From The Ashes

Revelation 21:1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."  And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."

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Have you ever spent time with a loved one or close friend or even time by yourself and realized that time could move in ways you didn't expect? I'm talking about the moments where you think only one hour has passed, but in reality, it was more like four… I'm talking those special occasions where you have quality time, and you find that you are so wrapped up in whatever it was you were doing you discover that morning has quickly turned to dusk. We might describe those experiences as being the very definition of a "good time." As we look at the passage for today, we find ourselves asking, "Have we been intentional about having those kinds of good times with God as well? Are we living with God as Christ lives with God and with each other as Christ is with us?"

This past week during a Bible study, I mentioned how we often associate the Book of Revelation with apocalyptic images that are reminiscent of modern interpretations such as the "Left Behind" series. But we don't find any of those things in this morning's reading… There is no fire, no brimstone, no separation of the chaff from the wheat. Instead what we find is a much more confusing scene… Instead of there being a violent cleansing of the world, God comes down from heaven to be with a hurting world. God makes a home among the  messiness and the chaos and claims that there will be a new creation, a home where there will be no more death, no more mourning and crying, a home where the "first things have passed away."

When we hear those words, the promise of God making all things new, we might think that they are some far off distant musing about what the future is going to look like. We might not believe that those words carry any significant weight in the here and now. This tension isn't new, in case you're wondering, people across the ages have wrestled with what it means to live with the future promises of the divine and the current situations they find themselves in their daily lives. And it isn't easy to reconcile these things when we're concerned about things like finances, work, relationships, or find that you are wrapped in a cloud of grief.

We are living in what is commonly known as the "in-between" time that falls somewhere in the middle of the present and the future. It truly is a brain teaser and if you have the answer let me know, but I don't believe there is a clear and concise reply to those who find themselves asking how the promises of God speak to us in the here and now and the days to come. But add into the mix then the turbulence of life, and it's many ups and downs, and it can be hard to see how this new creation is going to come into existence. It takes faith, which is easier said than done sometimes, but perhaps it requires a persistent faith and persevering, a faith that can adapt to our rapidly changing world and meet the needs of not only our souls but the souls of those around us as well.

John, who is traditionally thought to be the writer of this book, was in a quite a predicament when he wrote the Book of Revelation. It was said that John was exiled to the Island of Patmos by the Romans during a time of conflict between the government and the growing religious diversity within the empire. If we were in John's place, it would be tempting to think that the world was going to burn and turn into a pile of ash, but John saw something different. John saw beyond the imminent threat and fear and sets a focal point for us to set our eyes upon when we struggle with the complexities of life and our souls.

It can be hard living as people who exist "in-between" the time of the present and future promises of God. And what complicates the matter, even more, is that the future isn't some far off time, but like I said before it is also now! From the ashes, from death and chaos, God makes all things new today and tomorrow. If it sounds confusing, don't worry. What's essential is that we live in faith, knowing that God is with us as the "Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end." Everything around is always going to be in some flux, but the love, the commitment of God, has been steadfast for generations. It is what has allowed new things to come out from the ashes and bloom into the beautiful new something that God is doing in our lives, in our world, today!

Recognizing these things there are a couple of points in this morning's reading that we should indeed take to heart as we go about our daily lives… The first is that the author is asking whether or not we are going to side with God and be a part of the new creation. It's a vital question… God can cast the vision, but if there isn't any buy-in from all of us, then what's the point? So let us reconsider these word you heard earlier, "Ἰδοὺ καινὰ ποιῶ πάντα" (Behold, I make all things new). "Πάντα," it's the Koine Greek word meaning "all." But this word, πάντα, doesn't mean "all" in a way that comes with stipulations and conditions… It means "all" in the purest sense of the word (every part, every piece, everything that makes up the whole).

The love that God has for the creation and all of us should be something that isn't shocking or new… I mean it is unfortunate that we have to remind ourselves that God loves us just the way we are, but this passage from Revelation should bring us back to the very beginning of the Book of Genesis where we find that after God had created the world, it was pronounced to be "good." Except for this time things are different… We are meeting God, being with God as the people we were created to be. Unlike the story in the beginning in Genesis, we can be with God entirely even after having obtained knowledge from the forbidden tree. All of these things, and I mean all of it, are a part of God's new creation, and this vision is set before us, and we are asked whether or not we are going to buy in as disciples who bring their own unique stories and experiences to the table.  

Moving to the second point that is important for us to remember this morning is that once we commit ourselves to this new creation, there is a responsibility to be an active participant, a steward, a disciple. In our first reading this morning we heard Jesus speak these words, "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have a love for one another." (John 13:34-35) The new creation requires not only buy in but an investment as well. It's one thing to say that you're a part of the new creation, but it's another to say that you are an active participant.

I think that this is something we have a harder time understanding when compared to faith communities around the world, especially those in the global South… Most of us here probably think of the new heaven and new earth as being something that is not connected with the world we live in right now. But for many who come from places like South America and Africa the new heaven and new earth are likened to that of a village where all people are free to walk in and commune with the physical world and the spiritual. It sounds like something out a fantasy book while in reality, this is a picture of how we should and are interacting with the world around us! We communicate with the physical, but at the same time, we interact with the sparks of divine that exist within you, me, and all of creation!

This passage is telling the tale of the changing of seasons, the different phases we go through in life while remaining in the arms of God. From the ashes comes new life, from new life comes new opportunities, and from those new opportunities, we discover where God is calling us to go. There's an old hymn, "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God," that ends with a verse that I think ties it all together:

"They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still, the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus' will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.

The saints of God, the merging of the physical and spiritual, the rising of new life from the ashes, happens every day. While we hold fast to the promises of God that are to come, we also hold just as fast to the hopes of the future that are with us today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. So let us carry onward as people who offer what they have, embrace who they are, and grow with the community of saints and creation as God makes all things new forever and ever. Amen.

 



The Unexpected Ending

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

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"How long will you keep us in suspense?" It's a question that we find ourselves asking today, not only because we want to know how our favorite book, movie, or TV show will end, but because we want to know what is coming around the corner in our lives as well. It might be disappointing for some of you to hear, but I used to have a nasty habit of reading the last chapter of a book before starting from the very beginning. I liked to know what happened and surprisingly enough, I enjoy being able to see how the developing plot points lead up to the end. I'm not saying it's a great way to read a book, but it's something I used to enjoy.

Can you imagine reading a book and not knowing how it ended. So you write to the author, and they tell you, "Well, didn't you read it? You're supposed to know what happens by the time you get halfway through the book!" Some things might have gotten in the way of knowing what happened, and by the end, we might be caught off guard if we discover we are following the wrong voice. So what is the unexpected unending? What is it that we are supposed to know? What are we supposed to walk away with? What's going to happen? The suspense seems too much to bear.

Perhaps that's why I jumped ahead and read the last chapter before starting at the beginning… It was one of those rare moments where we have control over something, and for me, it might have felt like I had control over whether or not I invest time into something depending on how convincing the ending was. But life isn't like, unfortunately. We don't know how things are going to end and as much as we try to predict and plan, more often than not, we find that we are wrong with our many guesses and assumptions. There's nothing wrong with wanting to know what happens next, but the problem we run into is that sometimes the answer has been in front of us all along and we just haven't been paying attention.

I can imagine Jesus standing among the group of people who had gathered and said, "Come on guys… How many times do I have to say it? I've already told you, but you're just not listening to what I'm saying." The shepherd in Jesus' answer calls out the sheep who know the shepherds name. I think it would be fair to say that we are the sheep and Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but even though we know the voice of Christ, we don't always hear and respond to the call.

