Blessed Are...

Luke 6:17-26 (New Revised Standard Version)

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

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“Four score and seven years ago…” I imagine that these words have become so ingrained into our minds that just hearing them evokes a sense of grandeur and awe. It was over 150 years ago that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, which would become a speech that would live on in infamy. Yet before he rose to power, not much was known Lincoln and when asked about his youth he replied, “It can all be condensed to a single sentence and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’” I think it would be fair to say that Lincoln lived a life that was just as complex and shaded in hues of gray as our lives are today. As we reflect on Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain it might be useful to look back on Lincoln’s life as we consider how these teachings of Jesus lay claim on our lives today.

Lincoln was not a Presbyterian. Neither was he a member of any denomination that we know of and his Lincoln’s faith is largely surrounded by a shroud of mysticism.  Some aspects of Lincoln’s life and faith are still contested and controversial even though it has been over 150 years after his death. Some have argued that Lincoln used faith as means to gain power, and never personally held onto the “Christian” teachings that he professed to uphold. Yet setting those arguments aside we can see how many of these classic Christian elements were embodied in the life of Lincoln, and by “Christian elements” I mean both the good and the bad, parts that are reflective of Christ’s teachings and segments that remind us that we are ourselves not above reproach.

It is the abosolutes and greyness of Lincoln’s life and legacy that truly bring us into today’s passage… Because just as there was diversity in the crowd who came to hear Jesus so too is there a diversity among us who hear the words of Christ in our lives today. For some we may hear the absolutes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. For others we may hear that there is room for nuance and interpretation of Jesus’ words. There is a sense of comfort and discomfort to both of these ways of listening to Jesus. Perhaps that is the point of the Sermon on the Plain… Perhaps the point is that the blessings and woes are means to challenge us… Challenge us not only in how we actively live out our faith in our communities, but how we live out our faith in relationship to God as well. Because at the heart of all these blessings and all these woes is the emphasis on relationship with God.

For some reason or another in our modern Christianity we have equated success to be mean that a person has a strong faith… Just watch some of the Sunday morning shows and you will find televangelist preaching that if you pray hard enough, if you just give a little more, God will bless you. It’s unfortunate that we have created a culture that assumes that if you live a happy and full life your faith must be strong. Earthly success does not mean that we have divine approval from God. That means we need to cast away false beliefs that assume that if someone is suffering they are being punished by God, deserve their suffering, or that they themselves created the current situation for themselves. All of these things run counter to what is at the heart of the Word of God. And if we were to take a close look we would find that the text this morning tells we need to be wary of embracing a life that is full and that life of humility is what brings us closer into relationship with God.

Humility is one of those things we talk about, but never seem to master in terms of applying it to our everyday lives. We aspire to be humble, we strive to be modest in our successes, and graceful when we fall short. Yet it feels like no matter how hard we try we aren’t able to get to the place where we want to be when it comes to living lives that reflect a spirit of humility. Lincoln might have been a good example… Edwin Stanton who was a former colleague of Lincoln, during his time as a lawyer, would often call Lincoln names… After being appointed to Lincoln’s cabinet as the Secretary of War he was famous for having once called Lincoln a fool. When asked about how he felt Lincoln said, “If Stanton said I was a [darn] fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right and generally says what he means.”

So how might humility play into the some of the blessings and woes that we find in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain? I would suggest that we take a look at a few of them and then consider how they might impact us as we use Lincoln as an example… “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Lincoln’s humble upbringing is one of the most important factors when it comes to his impact as a statesman and president. The loss of his mother and sister while he was young would help shape the kind of leader Lincoln would become. While not perfect, Lincoln would seek to pursue the common good during the time of his presidency. What are the things in our life that make us who we are today? If we are rich in material goods what might we be “poor” in? If we find that we are without many material goods in what ways have we inherited the Kingdom of God?

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” While I think that many would say that Lincoln embodied many of the teachings from the Sermon on the Plain, I think it would be also fair to say that he fell short in some ways as well. Without dwelling on his shortcomings it would be prudent to name a couple of them for the sake of realizing the ways in which we ourselves have not upheld this blessing from the Sermon on the Plain:

  1. As much as Lincoln abhorred slavery he was not an abolitionist. Though he worked alongside abolitionist Lincoln never considered himself to be one. In 1854, 7 years before the Civil War, Lincoln gave a speech in Peoria, IL where stated that as much as he hated slavery he wasn’t sure what could be done about it within the current political system.

  2. And while we would agree that Lincoln lived a life that embodied the core of the Sermon on the Plain, or the Beatitudes as found in the Gospel According to Matthew, Lincoln wasn’t 100% in favor of giving people the rights, the “hungry” as Luke would say, what they are entitled to. In his debated against Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said, “I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

It may be uncomfortable to think that Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, could end up on a side that we know to be wrong, a side that violates, that defiles, what is at the very heart of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. But that’s the redeeming part of the Sermon on the Plain. While Lincoln was not perfect I think there is room for us to see the power of what it means to have a heart that is humble and a heart that is willing to be open to new possibilities when it trusts in the promises of God. For Lincoln, that meant having a relationship with Frederick Douglas [ad lib], who was a freed slave who led abolitionist movements in both Massachusetts and New York. This relationship is what could spur Lincoln on to give the Emancipation Proclamation, which in itself was flawed, but a step that would lead to others carrying on in the work of healing and reconciliation.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” We know the cost of what it means to live in a free society… Lincoln who oversaw the end of one of America’s most bloodiest wars would pay for that peace in his own blood. Over the course of his presidency he was mocked and caricatured in ways  that would seem mild by even today’s standards. Yet Lincoln never gave into responding in a like manner. Perhaps we can think about the ways in which we have treated one another… The ways that we have hurt others, the ways that we have excluded others, the ways in which we try to physically and metaphorically exclude others… Because it’s them, not us, who are blessed.

The either/or nature of the blessings and woes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain are meant to make you stop and consider the impact they are meant to have on our everyday lives. There are days where it is easier to trust God. There are times where in our weakness we are able to turn things around and bless others, but all of these things require a spirit of humility. The Sermon on the Plain raises many more questions… Questions about God’s providence, questions about suffering and pain, but for today let us focus on who the blessed ones are. They are the poor, they are the hungry, they are those who are mourning, and those who are hated, and they are you and me… As we go out into the world around us with the hope of blessing others we will discover that we ourselves will be blessed. Not because of anything we have done, but because of God’s grace and compassion.

As we near the Season of Lent you might be considering something you might want to try this year. Perhaps you’ve tried changing your lifestyle and perhaps you’ve tried a spiritual practice as well. This year for the Season of Lent why don’t we try doing something different… Why don’t we try living into a life of humility that trusts in God, sets aside fears about whether or not we are successful, and allow ourselves to fall back into the arms of God being comforted by the knowledge that God knows our hearts, regardless of how others may judge us. Because then all of us who are called to blessed may keep passing those blessing on to others. Amen.



Fish or No Fish

Luke 5:1-11 (New Revised Standard Version)

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

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“Tidying Up” featuring Marie Kondo is a Netflix special that has gained a lot of traction recently. Based off of her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” Marie Kondo walks takes us through a journey of reclaiming our living spaces and sorting through our possessions that “spark joy.” I didn’t know that tidying up could be so controversial, but apparently it has caused people to be defensive of their large collection of books, antiques, or whatever else you could think of having in your house. Kondo’s effort to let go of the things that don’t spark joy has resulted in a myriad of articles, Facebook posts, and memes… (For for those of you who don’t know what a “meme” is a pictures that is culturally recognizable and provides humor when you caption it.)

There are things in life that bring us joy and there are also things that don’t spark that same sense of joy within our souls. While I think all of us at some point have accumulated things that lift up our souls, I think there are also times in our lives when gather things doesn’t always relate to happiness. I’m thinking in particular of the card game “Go Fish,” where you ask the opposing player if they have a certain card and if they don’t, they say, “Go Fish,” and then you have to add a card from the deck to your hand. In that scenario fishing for another card from the deck doesn’t elicit a feeling of excitement or awe. As we look at the passage this morning we will want to keep this in the front of our minds, that our call is not always something we want to do, as we find Jesus telling Peter, “Go fish.”

I’m sure that as Simon, who would be called Peter, was pulling up his nets and headed for the shoreline he wasn’t expecting to run into someone like Jesus, but really who among us is ever ready for an encounter with Jesus? After putting in countless hours of waiting and tending the nets Simon came back with nothing. And I almost imagine Peter rolling his eyes discreetingly when Jesus told him to go out and cast his nets once again. You know it’s one thing to be a fan of Jesus, to know what Jesus teaches and to know who Jesus is in the world… But it’s another thing to actually be a follower of Jesus, which lays a greater claim on our lives than what we are often willing to give to Jesus. We’d much rather do the things that we want to do instead of doing the hard tasks that Jesus asks of us.

Now I’m not an avid fisherman, but I know a lot of people who do enjoying fishing on a regular basis [ad lib]… Compared to the technology we have today fishing in biblical times was a whole other ordeal. It was strenuous work and took a lot of energy… Often fishermen like worked out of wooden boats that were about 27 ft in length, 7.5 ft in width, and 4 ft deep. So there wasn’t much room to move around and then add the fact that they would have to haul in large nets that would catch the fish. Just try and put yourself in Simon’s position… You’ve been working all night casting and reeling in your nets and when day breaks you’re ready to get some rest and then Jesus comes asking you to do the process all over again.

I’d be pretty skeptical of Jesus… In truth I might even think that Jesus was trying to just have a little fun and see if I would actually go out and follow him. How many times have we missed the call of Jesus on our lives because we refused to believe that Jesus would add one more thing to our already long list of things to do? How many times have we left the work of compassion, care, and love untouched, because we though there were more important things to do? Fishing takes patience... it means that we’ll probably end up doing some things that aren’t fun or exciting or spark joy within us. But that’s what it means to follow Christ... There’s a cost, there’s a sacrifice, and that’s what it means to go fishing in the Kingdom of God.

However, the advice from a carpenter's Son would prove that all our eye-rolling, skepticism, and doubt would come back and catch us off guard if we go through life not willing to live with hearts that are open to the wondrous works of God. We find that there were so many fish that the nets were about to tear apart and the boat was on the verge of sinking into the lake. Had Simon given into his desire to not go back out he would have missed out on the miracle that Jesus brought about that day. In many ways we find that we are in Simon’s position each and everyday. We are present with a choice to either embrace the call of Jesus, which can lead to unexpected things, or we can stick to what we know, but miss out on the things that Jesus truly asks of us.

I sometimes worry that our cultural obsession, both outside and inside the church, with the things or activities that bring us joy will make it so we will not hear the times when Jesus calls us to do something different, something that is outside the norm of our daily lives. I worry that as we pursue our own happiness and our meaning and place in life, we will neglect important things if we find that they do not spark the same amount of joy in our lives. As an aside I want to say that I’m all in support of pursuing the things that are affirming in your lives, because more often than not they do lead to the places where God is calling, but if we ignore the more challenging call in our lives than we may find that at the end of the day instead of having fish, we have none.

We know what happens next to Simon once he decided to follow Jesus and go back out into the waters of the lake to cast his nets once again. As Simon and his crew pulled in the nets full of fish; we see Simon kneeling before Jesus saying that he was not worthy. When we face our fears, when we face difficult challenges head on, it can be quite an intimidating experience and overwhelming when we accomplish those tasks at hand. When we find that our challenge has been completed we look up to see that Jesus is there telling us not to be afraid, and that if we are willing to follow as disciples we will discover that the nets in our hearts will be full of abundant love and grace. When we choose to follow even though it may not be the most exciting thing ever, we will find that there is something waiting to be uncovered within ourselves and within our communities.

This morning we also hear of another story in which there was someone who believed that they were unworthy answering the call of God and hesitant in answering. In our first reading this morning we hear the voice of the divine calling out to the prophet Isaiah, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The prophet is concerned that he is unclean, unworthy, but before God those excuses we make for ourselves mean nothing. And as the prophet is purified by a hot coal he responds out to the voice calling out to him saying, “Here am I; send me!” When we are asked to go out and try again, when we are asked to go out and casts our nets into a lake that seems void of fish, it doesn’t seem intuitive to answer enthusiastically, but that is what God expects of us.

Fish or no fish? It seems like a simple question, but not so much when you begin to realize just how much work and energy goes into the kind of fishing that Jesus asks of us. It’s easier to stick to the things we know… It’s easier to live a life of discipleship that focuses on things that affirm the gifts that we know we have, but what would it look like to live a life of discipleship that casts the nets once more, because there is faith that Christ will use what we have to build up the Kingdom of God? You may be tempted to roll your eyes and look at Jesus with that a face that says, “Really?” Try throwing your net on the other side of the boat, because the thing that catch may be life altering, transforming, and reaffirming in a way that exceeds any accolades or praise the things that are familiar could offer… But if we don’t throw our nets over the side of the boat, we’ll never know.

As Jesus called Simon, later known as Peter, to be a fisher of humankind we know the impact that his faith had on those around him. While we might not talk about discipleship or faith in the same manner as they did back then, perhaps we should, because it would remind us that if we aren’t willing to take risks to follow Christ, truly follow Christ, then we'll end up with an empty net… So here are some things I’d like us to carry with this week…

  1. Do something that is meaningful, but familiar… It could be volunteer at a local organization, it could be visiting a friend or family member, it could also be as simple and as meaningful as praying for someone who you know needs prayer.

  2. Do something that is meaningful, but unfamiliar… Take an opportunity to cast your net on the other side of the boat. Try something that you’ve maybe always wanted to do, but haven’t had the motivation to pursue it.

  3. Spend time in prayer and reread the story of Jesus calling Simon… In what ways do you resonate with Simon and in what ways are you different? And perhaps most important of all spend time letting the Spirit of God inspire your imagination of what we could do together as we “fish” as faithful disciples.

We may not know what the waters of life bring next, but I imagine Jesus would tell us the same thing as he told Simon, “Do not be afraid…” So let us pick the nets and get the boat ready as we follow Christ. Amen.



"The Mission"

I Corinthians 13:1-13 (New Revised Standard Version)

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

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This past week I attended a SNEPJC training that was given by an RE from GA who works with  the GAPJC. We talked about IC’s, AI’s, RE’s, TE’s, AFR’s, the PMA, the OGA, and the PC(USA)... I’m afraid that I’m not speaking in the tongues of angels, but instead speaking in the tongues of mortals, contrary to what I would like to think. Whether we know it or not we often speak using “insider” language, terms or phrases that may be familiar to us, but inadvertently excludes those who are aren’t in the know… And I mention all of this, because it’s a segway into our theme this morning, which is that our words and actions lack love if they originate from a place of self-centeredness.

Another example of this comes from one of my favorite movies. If you haven’t seen this movie I highly recommend it, but as I thought about the sermon for this morning I couldn’t help but think about the movie “The Mission” released in 1986 starring Jeremy Iron and Robert De Niro. Without getting too much into the nitty gritty and giving away the whole movie, there is one scene I want to highlight for you. Robert De Niro’s character, a reformed slave trader, decides to change the direction of his life and attempts to join the priesthood in South America. Over the course of his journey of discovery he is given a Bible by one of the priests and reflects on the reading from I Corinthians 13.  

I recommend you watch “The Mission,” because it was powerful scene to watch De Niro’s character, an originally rough and tough slave trader, read the words that we read this morning, “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” It’s a journey of selfless love, love that does not ask for anything in return, love that does not do things for the sake of recognition, but for the sake of answering the call to love without restrictions or expecting anything in return.

When was the last time you sat down with Scripture and reflected on a passage such as the one from I Corinthians? When was the last time you let a Bible passage sit with you for a period of time as a meditation or prayer? As I mentioned in the beginning this section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians challenges us to think about what is at the core of our being. Is it faith? Is it hope?  Is it love? But since we know that love is at the heart of all of these things perhaps the questions is, “What kind of love is guiding our live?” Because if it is love that is self-serving or for vanity’s sake, then we might have to go on a journey of rediscovery and self-discernment.

We have a tendency to exalt ourselves, a tendency to pad our own egos and self-image, and the love that God has instilled in us ends up needing a little tuning every now and then. We might find that we need to reconnect with the things that are supposed to nurture both our bodies and our souls. When we go on a journey of rediscovery, when we pursue the mission that Christ has given to us, we will hopefully end up in a place where our love has grown up. It may be that you are looking through a mirror dimly or that you understand the world as a child, but at some point something needs to change… The idea that we are static or immoveable does not lend itself to the type of challenging faith that we are called to participate in.

Last week also took a look at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. And in the section we looked at last week Paul was seeking to correct to the church in Corinth. As we looked at how all of our spiritual gifts come from God, we remember this week that if those gifts are not used properly they may end up being as useful as a “loud gong” or “clanging cymbal.” Love is edifying, love is what builds up and not tears down, as Paul puts it, “love never ends.”

Lonni Collins Pratt is the co-authors of a book that some of you might have read or heard of called “Radical Hospital.” In the book she talks about time where she and her husband lived across from a small cabin, which was empty at the time. Soon after their arrival they had a neighbor move into the small cabin, a older gentleman who was described as looking like Willie Nelson. Pratt’s husband went to introduce himself, but being more reserved Pratt didn’t go with her husband. It soon became clear that their neighbor had a mission, which was to renovate and fix the cabin, which had fallen into disrepair.

All was well until one night she heard a loud scream coming from the cabin. A few weeks went by and Pratt finally went over and introduced herself to their neighbor and brought over some food. As they swapped stories the man said he liked to go around and fix up houses so that younger families could move in… Being a Vietnam vet he found it therapeutic, but still felt like he was living there. Pratt writes that as she listened she heard things that her neighbor never said… As she listened with intent she heard the underlying message of concern and pain, “Don’t worry I won’t be here very long, and I hope that you can tolerate me and soon you’ll have the neighbor that you had hoped for.”

