Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Shame, Bellies, and Bullies

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What do Presbyterians do during Lent? Do we celebrate it? How? Sure, in our congregation, we change the paraments and stoles to purple. We take out the “Alleluias” and the Gloria Patri from worship, and we add in the Kyrie. We hold special services to celebrate significant moments in the life of the church – both past and present. These are all very important shifts in what we do as a worshiping community. These are all things we do to remind ourselves that God is God and we are not.

These are things we do to prepare ourselves as a community for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, through which we have hope and comfort in all of our struggles. Not only that, but these are things we do to remind ourselves that God is active and present now, and that our salvation does not begin when this life ends. Our salvation begins when we realize that our citizenship is in heaven, and we set our minds on heavenly things.

That’s hard to do – since we live, and move, and experience the world around us in these limited and physical bodies. Someone at the Presbytery meeting the other day said that we are not physical creatures looking for and having spiritual experiences. We are, instead, spiritual beings experiencing creation in a physical state. Who knew there was such good theology at a Presbytery meeting?!

So, the question remains – what do Presbyterians do during Lent? Do we eat meat? Do we give things up? Do we take things on?

The answer is a resounding, “It depends.” The reason is that according to our Book of Order, “Christ alone is the Lord of the conscience.” And also, “We are to exercise mutual forbearance in regards to the interpretation of scripture.” This basically means that I cannot tell you what to do, but we do believe that God does. Not in some weird voice in your head kind of way, but God speaks to you through your intuition – your gut – and in relation to your study of scripture.

As I studied today’s passages my gut intuition was to think on three things – shame, bellies, and bullies. Abraham was worried about what others were saying about him for following this God of his. He was feeling regret and shame because someone else’s child will get all of his stuff when he dies – which he was expecting to happen sooner rather than later.

The church in Philippi was being discouraged from living in ways that glorify themselves rather than God. Paul worried that their God was the belly! That is one of my favorite scripture passages. 

It reminds me of a study called “The Second Brain” that suggests that there is a nervous system in our guts which can originate impulses that affect our emotions and our decisions. So, the phrase “gut feeling” is more accurate than you think. I think what matters to us about this is the idea that we make the belly into a God when we are more concerned about our own hunger (physical, emotional, or just plain selfishness) than someone else’s. Not only that, we make the belly into a God when we confuse our instinct for taking care of ourselves and those we love with following God. Our faith then becomes like that Sheryl Crow song, If it Makes You Happy, it Can’t Be That Bad. 

What I mean by listening to our gut for the voice of God is that we don’t just listen to the part we like, but we also listen to the nudge of God toward the uncomfortable and slightly dangerous opportunities for compassion, wisdom, and for vulnerability.
As I thought on these three things, I thought of three old friends – the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion. I wasn’t really sure why at first – then I stumbled on an article on leadership called Everything I learned from 'The Wizard of Oz' by Col. Cheryl Allen of the Ogden Air Logistics Center Aerospace Sustainment Division. Apparently she attended a workshop on leadership where she was subjected to the classic film, The Wizard of Oz, and she realized that it is something deeper than a child’s film. She realized that instead, it is a visual representation of “the three C’s of leadership.”

Compassion. A leader is nothing without compassion. Love for the people you lead enables you to do "the right thing" when it is not the easiest thing to do. Compassion drives you to do your best when you don't feel up to the task. Compassion insists that you adapt your life and style to fit what your people need. You don't belong to yourself anymore.  You belong to them.

Cognitive: Cognitive power or ability is what you have upstairs and how you use it. Just how "smart" are you? I am not referring to being the biggest brain in the room. What I am talking about is how adept you are at seeking out information, how well you process that information then formulate and execute a plan of action.

Courage: Courage can be more than combat courage -- or being fearless in battle. For one thing, many of us (thankfully) will never have to face an enemy eyeball to eyeball -- that is the ultimate test. But there is a fundamental measure that lies at the core of true courage. Mark Twain once said: "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear." I think he had it right. Only someone truly mad is never afraid. The key to true courage -- as it is with most of life -- is how you deal with the moment. 
It takes courage to show compassion. It takes courage to think through problems, make decisions and see things through to completion. Courage is what holds a leader together.

Although she is speaking about a particular kind of leader in a particular organization – I think the scriptures we have read today would agree. More than that, I would say that they tell us that these are not just characteristics of leaders. They are characteristics of followers and lovers – followers of Jesus and lovers of God!

And for those who follow and love God there is more to the proclamation today than don’t be ashamed, live for God, and don’t let the bullies get to you. In this passage there is also the action of a God of providence, devotion, and faithfulness.

For God answered Abraham with a son. Paul encouraged devotion to the one God who is also devoted to those who truly believe in and love God. And Jesus – Jesus spoke truth to power and demonstrated that faithfulness has a high price, but it is not one that we pay by ourselves.