There's a little bit of uncertainty in every one of us. There is a little bit of anxiety within each of us as we struggle with hearing not only the call of Jesus but the call that we receive from each other as well who possess a spark of the divine creator. If we listen closely enough, or maybe more accurately listen more attentively, we would be able to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd over the chaotic orchestra of sounds that are also vying for our attention. Which can seem disappointing when we think we aren't successful in our discernment, but it's a part of our growth as people who are led by God's Spirit.

There was a story I remember hearing about a person who lived with someone who had three overbearing and misbehaved dogs. Just picture the worst behaved dog you can… They tore up future, barked at the most inappropriate hours of the day, and would only be welcoming to their owner. One day this individual had enough and devised a plan to get "revenge." You see, the owner had a very recognizable and easy to impersonate voice. And every day, the owner would greet the dogs by saying, "Hey, where is everyone?"

So the owners spent some time practicing, and finally one day they felt as though they had a pretty good imitation voice. So the one day at the same time the owner usually came home, the roommate unlocked the door and said, "Hey, where is everyone?" All of a sudden, the three dogs came running with their tails wagging happily. But all of a sudden then stopped in their tracks, and they looked at the roommate with confused looks on their faces.

This went in for a few more weeks, the same old routine, but one day something changed, something was different. It was the same time of day when the roommates opened the door and let out the imitated greeting, but there was silence. The roommate explored the house and found the three dogs sitting in the living room sleeping. They had finally picked up in the difference between the fake voice and the voice of their owner.

There are a lot of voices out there that try to trick and confuse us and lead us astray. Some voices tell us we will never be good enough. Some voices tell us no matter how hard we try; we will end up failing. Some voices tell us to give us, throw in the towel, and go home. But through the flurry of all these voices, there is still one that rings out always calling us back, and that that is the voice of the Good Shepherd. And for every voice that tells us that we will never be good enough, the Good Shepherd says, "You are beautiful the way you are." For every voice that tells us we will fail, the Good Shepherd says, "Don't worry, I'll be with you when you try again." And for every voice that tells us to give us and go home, the voice of the Good Shepherd pierces through and says, "Fear not, I'm with you through thick and thin."

I don't know many people like the Good Shepherd that Jesus describes in the reading this morning. There are some people in my life who I know I can always rely on and turn to when I need help with something, they know me, and I know them. What is challenging about the reading this morning is that Jesus paints a picture of a much broader family or "flock" to whom we are called to belong and place our faith. That takes a lot of courage to invest that much into someone who you have never met before. I don't expect you leave here this morning and find a stranger to love the same way God loved us, I'd give you a lot of credit, but I would understand if that is not your first instinct. That kind of relationships take time, and we don't all have the experience of relating to people so openly.

Today is Mother's Day, which is something most of you probably already knew. I find that Mother's Day is one of the holidays, much like Father's Day, that evokes many different emotions. There are those who never have been "mothers" in the traditional sense, there are those who have lost have their children or find that they worry about them, there are those who have lost their mother or those who were mother-like figures, and then there are those who take this day to cherish those whom they call "mom," whether it be their biological mother, adopted mother, or those unique individuals who have helped lived into that role. Today on this day, all these things are held in healthy tension as we celebrate those who are essential in our lives and grieve for the things that we need to grieve for in our lives

We don't often think of God as being a mother, but we certainly can call upon such images that come to us from individuals such as the Prophet Isaiah who wrote, "As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you." (Isaiah 66:13) As a mother, a those who have been female role models, have comforted been with us through our life's journey we might have found that they have been there to comfort us, to walk with us, and call us by name when others might not have been there for us. It's a rocky journey but one that reminds us that the unexpected ending to the story comes at a price that is not always apparent, not always acknowledged by our hearts.

The unexpected ending to the story might seem disheartening at first glance. We might think that if we don't hear the Good Shepherd's voice, then there is something wrong with us, but in reality, I don't think that's the case. It's not one chance and one chance only kind of a thing, but the Good Shepherd is one who continually calls out the sheep by name and goes to looks for them when they get lost. The Good Shepherd, who is also like a protective mother who calls us by name, loves the flock so much that they will make sure that no one or no force takes the sheep away.

"No one will snatch them from my hand," says the Lord God. In the end, maybe the unexpected ending shouldn't be that surprising to us. And if we do find it surprising perhaps, it's because the love of the Good Shepherd is still so radical that our minds can't wrap itself around such a sacrifice. The expected ending, the ending that we knew from the beginning is that the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sake of others, the Good Shepherd loves us in such a way where we are called to model that love to others. Whether it is our biological mother, adopted mother, or mother figure, perhaps we can channel a bit of their energy into being present for those who require such divine love, and grace, and compassion.

Let's not afraid to be real this Mother's Day. Let's not be scared to be vulnerable to one another and God's Spirit. The Good Shepherd is calling out to us by name, looking for us among the thistles and the thorns that might have seemed more alluring to the sheep who wandered off. Listen attentively… if you lean in hard enough into the everlasting promises of God, you will hear the voice of the Good Shepherd breaking through the voices that try and keep us down. And hopefully what we thought was an unexpected ending turns out to be a powerful reminder that you are a beloved child of God, who cares for us like a mother and is willing to give all so that we may find rest in true peace and love. Amen.



When The Phone Rings

Acts 9:1-6

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest  and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

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When was the last time you received a phone call? Perhaps it was this morning before you left for church or the previous night before you went to bed. Maybe you find that you're the kind of person who always gets a telephone call at the least convenient time (i.e., when you're walking in the door with bags of groceries in both hands). On most days, we find ourselves getting called by friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers. Overall these calls are pretty innocuous, and some of them are from undesired telemarketers or automated messages. It's not too often that we get a call that knocks us off our feet, don't get me wrong, we certainly do get calls like that, but we pray that they aren't too frequent. But there's another kind of call that we can receive as well, the call from God, that we are always anxious about answering because we aren't sure what we will hear on the other end of the line.

Saul of Tarsus was one such individual who had felt that they received a call from God… Of course, it's not the call that you and I might have imagined… Saul, a religious leader, and teacher of the law felt that he was charged with the task of rooting out the disciples and their followers. We find that Saul was so bent on making this call a reality that he went to the high priests and made sure he obtained permission to bring any disciples that he found back to Jerusalem for trial. While I think we might agree that rounding up people for their beliefs or their identities would be wrong, we might discover that we can relate to the devoted, the passionate nature, of Saul's pursuit to fulfill what he thought was God's calling for his life. How many of us here would say that we could relate to having a strong sense of call like that, a time where we sunk everything we had into doing something well because we thought it was what we were supposed to do?

It's a great feeling when we can dedicate ourselves to the path we believe we are meant to tread. But sometimes the crystal clear phone call we thought we received from God isn't as clear as we thought it was. We certainly did receive a call, but it might have gotten garbled up with interference, or we thought we understood what God was saying, but our brains crossed the original message with what we wanted to hear. In those moments we end up playing a game of telephone with God and our time of prayer might then feel like those old Verizon commercials where they had an individual say, "Do you hear me now?" I can't speak for you, but there have certainly been times in my life where I've been disappointed, heartbroken, and frustrated because what I thought was God's call for my life ended up leading me to various tangents and roundabouts.