And that is part of the mission… Can we listen that deeply to the story of those around us? Can we listen with such deep love as to hear the words of others that are not spoken? Can we act then in love once we listen out of a place of our own vulnerability and care? Because that kind of listening and action is what Paul is talking about this morning… It is that kind of listening and action that comes from a place of selfless love that leads to the understanding of true love that is described by Paul in the passage for today…

Once again I would encourage you to see the movie “The Mission,” because the evolution of Robert De Niro’s character is a great portrayal of what Paul is calling for in today’s Scripture reading. Because we all have a mission that has been given to us by Christ, a mission that will ask us to change what is at the very core of our being. It is a mission that is filled with joy, a mission that is filled with sorrow, and a mission that is grounded on the truth that the love of God will carry us onward to wherever it is we will end up… It is a mission that will hopefully lead us to a place where we will have learned to love in the same manner that Christ loves us.

As we move ahead in this congregation in this time of shaping and reshaping, and focusing and honing our attention on who we are, perhaps we can take up the mission of love that is found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Perhaps when we form small groups to vision a future for our church we will take up the task of listening with intent love. Perhaps when we beginning to use our hands our feet we will feel more connected with the world that God has called us to be stewards of and build relationships with those whom Christ has called us to care for.

I know that today is the Super Bowl, but maybe you’d be willing to take some time this afternoon, or maybe time this week, to just stop for a moment and recall a time where you have felt the kind of love that Paul wrote about in the letter we read from this morning. Maybe it was someone who practiced the kind of radical hospitality that Pratt wrote about in her book… Perhaps it was a time where you yourself stopped to listen to the underlying words that someone was saying or perhaps it was a time where your words influenced your actions.

The mission that is set before us runs opposite to what is at the core of our culture today. It asks that we  about consider the words we use and take ownership of our actions. It asks that we abandon the mentality of scarcity and live into a life of abundant love. For we do now see in a mirror, dimly, but when we live a life that is filled with the light of God that darkened mirror breaks into shattered shards… We need to be bold, we need not be afraid, because God is there with us as we grow and as we live into who we were created to be.

Maybe our mission will take us to our co-workers who are uncertain about their future or a classmate if you’re in school who feels like no one understands them. Maybe it’s that person who has been a thorn in your side, but they look like they are in need of help. Maybe it’s that person you’ve been meaning to visit, but just haven’t had the time. It may even be a complete stranger who you encounter this week who you might have otherwise just walked by and ignored. So how will you live out the mission of your heart this week? Take time to listen, take time to act, take time to just stop and take in the world around you… For we all have hope, we all have faith, and above it is love that guides and holds these things together. Amen.



Putting It All Together

I Corinthians 12:12-31 (New Revised Standard Version)

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

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How many here this morning are familiar with the term “internet troll”? For those who aren’t familiar with what an “internet troll” is, an internet troll is a person who leaves caustic comments on the internet with the sole intent of being provocative or abrasive. Patton Oswalt, a comedian known for his own aggressive style of comedy, was the recipient of an internet trolls comment this past week. Instead of returning the favor, Patton Oswalt looked through the commenters Twitter feed and saw that he had a Go Fund Me page to help raise money to cover expenses from an emergency room visit. Oswalt donated $2,000 to his online heckler and encouraged his followers to give as well… The man who had thrown harsh criticism at Oswalt wrote back thanking him, and that going forward he would take to heart the impact that his words have on others.

These are the kind of stories we need as we look around and find that the things that divide us seem to stand out more than the things that bring us together. Of course each of us have things that we are passionate about and things that we care deeply for, but as we are reminded by the Scripture reading this morning, we are united together in one body, the body of Christ, and as we represent the various parts of the body of Christ we cannot turn our backs on our brothers and sisters who also offer vital gifts and talents that contribute to the Kingdom of God. We are all apostles, we are all disciples, we are all stewards of this created world and tasked with making sure that gifts we have been given are not hoarded, but instead shared with all.

This morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is part of larger section, where Paul is seeking to correct the church in Corinth in regards to how it viewed spiritual gifts. We don’t often talk about spiritual gifts in our churches today, so it might be premature to ask you what is your spiritual gift. But in the passage this morning things like speaking in tongues, spiritual healing, and other phenomena were essential parts of the early Church. The problem that arises out of this passage is that the church in Corinth began to cultivate a disproportionate liking for some spiritual gifts over others, essentially ranking the gifts that God has given to each and everyone of us… Perhaps then the church in Corinth is a place where we can shed ourselves of pride and arrogance, and rediscover what it means to be connected to something that goes beyond ourselves.

I find the human body to be quite fascinating, not only because it is so complex, but because it also captures what is at the heart our reading this morning. Our lungs don’t tell our red blood cells, “Hey… You just gotta learn to distribute your oxygen better... I can’t keep giving you a ‘free ride.’ Learn to save so you won’t need to keep coming back.” Our bodies don’t work that way and neither is the community in which Christ has called us to live in. If we treat others as being less, then we are no better than one part of the body telling the other that, “I have no need for you.” We know that we have been called to participate, to belong to something higher, but that doesn’t mean we are immune to falling back into ways that are familiar, ways that exclude others, ways that divide the body of Christ instead of putting it back together.

In case you’ve forgotten how it is we are bound together all you need to do is look at the Sacrament of Baptism and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As I’ve mentioned before, it is the waters of baptism where we are claimed by Christ and where we are connected with the collection of saints who have come before us. In addition, we only have to look at the Lord’s Table to see how we are brought together in one community. In the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we are called to sit at table with one another, a table where we break bread and drink from the cup of salvation where we remember what Christ has given to us in order that we may give to others. It is a sacred calling, a vocation, and it should be powerful enough make you stop and think about how often, if at all, you’ve stopped to appreciate the talents and offerings of those around you.

The spiritual gifts we have received from God are not only for our own consumption or for our own personal enjoyment. What we find that we only have to open the pages of the Bible to see that Jesus calls us to continually seek out faith and to be active in our walk with God, Jesus, and one another. As we are reminded by Jesus’ own words, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) Our spiritual gifts of compassion, love, grace, discipleship, forgiveness, teaching, and caring are meant to be paired with hearts that are humble and willing to serve and look for God in both the light and in the darkened corners of the world where we dare not go. Taking this into consideration, perhaps belonging to the body of Christ is not as easy as we thought it would be.

It should go without saying that there are a lot of things that try to stop us from participating in the body of Christ. There are the old hurts and pains from broken or fractured relationships… There are fears that the future that we have hoped and worked for will not pan out the way we wanted them too… And then there are molehills that miraculously become mountains either by our own doing or by the inexplicable forces of nature. When we find that the forces of hate and negativity try to tear us away from the body of Christ, may we remember that since we belong to the body of Christ we have a place to seek strength and encouragement from those around us. The body of Christ is a place that is edifying, where iron sharpens iron, where the strongest parts support the weak and visa versa.

Putting it all together means each of us has a role to play in the Kingdom of God. Each of us has a place and a value and a talent to offer, that benefits all who are part of the body of Christ. At times it can feel like trying to do a puzzle with a group of friends, and some of those  friends decide that it would be fun to hoard the pieces for themselves. We know that’s not how you do a puzzle, we know that the eye cannot say, “I have no need for you,” and that the ear cannot say, “I do not belong,” because we do have a need for one another, and because this body of Christ is meant to be a place where all people belong, whether we want to acknowledge them or not! Putting it all together means that you and I have to hear the call… We have to hear the voice of God speaking to us, calling us to live in a manner that is honorable, loving, and compassionate.

Our diversity, the gifts of our talents and stories, is what makes up the body of Christ. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “As it is, there are many members, yet one body.” The unity, the oneness, of the body of Christ relies on the diversity of its members. And while each of the parts of the body of Christ may be different from one another, they each function in a way that maintains and strengthens the various parts. The importance here is that no community, no organization, no church, can survive unless it possesses a diversified symmetry. This picture painted by Paul might be comparable to that of a kaleidoscope… All of the various parts come together to form an object, but the diversity of parts results in an experience that is rich, because each part offers something unique and different.

Remember that you, that we, are the body of Christ, and together we represent individual pieces. So how will you live your life in a way the reflects this diversity, this unified community we have been called to live in with one another? Because let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that our faith doesn’t ask for something in return… If we seek to be a member of the body of Christ then the body of Christ is going to lay some claim to our lives as well. We cannot go through life thinking that we can overcome all the challenges of this world alone. We cannot go through life thinking that our one part alone can carry everyone else… We need to work together, we need to come together, otherwise why else would we come seeking to be a part of the body of Christ? God has appointed each and everyone of us with a task. So may we live into that task, building up and strengthening one another as we together put together the community that God desires.  Amen.



Know That God Is Here

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (New Revised Standard Version)

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

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This Sunday we celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. As I was thinking about the sermon for today I thought I would begin by asking this question: “What is baptism?” [And no, this isn’t a rhetorical question... What is baptism? How do you understand baptism? Or perhaps you might be brave and humble and say that you aren’t really sure what baptism is, but you know we do it occasionally and it involves sprinkling some water over a babies head and that sometimes they cry and sometimes they stay fast asleep.]

So since we have various understandings of what baptism is, I thought that we could use the story of Jesus’ baptism by the John the Baptist to better understand the Sacrament of Baptism, the Sacrament of Baptism that we proclaim to be an essential part of our Christian faith. And using our gospel reading it might be helpful then to look at baptism as being: 1.) A participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. 2) Conversion, pardoning, and cleansing. 3.) A gift from the Holy Spirit. 4.) Joining the body of Christ. 5.) And a sign of the Kingdom of God.

1.) Baptism as a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection…

As John the Baptist speaks to the crowd that has gathered he paints an apocalyptic scene, “His winnowing fork in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This apocalyptic image might not seem like good news, in fact it’s quite a scary image, but I these words from John the Baptist encapsulate our first point as we seek to understand what baptism truly means. Because what we will find is that there is shedding of the things that are old, that are undesirable, and a putting on of what is new, leads to the things that are lifegiving.

John talks about separating the chaff, the worthless part of a grain crop, from the wheat. This imagery is not too far off from what the way that early Christians viewed baptism. They often viewed baptism as a type of “funeral” service, that celebrated the dying of the old self and the rebirth of what is new and founded on the grace of God. The early Christians would go down to pool or other body of water and take off their old clothes, which symbolized their life before Christ. And after they were baptized and got out of the water, they were given a new set of clothing that represented their new life in Christ. We don’t do that anymore, but it gives you something to think about. Baptism is an act where we “die” with Christ, were we cast off the ways of this world, and clothe ourselves with the holiness of God. A holiness that is life altering.

2.) Conversion, pardoning, and cleansing…

John the Baptist had a cult following. He had a group of people, a group of disciples, who followed him and his teachings. Of course the establishment, the teachers of the law, weren’t fans of John the Baptist. They wished that John the Baptist would stop spreading his teachings about the cleansing that can be found in baptism. What we find before this morning’s passage is John the Baptist addressing the teachers of the law and the other religious leaders who had followed him to the place where he was teaching. And as the teachers of the law and other religious leaders looked on with scorn at John the Baptist you might remember John the Baptist’s famous words to them, yelling out to them, “You brood of vipers!”

We don’t like to talk about sin, we don’t like to talk about things that make us uncomfortable or uneasy, the things that make us take a hard look at ourselves. I’m sure that the religious leaders who came to see John the Baptist didn’t like having a mirror held up in front of them so they could take a look at who they were… They didn’t like having their hypocrisy and other flaws being exposed for all to see. But that’s what we do when we take time to remember the cleansing that occurs during the Sacrament of Baptism. In the waters of baptism we remember the cleansing power of the love of God, the love that challenges us and calls us to live a renewed life, a life without fear, a life that is filled with the life giving waters that sooth our soul, renews our weary bodies, and gives us strength to carry on.  

3.) A gift from the Holy Spirit…

In our passage this morning we hear of the Holy Spirit descending from heaven in the form of a dove. The heavens opened up, the skies separated, and a voice from heaven boomed forth with the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In baptism we remember the gifts that we have received from the Holy Spirit. In baptism we remember that each of us are created in the image of God, that each of us are a reflection of God and that our various skin colours, ethnicities, cultures, and traditions add to the rich and multifaceted nature of the divine.

When did we stop celebrating these gifts of the Holy Spirit? When did we decide we wanted to box in the Spirit of God and try to contain it and shape it in a way that pleases only ourselves? This time I’m speaking rhetorically, but at the same time I’m asking for us to think about the times when we have put a stop to the free flowing gifts of the Spirit, because we didn’t like where it was taking us, or we didn’t like the kind of people whom it attracted to our church, or the times when we weren’t willing to have an inclusive vision for the body of Christ that we know we are called to embrace and cherish. When did we allow that to happen?

Just picture the faces of the people who stood there and saw the heavens being torn apart in a violent manner, and out of the chaos and confusion a dove, a symbol of love and peace, decendended from the heavens to remind them, to remind us, that we are God’s beloved, and with us God is well pleased if we are willing to use the gifts we have been given to seek out justice, peace, and compassion.

4.) Joining the body of Christ…

I think that it’s a beautiful thing that after Jesus was baptized, others were baptized as well. When we are baptized we are are joined to a larger body, a larger community, that spans across multiple centuries and continents. When we are baptized we are joined to the body of Christ that connects us with all those who have come before us and those who will come after us. Now I’m not great with metaphysics, so I can’t explain how we are connected to such a large body of saints, but I can tell you that we are indeed connected to something bigger, something larger, something that goes beyond ourselves… And as we live in a world that places so much emphasis on the self, when do we take time to focus on others?

As we bear witness to the Sacrament of Baptism we make promises… We make promises to care for, to love, to nurture, those who are baptized and brought into the body of Christ. We promise to not only do all those things that I’ve already mentioned, but we also promise to help them grow in their journey of life and faith and to be open to receiving help from them as well. I don’t think we always do a good job at fulfilling these baptismal vows and promises… And I know that life is hard… I know that people move, that kids grow up and go away to college and sometimes never return… But what would it look like to live those vows in our everyday lives? What would it look like to live as people who have been baptized and to live as lives that are being transformed and transforming other? I imagine that we would build a much stronger community not only here in this place, but wherever we go as well.

5.) A sign of the Kingdom of God…

John the Baptist was a human being that baptized people with water, but his baptism was really a preparation for the coming of Christ who would come and baptize with the fires of the Holy Spirit. You might say that all of the previous points lead to this… You might say that they all lead to us remembering that baptism is a sign of the Kingdom of God. And it’s a kingdom that is unlike any earthly kingdom, any earthly country, it a place where the waters of baptism act as a liberating force, just as the waters of the Red Sea liberated the people of Israel from the lands of Egypt.

The waters of baptism act as a liberating force that breaks down the barriers that divides us, calls for a permanent revolution in our way of thinking, waters that remind us that the first shall be last, the widows and the orphans shall inherit the Kingdom of God, the strangers, the foreigners shall be welcomed, and all of this is in addition to the glorious part where these waters continue to flow into the Kingdom of God, bringing all who hunger, who thirst, into its borders regardless of where they have come from, regardless of who they were before, regardless of who others think them to be. The waters of baptism remind us that God is here. That God is here right now in this very place, that God is here, waiting and watching to see how we will respond to the promises we received in the Sacrament of Baptism and how we will carry out the vows we made to others as well.

Baptism is a visible, a visceral sign that calls us to live a renewed life in God, a life that asks us to learn hard into the promises, the compassion, and the grace of God. And to live as one who has been baptized means that we are to live lives of radical love, knowing that God is here with us and with those who have been wandering in the wilderness seeking answers to the puzzles and mysteries of life and faith. That God is here and is doing a new and good work in us. That God is here and waiting, waiting us for us embrace who we are, to embrace who others are, to embrace who we together have been called to be, a community, a body, that is reflective of Jesus Christ.

So let us remember the baptism of Christ as a means of remembering our own baptism… Let us remember how we have died and been reborn anew in Christ, let us remember how we have been cleansed and renewed, let us see the gifts that the Spirit of God has given us and given others, let us admire the beauty and rich diversity of the body of Christ, and let us remember the Kingdom of God where the waters of baptism bring all who are seeking, all who are heaven laden, and all who have been forgotten and marginalized. Amen.



Searching In All the Wrong Places

Luke 2:41-52 (New Revised Standard Version)

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

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The chaotic and joyous events of Christmas are beginning to wind down. The shepherds with their flocks had left, the boisterous choir of angels had ascended back into heaven, and what we are now left with is Mary and Joseph who are finally given some time to spend with their new born child. Our reading this morning from the Gospel According to Luke attempts to fill in some of the gaps of what happened after the birth of Jesus. To add a little more, before our reading this morning we find Mary and Joseph taking their son to the temple in Jerusalem to be presented to God in accordance with the Law of Moses. Imagine that, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the temple seeking God in a sacred moment.

Together they as a family were seeking God… We’ve seen how Mary sought out God and leaned hard into the promises of God and told a story that was counter cultural… We’ve seen how Joseph sought out God as someone  who didn’t have to believe Mary, but did, just as we are to believe stories like hers today… And after all is said and done, after all that seeking, they are ready to make their way back home after a doing everything that new parents of their time were expected to do. But like ourselves in the here and now, Mary and Joseph also had to deal with the struggles and chaos of life… And after trying to pack and find other family members they just  assumed that Jesus was were he needed to be… But even at a young age, we find that Jesus often turns the tables on our expectations.