I think that’s the main difference between the scriptures and Col. Allen’s deep and meaningful reflections – courage like Abraham, wisdom like Paul, and compassion like Jesus are not something we conjure up on our own. They are gifts of a very present and very active God who made us and knows that sometimes we seem to have no heart. Sometimes we seem to have no brains, and sometimes we seem to have no courage. But thanks be to God that through special seasons, through being in community, and by loving one another into a new reality we find that we can rely even more heavily on providence, devotion, and faith.

It may be that giving something up will help you experience God’s presence in a new way during these 40 days before Easter. It may be that taking on a new discipline will help you to explore God’s presence in a new way. It may be that listening to that nudge of God toward an uncomfortable and slightly dangerous opportunity for compassion, wisdom, and for vulnerability will help you to express the love of God in some new way. 
After all, if it makes God happy it can’t be that bad – or at least it won’t be bad forever. For God “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of God’s glory, by the power that also enables God to make all things subject to God’s self. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” Amen, amen, and again I say, amen!

Thursday, February 21, 2013


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Today begins the first Sunday of Lent, the season of the church year that moves us toward Holy Week and Easter. This year we began with the dispensation of ashes on Ash Wednesday, and there were a few who joined for this opportunity. We even had a few folks who saw the sign on the door and came in to receive the blessing of the church. 

Of course a good number of you – even some who came – said, “Presbyterians do ashes? I thought that was a Catholic thing!” It is a Catholic thing – just like Lent and the liturgical calendar ; however it is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. Just as we say in the Apostle’s Creed that we believe in the “Holy Catholic Church,” catholic means all encompassing. It means all who profess belief in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. 

So this year we began Lent with Ashes – a somber and austere reminder of our human limitations and the limitless love of God that holds us together and sets us apart. And today we begin our journey toward the cross and the resurrection with a simple question – what do you believe?

Our passages today are about a particular claim about who God is, who we are, and what kind of relationship we share between us. Now, before I go any further, let me say that I am taking the view that a belief – any particular belief – is based on a set of reasonable assumptions. We all have things we take as truth that are dependent on a little bit of guess work, a lot of trial and error, and the expectation that certain actions will yield certain results.

If I flip the switch, the light comes on – assuming the bill has been paid, the bulb is good, and the light socket still works. Chemistry is based on the assumption that the value of a mole is 6.0221479. I’ve never understood why it can’t just be 5, since it is an assumed value. Our own sense of basic human rights assumes that everyone should have an equal shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – yet even when those words were written there were assumptions about who was truly human enough to have these rights.

You see, what we believe that we know changes over time. Within Christianity there are – and always have been – fierce debates over changing values and Biblical standards. That’s why the story has always been important. We are a people of the story. From the beginning the story has been that God made us, that we rebelled against God, and that God chose a people through whom to demonstrate grace and mercy.

From the beginning the story has been that providence is real, mercy is real, and that God offers them and demonstrates them most fully in community and through relationships. That’s what salvation looked like in the time of Moses. It looked like a community of believers who recognized that everything came from the hands of God, and that was a God who wanted them to enjoy and celebrate the fact that they were loved.

That might seem a little odd to think about today; I mean, we just celebrated Mardi Gras! Isn’t Lent supposed to be somber and penitent? Well, yes and no. If you never take time to say sorry to God or to consider how uncomfortable and difficult loving others can be, then by all means, take time to do so. But, if Lent is just a time to feel guilty, then it probably doesn’t do much to help you move beyond guilt and into redemption.

Lent is a time to consider deeply what you believe, and that is why we start out with the story of God’s covenant to Abraham and his descendants. That is why we hear from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that our belief that justifies our hearts – in other words, believing in God’s action of forgiveness completes God’s action of forgiveness. And in the same way, confessing with the mouth – sharing what we believe – completes God’s action of salvation.

Paul is clearly talking about eternal salvation and the wideness of God’s mercy – as we know about it through Jesus. Salvation is not just for one group or nation. Salvation is for everyone who believes. But it makes me wonder, what if you do not believe that you need to be saved? Is God’s action blocked? Do we dare claim that power?

A few weeks ago in our Wednesday night book study on the book, What’s the Least I can Believe and Still Be a Christian?, we talked about some current ideas on salvation. Some say there is nothing after this life, and when we die we simply cease to be. Some say that all are saved no matter what, because eternity is a long time to burn for a few years of selfish behavior. Some even say that there is some way that we will become purified through death and eventually return to the embrace of God.

The reality is that none of us know because none of us have been there or done that. There is, of course, a whole genre of literature based on near death experiences dating at  the least back to St. Teresa of Ávila in the 1500‘s. But the question of salvation remains – as it should be – a matter of belief.

As for me, I don’t think it is fruitful to say who God will or will not save, but I do find meaning in the claim that belief in Jesus offers salvation. Not only that, I believe that to be true no matter what happens. That’s right. Whether we just cease to exist, barely make it out of Hell, are purified through death, or simply join a party that includes people you would never invite – I believe that claiming that salvation is possible through Jesus still matters.

I think it matters because I don’t think Jesus came to hand out “get out of jail free” cards. Instead, Jesus came to demonstrate a new quality of life, and Jesus came to demonstrate that God was active and present in all things. And – believe it or not – I think this story about the temptation of the devil is an excellent example.

