions. We had other things to say about him, but they couldn’t hear them. They sowed seeds of doubt among us. There were rumors, they told us, that this strange man was in trouble and on the run. They worried that our association with him would bring further unrest to the region… a backlash from Jewish zealots.

They pressured our kinfolk in their villages to convince us to forget this man and return to the way we had been before.

The trouble was, the way we had been before worked for some people but not for all of us… certainly not for me.

Our numbers grew smaller as people returned to the life they knew before he came.

But some of us had no life before he came.

We had been rescued. And we had been reborn. But as our community splintered we feared we’d be lost again. How could this happen?  How could we forget what it was like when he was with us? How could we let those who had never met him make us question what we felt… what we knew to be true?

Didn’t we feel the Spirit alive in our worship? Didn’t our hearts soar and beat together? It was not a dream… it was real. Wasn’t it? Surely he was the One. Wasn’t he?

And so, here I am, back at the well… thirsty for a word from him that will show us the way forward because I’m desperate to remember.

It all started with a conversation about water… a gift from God that would be, for each who drinks of it a gushing spring that would never run dry. That’s what he offered me when all I brought to him was prejudice, hatred, and a hard heart.

I came to the well that day resigned to a life defined by others, deprived by others, destined by others; I left the well that day with hope, with courage, with honor, with a joyful freedom to worship God with my whole heart.

I left having met the true author of my life… the Messiah… my Savior… our Savior… the Liberating King.

That’s my story. It’s what I know to be true. I have changed because of him. We have changed because of him.

I will not forget him – I cannot.

I will not go back to a time when I had no voice.

I will not participate in a way of being that deprives others of their freedom; their will.

I will not allow others to write the story of my life ever again– the pen has been given back to me by his hand.

I will not forget him – I cannot.

I will not let them forget him. They cannot… We cannot.

I will not let us forget who we have become in him.

We have met the One sent by God. We have. And we will not behave as if we have not.

His story is a story of liberation for all people; deliverance, rescue for all people.

It may well be that he’s in trouble because anyone who lives his way is bound to stir it up. After all, he gives people like me respect and honor… a place at his table. He dares to present a different face of religion – to break down barriers, to challenge authority, to stand with the outcasts. His way levels the playing field and establishes new community.

He, this Jewish stranger sent by God built us, a Samaritan village into a new family of faith together in him. That’s what happened. It is our story and we will tell it. We will not be afraid. It’s too good a story not to be shared.

That’s it too. As I’m sitting here, I’m thinking about all the other people like me in the neighboring villages. It’s their story too and they haven’t heard it. It’s their story of forgiveness, of hope, of freedom – and they need a storyteller.

A year ago I left with such haste I left my jar and ran… ran to my village to tell about the stranger I had met… the one who knew everything about me… the one we had been looking for, waiting for, hoping for. I convinced them with my voice to come and see and meet him for themselves. And when they did, it made all the difference.

What will I say now? They can’t come and meet him he’s not here. They can’t see him with their own eyes or hear him with their own ears.

Is my story enough?

Ah, but not just mine – there are others… a whole village of others if we can remember together.

I’ll bring them here… back to the well… and we’ll remember together. We’ll tell each other again of the man who came into our village… into our lives to quench our thirst with living water. We’ll sing songs and remember. We’ll break bread and remember. We’ll pray and remember.

We’ll come back to this well where it all began and we’ll speak of the way our story has been rewritten by his story: how he found us when we were lost… how he broke the chains that bound us… how he gave us the strength to stand on our own two feet… and how he taught us to see.

Will you come to the well with me? Will you drink deeply of his abundant grace? Will you tell how you met him and how he changed your life? We’re witnesses to a whole new way of life, truth and love. A story that must be told by you and by me… by all of us… for the sake and for the saving of the world.

Prayers of the People (adapted from: John van de Laar’s book: The Hour That Changes Everything: How worship forms us into the people God wants us to be)

Your Kingdom, your dream O God is at hand – you proclaimed it through Jesus. But, it often feels like it’s a million miles away. You demonstrated its grace and showed its power, but the signs often appear faded or absent in our world. Our world of missing airplanes and terrorist acts… our world of power brokering and sex trafficking… our world of addiction and exploitation… of war and famine… of unclean water and insufficient access to life saving medication… our world of abuse and excess and our world of poverty and negligence.

We need your Kingdom to come, O God, in all its fullness, in all its glory;

This waiting, this “now and not yet” experience of your reign is hard and frustrating.

And so we pray for your kingdom to be revealed in our lives, turning our sickness and sin, our brokenness and fear into friendship and compassion, wholeness and joy.

May your kingdom come to us now.

We pray for your kingdom to be revealed in our neighborhoods, turning our division and suspicion, our judgment and our competition into fellowship and care, compassion and service.

May your kingdom come to us now.

We pray for your Kingdom to be revealed in our world, turning our war and our disparities, our consumption and our self-interest into peace and collaboration, stewardship and reverence.

May your kingdom come to us now.

Your kingdom is here, and it is coming, O God. Make us faithful heralds of its message and tireless practitioners of its ways.

Here us as we join our voices together to fervently pray as Jesus taught us: Our Father…

03/16/14

Rev. Cathi King

True Cred

John 3:1-17

In seminary students learn the pedagogy of hermeneutics. Always tempted to isogete the text, we never-the-less discipline ourselves to faithful exegesis of the biblical narrative – by that, of course I mean the meta-narrative. While it’s helpful to our overall interpretive lens to refer to those texts found in the pseudepigrapha, they can be misleading. They do, after all, depart from the deuterocanonical architecture, while those in the library of the Septuagint remain the most reliable.

Seminary students seek that grand intersection between doctrinal integrity, textual criticism and paradigmatic transformation.

You know what I’m talking about.

At the end of our studies, our diploma says: “Master of Divinity”; our ordination exams prove our credentials.  And off we go into the church, where our first task is to unlearn the vocabulary of academia, because what is acceptable if not desirable to our professors is completely unintelligible to the flock we’re called to shepherd.

We do mental gymnastics to get the degree – I can’t tell you how often I drove home with a headache. And while we spend hours and hours learning the dead languages of Hebrew and Greek so that we can better study the Bible, there’s another living language that’s much more important for us as pastors.

“Strive to learn the language of the heart,” one of my former pastors and mentors used to say.

That’s our calling. After three years and thousands of dollars we earn academic credentials. But only the Spirit confers the true credentials of a Christ-like heart. That takes a lifetime and it’s free.

Nicodemus might have graduated at the top of his class in synagogue school but for all his smarts, he sure could miss the point. He was a Pharisee, and as such, he was an expert in Jewish Law and its interpretation. And Jewish law governed more than just the synagogue; it applied to the whole of life.

Most of the teachers in the village were Pharisees. At the time of Jesus, there were about 6000 of them.

But Nicodemus was not your run-of-the-mill Pharisee. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, an esteemed council of 71 elders and scribes with the High Priest at the head. Some people got on this board through family connections… others by way of the respect they held in the community… still others because of their legal expertise

When a vacancy opened, each replacement needed three sponsors. So you got on this council based on who you knew or what you knew. And this was a powerful bunch.

They were the ultimate deciders on all matters of Jewish law. They held political and religious clout.

The Sanhedrin, form their own ranks, appointed an elite subcommittee to check out the credentials of each person who claimed to be the Messiah. We can imagine them with their clipboards and their questions. They were an important group, because there were lots of phony Messiahs.

Think about the resumes of the folks on this subcommittee:

Expertise in all aspects of religious law: able to observe and evaluate would-be Messiahs in the finest details.

Demonstrated working knowledge of the signs:–well-versed in the prophecies and ancient texts – you gotta know what you’re looking for: does this person line-up with expectations?

Well respected by the council: Their final reports had to have credibility before the Sanhedrin – think what could happen if they made a mistake…

Well respected by the people: they depended on eye-witness testimony of the crowds – they couldn’t be everywhere all the time. Invariably they’d show up after the fact and have to question those who were there. For that, they needed street cred.

Nicodemus was one of these elite subcommittee members. As such, it was his job to evaluate Jesus, a rumored Messiah.

He’s got his clipboard ready. He knows the drill. But the esteemed teacher Nicodemus was about to be schooled by the Rabbi Jesus.

Jesus has a habit of doing that to people… knocking them off the horse they rode in on… stripping them bare of all of their accolades, exposing them for what and who they really are and calling them to become who they’ve been created to be.

Here’s Nicodemus, this great teacher with all the credentials: member of the Sanhedrin, appointed to the Messiah evaluation team – even his name in Greek means victor of the people — and he’s just not getting it: he’s not picking up what Jesus is putting down.

The one who stands before Nicodemus is the one with the true cred… credibility that comes only from God – the real victor of the people… and his way is about laying down all the degrees and initials after our names… all the awards and accomplishments… all the honors and distinctions and taking on a new identity in him… being born all over again with new eyes and a new heart, a new mind and new language.

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new – all this is from God – wrote the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth.

But Nicodemus doesn’t understand… yet anyway. Maybe he lives in his head, governed by what he knows to be true… resting on the certainties of the law – as he understands and interprets it – convinced that his way is the right and only way…

He, after all, is one who has staked his reputation on resolving all the ambiguities in the Holy Scriptures… there are no loose ends… his theology is buttoned up and makes perfect sense… logical sense. And he’s been rewarded for this – he has an A+* in on the Council.

Who is this rabbi Jesus to say he rejects the truth? Nicodemus has patterned his life after truth.

But while synagogue school taught him all of the fine points of God’s law, it could not teach him a heart of love. That only comes from God whose very heart came to life in Jesus.

If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. – wrote Paul to the Corinthians. Paul too was a Pharisee… and a good one. His scholarship and the respect of his elders earned him a place on a special team too – one that went out in search of criminals who followed the way of Jesus.

Carrying letters signed by the High Priest, he headed toward the synagogues of Damascus with orders to arrest disciples of Jesus and bring them in chains to Jerusalem. But Jesus met him on the road and gave him new orders… Jesus made the scales fall from his eyes and his heart of stone break wide open… and Paul became new… born all over again.

But here’s where Nicodemus was right: we aren’t actually born completely new. Of course he’s right that we don’t re-enter the birth canal as adults and come back out again. But he’s also right in that we don’t lose who we are and what we’ve learned. Our slates aren’t rubbed clean. The hard drives of our minds aren’t erased.

I have a Master of Divinity and that matters. In our family of faith we have doctors and nurses who have studied a number of years in medical school and we depend on their expertise. There are accountants and lawyers, engineers and teachers among us. Where would we be without their particular knowledge and gifts? And what of the electricians and contractors and writers and artists?

My son has a t-shirt that says: I bring nothing to the table.

And it’s just not true – it’s not true for any of us. We bring all that we are to the table. Not to boast… not to trot our wisdom or our expertise out there as a show off… not to lord anything over anyone…

But to put it all at the service of Jesus… to lay it all down in humility, that by the power of the Spirit we would be free: free to see and love others as equals – as our brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God.

I value my seminary education. But for all they teach in seminary, they cannot teach a pastor’s heart. That only comes from the Spirit. The same is said for a disciple’s heart – that can’t be taught in any university or trade school or classroom… the raw material for it isn’t found in any textbook. We can’t create it or manufacture it or study it into being. Heart transformation comes by the hand of God, and the hand of God only.

But we can midwife it, says theologian Marcus Borg, this is the purpose of spirituality: to help birth the new self and nourish the new life. God is in relationship with us, Borg writes,  spirituality is about paying attention to our relationship with God… spending time in it…. Attending to it… being thoughtful about it… being proactive in worship, community, prayer, scripture and devotion… being intentional about deepening the relationship…. This is what transforms us… this is being born again.

What was I talking about at the beginning of this sermon with all my million dollar words? Psuede-what? Deutero– who? It doesn’t matter. You’ll never hear me talk like that again. What does matter is this:

We come, with all that we are, all our degrees, all our intellect, all our skills, all our accomplishments, all our trophies, all our passion, all that’s been crafted within us.

As a church we come, with all that we have been, all our history, all our tradition, all that makes us who we are…

We come with all of it and we hold it all out before God – because it all matters – and by the imaginative, creative birthing process of the Spirit, God is going to bring forth new life, in us and through us, as we offer our hearts in service to the one who came, not to condemn the world but to save it. And we pray that we will be born all over again as we study and we grow in the likeness of the Rabbi Jesus, the one with true cred, the one who came from God.

03/09/14

Rev. Cathi King

Led to the Wilderness?

Luke 4:1-13

We go from the mountaintop of last week, deep into the Judean wilderness this week as we follow Jesus. And as the journey to a higher place offers us a different perspective, so too does the journey to the desert, for our wilderness experiences change the way we see ourselves, our God, and the world around us.

We all have them… desert journeys. Sometimes we go there by choice to get away from the noise and busyness. For a day or weekend or maybe a week, we’ll retreat … off the grid … to simplify, relax, breathe. We leave our cell phones, laptops, and the comforts of home and we journey to some remote place. We don’t want people to find us. We’re looking for solitude… a break. We intend to come back refreshed.

Others, like the monastics, go in search of a longer desert journey, going, in the words of Catholic priest Henri Nouwen to escape the world in which money, power, fame, success, influence, and good connections are the ways to self esteem. (Exiting) the world that says, ‘you are what you have’… they escape into the desert to free themselves from this compulsive self, to shake off the many layers of self-deception and reclaim their true self. Like the desert mothers and fathers of long ago, they enter the desert to hear the voice of God unencumbered.

For some, beginning a new chapter in life is like entering the wilderness. Leaving behind what’s known… stepping into uncharted territory… like closing the door on a relationship that’s run its course or taking the plunge to make a dream become reality. We try to plan, but the truth is, we really don’t know what we’ll need or what we’ll encounter – we’ve never been there before.

Other desert journeys aren’t entered by choice but rather thrust upon us: unexpected catastrophic illness, job loss, sudden death of a loved one, the birth of a special-needs child, fires, accidents, burglaries, aging…

Life as we know it changes and we find ourselves living according to a whole new set of rules. The ground beneath our feet is ripped away. And we’re on an adventure we never asked for, never wanted, weren’t ready for and can’t change.

Desert journeys take us inward.

They are opportunities to come face to face with ourselves and what we’re made of. They challenge our character and our theology. Who are we in the wilderness? And who is God?

Come with me into the Judean wilderness this morning. Let’s be observers and listeners in this story of Jesus, and in his story, perhaps we’ll find wisdom for our own.

Please pray with me:

O God, only you know the desert journeys of each one gathered here. You know our unsettledness, our questions, our anxieties… you know how and where are character is being tested. As we prepare to walk with Jesus into the desert, give us the courage to bring with us our own questions and our own wilderness circumstances. Speak to us, through his story, about our own. Take us by the hand and lead us on, we pray… AMEN.

“You are my Son, the Beloved,” came the voice from heaven as Jesus rose, dripping wet from the Jordan River.

His baptismal identity: Who and Whose he is: Loved… Son of the Most High God.

And stepping out of the river, Jesus heads directly into the wilderness, led, so the Scripture says, by the Spirit.

The Spirit led Jesus into the desert?

That’s what it says.

And in like manner, the Spirit leads us into our desert journeys too – however they come to be – even the ones we don’t want – even the painful ones… maybe especially the painful ones…  The Spirit leads us in…

Not in the way a CEO might lead an entire organization without ever knowing many of the employees.

Not in the way the director leads the marching band from high above the field on a platform.

Not in the way Presidents lead an entire nation hundreds of miles away from individual citizens.

No – the gospel writer Luke chose the Greek word ago to describe the Spirit’s role, and that’s very different. Like a seeing-eye dog leads by becoming eyes for the one who is blind, or a bodyguard leads with a hand on the back of his celebrity, protecting and navigating her through the paparazzi.