Throughout those moments of frustration, grief, confusion, and sorrow, I don't think I ever had an experience like that of Saul, who was making his way towards Damascus. Can you imagine Saul making his way steadily and all of a sudden finds himself blinded by a divine light? The light was so disorienting that it was enough to bring Saul to his feet as he tried to cover and shield his eyes from the piercing rays. While Saul was still trying to reorient himself, he hears a voice calling out to him, saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" I think this question goes beyond the surface layer of just asking Saul if he knew who he was persecuting. Because at heart we find God turning Saul's world around 180 degrees. Following God can be a dangerous endeavor, because we run the risk of having our world turned upside down at unexpected times.

In a world that is filled to the brim with suffering, gut-wrenching, mind-bending, headlines of murder, cruelty, and devastation, we need to ask ourselves: Can you, we, hear God now? When the phone rings, and we feel like the busyness of life keeps us from answering will we set aside time to spend in prayer and meditation, listening to what God has to say to us today? Right now, Jesus is calling your name… Just as Jesus called out to Saul and the many other disciples before and after him, Jesus is calling us now by name. That is the power of the resurrection, the power of having our world turned and having a God who walks with us through it all calling to us by name. There is nowhere that Jesus won't lose track of where you went, even if we find we've strayed from the path that God desired for us.

This past week I spent time with some great colleagues in ministry. We gathered at Stony Point retreat center and shared about what we experienced this past year. Part of our time included taking time for rest, so some of went into the city to see about a play about the Temptations called "ain't too proud." There was a line from the play that stuck with me… The actor who played Otis Williams, the last original surviving member of the Temptations said, "When we reach the top of the hill and stand before the Almighty we look around and take stock and ask ourselves if the sacrifices we made along the way were worth it." I don't believe that this the call God is asking us to pursue… A little bit of sacrifice is okay, but when you start talking about people, I think that's a different story. A colleague shared with us a story, a parable of sorts that I believe encapsulates the call we should hear in our daily lives

There once was a man who was in great need, and as he is walking through the park one day, he happened upon a senior woman. The woman looked up and asked if he was hungry, and so she pulled out some fine wine and other foods that she had with her. Surprised the man asked if it was okay and to which the woman responded, "Of course. Come and sit with me." As the two sat and had their fill, the man looked and saw a glimmering gem in the bag of the senior woman… Knowing that this gem could turn his life around, the man asked, "You have been so kind to me already, but may I ask for one more thing? Would you be willing to share with me the gem that you have?" "Of course," responded the elderly woman and she pulled the gem out of her bag and handed it to the man in great need. In shock, the man replied, "Are you sure?" to which the woman nodded her head. The man thanked her and began to walk away. As he rounded a corner, he stopped and looked at the gem in his hands. Looking back, he could still see the woman sitting by herself, eating, and drinking cheerfully. The man stopped and thought for a little bit before going back to the woman. "Kind woman, you have been so generous to me and have given to me everything that I have asked for, but I still have one more request. Would you please take back this gem that you have shared with me, and instead show me where it was you were able to gain the power to give so freely?"

The power of Easter, the power of the resurrection, is not something that should be trifled with. The resurrection power of Easter will turn things over, mix and match things we think don't belong together, and will ask out to step out into the world as people who have been transformed by the love of God. Saul the Assassin was now Saul the Ambassador of Christ. Follow the heavenly songs of glory, follow the Sauls of this world and knock on their doors and open to them a new path, follow the one, Jesus, who called a ragtag group of sinners and saints to follow him as his disciples. Follow and answer the call knowing that that call will grow as we continue to grow in body and spirit.

If you are following the one who appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus you will no doubt find yourself falling to your feet, not just because the light is blinding, but because of the weights of the burdens of the world as well. If you are following Jesus Christ, you will find your deepest convictions turned upside down for the sake of the one who turns our disdain of "the other" into a selfless love to die for the ones we wanted to kill. If you are following, you will find yourself being humbled and learning from others how it is we can better share with a precious gem of God's love with one another. If you are following, if you are waiting for the call, you will find that while others may turn away from you, there will be a multitude who embrace you as well. And if you are following, you will be known by name, loved for both your talents and your flaws, forgiven and made new in the body of Christ.

When the phone rings are we going to answer? And if we answer how are we going to respond? Are we going to love as Christ would love? Are we going to give as Christ has given to us? And are we going to answer with a spirit that is ready to be shaped and molded? When the phone rings, we are going to have to be prepared for whatever we hear on the other end of the line. The creative, beautiful, and life-transforming power of God cannot be stopped, and those who love the Lord, those who answer the call, refuse to give into the darkness, the deadly, the hate-filled ways of this world, because they know that Jesus has overcome everything that does not lend itself to an abundant life. Do you hear the phone ringing? Now is not the time to be timid or afraid, but to take a leap of faith and follow, and answer the call. Amen.

Songs of Faith (Pt. 4): Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

Isaiah 58:6-12 (New Revised Standard Version)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

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This morning we arrive at the final part of a series of sermons titled "Songs of Faith," using my favorite hymn, "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah." As I've wrapped up my time here this past month, I've enjoyed preaching sermons based off of hymns that come from some of your favorite hymns. And as I thought about what I wanted to say in this last sermon, I felt that this was a fitting hymn, not only because of the music itself but because the words themselves are appropriate to where we find ourselves today…

Like we have done for the past few weeks we'll take a brief look at the person behind the hymn that we will sing after the sermon this morning. The author of our hymn this morning is a man by the name of William Williams… Now before his ministry, primarily in Wales, Williams had studied medicine before becoming an itinerant preacher. For some reason, it seems like many hymn writers had come from a medical background… His hymn, "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah," was initially titled, "A Prayer For Strength To Go Through The Wilderness Of The World," which is a fitting though lengthy title. In his hymns, Williams often evoked the metaphor of "pilgrimage," a metaphor that is used heavily in the hymn for today.  

I was on a "pilgrimage" of sorts, or at least I was on a journey that took me outside of my comfort zone. During my first trip to Korea, I got lost while navigating the subway system. I didn't really know any Korean at the time, and while there were signs in English, I couldn't make heads or tails of what any of them meant. I felt embarrassed, I thought that I could get to where I needed to go without asking a friend to come and get me, but I couldn't find the way. I was frustrated that I didn't know where it was I was supposed to go, but I eventually set aside my pride and found someone to ask for help. With the limited Korean, I knew I asked them if they spoke English. Nodding their head, I asked them how I could get to the address I had written down, and they kindly wrote down directions on how to get to where I was going. Seeing that I didn't look confident they offered to ride with me to make sure I got off at the right station.

I'm not sure why, but it's hard asking for directions, especially in times when we find that we are not sure where we are going. Maybe it's because we have trouble trusting someone we've never met before. Perhaps it's because we thought that if we just worked hard enough things would turn out okay. But regardless of whether we are asking for directions or seeking out what lies ahead of us, we know that our journey to find our way through life cannot be made alone. We know as people who have been baptized, who eat the bread and drink from the cup, that God is one who often journeys with us, showing us the way of God. Yet sometimes, even when we have God by our side, it can be hard to see how God is acting in our lives.

The uncertainty of not knowing, not knowing what will happen next, the difficulty of not knowing how people will react, etc., is a source of high anxiety for me… When I've talked with my therapist about it, she always reminds me that we don't mind readers and that we have to live with a certain level of not knowing what is going to happen next. It's something I've been working on over the past year as I remember the words of the Prophet Isaiah, who in this morning's passage wrote, "The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail."  