Presbyterians don’t really like to talk about the devil. Partially that is because we don’t want to deal with the idea that there could be a spiritual force that could control us, given that even God almighty has given us free will. A strictly Reformed position is that God alone is sovereign, and that any form of manipulation by any other spiritual force is still within the reign of God. When the actions or manipulation of anyone or anything other than God are opposed to the what we think of as God’s will – say teenagers getting  accidentally shot while sneaking out after curfew – well that’s just the mystery of God’s undisclosed purpose.

Personally, I find the mystery of God’s undisclosed purpose to be a tough pill to swallow, because I believe that Jesus came to demonstrate God’s character and purpose for once and for all!  That is why this story about the devil matters – not because of what it says about the devil, but because of what it says about Jesus, about God, and about the relationship we share.

So, at this point in the story, Jesus has been vetted genealogically by Luke and baptized by John. He has been attested to by the Holy Spirit in a voice from heaven, and he has been led into seclusion in the wilderness to prepare for his journey toward the cross. And who shows up but the one who stands for everything he does not. 

Jesus is tempted with hunger, and God is represented as the one who could provide but doesn’t. Jesus responds with the knowledge that there is a deeper hunger that God has already provided for through God’s word in scripture. Jesus is tempted by power, and the idea of God’s authority is mocked. Jesus responds with devotion to God and disregards the idea that there is any other author than the author of life itself. Finally, Jesus is tempted to prove God’s love – daring God to prove it, too. Jesus responds by refusing to attempt to manipulate God into action, and the devil departs in order to return at an opportune time.

So, here’s why this matters – no matter what. Jesus believed that providence is real, that devotion can only be given to God, and that the proof of God’s love is not found in manipulating the will of God but in the invitation to participate in it. That means that salvation is not simply about beating the devil. Salvation is about being part of something greater than yourself, and sometimes this life can be a pretty good place to experience it. 

Of course, as Presbyterians, we believe that salvation is not limited to this life. But we also believe that you don’t have to wait until this one is over to enjoy it. Temptation will come and go – the love of God remains. If you don’t believe that, well you certainly won’t experience it!

Or, maybe you will whether you know it or not. The thing is – God cannot be goaded into action because God’s action is ongoing. Some will give things up during Lent to try to be more aware of what God is doing. Some will take up a new discipline like prayer or reading scripture or making Easter Baskets. At the core of it all is this, what do you believe and how do your words and actions demonstrate it?

As for me, I believe that Jesus offers salvation in this life and in the one that is to come – even if it’s just a new quality of life today. I believe that providence, grace, and mercy are real. I believe they come from the hand of God, but I believe we receive them best from one another. I pray that it may truly be so with you, and that it may truly be so with you. And to God be the glory now and always, amen.

Piercing the Veil

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Veils are strange things to us culturally. They’ve been around for centuries, but have rarely been associated with men. I think that is one of the reasons that this story about Moses is so strange. But here we have it – this story about the impact on Moses of talking directly to God. His face was said to shine so brightly that it was unnerving to others. So he hid his face from them – unless he needed to share something with them that he had received from God.

As weird as this story is, I think it inspires some wishful thinking in all of us. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear more directly from God? I mean, chances are that I know what God would say when it comes to the small stuff. Yes, I need to floss. No, it is not right to tell other drivers they are number one when they cut me off in traffic. But what about the big stuff like figuring out why we have enough food to feed everyone and the means to get it there, but we still have food insecurity and even famine? What about what to do about cancer and natural disasters?

Not too long after I got here one of our members quoted a friend who said, “When I get to heaven I have a pretty good list of things I want some answers for!” Maybe that is why Peter wanted to build booths. Moses and Elijah represented the law and the prophetic tradition of Israel. Jesus was shining like the sun. It was a supernatural event that could mean nothing else than the fact that Jesus was now going to reveal the very truth of God!

And no sooner did they try to claim and hold onto the supernatural than it took hold of them, and they were inside the veil of a cloud. Then they, themselves, heard the voice of God telling them to listen to Jesus – the chosen one. I can’t help but wonder if Peter, James, and John thought something like, “OK. I thought we were...” 

Then they go down the mountain and say... nothing! And the first thing Jesus is confronted with is a pack of useless disciples, a desperate father, and a boy convulsing with a demon inside him. Of course Jesus responds with a compassionate, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” Then he heals the boy and all are astounded at the greatness of God. Again, Jesus responds with what amounts to, “Get this into your thick skulls, although I am of God, you people are eventually going to kill me.”

This is all part of the drama of the Gospel of Luke. The transfiguration is kind of a watershed moment, and everything is about to start moving toward Jerusalem and the crucifixion. Even though the characters in the story don’t seem to get it, this is the part where the reader has – for centuries – begun to be in on the secret that Jesus is here for something so much larger than healing the sick and casting out demons.

The glory of Jesus has been shown to us so that we know that when he goes to the cross it is not just to be a martyr. The glory of Jesus has been shown to us so that we know that the glory of God cannot be contained by booths, or traditions, or doctrines, or anything else that we can conceive. 