Like a corrections officer leads with a hand on the arm of a heavily shackled prisoner to keep him from falling, or a mother leads her son through a crowd by holding his hand so he doesn’t get lost. Ago implies physical connection, implies attachment – not carrying but holding… guiding by accompanying… being fully present with… step by step.

She sat with Ralph and Marian Moore, while the Maine Warden Service mounted a search for their six-year-old daughter Alison. Dozens of people worked with dogs to find this precious little girl who wandered off from a family picnic… into the woods… maybe into the pond… into the wilderness… who knew where… hours ago.

She wasn’t searching, she was sitting with Alison’s mom and dad. Marian (mom) clutched her hand, leaving fingernail marks still visible the next day.

“It’s so cool that the warden service has a chaplain to keep us from freaking out,” Marian said.

“Ah.” chaplain Kate Braestrup smiled. “I’m not really here to keep you from freaking out. I’m here to be with you while you freak out.”

That’s the way the Spirit leads – into and through and out of the wilderness; with a ministry of presence. Even in the wilderness of Judea, that barren, desolate, lonely place, Jesus is not alone.

Likewise, neither are we… ever.

The Spirit led Jesus for 40 days, and when he was physically weak, hungry, vulnerable, God’s adversary arrived… baiting… twisting… tempting Jesus… testing his character… questioning his identity… Who are you? Son of God is it? Use your power – use all the power of the universe – surely its at your disposal.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity,” said Abraham Lincoln, “but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Which is exactly what the Adversary, the Father of Lies offered Jesus. He cast a line before Jesus, baited with three opportunities to use and abuse the power available to a Son of God: selfishly, politically, religiously.

Not that he had the ability to give Jesus power – he didn’t of course – that power only comes from God – but there’s the rub… there’s the deceit… the lie… just like in the garden… a twisted question… a mind game… a seduction…

But Jesus refused to play. You are my son, my Beloved.

Filled with the Spirit, Jesus knows who and whose he is and what it means to be God’s Son. In God’s kingdom, power is not exploited, but laid down, self is not puffed up, but poured out in love, greatness is not achieved through spectacle and fame, but through humility.

That great hymn to the character of Jesus in Philippians says it all:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Take that Satan.

But lest this cosmic battle remain just that, what about us? What about our temptations and tests in our desert times?

You are a child of God, loved before time began, held in grace, called into life…

This same baptismal identity applies to us and is whispered to us as we are held by the Spirit and led through the wilderness.

We may not be tempted to exploit power, but we might be tempted to give up. It might not be pride that baits us, but expectation of failure. We’re tested in our desert times, especially the hard and unexpected desert times.

Questions, doubts, anxieties swirl in our minds— tools the Deceiver uses … in his clever strategies to pick at the fabric of our character,

to unravel our self-identity and to hold us down… to keep us lost, afraid, and vulnerable; seductive questions like:

–       Isn’t this really what you deserve?

–       That’s not the worst-case scenario is it?

–       Is this really the time to take a risk?

–       Wouldn’t it just be easier if…

–       Shouldn’t the world change to accommodate you?

–       Did you really think you were smart enough, successful enough?

–       Do you think anyone cares how you feel?

–       Did he ever love you?

–       Are you sure it’s not your fault?

You are a child of God, loved before time began, held in grace, called into life… abundant life…

            That’s who and whose we are. And we are held in every wilderness experience by the Spirit… who never leaves our side even as… especially as we freak out. That same Spirit who led us in will lead us through and lead us out, by the hand.

It’s true – the Spirit takes on flesh in the form of a chaplain or a friend, a family member, a nurse or a stranger, a card or a phone call, a line in a book or a breathtaking sunrise …

Reminding us over and over again: this is who you are… this is who God is… and this is love.

And this is how the Maine Warden Service found Alison: at 3:00am, the warden’s K-9, ironically named Grace, found a little girl in an Elmo sweatshirt curled up under some brush. The dog’s cold nose awakened her. “Hey honey,” the warden said, “do you want to go home?” “Yes,” said Alison rubbing her eyes as she crawled out from her nesting place. “Want me to carry you?”, “No thank you.” “Want me to hold your hand?” “Yes.”

And the warden and the child came walking out of the woods, hand in hand.

The Spirit sat, holding a frightened mother’s hand and the Spirit found and awakened one who was lost with the gentle nudge of grace, and the Spirit walked, holding a little girl’s hand to lead her home.

The Spirit moves in and through the wilderness touching and holding, accompanying and ministering, whispering love and truth, and leading us on. Look and see. Listen and hear. Lean into the embrace and know.

–Alison’s story is an excerpt from: Here if You Need Me: A True Story, Kate Braestrup

03/02/14

Rev. Cathi King

Look at the view from up here!

Matthew 17:1-9

Friends of ours gave us a housewarming present recently – a jigsaw puzzle. Which was right on the heels of completing the one the Deacons gave me – perfect – because what else are we doing in this ridiculous winter?

But this is no ordinary jigsaw puzzle… it is an aerial image of our house. Data supplied by Colorado-based Digital Globe Inc. created a jigsaw puzzle of our house and trees and ponds and pole barns… a bird’s eye view of whatever was there when the aerial shot was taken.

This puzzle map is just our property plus a couple of houses on each side, but using the new Google maps internet application you can get a much wider view.

Try it if you haven’t… you can type in your address and see the satellite image, then zoom out and see your house in relation to other places in the county – and it’s so smart, it highlights all your recent searches for directions, so you see your house in relation to restaurants or recreation areas or stores you’ve Googled for directions.

And that’s not all… zoom out again and you can see a pin on your house in relation to the whole state. Zoom out more and now there’s your house relative to the whole country. You can even zoom it out to the point where the pin on your house sits in the middle of a map of the whole world.

Long before Google maps, one of my dear 90 year old friends had a large paper map of the world pinned up on the wall of her living room. It was there, she said, to give her perspective of how big the world is and how relatively small she is in it. It hung above her TV so as she watched the news, she could place in her mind where the events were happening.

She was one of the most well-read people I knew. A life-long learner, she had a hunger for other cultures. The map on her living room wall kept her both humble and worldly… grounded and open-minded.

She was wise in her 90 years. She knew how easy it is to get lost in self-importance, to become xenophobic and exceptionalist.

She saw how people’s hearts become hard and minds small as their viewpoint narrows. She kept the map on her wall to maintain perspective and focus beyond herself and her own needs. Her prayer life and daily life were enriched by seeing the whole world before her every day.

In a workshop many years ago, a photographer took us outside with our cameras. Look around you and find something beautiful you’d like to photograph, she said, Focus it just the way you want it… Now turn around and take a picture of what’s behind you instead. Next look down and photograph what’s below you…

Look what you were missing!

Beautiful scenes behind you and below you, just waiting for you to notice them, while you’re focused on something else.

Then she took us inside. Find something broken. Zoom in on it and photograph it. Now, with the broken thing still in the picture, change the angle of vision until the picture becomes beautiful. Look at that! Look how the brokenness fades into the background… how the picture is transformed as the frame widens.

What and how we regard the world around us and our circumstances within it depends upon our perspective. And sometimes we need an adjustment… a wider angle… a changed view.

Jesus took his friends: Peter, James and John way up high on a mountain to change the way they saw things and thought about things… to change their perspective.

Down below, at ground level, things were getting tense. Jesus and his band of disciples were heading to Jerusalem, where he said there would be suffering and he would die. His disciples were confused and afraid. Peter said he’d never let that happen. Jesus called him a stumbling block: you’re not regarding things from a divine angle, but rather a human one, he told Peter.

Come with me up the mountain… it’s totally different up there… you’ll see…

Today is Transfiguration Sunday.

Jesus and his inner circle go up to the top of a mountain where he is transfigured before them – literally he is transformed before their very eyes. He begins to shine like the sun. They witness a moment of glory as they behold him… radiant…

In that moment, talk of suffering transforms into brilliance… broken becomes beautiful… and their minds transfigure from human focus to divine… they catch a glimpse of God’s really big picture.

Get you up to a high mountain, declares the prophet Isaiah.

Throughout God’s story big things happen on mountaintops.

Moses went up Mt. Sinai to meet God while leading the people through the wilderness.

Elijah went up Mt. Carmel to reveal God’s truth and power over and against all other gods with a blazing display of fire. If you want to get closer to God, the ancients believed, to see things as God sees them… climb… as high as you can… toward the heavens.

The ancients aren’t the only ones who think that way…

British travel author Robert Macfarlane writes: “Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West. More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. At bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans. Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains, Macfarlane writes, correct this amnesia.By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.”

Mountains… high spaces… change our perspective… they humble us… they transfigure our minds.

When I need to see clearly, I go up high, writes a blogger, it’s not that I feel above it all in any way,
more that I need to see more;
I need to see how it all fits together,
how the parts relate, how the details find place in the unity.

Alban Institute consultant Gil Rendle calls this the balcony view. Moving to the balcony, he writes, allows necessary space and distance to learn.

In our personal lives, our work lives, our church life, our faith life the day to day is often overwhelming: the to do lists staggering, the persistent seemingly unanswerable questions exhausting. We chase rabbit trails into dead ends. When we finally feel like we’ve accomplished something, a host of other needs arise.

We’re focused on the micro view – the all-too-human angle when that which is broken seems all too clear; that which is beautiful out of focus. It’s easy… so easy… to lose perspective.

Step back… step up… Come with me up the mountain, says Jesus….your minds can be transformed when you see as God sees…even a glimpse… for a moment…

We are on the verge of Lent, a six week season of reflection and preparation leading up to Holy Week and finally Easter Sunday. Its name “Lent” dates back to the middle ages coming from the German word lenz or Dutch lente, simply meaning spring. Those words stem from the Germanic root for long. Lent is the season of lengthening days as winter turns to spring. And o how we long for it this year!

What if we let the invitation to transfiguration lead us into the coming season?

What if we approach these lengthening days with an intentional consideration for the long view: making space, throughout the next six weeks to get up to a higher vantage point?

We’ll begin on the ground with Ash Wednesday. We’ll kick it off here with a light supper together in Knox Hall followed by a service of ashes marked on our foreheads, signifying our humble beginning and ending and our identity in the cross. From there, let’s climb. Let’s change our angle of vision. Let’s seek the big picture in our practical lives and in our prayer lives.

Let me throw out a few suggestions to practice during Lent:

Change something in your daily routine: Physically change something. Take a different route to work. Sit in a different part of the church on Sundays. Set up a new and different space in your house for daily quiet time with prayer and conversation with God. Literally get yourself to a higher place if you can, metaphorically if you can’t. But change something physically in your daily habits and open your eyes: who or what do you see that you didn’t see before?

Change something in your prayer routine: Try a different approach to talking with God. Try listening more than talking. Our Lenten devotionals are available today. Every family is invited to take one home. In it, you’ll find gospel stories from John and Mark along with reflections offered by members of our faith family. Try this: highlight the words of Jesus in the Scriptures – and hear them as if they were directed to you. Enter the story and listen. Listen to Jesus. Let his words speak to the circumstances of your life and journal in response. Open your ears: what do you hear that you hadn’t heard before?

Change something for someone else: Throughout this season, take others up the mountain. Invite others to step back and step up – to see the view from another angle. We don’t need to interpret it, merely to invite into it: Come with me and see this with fresh eyes… hear this with fresh ears… let me be a fresh heart for you.

Then, let’s blog about what we’re doing and learning.

We’ll set it up and get the word out on how to post to it. Then we can encourage each other to get up to a higher place.

When I need to see clearly, I go up high.

Begins the poem by blogger Rev. Canon John McLuckie, a Scottish Episcopalian priest, chaplain and musician, and it continues:


It’s not that I feel above it all in any way,


more that I need to see more;


I need to see how it all fits together,


how the parts relate, how the details find place in the unity.

When the voices around me tell me that this is all there is,


I want to say; ‘No, there’s more.


There’s more possibility than you dream of,


a more generous future than any manifesto can supply,


a richer life than can be delivered by budgets and brokered deals.

When I stand up here


I hear once more the voice of another seeker of lofty viewpoints,


one who dared to proclaim that people


who feel as scattered as a dispersed flock


will be


fed,


gathered,


carried.

As I stand here,


even the obscuring mist cannot suppress that voice.


Strangely, this cloud of unknowing serves only to intensify the promise


and to draw me closer to the unknowable one


who does not seek to convince me with his well-costed plans,


but beguiles me with his dizzying words,


speaks a truth beyond reason,


seizes my heart and lifts my eyes.

Get up and do not be afraid, Jesus said.

Get up with me to a higher place this Lent and let our minds be transfigured by the transfigured Christ.

May it be so for you and for me and for all of us together.

02/23/14

Rev. Cathi King

Heart to Hands to Feet

John 13:1-17    

This is a story of love. And not just any kind of love. Not Disney love or puppy love… not Hallmark card love or even Shakespearean love… It’s a story of love that goes the distance… love that trumps all… Costly love that at the same time is freely given away. It’s a story of love that takes the form of a person… love that’s defined as it’s poured out… love that is artful and poetic and holy. This is a story of Jesus.

It’s about a heart that is so full of compassion and emotion it’s burning and breaking at the same time.

It’s about hands that are willing to fully engage in the muck of the journey… willing to pick off the dirt, massage the sores, restore life.

It’s about feet that are a mess and need to be held, bathed, straightened out and given a new path.

It’s about a final night together of friends… kin really… with all that means and holds… about parting words… and imparting mission.

They’re eating together. Of course they are! They’re reclined around a meal, not unlike so many others they’d shared… breaking bread together… drinking wine together… And yet… this one was very different. They must have all felt it. Tucked away in an upper guest room in Jerusalem, they were afraid.

They were with a wanted man. He was in trouble with lots of people. Jesus knew it was coming to an end… they probably all sensed it.

But Jesus has time for one more teaching. His mission will end on this note because theirs must begin with it: Love. It’s what and who he has been all along:

Love rose from the table, knowing betrayal was at hand. Love slowly changed his clothing, laying down his outer cloak and wrapping around himself a servant’s towel. Love poured warm water into a basin. Love knelt at the feet of each of his friends, and began, one by one to wash.

It was unheard of.

In Jesus day, foot washing was a common custom – out of necessity really. They wore sandals and walked in dirt all day long. Hygiene prevailed.

According to middle-eastern theologian and scholar Ken Bailey, when guests arrived for dinner they sat on stools around the dining couch –a u-shaped broad slanted cement foot washing display 2 23 14slab covered with cushions and pillows. Water was brought to them in a basin, along with olive oil (their soap) and towels. Only after everyone had washed their own feet and hands, could the grace be offered.

Then, with clean feet, the guests reclined on the couch and the meal was served on tables in the center.

A good host treated his guests with honor, pouring water for them and giving it to them along with a towel. If the host had servants, sometimes he’d direct the servant to wash the feet of his guests.

But hosts themselves, NEVER washed guests’ feet.

And this whole process always took place before supper.

It was unheard of that they’d put their dirty feet up on the couch… unheard of that they would begin eating without washing their feet and hands first.

So when their teacher Jesus rose from the table, from a meal that was already underway, and assumed the role of a slave to wash their feet, it was about drama not hygiene… their feet were already washed from the dirt of the day, likely from a servant of the homeowner when they’d first arrived. This was about something totally different. Jesus, rabbi and host of the meal, was enacting his final teaching:

The kind of love I want you to have for each other is this: love that sets aside rank and becomes humble before the other… love that freely opts for the role of helper… never boasts… never controls… gives… lifts up… honors the other— to a higher degree of honor than even the culture demands…

I want you to love one another with a love befitting an entirely different kind of community… love that looks into the eyes of the one who has insulted with forgiveness… love that looks into the soul who is afraid with strength… love that wipes away shame and regret… love that mends what is broken and heals what is wounded.

