Re-Imagining Church

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

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


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

The church in Sardis had a reputation for being great… The church in Sardis was established in a city that had accumulated a significant amount of wealth. The church in Sardis had in more ways than one become like the city itself, rich and powerful. Sardis was a place of trade and commerce. Merchants brought their goods into the city, and the revenue generated from the sale of those items meant that Sardis had a pretty secure financial income. It appeared that the church in Sardis had everything that it needed to be successful in its ministry. But perhaps it was because the church in Sardis had everything that it 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?


Kids help play “Shall We Gather At The River”

II Kings 5 (Selected Verses)  (The Message)

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


This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture… And it reminds me a lot of a television show I had been watching recently called "The Good Place." In case you haven't seen this show before "The Good Place" tells the story of four individuals who end up in "the good place," aka heaven. However, they soon discover that what they thought was "the good place" is actually the "bad place" and they try to better themselves 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. 


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? 


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. 


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.


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?”


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.

Faith, The Final Frontier

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palms, Praises, and People

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


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

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

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

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

Not too long ago, I was leading a confirmation retreat for youth and their mentors. Besides leading plenary sessions for youth, I also 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!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Miracle

Text: Galatians 4:4-7
My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying,  Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. 


On Christmas morning as a child, my parents would make my sister, and I stay in our rooms as they set up for our families annual Christmas ritual. My mother would put on Christmas music, the "classics" as she would say,  and put some cinnamon rolls in the oven. And my father would make a cup of coffee and make sure that the video camera was ready to go to capture everything on tape. After all the necessary steps were taken, they would tell us that they were prepared, and my sister and I would come running out of our rooms to see what "Santa" had brought us for Christmas.

There was undoubtedly a sense of childlike curiosity and amazement… How could Santa possibly bring all these gifts to people in one night? It's still a question that I'm trying to understand today, so if you have the answer, please let me know… Maybe my math skills aren't high enough to comprehend all the theoretical physics for such a trip. Nevertheless, Christmas as a child was something that was filled with wonderment and awe. Of course, I still feel such things today, but nothing can compare when I think back to my sister's childhood experience with Christmas.

You see, when my sister was young, there was one Christmas where she didn't open any of her gifts… My mother told me that my sister would go on to play with the beautifully wrapped boxes for at least a week after Christmas had come and gone. She didn't grasp that there was something underneath the shiny paper, and there could be something better than what was on the outside. To her, the boxes wrapped in the colorful paper were the gifts, and she honestly enjoyed playing with them. So you can imagine her surprise when my parents finally had to show her that there was something underneath all that wrapping paper… It was indeed a Christmas miracle.

But coming back to the present for a moment, the gifts we have gotten for one another have been exchanged, crumpled wrapping paper and sparkling bows have been torn off in anticipation,  and as we come to this New Years Eve, many people think Christmas as something that has come and gone. So then why is it that we still often live our lives in a way that reflects an unopened Christmas present? We have received the greatest gift of all, the love and grace of God… But when we look around, we find that there aren't many people who are "wearing" or "showing off" this gift. It is tempting just to imagine what is inside, but that isn't enough. We have to unwrap this gift so that it can challenge us, shape us, push us to go outside our comfort zone in order to share it with all people, to let the shining light of this Christmas miracle speak the love, peace, joy, and hope that was meant for all times and all places.

Perhaps one day we can work towards re-obtaining such a sense of childlike excitement… But then time appears to be our greatest enemy, the adversary that prevents us from holding onto the innocence that we once possessed. The world that once looked inviting, charming, and wide open, turned out to be more oppressive than we thought. There were hurts, their pains, there were lost and shattered dreams that made it feel like there was nothing left. So then it becomes only natural to hold onto something that gives us hope, that provides us with strength, that provides the light for us during the darkest of days and provides anticipation for the coming glory of God. The critical thing to remember is that we can't keep it for ourselves…

Can we bring back a sense of childlike awe and wonder that empowers us to share this Christmas miracle with others? Are we able to find it within ourselves to bring this healing light to a world that needs light? Childlike doesn't mean powerless… Childlike doesn't mean we ignore opportunities to grow in our faith, but instead embrace opportunities that allow us to study the Word of God… Childlike, childlike means that we empty ourselves and take on a spirit of humility that allows God to work in us, to enables us to participate in this narrative of salvation that all started with the miraculous birth of Christ.