Not knowing what tomorrow brings naturally makes us feel uneasy, we enjoy being able to understand what is going to come around the corner. And yet, in a strange way, there is a sense of comfort in the uncertainty of tomorrow as well. Whatever happens to us or to those around us is out of control; we simply can't know what the future holds even if we tried. There is an idiom: "Let it go, and let God." In this hymn by William Williams, we are given a way to express these words as a prayer. As a prayer that God would guide us as we walk through the unknown parts of life. It's a prayer that I need for today, for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow… It's a prayer that you also need for today, for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. For in all the times of uncertainty, there is the odd hint of comfort in knowing that not having control, not knowing, is okay.

"Guide me, O though great Jehovah, pilgrim in this barren land…" Though the terrain may seem impossible and the ground unworkable, God is there leading the way. Through the desert, God led the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, from an area that barren, to a land that was flowing with milk and honey. We may go kicking and screaming, because we don't like the discomfort the unknown brings, but we may be surprised at what we'll find if we are willing to trust that God is with us and embrace the unknown as a friend instead of as an adversary. Remember that there are times when we need to, "Let it go, and let God…"

The image of a pilgrimage or journey, as Williams uses them,  is really a summary of our lives. It falls in line with the words of the Prophet Isaiah, who highlights both the highs and the lows of life, and everything else in between. It can feel discouraging when things don't go the way we want them too… I mean you and I have put a lot of blood sweat and tears into pursuing our passions and goals so it can feel disorienting when the unknown parts of life throw things into disarray… And in those moments we might run into a situation where we forget that God is walking along the same path we are.

But we only have to look at Scripture once again to find that others were also caught up in the chaos of a single moment and forgot that God was walking with them… You might remember this story, it's one that I've preached on here before, it was about Cleopas and his companion as they walked on the Road to Emmaus. Cleopas and those traveling with him were so distraught after the death of Jesus, they didn't even recognize that it was Jesus who was walking alongside them the whole time. And by the time they reach the city they still haven't figured things out… But embracing the situation, they invite the stranger, Jesus, in for a meal. And when Jesus finally breaks the bread, their eyes are open, and they realize that the person who had been traveling with them for that whole period was Jesus!

When the time comes, and we have the veil lifted from our face, we'll find that that is when we are not only in the presence of God but also in the presence of one another. And remembering that life is a pilgrimage that is done by inviting those around you, the possibilities of God's work becomes endless. I'm excited to see how the Spirit of God continues to work in this place. I'm excited to see how the Spirit of God continues to foster innovation, creativity, and boldness to be the hands and feet in this community… I'm hopeful that the Spirit of God will nurture a community of faith here in this place that will live out the mission that it has been given.

That's not to say there won't be ups and downs, but I pray that you'll all remain healthy. Because even though I've said it before, I'll repeat it, life is too short to hold onto petty grudges… And let me say that God doesn't have time for those kinds of complaints. But if we put our trust in God, if we put our trust in one another, then we will find that even the unexpected, might not always lead to bad things. And in those cases where things really don't work out then that is why we have others and God to place our fears and anxieties as we hear in the last verse of Williams hymn, "When I tread the verge of Jordan, Bid my anxious fears subside; Death of death and hell's Destruction, Land me safe on Canaan's side."

God is what gives the Church, gives us life, so that we may be guided by the power of the Holy Spirit. Throughout all seasons of life, through the expected and unexpected, God is there. In our calling to protect those who are vulnerable, those who are without a community to love them, those who are seeking fellow companions in their pilgrimage, we reach out knowing that things won't always go the way we had planned. But that doesn't mean we give it, that doesn't mean we stop trying to live into the identities we have been provided by God, that doesn't mean we take our ball home, because things didn't go our way… No, because we gather together to read from Holy Scripture, to meditate together, to listen for the voice of God together so that each and every day we become more and more like the one we were called to follow…

And remember, that when we feel frustrated that things seem to be out of our control, "Let it go, and let God." We can't always control what will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, but we can control how we will follow God in loving others more deeply, in caring more profoundly and living a life that is steeped in faith and fellowship. Amen.



Songs of Faith (Pt. 3): When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

John 19:31-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”

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This morning we continue on in our Lenten series “Songs of Faith,” by focusing on the text that relates to the hymn, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.” I’ll do my best try and keep things on the lighter side this week, which may seem ironic when talking about the cross, but we’ll see how things go. On another note, I hope that during this Season of Lent you have something that fills our souls… Some folks have told me about the beautiful spiritual practices they have been doing, and let me say that it is never too late to start a Lenten or year-long spiritual discipline. I think that how we choose to practice Lent is a mirror that shows us what things are and aren’t necessary for our lives… And it shows what things we are and aren’t willing to lay down at the foot of the cross.

But before we dive too deep into the passage for today, we’ll take another brief look at the author behind today’s hymn. It was said that on one Sunday afternoon a young Isaac Watts complained to his father about how terrible were the hymns that were sung in church. His father, who was also the pastor of the church, scolded Watts and said, “I’d like to see you write something better!” Well, then legend has it that the young Isaac Watts retreated to his room for the night and came up with his first hymn, which was received with great excitement at the Sunday evening service that same day. Isaac Watts appreciated the power of sacred music and often took well-known tunes and turned them into hymns. There are over 600 hymns which are said to be credited to Isaac Watts, including the focuses of today’s sermon, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.”

Our eyes are immediately drawn upwards towards the cross starting in the very first verse of Isaac Watts’ hymn, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.” It puts into perspective the cost of grace, the cost of love, that God poured out without any strings attached, it is there for all who seek it. In all reality, it should make us stop and wonder at how great a gift this was, especially when you consider how brutal crucifixions actually were. Crucifixions were not meant to kill people instantaneously… On the contrary, they were designed to make people agonize in public for long enough that those who considered doing misdeeds against the Roman Empire would think twice about committing such acts.

What are the things that keep us from coming to the foot of the cross and being in the presence of Jesus? And know that Jesus has risen, but technically we haven’t arrived at that point in the church calendar yet, and the cross is still a place for us to come and be in the presence of God as well. There is a multitude of art pieces that try to capture the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion, but I don’t think that there is anyone painting or piece of music that can truly encapsulate everything that happened the moment that Christ laid down his life for the world.  “See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow, and love flow mingled down,” write Isaac Watt and, “Did e'er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?” Perhaps the weight of those words and the things that they represent are what makes it feel like we are unable to come and stand at the foot of the cross.

When we come and stand at the foot of the cross, we do so with a bag of mixed feelings containing the joys and sorrows of life. The cross is one of those things that brings both clarity and moments of contemplation. Recently I came across a funny comic strip that showed Jesus sitting on a park bench with a stranger. Jesus says, “I want you to follow me.” The stranger replies, “On Facebook?” “No,” Jesus says, “I literally want you to follow me.” “Oh,” replied the stranger, “I get it now… So you mean on Twitter?” The comic shows Jesus putting his face in the palm of his hand and then taking a deep breath. Jesus looks up and tells the stranger, “Okay… I’m going to start over again, and you can let me know where I lose you.” The great thing is that Jesus is a patient mentor, friend, and teacher… And truth be told we certainly in need of someone like that to walk alongside us as we navigate the perils of life.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the last couple of years and about people who have been fellow travelers on this journey of life and faith. I’ve thought about our gifted ministers of music: Carl, Sara, and Jenny, and everyone who helps lead worship, as they’ve been very accommodating to my desire to try out new kinds of music… I’ve thought about Mary Sandford and John Suddith, who have shared with me a myriad of stories about life and faith and the those who have come before. I’ve thought about the Sunday morning group that has been meeting and the conversations we have had about a whole assortment of different topics. And when it comes to it, I’ve really just thought about everyone who I met this past couple of years both those here in Watertown and those who I’ve journeyed within other contexts as well, even if just for a little while. Who have you been walking alongside with on this journey that leads to the foot of the cross? It certainly frames things differently when you think about how our lives all interconnect and come together.