And he went to them one by one… to the ones who fought over rank: Lord, grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory… the very ones who argued about which among them was the greatest…

And he went to the ones who never seemed to understand him… why do you still not perceive… you have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear…

And he kneeled before the fearful ones… why are you still afraid…why do you still not trust…

Jesus took the basin filled with water to the one who would betray him…Ah, Judas…whatever you must do, do it quickly… and to the one who would deny him…Peter, Peter, before the cock crows three times…and to the ones who would desert him at the foot of the cross… His heart full and broken at the same time…

One by one he washed their feet… as a symbol: no matter what –love trumps all.

He could have given them a final lecture about love.

But how much more powerful to embody it.

Several years ago I went with a mission trip team to Mexico to build a house for a family living in a village near the border. Our team stayed in a gated dormitory complex across a courtyard from a church; both were owned by a Christian organization called Ministereo de Fe. Each morning we walked the dirt roads to the house we were building.

Mid-week I planned a worship service with the Mexican pastor for the villagers, church members and our mission team. He asked me to preach and he would interpret. Simple phrases he said.

I have an idea, I said, let’s practice together being a new community in Christ:

Let’s do three things:

Collect dirt from the new home site and the village and mix it with dirt from the church property and dirt from the dormitory yard. Early in the worship, let’s pass buckets of this dirt mix up and down the rows, inviting people to take a handful.

And then, with each person sitting there- holding the dirt that represents the feet of everyone gathered together – the holy ground upon which we are all living, playing, working and worshipping – we’ll give God thanks and we’ll and sing together:

Lord prepare me… to be a sanctuary… pure and holy… tried and true… with thanksgiving… I’ll be a living… sanctuary for you… in Spanish.

Then we’ll do a hand-washing. We’ll invite row by row to come to one of two stations at the back of the church- made up of people from all three communities. There they’ll drop their dirt in a bucket held by one person

Next, they’ll open their hands out over a basin held by another who will pour clean water over their hands, and then they’ll move to a third person who will wipe their hands dry. Maybe we could sing one of your church songs while we move.

And finally, with clean hands, we’ll share in the Lord’s Supper together, coming forward as we sing, breaking bread and sharing in the cup together.

At first he called me una pastora loca. He said his people wouldn’t know what we were doing. I told him not to worry, mine wouldn’t know what we were doing either.

Then we laughed together and we did it. He, willing to risk allowing a woman pastor from America to be up front with him in his church, serving communion with him and planning an unconventional worship service. Me, praying: “Lord, let this not be a trainwreck.”

O un desastre total.

And it was holy and it was beautiful and it was filled with scriptures that came alive, and through the gospel we embodied, we told a story about a new community:

A new community in Christ where national borders are erased and everyone is equally a child of God whether rich or poor, young or old, woman or man, Mexican or American…

A new community without a place for patriarchy or control, but where vulnerability is given the place of honor… a new community with a level playing field – with mixed dirt to prove it, where service is about self-emptying and humility, not about patronizing privilege…

A community of safety in a village where a church needs to be gated because of drug violence…

Together we told a story about a new kind of community of love and joy.

Today is the last Sunday of our Church on the Move series. Over the last four weeks we’ve been exploring where Jesus moved and why, so that we, too, might move, likewise, as a church in his name.

He didn’t move far in our story for today. He didn’t move outside the Temple or across the lake or across the country. He moved across the room and showed his disciples… his followers… how to embody a love like his:

By willfully laying down whatever position of status or authority is held and putting on a garment of service…

By picking up a basin and filling it with water

By kneeling at the feet of a brother or sister

And starting to wash.

What do you suppose was on his mind and heart as he knelt before each one?

You know he prayed: Abba forgive him… hold this one close…mend this broken heart…Let this one finally get it… deep in his heart… and give him the passion to speak it and live it boldly…Abba, let me love this one as I know you do and let him forgive himself for he knows not what he does…

And let them all — each one and all of them together know fully how much you… how much I love them.

This final teaching of Jesus was for his followers… his own: Learn how to love one another with this kind of love my kind of lovewithin the church… practice it here and let it loose in the world.

Practice it around the session table… and among the deacons… practice it in committee meetings… practice it at coffee hour… practice it in parking lot conversations… practice it at God’s Bread Basket… practice it with each other… that the world may know.

Have a heart like his – filled with compassion… breaking for the broken-hearted among us while at the same time burning and brimming with hope…

Have hands like his – ready to reach out and lift up… to share the load and fill the basin and break the bread with and for a brother or sister…

Have feet like his – ready to move across the room and across the town, building bridges tearing down walls and carrying his gospel.

Because we have a story to tell.

It’s ageless, but in need of new storytellers who speak out of their own lives and from their own hearts and with fresh words and actions.

It’s a story of love.

A love that trumps all.

02/16/14

Rev. Cathi King

Give me some of that Water!

John 4:1-29

Jesus is on the move again. You’ll notice he never stays in one place very long. It’s where he goes and why he goes and when he goes that is of interest to us as we consider the need for the church, in like manner, to be on the move.

Two weeks ago, we explored the story of Jesus at the healing pool of Bethesda. We learned how he moved outside the temple to meet the weak and ill, the disabled and forgotten lying by the side of the pool. Jesus became the bridge between tradition and deep human need with that move, compelling us as his church to do the same.

Last week, our Sunday story took us in the boat with Jesus as he moved to the other side of the Sea of Galilee into a foreign culture, forbidden by his religious law. There he met a man, alienated and alone, in deep despair. With mercy and grace, Jesus broke the chains that bound this man, freeing him to become a witness among his people to the love of God.

That story compels us as church to move outside our comfort zones, challenge religious traditions that stand in the way of love, and risk sharing the good news of God’s grace with people different and unknown to us, but well known and loved well by God.

This week, Jesus is on the move again – leaving Judea and heading back up to Galilee.

If GPS technology had existed in Jesus day, the direct and shortest route would have been the one Jesus took. But, many of his contemporary faithful Jewish friends would have set their GPS to avoid Samaria, thereby directing them more circuitously across the Jordan, up through Perea and back across into Galilee. It’s longer but, in their opinion, so worth it.

We do that – we make these kinds of decisions all the time when we travel. We’ll plug into our GPS avoid toll roads so our trip will be cheaper, or avoid highways so it will be more relaxing, or avoid construction so we’ll miss delays, or we’ll set an alternate route all-together to avoid the congestion of a city.

And sometimes it is a longer route, but we choose it because it’s worth it.

Well, in Jesus day, most people walked. So choosing an alternate route not only added significant time, but also wear and tear on the body – made worse by the hot desert sun.

What made travelling through Samaria so bad for a faithful Jew that it was worth it to go the long way around? The likelihood of running into a Samaritan – in Samaria. They went the long way around, avoiding the whole region, so they wouldn’t run into the people they hated.

Like the Hatfields and McCoys, the feud between Jews and Samaritans had long-standing roots. It could be traced back hundreds of years actually, and it, like so many bitter feuds involved politics, sex, money and religion.

According to Josephus, a first century historian, in the 4th Century BC, there was a scandalous intermarriage between a Jewish high priest and a Samaritan woman. The Orthodox rulers gave him an ultimatum: leave Jerusalem or leave your wife.

But he loved his wife and his father-in-law had money and access to the King. So the priest left Jerusalem and with the approval of King Darius of Persia and later Alexander the Great, a second shrine was built on the top of Mt. Gerizim in Samaria.

There this high priest continued to practice his priestly duties in exile and stayed married to his wife. After him, there were other Samaritan priests and it continued. Under their leadership, the Samaritans developed their own religion and their sacred scrolls named Gerizim God’s holy mountain, claiming it as the faithful place to worship God.

This was heresy to Jews for whom the Temple in Jerusalem was the only true and right place to worship God. So, in the year128 BC, Jewish troops destroyed the Samaritan shrine on Mt. Gerizim along with their whole city.

That didn’t make things better. As you might imagine, it made things much worse.

A few years before the birth of Jesus, Samaritans broke into Jerusalem and scattered bones of dead people around the Temple the night before Passover, defiling the whole area and making the Passover feast impossible.

They hated each other. Both Jews and Samaritans claimed God was on their side. They hated each other. That’s why it was worth it for most Jews to simply avoid the whole region.

But not Jesus. He had to go straight through Samaria. Of course he did. If religion stood as a wall dividing people, he was gonna knock it down. We love this about him.

By the time he got to Jacob’s well in Sychar, Jesus was tired and thirsty.

He had no bucket with which to draw water, but he knew if he waited long enough someone would come to the well, and not just anyone… someone who didn’t go when everyone else did, in the morning… someone who would come at noon – the hottest time of the day.

And she came. She came alone with her bucket. That’s interesting. Middle-eastern village women traveled in packs – for protection, propriety and support. It would have been highly unusual for a woman to go to the well by herself at high noon.

She wasn’t a part of the pack. That was very unfortunate for her. It made her vulnerable to predators and gossip. It left her without a helping hand for the return when the bucket was full and heavy.

Was it her choice? Was it worth it for her to endure the heat of the day, the risk to her safety and the weight of the bucket rather than the scorn of the women in the village? Did she just not care anymore? She went to the well to get water. She went when no one else would to avoid them and the hassle. It was easier that way.

The world is full of people who go to the well at noon, so to speak, – who either by their own choice or life circumstance don’t or can’t travel with a group, they carry heavy burdens alone, they’re reluctant to trust others… maybe they’ve been burned too many times.

They’re tough because they’ve learned to be; jaded because life has dealt them rough blows. They go about their business behind the protective shell they’ve created for themselves. They don’t ask for help and they don’t offer it. They’ve chosen to move through life as invisibly as they can… it’s just easier that way. You know people like that… maybe you are or have been like that. A lot of people are.

And the world is full of people who go out of their way to avoid people like that… people like this Samaritan woman. They send off a vibe… it’s easy to leave them alone… most people do.

But not Jesus.

He was thirsty and she had a bucket. And easy has never been his way.

He had plenty of reasons to leave her alone:

–                    His culture said to: He was a stranger. She was a woman – alone. It was a public place. He wasn’t even supposed to make eye contact with her let alone talk to her… leave her alone.

–                    His religion said to: there was a 500 year feud between his kind and hers, bitter and entrenched… leave her alone.

–                    She called him out on his own religious rules: “how is it that you, a Jew ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan?” Surely you don’t want to drink from my dirty cup… leave her alone.

–                    She mocked him: “you don’t even have a bucket…”

–                    She baited him: “you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob?”

Leave her alone

None of that phased Jesus – and we love that about him – none of that phased him because he saw through it all to her… he saw her – a child of God – trapped in a culture that didn’t give her much of a voice… formed by a religion deeply entrenched in age-old arguments… and profoundly thirsty for something real and holy and true…

… something that would fill her spirit and quench her thirst long after her bucket was empty…

Jesus invited her into a conversation about worship… not about location or about mechanics… not about hymn choices or sanctuary décor… not about whether there’s a band or a screen or stained glass or an organ… he invited her into a conversation about worshipping the living God… about being in the presence of the Holy One… Because that is real truth and that is bigger than all of us and that is what we thirst for…

And she left her jar behind – Jesus was, after all still thirsty – and she ran to tell the others in her village… Finally, I met a man who cut through all the garbage and talked with me about the one thing that really matters. He saw me and he knew me and he didn’t leave me alone.

And they never would have met, except that Jesus needed to go through Samaria.

Jesus … on the move… always on the move, proclaiming the reign of God: a wholly different way of being in the world together…

Jesus… On the move to break down walls – walls we’ve built over cultural, political, religious, philosophical differences; walls we’ve built to hide behind; walls we’ve built to hide others

Jesus… On the move to expose ancient and meaningless arguments for the pain they cause and the ruts they stick us in

Jesus… On the move to invite new questions and open a broader, richer, bolder conversation – not sound bytes or tired stereotypes but open space for listening and digging and exploring together

Jesus… On the move to restore dignity and community to all who’ve lost their voice and their will, who’ve been bullied until they’re just too tired to play anymore, who’ve chosen to move through life as invisibly as they can.

Jesus… On the move refusing to avoid.

Jesus… on the move determined to engage.

With courage and grace, on the move, always on the move with living water to quench each and every thirst, for he will not leave us alone.

Are you thirsty?

Give us some of that water, Lord! Fill our spirits with your living water that we may be on the move like you – in you and for you: your hands, your feet, your heart in the world, for O how we love you and we thirst for worship and mission that is filled with you. Hear us as we join our voices and pray in song: I Love you Lord…

 

02/09/14

Rev. Cathi King

One Word Stills the Storm (week 2 of the sermon series: Church on the Move)

Mark 4:35-41

Up until this point, following Jesus hadn’t been that hard. Up until this point, they hadn’t left their comfortable surroundings. Up until this point, while Jesus was doing things that got him in trouble, his disciples were in a territory they knew and around people who practiced the same religion they did. It was safe. It was known. Up until now.

Let’s go across to the other side. He said.

He’d only been at this public ministry thing for a short time, but already, large crowds had gathered from up and down the coast – from south of the Dead Sea all the way up to what is now Southern Lebanon. As his reputation spread, people came. They came to be healed and they came to hear this new teaching.

Crowds grew bigger and bigger on the North-Eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. And it was exciting and he was bold. But while his home-base village of Capernaum was bustling and cosmopolitan, there was a large and settled Jewish presence there, with an active and thriving synagogue, and so they were able to maintain their separation from those who weren’t Jewish. In fact, it was their custom to be separate.

Faithful Jews like the disciples of Jesus didn’t eat with non-Jews (or Gentiles as they called them) – they didn’t eat the same food or enter each other’s houses.

It was their custom, it was their religious practice, it was their way of life. And up until this point, that hadn’t changed.

Let’s go across to the other side. He said.

The Sea of Galilee isn’t very big. It’s really more of a lake – in fact, other names for it are Lake Gennesaret or Lake Tiberias. Its maximum length is only 13 miles and its widest point is 8 miles. It’s only 64 square miles in total. To give you a sense of comparison, our smallest great lake is Lake Ontario at about 7300 square miles. So, it doesn’t seem like a big deal to go to the other side – especially for fishermen who work day and night on this lake.

But, actually, it was a very big deal.

On the other side was the Decapolis: a loosely bound confederation of 10 Roman cities. They were the seat of Roman culture in the region.

Over there they worshipped idols and tended herds of pigs. Over there they had theaters and stadiums and bathhouses and they ate pork. A showcase of Greek and Roman culture, the Decapolis represented everything non-Jewish.

Nobody from this side went to that side on purpose.

They were well accustomed to fishing the whole lake, but never stepping foot on that other shore.

Let’s go across to the other side. He said.

Why would he want to do that?

Why would he ever suggest that?

Surely he knows what’s on the other side…

He’s bold… he’s risky… it’s early and he’s already in trouble… what is he thinking?

But get in the boat, they did, and he with them… to go to the other side.

Into an entirely different region with a different language, a different culture, a different people.

The trip across is ordinarily uneventful particularly for a group of fishermen for whom this lake is so very familiar.

But occasionally a wind comes from the East, rushing down the cliffs of the desert. Such a wind can quickly stir up a violent storm known as a sharkia – with waves as high as 6 feet.

And in a flash, the otherwise calm and easy passage becomes deadly – even for the most skilled sailors. And that, apparently, is what they faced that night as they crossed to the other side. This kind of storm comes in like a whirlwind – furious – tossing everything to and fro. No one knows how long it will last or how intense it will get. It is unexpected, uncontrollable chaos.

A little like this winter…

And not unlike the confusion and fear that raged in the hearts and minds of the disciples as they crossed from one side – a side of comfort and normalcy and routine – to the other side – foreign, wild, and from their perspective ungodly.