And so we find ways to rediscover this Christmas miracle in ways that are new and refreshing as Christ came into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world, or as Paul states, "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." Christ was born under the law, to a woman who was deemed to be a lawbreaker by her those around her, yet it was by such means, by the power of Mary and Holy Spirit,  that God frees us from the shackles of sin and death in order that we may be called the children of God. And when we find ourselves in situations where the darkness surrounds us or where the struggles of life begin to overwhelm us, we can cry out to God saying, "Abba! Father!"

What does it mean for us to cry out to God? For the Reformer John Calvin, "crying" in this case is an expression of firmness and unwavering confidence." When we cry out to God, we do so remember the words of Paul in Romans, "For we have not received a spirit of bondage to falling back into fear, but a spirit of freedom to full confidence." Will we lift our voices with the multitudes of people around the world? Will we join with our sisters and brothers in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who face persecution for their faith, and will we lift our voices up to protect the rights of all people? Will we join with those who are oppressed? Will we summon the courage and strength to offer praise so that we are not held by a spirit of fear, fear of the "other," fear of the foreigner, fear of those who are not like us? Will we cry out as children of the living God, embracing the Spirit of light that we have carried with us throughout this season of Christmas? This is quite a challenge, I would say it should be on the top of the list of anyone who is in the practice of making a New Year's resolution…

We are children of a living God… We are sealed in the love and grace of a God who offers more than any earthly parent or guardian… We are not only held in such high regard but also trusted with the task to live out this grace and love in our daily lives so that all may bear witness to the Spirit of God that resides in each and every one of us. Dare we be faithful witnesses to this love and grace? Do we have what it takes to unwrap the divine gift we have received so that we may go out and help others discover the majesty that awaits them as well? It's a Christmas miracle that can journey with us into the new year as we go forth exploring ways that we can better connect with God and one other so that we can speak truth to power, find freedom in the midst of cell blocks and iron bars, and live boldly into the identities that have been given to us from God.

As the children of a living God, how will we carry this Spirit of Christmas throughout the rest of the year? As children of a living God will we continue to live as ones who are satisfied with wrapped gifts, not wanting them to be tarnished by the world? Or will we live as ones who bring the light of the greatest Christmas gift to all people, to those who live in darkness, to those who live under oppression, to those who face injustice, and to those who require a companion, a friend? It means that we have to take a risk… This Christmas miracle can't stay in a box forever… It has to come out, it has to be shared, and we are the ones who are meant to live it out in our lives, speak it boldly yet lovingly with our words, and go out and be with the ones Christ called us to care for… Christmas day may come once a year, but the Spirit of Christmas, the implications of this miraculous gift, are meant to be carried with us now and forever.

Let us pray… Holy God, Lord of this Christmas season and Lord of all times and all places. Renew in us a spirit of anticipation and hope. Kindle in us a fire that shines forth you love wherever we go. May we come to you with a sense of humility and eagerness so that we may go out proclaiming this Christmas miracle we have received. As we prepare ourselves for another year may your Spirit be our guide and may we strive to have our hearts be attuned to your will. 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.


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.

When Lord?

Text: Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday! Christ is King, but when have we saw God in need of food, shelter, companionship, the essentials of life, and healing? Christ is King, but not the kind of King that we often imagine. It’s not a very pleasant thought for us to think about, but one that is ever present as we confront the reality in which we live…

Did you know that here in Watertown, NY, there are many individuals who are without a place to live? And unlike other metropolitan or urban areas, those who don’t have a home are often forced to sleep in their car, making their need invisible to our site and creating a false sense that everything is fine when it really isn’t.

Did you know that not too far away there are women and men at Fort Drum who come from all different parts of the world? There are those who come from Africa, from Asia, from Europe, from South America, and from all different parts of the United States.