My favorite verse of this hymn is probably the last because it captures all these things. It is the one where Isaac Watts writes, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” At the foot of the cross, there is love so amazing, so divine, that it demands our souls, our all. And that divine love is so amazing how can we keep it to ourselves? We should naturally want to go out and share it with the whole wide world. As God gave the gift of love to the world, it is our responsibility to help make sure that that love is accessible to all people, in every time, and in every place. And that can’t happen if we don’t actually go out and share the good news of such love with who is around us. Slipping notes to passerbys under the cracks of the church door would not be an effective means of spreading that good news. It takes a spirit that is willing to take risks, to dream, and to live boldly in their identity as people created in the image of God.

When you look at the reading for this morning and then look at the hymn text for “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” you should feel a sense of reverent awe, but also a sense of tenderness and love that is so divine, it has the power to bring the world together. In a previous sermon, I once talked about “two-handed giving.” We cannot give to God entirely if we have one hand open and one hand held tightly shut behind our backs. That idea of two-handed giving applies to this morning’s reading as well. How can we come before Jesus who bore the weight of the cross if we are not willing to lay everything at his feet, the things that weigh heavily on our hearts with hands that are open? And then if we come to the cross with open hands, we need to be willing to turn to those around us and share with them the love, the compassion, and grace we have received because that is what we find when we come and stand at the foot of the cross.

In the end, when you take all these things together, I want to lift up a few points that I think will be important for you all, and for this church, as you move forward together… And since I didn’t want to cram a final farewell into one sermon, I thought I would break that up into what was said to today and the last part of this sermon series which will be next week, so here we go:

  • As you continue to strive to follow in the footsteps of Christ, don’t forget to stop and enjoy a little fun and humor along the way. Even though the Bible doesn’t include any jokes by Jesus, I’m sure that he had his moments with the disciples. I’ve been reminded by my good friend Gerda Barbour, that we all need a good laugh every now and then.

  • Our community of faith is made up of people, not programs… I think that at the heart of the cross you will find that God emphasizes the importance of relationships. The relationships that we have with God and the relationships with have with those around us… Programs are important, but they don’t mean anything if you don’t maintain the core of what it means to be a part of a community of faith, which is the people who belong to it and those around it.

  • Finally on a similar note I would lift up the importance of the love that is found at the cross as being something that will carry you forward for years to come. Love can’t be bought, sold, or traded like some generic commodity. Love, especially the divine love that comes from God, is something that is received and shared without stipulations or expectations.

When you take all these things, I think we find that we have worked towards living a life that brings us closer to the cross, closer to the being with God who dwells in the company of others as well. When you take all these things together, I think that what you will find is that wondrous cross that has inspired generations of people who have come before us, and ages who will come after us as well who have been good and faithful disciples. Amen.



Songs of Faith (Pt. 2): Revive Us Again

Psalm 80 (New Revised Standard Version)

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River. Why then have you broken down its walls,  so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted. They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance. But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

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This morning we continue in our Lenten series “Songs of Faith” by looking at the hymn “Revive Us Again.” If you pay attention, you’ll hear the words of Psalm 80 echoing in the verses of this hymn, Revive us again - fill each heart with thy love; May each soul be rekindled with fire from above. It doesn’t sound that far off from the words of the psalmist who wrote, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved…” Let those words sink in for a bit this morning… Let them sink into your heart and soul… I think the events of this past week and the events of this coming week are a reminder that we also need to set aside some time for God to rejuvenate our souls, to enliven them, to comfort them, to fan them with the flames of the Holy Spirit. “Restore us, O Lord…” These are potent words if we are willing to utter them from a place that is authentic and vulnerable.

The author of the hymn that inspired today’s sermon was written by the Rev. Dr. (Medical) William Paton Mackay. Born in Scotland in the year 1839, Mackay attended the University of Edinburgh where in 1870 he wrote a thesis on leprosy. William Paton Mackay worked in the field of medicine for many years before he became a minister. In reflecting on his conversion, Mackay wrote that his faith was inspired after he found his own Bible among the possessions of a patient who was dying. The Bible that Mackay found was given to him by his mother, but he sold it to earn extra income. Upon entering the ministry, he served the Prospect Street Presbyterian Church in Hull, where he wrote a handful of hymns, the most known being “Revive Us Again.”

There is an ironic sense of beauty in the words “revive us again” or “restore us, O Lord of hosts…” The irony lies in the fact that there is a plea for redemption, for restoration, but that plea to God comes only after something has gone wrong (usually because we, like God’s chosen people in the Old Testament, have done something that leads to significant pain and suffering). You hear the psalmist asking God, “How long? How long, O Lord, will you be angry with your people?” But it was because of the people that God had chosen had wandered off the path of faithfulness in an attempt to try and control the world themselves. We’re guilty of this as well… We’ve fallen victim to the tempting belief that we can shape a future for ourselves that only focuses on our own well-being, to a world of our own design. And that is not the only thing that we have convinced ourselves into believing…

We have convinced ourselves that we can blame everything, and everyone else for the wrongs of this world except ourselves, and our deep and steadfast denial of the answers that are right in front of us. We’ve fallen victim to hate, to prejudice, to fears of those who are not like us and we know what the consequences are! We know what the results are, we know what pain and suffering it will bring, but we ignore it, saying the same old lines time and time again… And when the time comes, when the time that we have ignored arrives, we cry out to God asking for help, and we cry out to others sending nothing but thoughts and prayers… When, oh when, will be able to cry out “restore us, O Lord of hosts,” from a place that is true, authentic, and vulnerable?

This past week when 50 people died because words of ignorance and hate inspired terrorists, is that enough for us to cry out to God to ask for forgiveness, for a chance to redeem ourselves? Or do we need to wait for another incident of our own making, before we finally have the scales fall from our eyes to see that the key for binding our broken hearts together is right in front of us! Because if it hasn’t been clear already from things I’ve said, I’m tired of hearing the same old lines, I’m tired of sending only prayers, and if we look at the reading this morning we will find that the psalmist is weary of those things as well! It takes more than just words, even if they are in the form of a prayer, to restore our hearts to a place where we are Kingdom builders instead of Kingdom destroyers. But your heart, our hearts, need to be in an area that is ready to be molded, to be challenged, to be opened to new possibilities.