We are people who like to move from one thing to the next… We set goals, we set expectations for ourselves, we make checklists that help keep us on track, and at the end of the day we take stock as to how much or how little progress we have made. I don’t think Mary and Joseph were keeping such a detailed list of the things they needed to do, but I think it would be fair to say that they, especially Mary, were looking forward to finally being able to settle down back home with their son who came about by miraculous means after checking everything off their list. Leaning into God’s promises takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of energy. However, that doesn’t mean our work is done… The magnitude might have changed, but if we aren’t careful we will find that Christ, the little Christ child, will keep us on our toes and surprise us when we least expect it.

I don’t know what it’s to have a child, but I know what it is like to hold onto something precious… But even then I can’t begin to imagine the sense of fear, dread, and panic that Mary must have felt when she looked around and couldn’t her little child. I imagine her heart felt like it was on the verge of breaking, just there are many other mothers, father, parents, whose hearts are on the verge of breaking from being separated from their precious children. Again, I’ll say I don’t know what it’s like to have a child, but I have to assume that we have a responsibility to help reunite them, to speak up for them… I have to assume that as others helped Mary and Joseph find Jesus that we too are tasked with helping to reconnect and bind up the brokenhearted who have suffered physical, emotional, and spiritual pain at unjust hands.

Our searching for Jesus can be painful. It can be a painful moment when we realize that we can’t find Jesus… It can be a heartbreaking moment when we realize that Jesus who we thought was there walking alongside us was isn’t in the place we remember, and so we begin to look and try to find where Jesus went. For some of this means we look in our time of grief… I’ve mentioned my father before who passed away and I can say that I must have caught a glimpse of the pain of Mary when I looked and saw my father and felt as though God wasn’t there to do what needed to be done. I looked… I spent a lot of time looking, I asked questions, and through the seeking I did for Jesus I found that Jesus was still there, but not in place where I thought Jesus would be… It took a lot of time, it took some anger, some tears, some explorations of who I was, but I imagine that for those of us who look for Jesus in times of grief, or pain, or loss we experience something similar.

It can also be a crossroads moment that comes when we discover that we don’t find the same joy from work, from relationships, from hobbies… We often go and look for Jesus when the things that once filled our hearts no longer seem to grant the same satisfaction we thought they would. Where do we go to find comfort in those times in our lives? We know the damage, the pain, that comes when we look in the wrong places around us… We know what happens when people try to find fulfillment in things that are centered on themselves. So what are going to do? Again, like the relatives and family members who must have helped Mary and Joseph look for Jesus, are we going to stand idly by? Or are we going to be active participants in God’s redemptive history? We have a once in a lifetime, literally a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of something that asks us to focus on something other than ourselves, to trust in something that is much larger than ourselves with our whole body and soul… So let’s rise up and meet the challenge as we search for that purpose, that meaning, that love, that Christ’s offers by journeying along the path of life and faith with a multitude of others.

And it can be a moment of humility that comes when we feel as though we aren’t worthy to look for Jesus in the first place… Who am I? Who I am to go and look for and be in the presence of someone who is  holier than I am? Who am I? I think that our modern search for Jesus has often been plagued by this question that challenges our humility and authenticity. Are we looking for Jesus because we think we are worthy? Or are we looking for Jesus because we know we need that grace and compassion in our lives? Or even yet are we looking for Jesus because we are wrestling with all of the above, because life can be a messy, complex, and chaotic place to be? I’ll be honest and say that there are moments in my life when I still don’t feel worthy to look for Jesus, to participate in the work that I have been called to do… But that is part of the Christmas miracle, that Christ, that God, asks those who don’t feel worthy to take on the calling that will shape not only ourselves, but those around us as well.

Our search for Jesus might at points be heartbreaking, at other times it may be stressful, and at other times frustrating. Frustrationing is one word that might encapsulate Mary and Joseph’s initial feeling after they found Jesus in the temple. I mean Jesus had wandered off without telling his parents. Mary and Joseph probably assumed that Jesus would have been well behaved enough to stay with other family members or relatives. And after searching all over for Jesus they found him in the temple with religious scholars and teachers of the law. And having spent all that time and energy looking for their son all Jesus has to offer is essentially a, “Duh, mom and dad! Of course you should have known that I would be here at the temple.” I’d like to think that Mary and Joseph then had a good laugh, because when you think about it it makes sense, and of course Jesus, God incarnate, as a child would say something like that.

Looking for Jesus in our modern era can feel like a daunting task, but sometimes in our attempts to find Jesus we neglect the obvious places in our lives where Jesus can be. While the temple might have been a physical place, the temple of today can be or in anything… Jesus can be in the mundane parts of life, Jesus can be in the place where the poor and the weary lay their head, Jesus can be in the challenging places that ask us to trust, to have faith, to have courage that sometimes we have to look outside our bubble in order to see the place where God is calling us. Perhaps our search for Jesus means that we have to get in touch with our childlike sense of wonderment and awe… Not childlike in the sense of being ignorant, but childlike in the sense that there is excitement to be found even in something as common as a blade of grass… We may find ourselves feeling like we have looked in all the wrong places, but that’s okay, and to be honest I think that’s the point of this thing we call faith. That there is no one concrete end, and our searching for Jesus is meant to take us from one place to another.  

Here in this place today can you find Jesus? Can you find Jesus? The Christmas story that tells of Mary and Joseph looking for their son is one that still continues this day and every day. Can we use this Christmas time to cultivate a level of belief that takes us outside our fears, our distrust, and our own biases? Are we willing to search for the Jesus in the places we don’t really want to go? Are we willing then to let Jesus, the one who shall be and is called Emmanuel, enter our hearts? It takes faith… It takes courage… We can look around and turn to friends and neighbors to help us look, but if we aren’t willing to truly look for Jesus in our lives and in this community then are we really answering God’s call? Because we don’t have any excuse not to believe that this calling from God is something that asks us to give of ourselves in order to gain something that transcends anything we could imagine as we search for Christ, because Christ himself came into the world to open our hearts, to open our ears, to open our eyes, for those who look for him… Christ looks for us to take on this great responsibility, and to go out into the world believing and seeking true justice, love, faith, and Christian fellowship. Amen.



A Song of Hope

Luke 1:46b-55 (New Revised Standard Version)

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has 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. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

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There’s a modern parable of sorts that originated from the Middle East, and finding it amusing I thought it would be appropriate for the scene we come across in this morning’s Gospel reading. It’s a story that tells of a person who lost their key and was looking for it under a street lamp. Someone walking by had noticed this person looking for something, so they stopped to help them look for it. After some time had past, the good samaritan who stopped to help asked the person looking for the key if they could remember the last time they  had seen it, to which the person responded, “It’s somewhere in that patch of grass overthere.” The person helping angrily responded, “Then why are you looking for it here if you know it’s not here?” “Because,” the person who lost their key said, “There is much more light here.”

Sometimes the truth, the hope, the love, the essential things we need in our lives, lies outside the safety and the comfort of the streetlamp, but if we aren’t willing to step outside the light and into the discomfort that surrounds us then we will find that we are comically standing underneath a streetlamp looking for something we know isn’t there. This comedy, this humor, is found in this morning's reading as we find Mary and Elizabeth exchanging greetings and blessings. This turning of the world upside down sets the stage for Christmas Eve, it sets the stage for the final scene where the Christ child will make his way into the world. But before we gather on Christmas Eve to sing “Silent Night,” we have to first ask, “Are we ready to be a part of the topsy-turvy world that Mary prophecies about?”

The miracle of the entire Christmas story is that the good news, the good news that is the cornerstone of our faith, was proclaimed by two marginalized women; one who was young, poor, and unwed, and the other who was deemed too old to bear any children. Their stories must have seemed unbelievable to those around them, but nevertheless we hold them to be essential truths… If we can believe their stories why can’t we believe the thousands if not million other stories that come from those like Mary and Elizabeth? Will we find ourselves shutting out the songs of Elizabeth and Mary? Or will we embrace them, welcome them, act on them, as we seek out God’s love, justice, and peace from unlikely sources?

Mary is one of those biblical figures who seems larger than life… Over the course of centuries we have cultivated a belief system around Mary, surrounded her in piety, and politicized her very being… It makes you wonder if there is anything that can be salvaged about the true Mary… The Mary that we find in our reading from the Gospel According to Luke who cuts through all our preconceived notions and stereotypes. If we listen closely we can still hear the song of hope, the words of the song of Mary ringing in our ears. If we take time to pause on this last Sunday of Advent we may not only hear, but also see… See what it means to be people created in the image of God, see what it means to be the Church, to see what we might look like at our very best, and we might see then a Mary who has volumes left to say after having been buried under a pile of suppressing rhetoric.

So perhaps we might understand Mary a little better if we were to take time to listen to the various parts of her song. Perhaps we need to spend some time listening for how it speaks to us about community, blessing, and hope...

A Song for Community… The exchange between Elizabeth and Mary comes not long after the angel Gabriel made a surprising visit to Mary. After being visited by the angel Gabriel we find that Mary quickly makes her way to see Elizabeth. Mary doesn’t shut herself off from the world. Mary doesn’t keep the revolutionary good news of God to herself. What we should listen for in the words of Mary is that this journey of life and faith isn’t done alone. We need to seek out fellow travelers who are also walking along the same path, we need to welcome those in who look weary and heavy laden.

The gospel doesn’t tell us why Mary went to go see Elizabeth. Traditionally, we have come to understand Mary’s pregnancy as something of a scandal… In our usual telling of the story of Mary we imagine her as an object of gossip, as someone who is at risk of being punished by society. Regardless of all of that I think we would be safe in saying that Mary needs safety, affirmation, and fellowship. Who of us here hasn’t gone through some difficult life experience and needed the comforting presence of another person? Could there be any better song for the Church? Imagine what our faith family could be if we gathered in a community in like Mary and Elizabeth who found themselves getting caught up in God’s counter-cultural work?

A Song of Blessing… Like I mentioned earlier, the hard part about Mary’s story is just how short it is… We know from the Gospel accounts that Mary was caught off guard by Gabriel’s announcement. We know that Mary says “yes” to the angels request. But in between all the other parts of Mary’s story we discover that there are so many questions, questions that we don’t have answers to. I imagine that Mary had a number of different questions that floated around her brain as well: Will Joseph still marry me? Will my parents still love me? Will I come out of giving birth alive? Who will help me when the baby comes? Who is going to help support me if Joseph decides to leave? Who am I to give birth to and raise the son of God? Is any of this real?

But as Mary makes her way to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah she finds that she is greeted with a blessing… This blessing is one that you might have heard of before… As Mary approaches Elizabeth, Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. [And] blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Elizabeth connects the dots… Elizabeth makes the connection between trust and blessing. Elizabeth lifts up Mary’s blessing as she sees how Mary’s blessing from God comes from her willingness to trust God. And to lean hard into God’s promises and believe that they are real, that they are real and they will carry her through all of life’s trials.

I wonder how Elizabeth’s blessing impacted Mary later on in life… I imagine that Mary held her blessing close to her heart as she delivered her first born son in a smelly stable… I imagine that she carried the blessing with her as she fled to Egypt seeking asylum, seeking refuge, from the evil of King Herod's armies. I imagine that she carried that blessing with her when years later her child would be arrested, beaten, mocked, and hung on a cross to die. God asks Mary to do the impossible… God asks Mary to live a life that is so counter cultural it will turn the world upside down… God’s asks Mary to go on a journey that will require faith, real faith, faith that isn’t found in the comfort of what is familiar, what is safe, what is traditional.

We don’t live in a culture that encourages us to bless one another… We instead live in a culture where we find that we are the ones who want to be blessed instead, and that’s a terrible shame… Shouldn’t we reclaim Elizabeth’s call to bless others? How would we change as a Church, as a people, if we made a point of recognizing each others pain, naming the things that need to be named, and blessing the divine gifts we see in each other? Picture the amount of joy, the the amount of empathy, the amount of love, that would flow forth from that wellspring of Elizabeth's vocation of blessing… All we have to do is pick up the mantle and bless those around us from the heart.

A Song of Hope… As Mary has found a community and blessing, she find her prophetic voice as well. With her soul being filled we find Mary bursting into song, the song of the Magnificat. But it’s not just any old song… It’s a song that paints a picture of radical hope, it’s a song that lifts up the poor and places them above the rich, it’s a song that mends the brokenhearted, and liberates the oppressed. Somewhere along the way we have viewed Mary as this individual who is weak, timid, and mild… But what we find in the Magnificat is a Mary who shatters all those stereotypes and preconceived notions. We find a Mary who sings a prophetic song that wouldn’t sound anything like the cherished Christmas carols or Advent hymns we sing each and every year.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings, and we hear her words go on to do just that… Mary’s words seek to magnify, to draw our attention to, God’s revolutionary plans for the world. A world where the unjust status quo is magnificently turned around. Mary describes a world that should make us feel uncomfortable, joyous, scared, excited, and fearful all at the same time :  

“He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has 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. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

If we can’t hear the song of hope, the song of blessing, and the song of community, perhaps we aren’t listening hard enough or maybe we are still trying to listen with our hands over our ears. If we look around and we find that our church, our community of faith, isn’t an embodiment of the community of Elizabeth and Mary then perhaps we have to step out from underneath the streetlamp and into the challenging, uncomfortable darkness that lies outside around us. It’s the irony, the comedy, of Mary’s Magnificat that challenges us this Advent. It’s Mary’s song that speaks to what we know to be true, but yet we resist it with all our might.

There is no unjust system, oppressive power, or arrogant and ignorant leaders that God will not uproot and turn over. If we can hear Mary’s song and believe her story then why can’t embrace this Advent truth, that God will work to change the world through us if we have but faith and trust? We may find it difficult to step out and go beyond our comfort zone, but if a young, unwed, marginalized woman like Mary was able to speak with such prophetic truth, such prophetic power, to an unjust world, then why can’t we raise up our songs of hope as well? Amen.



A Path In The Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6 (New Revised Standard Version)

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’’”

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John the Baptist might be someone whom we look at with an inquisitive look if we saw them sitting next to us in the pew on Sunday morning. In the Gospel According to Matthew, John is described as wearing clothes made out of camel hair and someone who ate locust and wild honey. However, unlike Matthew, Luke chooses to not focus on John’s appearance. Instead, the writer of the Gospel of Luke chooses to remind us of the time and place of John the Baptist’s ministry.

John wasn’t called to lead a congregation or a synagogue in a serene town somewhere in a far away place that wasn’t touch by the troubles of life. John was instead called to be a voice, a voice in a real and symbolic wilderness… A wilderness that bumped up and rubbed against the powers and principalities of the world and asked the hard questions of them… A wilderness that challenged those powers and principalities to rethink, reform, to reimagine who they were as people created in the image of God.

I don’t know if it was a conscious decision on the writer of Luke's part  to not include a description of John the Baptist’s appearance, but I do know that they wanted to make one thing very clear. That John the Baptist wasn’t preaching his message of salvation and repentance during some religious “Golden Era,” but instead preaching his message during a time of trial and tribulation. John was not only up against people like you and me who tend to get stuck in old ways of doing things, but John was also up against the people who made the rules and  had the power to silence him.

If the gospel writer were sitting with us this morning I believe that they would say that they chose to depict John the Baptist in the manner that they did, because they are asking us a question. They are asking us, “Are you going to do the work of God? Are you going to do the work of preparing the way of the Lord even if that means that you have to go against the powers of this world?” It’s work that isn’t popular… It’s work that occasionally makes you friends and work that drives friends away… It’s work that is hard because it asks that we smooth out the hills and straighten the crooked paths in our lives in order to make way for God to act in our lives.

While it feels like a long time ago, I remember the adventure my family took one summer as we traveled across the country. During the course of the trip we visited multiple National Parks, one of which was the Great Sand Dunes National Park located in Colorado. From a distance you can see the dunes that can reach up to 750 ft and beyond them you can see the 13,000 ft peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It’s a breathtaking sight, because while you are surrounded by the mountains of Colorado you find yourself in a desert setting with rolling dunes, flowing streams, and wind blowing against your face.  

The day that my family visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park things started out okay… It was a little overcast and windy, but nothing we couldn’t handle… Pretty soon however the winds started picking up and it felt like the 40 mph winds that occasionally blow through the National Park. Sand was blasting up against our faces and we were wrapping whatever pieces of clothing we could around us. And through it all we had to somehow find our way back to the entrance of the National Park. We were literally walking through the wilderness, zigging and zagging, trying to make a clear path to where it was we needed to go. It wasn’t an easy task.  

Making hills flat and crooked paths straight is not safe work, it isn’t easy work when you are trying to navigate the storms of life… If you come to church thinking that Jesus is only asking you to take the easy way then you might have some leveling out and straightening to do. John the Baptist’s work, the work that God called him to do, cost him his life. Discipleship, the heaven building work of leveling hills and straightening paths, has a cost that at times can seem demanding, and that’s because it is demanding. Our souls may be filled on Sunday morning, but God asks that our souls be filled and poured out in the days inbetween as well… Preparing the way of the Lord is not just about discovering how we can be satisfied, but how we can bind up the hurting world that exists around us as well.

The reshaping of the world around us and the reshaping our hearts is work that occurs not only during this Season of Advent, but throughout the entire year. We’ll soon remember a time that the little Christ child, would come to know what happens when you challenge the powers of this world. Because even as an infant Christ knew what it is like to have to flee and to be threatened by the forces of evil in this world that don’t like opposition… The forces that oppress people and put them into bondage. The forces that place selfish wants and needs above the well being of other people. The forces that tempt us to believe that earthly powers will fix both our bodies and souls, while neglecting to remind us that Christ sits as the king over all creation.