For they were indeed moving from the familiarity of their religious identity into the den of paganism… from the holy huddle to the unholy world – in their minds, they couldn’t imagine being further from the kingdom of God.

You know they started talking as soon as he fell asleep:

Why did we come with him?

We have no business over there-our people are back on that side.

We should have known he would get us in trouble.

Did anyone see us go? Did they know where we were going?

Maybe we could still go back.

Are you crazy? You’ve heard him speak, you’ve seen him heal — he’s the real deal!

Yeah—if he says we need to go to the other side, we need to go to the other side!

Did anyone bring snacks?

No- I’m serious – he’s new around here – does he really know what’s over there?

Do you think he doesn’t know? Have you seen what he can do? Have you heard anything he’s said? How could you think he doesn’t know!

Well I’m not getting out of the boat.

I’m not either.

Me either.

What are you guys talking about??

If he says get out of the boat, we’re getting out of the boat!

I’m not – not if there’s pigs there.

I’m not if there’s weird looking people there.

I’m not if they make me do something I’m not comfortable doing.

What are you guys talking about – if he’s taking us over there he wants us to be with him.

Yeah, but still – we really shouldn’t be going – no other rabbis take their people over there – did you see the way people were looking at us?

And on and on it went as the wind began to howl and the waves began to rise… the storm outside the boat pounding beat for beat with the one inside the boat. Confusion and chaos within… confusion and chaos without… and all the while fear grows.

For everything they knew was being unhinged… this rabbi who they felt compelled to follow was turning them upside down… and the waves began to come over the side of the boat and they feared they would drown.

How can he sleep through this? Master – Do you not care that we’re going down?

And the Word utters a word and it’s over: Peace.

With one word the raging storm around them and within them is silenced.

For that’s what he came to bring: peace to the chaos. Calm to the storm.

The kingdom of God here and there and everywhere… healing, hope and life on this side of the lake and on the other side… for these people and those people are all God’s people. He would take his disciples to the other side to show them how its done… and they would learn a language to bridge both sides of the lake… a language of gospel that they would speak and live in remembrance of him.

Long, long ago I met a boy at a Christian camp. He had gone to school in Christian private schools all the way through high school and was attending a small Christian college. He came to visit me at University of Michigan where I was going to school.

We were walking downtown and as we turned the corner of Liberty and State Street music blasted out of Schoolkids’ Records. The town was alive – hopping with students sporting all kinds of hairstyles and clothing. And my friend turned to me and said: “I feel like I just entered hell.”

And I knew he was serious… and scared… and completely unnerved.

It was like he had been raised in a bubble, totally surrounded by people who talked like him, listened to the same kind of music he did, read the same stuff, watched the same stuff, lived just like him and for that weekend, he was thrown to the wolves – unprepared, ill-equipped and lost.

I cared too much about him to be offended – really I was kind of sad. Here we were, two Christian teenagers who viewed the world around us radically differently. And we both loved Jesus.

He knew how to be a disciple on the side of the lake where everyone knew the story. But no one had taken him to the other side to teach him how to be a disciple there.

That was over 30 years ago. Fewer people know the story now… it’s harder and harder to stay in that holy huddle… more and more urgent to get in the boat and move – with Jesus and without fear.

When Jesus and his disciples reached the other shore, they were immediately met by a man who had been taken outside of town and chained to tombs. He was naked and alone.

In a land of theaters and stadiums and bathhouses and the best and greatest of Greek and Roman culture, this man was in such deep despair he cut himself with rocks and cried day and night.

Jesus saw him and loved him well.

And then he sent him, back to the very town that had chained him to tell how the mercy of the Lord had made him well. And he did. This deeply troubled man became a preacher throughout the Decapolis and Jesus and his disciples got back in their boat and sailed home.

It was a mission trip for one person.

That one person was from that region and knew their language…knew their culture…knew their ways – from the underside. He knew first hand how the very culture they esteemed could alienate and isolate. He knew the pain. And he knew the way to be well, for he had met Jesus… the one who showered him with mercy and love… the one who spoke peace into the chaos of his life, and brought calm to the storm. Which made him the perfect candidate to share the gospel on that side of the lake.

And it was a mission trip for 12 others. The disciples saw it all because they dared to go to the other side with Jesus and they returned changed – knowing that the kingdom of God was much bigger than they ever imagined it to be.

In every age, Jesus calls disciples out… out of the pew… out of the sanctuary… out of the holy huddle and into the world… to be a church on the move… flexible and equipped to speak an unchanging gospel into an ever-changing sea, into the chaos; into the storm,

without fear, for he is with us.

without anxiety, for he is not anxious.

with confidence, for he is the Word, the living Word, the final Word.

Peace, be still.

Peace, be well.       

02/02/14

Rev. Cathi King

The Waters are Stirring… (week 1 of the sermon series: Church on the Move)

John 5:2-17

The name means “House of Mercy” or “House of shame” depending upon your perspective or circumstance. There are lots of Hebrew words like that – with multiple meanings – sometimes seeming to contradict themselves.

It drives seminary students crazy as they try to learn the language.

And preachers love it.

Bethesda, the name of the healing pool – Bait (house) Hesed (grace) and (dis-grace): grace for those healed by the stirring waters, dis-grace for those left lying on the sidelines.

It was there that Jesus met a man. Jesus, the living embodiment of grace… the man a living embodiment, so said some in his day, of dis-grace.

We might imagine the man there, along with all of the other blind, lame and disabled lying in the porticos, leaning against the columns waiting for a miracle… the healing from the pool their last resort; their final hope. They waited there for the spirits to stir up the waters, because when they did, whoever went in first, they believed, would be healed.

The healing pool of Bethesda was outside the Sheep Gate about 100 yards away from the Temple in Jerusalem; near enough to hear the huge crowd that was in town for the Jewish festival; and yet a world away.

Jesus was one of the faithful pilgrims that had made the journey to the Temple for that festival. The ritual, liturgy and tradition, the seasons of worship provided the rhythm of his life. That’s why he made the trip. But why did he go outside the gates?

Those who are well have no need for a physician, Jesus said, but those who are sick…  that the lame may walk… that the blind may see… that the deaf may hear…

His faith took Jesus to the Temple and his heart took him beyond the walls– to Bethesda where the weak and powerless lay, desperate, in need of hope and healing.

He was a bridge between tradition and human heartache.

At Bethesda Jesus met a man who hadn’t been to the Temple in years – the Temple, in his perspective, was not his last hope or the place he went to be made well.

That’s ironic, don’t you think?

It seems that might be exactly the purpose for God’s house.

Instead this man, and all the others like him had no interest in the Temple because they knew the Temple had no interest in them. They were broken and ill and weak and fragile – unclean… unwelcome.

And so, instead of going to the Temple, where throngs of religious folk were gathered, they stayed outside the walls, around the pool.

They lay there waiting, hoping, praying for the waters to be stirred by something beyond their understanding… beyond their knowledge… beyond themselves.

And Jesus went to them.

He went to the pool and brought grace to dis-grace.

And after 38 years of lying there…. powerless… a man stood. … he stood with confidence and he stood with strength… with a word from Jesus, he stood and picked up his mat and walked!

And the story should have ended there with joy and celebration – this man risen to new life… whole… well… strong… for the first time in 38 years!

But no. He’s in trouble. (whoop whoop) The Sabbath police were there in moments to issue a citation: “I’m sorry sir – I know you’ve waited 38 years to stand, and to have the strength to carry your own mat, and if it were yesterday, or even tomorrow that would have been fine, but not today – no sir, carrying your mat on the Sabbath is against ordinance 6.3-400975a.”

The story would actually be comical if it weren’t so damning. A story like this sticks in our throat when we’re telling it because we know it’s all too familiar. We know in our gut that this is why some stay away from religious institutions and it breaks our hearts.

Who said you could pick up your mat and walk??

Jesus… the one who made me well…

And they started persecuting Jesus because he was doing such things…

We know this story – we’ve heard it from some of our children and friends…. for an increasing number of people outside the walls of church what happens in here is irrelevant, rule-bound, hypocritical, judging and ancient fiction.

But it makes people well, we say, and it gives people life… it is a message of hope and of love… we say… come and see.

And we hope and pray they will. And some will. But some will choose instead to hang around another pool, looking in another direction.

It’s only 100 yards, but it might as well be a world away because the hurt is too deep or the philosophical divide too great or the language too foreign or whatever.

And if we stay in here, we’ll never meet.

If we wait for them to come to us, we’ll never meet.

And what a loss that would be for us all … what a disgrace.

There’s a movie that came out in 1986 called Saving Grace. You probably didn’t see it – it flew under the radar – but it starred Tom Conti as the pope who accidentally locked himself out of the Vatican one day and traveled to a nearby village.

There he met a community of demoralized peasants – lost and without a shepherd… powerless and voiceless against a gang of local thugs who had taken over their village. Their economy was in ruins; control was concentrated in the hands of a few. They ruled by intimidation and the villagers lived without hope. Until this stranger came to them.

For his part, the pope, too had become disillusioned. While the ritual, liturgy and worship were the rhythm of his life, the rules, bureaucracy and daily routines of the institution made him weary and left him longing for life among the people.

And so, they met: the people who longed for a priest and the pope who longed for a people.

Together they rebuilt the broken-down aqueduct, restoring running water to the town as well as self-esteem, strength and hope.

The pope returned to the Vatican saved by grace.

The people learned to stand and carry their own mats – saved by grace.

And it never would have happened if the pope hadn’t left the Vatican.

Both the story in the gospel of John and the movie are parables for the church. As we hear them, we are invited by them to ask ourselves: who are we and who will we be? As the waters stir and change around us how will move?

How might holding on too tightly to rules, traditions or routines land us weak and sluggish at the edge of the pool, our limbs having atrophied for lack of use, our eyesight dim, our imagination dull…

How might we follow Jesus as a living bridge linking life-giving liturgy to brokenness and heartache?

How might we as a church grow and come to life by seeking out the lonely and suffering among us and beyond our walls… and in doing so, how might we all stand taller and stronger?

That Hebrew word hesed – the second part of the word Bethesda I mentioned earlier—has several other meanings that open this story even more. In addition to mercy and shame or grace and dis-grace, hesed can also mean:

–       obligation to community

–       solidarity

–       loyalty

–       unity

–       faithfulness

–       protection

–       kindness

Isn’t that cool? That space where we go and meet another in the name of Jesus can be a house of all of those things depending upon the perspective, context and circumstance.

The pool of Bethesda… where real healing happens, when the waters stir and the gospel comes to life. That seems a fitting definition for church.

Tradition has it that Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman sang a song to warn escaping slaves to get into the water for protection so the hounds couldn’t track their trail. As in the Exodus, God moved in the water to lead God’s people to freedom and new life. And the song goes:

Wade in the water…

Wade in the water children…

Wade in the water…

God’s gonna trouble the water.

Church, let’s not stay on the sidelines, by the grace of God, let’s move.

First Followers

Rev. Cathi King

Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23

1/26/14

And so Jesus, no longer a baby, now grown into a man, begins his public ministry. Leaving Nazareth in the region of Zebulun, he makes Capernaum his home base- the fishing village in the tribal region of Naphtali, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Maybe you grew up as I did, envisioning through Sunday school stories and felt boards a small backwater town… quiet… with pastoral hills, as the setting where Jesus began his ministry.

In truth, Capernaum was a bustling center of trade. It was home to a Roman station of troops and connected to much of the ancient world through a road called the Via Maris.

The Via Maris or Way of the Sea spanned from Damascus and Syria down through Galilee and into Egypt, and so, Capernaum was actually cosmopolitan. The traffic of the world passed through it – making it a fitting place for Jesus to begin his ministry. Word about him could spread and spread quickly… through Jew and Gentile alike.

The historian Josephus records there was no wasteland in Galilee – everything was cultivated, and the smallest village had an estimated 15000 people. So, unlike the area where John the Baptist began his ministry – the isolated wilderness of Judea, Jesus chose Galilee.

A known saying even in his day: “Judea is on the way to nowhere: Galilee is on the way 
to everywhere.”

There he begins to preach: Change your mind… change your perspectives… change your attitudes… change your life… the Kingdom of Heaven… God’s way… God’s dream for the world is here.

And from there, that bustling port to the world, Jesus calls his first followers – two brothers – at work – casting their nets into the sea, because that’s what they did–they were fishermen. He calls out to them… literally he says: “Come.” And they do. They drop their nets… immediately… and follow him. And the movement begins.

It kind of hinges on their response.

If they say no, he’ll move on to call someone else. But it depends on somebody saying yes – because after the first ones say yes, it’s not as hard for the next ones.

First followers pave the way… they show how it’s done… they give permission for those next followers to come on board.

Many a children’s message hinges on first followers. Think about the one I did today… Follow the Leader — without the leadership of the first couple of children behind me in line, the game falls apart.

The children’s message that still stands out most in my mind and heart completely depended upon the response of the first follower. Let me tell you the story:

On a Sunday several years ago we celebrated the reaffirmation of baptism for a toddler who, as an infant, had open heart surgery. Two years earlier, the other pastor and a couple of elders went to the hospital the day before her surgery at the request of her parents and baptized her. We hoped and prayed that the day would come when we could welcome her into the whole family of faith publically.

Thanks be to God that day came and with the rest of the children gathered up front, I led a prayer – and I marked her forehead with a little bit of scented oil to remind her of the way she had been marked with water and love when she was just a baby.

Then I sat down with the other children. I turned to the first one and I gave instructions – one by one, do as I do, and together we’ll remember that God loves us – each and every one of us… and I took a little oil on my thumb and marked the first boy’s forehead and said: “you are a child of God. God loves you.” And I handed him the little container of oil and asked him to turn to the child sitting next to him and do the same thing.

You could hear a pin drop as this boy turned to the little girl sitting next to him and with his carefully oiled thumb, he marked a cross on her forehead and in his sweet 5 year old voice said: “you are a child of God. God loves you.”

And then she took the oil and turned to the little girl next to her and it went on like that – one to the next – until the last one came back around and marked my forehead: “you are a child of God,” he said to me. “God loves you.”

It was so beautiful and so precious and so holy… and there was not a dry eye in the place.

And don’t think for a second that I wasn’t holding my breath hoping and praying that the first boy would do it… would set the tone – because in that moment it depended on him.

First followers. They are the real risk-takers. They’re the ones who say yes before it’s cool – before all the kinks are worked out and the machine is well-oiled.

Their reasons for saying yes are different than the ones who will follow them.

They will pave the way. They’ll be the first references. Their very presence gives strength to the movement. Thanks to them, the next ones will not be following one person, they’ll be joining a community.

When Jesus calls his second set of followers, the brothers James and John, they will actually be saying yes to Jesus and to Simon and Andrew – who, in this case they know – Luke says they’re business partners. So, see–if Simon and Andrew are in, it’s ok for James and John to be in too. First followers lend credibility to the enterprise and their buy-in opens the door for more.

TED is a non-profit that began in 1984 as a conference bringing people together from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment and Design.

TED challenges speakers in their conferences to give “the talk of their life” in 18 minutes or less. There are now more than 1500 TED talks available online at TED.com.

Derek Sivers, a professional musician and circus clown was invited to the conference in 2010. Derek, winner of the World Technology Award after his online CD store became the largest seller of independent music on the web, gave a talk called: “How to start a movement”. In it, he showed this video clip about the importance of first followers:

clip: <Derek Sivers, February 2010 TED Conference, How to Start a Movement>

This is how movements get going and get momentum, and this is also how movements can go awry.

Because as Derek said, followers will emulate other followers. Before long, the enterprise may bear little resemblance to the vision and intention; the way of the founder.

