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.

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.



Re-Imagining Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Shall We Gather At The River?

Sermon

Kids help play “Shall We Gather At The River”

II Kings 5 (Selected Verses)  (The Message)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Good Comes From Troas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Remember Your Baptism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What If?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Holy Disturbance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story of Joseph & Mary

*Reflection on Mary is offered by Zoë Garry.

Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

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How many of us can relate to Joseph? I don't imagine that many of us could see ourselves in the place of someone who lived over 2,000 years ago, but how many of us can connect to the situation that Joseph finds himself in this morning? How many of us could resonate with the fears and feelings of distrust that Joseph probably wrestled with before an angel of God spoke to him in a dream? Did Joseph really know what was going on and how this fit into God's larger narrative? Maybe the title of my reflection is a little misleading because Joseph didn't realize… But then perhaps it's appropriate because it reflects our journey of life and faith as well. 

The Scripture passage tells us this morning that Joseph was a "just" man… Some translations of this text say that Joseph was a "righteous" man, but I think in this situation there isn't enough of a distinction to make a difference. And Joseph was a just man, not wanting Mary to suffer any kind of public anger or persecution, but the justice Joseph demonstrated may not be worthy of our admiration and praise… at least not quite yet… 

Justice is one of those funny words and becomes increasingly complex, especially when you throw in the element of faith. Because when you throw religion into the mix what you find is that there is a division between the divine justice of God and our human sense of justice… We find such an act of human judgment in Joseph's decision to break off his relationship with Mary … Joseph was probably afraid, was perhaps angry, and possibly suspicious of Mary. As a result, Joseph did what many of us would have done, which is to fall back on an old coping mechanism that makes us feel like we have some control over the world around us. 

Recently I was reminded that Christmas can often feel like one big paradox… We dedicate a time of the year to celebrating peace, love, and joy, but are often swept up in a sea of chaos that comes with juggling work and family, finances and generosity, and enjoying the company of some, but remembering that there's that "one" person you hope not to run into at a Christmas party… With everything that goes on in our lives, it can feel as though there isn't enough left to give to those who have something to share. But instead of withdrawing from those who need to be heard, we should don a spirit of humility and allow ourselves to be challenged and empathic to those who are hurting as well. 

This isn't included in this familiar Bible story, but I would imagine that Mary tried to tell Joseph what had happened to her. Apparently, that wasn't enough for Joseph, because as we see in the unfolding of this text, Joseph was ready to quietly "dismiss" her. There are a lot of stories out there that have not been heard, there are a lot of stories that have been dismissed. There is a myriad of stories from women and the oppressed that have not been heard… They haven't been heard not because of a shortage of ears to hear, but because of a lack of grace, compassion, and justice that searches for truth rather than preserving the status quo, which we seek out during this season of Christmas. 

Could Joseph have really known what was going on around him? I don't think Joseph could have imagined fleeing to Egypt as a refugee with his future family to escape unjust systematic oppression. I don't believe that Joseph fully understood the words of God who told him that this child inside of Mary would become the savior for all peoples, all nations, all classes, and all races… I don't think that Joseph could have fully understood what was going on, and being honest, I don't think we always no what is going on as well. 

I don't mean to give Joseph a hard time or make it seem like Joseph was a bad person, but I bring up these things because I think this is a story we need to hear. And the stories that we need to understand are often the ones that we don't want to listen to the most. But that doesn't mean there isn't any hope or grace left for us… What this means is that there are multiple opportunities for us to try and try again until we perfect this spiritual gift of Christmas listening… 

Here is where the divine grace of God enters into the picture… While Joseph, while we are left with many questions and doubts, God speaks to us and tells us what we need to hear… For Joseph, it was that Mary was telling the truth… And that Joseph needed to set aside his fears to take on the responsibilities that God gave him. For us, it was and is and always shall be God reminding us to hear and actively listen to those who tell us their stories… That while it may be difficult, we are to uphold one another to a standard where compassion, empathy, and love rules our lives instead of fear, mismanaged power, and distrust. 

Maybe God was talking directly to Joseph when the angel of the Lord said, "And he will save the people from their sins." We all require salvation… A salvation that liberates us from the bondage of sin and death and brings us into the one community, the one body of Jesus Christ. There will be many times where we will find ourselves unable to believe. Maybe it's because we are unwilling or perhaps it's because we are recovering from our own hurts. But that is why Christ came into the world in the form of a humble child… Joseph needed salvation from his doubt, his anger, and his fear, and we need the redemption that is offered so freely from the Christ Child so that we might one day come together and dwell in unison in the Kingdom of God listening to the stories that have long been silenced. 

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 let the Christ Child, the one who shall be called Emmanuel, enter our hearts so that the voices of those who have been silenced and marginalized can be heard? It takes faith… It takes courage… It took the coming of God to Joseph in a dream to believe the story of Mary… But we don't have any excuse not to think, because Christ himself came into the world to open our hearts, to open our ears, to open our eyes… There are no more excuses left… All that there is is to accept this Christmas miracle, this great gift that bears a great deal of responsibility, and go out into the world believing and seeking true justice in love, faith, and Christian fellowship. Amen.