As we prepare the way of the Lord this Advent we look forward to the time where the words of the prophet Isaiah are made a reality and fulfilled and a time where “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Desert highways will be made straight, valleys will be filled, and great high mountains will be made low, and rough places smoothed, and obstacles will be removed from the face of the earth. As John the Baptist uses the words of the prophet Isaiah, we look to towards the future seeking peace and anticipating a time when no one will be left behind. We seek out peace and are filled with excitement as stumbling blocks are taken away, and the barriers we have erected, the barriers that keep others out are torn down, and the gift of salvation that flows from the throne of God becomes obtainable to all people who come and seek it out.

In our own community we look for the areas where God is calling us to act, to level out the playing field, to make straight the paths and smooth out rough terrain. Perhaps it’s making sure that children have fair access to quality education, perhaps it is making sure that thing such as housing and health care are treated as things that we should all have access to instead of a privilege or an amenity. Perhaps it's time that we start talking about what kind of church God is calling us to be… Perhaps now more than ever we need to start thinking about this new beginning, this new work, because our faith family has reached a point where it should be asking the kind of questions that will determine our future work and ministry together.

In our own lives, in my own life, I pray that God will make our hearts gentle, and that God will smooth out the rough edges of anger, frustration, self-centeredness, and greed. Our perception of ourselves often gets in the way of what God is calling us to do. Sometimes it’s not just our ego, but our ability to get caught up in our own thoughts, the wilderness that exists within our minds. Yet if we take time to stop, to listen, we might hear the voice of John the Baptist calling out to us to make straight a path in the wilderness. Are we willing to listen to the voice of John the Baptist? Are we willing to submit ourselves to God this Advent so that we may be refined and liberated from the things that hold us down? Have we prepared the way for the Lord to come into our hearts and offer that radical transformation that will fill us with peace and hope for the things to come?

This Sunday during the Season of Advent we remember peace. Now peace might not be an apparent theme in this mornings passage, but I believe it’s there waiting for us to discover it among the the rubble and weeds along the crooked paths that are becoming straight. And I believe that the  in this passage is the freedom that we obtain when we begin and continue the work of making mountains low and rough paths smooth. There is freedom to be found in that work, there is freedom to be found and peace that is waiting to be seized, when we don’t let the things that lead us astray take us captive and harden our hearts. There is peace to be found, peace to be had if we prepare the way of the Lord knowing that it is in God where we have freedom to be who we have been created to be.

So what hills are there in your life? What crooked paths need to be made straight in order for you to walk in the light of God?  The voice of John the Baptist still rings out to us today as we try to make our way through the wilderness, but will we hear and respond to what John the Baptist has to say? Who are the Pontius Pilates, the King Herods, who try to intimidate us and keep us down? Do you hear the voice of John the Baptist when you rub up or  bump up against them? Are you willing to confront them like John the Baptist did in order to make sure that all of the children of God are free to be who they were created to be?

These are questions we ask ourselves this Advent season. These are questions we need to be asking ourselves each and every day so that we don’t become complacent, so that the hills that we thought were lowered are actually mountains, that the places that we thought were smooth are actually jagged and rocky, and that the paths that we thought were straight and led to the throne of God are actually winding and complex and prohibitive. But Christ knows all of this already, and Christ waits with hope and with peace, just as we are this Advent season, for the time when we do the work we have been asked to do and submit ourselves to the refiner’s fire so that we may then come out from the wilderness to present our gifts to God and one another. Amen.



Alert & Ready

Luke 21:25-36 (New Revised Standard Version)

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

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It’s that time of year again… Though I’ll admit that each year it seems to begin earlier and earlier… Sometimes I forget that in between Halloween and Christmas there is another holiday. But now we’ve finally reached December and perhaps that holiday music they play on the radio feels a little more seasonally appropriate. You might know one of those songs which was written in 1950. Silver Bells, composed and written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, was released during the month of October. It’s a Christmas classic, one that you often hear in shopping malls during the holiday season. Silver Bells is one of those songs that puts you in the Christmas mood:

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks /

Dressed in holiday style /

In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas

Our scripture reading for this morning however sings a different tune, one of shaking ground and roaring seas. It’s quite distressing when compared to the lyrics of Silver Bells, which might make us stop and wonder why this passage is included as a reading for the Season of Advent. Isn’t Advent, the time that builds up to Christmas, supposed to be serene and peaceful? Well yes and no.  On this first Sunday of Advent we remember hope… the hope that God gives us, the hope that carries us forward, but hope that also comes at a price.

The people sitting in the crowds around Jesus must have have also been wondering what Jesus was talking about… And while there is no doubt in my mind that there were folks who were dumbfounded by Jesus’ words, I am just as sure that there were also people who also found comfort in what Jesus was saying. But in order to understand the comfort, the hope, that people found in what Jesus had to say I think we have to take a look at what was going on during the time that Jesus would have been preaching.

Jesus was preaching to an audience who were subjugated citizens, people who were living in a country that was  conquered by a foreign power. The Roman Empire stretched to the known ends of the earth and it seemed as though nothing could overcome their power. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a person who was living under the reign of a foreign power that was so oppressive. So if I heard Jesus’ words I might be caught off guard at first, but I would hear the words of hope, the voice of Jesus saying, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

There are people today who would hear these words of Jesus and resonate with them… They would resonate with them because they may still be living under the thumb of an oppressive nation or power… I think about the indigenous people who have come before us, I think about those whom we are bombarding with tear gas, I think about those who are killed for the color of their skin and their sexuality and all I can hear is the voice of of Jesus who says “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

To those who are oppressed, to us who are called stand up for the oppressed, these words of Jesus this morning should instill a sense of divine fear, awe, and hope. It should instill a sense of fear that we still have much work to do in this world and we have left much of it untouched… It should instill a sense of awe that we have the privilege to be caretakers and stewards of this world and hope in the sense that while God gives us hope for a brighter tomorrow, that hope cannot be obtained by ourselves no matter how hard we try.  

If you’re still caught up on the roaring seas, shaking ground, and people fainting, I admit that it can be hard to find the hope that exists within this passage. The beautiful part of this passage in my opinion is that Jesus acknowledges that there are trials, there are hardships, in this life that we have to overcome, but they are not overcome alone. The hope in the passage, the hope that carries forward, the hope that we are seeking out during the Season of Advent is reliant on whether or not we are willing to be participants in the heaven building work that God calls us to do.

In Korea there are two key elements you need to understand, these two things I think are appropriate for how we approach this first Sunday of Advent, which focuses on hope… First you have han and then second you have jeong. Han, is used to describe hardships, but hardships that run so deep they impact entire communities and groups of people. Jeong, is a term that is used to describe love, kinship, hope. Jeong is the relationships we have with one another. Jeong is being able to find pleasure and joy in not just the big life events, but also the mundane things that life has to offer. Jeong is when we find that there is hope in the community that we are continually building together.

The hope that Jesus is talking about in this morning’s passage is really only hopeful to those who have heard the message are are already participating in that heaven building work. Sure the world will shake and the seas will roar, but if you are steadfast, if you are alert and have been preparing the way of the Lord then you have nothing to fear. There is still time for us to go to our neighbors, strangers, enemies, those whom we have forgotten to care for and protect, those who transform us by showing us how expansive God’s world can be. There is time for us to go and welcome them, to let them in, to let them know there is still plenty of room in God’s story redemptive love. There is time, because God waits with the hope that we will one day be made whole, God waits with hope…

God waits, knowing that there are people whom we have left in the shadows, that there are people who we pushed out of our communities, and that there are those who were never invited to the table in the first place. God waits for the day with hope where we will no longer claim to belong to any nation, any state, or any group of people, but claim to be citizens in the kingdom of God. God waits for the day when we are able to stand with all our brothers and sisters in a way that reflects the love, the peace, and the justice of God. God waits with hope remembering the promises that were made to us, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  Perhaps then on that day we may find the peaceful setting of Silver Bells to ring a little truer than it did before…

We find ourselves starting another season of Advent, another season of waiting with hope . But we aren’t the only ones who are waiting. God is waiting as well, waiting for us to go out into the world to share this story of unimaginable love and hope and to care for those whom we have not always cared for in the past. This Advent may we use the time we have to tell those around us the story of God’s love. The story of this great love where God  stands on the side of the oppressed, and asks us to boldly confront the trials of this world with hope. The story where the only thing that does pass away, that does die, is the oppressive and darkened Empire of the days of old. Because it’s all about the people, God is waiting for all the children of the world to come. If it takes a day or another thousand years God can wait. Because that is how important we are in the eyes of God.

So be alert, be ready, because we are not sure when Christ will come again… Be alert, be ready, not in a state of fear, but of hope. Because if we are participating in heaven building work of God, then we may find that the hope we gain in this divine work overcomes the darkness of this world. It overcomes the darkness just as the expected Christ-child overcame darkness with hope when he was first born in Bethlehem. So how will you dare to hope this Season of Advent? How will you overcome the darkness of the world with hope? How will you add your light to the collective light of all who seek, work, and strive for the hope that calms roaring seas and shaking ground? Amen.



The New Jerusalem

Revelation 21:9-11, 22-26 (New Revised Standard Version)

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, and I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal…  I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day - and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

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“[And] I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” This reading from Revelation is one I could probably preach on multiple times, because there are so many ways in which we can apply this passage to our lives. The light of God, shining throughout the city, the nations that walk into it bringing their gifts and praise, and the people who come into it adding their own unique selves to this brightly shining multi-faceted gem.

The New Jerusalem, the city that came down from heaven is something that we strive for as a church and as individuals. The challenging part of this New Jerusalem is that the light of God touches everything that exists within the city, and that means that no matter how hard we try we will have to come face to face with the things that we refuse to surrender to God. It could be hurt, a sense of loss, it could be anger, it could be sorrow, it could be a wide array of things, but we find that when we are not able to turn them over to God it becomes hard to join a community that has done just that.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately… And I’ve been thinking that I’ve often talked about what it means to be a spiritually led church, a church that exists beyond its walls, a church that goes out into the community, but I haven’t spent much time addressing what lies at the heart of the church… Of course I’m talking about you, me, and the heart, the spirit, that provides us nourishment as we traverse roads that don’t resemble the serene and healing paths that lead us to the gates of the New Jerusalem. It might be hard to think about a “New Jerusalem” dwelling inside of us, but it begs the very important question of, “What are the things, or what aren’t the things, that we are willing to set down at the throne of God?”

I’ve found that even if we know that this New Jerusalem exists not only externally, in the world around us, but internally, in our hearts, as well, there are still places that we refuse to expose to the light that flows forth from God. There are hurts, pains… I’m talking about the things that we cling onto so tightly that we are the only ones who know what those things are. The quarantined corners of our lives that are shut off to the outside world, but are only accessible to you and God… And sometimes those places are so personal that we even try to keep them away from God for whatever reasons we might have…

Almost two months ago now… I realized that there were things in my life that I was clinging onto and not willing to expose to the light of God… Everything seemed fine until one day I realized that I was not myself… I give myself credit for realizing that something in me had changed, but they say that by the time you notice something is wrong it’s probably already reached a point that is unhealthy. For me that point was waking up one morning and thinking, “What’s the point? Why bother getting up? It would just be better if I didn’t get out of bed this morning…” Everything seemed dull, nothing seemed to bring me joy, the world seemed to have one giant rain cloud floating over its head.

Now I know we all have days where we are tempted to lazily stay in bed, but this was different… It didn’t come from a place of sloth, but a place of pain that had not been given a voice for so long it had no choice, but to manifest itself in a physical form. It was a horrible feeling, and as someone who is reserved the thought of not having control over these feeling scared me… It scared me, but it also set me on a path of spiritual and physical healing. It set me on a path that allowed me to re-discover that I didn’t have to be anxious about every little detail… That things would be okay, even if the way I planned something didn’t go as expected, the world would continue to turn. I learned with the help of my therapist that I needed to set realistic expectations, that failure was okay, and that sometimes things just don’t work out the way we would have hoped they would.

I’m someone who believes very strongly in therapy, I want to make that clear… But I take a holistic approach, I still pray, and I still read my Bible, but I realize that there are things in this life that I can’t get through alone, and there are some times in this life where I need someone else walking alongside me offering words of counsel, compassion, and empathy. I was reminded that in order to walk in the light of God, and to be who I was created to be, a child of God, I needed to be willing to do the hard work of discipleship that asks us to take a hard look at what lies deep inside our souls. For me and for many other this means seeing a therapist, for others it might be a hobby or spending time in nature, but whatever it is I sincerely encourage you to make more time for whatever it is that feeds your soul… That you make more time for the things that allow you lend a voice to the many facets of what makes you, you, even if that seems like a daunting or impossible task.

I mention my own experience this morning, because I realize that it’s a part of who I am… And if I’m going to ask you to do the hard work, then I wanna show that I’ve been doing the hard work as well… As the saying goes, “You gotta talk the talk, and walk the walk.” And just briefly, I wanna mention that I share this because I believe in the best of all of us, but I also know that rumors and gossip are juicy, they make for good stories, but often times they are just very distorted versions of the truth… Without digressing too much perhaps it's also fitting then how in the passage for this morning we remember the light of God, the truth of God, touches everything in the New Jerusalem… This light elevates the best of humanity and asks that we cast away the things that tears down instead of lifting up.

So what will we bring into the New Jerusalem that dwells inside our hearts? What are the things that we offer freely and what the things that we still refuse to let go of? It’s not an easy process, and it’s something that I still wrestle with to this day… There are moments when it is easy to let go and there are moments where I’ve changed my mind, and I’m sure that we all have experienced that feeling or something like it as well. As I’ve mentioned before in a previous sermon, the heaven building work of God asks us to give with both hands open… The heaven building work that God asks of us is not made whole if we only offer with one hand open and one hand that is clasped shut behind our backs. How can we better ourselves, and therefore better our communities, if we are not willing to shed off the things that we know weigh us down.

The New Jerusalem is made to shine like a rare jewel. It is made to shine like a bright jewel only because all those who come into it add what they have to glorify God. On this Christ the King Sunday what will your first step into the New Jerusalem look like? You as an individual who have been beautifully and wonderfully made, what is your first step into the New Jerusalem going to be like? When you make it to the gates and are greeted by Christ with open arms how will you respond? I guess it all depends really… It depends on whether the work that we have been doing in our hearts has been focused on what makes us feel good or the challenging work that God calls us to do.

So I’ll ask again, “What will we bring into the New Jerusalem that dwells inside our hearts?” I’ll give us a moment and I want you to think silently, contemplatively about what those things might be… They can joys, concerns, things that you are thankful for, and things that you know need work… They can be celebrations for good health, but they can also be laments and grief, but take a moment now, a sacred moment, to start or continue on in that heaven building journey of the soul that leads to the New Jerusalem…

[Moment of Silence]

“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day - and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” May we walk in the light of the glory of God together… Together may we look within ourselves and look out towards others, those whom God calls us to love and serve. And if we do that, then we may not only make the New Jerusalem a reality within our hearts, but a reality in the world around us as well. Amen.


Sailing Up My Dirty Stream

John 5:1-6 (The Message)

Soon another Feast came around and Jesus was back in Jerusalem. Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there was a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda, with five alcoves. Hundreds of sick people—blind, crippled, paralyzed—were in these alcoves. One man had been an invalid there for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him stretched out by the pool and knew how long he had been there, he said, “Do you want to get well?”

__________

We never really pay much attention to water… We bathe in it, we wash our clothes with it, we drink and cook with it… It’s not until something goes wrong with our water that we realize how much we take for granted, something so common. We’re quick to view dirty water as something that is lost, toxic, and something that isn’t worth our time, but if we turn back and remember what it says in Scripture, we might jumpstart our memory as to just how important water really is and how our Creator doesn’t give up on turning dirty water into life giving water… You know there’s a song written by Pete Seeger about the Hudson River that encapsulates this hope about dirty water becoming life giving water:

Sailing up my dirty stream

Still I love it and I'll keep the dream

That someday, though maybe not this year

My Hudson River will once again run clear

(My Dirty Stream ~Pete Seeger © The Bicycle Music Company)

The Hudson certainly is known for being a dirty river, yet Seeger still holds onto the beauty that lies within and around the Hudson River. “Sailing down my dirty stream, still I love and I’ll keep the dream.” Perhaps that is the mantra we find ourselves clinging to as we navigate the waters of life. Perhaps we feel that our river is overflowing with mounds of trash, but we find that we are holding out for something better that exists farther down the stream. That might have been what the man waiting by poolside for thirty-eight years was thinking, before Jesus appeared. Of course we’ll never know for sure… Do you think we can we imagine or think of  a time where we have found ourselves seeking out water that grants life instead of death.

Can you imagine what was going through the mind of the man who waited by the pool for thirty-eight years? Like many of us he must have thought that the water of life was found in an actual pool of water, but when Jesus came around his eyes were opened to the truth. Isn’t that the story of humanity? And I’m not just talking about our own stories of life and faith, but I’m also talking about the stories that we share together as well… “There’s a river of my people,” it says in another one of Seeger’s songs… And I believe it’s in that river where it’s together we find the living water that God has to offer… Not the water that lies stagnant in a pool or basin, or pools of water that are fed by the same foul sources, but the living water that flows from the throne of God.

There's a river of my people

And its flow is swift and strong,

Flowing to some mighty ocean,

Though its course is deep and long.

Flowing to some mighty ocean,

Though its course is deep and long.

(River of My People ~Pete Seeger © The Bicycle Music Company)

Of course that doesn't mean that there won’t be obstacles that get in our way… I imagine that the man who was waiting by the side of the pool had to overcome a number of different challenges before Jesus came to him. Perhaps the challenges that the man who had been waiting for thirty-eight years are still the same challenges we are still trying overcoming today… What might those obstacles be? What are the things that have tried to keep us away from seeking God’s life giving water? Perhaps it’s our wealth or other earthly treasures. Perhaps it's the illusion that things are fine when in reality they aren’t. Perhaps it’s our clinging onto things that we believe make the river clean, or make it great, but really end up polluting it. What are the ways that we have tried to keep others from obtaining God’s life giving water?