Or in the words of the third clone of Michael Keaton from the movie Multiplicity: You know how when you make a copy of a copy, it’s not as sharp as… well… the original.

Among the last words Jesus said to his disciples were these: “Go… make disciples… teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” In other words – make them in my image.

And over and over again the apostle Paul in his letters encouraged his churches to return to the way of Jesus: “be imitators of me,” Paul wrote, “as I am of Christ.”

We at First Presbyterian Tecumseh are on the ground floor of building a new church. But in many ways, this church isn’t new – there are years and years of tradition and family stories. Parts of this building itself go back to the 1800’s. A woman was in the office this week who grew up in this church and moved away many years ago. She came back to walk through the halls and remember.

Her mind, like many of your minds, is not a clean slate as it relates to this church, and yet, we are new.

As we make decisions together, I will encourage us to encourage each other to listen together to the voice of Jesus – the one who called his followers and calls us as his followers to Come.

Come and do as he did. Come and love as he loves. Come and love who he loves. Come and welcome as he welcomes. Come and heal as he heals. Come and pray as he prays. Come and challenge as he challenges. Come and remind one another as he did: You are God’s child. God loves you.

It’s a time for risk-takers. A time to live into the vision Jesus casts of the kingdom of heaven – here and now – among us and within us:

God’s dream – where the last are first, the broken are made whole, the lost are found…

It is a time to live into the way of Jesus: the way of forgiveness, compassion, servanthood, sacrifice – interpreted in 2014 on this corner… guided by the Spirit.

This is a new day for this church, but not a time for us to do whatever we want.

It is, rather a time for us to step back and study together… to listen and learn and imitate Jesus together and to invite others to see his vision and become it too.

This is a time for each and every one of us to become like his first followers who say yes to him and his way – the way of life… of truth… of hope… of love.

Here. Today.

Come.

Unexpected Outpouring

Rev. Cathi King 

Matthew 3:13-17; Acts 10:34-48

01/19/14

Gospel Reading: Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

John would have prevented it… if it were up to him.

But look what happened: Jesus said, “let it be,” and John let go of his need to have it his way…

And the heavens burst open and God broke through, with grace, like a dove upon the Son… upon the scene.

It happens, doesn’t it, sometimes… when we stop long enough and quiet our own voices, minds and hearts long enough to hear that whisper: “Let it be”…

When we let go of our own attitudes and judgments and God is free to be God

It happens sometimes, doesn’t it? And when it does, what follows is an unexpected outpouring of grace.

It happened in our second reading too – from the book of Acts.

Go with me to the coastal town of Caesarea, where a God-fearing Roman soldier (that was thought by many to be an oxymoron); a God-fearing Roman soldier named Cornelius had a vision:

In this vision, he was told to send for a man named Peter. And so he sent two of his slaves to the house down the coast in Joppa where Peter was staying.

Meanwhile Peter, praying on the rooftop of his guest’s house, had his own vision – which to him, must have seemed like a nightmare. While he was praying, he became hungry, but instead of seeing visions of delicious kosher food like chickens, turkeys, salmon or herring, he saw, coming down from the sky, something like a sheet, bulging with all kinds of unclean things: four-footed animals, crawling creatures, pigs, bats, lizards, snakes, frogs, toads, vultures…

And a voice said, “Hungry Peter? Here’s some food – go ahead – eat up!”

Now, being the faithful and obedient Jew that he was, Peter would never consider eating those things! NO WAY! But the vision repeated itself 3 times and each time the voice said:

If God calls something clean, you must not call it unclean.

After the third time, he heard 2 strangers call to him from below.

These were the men Cornelius sent and when they found Peter, they told him:

Our commander, a Roman Centurian named Cornelius sent us to fetch you. He is a good and honest man who loves and worships the same God you do.

All of the Jewish people speak well of him. A holy messenger told him to bring you to his home so he could hear your message.

 

             Now, people of the Greco-Roman culture, like Cornelius were considered unclean to observant Jews, like Peter—they were not to associate with them… not to share a meal with them – Jews were to be set apart.

But what about his vision…

If God calls something clean, you must not call it unclean.

Let it be… Let go.

So Peter, an insider, went to visit Cornelius, an outsider. Acting against his religion, he never-the-less, trusted his God.

Cornelius was waiting for him when he arrived. He welcomed Peter and shared his vision. What follows next is recorded in the 10th chapter of the book of Acts beginning with verse 34 – this is the Voice translation: Then Peter said:

34 It is clear to me now that God plays no favorites, 35 that God accepts every person whatever his or her culture or ethnic background, that God welcomes all who revere Him and do right. 36 You already know that God sent a message to the people of Israel; it was a message of peace, peace through Jesus the Anointed—who is King of all people.

37 You know this message spread through Judea, beginning in Galilee where John called people to be ritually cleansed through baptism. 38 You know God identified Jesus as the uniquely chosen One by pouring out the Holy Spirit on Him, by empowering Him. You know Jesus went through the land doing good for all and healing all who were suffering under the oppression of the evil one, for God was with Him. 39 My friends and I stand as witnesses to all Jesus did in the region of Judea and the city of Jerusalem. The people of our capital city killed Him by hanging Him on a tree, 40 but God raised Him up on the third day and made it possible for us to see Him. 41 Not everyone was granted this privilege, only those of us whom God chose as witnesses. We actually ate and drank with Him after His resurrection. 42 He told us to spread His message to everyone and to tell them that He is the One whom God has chosen to be Judge, to make a just assessment of all people—both living and dead. 43 All the prophets tell us about Him and assert that every person who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through His name.

44 Peter wasn’t planning to stop at this point, but the Holy Spirit suddenly interrupted and came upon all the people who were listening. 45-46 They began speaking in foreign languages (just as the Jewish disciples did on the Day of Pentecost), and their hearts overflowed in joyful praises to God. Peter’s friends from Joppa—all of them Jewish, all circumcised—were stunned to see that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on outsiders.

At that, Peter said: 47 Can anyone give any good reason not to ceremonially wash these people through baptism as fellow disciplesAfter all, it’s obvious they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did on the Day of Pentecost48 So he had them baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. The new disciples asked him to stay for several more days.

The Word of the Lord.

 

            Sitting here in a sanctuary in Tecumseh Michigan in 2014, we can not possibly sense the impact of that event nearly 2000 years ago when Gentiles worshipped alongside Jews in a Roman Centurian’s home in the seaside village of Caesarea.

It was an unheard of, impossible, completely unexpected outpouring of God’s grace.

It left Peter and his Jewish brothers stunned and humbled. It tore the very fabric of their religious identity. But the Holy Spirit gave Peter the courage to stand on the conviction of his vision:

If God calls something clean, you must not call it unclean.

 

Peter returned to his faithful Jewish brothers and sisters and told the story – how God was free to be God that day. How all were baptized. How all worshipped together. How the Spirit of the Living God had settled upon the scene and each of them together that day… outsiders and insiders… outsiders becoming insiders – all accepting each other as members of the household of God.

It was a struggle to believe it for many – some never really did. But that event set off a chain of events that paved the way for Gentiles to be welcomed into the family of faith… People like you and me.

Peter, himself, even struggled to believe it later. In fact, at one point, Paul accused him of caving to the pressure of his Jewish brothers in the faith and denying the full inclusion and acceptance of Gentile converts.

It’s hard for us to set aside our preconceived ideas… our hard-wired attitudes… especially those connected to religious convictions. And yet, when we do, as we seek to follow Jesus, grace abounds.

Do you know Nadia Bolz-Weber? I will let her introduce herself to you. (video clip: 00:27-2:40 from youtube 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering at the Super Dome)

Sometimes people have a firm and fixed idea of what Christian looks like. And sometimes people are wrong. It’s in the times that we admit we’re wrong and we let go to let God be God in our midst that unexpected outpourings of grace are possible.

Let me tell you something about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s “gumbo”.

In an interview with Krista Tippett, the radio host of “On Being” last September, she talked about the church she pastors called the House for All Sinners and Saints. This is from her unedited transcript:

So um, when my church was mostly young adults, and it was sort of, you know, hip, urban young adults. And then I preached at Red Rocks Easter Sunrise services — 10,000 people. And The Denver Post ran a front-page, full-page picture and story about me on preaching at Easter, and about my church and whatnot. And we only had about 40, 45 people every week at this point. And the next week, we doubled in size like overnight.

And we were excited because we were really struggling to grow, but what happened was it was like the wrong kind of people. I mean, it was the wrong kind of different for us, right?

Like some churches might freak out if the drag queens show up, but these were like bankers wearing Dockers, right?

 

I freaked out. This actually isn’t a joke. I freaked out. And I kind of went on this little rampage about, like wait a minute. They could show up to any mainline Protestant church in the city and see a room full of people that looked just like them, right? And like, why are they coming — it was almost like, oh, well, this just so neat! Oh, this church is neat! They’re so creative! You know, and I just thought you’re ruining our thing, man; you are like messing it up.

 

I called one of my friends who has a similar type of church in St. Paul, Minnesota, called House of Mercy. And I called up Russell, and I was like, “Dude, have you ever had normal people take over your church?”

and he goes, “Yeah, you guys are really good at welcoming the stranger when its a young transgender kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad.”

I had that phone call with Russell and had this… like God reaching in and pulling out my heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh, like something that was actually warm and beating again.

We had a meeting and I told that story and the people who were new told us who they were and why they were there so that the people who’ve been there from the beginning could hear what the church is about. And then everyone went around in a circle and Asher said,

“Look, as the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on the record as saying I’m glad there’s people who look like my mom and dad here, because they love me in a way my mom and dad can’t.”

An unexpected outpouring of grace.

And Nadia would have prevented it… if it were up to her.

It is right and true and faithful to be a warm and hospitable church, welcoming to all… to let God be free to be God in our midst.

And it’s a real challenge because it tests our limits and our preconceived ideas of what faithful followers of Jesus look like and sound like and act like.

It’s always been that way. Think about it—Jesus pushed and pushed at the edges and boundaries of the religious systems, rituals and beliefs of his day with that same message: radical love: that all outsiders would know they are insiders. Period.

He pushed that message until the religious leaders couldn’t take him anymore.

What was it I read in the text? They killed him by hanging him on a tree.

But God would be God as the heavens tore open and grace freely and unexpectedly poured forth and resurrection happened.

May we too experience an abundant outpouring of God’s grace in our own resurrection as church, to sustain us, encourage us, change us, inspire us and humble us.

And may our door always be open that all may be welcomed home.

We Were Made for This

Rev. Cathi King

John 1:29-34, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

January 12, 2014

Think back as far as you can remember… What did you want to be when you grew up? What’s your earliest memory?

The British company Mothercare released a survey last August of the top 10 things today’s children want to be when they grow up. They polled 1000 children ages 2 through 10.

1. Doctor (9%)

2. Footballer/soccer player (8%)

3. Teacher (8%)

4. Dancer (6%)

5. Police officer (5%)

6. Firefighter (4%)

7. Scientist (4%)

8. Musician (4%)

9.  Actor (2%)

10.Nurse (2%)

When asked what was the most important part of a job? The majority (34%) said: “having fun”. And “helping others” was more important than being rich or famous.

Indeed, a few years ago when the University of Chicago released their survey of the most satisfying jobs after decades of research polling over 50,000 people, topping the list were the careers that involved caring for, teaching or protecting others and the creative arts:

Clergy topped the list –a staggering 87% reported they were “very satisfied.” Firefighters, physical therapists, authors, artists and teachers also made the top 10.

Reporting on this survey, Todd May of the New York Times wrote:

“A meaningful life must, in some sense then, feel worthwhile.  The person living the life must be engaged by it.”

We spend a great deal of our lives at work, and according to a survey released last year by Gallup, a lot of people are unhappy, unfulfilled, and unengaged.

World-wide, only 13% of the people polled felt a sense of passion for their work. The vast majority 63% are what the survey labels “not engaged,” meaning they dislike their jobs, but do them anyway – “In short, they’re checked out. They sleepwalk through their days, putting little energy into their work,” summarized one reporter. And a full 24% of the world hates their jobs.

Again, those numbers were world-wide. In this country, the numbers are slightly better: 30% of the people polled here say they’re happy in their work, 52% feel blah, and 18% hate their jobs.

We sleep about 30% of the time. We work about 30% of the time.

So 70% of the people in this country are disconnected and discontented half the time they’re awake!

And Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Abundant life… meaningful… worthwhile…purposeful… engaged…inspired.. life – beyond measure.

It’s what we were made for… what we were born for…. And not just to be realized on some distant shore after the drudgery and monotony of our work lives end… but today… now… in the very midst of the circumstances of our life and work.

Jesus came into the world proclaiming a new way of being, a new way of seeing, a new orientation to life itself.

A man named John knew he was coming and that people needed to get ready. The year was roughly 30, the place: the wilderness of Judea. And people came to the river Jordan responding to his call… his call to turn from the way they had been living and turn to new life… New and abundant life… following a rabbi… a teacher from God who was coming…. Soon… get ready.

John was not the one. But his purpose, his passion, his work was to get people ready and to point to Jesus when he came. And he did come. The gospel writer John records it like this (in the Voice Translation):

John 1:29-34

The next morning, John sees Jesus coming toward him. In eager astonishment, he shouts out:

“Look! This man is more than he seems! He is the Lamb sent from God, the sacrifice to erase the sins of the world! He is the One I have been saying will come after me, who existed long before me and is much greater than I am. No one recognized Him – myself included. But I came baptizing with water so that He might be revealed to Israel. As I watched, the Spirit came down like a dove from heaven and rested on Him.

I didn’t recognize him at first, but the One who sent me to baptize told me, “The one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit will be the person you see the Spirit come down and rest upon.” I have seen this with my own eyes and can attest that this One is the Son of God!”

I didn’t know him either, John said. But now I do and now I know my job: to introduce him to you.

That is our job too. Our Christian vocation: to invite people into the new and hope-filled way of life proclaimed by Jesus; whether we’re doctors or teachers, pastors or artists, roofers or truck drivers, engineers or food service personnel.

Whatever it is we do for a living, there is another way of seeing one another and being together that is deeply meaningful, worthwhile, inspiring. There is a way of truth and a way of love that makes life rich and abundant whether practiced in the boardroom or in the family room. It’s relational and its embracing. It’s dignifying, courageous and freely offered.

Its author and perfector is Jesus.

Shane Claiborne, founder of the Christian community in Philadelphia, The Simple Way, and author of The Irresistible Revolution, wrote:

“People always want to define you by what you do.

I started saying, ‘I’m not too concerned with what I am going to do. I am more interested in who I am becoming. I want to be a lover of God and people.’

I was convinced that what we do is not nearly as important as who we are. The question is not whether you will be a doctor or a lawyer but what kind of doctor or lawyer you will be.

I remember Mother Teresa saying, ‘Do not worry about your career. Concern yourself with your vocation, and that is to be lovers of Jesus.’ So I started calling myself a ‘vocational lover.’”

That’s what we’re made to be… born to be… “vocational lovers”, making known the love of Jesus wherever we are.

Or in the words of Canadian professor and author John Stackhouse:

“Everything. Everywhere. Every moment. That is the scope of God’s call on our lives, and that is the dignity our lives enjoy.”

A few years ago I presided over a memorial service for a pillar of the church. Many spoke at his service: children, grandchildren, friends… several members of the congregation also rose to share a memory of this man. Afterwards, people talked about how meaningful the service had been. They were still talking about it during the days to follow when the observation was made that not a single person who spoke said anything, anything about his working life.

This man had died in his 80’s and no one remarked about his education or his career. It was his character that was remembered… to the person. This man’s legacy was his heart. He was a man of dignity and honor and he lived God’s call, first and foremost wherever he was. That, people said, is how I want to be remembered. His was an abundant life.