That’s what Paul was talking about in his letter to the church in Corinth. I think in today’s language Paul is describing a religious experience that limits a person’s ability to think. If everything is black and white then every decision becomes a line in the sand and there is no room for grace and mercy. Of course, the Psalmist reminds us that there are still natural consequences for our actions. “O Lord our God, you answered them [Moses, Aaron, and Samuel]; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.”

Hmm...I guess grace and mercy and freedom don’t mean that we are without responsibility after all. Instead of providing a covering of security it is more like ripping it away. It’s more like piercing the veil. Ever heard of that term? 

Piercing the veil strikes fear into the heart of the corporate mogul, because it is a legal term that means that the members of the corporation are personally liable for the actions of the corporation in the event of a shortfall or allegations of wrong doing. Generally speaking, corporations are legal entities which may act as an individual. That is the advantage of becoming incorporated in the first place. Not only do you share the wealth, but you also spread the debt in a way that makes it easier to overcome.

In some ways, that is why we join together as believers. We find comfort in being with others that we can share joys and sorrows with. We find encouragement in the fact that we are not alone in our doubts and our fears. We experience forgiveness and reconciliation, and we find freedom from judgement and hatred. 

But along with that, we pierce the veil of personal experience. That’s why we are bold to proclaim that First Presbyterian is a place to experience the presence of God. And along with that comes a personal responsibility to represent some aspect of truth that we can point to as a community. Paul said it this way, “by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.”

And if you don’t believe me just finish one of these sentences in your mind. Christians always ______. One thing about Baptists is that they ______. Catholics are ________. I could have told you one of those jokes about a Catholic, a Baptist, and a Presbyterian, but I think you get the point.

We are not our own, and that is a good thing. We stand for something greater than ourselves, and that is a good thing. For grace, and mercy abound – especially in our failings – because what we stand for is a God who pierces every veil just as light breaks apart darkness from the furthest star to the smallest candle.

We teach this to children with words like, “This little light of mine, I’m gunna’ let it shine!” But sometimes we forget to shine. Sometimes we are too tired, or burdened. Sometimes we might even be afraid to.

Author Marianne Williamson says it this way:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God.”

Recently I heard about a little Presbyterian congregation in New Iberea with about 40 people that attend regularly. A good number of them are folks of lower income, some of them are recently released from prison. One such character is a man recently released from prison. Since his release and the acceptance of the congregation that he has returned to as a prodigal, he has been the key player in starting up a food pantry that serves as many as 70 families on the third Friday of every month. For him, God has pierced the veil – and the community knows it.

In our own congregation, we have turned the excess of stuff into a theology of abundance and providence through our gift basket ministry – and many in the community are seeing light piercing through the veils of our traditional differences.

It doesn’t have to be that big, though. Sometimes it can be as simple as a “thank you.” Sometimes it can be as big as a smile. Maybe you don’t believe in all of this supernatural stuff. Maybe metaphors based on what sounds like a convenient myth still fall flat. But I tell you this – human nature is based on survival of self and of species, even if we have to kill each other to do it. And when we get beyond that and move into even the smallest selfless act, we have gone beyond our nature. We have pierced the veil and moved into the supernatural. 

That is the life that Jesus points us toward. That is the journey toward the cross that we are invited into again, and again, and again. That is the hope of the resurrection for the life that is today, and the life that is to come. And to God be the glory now and always. Amen!

Don’t You Get It?

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Do you ever feel like the answer to some problem or another is just as plain as the nose on your face but no one seems to get it? That certainly seems to be the attitude of the majority of the talking heads in the media today. The argument of one point or another is made clearly and concisely as if there were no other variables than personal freedom, or corporate responsibility, or mental health, or any number of things that do not exist independently and cannot truly be controlled. Then the next step in the process of eliminating opposition is to describe any other position as lacking understanding and with no grasp on reality.

Of course sometimes that is true. Sometimes there are groups or individual perspectives that are not well thought out.  It does seem to me, however, that those groups or individuals who are just plain wrong tend to be the ones claiming that someone else does not get it.

Take the synagogue in Nazareth for example. Jesus proclaims God’s jubilee – the release of captives and the recovery of sight for the blind – and they spoke well of him and said, “Hey, that’s Joseph’s boy!” Doubtless they were aware that he had established a following. They knew he had cured the sick. It seemed pretty obvious that God favored him. It seemed pretty obvious that he was here to begin the revolution against Rome just as the Macabees did against the Seleucid Empire only a few generations before.

But Jesus said, “You just don’t get it, do you? God’s vision of grace and mercy has never been as small as yours. Do you think it was an accident that Elijah helped a widow who was not an Israelite? And what about Naaman? He was a general for an opposing power!” And when their own history proved the limitation of their understanding they did the only logical thing. They said, “Kill him!” And they drove him to a cliff so that he could fall to his death. That way no one person was responsible – while all were satisfied.
And then Jesus demonstrates that their concept of judgment – just as their concept of grace – is much smaller than God’s, and he passed among them unharmed. I’ve often wondered how. Was it miraculous and metaphysical? Did he touch each one on the shoulder and look each one in the eye so that none could bear the weight of personal responsibility for his death? We will never know.