Many rocks and reefs and mountains

Seek to bar it from its way.

But relentlessly this river

Seeks its brothers in the sea.

But relentlessly this river

Seeks its brothers in the sea.

(River of My People ~Pete Seeger © The Bicycle Music Company)

Whether we are sailing up a dirty stream with the hope that one day it might become clear, or whether we are part of a river that overcomes various obstacles it all leads to one big ocean at some point or another. I find it interesting what Jesus says to the man, “Do you want to get well?” We know that Jesus often gives roundabout answers, and this morning is no exception. “Do you want to get well?” That seems like a silly question, because of course  the man by the pool of water would want to get well. Perhaps it’s in our collective struggles we will find the thing that gives us strength and courage, gives us the balm that soothes our souls.

For we have mapped this river

And we know its mighty force

And the courage that this gives us

Will hold us to our course

And the courage that this gives us

Will hold us to our course

(River of My People ~Pete Seeger © The Bicycle Music Company)

We will might all find ourselves at some point at the pool of Bethesda. We might all find ourselves at the pool of Bethesda wondering what it is we are supposed to do. Around the pool the people who had gathered may have shared stories… They may have shared laments, joys, hopes, or even dreams. But that’s all talk… It wasn’t until Jesus came into the picture that they were asked to do something, “Do you want to be HEALED?” Of course we want to be healed, but healing, healing of the body, healing of the soul isn’t done by talking about healing, or by forming another committee for people to serve on, but by doing. We’ve had a lot of time to sit around and talk and share stories, perhaps it's time we go out and actually do…

As I look out across the sea

A bright horizon beckons me

And I am called to do my best

And be the most that I can be

(Old Scottish Folk Tune)

Maybe then at the end of the day we will be able to sit down and see that the river we started sailing on  may be still be dirty, but a little less than when we started. And when we can take joy in that heaven building work of God we might be able to happily sing a song about sailing up a dirty river…

Sailing up my dirty stream

Still I love it and I'll keep the dream

That someday, though maybe not this year

My Hudson River will once again run clear

(My Dirty Stream ~Pete Seeger © The Bicycle Music Company)



An Old / New Story

Revelation 3:7-13 (The Message)

Write this to Philadelphia, to the Angel of the church. The Holy, the True—David’s key in his hand, opening doors no one can lock, locking doors no one can open—speaks: “I see what you’ve done. Now see what I’ve done. I’ve opened a door before you that no one can slam shut. You don’t have much strength, I know that; you used what you had to keep my Word. You didn’t deny me when times were rough. “And watch as I take those who call themselves true believers but are nothing of the kind, pretenders whose true membership is in the club of Satan—watch as I strip off their pretensions and they’re forced to acknowledge it’s you that I’ve loved. “Because you kept my Word in passionate patience, I’ll keep you safe in the time of testing that will be here soon, and all over the earth, every man, woman, and child put to the test. “I’m on my way; I’ll be there soon. Keep a tight grip on what you have so no one distracts you and steals your crown. “I’ll make each conqueror a pillar in the sanctuary of my God, a permanent position of honor. Then I’ll write names on you, the pillars: the Name of my God, the Name of God’s City—the new Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven—and my new Name. “Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches.”

__________

I’m always amazed at how the author of Revelation could have known that Christianity would make its way to North America, and  that it would be at a church in Philadelphia where an angel of God would carry a message containing words of encouragement and blessing. I’ll admit that I’m a little disappointed at the same time, because if the author had that much foresight I would imagine that they could have written the name of church in Philadelphia… Perhaps it was a Presbyterian church, but we’ll never know.

I don’t wanna get too carried away so I’ll let you know that I’m  having a little fun here this morning… I know that the Philadelphia named in this mornings reading is not referring to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but is instead referring to a city that is located in what is today known as Turkey. Perhaps though it is fitting  to mention that the name for both of these cities, Philadelphia, comes from the Greek language, which translates to English as, “The City of Brotherly Love.”

It’s important that  before we dive too deep into the passage that we acknowledge Philadelphia as, “The City of Brotherly Love,” because it sets the background for how we are to understand the “passionate patience” or the “steadfast love for God,” that the church in Philadelphia maintained through some pretty difficult and tough times. But what does it mean to live a life, to live in a community, that embodies a spirit of “brotherly love?” I doubt that we can all relate to what it means to possess and express brotherly love so let’s take a moment to unpack it.

The Greek language has many different words for love… You’ve probably heard agape before, which refers to one of the highest forms of love, which has sometimes been translated as meaning charity. You have eros, which is used to describe a love that is passionate or romantic. And then in today’s reading we find philos, which can mean love or friendship, paired with adelphos, which means brother.

We might be tempted to think that “brotherly love,” is less meaningful than that of agape or eros, and if we went down that path I would say that we are sorely mistaken. Because what we find is that it is in that community of friendship, or partnering with one another, that we come across the place where God calls us to be a part of and go. We are are reminded of this in other parts of Scripture as well such as, John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” Imagine having a love like that for everyone and for God?

The brotherly love that the church in Philadelphia had for God is one that reflects a story that is both old and new. Old in the sense that most stories about love have common themes to ones that we have today and new in the sense that the settings in which those stories take place has changed from the original stories. The church in Philadelphia had a “passionate patience,” a “steadfast love for God,” even when the world around them made it seem impossible to maintain such a faith. It makes me wonder how the church in Philadelphia remained faithful in their identity as being claimed by God. It makes me wonder how their story plays out in our world today.

I think the key lies in the phrase that I have mentioned already this morning… The author of this passage mentions the church in Philadelphia having a “passionate patience.” I’d note as well that some other translations include the phrase “steadfast love.” And these two things are important, because when we think about patience and about being steadfast, we don’t usually associate these words with action or intensity. It would probably  be fair to say that when we talk about patience and being steadfast we would relate them to words like: static, unchanging, or immovable.

But when we tie these words with the idea of “brotherly love,” we discover that the church in Philadelphia’s love for God was something that was patient and steadfast, because it was living, breathing, and changing. Their love of God didn’t change, but it was their expression of that love that changed. It was this evolving expression of love that drove their desire to be hold onto the promises of God and remain steadfast in a world that seemed very uncertain and chaotic. Just as there are many kinds of love so too are there many forms of expressing love.

The story of the church in Philadelphia and the story of our church today, is that we are meant to be connectional. We’re called to love our neighbor, regardless of whether those neighbors respond by coming to church on Sunday morning, because if that is how we judge ourselves then we’ve lost sight of what is important! Loving people is a messy, dirty endeavor! We live with people who struggle with  addiction, mental health issues, harmful relationships, and other deep pains that we might never know. We’re not called to judge people’s behavior; we’re called to simply love them as God loves us. And that can be difficult because it means that we have to allow our hearts to be vulnerable, trusting that God will lead us.

We don’t know much about the church in Philadelphia, besides what we find here in this passage this morning. But as I talked about how this story is one that is both old and new we can quickly identify the ways in which we have heard this passage speak in our own lives. Like the church in Philadelphia there are the voices that try to lead us astray or keep us down:

There are voices that say we aren’t good enough…

There are voices that say that our goals are foolish…

There are voices who say hateful things just because of our gender or skin color…

There are voices that echo with words of “What it?”

What are those voices that attempt to bring us down? These are voices that still haunt us today. They were voices that the church in Philadelphia heard and they are voices that we hear today. Can you identify them? Can you name where you have heard them in your own life and where you have heard them here in this community of faith?

But there are another series of voices that push back against the negativity that we find ourselves being bombarded with. Voices that call out with power louder than hate, louder than bullets, louder than the unjust powers of this world… But we have to listen for them. We have to listen with passionate patience and steadfast love:

These are voices that remind us that we are beautifully and wonderfully made…

These are voices that bring light to the darkened corners of our lives…

These are voices that sings songs that pick up our weary and heavy laden souls…

These are voices that bring God’s peaceable kingdom into our midst…

Can you hear them? They’re the words of encouragement we offer to one another. They are the ways in which we show love and care that embodies Christ’s spirit. They are the ways in which we build ourselves, others, and the community around us up instead of tearing them down. Can you hear them? Or as the author of the passage would say, “Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches.” Just has we have heard and remembered stories of old, there are stories being re-written as well that point us in a new direction of hope when we think there is no hope, love when we think there is no love to be had, and courage when we feel as though our strength has been wiped away.

These past few days I was away on a retreat for young ministry leaders who are in the Synod of the Northeast. It was a wonderful time for pastors, elders, deacons, and non-ordained members to be together in fellowship and worship. One of the things we talked about was who we understood ourselves to be and who God understood us to be. I find it hard to show the kind of brotherly love that the Bible talks about when I’ve lost sight of who I am in relationship to God. We all have story like that, a story where we have lost sight of who we were in relationship to God. We all have a story that we can tell about ourselves and about the communities of which we are a part.   They are stories that challenge us to envision something that exists beyond ourselves.

Like all stories there was a time when they were still being written, and the same is true for the ongoing story of our lives and of our church. The door hasn’t been closed as we are reminded in the reading,“I see what you’ve done. Now see what I’ve done. I’ve opened a door before you that no one can slam shut.” The door is open, the opportunities are there before us. What will be our decision?… will we go out that door, will we dare or will we stay inside and fall back on what we think is safe, secure and end up losing the very thing we tried to hold onto? The church in Philadelphia didn’t have it easy… The church in Philadelphia embraced the opportunities it had and boldly went through the doors God opened because they had faith that they were called to something that went far beyond anything they could have imagined.

As we go forward we will have time to reimagine what our own love for God looks like. Perhaps we will rekindle the fire of our spirit to pursue the gifts and talents that God has given to us. Perhaps we will take risks and dare to dream big all for the sake of being faithful stewards and true believers of ourselves and of God. The church in Philadelphia didn’t remain faithful to God by playing it safe, they didn’t manage to persevere by taking the easy or familiar route. No instead the church of Philadelphia most likely had to adapt, had to change, and had to be creative in how they manifested their love for God.

Chapters are still being written… chapters about you, me, the Church, this church, Watertown, and all other things you could possibly name. The innumerable possibilities that wait for us are only limited by ourselves. Will we take “passionate patience” and “steadfast love” to mean that we are immovable? Or will we go boldly into the unknown with faith that our creativity and love will carry us through whatever lies ahead? Because that is an old / new story I would like to read. Amen.



Re-Imagining Church

Revelation 3:1-6 (New Revised Standard Version)

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and seven stars: ‘I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. Yet you still have a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot out your name in the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’”

__________

There’s a story about an eccentric pastor who one Sunday told the congregation, “Later today I want to invite everyone back, because we are going to be having a funeral service for the church.” Well you can imagine that everyone’s interest was piqued and so when evening came the church was full to the brim of both members  and of people who were from the community who had heard and were curious what a funeral service for the church would look like. As the pastor stepped up to the pulpit and began to lead the “funeral service,” he asked if people would be able to come up to the front of the church where there was a small wooden casket. Each individual made their forward from the pew that they were setting in and as they made their way to the front they looked inside and saw a little mirror inside the casket reflecting back an image of themselves.

The church in Sardis had a reputation for being great… The church in Sardis was established in a city that had accumulated a significant amount of wealth. The church in Sardis had in more ways than one become like the city itself, rich and powerful. Sardis was a place of trade and commerce. Merchants brought their goods into the city and the revenue generated from the sale of those items meant that Sardis had a pretty secure financial income. It appeared that the church in Sardis had everything that it needed to be successful in its ministry. But perhaps it was because the church in Sardis had everything that it needed that it eventually became “lukewarm” in following the teachings of Christ. Perhaps it was because the church in Sardis tried so hard to hold onto the things that made it great that it became a church that lost its way instead.

We are not immune to the struggles and the temptations that the church in Sardis faced. The temptation of looking in the mirror and seeing only the things that make us great, the things that remind us that we are a pillar of the community, the things that make us feel  impervious to the ongoing flow of time. But the church in Sardis, the church today is not immune to the false sense that everything is okay, the misbelief that the status quo is what is to be maintained at all cost, the desire to look longingly at the past as some ideal that needs to be reincarnated into today’s church. The identity of the church of Sardis had become so enmeshed, intertwined, with its wealth, history, and tradition, that the original mission of the church had become muddled and cloudy. The fire that had once kindled the church had become dim. No longer was there a priority to share this flame, the love of Christ, but instead the primary focus of the church had become to preserve this flame for posterity.

So what are we going to do and who are what are we going to become? Are we going to become the living church of Jesus Christ, the church that is being continually challenged to grow and change or are we going to place history and tradition over the gospel of Jesus Christ? Are we going to only write a check and give of our earthly treasures or are we going to give not only our earthly treasures but also give of our time, our talents, and our blood and sweat to the people that Jesus called us to serve? Are we going to be a church that wants to be served or are we going to throw open the doors of the church and take on the risks of what it means to be a church in the 21st century? Are we able to put down that crystal mirror long enough to see that outside our vaulted ceilings and rich history there is a community that is longing to be fed both in body and in spirit? Who are we going to become? Do you dare imagine?

At the beginning, I believe the church in Sardis must have had a passion for Christ, they must have had a passion to be the hands and feet of God in their community. I imagine that those who founded the church were like those who had come before us here in this place. I imagine that they were a small group of people, and dedicated themselves to doing the work that Christ had called them to do. I imagine that they could not have possibly dreamed of what the church would and could become when the laid the groundwork for the church in Sardis. But like all things in life things, things that started out in a simple manner don’t stay simple for very long, and instead of being focused on the mission of Jesus Christ they become a gathering place for those who want to be comfortable instead of being challenged.

There is a natural waxing and waning that occurs throughout the life of the church and throughout our own lives. We do not know where the Spirit of God will lead us. We do not know what lies around  the corner, we do not know what changes there will be, and we do not know whether or not God is calling us, here in this place, to be the same people we have always been or to become people who are always changing and being led by the Spirit of God. And while Christ is there with outstretched arms that offer us grace and forgiveness, Christ is also there with arms outstretched that push and prod us to go outside our comfort zone. Christ is there with outstretched arms to remind us that the church is not a place to be comfortable, but it is a place where we wrestle with all of life’s complexities, it is a place, a sacred place, a place that happens not only here and outside of these walls, where we give our all for the sake of having received all.

I’ve told this story before, but I think that it’s fitting to share it again.  I was leading a confirmation retreat for youth and their mentors. Besides leading plenary sessions for youth, I also led a small group for the adults who had come with them. While I try not to have favorites, there was one older man named Denny, who quickly jumped to the top of the list. During a discussion about how the church can be a better neighbor to those in the community Denny chimed in, “You know I’m really tired of some of the things my church does… All they do is debate and complain about how the church should be decorated. They’re concerned about the flowers and the building, but not about the people around us. When I walk outside of church on Sunday I see that there is so much more that we can and should be doing! Yet all people seem to ever talk about is keeping things the same!”

It is without a doubt that there will be a point in time where we, as a church, will encounter a moment that forces us to stop and think about what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. Perhaps that moment is today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow… But for today we pause as we break bread and pour out the cup in remembrance of the unity we share with all the saints in every time and place. In our partaking of the bread and drinking from the cup, perhaps we will once again find the spark that ignites our souls, similar to the spark that fueled Denny’s passion for the church. In our participating in this holy sacrament we are able to glimpse at what the church of Jesus Christ is really built on. This thing we call church isn’t meant to be easy. It isn’t meant to be a comfortable place. It is in a fact place where we hold a mirror up to ourselves, seek and ask for forgiveness, and then the most important part it is a place then where we then go out into the world as people who have been transformed by the love that we have received from God.

What is the Spirit of God saying to the church today? Where do we see the Spirit leading us today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow? We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we can take solace in the fact that those who have come before us have laid the foundation to discern where God is calling us to be. We always talk about what it means to be a church in the 21st century, but why don’t we act on it? I think that starting today would be better than starting tomorrow, and would be a great place for us to re-imagine what the church could and can be as we  join with other churches in same the process of re-imagining what it means to be the hand and feet of Christ in the world! So I’ll ask again, “What is the Spirit of God saying to the church today?” What is the Spirit of God saying we need to let go of and prune in order to bear fruit? What is the Spirit of God saying we need to embrace in order to become the full body of Christ? How is the Spirit of God calling you to serve? So let us rekindle that fire that dwells within our hearts! And if we are dare ask ourselves these questions we may find that there is something great waiting to be discovered! Amen.



Shall We Gather At The River?

Sermon

Kids help play “Shall We Gather At The River”

II Kings 5 (Selected Verses)  (The Message)

Naaman was a general of the army under the king of Aram. He was important to his master, who held him in the highest esteem because it was by him that God had given victory to Aram: a truly great man, but afflicted with a grievous skin disease… So Naaman with his horses and chariots arrived in style and stopped at Elisha’s door. Elisha sent out a servant to meet him with this message: “Go to the River Jordan and immerse yourself seven times… ” Naaman lost his temper. He turned on his heel saying, “I thought he’d personally come out and meet me, call on the name of God, wave his hand over the diseased spot, and get rid of the disease. The Damascus rivers, Abana and Pharpar, are cleaner by far than any of the rivers in Israel. Why not bathe in them? I’d at least get clean.” But his servants caught up with him and said, “Father, if the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not this simple task ‘wash and be clean?” So he did… Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel… But there’s one thing for which I need God’s pardon: When my master, leaning on my arm, enters the shrine of Rimmon and worships there, and I’m with him there, worshipping Rimmon, may you see to it that God forgive me for this.” Then Elisha said, “Everything will be alright. Go in peace.”