            What about God’s call on the church? What is the church made for? What is its raison d’etre?

We are to be that gathering place:

–       that ministers to people as they discover meaningful and abundant life

and

–       that offers education, support and community to all who seek to live out this vocation in their public and active life

The church, therefore, exists to guide and encourage followers of Jesus Christ

–       as ministers to and with each other in the faith community

–       as stewards of material resources, time and talents

–       as members of families trying to bear witness to the love of Christ in their own homes

–       as employees practicing the compassion, ethics and hospitality of Christ in the workplace

–       as responsible citizens learning to give public voice to convictions of faith

–       as God’s servants for the world

That’s a tall order and one we, as the church, sometimes do well and other times not so well. And that’s not new. From the beginning, even in the earliest Christian congregations, there have been times when the witness, work and testimony of the church is consistent with the way of Jesus, their founder and cornerstone, and when it’s not.

Just read the letters of Paul in the Bible and you’ll find evidence of glory and conflict, strength and unity and struggle and brokenness.

As pastor, the apostle Paul wrote letters of encouragement time and again to his fledgling flocks to remember to pattern their communal life after the way and life of Jesus.

The church of Corinth was a particularly challenging group. Born in the midst of a hugely diverse cosmopolitan city that prided itself on everything extreme, this church and its leaders were tough to reign in. But the very things that made them a challenge, Paul also counted among their greatest gifts. Listen to how he begins his first pastoral letter to them:

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

             Sometimes churches need to be reminded:

–       who and whose they are

–       Who has called them into existence

–       Who gives them life and purpose

–       Who equips them with every gift in order to do the work that is and will be placed before them

–       Who gives them the words to speak and the knowledge required to carry out their mission

–       Who makes sure that they do not lack in any spiritual gift necessary.

This church, The First Presbyterian Church Tecumseh is interesting because:

–       On the one hand it has been through a lot and has much history, and on the other hand it’s new.

–       On the one hand, there is institutional memory of the significance it has held in this town over decades, and on the other hand its role in the community is changing and yet unfolding.

–       On the one hand, the building is way more than appears to be needed and on the other hand, whose needs have yet to be imagined?

–       On the one hand we know where we’ve been and on the other hand only God knows where we’re going.

It’s in times like this that churches need to be reminded:

We are called.

We are saints.

We are part of a bigger body of Christ in our own community and across the

globe.

We have been given what we need for this time and this day.

We are strong.

We are not lacking.

God is faithful: yesterday, today and

tomorrow.

God has made us, called us, and equipped us and it is God’s dream we’re to live and live abundantly.

What we’ve been through has shaped and forged us, but we cannot go back.

We are a new church.

In some ways we may feel like that little hobbit Bilbo Baggins, trapped in the dark tunnels with only the light of his trusty sword Sting:

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”

Do you feel the excitement in the air?

This is the time. This is the place.

Together, by God, we have been made for this.

 

January 5, 2014                    Epiphany Sunday  

“Game of Thrones”         

Rev. Cathi King

Isaiah 60:1-6                         Matthew 2:1-12

 

Gee Brain, what do you wanna do tonight?

Same thing we do every night, Pinky…

 try to take over the world.

World Domination is the perpetual goal of these two genetically enhanced laboratory mice from the cartoon series Pinky and the Brain.    Every night the Brain schemes and plots to use every tool available: from media to the magic of Merlyn to the strength of Samson and the lightning bolt of Zeus… to becoming President and harnessing the laws of gravity. In the words of the opening theme song, to “prove their mousy worth, they’ll overthrow the earth.”

His plans never succeed of course. Foiled over and over again, Pinky and the Brain return to their cage at Acme Labs to hatch another plan, night after night after night.

It’s just a cartoon. But it parodies reality. For centuries, tyrants, dictators and superpowers have similarly plotted to control military, economic, political and ideological resources- the currencies of imperialistic power- in order to rule the world. And when that power is threatened, the stakes are high and the games get wild.

Jesus was born into the Roman Empire, one of the largest superpowers in history, spanning Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. Herod the Great ruled the Roman province of Judea.

He was, by official appointment of the Roman Senate, “King of the Jews.”

So when these strange travelers from the East stopped by Jerusalem to ask for directions on their way to worship a newborn “King of the Jews”, Herod went on high alert. There can’t be two kings of the same throne.  Literally, his insides tossed to and fro, as if the spirit within him had been upended.

Who was this king who called forth worshippers from as far as Persia – foreigners already following his star? How dare they? How could they? The lines of power were shifting — trouble for those accustomed to benefit; hope for those on the outside.

Today is Epiphany Sunday – from the Greek word meaning appearance. In classical Greek, it was used to signify the appearance of dawn, the arrival of an enemy at war or the manifestation of a god.

As Matthew tells the story of the birth of Jesus, it’s all of the above, depending upon perspective.

Herod saw, in him, a rival king and feared the advent of war.

To the Magi, or wisemen, the rising of his star meant the coming of one worthy of worship. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the dawning of a new day for all- nations and kings, sons and daughters, from near and far gathered together in the light of the glory of the Lord.

How do we see the coming of God in the world?

From the beginning, as Matthew tells it, the birth of Jesus brought a clash of kingdoms; a game of thrones like none other – with the heart of the world at stake. He tells the story as a challenge; an all or nothing proposition.

There are two kingdoms.

There are two kings.

Whom will you serve?

Yet, in reality, life just isn’t that way is it? We have dual citizenships and multiple allegiances. We are citizens of a particular country with non-negotiable laws. We are employees of companies with codes of conduct and “best practices”. We live within cultural frameworks and family expectations. Some of us belong to clubs with bylaws and unwritten norms. Our loyalty isn’t an all or nothing proposition– its way more nuanced than that… isn’t it?

Herod certainly thought so. His life was filled with complicated allegiances.

Known as “the greatest builder in Jewish history”, Herod, A Jew himself, supported his Jewish constituency by lavishly expanding the Temple in Jerusalem.

And pandering to Rome, he built pagan temples too.

Herod employed many in his projects, but passed on the heavy tax burdens of the Empire as well. He honored Jewish traditions in some areas and flaunted Roman culture in others.

In other words, he played both sides.

A citizen of Rome, and serving at the pleasure of Emperor Caesar Augustus, it was Herod’s charge, within his province, to keep the peace – Pax Romana – they called it. At all costs.

History writes Herod the Great with mixed reviews. In his effort to please everyone, in the end he was trusted by no one.

And I wonder… how often we, like Herod, play both sides, justifying our complicated allegiances. Who really sits on the throne of our lives?

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Peter Rollins is a writer, public speaker and contemporary Christian theologian. He has written a book of parables for our day called: The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales.

Listen to his parable Finding Faith:

There was once a fiery preacher who possessed a powerful but unusual gift. He found that, from an early age, when he prayed for individuals, they would supernaturally lose all of their religious convictions. They would invariably lose all of their beliefs about the prophets, the sacred Scriptures, and even God. So he learned not to pray for people but instead limited himself to preaching inspiring sermons and doing good works.

However, one day while traveling across the country, the preacher found himself in conversation
 with a businessman who happened to be going in the same direction.

This businessman was a very powerful and ruthless merchant banker, one who was at once honored by his colleagues and respected by his adversaries. Their conversation began because the businessman, possessing a deep, abiding faith, had noticed the preacher reading from the Bible. He introduced himself to the preacher and they began to talk. As they chatted together this powerful man told the preacher all about his faith in God and his love of Christ. He spoke of how his work did not really define who he was but was simply what he had to do.

“The world of business is a cold one,” he confided to the preacher, “and in my line of work I find myself in situations that challenge my Christian convictions.

But I try, as much as possible, to remain true to my faith. Indeed, I attend a local church every Sunday, participate in a prayer circle, engage in some youth work, and contribute to a weekly Bible study. These activities help to remind me of who I really am.”

After listening carefully to the businessman’s story, the preacher began to realize the purpose of
his unseemly gift. So he turned to the businessman and said, “Would you allow me to pray a blessing into your life?”

The businessman readily agreed, unaware of what would happen. Sure enough, after the preacher had muttered a simple prayer, the man opened his eyes in astonishment.

“What a fool I have been for all these years!” he proclaimed. “It is clear to me now that there 
is no God above, who is looking out for me, and that there are no sacred texts to guide me, and
 there is no Spirit to inspire and protect me.”

As they parted company the businessman, still confused by what had taken place, returned
home. But now that he no longer had any religious beliefs, he began to find it increasingly
difficult to continue in his line of work.

Faced with the fact that he was now just a hard-nosed 
businessman working in a corrupt system, rather than a man of God, he began to despise 
his activity. Within months he had a breakdown, and soon afterward gave up his line of work 
completely.

Feeling better about himself, he then went on to give to the poor all the riches he had
accumulated and began to use his considerable managerial expertise to challenge the very system he once participated in, and to help those who had been oppressed by it.

One day, many years later, he happened upon the preacher again while walking through town.  
He ran over, fell at the preacher’s feet, and began to weep with joy. Eventually he looked up at the preacher and smiled, “Thank you, my dear friend, for helping me discover my faith.”

The Creator of the world wants nothing less than a total takeover of the world: taking it over not to rule it and control it as a tyrannical dictator, but to free it in such a way that it becomes fully what it was designed and created to be – one person, one heart at a time.

God became human in Jesus to demonstrate what that dream could look like and to relentlessly invite people into it.   His ministry lasted only three years; mostly because it caused too much anxiety in the church. His word and his way was too much of a stretch… too much of a challenge… it required too much tradition to be dismantled and reimagined…

He had to be stopped to keep the peace.

Do you ever feel like we’re playing church?

Like we’re saying the words without really taking them in… singing the songs without allowing them to really change us from the inside out… listening to the radical teachings of Scripture and then going about our daily lives as if there is no earth-shaking power in them?

Like we’re allowing the kingdom of God to be domesticated so that we can manage it and fit it inside the other kingdoms of our lives – most of which, when you get right down to it, aren’t working all that well?

What if, like the Magi, we totally fell down on our knees, face to the ground and worshipped God? And what if while we’re down there, we laid before Jesus all of our heartaches:

-the confused values of our workplaces,

-the very real suffering around us and within us,

-the angst we have over our futures and our finances,

-the sadness we carry about divisions in our families,

-the frustrations we have with our broken political system…

What if we lay down all of our stuff before Jesus and sit for a while with our faces to the ground.

And then rise.

Rise with newly opened eyes to see the glory of God shining around us and through us…

Rise to hear God’s clarion call for justice…

Rise to feel deep and abiding compassion for all of God’s people…

Rise with the courage, strength and conviction to freely live with and for the God of the universe on the throne of our lives.

What would church be then?

A place to learn about and practice together God’s dream for taking over the world – one person, one heart at a time.

Imagine how each thing we do together here might teach us how to live differently out there: from the call to worship, through the confession and assurance of forgiveness to the passing of the peace with strangers as well as friends.

How even as we celebrate each baptism, we remember who and whose we are – members of God’s family, marked and sealed forever with God’s love and grace.

And how every time we come to the Lord’s table we proclaim the forgiveness and love of Christ for everyone. Everyone has a place, everyone is welcome… everyone belongs. That’s not playing church, that’s being church.

 ♦

 Gee Brain, what do you wanna do this week?

Same thing we do every week, Pinky…

 try to take over the world.

In the name and for the glory of God – the Great I AM – the Alpha and Omega of the game of thrones.

December 24, 2013   The Light Has Come: Shine On!

Christmas Eve 11:00 p.m.

Last year when my husband said he wanted a headlamp for Christmas, we thought he was a dork. But it was on his list. So we went to REI, learned from a helpful sales assistant – zealous about headlamps – which was the best, bought it, wrapped it and waited to make fun of him when he opened it. Which, of course we did.

But who had the last laugh when we stopped in the middle of the night at the rest area on our drive to South Carolina to walk the dog in the designated dog area? There goes Andy with his brand new head-lamp, angled to the ground to avoid any land mines – of which, you dog owners know, in rest areas, there are many despite the provided bags.

And who had the last laugh when that headlamp reemerged to help find cell phone chargers and missing shoes in the van on the same trip? Andy did.

And who became the proud owner of her own head-lamp within a week of moving to Tipton? Me. My headlamp is the single most essential item I own now. I wear it every morning and every night as I walk the dog in the dark.

I have never known this kind of darkness… no street lights… no lights from neighbors… and we have raccoons and skunks and minks, opossums and coyotes, swans, deer and who knows what else out there running around at night.

I’m grateful at least for the abundant stars.

Without light illuminating my path at night, it’s a little scary – an accident waiting to happen.

John’s gospel doesn’t begin with a traditional story of Jesus’ birth. There is no reference to a manger, shepherds, angels, kings… John is a poet. He draws us into the story of Jesus with imagery, symbol and metaphor. He takes us back to the beginning when God spoke light into darkness. And now God speaks again and light becomes life to walk among us – illuminating our path.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

And that light, according to John, was Jesus, the one who called himself “light of the world.”

Light became flesh over 2000 years ago. The heavens broke open and God’s glory was revealed in Jesus:

“the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it,” we,
as people of faith, proclaim. And yet, we also know that 2000 years later there is still darkness… darkness that festers in human hearts, darkness that grips minds, darkness that enters schools, steals innocence, kills for profit, poisons futures… there is still soul-blighting darkness alive and all-too-well in a world into which the unquenchable light has shone.

It’s holy foolishness to believe that darkness will not win in the end, and holy fools we are. For we’ve been drafted to play for a God who has pushed back the darkness like the rising sun at dawn  — and that is the winning team.

Methodist preacher Will Willimon preached a sermon the Sunday after September 11, 2001, surely one of the darkest days our nation has faced, in which he said:

“If there is not a God who delights at bringing light out of night, who likes nothing better than to go one-on-one with the void, then we are quite frankly without hope and my little words of comfort in the face of your despair are pointless.

 The good news: God’s will for the world will not be stumped….The creative lover that had the first word shall also have the last. All evidence to the contrary, God’s love is stronger than human hate because that’s the way God has set up the world.

In life and death, in life beyond death, there is only one word. At the end, it’s the same word as at the beginning, that by God: A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

So, the final outcome? God’s team wins. In the meantime, strap on your head-lamps and let’s huddle up. Let’s talk some team strategy.

Jesus not only said, “I am the light of the world,” he also said “you are the light of the world… let your light shine.”

We’ll begin with a page from my friend’s playbook; a man who spent 10 years in solitary confinement in the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is one of the lights in my life. When he was 20 years old, he was convicted of armed robbery. After he participated in a failed armed escape attempt, he landed in the hole in a super-max facility. Today he’s a program associate with the American Friends Service Committee Prisoner Advocacy initiative and an aspiring lawyer studying at Wayne State.

He knows a little something about darkness and a little something about light.

10 years he spent – not 10 days or even 10 months  – 10 years in solitary confinement. Today nearly 1000 people live in administrative segregation or solitary confinement, restricted to a small, sterile concrete prison cell for 23 hours each and every day.

Most of these cells are window-less. The overhead florescent light is on for hours at a time or the room is utterly dark. There’s a small slot in the door for meal trays. Whether or not the light’s on, the pervasive feeling is dark.

The social isolation and complete silence is deafening; the documented psychological impact severe.

I asked my friend to reflect on these words:

“the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

He said, as he saw it, there were always shining lights offering hope in an otherwise hopeless place.

He said his family never gave up on him. His parents continued to write, visit, and send him books. Fellow prisoners shared their sense of humor and humanity. And there was always at least one Correctional Officer in every institution who shined with compassion.

Yes, he was in isolation, but he was not isolated, he said.

His parents sent him subscriptions to news and world events magazines. He’d read articles and make notes in the margins.

