From The Ashes

Revelation 21:1-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



The Unexpected Ending

John 10:22-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



When The Phone Rings

Acts 9:1-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Psalm 80 (New Revised Standard Version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Songs of Faith (Pt. 1): Amazing Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impossible Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed Are...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fish or No Fish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



"The Mission"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting It All Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know That God Is Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.) Conversion, pardoning, and cleansing…

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

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

3.) A gift from the Holy Spirit…

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

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

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

4.) Joining the body of Christ…

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

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

5.) A sign of the Kingdom of God…

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

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

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

So let us remember the baptism of Christ as a means of recognizing our own baptism… Let us not forget how we have died and been reborn anew in Christ, let us not forget how we have been cleansed and renewed, let us see the gifts that the Spirit of God has given us and given others, let us admire the beauty and rich diversity of the body of Christ, and let us remember the Kingdom of God where the waters of baptism bring all who are seeking, all who are heaven laden, and all who have been forgotten and marginalized. Amen.