There’s one thing in the reading for this morning that stands out to me because it evokes such a provocative image, “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.” We have feasted on the bread of tears for long enough… I’m tired of having my glass run over with tears because I almost have no more tears to give… We are a united human family… We are children created in the image of the living God. Life is too short for things like petty grudges and childish attitudes, and life is indeed too short for us to cling onto old ways that take the breath away instead of sanctifying it, treasuring it, as something precious and sacred. Have you had your fill of the bread of tears and a cup of tears? I have, and I think that most of us are ready for something new…

I think this morning’s reading from Psalm 80 would pair nicely with another psalm where it is written, “Weeping comes in the night, but joy cometh in the morning.” There is a moment where I believe our hearts will have a moment of conversion, of realization that our old ways lead to nothing but pain and suffering. I think that that we do need to be restored, that we together need to join hands to be guided on the path that brings life and healing to all corners of the world where there is injustice so together we can blot out the evils of this world. Then maybe at the end of the day when our hard work is done we will rest in a field of peace letting the glory of God wash over us, enabling the words of the psalmist to be fulfilled, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

If we looked back through the annals of history, we would find countless women and men who have committed their lives to make the world a better place. If we look around us, we will find that here in this community those have committed their lives to bring justice, peace, and restoration to those who need a helping hand. The thing that we need to remember about our relationship with God is that it is a two-way street… We cannot ask God for restoration, for aide, if we are not willing to contribute to the restorative justice that Christ calls us to participate in. I don’t think that William Paton Mackay knew what the world would be like, but I believe that his words are relevant and a powerful reminder to us that as we have received God’s love, and how we are called to be emissaries of God’s love as well,  Revive us again - fill each heart with thy love; May each soul be rekindled with fire from above.

As we continue on in our Lenten journey, we have an opportunity to cleanse ourselves of the things that keep us from authentically coming before God. I know that I have challenged you to think about giving this Season of Lent, but I also want to emphasize that this is still a time for us to let things go and to give up things that do not benefit our participation in the building of a community that is founded on love, peace, and compassion. My soul is tired, it is weary, it is weighed down by grief and in need of restoration and revitalization… I fear for the day when I turn on the television and no longer feel a sense of pain or sorrow when there is a report of another attack and loss of innocent lives. We are in a unique time and place, each of us here has been called to play their part, to speak up for the unspoken, to love the unloved, to tear down walls in places where they have been erected, and to make God’s Kingdom a place of genuine human affection.

God is in the present here with us, wanting to restore and energize our souls… God is here with us in the places where people hurting and shares the pain with them. In our desire to allow God to start a new thing in us, are we willing to share in those places of hurt as well? Because it is there in those places where our hands get dirty, and our brows get sweaty, where the work of restoration begins. I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it, you can literally look around and see evidence of the work that has already been done here in this place and in this community. And we can do more if we are willing to be bold and take action, not just speaking words of kindness, because then we will be able to touch people’s hearts with a much higher passion and sincerity. “O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved,” friends may we pray for the day when we can let the glory of God shine on our faces together and for the day when the bread and cup of tears turn into a bountiful banquet of joy and celebration for all. Amen.



Songs of Faith (Pt. 1): Amazing Grace

John 9:24-34 (New Revised Standard Version)

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

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This morning we kick off the first Sunday in Lent by diving into a mini-series titled, "Songs of Faith," that uses hymns you submitted. The first of these hymns that we will look at is "Amazing Grace," which was written by John Newton...

John Newton, who was an English poet and Anglican clergyman, penned the words to this beloved hymned in 1779. For being such a well-known hymn, you would think that John Newton was a deeply religious man, but he really didn't come to grasps with his faith until later in his adult life. Newton had been conscripted into the Royal Navy, and after leaving the service, he found work in the growing Atlantic slave trade. It was during one of his voyages that a violent storm battered his ship, and it caused such tremendous damage that it led Newton to cry out to God asking for mercy. Newton would remain in the slave trade for a few more years until he left to study theology and later work as one of England's most well-known abolitionist. The words, "I was blind, but now I see," held new meaning for Newton, who considered himself a lost soul during his years as a slave trader.

Grace allows our eyes to be opened to new possibilities… Grace allows us to see beyond the chaos, beyond uncertainty, hate, and anger and lets us catch a glimpse of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. This is the grace that carried John Newton to the point in his life where he heard the call of God. This is the grace that the blind man felt when Jesus restored his sight. This is the grace we are called to embrace and share with those around us because this grace is liberating, this grace is what gives us strength, this is the grace that enables us to go on day after day after day. This is the grace that feeds our souls.

As much as we need to seek out the grace that feeds our souls, we also need to be aware of the things that we consume, that prevent us from obtaining the grace that is liberating and freeing… Because there are things that get in the way of grace, the grace that we receive and the grace that we give as well. So what are the many dangers, toils, and snares for you in your life? What are the things that keep you from being in the presence of the amazing grace that flows from the throne of God? It can be bitterness… It can be anger that things didn't go the way you wanted them to… It can be a grudge that we refuse to let go of, it can be a longing for a time that has long since come and gone.  These are just some of the many dangers, toils, and snares that we need to overcome to be in a state of being where we can connect fully with the love and grace that comes from God.

At the beginning of this section of the Gospel of John, we find Jesus crossing paths with the man who was blind. And there were those, who like us, blamed the man for his own suffering. But once again, we find that Jesus breaks our expectations, our understanding of how the world works. After hearing the words of those who were standing around Jesus said that no one can be blamed for the man's blindness and he adds that the man in front of them had been born blind "so that God's works might be revealed in him." If we aren't careful, we'll end up on the side that blames others for things that are out of our control. If we aren't careful, we'll find that instead of being on the side of righteousness, we'll be on the side of self-indignation. Grace will catch us by surprised whenever Jesus is involved, because grace is extended in ways that go beyond our sense of what is right and wrong, what is just, and unjust.  

The man who was healed in this morning's reading had his sight restored after Jesus had spit into some mud and rubbed it on the man's eyes. And after his sight is restored, he walks around, and people don't recognize him at first… Some people ask if this was the same man who begged outside, to which the formerly blind man replied, "Yep, I'm that man." And that brings us to the reading today where this man who was healed was being interrogated by the Pharisees. But the man who was healed by Jesus didn't get swept up into their speculation about theology and politics. All this man knew is that Jesus restored his sight and that all he could say was, "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." This is the kind of grace that God offers, but it's also the kind of grace we wrestle with as we know that we are only human beings who have a complicated relationship with grace as people who want to receive it freely but give it stingily.

This is something that we struggle with… As much as we may rationally, in our heads, know that we need to let go of the things that get in the way of grace, we have a habit of clinging onto hurts, onto feelings of anger, and we refuse to let go of these things even though we know they need to be cast away in order for us to be free. This is what caught the Pharisees off guard as they talked with the man whom Jesus healed. They couldn't get over the thought of a someone who they thought was a sinner being reconciled… They couldn't get over the idea that God speaks to us in different ways… They were so caught up in their own self-image that they refused to hear the words of grace, the words of compassion and love, that came from the blind man's testimony and the retelling of his encounter with Jesus. Just like the Pharisees we too are guilty of refusing to hear the story of amazing grace, because it doesn't fit our mold, it doesn't conform to what we want, and so, in the end, we end up feeling nothing but frustrated and angry.

When we reach the point of feeling like we can't feel the grace of God, because of the hurdles of life that keep getting in our way, I can't help but think of the rest of that verse that John Newton penned, Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. T'was grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead us home. We've all be in place of the Pharisees who refused to acknowledge the grace of God, and we have all been in the place of the blind man who needed grace, and as we have walked through life experiencing both of these things we can find solace and comfort in the fact that whether we know it or not, God's grace is the thing that brings us to where it is we need to be. Through all of the dangers of life, grace is there, through all of the toils, grace is there, through all of the snares, grace is there to set us back on the path we need to be on and allow us to see God working in the world around us.