Then he would attach his fishing line (made with unraveled sock yarn) to the cover of the magazine and slide it through the door slot to the next cell. It would travel cell to cell around the whole block and return to him covered with all kinds of interesting commentary and opinions. “That’s how we stayed connected to each other and to the world through the Iraq war. We wrote our thoughts to and with each other.”

And the kindness of a warden who saw that he had fallen through the cracks of the system and believed enough in him to get him out of administrative segregation and later released was a light that finally changed his life.

He now devotes his life to being a light for others… compassionately helping prisoners and their loved ones.

But more than just for those who live in solitary confinement or even prison, he said, this verse about light shining in the darkness bears “a theme for those who are grieving terrible losses that we cannot square with basic principles of fairness or justice, or for those who are suffering through hardships that they may or may not have brought on themselves.”

Love, compassion, camaraderie, humor led my friend to recover his spark. Now he’s leading others to recover theirs while he works to shine the light of reform on the greater systemic darkness. He encourages us to do the same.

I have another friend who, although she’s never served a day in prison, her mind is locked behind bars of severe mental illness.

She’s been in and out of hospitals many times and undergone every kind of treatment imaginable. She, too, is well acquainted with darkness and with light. Her playbook has helpful and encouraging strategies to share too.

So, I asked her to reflect on the same words:

“the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” Here, for us, is her reflection:

“The light has always been Jesus for me,” she said, “because once I “got it” and did that becoming a Christian thing the only thing that has ever made sense to me has been Him, his words, his actions all of which stand in such a contrast to everything else, every one else.

Living with chronic illness, pain, PTSD makes every day a challenge and with the metaphor of dark/light it is like the dark of night before stars come out, or are obscured by clouds, you have to learn how to do what you can until that light does break through. Sometimes the light that breaks through the night becomes a sunrise and you get a glorious day, but most often it is the light that stands within the darkness.

And while the darkness has not overcome the light, the light hasn’t overcome the darkness yet either.

Chronic struggles that are always there rarely abate enough so that we can experience a day, an hour without the pain, the sadness…

BUT getting up in the morning, brushing our teeth, one foot in front of the other are all stars popping out in the midst of the dark sky and the best days are those full of constellations like that. Without the darkness we wouldn’t recognize the light of those moments. I think it is faith, living the faith of “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” that mostly gets me through every day life struggles.

The light of Jesus shining in Scripture, through music, hymns, prayers, insights shared by others, sermons.  This is the light of faith, connecting with Jesus with my mind, my conviction, my passion to follow him.

The awful part of my “Great Depressions” is that in the midst of them I cannot see even the littlest twinkling star in the darkness.  These times come on gradually for me … there are fewer and fewer beams of light breaking up my darkness until the darkness seems to have swallowed up all of the light. My faith light gets extinguished. And depression makes me believe the light was never there and that it is never coming back.

How have I hung on through those moments?  How have I finally been able to see the Light again?

All I can say for sure is that during my deepest depressions, the darkness mocked me, and Jesus came to me as He always comes to us, by putting on skin.  In the care, concern, arms, eyes, hearts of compassionate people the light of Jesus burned brightly enough in those who insisted on loving me so that indeed that darkness could not overcome my light.

“The light stands within the darkness, and while the darkness has not overcome the light, the light hasn’t overcome the darkness yet either” according to my friend.

Sometimes as light-bearers we walk through the darkness with another.

And sometimes we stand in it and wait together in it, allowing the light of Christ to shine, pushing back the fear, going one-on-one with the void.

Either way, we insist on loving people, in the name of Jesus, for without light illuminating our paths, it’s a little scary… an accident waiting to happen.

And a strategy from my playbook: A few Christmases ago I led the Westminster Presbyterian church through a coloring prayer exercise. Based on the ancient spiritual practice of mandalas, we each took a small stack of cards and we colored prayers. Some people used colored pencils, others fine tipped markers, some used crayons and others paint.

We focused each prayer card on one person – choosing colors depending upon what we were praying about – until the whole pattern was finished.

mandala cards

Then we gave the cards to the ones for whom we’d prayed. I finished each of my cards by lightly shading the whole thing in yellow:

“the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”

Have you ever seen glowing plankton? Late one night last October while we were vacationing in Panama with family, my nephew called us to the end of the dock. He shined a flashlight into the water and immediately set off a chain reaction as hundreds of plankton began to shine.

These tiny water organisms are bioluminescent – from the words bio and lumen meaning life and light. When stimulated, they glow.

I’m not big on chain letters – at all – but I am big on chain reactions.

What if, this Christmas, each of us colored one prayer for someone and gave it along with a blank card to be colored for someone else? You have 2 in each bulletin – ready to go – What if we did that? Couldn’t that set off a chain reaction of life and light?

The light has come into the world: Jesus. Now, in his name, strap on your head-lamps and be light for the world: shine on.

Shine on with love. Shine on with hope. Shine on with humor. Shine on and on and on.

 December 24, 2013   What A Find!

Christmas Eve 5:00 p.m.

Oh, hello – I am Dr. Kathleen Kingston. I’m an archaeologist and I’m currently on a dig a couple of miles outside Bethlehem.

I love what I do. When I was a kid, I loved to play for hours in the sand box in my back yard. I’d play this game with my sisters – they’d bury my toys and then whistle for me to come and find them. And they’d always hide something that wasn’t a toy – some unexpected surprise for me to find. Sometimes we’d be called in before I’d find it and time would pass and they’d forget about it – until mom or dad would say: “hey, where’s my toenail clippers?” or “where’s my eyelash curler?” The worst was when they buried my grandma’s heirloom silver spoon… that was never found…

Anyway, now I’m paid to dig and find – to my heart’s content – all over the world.  I’ve been on this site for several weeks now.

We’re mostly looking for shards of pottery and household items that date back to the first century. Some days we don’t find anything. But a few days ago we found something really big. And now we think we’re literally standing on holy ground.

Actually, I like to think all ground is holy, but I’m gonna let you in on a secret—we think this might actually be the place where Mary and Joseph stayed after Jesus was born. I know, right?

We think that because the other day we found – actually, I found – a chest and inside that chest were scrolls. Since then, I’ve been hardly sleeping. I’ve translated all of these letters from their original languages and I’m going to share them with you. Then you can tell me what you think. But first, we’ll set the stage with a reading from the gospel of Luke.   Luke 2:1-7

There are 3 scrolls written by the same hand. First, I’m going to read the one I’ve marked: Mother.

I’m still in shock over the whole thing. A year ago, I thought I could see my whole life playing out: I would marry a builder in the village, Joseph, we’d raise a family together. I’d do what every other woman did – cook, clean, care for my family. But that was not to be. I became pregnant and left home. It turned out Joseph was a better man than anyone knew. I had gone to stay with a relative and after a few months, he came and vowed to stay with me… to defend my reputation and to protect me and the baby. But we had to go – while I was heavy with child – to Bethlehem. The trip was hard. We stopped often. But Joseph urged us on – he said he had family there who would take us in. But we got there and there were so many people and I was so tired and sore and I knew the baby was coming and I needed a safe place to lie down.

One family opened their doors to us – they created a space for us. I was so thankful. That night my baby was born. I saw his face and I knew the angel was right – this child was from God. His eyes… his hands… his feet… everything about him was beautiful and holy. Joseph knew it too, immediately. As I said, I’m still in shock, even though I’ve had some time to think about things. We named him Jesus – because that’s what we were told to do. Jesus “he will save”. Can it really be that he will be the one we’ve been waiting for? Can it really be that he will deliver us from Roman oppression? Can it really be that he will restore our land and our freedom? Can it really be that this, my son will be the one?

 And that’s the end of her letter. Amazing, huh? There’s more, but before I read on, let’s sing a little more and hear a little more of the backstory.    Luke 2:8-14

This letter I’ve marked Shepherd.

    “It started out like any other night – I was in the hills with my sheep and my sheep with me. It was pretty slow and quiet actually – I remember I was deep in thought… again. Why am I here? Why is life so hard? Why doesn’t it seem to matter who I am as a person when I’m judged by what I do for a living? Why is being a shepherd so despised? Why does my own family barely look at me when I come around? So I was too much of a dreamer for school – is that all bad? And I didn’t become a banker like my brother, who cares? And so what if I smell like sheep and I don’t dress in fine clothes – I can’t afford to. But I’m honest and I’m hardworking and I’m gentle. My sheep love me… why don’t people? I’d been thinking thoughts like these for some time, wondering why the world seemed to value all the wrong things…

          That night, I was lost in thought again when all of a sudden the sky looked like it was on fire and I swear I heard a voice speaking directly to me – about a savior for the whole world who had been born that night. I felt like someone had actually read my thoughts. Could this be the answer? Could this newborn make the world right? I called to the other shepherds. They had heard it too. We gathered together our sheep and went to find him. And find him we did – in a makeshift room, lying in a feed box – like the ones we use to feed our sheep. His parents welcomed us. Nobody does that. His mother even let me hold him. I thought I had stopped believing in God until that night, when I looked at the face of the baby and saw the face of God. And the way he looked at me? I’ll never be the same. “

 He doesn’t say anymore… Makes you wonder what he meant: “I’ll never be the same….”

Before I read the next scroll, you should know more of the story. But one more time – what was it the angel’s sang that night?      Matthew 2:1-11

This letter I’ve marked Astrologer. I’m calling him that because as I read his scroll, it reminded me of the research I did into ancient Babylonian astrologers. They were people who studied and interpreted the stars. Tradition has it that by reading the stars they predicted wars and famines and upcoming world events. They were respected by kings and scholars. 

         “We came, my colleagues and I to see the one predicted by the stars. Nothing was as we expected. We’d been carefully studying the charts and the skies and we had come to see a king. But it all seemed, on the surface, very ordinary. This boy-king was not in a palace. He was not clothed as royalty. His parents were humble people.

There were no guards; no servants. Everything seemed out of place and yet all was somehow right. The ordinariness of it was truly extraordinary. The house felt holy, the space sacred and mysterious. We, in all of our wisdom, felt outmatched and ill-equipped. Our elaborate robes seemed irrelevant. And we, who pride ourselves in knowing precisely the right things to say, were speechless. His mother told us her story and the story of a shepherd who had visited them the night the baby was born.

I recorded them both. I’m placing them, along with my thoughts in the chest that previously held the gifts we brought for the king. They were the best we had to offer, and yet, somehow even they seemed inadequate. My thoughts? I don’t know what to think. Isn’t that strange? I always know what to think.

But I have this sense that everything I thought I knew is now suspect… that the world I thought I understood has become for me a complete mystery… that all of my predictions and philosophies have fallen like a house of cards. You’d think I’d be shaken, lost, afraid maybe. But I’ve never felt such peace. My quest is only beginning. I will spend my life learning who this baby is and how to set my life according to his kingdom, and I will become truly wise.”

 So the astrologer wrote these three scrolls. But there was another scroll from another time, written by one who spoke another language that I found in the same chest.  Before I get to that though, let’s sing a little more and hear the story told by another voice.     John 1:1-5, 10-14

This letter I’ve marked Explorer. It was written in French and unsigned. Let me read it to you:          ?I came here on a pilgrimage to tour the holy sites. That’s what I do. I’ve been all over the world on what I can only call a holy quest. I’ve never known exactly what I’ve been searching for, just that I hadn’t found it – and I’ve been to the ends of the earth. I’ve excavated buried treasures from the sea and mined precious jewels. I’ve studied under well-known gurus, fasted with monks and slept in caves. I’ve wandered through forests, deserts and jungles… searching… searching… for what? I don’t know.

My life’s purpose? The origin of the universe? I don’t know… Honestly, my quest had become boring lately and I had wondered if the whole pursuit was foolish.

          I was digging on this spot to bury my food in a cool space when I hit this chest. I opened it and read the scrolls.   I found it on my last night in this region, my only night in this spot. I had already been to the places Jesus was said to have walked, and I found them over commercialized, hotly debated, heavily guarded and largely uninspiring. I was about to go home… ready to give up… and I found this chest with scrolls in it, written in a language I did not know. Not knowing if it was valuable or not, and knowing that people in this part of the world kill one another over holy discoveries, I carefully wrapped the scrolls in my pack, reburied the chest and returned to France. Over the next several months I worked with a trusted colleague in secrecy to translate the scrolls. Could this be what it seems to be? News of a discovery like this could ignite the region. I could be famous – the explorer who unearthed the find of the centuries – proof of the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth!

 I wrapped them back up and returned to the spot, dug up the chest and planned how I might release the news for the greatest impact. And I couldn’t sleep.

Not from excitement but from unease. I read back over the scrolls again. The very lack of fame seemed significant. The entire thought of news releases and media splash seemed exploitative.

What had I really found?

Nothing short of a reorientation of everything I had ever searched for.”

And that’s the end of his note. There was nothing more. I’ve been thinking since I’ve read these scrolls how to respond. What do you think? One more time, let’s sing the angel’s song together and I’ll let you know what I’m doing.

Gloria refrain

Ok, I’m entitling this scroll “A Kindred Spirit”. Hopefully my letter will explain.

     “This is the find of my life. Since I’ve read these scrolls, I’ve come face to face with my own questions, my own restlessness, my own hopes and dreams. I’ve realized that as an archeologist, I haven’t spent my life digging in the sand because it’s fun, but because I’m searching for something… something really real. Years ago, my sisters buried a precious family heirloom in the sandbox behind my house and we never found it. Now, with this discovery, I feel like I’ve found a family treasure so much more valuable than a silver spoon. This is my story. This is my identity. These are the voices of my family members. For I, too, long for a new world; a new way of being together. I long for the wrongs to be made right and for an acknowledgement that there is something that lies beyond all of the wisdom of the sages of this world; a mystery that no human mind or even collection of minds can explain but that finally holds us all together.

And this find points to One… One born long ago… God in the flesh… entering this world to make it new, to make it right.

 Ironically, this find sets me off on a brand new quest. Who is this Jesus? Who did he grow to become? What did he teach? Who did he stand for?

What did he stand against? How will I become part of his way, his truth, his life? How will you? “

And that’s the letter I’m putting into the chest. Along with the others and then I’m going to rebury it, to be discovered by someone else in the future.

But for now – as for me, as for you, we have a story to tell.

December 22, 2013

People sometimes ask me, “Why do you baptize infants and small children, instead of waiting until they can make their own profession of faith?”

I can turn to the Scriptures and point out the places where whole households are baptized, without reference to age or consent. I can point to the verses I read earlier during Ava’s baptism from the 28th chapter of Matthew where the order is: Go, baptize, then teach. Which is exactly what we’ve committed to do:  Ava’s now been baptized and we, together, have promised to teach her the ways of Jesus.

 But to the question, “why baptize infants and small children,” there’s an even richer, deeper answer:

it symbolizes the very character of God.

Before we’re able to speak or understand or articulate a belief in God… before our education and intellectual exercises of faith begin… before we can recognize emotional and spiritual stirrings in our hearts… GOD KNOWS US… GOD LOVES US… GOD HAS A DREAM FOR OUR LIVES.
Baptism is an outward and visible sign of an internal and invisible truth: God is at work already… independent of our awareness or acknowledgement.

Our journey of life and faith begins here and though we’ll spend a lifetime exploring and learning, we will never know ourselves as well as God does and we’ll never understand how much God loves us.

How better to show the relationship between our human limitation and God’s boundless love than with the baptism of a small child.

And lest we boast of our strength of faith… our worthiness to receive God’s blessing, the baptism of a child says clearly: God’s blessing is not bestowed based on achievement, intellect or accomplishment, but on God’s character.

This morning we turn to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Middle-eastern scholars believe it’s likely that Mary was only about 13 years old – 10 years older than Ava – when she became betrothed to Joseph. She was a mere child herself when she learned she was with child.