I do wonder if they ever got it. I wonder if they ever realized what Jesus meant when he said that on that day the scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing. 

This is where we left off last week, and I encouraged you to think of God’s promise as being fulfilled anytime you experience or see restoration taking place in the world around you. 

The scriptures we have received today push us a little further.  They seem to egg us on a little and even push us like a finger in the chest saying, “Don’t you get it?” Not only are we to look for God’s promise of restoration being fulfilled – we need to be a part of it.
Just as God cuts Jeremiah off and says, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’” God cuts us off at the pass with, “Do not say, ‘I am only a (insert category here).’” You see, I have heard this passage all of my life in youth groups and conferences as encouragement for young prophets – youth and children who are held at bay by the pejorative title of “the future of the church.” Well as I have said before and doubtless will again, youth and children are no more the future of the church than the elderly are its past! We are all the church together – here and now, today!

And if that is the case – and if the command of God is not to let age, or anything else, get in the way – then the same can be said of any of us, regardless of our natural limitations. Not only that, but the fear of needing to be the one who comes up with the words to say or things to do is removed by knowing that God will put God’s word in your mouth when you are open to it. And when it is God’s word it has the power to uplift, but it might just uproot. And not only that, if we hear God’s invitation to speak – whether it is with words or actions – and we refuse to do it, we just might be the ones to be uprooted. For in verse 17 God says, “Do not break down before them or I will break you before them.”

But the good news is that – although God does have words to speak and actions to do in and through each of us – our task is not necessarily as grand as the lone prophet appointed to speak truth to the nations. Our task is to be a community that demonstrates grace, mercy, and mutual forbearance. 

Our task is to hear the words of Paul in the midst of our conflicts when he says, “Don’t you get it?” Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not selfish or boastful. Love does not expect perfection – it labors toward perfection. Because even the things we think of as perfect will one day fade away. Only love remains. Love hopes all things, bears all things, and believes all things. Love is love’s own reward.

I was reminded of these things the other day when I heard a commentary on the radio about a surprise reunion between the comedian Steve Harvey and another man who had helped finance his early career.  Somehow they had lost touch over the years between Steve’s early struggle and ultimate success. Possibly this was because Steve was indebted to him for more than he could pay. Through tears the tough as nails comedian said, “You bet on me.”

The radio d.j. then encouraged the listeners to think about people who have gambled on them in their lives, and I began to think, “Who hasn’t?!” But then I remembered one of the youth advisors in the church I served in VA. I caused Kathy a lot of stress. At one point this became undeniable, and I was thanking her for her deep commitment to the church. I’ll never forget her response. She said, “Well, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think you were worth it.”

And that, friends, is the whole of the gospel. When we consider Christ’s life laid down for us, we ought to hear God saying, “Don’t you get it? I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think you were worth it!”

Not only that, but when we consider the opportunity of being uplifted – or uprooted and broken – by the word of God, we ought to hear God saying, “Don’t you get it? I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think you were worth it!”

And when we consider God’s calling into covenant relationships through the church, we must see each other as “worth the effort” in the eyes of God. If we can’t do it here, there is little hope out there. And when we can’t even do it here, there is yet the Body of Christ that has been broken for us – that we might taste and see that the Lord is good. 
The beautiful thing in all of that is that we, too, have been called together to be the Body of Christ which has been broken for the world. And in our brokenness there is an abundance of opportunity for grace and mercy and forgiveness – but we will never receive unless we also give it as freely and lavishly as we have received it. Amen.

As Few Words As Possible

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This past Tuesday I asked the Session to consider whether or not we wanted to have communion this Sunday, as is our tradition, given that this is the Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, ordain and install officers, and have our second Sunday Luncheon honoring new members. It is a busy day, and I didn’t want us to feel rushed in our experience of God’s active presence. 

The result of that discussion was that the Session believes that we value the experience of communion deeply, and we believe it to be especially meaningful as a corporate response to the ordination vows we make as individuals and as a congregation.

So, the suggestion they offered was for me to preach a shorter sermon. In fact, one person even suggested that I preach a one sentence sermon. Feeling the need to justify my role in worship, I protested a bit. Besides, it is actually much harder to preach a shorter sermon and feel like you have effectively communicated some Biblical truth. No sooner had that statement left my mouth than the thought occurred to me that I was backing down from the challenge of the Gospel. That is not to say that I expect to win such a challenge by thinking up clever words to proclaim some greater truth. It is to say that the constant challenge of the Gospel is a challenge to accept a new and deeper form of love.

In thinking about this challenge I was reminded of the Dr. Who Christmas Special – you too, right? Well, if it is still on your DVR I won’t give away any spoilers. Anyway, there is a scene in which one character is making an argument to encourage the action of the other. In this moment of conflict, the hero is only allowed to make her case with one word. She has to compile an argument that will save all of humanity in one word. The reason for this test is that the more words we say the more opportunities there are to confuse and manipulate. And so the difficulty in using fewer words is that we must only speak of essential truths.