Did you know that the North Country is facing an opioid epidemic that has impacted thousands upon thousands of individuals and families? And our traditional technique of preventing drug usage has not had any positive effect. Locking men and women behind bars without any means of rehabilitation or social safety nets means that a large number of those incarcerated will be disproportionately Black and Brown along with those who find themselves in situations where they are unable to pay their way out of the current correctional system we have in place.

Did you know that in Watertown, 30-40% of the population is on Medicaid? And the truth is that there is probably a good number more who are sick and in need of medical assistance but do not have the means to acquire the treatments that could potentially make them better. Are we willing to pool together our resources to make sure that those are vulnerable are cared for, or will we neglect the call to be the Good Samaritan?

If we are to take seriously the belief that each and every one of us is created in the image of God, then we better take seriously the question of where we find God in the situations named above, and what that means for us as people who hear God’s voice saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

How did we get to where we are today? What forces have driven us to become so polarized that we are unable to come together to address the needs of the communities in which we live? Why is it that we label one another ways that are destructive and divisive? When the time comes for us to stand before the throne of God who reigns over the heavens and the earth, what will we say when we are asked to present an account of the things we have done?

The text for this morning pushes us to think about the kind of King Christ is, and also asks us whether or not we are living under the sovereignty of God or following our own ways.

There are so many needs in the world that it sometimes feels like the work we do will never be enough to solve all the problems that are at hand. It may surprise you, but psychologists actually have a name for this feeling, and they call it “compassion fatigue.” I’ve always been on the fence when it comes to compassion fatigue because on the one hand, I believe in the importance of self-care, but on the other hand, I think that each and every one of us is called to participate in a work that goes way beyond ourselves.

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve spent the last two weeks on a whirlwind tour of the Adirondacks and New Jersey. At Lake Clear, I got to hear about the beautiful work that is being done by communities of faith in the Presbytery of Northern New York, and in New Jersey, I had the opportunity to meet future faith leaders as they got to hear about the summer internship program offered by our church and the presbytery. Also, I also got to spend time at Johnsonburg Camp and Retreat Center learn about the continued work that they are doing to provide spiritual opportunities for youth, young adults, and people of all walks of life.

It’s really a beautiful thing… to hear about the great work that is being done in communities both near and far. And it’s a shame because the news tends to report on the bad things that go on rather than all the good that is being done. Maybe if we took the time to see the good that is going on around us, we wouldn’t be as divided as we are today and possibly would then be able to come together as one body to care and love for one another in a way that reflects the character of Jesus Christ. The work that we are called to do is not easy… Breaking down the walls of division that we have erected for ourselves is not something that happens overnight. But as we begin to deconstruct the labels and preconceived notions, we have given one another, the work of healing and reconciliation may start to take place.

Our spiritual identity, our worldly status, is founded on whether or not we are living into the lives that God has set before us. The core of our very being is dependent on whether or not we are willing to let the sovereign grace of God govern our lives, or if we are going to rely on methods that have caused such schism in our human family and created the world. While we may be concerned with the labels or titles that the world offers, God is more concerned about a different kind of “labeling,” a labeling that identifies whether or not we have been faithful stewards of the gifts we have been given and whether or not we have used what we have to care for the least of these.

Rich, poor, right, wrong, liberal, conservative, refugee, citizen, patriot, unpatriotic, Jews, Greeks, male, female, slaves, and free – the labels that we place on one another are endless. But in the end, our attempt to categorize individuals based on their traits are futile. As we’ve seen in the passage for this morning, God isn’t concerned about the labels or categories that world assigns to us… Instead, God is concerned with whether or not we have fed, clothed, cared, and visited those individuals whom we are called to love and serve.