Maybe you’ve thought about that before… Maybe you’ve thought about what it would have been like for Mary… under contract to be married to a man probably a lot older than she was… living in Nazareth – a small rural town in the southern edge of Galilee -– described by one historian as “noteworthy because it was so little worthy of note.” What it would have been like for her, there, then to learn she was pregnant and not by the man she was legally promised to.

50 years ago in our culture that was a scandal. Today, unless we’re talking about celebrities, government personalities or church leaders, that kind of event doesn’t draw much attention, but in her day and in her small town, and according to her religious law…

Worst case scenario: she’s stoned to death.

More likely? She’s cast out from her family and her village; she’s marked by scandal. Any upstanding man in the community would dismiss her, meaning she’d lose her fiancé, financial security, shelter, safety, and she and her baby would struggle to stay alive.

Regardless of how we see her today, majestically depicted in Christian art and sculpture, adorned with jewels and gold leaf…in Nazareth, Mary, young and with child out of wedlock, was disgraced, alone and vulnerable.

Where were her parents?

Where were her friends?

Where were the leaders of her synagogue?

Where was her support system?

Where was her safety net?

Luke mentions no one from the village, not her mother, not her father, not her rabbi, no girlfriends… an angel of the Lord delivered this life-changing message to her and then “departed from her.”

“Don’t be afraid,” he said… “God’s grace is with you… the power of the most high will overshadow you.” And then he was gone.

With haste and in shame Mary leaves town. Far away, in another Judean town is her relative Elizabeth – a kindred spirit, a fellow outcast – the one mentioned by the angel who knew the meaning of the phrase: “nothing will be impossible with God”.

Elizabeth, for her part, must be facing her own scandal. Barren her whole life, she’s well acquainted with the low rung of the social ladder. But now – well past the age of childbearing, she’s pregnant? She’s living in seclusion and her husband, a village priest, isn’t talking. What must the village gossips be saying about her?

The cousins greet each another. Knowing full well their circumstances, Elizabeth confirms God’s blessing.  Mary begins to pray:

Luke 1:46-55 (The Voice)

My soul lifts up the Lord!

    My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!

    For though I’m God’s humble servant,
God has noticed me.

Now and forever,
I will be considered blessed by all generations.

    For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
holy is God’s name!

    From generation to generation,

God’s lovingkindness endures
for those who revere Him.

    God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds.

The proud in mind and heart,
God has sent away in disarray.

    The rulers from their high positions of power,
God has brought down low.

Those who were humble and lowly,

God has elevated with dignity.

    The hungry—God has filled with fine food.

   The rich—God has dismissed with nothing in their hands.

    To Israel, God’s servant,

God has given help,

    As promised to our ancestors,

remembering Abraham and his descendants in mercy forever.

–the word of the Lord…

Mary doesn’t pray as one afraid. She doesn’t pray as one alone. She doesn’t pray as one ashamed, overwhelmed or anxious. She prays with courage. She prays with strength. She prays with solidarity – she raises her voice with and for all of the lost and low… with and for all of the disgraced and defenseless… with and for all of the underdogs and cast asides…

Mary prays with hope and she prays with promise… as if she’s ushering in a brand new day and a brand new way of seeing one another… honor for the dishonorable… dignity for the undignified… grace for the disgraced.

Mary is the inaugural voice of God’s dream… a dream that the child she carries will herald as well.

She speaks a dream of liberation; a dream of deliverance; a dream of divine reversal. She prays it because she is it – she is a symbol of the very transformation of which she prays:

  • Shunned yet loved.

  • Shamed yet blessed.

The gospel writer Luke writes for a Greco-Roman world. In that world, people described as “blessed by the gods” were those who appeared to share in the privileges of the gods such as wealth, status, health, moral excellence, wisdom, fame, beauty.

But Mary’s prayer describes a wholly different kind of blessedness, from a holy different kind of God: One who blesses, not according to achievement or accomplishment, not based on anything society or culture values. This God, our God blesses directly from God’s character– a character of grace, a character of love, a character of redemption.

In Mary’s prayer, she claims that blessedness for herself. She believes and trusts that it is true for her despite all evidence to the contrary. She holds on with faith to the promise that she is blessed by God.

And she models that for us.

For we too can claim our blessedness.

We can believe and trust that we too are blessed by God – regardless of present circumstances which may say otherwise.

It is this kind of blessing that is acknowledged in baptism. Undeserved blessing. Unmerited blessing. Unlimited blessing. In baptism we are marked with the cross of Christ, sealed with the love of God and blessed as a child of God – sharing in the privilege of a God who gives grace freely and fully.

It is said that Martin Luther claimed his baptism as the crux of his life of faith.  He considered it to be the foundation of his whole life.  Often, particularly in times of trial, he was heard to exclaim: “I am baptized!”

John Calvin preached the importance of remembering our baptism whenever we have fallen. He said “we ought to conclude, that at whatever time we are baptized, we are washed and purified for the whole of life.”

Each time we celebrate a baptism is an opportunity to remember our own blessedness: to hear and read the words and promises again and to claim them and trust them.

The promises made at our baptism tell us something different than the world tells us… different than the Greco-Roman definition of blessing: Not based on what we have, how we look or what we’ve done, our true identity is in whose we are.  We belong to God and our inherent value rests in God’s love for us.

Methodist preacher Will Willimon tells the story of a friend of his “who had a little brother who was caught in a misdeed by his father.  When the boy’s father confronted him with this wrong and threatened to punish him, the lad drew up to his full four-feet height and said proudly, ‘You can’t touch me, I’m baptized!’”  This boy understood his baptismal identity.  This boy understood whose he was.

 Every time I have the privilege of participating in a baptism, I write a letter to the one being baptized as a reminder.

Ava’s receiving this letter from me today:

A Letter to Ava on the day of her baptism

Dear Ava,

Today, December 22, 2013, you and I participated in a very important and beautiful celebration at the First Presbyterian Church Tecumseh. Your mom and dad and sister Evelyn brought you to the church to be baptized. You were just three years old, but on your behalf, your parents and the members of this church promised to teach you and support you as you grow and learn about God’s love for you and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Then I baptized you with water in the name of God the Father, God the Son Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit, and I marked the sign of a cross on your forehead reminding you that you are God’s child forever and for always.

Ava, I don’t know where life will take you. I don’t know where you’ll live or where you’ll go to school . . . I don’t know what wonders and surprises God has in store for you or what great plans God has for your life, but what I do know is this: wherever you go and whatever you do, God goes before you to prepare the way for you and to prepare you for the way. You are precious in God’s sight and beloved always. I pray that throughout your life, you will come to know God and God’s incredible love for you and you’ll follow Jesus with your heart, your hands, your feet and your mind.

The walk of faith is an amazing journey. It takes a lifetime to explore it. On it, you’ll meet people that will touch your heart and change your life. You’ll give and give and give some more, but never come close to what you’ll receive. It’s hardly easy but deeply fulfilling. It’s holy and joyful and draining and confusing but God’s grace will carry you all the way. Be humble, be honest, love like crazy and always pray for a wide-open heart.

Your friend and sister in Christ,

The Rev. Cathi King

The Minister Who Baptized You

We are loved and we are blessed and we are called by God to live a life worthy of the love and blessing conferred upon us: called to join together to work for peace and justice, to reveal grace, to practice forgiveness and to live boldly with a wide-open heart of love in the name of Jesus.

 We are called to practice the dream of God: to be friend to the friendless, to lift up the lowly, to restore hope to those who despair, and to treat all with dignity, as if each one is blessed by God, because each one is.

 Each one… every one… even the least… even a child… especially a child.

Blessed because that’s who God is.

December 15, 2013 – Festival of Lessons and Carols

December 8, 2013

Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12                                 Rev. Cathi King

I love jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles are a part of our annual Hilton Head family Christmas tradition. During our week-long vacation we’ve been  known to put together as many as 3 jigsaw puzzles with a total of over 2000 pieces.

We check in with each other throughout the week at the puzzle table – drinking coffee or wine and stopping to put in a few pieces. The process moves along at a comfortable, casual pace until the last 50 or so pieces of the puzzle, when everyone converges on the table and in a mad frenzy, it is finished.

We always give the honor of putting in the last piece to the one who has worked hardest on the puzzle.

Last year we got to the end of a brand new puzzle and found that there was a piece missing. Now, from time to time people have stolen a piece just to add to the drama at the end. One year a piece “accidentally” slipped into my sister’s pocket. We searched and searched and finally gave up, only to receive a call on the drive back to Michigan that the lost piece had been found.

Days later an envelope arrived in the mail with the valuable piece and it was reunited with its mates – but we will not have the joy of seeing that picture complete until we put that puzzle together again and, well, there are too many puzzles and not enough time as it is.

But last year, there was truly a missing piece – one that was never found. A hole in the middle of the puzzle… screaming “incomplete”… “unfinished”.

I remember when that happened to my sister one year and I watched her as she immediately took the whole rest of the puzzle and threw it in the trash. “It’s useless,” she said.

I don’t know… it is frustrating… really frustrating. After all the work to know it will never quite be complete. But it is an appropriate Advent image. We wait for the completion of God’s vision… we wait for the fulfillment of the peaceable kingdom as described in Isaiah.

Remember that beautiful scene where enemies will live in peace – even foes from the animal kingdom will play and sleep beside one another safely: wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, bears and cows…

We tell the Christmas story each year at this time – we know the Messiah comes, and yet, we still wait for that day when all is finally made right. Until then, the world is like last year’s Hilton Head puzzle – unfinished – and we yearn to find that missing piece. Or missing “peace” as it were…

2000 years ago Jesus was born. The Prince of Peace.

Into the world, Jesus came, the one promised by the prophet Isaiah who would usher in a new day when all would be fair and just, evil would be destroyed, oppression abolished, prisoners, even poor ones would get a fair hearing; the earth would be filled with the knowledge of the Lord and all would live in peace.

Our world, 2000 years later, is still a far cry from that vision. Maybe no one knows how far a cry better than the people who live in the land of Jesus’ birth.

My son Alex and I traveled to Israel/Palestine to visit with friends who have a condo just outside of Jerusalem in August of 2010.

While there, we worshipped with local Palestinian Christians and listened to their stories. We came back broken hearted, frustrated and incredibly inspired.

I continue to receive updates from that region from the seldom-heard minority voice of Christians – like Zoughbi Zoughbi, the founder and director of Wi’am a Palestinian Christian grass roots organization committed to conflict resolution in Bethlehem, who wrote: 

“Yes I believe in the miraculous birth of Christ all those years ago; yet suppose the baby was born today, what would happen?

The Magi would not be able to visit because of the separation wall which is five times as long and twice the height of the Berlin wall.

Mary and Joseph would not be able to come to Bethlehem because of at least five hundred checkpoints along the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem that would prevent them from moving freely.

There would be no more shepherds in the fields since 87% of the land is either under Israeli control or confiscated for building settlements, bypass roads or the illegal separation wall.

I doubt that the angels would have much success finding good news to tell the world these days.

Mothers here have lost their children to the brutal police and military.

There are not enough comforters for the afflicted families here in Bethlehem.

          And after the baby is born, the Holy Family would seek refuge in Egypt, but as Egypt has so many Palestinian refugees, they would be unwelcome and could expect to be ill-treated. 

That’s the condition of the little town of Bethlehem today; war-torn, ravaged, scarred, yearning for peace.

Nelson Mandela died last week. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the peaceful termination of Apartheid in his country of South Africa, he also took an active interest in peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. He once said: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

We don’t have to go halfway across the world to see the gap between Isaiah’s vision for peace and reality. We know the missing peace right here in our own community. But at this time of year especially, the irony in the land of the birth of the Prince of Peace bears telling and bears reflection as we sing Christmas carols and put the figures into our Nativity scenes.

My friend Doug Dicks, mission liaison from the PCUSA who lived in Jordan tirelessly working alongside brothers and sisters to reveal the peace of Christ in and throughout the region recently retired, after 18 years. In his closing newsletter he wrote:

“What will I miss the most about the Middle East? The people, of course. What will I miss the least? Politics, both political as well as church.”

Sometimes we as church lose our way and we don’t lead in the way, the truth, the life of Christ. Rather than leading in the work to reveal the peace of Christ, to heal divisions, to bind the brokenhearted, we do just the opposite. At our worst, we’ve been known to spread discord like a poison.

Did you notice who John the Baptist called a “brood of vipers?” The gospel text I read this morning said as John saw Pharisees and Sadducees coming out to the wilderness to be baptized he called them a “brood of vipers.”

Pharisees and Sadducees – religious leaders– John the Baptist and Jesus after him called them baby vipers. Not a flattering title.

Vipers are known to be irritable, easily angered, quick to strike. They’re most dangerous when they’re young because they can’t control the amount of venom they inject. Once they bite, the poison spreads slowly throughout the whole body. They are usually well camouflaged, making it easier to ambush their prey.

Dressed like a prophet in camel’s hair, John spoke like a prophet – You—brood of vipers, change. Become like the vipers in Isaiah’s vision – a safe place for even babies and toddlers to play. Don’t spread wickedness like poison…

Stand up for truth and justice – by your actions and your words put an end to oppression, don’t turn a blind eye to it. Lead your flock to do the same.

From the beginning the religious and spiritual leaders were challenged to be real leaders of God’s vision.

Instead, they were the very ones who trumped up the charges against Jesus… spread rumors about him and discredited his witness. They were the very ones who made sure as a prisoner Jesus got an unfair trial. They, the blind guides, paved the way for the violence of the cross. They, the brood of vipers, bit and spread their venom among their own.

Pastor and author Michael Cheshire wrote a book that came out earlier this year called “Why We Eat Our Own.” In it, he asks:

“Is the decline in Christianity due to the world or have we just become horrible to each other and the world noted it?” And then he suggests:

“Perhaps, if we alter the way we treat each other and begin to show Christ’s love, we might turn this trend around. To do this, we are going to have to be honest about the current condition of the church and begin to have very real conversations about words that may have lost their real meaning.

Words like forgiveness, kindness and restoration.”

Advent is a season of the church. A time of reflection for the church. A time to step back and really consider who we are and what role we are playing in the cosmic drama that continues to unfold around us.

Are we pointing ever more clearly to the missing peace in the world or are we actively revealing the peace of Christ in and for the world? Are we standing against one another or standing for the broken hearted, the hurting, the lonely God has placed before us? Are we living instruments of peace and healing and hope in the name of Jesus?

Again from the prophet Isaiah:

“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach.”

Or those whose witness reveals peace.

Our brother in Christ, Zoughbi Zoughbi gives us these words of encouragement and inspiration:

Despite the occupation and our circumstances here in Bethlehem today, our spirits are uplifted by the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ all those years ago. Hope is born with Christmas and reborn with the Resurrection.

So despite all the bloodshed, all the anger and the injustice, the resurrecting Christ is alive amongst us. As Saint Paul said in his letter to the Romans, chapter 8: Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

I am convinced that (nothing) in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” The essential message of Christmas is new life not death, so here in Bethlehem despite our circumstances, we opt to celebrate life with others in the Middle East and everywhere. We are determined to live life before death. Pray for us.

“As I prepare to leave the Middle East,” wrote my friend Doug in his last newsletter, “I am left with the feeling that there is so much more left to be done. Yet a quote which has hung on my refrigerator door for years, has served as a guideline – and a reflection of my own, personal convictions as well – these many years:

“It is not your task to complete the job of perfecting the world, but neither are you free to desist from it.

May that be our Advent reflection as we consider the missing peace in our world… in our own community, in our church, in our families, in our lives. It is not our task to complete the job, but each one of us has a responsibility toward it. And we, as the living, breathing church of Jesus Christ are to work together to reveal it. Waiting, finally, for him, the one to whom all honor and glory are due, to put in the last and lasting piece.

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