This – of course – brought me to thinking about the third question in the ordination vows all officers make, which is, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”

Ask a room full of Presbyterians what the “essential tenets” are, and you are likely to come away thinking that arguing is an essential tenet. In some way you are right, as we uphold the belief that “God alone is Lord of the conscience. As a Session, we concurred that these tenets included the supremacy of God, the belief in Jesus as Savior, the belief in the scriptures as God’s word, and a calling to work for justice and equity in the world.  

As we boiled that down, I began to wonder if we could find something even more basic and pure, and I was reminded of an article in The Christian Century Magazine. The article challenged its readers to submit on line their version of the Gospel in seven words. Here are some of their responses:

God loves the whole world...  No exceptions!
Love God.  Love Others.  Love Yourself.  Serve.
God loves you, so get over yourself.
God's impossible foolishness makes us whole.
Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
You are Love. Act like it.
You are worth dying for!
Repent! The kingdom of God is near. 
The Body of Christ, broken for you.

Today we have heard from the Prophet Isaiah, the book of Acts, and the Gospel of Luke, and though there are volumes of sermons that have been and will be preached about these texts, I want to submit the following seven words.

Fearlessly repent, Beloved! Receive the Holy Spirit.

That is it. Own up to who you are, without fear of consequence, no matter what you have done or what has been done to you.

Turn from selfishness toward selflessness.

Understand that you are loved beyond measure by the one who created you, redeems you, and sustains you.

Receive what is already yours – the very presence of God.

Now, as comforting as all of that is, it should leave you with a question. Once I receive the Holy Spirit, then what? The Holy Spirit is unpredictable and dangerous. It moves us from self protection and into vulnerability. It removes the idea that we are in charge. It’s like letting go of the reins on a horse we both love and fear. It takes away your breath, looks you in the eye, and says, “Words, words, words...tell me the essential truth.

My advice to you? Well, for one I would say that God was never under our control to begin with. For another, I would say to speak the Gospel in as few words as possible, and to remember that your actions may even speak it louder.

Fearlessly repent, Beloved! Receive the Holy Spirit!


Unity and Diversity

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Sermon audio can be found here for up to one month.

Have you ever had one of those moments when it was confirmed deep within your soul that what you were doing was wrong? I don’t mean simple mistakes. I’m talking about realizing that some of your actions – or even patterns of behavior – are entirely disconnected from your values. All of us have some moment like that – some dark night of the soul – if we live long enough, or at least I hope that we do. 

Otherwise we may never see ways to correct our imperfections and truly become what we have been created to become. Otherwise we might live our lives like a spare part and never know it. Most of us have drawers full of those little parts – an extra screw or one of those weird little rubber things that went to a shelf, or a desk, or something.

The Israelites in today’s passage were certainly confronted with the idea that they had been less than useful to God. They even wept when they heard the law. Still under Assyrian occupation, some of the exiles were beginning to return. Some of them had been land owners. Some of them had foreign wives. The old guard of the city were mostly the illiterate laboring class. Their identity as a people of God had become more cultural than theological, and they were not making it easy for the displaced to return.
In comes Nehemiah, with some authority from the occupying King, and he finds that – among other things – they are selling some of the returning exiles back into slavery! So, when they heard the Word of God – I’ve always wondered what passages were read to them – and the explanation they realized that they were doing some of the same things that got them in trouble in the first place!

They wept – not because God was so terrible, but because they realized how terrible they were! The beautiful thing in all of this is the response of grace and mercy that is offered to them. Nehemiah said to them, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Enjoy what is good. Share with those who have nothing – foreign or local it does not matter, even if you tried to sell them last Tuesday. The joy of loving as you have been loved – even though it hurts to do it – is what will cary you through.

And the poetry of the Psalmist echoes in our souls with a deep and furtive, “Yes!” Because the the law of Moses is not a means for God to push us around. Nor is it a tool to define and determine what God is going to do and say about this or that, or about us or them. The point of the law is the sweet knowledge that God is with us, encouraging us to love as we have been loved.

But what does that look like? Well, it doesn’t look like the spare part drawer. It looks like a body that has no spare parts. It looks like a body that is not just a collection of parts but is the sum of its parts. Every part matters, no matter how small.

I was reminded of this idea by my car not too long ago. A while back I had a problem with my the air flow regulator in my car. Well, I got the replacement part home and found that – not only had I lost one of the screws that held in the original – the new one did not come with screws. Eventually I found a replacement screw in my spare part drawer, but it struck me that so little a part could affect so large a body. Even more importantly, it was the flow of air – something entirely intangible – that truly mattered.

And so it is with the church. Every part matters. Every bulletin board, every handshake, every open space in a pew, every warm body, every active committee, every hit on our website, every prayer in your home, and every soul – man, woman, or child – that comes through these doors seeking an encounter with God Almighty – every part of the body matters to the whole of the body whether we realize it or not. And every part can open or close the whole to its experience of the life giving force of the breath of God – the Holy Spirit.