Having finished a time of thanksgiving and feasting with friends and family, we know what it is like to give, we know what it is like to share and care for those whom we cherish and adore. But those aren’t the people God is concerned about. As we have seen time and time again in the New Testament, Jesus continually challenges us to be with those whom we would never normally associate ourselves with. And while we may think that this is a hard task to accomplish, we will soon bear witness and celebrate a God who did that very thing… Coming down to earth in the form of an infant, God came to be with those who needed a savior the most…

Have we responded with compassion to “the least of these”? Have we seen the face of Christ in those in prison, the hungry and the sick, and treat them as we’d treated our Lord, our Savior, our King, Jesus Christ, or did we continue to follow in the ways of sin and let their cries fall on deaf ears? We know what Jesus would have done… We proclaim that truth every Sunday we gather to worship… But the actual test for us will rest on whether or not we will allow the Spirit of Christ to challenge us by encouraging us to connect with our neighbors in new ways, discovering opportunities that allow for spiritual growth, and understanding what it really means to worship Christ as King.

Give to God the Things That Are God’s

Text: Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.


This morning we find that the Pharisees were at it again, but this time with the Herodians and their disciples as well. How many times have we run across these encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders and the teachers of the law? We shouldn’t be surprised, then when we discover their latest plot to try and put Jesus into a precarious position. I’m sure that they waited for Jesus to be in a crowded place before swooping in to pose this question to him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” Saying “no” would be an act of treason… It would be an act of treason against Caesar and the Roman empire. Saying “yes” would imply that the people were to submit themselves solely to the global powers and principalities that be, which would be a grave sin… But Jesus didn’t fall into their trap. Instead, Jesus turned and answered them in a way that challenged those in the crowd and us today to think about what it means to be people who claim to be the hands and feet of God in the world. 

Before Jesus answered the question crafted by the Pharisees and the Herodians, I bet they were feeling pretty good about themselves… Jesus may have evaded them before, but this time, they had him in their sights, there was no way that Jesus was going to come out unscathed. So I imagine it must have been all the more disappointing then when Jesus turned the tables on them. Having been given a coin that is used to pay taxes, Jesus showed it to them and asked whose image was on the currency. When they replied that it was a picture of the emperor, Jesus then gave one of the most recognizable quotes from the New Testament, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” What makes this so remarkable is that Jesus gave a subversive answer without actually being subversive… Jesus essentially says, “Give to earthly rulers the things that are theirs, because in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter since everything belongs to God and to God alone. Give, therefore, to God the things that are God’s because we all belong to God, who created each and every one of us.”

And this is where things become a little challenging… It was certainly challenging for the Pharisees and the Herodians as they eventually dispersed in disbelief, and it continues to be challenging for us as modern-day readers of this passage. Because if we are honest with ourselves, we would see that there is an underlying struggle for us as citizens of an earthly power, and as Christians who profess a faith God and membership in the Kingdom of God. But what’s important for us to realize is that this conflict isn’t always apparent to us, it isn’t still obvious. And so therefore it is also essential for us to understand is that this clash of two realities also has real moments, that are observable, that sometimes have a negative impact on those whom we live in community with, such when we act like Cain who out of selfishness and malice asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) We know the truth, the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ… But when it comes to doing the things we are supposed to do, we sometimes, like the Pharisees and the Herodians, try to place God in a situation that would meet our own needs. 

We see this tension between the mortal and cosmic realms in our everyday lives. I remember that there was a time when I was taking a train from New York City back to Princeton. While I was reading a book, someone who appeared to be in need help, someone who appeared to be homeless, came into our passenger car asking for some money. I had some change in my pocket and offered it to them as well as a few other passengers, but soon after this person left someone said, “That person is always asking for money. They’re just a bum who can’t be bothered to get a real job.” Look… I don’t profess to know everything about the homeless person’s life. They might have well been looking for a few quick bucks, but if anything, I walked away knowing more about the character of the person who spoke out against those who had offered what change they had than the homeless person who was looking for some help. We’ve been raised to look out for ourselves… We’ve been so immersed in the way of thinking that focuses on protecting our own prosperity we have forgotten what it is like to look out for others. We have forgotten about the very people Jesus called and still calls us to care for and love. 