__________

This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture… And it reminds me a lot of a television show I had been watching recently called “The Good Place.” In case you haven’t seen this show before “The Good Place” tells the story of four individuals who end up in “the good place,” aka heaven. However, they soon discover that what they thought was “the good place” is actually the “bad place” and they try to better themselves in order to escape. Each person had to come to the realization that life is not as clear cut as we want it to be. Sometimes our morals, our ethics, our beliefs, conflict with the complex nature of life.

Now I’m not an all knowing judge who can make a declarative statement of who is in the  so I can’t say whether or not Naaman was a bad person, but I can imagine that he was probably carrying some baggage of his own. As a commander in the Syrian army Naaman received quite a lot of respect, and we actually discover that God, the same God who is the God of Israel, helped Naaman win a battle for Aram. God seems to works in mysterious ways, ways that go beyond our comprehension, that exceed logic and reason… Just imagine a scenario where God was helping one of your enemies, or that person who is a thorn in your side… I don’t think we would be thrilled at God helping that person out, but it highlights the truth that God proves that the world doesn’t revolve around us.

So we may assume Naaman is so “great” that no one, or nothing, can ever touch him. But we will discover that Naaman soon becomes a man who is “unclean,” an individual who no one will approach out of fear.. In Israel, it was common for people to be quarantined for a least seven days if they were found to have a disease that was not properly treated. What a surprise it must have been then to see someone like Naaman riding into Israel, a foreigner, a stranger, a sick man, Naaman did not fit the mold when it came to blending into as he tried to seek out help from the prophet Elisha.

At one point nearly all of of us has felt  leprous, marginalized from at least one group we would like to have desperately been a part of. So maybe we can begin to feel Naaman’s pain as we see him slowly being pushed out of his society to the margin… Maybe we can empathize with Naaman, maybe we can see how we ourselves have pushed others our in order to make ourselves “clean.” The pain, the conflict, the sense of loss that we all have experienced are important, but they should never take such a priority in our lives that those feelings then justify our need to keep people out who are so desperately looking for healing of both the body and the soul.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have been in Naaman’s situation. The kind of situation where desperation hits so hard that it pushes you to look for answers in unconventional places. When I look back at my father who was diagnosed with cancer I remember how many people gave advice on how it should be treated and how he should change his lifestyle during the process… And in that moment where we realize we have no control over the outcome, I imagine that is the kind of desperation that Naaman was feeling. It is the desperation that drives some people onto the black market in search of medicines our society doesn’t sanction. It’s the kind of desperation that sometimes drives lonely people to marry abusers and materially poor people to take out rash loans and then become victims of an oppressive system.

Naaman is at his wits end! He has tried to find healing and a solution to his problems, but has come up empty handed. In an act of desperation Naaman succumbs to following the advice of his wife’s slave who told him that there was a man in Israel who could relieve him of all his afflictions. Naaman must have been in a pretty bad place… Maybe we’ve been in a place like that as well, a place where we have tried all of the options that we could find, but ended up having to seek answers from an unlikely source. That takes a heart that humble and willing to admit that they aren’t always right.

We find out that humility takes more than just asking for help… It takes a solid action, a step that truly shatters our sense of importance. Naaman was a military commander, a high ranking official, a pseudo-celebrity… So when he came seeking help from Elisha he was expecting to be healed in a way that suited a person of his stature… It must have been humiliating then to hear that Elisha’s only prescription for his situation, his disease, was to go and wash in the Jordan River! There were so many other options that would have been suited for a man of Naamans stature, but this simple task of bathing in order to be clean almost tripped up Naaman… I think that when we think about the work Christ has given us we often get tripped up on the very simple tasks of what it means to be disciples (i.e. love one another and be humble).

The Jordan River would be comparable to the Hudson River in New York City… I’ll admit that I wouldn’t dare swim in the Hudson, and the Jordan River was just as bad. The Jordan River wasn’t even suitable to cleaning if you are trying to imagine just how dirty the Jordan River really was. But it’s down at that riverside, its when we gather at the river that we discover that the waters of the Jordan River represent more than just a dirty river. It’s when we gather at the river, we come to understand that God does not care about our social status, our wealth, our education, and our accomplishments,  but instead cares about whether we are going to take a leap of faith and surrender all of those things in order to pursue a new purpose that is not centered on the things of this earth.

Part of this story about Naaman that wasn’t included in this morning's reading is that Naaman bottles up soil from Israel in order to bring it back to Aram. It might sound strange for us today, but back then gods and other deities were viewed as local beings… Each god, each sacred power, had its own territory. So in collecting soil from Israel Naaman was making a statement and a rather profound statement. After being healed Naaman had a radical shift in his religious values, one that takes him from believing in a pantheon of gods to just believe that there is the only one true God of Israel… It is what allows Naaman to say, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” Have you ever had a moment of clarity like Naaman? Perhaps it doesn’t have to be that profound, but perhaps you’ve had a time where something just clicked into place and things began to make sense.

At the end of the day who here doesn’t feel a sense of conflict between their life and their faith?!? Naaman knows this feeling and openly admits it to Elisha and asks, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel… But there’s one thing for which I need God’s pardon: When my master, leaning on my arm, enters the shrine of Rimmon and worships there, and I’m with him there, worshipping Rimmon, may you see to it that God forgive me for this.”

Now Elisha could have taken the hardliner position when it came to Naaman’s request… Elisha was under no obligation to pardon Naaman or anything like that, and it would have been easy for Elisha to say, “You know what Naaman? You are either for us or against us.” But Elisha doesn’t say any of those things… And instead Elisha turns to Naaman and says, “Everything will be alright. Go in peace.” “Go in peace, shalom, be whole, be still, and know that God is with you.” If we were in Elisha’s place would we have offered such words of love and grace to Naaman? Or would we have taken that hardliner position? I would hope that we would realize that our lives have not always been perfect, that there have been times when our faith and our lives were at such conflict with one another we have had to compromise on certain things. But at the end of the day we still know that God is waiting for us with an understanding heart.

I find that we often get hung up on “the good place” and “the bad place,” and as a result we end up with some convoluted point system that we constantly runs through our heads. What we find this morning is that our actions, while they are important, are not the only thing God cares about… I believe that we find that God cares more about why we do things and what exists and the heart of our very being. We may not have leprosy, we may not have find that we have been marginalized or excluded, but we find that we treat others as though they have leprosy. And it’s at the Jordan River, that good ol’ dirty river, where we gather together to experience the healing grace that only God can provide.

So shall we gather at the river? So that, “On the margin of the river, Washing up its silver spray, We will walk and worship ever, All the happy golden day.” Amen.





What Good Comes From Troas?

Acts 16:1-10 (The Message)
Paul came first to Derbe, then Lystra. He found a disciple there by the name of Timothy, son of a devout Jewish mother and Greek Father. Friends in Lystra and Iconium all said what a fine young man he was. Paul wanted to recruit him for their mission, but first took him aside and made him in a fashion that would be more acceptable to the Jews. For they knew that his father was Greek. As they traveled from town to town, they presented the simple guidelines the Jerusalem apostles and leaders had come up with. That turned out to be most helpful. Day after day the congregations became stronger in faith and larger in size. They went to Phrygia, and then on through the region of Galatia. Their plan was to turn west into Asia province, but the Holy Spirit blocked that route. So they went to Mysia and tried to go north to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go there either. Proceeding on through Mysia, they went down to the seaport of Troas. That night Paul had a dream: A Macedonian stood on the far shore and called across the sea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” The dream gave Paul his map. We went to work at once getting things ready to cross over to Macedonia. All the pieces had come together. We knew now for sure that God had called us to preach the good news to the Europeans. 

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The Apostle Paul must have been near the end of his patience this morning as he tried to discern which way God wanted him and his companions to go. Luke tells us that as Paul traveled with Timothy they tried to head west into Asia, but the Spirit of God prevented them. So then we find that they tried to north to some other regions as well, but each time the Spirit of God blocked their path. Who knows what happened… Perhaps the roads were washed away during a flood or a massive conflict broke out between warring tribes; all we know is that by the time we find Paul and those traveling with him, they had found their way to the port city of Troas.

I wonder what was going through Paul’s mind as they began to settle in for the night once they reached the little town of Troas. Maybe Paul began to question his calling… Wouldn’t you if you were Paul? Doubt would probably be inevitables, especially if we were the ones who had just invested a large amount of time and energy into something that looked like it was going to end in an ugly mess. There’s actually a mosaic that can be found in Macedonia today that depicts Paul’s time in Troas. It shows Paul on the outskirts of the city in what looks to be a cave, and Paul is leaning against a hard uncomfortable looking rock. You can see the bags under Paul’s eyes alluding to how tired he was from having journeyed such a great distance for what must have felt like a waste of time and resources. You can just imagine Paul looking up towards the heavens asking, “Why would you send me here God?”

Who here has ever found themselves ending up in Troas? You see Troas is the last place we ever thought we would end up, it is the place that we associate with failure and disbelief. It is in the town of Troas that we grapple with the hardships of life… Perhaps Troas is the place that reminds you that you didn’t get the job or get into the school that you wanted… Perhaps Troas is the place that reminds you of a broken relationship or a past hurt that you can’t let go. Perhaps Troas is the place where you lay awake at night wondering what good, what meaning, can come out of a place that reeks of such unpleasantness. How do we end up in a place like Troas? What good can come out of a place like Troas? And where is God’s Holy Spirit taking us when we think that Troas is all that we can look forward to at the end of our long and hard fought journey.

We have an advantage this morning, which is that we know that it was the Spirit of God that prevented Paul and those traveling with him from entering the into places like Asia and Bithynia. But in the moment I would bet that Paul wasn’t feeling very confident when they were turned away time and time again. And for us in the here and now we might also succumb to the same feelings of dread and fear when we find that we may not be going in the direction that God wants us to… And therefore it would be easier to just give up, to throw in the towel and go back home where we know what to expect and where we know we will feel secure and insulated against a chaotic world.

There are a lot of things that can throw us for a loop when we’re trying to figure out what God wants us to do… And believe me this happens to pastors just as much as it happens to any other person who comes to church on Sunday morning. There are a number of different things in life that vie for our attention and at the end of the day we quickly find that we have devoted little of that time to God and we are just as confused as we were at the start of the day when we try and figure out where God is calling us. It’s no wonder then that we find that there are so many people who are lost in terms of trying to figure out and make sense of the larger questions that life often presents to us. How can we be prepared for a journey that requires us to be present in both body and soul if we have neglected to attend to the needs of our spiritual selves?

And while we may spend a lot of time worrying which path we will take in life know that God is with us every step of the way. And it’s not our job to get everything right… We shouldn’t be dedicating our time and energy to making sure that everything is “just right,” because that is God’s job not ours. And if we look at Paul’s journey we discover that if along the way we became closer to God or discovered something new about ourselves than the journey could never have been considered a failure in the first place. That is because the Spirit of God knows all the roads on which we travel. As C.S Lewis once wrote, “God can use all the wrong roads to get you to the right place.” If we are just willing to take a risk, to occasionally mix things up, then we might not only nurture our souls, but grow individually and corporately as well.

With things appearing to be bleak in our passage for today, Paul must have been caught off guard when he received a vision from God in a dream. Worrying about what they would do next Paul probably felt the weight taken off his chest when he saw the man from Macedonia calling out to them, yearning to hear the good news of the gospel. And sometimes we too find that we will be caught off guard when the life giving, life changing, work of the Spirit breaks into our world to use what gifts we have to offer to carve out an unexpected path… This means that as individuals and as a church we have to be open to the mindset that continually seeks to experiment with how we can truly be God’s hands and feet in the world.  Unfortunately this means that there will be a lot of failure, but the good news is that if we go forward with courage we will find that God can take one of those failures and show us a new path forward. 

We find that lesson being taught in this morning’s passage as Paul receives a vision in a dream from a man in Macedonia. I don’t think that Paul could have possibly imagined that their endless journeying would have led them across the sea to the European continent. What must have appeared to be a failure was redeemed and turned into an opening that would eventually lead to the gospel being spread throughout the rest of Europe. Could you imagine what impact that we as the First Presbyterian Church of Watertown could have if we were open to taking a leap of faith believing that the Spirit will lead us in our mission? While we may not think in the moment the work we are doing has much of an impact we are never fully aware of how our witness touches the lives of those who are around us. 

This narrative is one that has been told countless number of times… We find that in the Hebrew scriptures that Moses thought his life was over until God called him to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. We find Simon and Andrew thought that they would be fishermen for the rest of their lives until Jesus called them one day to follow him in order to become fishers of men. We find that Mary originally planned to have an ordinary life with Joseph until an angel of the Lord turned her life upside down. And we find that each and everyone of us here this morning has a story to tell… And while we may not be able to see how our lives have been used for the greater good that God envisions for us, we can probably look around to the various ways that we have had an impact on the lives of others who are both near and far away. 

That is why it is so important to recognize that this thing we call ministry is not limited to pastors… It is not limited to elders or deacons, but it is an endeavor that we all partake in… If we try to put the work on one person or a group of people then is the vision we are trying to maintain one that is truly open to the Spirit of God? We have an opportunity… A rich opportunity to be a living witness to what it means to be led by the love and light of God. We have an opportunity to show what it means to care not only about our own wellbeing, but the wellbeing and growth of others who live around us as well. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how young you are, or where you are in terms of your walk with God…

I don’t know how many times I have to say this, but the Holy Spirit is what should fuel us, should guide us, as we traverse the waters of life and faith. As the Spirit of God hovered over the chaotic waters that existed at the start of creation, here too the Spirit of God is present as we discern what it means to be the church in the 21st century. How will we be the church that is led by the Spirit of God? How will be a church that doesn’t get caught up on it’s failures, but asks, “What’s next? What else can we try?” In our attempts to be a church that meets people where they are we will certainly end up in Troas. But it is in Troas that we will inspired by the Spirit to pursue feats that go beyond anything we could have possibly imagined if we are willing to trust that our work is part of God’s larger tapestry. 

So as we finish this series on what it means to be a Spirit led church I have some final questions that I’d like you to consider: 

  • Where do you see the Spirit of God moving in your life? 

  • What are you doing to nurture and grow your own spiritual well being and the well being of others?

  • And how can we as a church be faithful in our witness to a God who asks us to take risks and dare to dream what lies beyond the other side of the ocean? 

Amen.

Remember Your Baptism

Acts 10:34-48 (The Message)
Peter fairly exploded with his good news: “It’s God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from – if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open. The Message he sent to the children of Israel – that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again – well, he’s doing it everywhere, among everyone. “You know the story of what happened in Judea. It began in Galilee after John preached a total life-change. Then Jesus arrived from Nazareth, anointed by God with the Holy Spirit, ready for action. He went through the country helping people and healing everyone who was beaten down by the Devil. He was able to do all this because God was with him. And we saw it, saw it all, everything he did in the land of the Jews in Jerusalem where they killed him, hung him from a cross. But in three days God had him up, alive, and out where he could be seen. Not everyone saw him – he wasn’t put on public display. Witnesses had been carefully handpicked by God beforehand – us! We were the ones, there to eat and drink with him after he came back from the dead. He commissioned us to announce this in public, to bear solemn witness that he is in fact the One whom God destined as Judge of the living and the dead. But we’re not alone in this. Our witness that he is the means to forgiveness of sins is backed up by the witness of all the prophets.” No sooner were these words out of Peter’s mouth than the Holy Spirit came on the listeners. The believing Jews who had come with Peter couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on “outsiders” non-Jews, but there it was – they heard them speaking in tongues, heard them praising God. Then Peter said, “Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? They’ve received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did.” Hearing no objections, he ordered they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay on for a few days. 

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Here these words from our liturgy for the Sacrament of Baptism: 

Send your Spirit to move over this water that it may be a fountain of deliverance and rebirth. Wash away the sin of all who are cleansed by it. Raise them to new life, and graft them to the body of Christ. Pour out your Holy Spirit upon [your people] that they may have power to do your will, and continue forever in the risen life of Christ. To you be all praise, honor, and glory; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who, with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns forever. Amen.
(Book of Common Worship, 2018)

Do you remember your baptism? Perhaps you don’t remember the exact moment, but maybe you’ve been told stories about your baptism. Many of us who grew up Presbyterian, or in a similar tradition, were most likely baptized as infants. Though I imagine that there are some here this morning who haven’t yet been baptized or gone through the renewal of those vows in their confirmation, or I am sure that there are also those who aren’t sure what is so significant about the Sacrament of Baptism… 

In the Sacrament of Baptism we are told and reminded that God claims us and seals us to show that we belong to God. In the Sacrament of Baptism we are made members of the of the Church, the body of Christ, and in the Sacrament of Baptism we cast off the ways of sins, evil and death and are commissioned to live life in anew in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. And as those who have been charged to live life anew in the Holy Spirit, and as those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, we are given the great responsibility to be active and full participants in Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice in the world. 

We find this morning that there were those in the early church who couldn’t believe that this sacred sign could be passed onto those who were not like them. But the Spirit of God, the Spirit that surpasses all human understanding, was present and bestowed the gifts of God upon them. God cannot be contained within the boundaries of a church building, a tradition, or a group of people, but that didn’t stop the early church from trying… You may ask yourselves, “Wasn’t the church supposed to be a blessed and open community, “Didn’t they know that Christ came for all people, “Could they not see how the Holy Spirit touched the lives of those who were thought to be ‘outsiders’”? These are all legitimate questions, yet they are also questions we still wrestle with today. 