That’s how Paul describes the church – a connected body in which every part affects the whole. And here’s the hardest and the most beautiful verse in that whole passage about the Body of Christ, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

It’s not so hard when we are sharing joys and concerns in worship. It is even more beautiful and rich when we do it during the Agape Prayer Lunch on Wednesdays. It is, however, pretty nearly impossible to for us remember that what hurts you hurts me when we get beyond our closest circles. At least it feels that way to me.

Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I make it that way in my mind because of the way the church in North America seems to be competing over a dwindling number of people who are interested in experiencing God through weird language and music that most people do not use or listen to anywhere else. 

Maybe it would be easier if I took seriously the words of Jesus who walked into the temple and proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. These were loaded words that had to do with a flipping of social order and the forgiveness of debt, and even the healing of blindness and the release of prisoners. And as crazy as all of that sounded, Jesus went a little further and said, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What would it look like to live like we believe those words? It might make us think about our finances and how they demonstrate our values and priorities. It might make us think about our more personal debts and our need to forgive and be forgiven. It might make us decide that we can and must find a way to live as people released from captivity and blindness. It might make us decide to do everything we can to help release others from the bonds of poverty, or alcoholism, or whatever keeps them from loving as they are loved.

It might make you want to enter the holy places and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. I saw someone doing it on TV the other day – during the X-Games, no less. Maybe it isn’t a traditional place of worship, but sporting arenas are definitely centers of value in our culture. Anyway, after every event, all of these adrenaline amped snow boarders and trick skiers and snow mobile daredevils waved logos in front of the camera for cash from sponsors. All except one. 

Olympic Gold Medalist, Kelly Clark, had one logo that stood out above the rest. It simply said, “Jesus. I can’t hide my love.” Turns out that she is also a philanthropist and has a foundation that offers opportunities for underprivileged kids to grow and be challenged through the sport of snow boarding.

Now, we can’t all do things like that, obviously, but we can allow the love of God to confront us. We can decide to be guided by scripture in our lives. We can realize that we are only as strong as we are diverse. We can realize that the Body of Christ has no spare parts, and that we each have a part to play in remaining open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in and through this body. 

I can’t say exactly how that will look in your life. It might inspire you to make some Easter baskets for needy children, or contribute to the renovation of the nursery, or any number of things that are going on here or any number of things that have been here before. Better still, it could be something entirely new that God has never done here before but really wants to.

Whatever God is calling you to do and to become, be encouraged that God is calling you.  God is calling you to be the Body of Christ and to see redemption taking place. And when you see it, you will hear the words of Jesus saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Amen.


Sermon audio is available here for up to one month.

My family and I recently went to a surprise birthday party for someone attaining the half century mark. On the way in my daughter asked me where the present was. I told her that sometimes adults do not give each other presents because there is, in the words of the folk singer David LaMotte, no present like time.

It is what we do with our time in the present tense that matters more than the presents. Indeed our presence becomes a gift when it is given fully and sincerely. Even so, there is still a time and place for gift giving and receiving. There is a time and place for hospitality.

Children are not the only ones who can see through the lie of saying, “Well, it’s the thought that counts, and I thought about getting you something really great – because you are totally worth it. But I didn’t because I couldn’t actually afford it, and I just never made it to the store.”

Of course, presents and presence are truly about priority and devotion. In many ways, priority and devotion are at the heart of our readings today.

I must admit finding these readings a little difficult to connect with at first because of the differences in culture they seem to represent. Mostly I am talking about Isaiah’s depiction of Israel as the wanton woman redeemed and restored by the husband’s choice and John’s description of Jesus’ tone with his mother. I also think the concept of spiritual gifts is a little outside of the box for those who believe we are truly self determined and totally independent.

But if we think about these readings in terms of priority and devotion, then it might move us to a different place. Even so, just because we live in a time when the Princess saves the Prince as often as he might save her, it would be wrong to dismiss the value of the words of the Prophet as archaic sexism.

The whole of Israel – an entire nation as well as a people of a certain ethnicity – had the identity of brokenness. They believed in the name, Forsaken, and it became them. And so God entered in and changed the narrative. No longer would they be known for their line of Kings. No longer would they be known only for their ancestry. Now they will be known as a people whom the Creator of all that is loves so much that God is even in a loving relationship with the ground they walk on!

That’s a new covenant, and it is reflected throughout the later part of the book of Isaiah. God is no longer simply bound to ancestry. God will now be bound by fidelity – by devotion and priority. God will now be bound in a new way that affects the loved and the lover. Even in societies and relationships where women are not thought of as equal partners with men, none can deny that each partner is affected by the other.

The marriage – the partnership – changes the identity of each person, even if only by the name of husband and wife and the weight they represent. Treva and I have been married 12 short years – yet I still find myself giggling over the fact that she’s my wife. I still find myself becoming re-defined and redeemed by her long suffering love.