This might be hard to hear, but there’s a little bit of Pharisee in each and every one of us… This isn’t a bad thing, let’s be clear about that. The Pharisee’s were people who were trying their best to live out the teachings of the religious law, but often they fell on the wrong side of the Gospel message. We, too, have tried our best to live by the moral and ethical codes that have been passed onto us. But where did these teachings come from? While I’m sure that some of them came from Sunday school lessons and sermons, I would imagine that the majority of what we learned came from our parents, our teachers, and our communities, primarily the society and culture in which we were raised. There is nothing wrong with following the rules or trying to stick to the teachings that we had given from those who had come before us. But the problem is when these principles become a barricade that prevents us from offering all that we have to the mission that God has given us. We know what it means to give to Caesar and to the empire, but do we really understand what it means to provide what we have to God, a God who is not limited by human powers or borders?

We know what it is like to live in a world where the tensions of our civic life clash with the realities of our religious life. From the moment that we wake up, there is a whirlwind of things that vie for our attention… There are the numerous texts from work or friends that we didn’t answer,  a significant sale at either a department store or online, multiple sporting events, the latest Netflix or TV series catch up on, and by the end of the day we realize that we have dedicated very little time to the thing that we proclaim to be most important in our lives… By the end of the day, we recognize that what we have given to God is very little compared with what we have given to the demanding voices and pressures that seem to have control over our lives. It’s difficult when there are so many things that pull us away and distract us from what it means to live into the identities that God has envisioned for us. But knowing the pains and joys of human life, God does not condemn us for withholding what we have or giving what we have to Caesar, but instead abundantly counter-intuitively offers grace that allows us to grow in faith and love.

And herein lies the good news of the Gospel. Because when we stop and think for a moment we remember that Jesus has already modeled what it means to live a selfless life that is dedicated to God. Having been raised and trained as a carpenter, I’m sure that Jesus kept some of the trade skills that he had learned from Joseph all those years ago. And while the Bible doesn’t record any stories of Jesus using his craft, I would imagine that there were times when Jesus would use what he had to help those around him. Jesus’ life and work were meant to inspire us to look past our obligations to the Roman Empire, our own modern-day allegiances, and to look towards our ultimate responsibility of taking care of God’s created world… Giving what is due to Caesar may be a part of God’s plan, but it certainly isn’t what God is primarily focused on. Because there is so much more at stake than whether or not we are citizens who carry out our civic responsibilities… Not because these civic responsibilities don’t matter, but because they are a  given. What Jesus is more concerned about is whether or not we will one day be able to view them in the larger picture that God has painted, that includes the community of saints in the Kingdom of God who come from North, South, East, and West… All that is required of us is that we give to God the things that are God’s.

And let me say that giving to God the things that are God’s isn’t an easy task. Sure, we can give up things like chocolate when the season of Lent rolls around, but that’s not really something that God cares a whole lot about… I’m sorry if that’s a surprise to you, because while may be a healthy practice it doesn’t do a whole lot for spiritual growth.  So what’s next? What is our response after hearing and witnessing the good news? We know that we can find reassurance in the fact that in God, there is an abundance of grace, but how can we live lives that respond to Jesus’ call to, ‘Give to God what is God’s”? I’m not sure that I can give an answer that encompasses the many complexities of life and faith, but I’ll leave you with two closing thoughts: 

1) Giving to God the things that are God’s goes way beyond the surface belief that God only cares about what goes into the offering place on Sunday morning… It’s about not only finding ways to give our treasures but also finding ways to give our time and our talents as well so that we can bear witness to God and in humility serve the church and our surrounding communities. So how do we hear God’s voice calling us to serve?

2) Giving to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s means that our relationship to Caesar is pretty one-sided, meaning that we offer what we have and it is only by Caesar’s will and charity that we receive anything in return. But God doesn’t work that way… God calls us into a deep relationship that is not founded on indebtedness but founded on salvation and hope that is found in Jesus Christ. So looking at our relationships, how do we make people indebted to us, and how do we then create relationships and communities that model our connection to a God who gives freely?

May we turn from Caesar’s grasp to serve our living God, who calls us into a relationship that empowers us, so that we may remember that we belong to a God who created all things, who sustains all things, and rules over the heavens and the earth. Amen.