How do you live into the promises, the vows that were made at your baptism? How do you live into the promises and the vows that you make when we welcome the newly baptized into the church? These are questions we should be asking ourselves on a daily basis, because at the moment of our baptism, and at the moment we decided we wanted to be a part of this thing we call the church, we should have realized that our faith is something that takes place not only on Sunday, but wherever we go… But we haven’t always done that as a church… We haven’t always lived out our baptismal vows… Sometimes we’ve failed to connect our faith in God with Christ’s ongoing ministry of love, peace, and justice. Simply put these vows, these holy vows have been broken on more than one occasion. 

I want to share a few short stories with you this morning… I believe that these stories capture the urgent need for Christians to live out the charge we were given in our baptism… Because what we will find is that this symbol, this sacred sign of God’s love, has been defiled by the Church in the past and in the present,  and by the world in ways that are truly horrendous. And if we as a church are not willing to wear our faith on our sleeves wherever we go then maybe we need to ask ourselves who the church is really for? Is it for ourselves and our own comfort? Or is it for God and the life giving work that we participate in? A God who asks us to live out a risky faith?!? 

  • Down at the border, there is a great tragedy where thousands of children are being separated from their families. Regardless of where you place yourself on the political spectrum I would hope that we would be able to see how atrocious this is and how devastating and life-threatening it is to thousands of innocent children. The stories that get me the most are the ones where border agents tell mothers, tell fathers, that they are taking their children away to bathe them with water… Can you imagine how heart wrenching it is when an act that should be pure and sacred turns into a moment of fear and dread? It should make us angry! How can we as baptized people, and as people who follow a Lord and savior who said, “Let the little children come to me” let acts such as this occur? Are we living out the promises of baptism in those moments? 

  • There was a young adult who was a part of worship group I led at previous church. This individual was phenomenal. They played an instrument for the worship group, they were active in their small group, and they were mindful of the needs of the elderly members who attended the main worship service. But one day they pulled me aside and asked if we could talk outside of church. So we went to get some coffee and as we talked about life they told me that they gay, and that they were worried about people in the church finding out, because they didn’t think they would be accepted or welcomed. This was a weight, an unfathomable weight, that had loomed over them… It was hard to think that the church wouldn’t accept them for who they were… I mean this church had baptized them, had walked alongside them through thick and thin… But the sad thing, the thing that broke our hearts, was that I couldn’t give a reassuring answer… I couldn’t tell them that everything would be okay, because I knew there would be people who would try and force them out of the church. Are we as a church being faithful to the promises we make when we baptize children and bring them into the family of Christ?

  • At a Presbyterian Church there was an infant baptism… And as the baptized person grew the church walked alongside them. This church didn’t have all the answers, and they weren’t perfect, but nevertheless they walked with this baptized person. There weren’t many people who were like them, but that didn’t stop the church from finding ways that they could be active in worship… They invited them to join the choir and even asked them to be a member of session. Throughout their life this church walked with them up until the day they went to college. While the baptized person was still forming their beliefs they could always look back at the community of faith that nurtured them and loved them… They could see how they wore their faith on their sleeves, how their faith pushed them to go out into the community to be God’s hands and feet, and how it was okay to not always have the answers to the tough questions that life often presented. 

We find that in the passage this morning is that faith is something all encompassing, it permeates and works itself into all areas of our lives. That is why the vows we make in the Sacrament of Baptism, and the promises we make to God to follow Jesus Christ, are so important! Because these things are not some abstract confession to a far off cosmic entity. These things are important because they remind us that our faith is reflective of a God who came down to earth, who took on human flesh, and walked around the earth to be with those who are hurting and to put his teachings into action. 

Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations in order to boast that their church had the most people sitting in the pews… Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations in order to make the church a place for people who were just like them… Jesus asked the disciples to go out and make disciples of all nations so that all people could see how this gospel message that Christ brought to us is life-changing. And if it isn’t life changing then the faith we’ve cultivated for ourselves is founded on self-pleasure rather than an eagerness to have the Holy Spirit be the flame that fuels our work in the world! I don’t get flustered about many things in life, but I get do get flustered when people say the church is irrelevant, mostly because the church isn’t irrelevant, but the passion to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world has been extinguished within the church. Will we let the Spirit ignite that passion within our hearts?  

So how am I, how are you, how are we, living into our baptismal vows and the promises that we make to God when we choose to follow Jesus Christ? How are you nurturing your soul? And I know that I’ve said this before, but spiritual endeavor is not done alone. Peter even says in this mornings text, “ But we’re not alone in this.” We are not alone… Out of the three true stories and experiences that I mentioned before I hope you have a sense that the final one is where we should be seeing ourselves going as a church. We may not be perfect, we may not have all the answers, but Jesus is there! Jesus is there… And if we are willing to take a risk, a risk that dares us to expand our vision of the church really is then we might find some unexpected friends along the way. And while they may not be like us, we can be united in the Holy Spirit as we together follow the will that God has for us.  It is then that we will be living out the promises and the vows that we say during the Sacrament of Baptism. It is then that we will laugh, cry, and grow together as we journey along life and faith together. It is then that we may truly remember our baptism. Amen.

What If?

Acts 5:1-11 (The Message)
But a man named Ananias – his wife, Sapphira, conniving in this with him – sold a piece of land, secretly kept a part of the price for himself, and then brought the rest to the apostles and made an offering of it. Peter said, “Ananias, how did Satan get you to lie to the Holy Spirit and secretly keep back part of the price of the field? Before you sold it, it was all yours, and after you sold it, the money was yours to do with as you wished. So what got into you to pull a trick like this? You didn’t lie to men, but to God.” Ananias, when we heard those words, fell down dead. That put the fear of God into everyone who heard it. The younger men went right to work and wrapped him up, then carried him out and buried him. Not more than three hours later, his wife, knowing nothing of what had happened came in. Peter said, “Tell me, were you given this price for your field?” “Yes,” she said, “that price.” Peter responded, “What’s going on here that you connived to conspire against the Spirit of the Master? The men who buried your husband are at the door, and you’re next.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than she also fell down, dead. When the younger men returned they found her body. They carried her out and buried her alongside her husband. By this time the whole church, and in fact, everyone who heard of these things had a healthy respect for God. They knew God was not to be trifled with.

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The passage this morning from the Book of Acts should have caught your attention… It’s not a passage that is commonly preached from in churches probably because of its graphic nature. If this passage doesn’t scare you then I don’t know what will, because what we will discover is that the story of Ananias and Sapphira is a tale that still lives on in our lives today. I could try and settle any fears about this passage by telling you that the writer was only trying to convey a message through the use of gallows humor, dark humor, or that the reading shares similarities with epics that could have been found in surrounding cultures. But let’s stick to what we are told this morning with the hope that we will gain a new perspective and a renewed sense of where the Spirit of God is calling us to go.

So what are the told this morning? What are the facts? We know that at this time there is a spirit of giving, a spirit of generosity that had worked its way into the early church…  Previously in the Book of Acts we find that, “Everyone around was in awe – all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all believers lived in harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.” (Acts 2:43-45) Those initial believers came together to live in community with one another, a community that sought to utilize the collective good of all it’s members in order to care for those in the church and to even care for those who lived around them.

This spirit of pouring blessings upon one another had spread throughout, and apparently had made its way to Ananias and Sapphira who sold a piece of property with the intention of giving all of the proceeds to the apostles. But something happened and we find that as a result Ananias and Sapphira withheld a portion of the of the profits instead of fulfilling their word to give it to God. The writer of the Book of Acts said that Ananias and Sapphira were “conniving,” scheming, with one another. However, I think there was some editorial work done… I don’t think Ananias and Sapphira sat the money down on a table, looked at one another, and said, “Hey, I have a good idea… Why don’t we lie to God?” No… I think the conversation that occured was similar to ones that happen in our own lives and is a honest reflection of what we wrestle with, “You know we have taxes to pay to the Romans?… We still have other expenses that might come up… What if something were to happen?” 

Like I said I don’t think that Ananias and Sapphira set out with the intention to sell property in order to lie to God, because no one sets out with that goal in mind. It might be anachronistic, but I imagine that if Ananias and Sapphira were alive today they might have added, “You know the costs of your last treatment were more expensive than what we were thinking… The kids have school supplies they need… And your parents are looking to retire and I don’t know if we can afford to give them the care that they need…” Ananias and Sapphira probably felt pressure to act in the same spirit of generosity that had swept the church, but like us they probably told themselves, “Let’s keep some to ourselves just in case… God wants me, wants us to take care of ourselves.”

The irony is that there is no passage of Scripture that talks about God helping those who help themselves, or God only caring about those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps… These are sayings that have become so ingrained in our way of life, but the Gospel actually turns it on it’s head, for wasn’t it Jesus who said to the disciples and the multitude of others who were present, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  (Matthew 11:28-29) We hear these words, the words that Jesus himself spoke, but we resist them because they challenge us to live into a way of life that takes us outside the universe we have tried to create for ourselves. In the moments that we hold back from others, we are really holding back from God.

What should have us worried this morning is that Ananias didn’t lose his life because he held back some of the money from the property that he sold, the disciples acknowledged that the money was Anania’s and that he had full control over how it was spent… Ananias lost his life because he lied to God. You can’t lie to a church, a community, that is filled with the Spirit of God, because you are lying to God. The discomfort that we feel from this passage stems from the fact that we too lie to God whenever we say that we are dedicated to following  Jesus, but try keep some of the gifts for ourselves… How many times have we heard that we want the church to change, to be a place for all people and not just for us? How many times have we refused to share our time, talents, our faith, or abilities with those in need because they didn’t fit our mold for who was deserving of God’s grace, as if we have the right to pass such a judgement on others? But that is the kind of self-less outpouring of love that the Spirit demands, not requests, of us!

We as disciples of Christ, we as the body of Christ, the Church, cannot maintain an iron grasp on the gifts and talents that have been given to us by God… And I’m not just talking about money… Money is the obvious illustration that is used in this passage, and in my opinion an easy way out… I’m also talking about our time, our skills, our abilities to sing, speak, and act, in addition to the multiple ways in which we can be a community that supports one other. In what ways have we held onto certain aspects of our lives, of our church, in order to save it for that “what if” occasion? How many times have we missed opportunities to build relationships with those around us because we selfishly thought that the gifts God gave us were for us and us alone? What I’m essentially asking myself and all of you this morning, “Is when have we given to God with one hand open and the other hand clenched shut like an ironclad trap  trying to preserve those things we think belong only to ourselves?”

Maybe it’s time that we shift gears and take a look at where the Spirit is calling us to go in the future with a model of giving that reflects two open hands; instead of one hand open and one hand closed. To look forward maybe all we have to do is look back to see how that spirit of generosity, that spirit of giving, that spirit of care, thrived within the the early days of the founding members of the First Presbyterian Church of Watertown. On June 3, 1803, thirteen men and women assembled in Mr. Burnham’s barn to found a church under the leadership of the Rev. Lazelle. It was determined that all those who were communicants of the church would offer six cents to help defray the cost of a communion table. Six cents may not seem like a lot, but we’re talking about a large percentage when we look at the inflation between 1803 and today. 

Those who have come before us did not have much… They were pioneers of Northern New York, trailblazers who established a community of faith to serve those who were around them. Now I can’t say that I finished reading the book that chronicles the history of this church, but I imagine that there were times where things weren’t good… I imagine there were times when people were exclude, where money became more important than people, and times where going to church might have been more for gaining social capital than for actually worshipping God… Yet through all of those times I bet that there were those who still made an offering to God, the kind of offering that Ananias and Sapphira wanted to make… Those who never stopped living life with two hands open instead of one knowing that God would be there with them. 

The passage this morning is tough… But sometimes we need a tough passage to shake things up, to break us from lives that are either complacent or stagnant. Now I’m not advocating that you go out and sell your land or other goods, because I think we might come close to being a borderline cult…  However, the simple truth is that we cannot go about our lives saying that we offer what we have to God when we have one hand behind us clenched shut. So what are we going to do? It’s one thing to say that we will offer what we have to God and that we will be a community of faith for all people, but it’s another things to then follow up putting our words into actions. God knows all about the “what ifs” of life, and hurdles that are associated with them… That is why we have this thing called the church…  So how will we let the Spirit of God use what we have to better those who are our neighbors and ourselves? Will we strain to preserve them for ourselves? Or will we trust that God will work for the greater good that purifies our selfish desires and turns them into oceans of unending love? Amen.

A Holy Disturbance

Acts 2:1-12 (The Message)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

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Once again we find the disciples had gathered together in a secluded, private,  room… It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone at this point, because this is a scene that we have witnessed before  in previous texts. We only have to look back at the Easter story, in which the disciples fled and hid after the crucifixion of Jesus. They were afraid of the teachers of the law, the Roman Empire, and the people who shouted out to Pontius Pilate, “Crucify him, crucify him!” But this morning Luke doesn’t tell us why the disciples had come together in Jerusalem…  All we are told is that it was the day of Pentecost, which was a time of feasting and celebration for the Jewish people, and that the disciples were present with each other in one place.

With everything that was going on, it must have been noisy… Imagine the streets of Jerusalem being filled with people from all different places, conversations could probably be heard through the windows, which must have made it all the more terrifying when that sound of a rushing, violent, wind filled the place where the disciples were staying. However, the sound of the wind that flooded the place they were staying, must have seemed pretty minor in comparison when they saw the tongues of fire descending upon their heads, it was certainly a “holy disturbance.” This disturbance wasn’t planned, the disciples probably weren’t ready, but one way or another they went out being filled with the Holy Spirit. The question for us this morning is how will we react to this holy disturbance when the Holy Spirit comes into our presence and says, “Come, follow me, be inspired, be challenged, and know that I am here with you.”

We aren’t always good with disturbances or maybe I should say we aren’t always good at dealing with change that pushes us to go beyond what we have come to know and find comforting and reassuring. Yet we see this recurring throughout Scripture… God reached out to Moses from the burning bush calling Moses to leave behind the life he had made for himself… God asked Jonah to go and proclaim the good news to the people of Nineveh whom Jonah had despised… God asked Mary to take on the task of conceiving a son that would be named Emmanuel, God with us… God asked the disciples if they would drop what they were doing and come follow him… And God asks the same life disturbing question to us today. But it’s hard to answer the call, to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit kindling a fire inside us, when we erect a sanctuary, a safe haven, a refuge for ourselves in order to keep the world out of the space we have created for our own pleasure.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if the church, this church, didn’t have any walls or ceilings… What would it be like for us to worship in a space where we were completely exposed to those around us? How would we handle ourselves in a situation where we could would look out to see our neighbors passing by on the sidewalk or strangers driving down Washington Street? Would we welcome them? Would let them in? Would we let them into the “one place” where we gathered to seek God, or does the Holy Spirit need to descend and push out into our community like it pushed the disciples out into the streets of Jerusalem?  Now Mary Sanford, our church historian, might have some words for me if I started taking a sledgehammer to the outside of the church, but I want us to really think about what it would look like, what it would mean for us and others, if we acted, lived, and worshipped like the church was not a building, but a way of life.

Recently I attended the changing of command ceremony for Lt. Col. Jeremy Gwinn up at Ft. Drum. I don’t come from a military background, so my volunteer work with the USO and going to events such as this has been a great learning experience… I’ll say that I thought Presbyterians used a lot of acronyms, but we fall so short in terms of the number of acronyms our armed forces use… Getting back on track, each time I go to Ft. Drum I’m greeted with the 10th Mountain Divisions motto “Climb to Glory.” I think this is a fitting phrase for us today as we gather during this season of Pentecost. As the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, we are reminded of how God continually meets us where we are, and in response we take the gifts that we have received and “climb to glory” by being faithful in our words, deeds, and actions… It’s a holistic perspective. One that reminds us that while we should use our brains we need to use our hearts and hands as well.

God didn’t call the disciples to go to the places that they thought were comfortable. God didn’t call the disciples to be arrogant or indignant. God didn’t call the disciples to only care for those people who were like them. No… God called them to go to places where God’s own heart hurts the most. God called them to go and to be with the widows and the orphans, to go and welcome the stranger who came from a foreign land, and to go and to be in the places where there is so much hurt and pain that those who live there are either forgotten about or pushed far off into the extreme margins of our society. It’s not here where God calls us to be… It may be a part of what it means to be the church, but it’s out there where God truly calls us to be… That is where we are supposed to be the church. Church isn’t a place where you gather on Sunday morning, but it is found in the divine interactions, the moments of grace, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation, that we have with one another.

So where is God’s heart hurting the most today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow? Where is God’s heart hurting in your own life and in the lives of those who live around us? Where is God’s hurting heart calling us to be? We do a lot of great mission work… We’ve established sustainable and healthy programs in Malawi, we’ve gone down to Mexico to work with bricks and mortar, and we’ve gone to Europe and the Middle East to cultivate our spiritual lives, so we’re already taking a step in the right direction. Though I’ll that  it’s easy to find the places where God’s heart is hurting if they are far away, but it’s more difficult to answer the question of where God’s heart hurts when we have to look around our own community. Yet that is also where the Spirit of God is calling us to be… It’s more than just writing a check, it’s more than wishing people luck in their endeavors, it requires blood, sweat, tears, and experimentation to cultivate the lasting relationships that make a healthy community of faith, a community that fully embraces the idea that each and everyone of us are created in the image of God.

If we dare to let the Holy Spirit be our guide we will be led by love, we will be led by grace, and we will be led by a God who has walked in our footsteps… If we dare to let the Holy Spirit be our guide we might find that our swords may truly be beaten into plowshares one day… If we dare to let the Holy Spirit be our guide then our actions, and our passions, will speak in sweet harmony with the Gospel that Christ has given us. If we dare to let the Holy Spirit be our guide, we will then be fully aware that as soon as our feet hit the ground in the morning that what we are doing is church, that in the conversations we have with one another we are praising God, that in the moments of grief that we share we are turning to a Savior who has also  grieved and died, and in the moments we go and care for our neighbors, loving them and letting them love us, that the words of the Jesus are being fulfilled in that moment… If we dare to allow the Spirit to guide us perhaps we will rekindle the flame that already exists with our souls, perhaps then we will rekindle our love for one another, our love for God, our love for true justice and peace, and our rediscover the beauty that comes from unexpected places. But that is only if we dare to let the Spirit be our guide and disturb and disrupt us. Are we will willing to trust the Spirit of God to lead us into the unknown, into such a challenging place?