In the reading for today, we are challenged to look for how the hand of God is working our lives.  All you have to do is listen again to the testimony of the man who was once blind, "One thing I know, I was blind, but now I see." This is what scared the Pharisees and what scares us because when God gets involved, we are no longer in control, and for that reason, there was a price to pay. For those of us who refuse to welcome in the grace of God that opens our eyes, we will find that we are poorer for it. When we turn our backs on love and compassion, when we hold onto bitterness and petty grudges, we will find that our spirits are not as filled as they could have been. The price of not paying attention to the grace-filled work of God is pretty high.

During this Season of Lent, perhaps we should try to set aside some time to allow our hearts to get attuned with the movement of God in the world around us. Grace may be the catalyst that nourishes the ground that makes way for new and good things to grow within your soul. It may be grace that gives you permission to work through the tougher things in life and ask hard questions of God and of yourself, it may be grace that allows you to let go of the things that weigh you down and allows you to see a future filled with possibilities when you allow the Spirit of God to be your guide. When we allow ourselves to be filled with that kind of grace new opportunities are opened, and what we thought was chaos, uncertainty, turns out to be a blank canvas that is ready to be filled with a modern telling of God's creation.

In the end, I think all we can do is look back on our journey and our relationship with God's grace as something that is always evolving, always changing. Today we may not have mastered grace, but tomorrow is another opportunity to live into the plans that God has set before us. Are you, are we, willing to surrender ourselves to the grace of God that is life altering? Grace that as John Newton wrote, Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed! That is the kind of grace that pushes us, that challenges us to see God's hands at work around us. We stand in the footsteps of the Pharisees who doubted, and we stand in the steps of the man who was healed by Christ. All of these things together are what bind up this beautifully complex thing we call faith, and it is all these things that allow us to be in the presence of God's amazing grace.

Impossible Love

Luke 6:27-38 (New Revised Standard Version)

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."

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We've been talking a lot about the Kingdom of God these past few weeks, and perhaps that is because we have been focusing intently on Jesus' claim on our lives. But this morning I want to take a step back and look at what it means to live out one of the more challenging aspects of kingdom building, which is love, and how it relates to us and our complicated lives. The passage this morning is one that stirs up feelings of uncertainty and asks, "How can Jesus say such things?" And that is because at the heart of our Christian faith there lies a bed of principles, which seem to contradict everything we know to be true… Do good to those who hate you? Pray for those who abuse you? Turn the other cheek? How are any of these things love? More importantly, how are any of these things just?

The first reading we had this morning is one that I think wrestles with this very idea of what love is and what just love looks like. For those who might not be familiar with the first reading, it is about Joseph, who was sold by his brothers who were jealous of him to a slave trader who brought him to Egypt. As a slave in Egypt, Joseph was presented with several varying obstacles, which led him to be placed in a position of power. And what we find in the first reading this morning is Joseph coming face to face with his brothers who had sold him into slavery as they came to Egypt looking for help, since their land was undergoing a season of severe drought and famine. While it would have been easy for Joseph to throw his brothers all in jail he didn't… Instead, he invites them to stay with him in Egypt to seek refuge and not just his brothers, but everyone else as well… It's a sneak peek of the impossible love we find Jesus talking about this morning.

I know that the passages this morning are about love, about forgiveness, and about grace… But I can't help but emphasize the critical role that sin, that broken relationships play as well. Because I have to assume that Jesus knew the kind of people he was talking to… They weren't all saints, some of them probably held deep-seated grudges, and others might have had pains that ran so deep that no natural balm could have soothed their souls. So how could Jesus have asked people to take such a radical leap of faith when talking about praying and blessing those who do you harm? It's almost as though Jesus is challenging us to embrace an impossible love. How does Jesus expect us to reach out and grasp that impossible love when we are only human?

There are probably some of you out there who have gone hunting, or have gone at a shooting range, or have shot a bow and arrow. I've only done a couple of those things a small handful of times, mostly because I'm scared of "accidentally shooting my eye out." But in case you haven't done any of these activities I mention them only because it fits with how we might view our ability to love, as ironic as that may sound… In Greek, there is a word for sin, hamartia, which in English literally means "to miss the mark." I think that this is a perfect way of demonstrating that there will be times in our lives when we "miss the mark" as we strive to live in the Kingdom of God. Our love may not always be perfect, our actions are not still perfect, and that is because we are not perfect individuals.

A part of me thinks that Jesus knew this as he stood before the crowd and spoke these words about love to those who gathered around him. A portion of me imagines that Jesus knew that we would struggle with what it means to love or to pray for those who have done us harm, and I would like to think that Jesus knew that we would not always hit the mark. To me, that is the exciting part of the gospel… To me, and to us, it should be encouraging because it reminds us to pick ourselves up when we are down to keep moving forward… We might have made a mistake this time around, but there is always tomorrow… We are people who continue to grow as we mature in our life and faith, and these experiences shape us as people created in the image of God.

It is tempting to try and boil the whole Bible down to one passage such as this. It's a passage that people can understand, and it sounds at first glance like a passage about getting along with others in the world. But we know that it's just not possible to condense the entirety of the Bible into one key verse or passage. Because if we did, we would end up missing out on most of what Jesus said. The "Golden Rule," as this passage has often been referred to as, has a much more significant implication when we see how many times Jesus uses this theme throughout the New Testament. Jesus says, "Loves your enemies." And we find Jesus saying these words only a few verses later again and again. The challenge of this passage is that it may seem simple, but it is not really as simple as we would like it to be. The kind of love that sometimes feels impossible can appear to be not only impractical but dangerous as well.

Jesus is talking to those who are the victims, not the victimizers, and is talking to those who are the abused, not the abusers. And I believe that we find that Jesus is saying that those who have been wronged should not keep being wrong! As we begin to near the end of Black History Month, I can't help but think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who took these words of Jesus to heart. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't just roll over and let the oppressors keep on oppressing, but instead did something radically different… In front of folks with water hoses and snarling police dogs, Martin Luther King Jr. took a knee. "Only violence can fight violence," they told him, but those in power didn't know the real force of Dr. King's movement. The people who gathered around him knew the power of violence, and instead of resorting to the same old ways, they became people who would not be victims anymore. They would be grown people who would claim their God-given a place in the world.

I think that Jesus would be empathetic to someone who did not pray for their abuser… I believe that Jesus would understand that some hurts in this world run so deep they will never be healed until the last day when they stand before the loving arms of God… But I believe that what we find this morning is Jesus asking us if there is another way… That we are not the ones, who have to pick up our spears and our swords, because that kind of revenge and justice is not ours to give… "Vengeance is mine saith the Lord," is a powerful piece of Scripture that I often think about… How can I love radically? How can my love seek justice, seek healing? How can I live a life that places these hurts in the arms of God? How can love put us back onto a path of reconciliation where the impossible love becomes possible.

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…" When we think that we have mastered the "Golden Rule" Jesus throws one more curveball… Just when we feel as though we have a grip on things Jesus reminds us that we need to go deeper, that we need to seek justice harder, that we need to love more sincerely, and that we need to be willing to beyond what we think is comfortable and relaxed. To give more of ourselves than we could ever hope to receive in return… It seems impractical, it seems illogical to believe that Jesus would ask us to love strangers and enemies more than the amount we love our friends and family, but that is precisely what Jesus asks of us. It doesn't mean that there won't be justice and it doesn't mean that we are meant to sit idly by and let injustice flow our way, but what it does mean is that our love needs to be proactive.

In the end, I find myself coming back to the story of Matthew Shepard… Matthew Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten to death in 1998 for being gay. The suspects Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested and under Wyoming state law were eligible to receive the death penalty… But in the last possible moments Judy and Dennis Shepard asked the judge to lower the sentence so that no death penalty would be issued (they were instead issued life sentences). In a statement addressing the court and Aaron McKinney, Dennis Shepard said, "I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of [my son] Matthew."

"Love your enemies," Jesus said… When I hear Jesus' words, I think of Matthew parents… What kind of power must it have taken for parents to seek out a different path when the world was seeking something different? Matthew's parents were shaped by a gospel deeper than hatred and revenge. I don't know if I could do what they did, but their actions are a powerful witness to the social power of the gospel. Such love, the impossible love that Jesus asks of us, is not always practical, but it can change the world. How will you change the world? How will you let your love guide you to take actions that seem impractical or illogical? I don't have all the answers as to how to make it happen… I know that we will make mistakes and that we may stumble on our quest to embody this impossible love… But I am confident that it is in the love of God where we will find the strength to carry out such an essential and life-changing task. Amen.

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 mostly 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 religion as a 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 absolutes 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 see 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… Maybe 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 the 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 only 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 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 full life and that experience of humility is what brings us closer into a 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 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 any 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 also be 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 how we have not upheld this blessing from the Sermon on the Plain:

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.

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 bloodiest wars would pay for that peace in his own blood. Throughout 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 how we have treated one another… The ways that we have hurt others, the ways that we have excluded others, how 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 intended to have on our everyday lives. There are days where it is easier to trust God. There are times wherein our weakness, we can 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 happy 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 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 maybe you’ve attempted to seek 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, set 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 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 extensive 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 picture 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 comfort within our souls. While I think all of us at some point have accumulated things that lift up our souls, I believe there are also times in our lives when gather things don'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 specific 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 understand 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 higher 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 enjoy fishing regularly [ad lib]… Compared to the technology we have fishing today 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 just to 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 not to 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 every day. 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 situations that Jesus sincerely 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 essential 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 something is 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 lump of 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 catches may be life-altering, transforming, and reaffirming in a way that exceeds any accolades or praises the familiar things 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 see the impact that his faith had on those around him. While we might not talk about discipleship or trust 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, genuinely 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 a 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 talk 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 film, 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. Throughout 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 initially 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 to answer the call to love without restrictions or expect 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 some 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 life?” 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 a 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 little cabin, an 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 apparent 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 listened to 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 to 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 look 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 engagement 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 an excellent 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 task 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 purpose 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. Maybe 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 are beginning to use our hands and 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 perhaps 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 stopped to listen to the underlying words that someone was saying or maybe 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 require help. Perhaps 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 which 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 just to 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 a more extensive 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 every one 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 complicated, but because it also captures what is at 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 familiar ways, ways that exclude others, implies 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. Also, 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 the 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 so that we may provide 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 seek out faith continually 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 some molehills miraculously become mountains either by our own doing or by the inexplicable forces of nature. When we find that the effects 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 collection of Christ is an edifying place, where iron sharpens iron, where the most durable 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 listen to 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 components. 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 components results in a luxurious experience because each piece 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 fooled 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 every one 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.) 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 a shedding of the old things, that are undesirable, and a putting on of what is new, leads to the life-giving things.

John talks about separating the chaff, the worthless part of a grain crop, from the wheat. This imagery is not too far off from the way that early Christians viewed baptism. They often saw baptism as a type of “funeral” service, that celebrated the death 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 the pool or another 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, where 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 see 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 want 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 soothe 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 sky 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 is created in the image of God, that each of us is a reflection of God and that our various skin colors, 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, descended from the heavens to remind them, to tell 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 joined to a larger body, a broader community, that spans across many 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 more substantial, 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 an excellent 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 divide 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, irrespective 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, an experience 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 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 recognizing our own baptism… Let us not forget how we have died and been reborn anew in Christ, let us not forget 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 newborn 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 per 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 was seeking God… We've seen how Mary sought out God and leaned hard into the promises of God and told a counter-cultural story… We've seen how Joseph sought out God as someone who didn't have to believe Mary but did, just as we are to think 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 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 where 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, we're 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 believe her heart felt like it was on the verge of breaking, just there are many other mothers, father, parents, whose hearts are on the edge 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 think 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 wrong 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 know 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 a 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 much more significant 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 of looking for Jesus in the first place… Who am I? Who am I to go and look for and be in the presence of someone holier than I am? Who am I? I think that our current search for Jesus has often been plagued by this question that challenges our humility and authenticity. Are we looking for Jesus because we believe 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 of looking for Jesus, of participating 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. Frustrating 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 mostly 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 prominent 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 situations 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 familiar 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 see 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 Jesus in the places we don't really want to go? Are we ready 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 indeed 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.”

__________

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 was looking for something, so they stopped to help them look for it. After some time had passed, the good Samaritan who stopped to help ask 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 over there." The person helping angrily replied, "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 street lamp looking for something we know isn't there. This comedy, this humor, is located in this morning's reading as we see 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 first to 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 accept 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 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 real 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 carefully, 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. Maybe we need to spend some time looking at 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 an unexpected 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 made alone. We need to seek out fellow travelers who are also walking along the same path, we need to welcome those in who looks 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 challenging life experience and needed the comforting presence of another person? Could there be an 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 angel's 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 several 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 believe 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 took 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, then 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 finds her prophetic voice as well. With her soul being filled, we see 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 see 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 challenging 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 a curious 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 decides 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 quiet town somewhere in a faraway place that wasn't touched 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 dessert 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 word 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 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 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 the 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. The 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 find our way somehow 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 in between 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 powers 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 global 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 obstacles 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, maybe 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 privilege or an amenity. Perhaps it's time that we start talking about what kind of church God is calling us to be… Maybe 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 task 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 ready 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 happen?

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 rubble and weeds along the crooked paths that are becoming straight. And I think that 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 seen 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 the 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 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 against or bump up against them? Are you willing to confront them like John the Baptist did 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.”

__________

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 were written in 1950. Silver Bells, composed and written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, was released during 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 confidence that carries us forward, but hopes that also comes at a price.

The people sitting in the crowds around Jesus must have had 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 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 influence. 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 listen to 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 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 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 godly fear, awe, and hope. It should instill a sense of dread 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 knowledge 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 the 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 the 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 express 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 significant 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 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 can 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 confront the trials of this world with hope boldly. 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 prepared, 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.

__________

"[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 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 clear 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 fundamental 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 recognizing 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 stay in bed lazily, 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 thing 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 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 to 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 than 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 tear 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 free 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 has 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 pleasant or the challenging task 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 the 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 understand 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 vital 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 challenging 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 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 unique in the sense that the settings in which those stories take place has changed from the original stories. The church in Philadelphia had "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 says the church in Philadelphia is having "passionate patience." I'd note as well that some other translations include the phrase "steadfast love." And these two things are essential 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 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 behold 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 essential! Loving people is a messy, dirty endeavor! We live with people who struggle with addiction, mental health issues, toxic relationships, and other deep pains that we might never know. We're not called to judge people's behavior; we're called to love them as God loves us simply. 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 how 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 listened to them in your own life and where you have listened to 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 to them. We have to look 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 how we show love and care that embodies Christ’s spirit. They are how 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 as 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 feel 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 a relationship with God. We all have a story like that, an account where we have lost sight of who we were in relation with God. We all have a story that we can tell about ourselves and about the communities of which we are apart.   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. Maybe 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… sections about you, me, the Church, this church, Watertown, and all other things you could possibly name. The countless 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 the 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.