Following the Holy Spirit does not mean everything will go our way… There will be a lot of failures… Just look at Scripture! The New Testament recounts the numerous failures of the disciples as they went out on their missionary journeys throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. In our following of the Holy Spirit, we won’t get everything right. Ministry is messy, life is messy, this thing we call the church is messy, but the beautiful part is that God loves every last bit of what we have to offer. In the spills and mishaps that life brings God is co-laboring with us, encouraging us, sharing in our joys and sorrows… Are we ready for the chaos and messiness that the Holy Spirit brings? I don’t know… I don’t have the silver bullet that provides a reassuring answer… But I do know this, that in our striving to be active and faithful followers of Christ the fears of what the future will be are soothed by the knowledge that there is a community, a family of individuals, who are wrestling with the struggles of life as well.

At the end of our passage from the Book of Acts we find the those who bore witness to the disciples speaking in different tongues were left in a state of amazement, and that they asked one another, “What does this mean?” This summer we’ll be exploring select passages from the Acts as we ask a similar question, “What does it mean for us to be a spiritual led, spiritually transformed, church?” There’s no one answer, which may be hard for some folks, but that’s only because the Spirit of God cannot be contained by a single dogma, a single religious practice, or church building… The Spirit of God has to be let free… It has to be allowed to work in ways that surprise us, that bring us to the darkened corners of our communities, and show us how in our loving of others we too are loved.  Get ready… Because I hope that we can go on a journey together… A journey that invites the Holy Spirit to be present in a way that is familiar yet challenging. May we welcome the holy disturbances that can be found in Pentecost. Allow yourselves to get caught off guard… Because you may be surprised at what the Holy Spirit allows us to uncover. Amen.

Faith, The Final Frontier

John 20:19-31 (The Message)
Later on that day, the disciples had gathered together, but, fearful of the Jews, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he showed them his hands and side. The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: “Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.” Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.” But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.” Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.” Thomas said, “My Master! My God!” Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.

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“Space, the final frontier… These are the voyages of the starship…” I’m sorry… That’s the opening for something else, but it’s still relevant to what we are talking about today, which is faith. Faith in both things that we can see and cannot see. Maybe we don’t have a starship to chart undiscovered star systems, but I think it might be an appropriate metaphor for us as we navigate today’s passage from the Gospel According to John. 

But since I mentioned it it was in 1966 that the first episode of Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry aired on televisions across America. Star Trek, which first began with the adventures of Captain Kirk and the starship Enterprise soon evolved out of the realm of science fiction… Over the years, it addressed issues that were relevant to its viewers, pushed the boundaries of what was and wasn’t acceptable to broadcast, and inspired generations to imagine what lies beyond our own solar system. While Gene Roddenberry had distanced himself from his Christian upbringing, his series would still occasionally ask questions pertaining to faith, “What does it mean when we can’t observe something or hold it in our hands?” “What does it look like to believe in the spiritual when it seems like everything can be explained  using the scientific method?” “ Is there still room for faith and a belief in things that aren’t able to be quantified or studied?”

Perhaps then faith really is the final frontier… There are no scans, no notes that can be made, and no way to hold faith in our hands. It’s a little disconcerting when you think about it. We trust in our senses… We put stock into the things that we can see, touch, smell, hear, and taste, but faith doesn’t lend itself to any of those and as a result faith has become shrouded in mystery, which makes it hard to talk about. I admit that as Presbyterians we are not always great when it comes to talking about our faith. We’d much rather talk about sports, things that are going on in the community, friends, family, and dare I say even the tumultuous realm of politics, anything else, but faith.  So let’s try and demystify faith for the sake of exploring that final frontier. 

I think it would be helpful to take a look at what faith is not before we look at what faith is…  If faith is the final frontier, then that means we have to dive in and explore what faith is, taking in all of its complexities, faults, triumphs, joys, and sorrows. Because if we aren’t willing to confront the mysteries of faith, how can we hope to know not only ourselves, but this God whom we profess to worship and serve each and every week? 

Well, for starters, faith isn’t a litmus test… There’s the tendency to view faith as being something that indicates whether or not someone is truly a follower of Christ, but let me tell you that we have no way of knowing what goes on deep within the human soul. If Thomas, a disciple a Jesus Christ, a witness to countless miracles and signs still had questions and doubts where does that leave us? This is the whole point of the Easter story! It’s the reason why God came down to earth and took on human flesh because God wanted to know what it meant for us to live in a world that wrestled with both tremendous joy and unspeakable suffering. There is no definitive answer when we talk about having faith.  It’s something that is always changing. 

Whether we are new to the faith or have been going to church for decades, faith is something that does not lend itself to a clear-cut answer to whether or not someone is “in” or “out.” There is no decoder ring to determine who belongs and who doesn’t. We as Christians have tried this before and each time we have failed miserably. You look back to periods in history such as the Spanish Inquisition, the fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, and the segregation of churches here in America. When you process these things you begin to realize that all of our attempts to section off parts of the body of Christ have been futile. If we do not live with the hope that is found in the resurrection then what are we doing? How can we possibly expect to better understand ourselves in relationship to God, if we exert so much energy into creating an exclusive club? 

So what else is not a part of faith… Well, faith isn’t an excuse to be ignorant of reality or the struggles in which we all encounter at some point or another… Maybe I’m not phrasing this in a way that really makes sense, so let me try and unpack it. We’ve all heard and used phrases like, “I’ll pray for you,” “I’m thinking of you,” “I’ll send you my thoughts and prayers.” They’re pretty common phrases that we use on a semi-regular basis, but there are some sayings that we probably shouldn’t use in certain situations depending on what is going on in somebody else’s life. While faith is a balm that can soothe both our body and soul, it doesn’t ask that we turn a blind eye to the fact that there are many things in life that can’t be assigned a rational reason or purpose. 

I remember my time as a hospital chaplain and a family member told a patient, “If you have faith that God will heal you, then God will.” Really? Are you sure that we’re looking at the same person? They’re on their deathbed… How can you tell them that if they have faith God will heal them? When we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death, both literally and figuratively, I don’t imagine that someone telling you to have faith would be much of a comfort. It wasn’t too long ago that we found Jesus hanging on a cross… That was real… There was real flesh, real blood, that was convicted of a crime that was not justified… On the cross, Christ looked down to find Mary weeping with a multitude of others… Jesus didn’t tell her to have faith that everything would be okay. Instead, we found a Jesus who cared about who would welcome her into their community once he was gone. Faith doesn’t give us a way to ignore these realities, but asks us instead go around and seek out those who are hurting so that we can offer not only words but the physical sign of God’s presence as well. 

So we have a better understanding of the things that do not make up faith. So what fills in those gaps? What are the things that make up faith and what is at the core of the faith that Jesus presents in this morning’s Scripture reading? Perhaps we’ll find that once again, Jesus breaks our expectations, our standards of ourselves and others, and comes to bring us into a deeper relationship that sustains and nurtures us, because we have a living a faith, a faith that calls us to action, to get up and go out from our pews into the world that God created, leaving behind our prejudices, fears, and hate.

Faith is a journey… Faith is something that should not remain static. It’s not a precious family heirloom that is meant to be shrouded in time-honored tradition and gathers dust and cobwebs. On the contrary, our faith should almost be like a quilt that is assembled by many different people. There are pieces that make it unique, make it ours, but there are pieces that demonstrate how our faith has been impacted by those whom we have met and by the events in our life. If my faith today was the same as it was 10 years ago, I should be concerned… Because that means that nothing has happened. Nothing has challenged me to ask where God is calling me in the midst of everything else that is going on in my life. If our faith, if our identity as a church has not changed in the past 10 years maybe we need to ask ourselves where God is truly leading us. We can’t just sit in “friendly territory,” at some point we have to move into the unexplored realms of life and faith in order to continually discover what God is asking us to do. 

Faith is meant to root us in reality when the world is so chaotic… Sometimes we will falter, and that’s okay. Doubts, questions, they are an essential part of what it means to have a healthy faith. Thomas often gets a hard time for having doubted that Jesus rose from dead. There are some valid points to be made for why Thomas shouldn’t have doubted the others, but Thomas accurately reflects our lives in the here and now. We have doubts, we have questions, we wonder why there is so much death in the world, we question why evil actions are so prevalent, and we long for the days when our soul can find refuge from the darkness and chaos of the world. There may be reasons for us to critique, Thomas, but there are even more reasons why we should look towards Thomas as an example of what it means to have faith in an uncertain world. 

And do you know what the best part about all of this is? It’s that Jesus is there… Jesus is there offering an abundance of grace and forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t berate Thomas, Jesus doesn’t chastise him, because he knows what it is like to live with the tensions of having faith in the divine, the unseen, and the real-life problems that we encounter in our everyday lives. The story of Easter is not just a story, it’s a way of life… This Easter season we are asked whether or not we will journey on with a faith that asks questions, looks out for our neighbors, and seeks to embody the love and grace of God. It means that we’ll change, we’ll grow, we won’t just stagnate in our relationship to God, clinging to traditions that are no longer relevant, but flourish as we continue on with faith that God will lead us, both in our own lives and in our various communities. Amen.

Palms, Praises, and People

Text: Mark 11:1-11
When they were nearing Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany on Mount Olives, he sent off two of the disciples with instructions: “Go to the village across from you. As soon as you enter, you’ll find a colt tethered, one that has never yet been ridden. Untie it and bring it. If anyone asks you, ‘What are you doing?’ say, ‘The Master needs him, and will return him right away.’” They went and found a colt tied to a door at the street corner and untied it. Some of those standing there said, “What are you doing untying that colt?” The disciples replied exactly as Jesus had instructed them, and the people let them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus, spread their coats on it, and he mounted it. The people gave him a wonderful welcome, some throwing their coats on the street, other spreading out rushes they had cut in the fields. Running ahead and following after, they were calling out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Blessed the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” He entered Jerusalem, then entered the Temple. He looked around, taking it all in. But by now it was late, so he went back to Bethany with the Twelve.

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The Son of God, the Messiah, the one who would restore Israel, the King of Kings, rode into Jerusalem on the back of a colt that had never been ridden. Can you imagine it? What must it have been like to stand there in the crowd as Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem. The people were so excited that some placed palm branches that they had cut from nearby fields while others took their cloaks and placed them on the ground in front of Jesus, all while a great number of others gathered to greet him. With all  the pomp and circumstance surrounding Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem it raises the question, “Why did they do that,” Why are we continuing to do it?”…

These questions are why I love the Gospel of Mark. There is an “earthiness” that brings the cosmic down to our own plane of existence. The people who appear in Mark’s narrative are not that much different than ourselves… They asked questions of one another and of God. And this God who they asked questions of turned the world upside down and continues to turn the world on its head. When the people in the city placed palm branches and their coats on the ground I wonder if they really knew what they were getting themselves into. Each of them had their expectations and their own hopes for what they wanted Jesus to do, but Jesus never really seemed to fit into any of their boxes.

This morning as we wave our palm branches and sing songs of admiration and joy, do we know what we are getting ourselves into when we place our palm branches at the feet of Jesus? Are we willing to follow Christ, even if that means we are being led in a direction that goes against our preconceived notions of others, our biases, and our fears? Perhaps that is why we wave palm branches… Perhaps that is why we come to offer what we have to God with the faith that what we offer will be used to transform the communities in which we live. But we better be ready, because if we are going to welcome Jesus into our presence, we should realize that things probably won’t go the way we want them to, because Jesus rarely does what we expect of him.

When we welcome in this Messiah, this King of Kings, we welcome in the unknown, which can be quite a frightening thing. This unknown factor, this fear of where Jesus will lead us is not something new or strange. It’s a tale as old as time and a story that has been repeated throughout  history. If we were to follow the crowd in their praise of Jesus, would we embrace the fact that Jesus challenges us to grow as individuals and as a community? This reminds me of a conversation I had recently:

Not too long ago I was leading a confirmation retreat for youth and their mentors. Besides leading plenary sessions for youth, I also led a small group for the adults who had come with them. While I try not to have favorites, there was one older man named Denny, who quickly jumped to the top of the list. During a discussion about how the church can be a better neighbor to those in the community Denny chimed in, “You know I’m really tired of some of the things my church does… All they do is debate and complain about how the church should be decorated. They’re concerned about the flowers and the building, but not about the people around us. When I walk outside of church on Sunday I see that there is so much more that we can and should be doing! Yet all people seem to ever talk about is keeping things the same!” 

I took the liberty of editing some of what Denny said for the sake of this being a church, but the sentiment is still the same. It asks the important question, “Are you, are we, willing to follow Jesus if that means giving up things that are no longer part of God’s calling for us?” We know what is comfortable and we know what makes us feel safe… For the people in Jerusalem this feeling of security was founded in their belief that Jesus would be an earthly liberator. With a sword in his hand, Jesus would free the people from their oppression and would restore the kingdom that they had yearned for for centuries. For us, here and now, we often cling to what we know, to what is familiar, and we become uneasy thinking about what it means for us to become the community of faith for the second, third, and fourth generations to come.

Life isn’t easy… When you’re laying in bed late at night thinking about the troubles of the world, it feels like the last thing you want to worry about is the mission that is given to us by Jesus Christ. I mean there are bills that have to be paid, loved ones who are sick or dying, stress about employment, struggles with addiction, and relationships that are fracturing or just starting anew… At the end of the day when we are most vulnerable it isn’t too hard to wonder, “How in the world am I supposed to add one more thing? Discipleship? Stewardship? Fellowship? Jesus can’t expect me to do it all!” To some extent that’s a fair question and a feeling that we have probably all experienced or will experience. Turning to our reading this morning we find that the people in Mark’s Gospel wrestled with similar questions and feelings as well.

As the people followed Jesus through the city they were shouting and calling out to Jesus, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Blessed the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Hosanna… It’s a word that we have come to associate with praise, with jubilation, with celebration. But hosanna is actually much more nuanced than that… It can also mean, “Save us now, we pray.” Save us from what? I would imagine that if the people found out what Jesus’ intent was they wouldn’t be so eager to follow him. The same might be true for us… When we’ve become so concerned about ourselves and our traditions, thinking about what lies beyond the walls we have erected for ourselves can sometimes seem like an impossible task, but that is what we are supposed to be doing if we decided to follow Christ.

Marching behind and in front of Jesus the people believed that he would liberate them from their earthly oppressors. I think it might be fair to say that as Jesus rode into town the people were hoping that this would be the moment that he would establish his earthly kingdom. But like I said before, Jesus isn’t about these things… Those gathered were following him for the wrong reasons. Jesus didn’t care about the Romans or their swords and collection of weapons. Jesus didn’t care about borders or nations, powers or principalities… Jesus would have probably preferred the people to march with him in order to demonstrate the restorative power that only God can give. The restorative power that emphasizes empathy, love, and compassion, and therefore brings about reconciliation beyond comprehension. The power that calls us to cherish human life, instead of the things that extinguish the precious image of God that dwells inside each and everyone of us.”

Jesus asks us if we will follow him on that path he has laid out for us… If we are really willing to place our palm branches and cloaks in front of Jesus are we willing to beat our swords into plowshares? The weapons of our speech, our emotions, and material goods? Will we surrender our hostile attitudes for one another in order to recognize not Caesar’s reign, but the reign of Christ. The palm branches that we carry are much more than signs of our praise… They are a sign of our humanity, our purpose, and our desire to follow Christ who continually surprises us and challenges us to grow.

I’m not sure how many people would be left in the crowd if they knew that is what Jesus was really asking them. I’m not sure how many of us would be left if we could look ahead and see where Jesus is leading us. Because our faith asks us to do more than think… Here in the Western hemisphere we’ve done a lot of thinking… But maybe it’s time for a change, time for action, time to put those years of thinking about our faith into action. That way we can become the better community of faith God calls us to be, we can become the better neighbor, and we can become better stewards of this great and beautifully created world and caretakers of one another. Perhaps then we will be able to lay down not only our palm branches, but our pride and stubbornness as well.

We’re stubborn though, you can ask anyone in my family and they would verify that I can be quite thick headed… In our resistance to change, in our fear of the unknown, we grasp to the things that give us a sense, a false sense, of security… Yet time and time again we find that Jesus is there patiently waiting. And not only is Jesus waiting, but he is willing to accept that we will often go kicking and screaming and wait for us to return with open arms in order to put us back on the right path. This Palm Sunday isn’t just about celebrating Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. It sets the stage for a series of events that ends with Jesus hanging on the cross… There was no victory over the Romans, there was no re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, there was only death… But a death that radically changed the world as we know it, and continues to ask the hard questions, and pushes us into a direction where we are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

As we go into this Holy Week let us continue to ask the questions that the people in Mark’s Gospel asked. Why do we follow Jesus? Why do we do the things that we do? Instead of leaving them on the ground, why don’t we pick up our palm branches and our cloaks and continue to follow Jesus. Who leads us on a forward march that asks us to leave behind the things that builds walls, creates division, and silences life rather than nurtures it… Where is Jesus calling you to go? And are you, are well, willing to invest the energy and effort needed to be faithful to that calling? I don’t have the answers, so I can’t say what lies ahead… That’s why we do this thing called faith together… That’s why as a community of faith we wave palm branches… It’s why we come together to offer our praise to God… It’s why we come together with one another, people who were created in the image of God. Amen.