And that is how it is with God’s love for the church. That’s how it is with this congregation. We have accepted names for ourselves: old church, small church, or used-to-be-a-big-church. We have felt broken. We have felt forsaken. Part of the narrative of this church is, “and then (fill in the blank) left us.” When I first got here I thought this was the “left-behindingest” church I’d ever seen.

But since I have been here, I have seen a shift. Maybe it just took me time to see it. Maybe it took you time to say it. Maybe, just maybe, we have together become open to the work of God’s Spirit in our midst. Maybe we have heard and seen that God is willing to be married to the church in such a way that allows the creation to affect the Creator. Maybe we have begun to see that our name is not “Broken” so much as it is “The Body of Christ, Broken for the World”.

Our sense of identity – whether new or renewed – comes from our sense of devotion and priority, and it inspires the same in others. Jesus demonstrated this for all in the wedding feast at Canna, but the weirdest thing about that is that he did not want to. It wasn’t time. But he was yet compelled by love. He was compelled by love, and he acted in a way that benefitted the host. Although his mother seemed to know what Jesus was capable of in the beginning – it was the disciples that believed in him as the presence of God in human flesh in the end.

I wonder where we are in this story (individually and collectively)? Are we Mary, goading Jesus to act and then making promises on his behalf and expecting him to fulfill them? Are we the empty vessels standing around expecting to be used to purify others? Are we the full jars holding the abundance of God’s grace and mercy and waiting to poor it out? Are we the servant, following orders without expectation? Are we the steward, surprised that something even better than what we have seen is yet to come?

In many ways I think we are all of the above, and – although I think our shared vision is crucial – I think God wants each of us to find our own place in this story. In fact, I think allowing space for that kind of discernment is what we do best as a congregation. 
Just look at the first line of our mission statement: We at First Presbyterian Church are seeking the wholeness we believe Almighty God, our Creator, promises through Jesus Christ, our Lord. 

“Seeking wholeness” is a way of life for us, and we expect God to offer it. 
Our mission statement follows with: Through our worship, study, and life together, we are finding God’s wholeness for ourselves and, guided by the Holy Spirit, seek to share it with our community and our world through prayer, service, outreach, music, and fellowship.

Wholeness is found in our life together and experienced in our individual lives. Or, in the words of Paul, “there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”.

And that’s the beauty of it all. The sense of devotion and priority being spoken about in today’s passages is a mutual devotion and a mutual sense of priority between God and you and me and all of creation. The gifts that are being given in this great celebration of life that we are all a part of are from the giver of all things. What can we do but respond? What can we do but see the value in all of creation? What can we do but to recognize the gifts in each other, recognize the gifts God has given each of us, and work together to make our lives pour out the abundant joy that has filled every empty space like water and lifts the soul like no wine ever could!

Maybe you feel like that is impossible. Maybe it is just a bunch of pretty language and metaphor. If God wills it to bear fruit in your life, then it will. Either way, we are going to be working on the idea of openness to the activity of God’s Spirit into some more concrete terms in the coming months through the PC(USA)’s New Beginnings program. 
I know that we have done mission studies before, and there are parts of this one that will be similar. The goal of this process, however, is not to sell us a five step plan for becoming like some other congregation. The goal is to look deeply at who we are, where we are, and what God is calling us to do and become. No one is going to tell us what to do. We are going to discern God’s will together. It is a little scary to think about – and it should be!

The goal of the program is simple – to make a decision about what to do next in order to follow God faithfully. The process will involve three steps. First we’ll have a luncheon on February 3. Next we’ll have some members go to a training session so that they can come back and lead a series of small group discussions, and finally we’ll come together to review all of the information together before deciding what to do about it all. The Presbytery will be supplementing the program, so the cost to us is minimal. There will also be 21 other congregations in our presbytery we can lean on for support during this process.  On behalf of the Session, I want to invite you into this process whether you are a regular visitor or a long standing member, because – like Mary – I believe that I know a little bit about what Jesus is capable of. And I believe that – like the disciples – we will all come to a deeper faith in him in the end.

For now, rest assured that God holds you devotedly as a priority and only asks that you do the same in return. Marriage is like that – just that simple, and just that hard. Amen!

Inside, Outside, Upside Down

Sermon audio is available here for up to one month.

Many of you may remember the classic children’s book, Inside, Outside, Upside Down, that demonstrates the very basic concepts of objects, people, and spatial relationships. It’s the story of an overly curious bear who climbs in a box, gets loaded on a truck, and bumped off to the side of the road before running home to tell his mama that he went to town, “Inside, outside, and upside down!” Well, call me crazy and accuse me of over simplifying the gospel, but I think that is a good summary of our scripture passages today.
Today, God’s word speaks to us of Insiders, Outsiders, and a world turned upside down by the Epiphany of Christ!

Isaiah tells captive Israelites that all the world will literally pile its wealth upon them. Those inside the covenant will triumph over the outsiders as an unjust world gets turned upside down. And there is also that little hint that followers of the way of Jesus have held on to for generations. “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” 

Just like their enslaved ancestors – the occupied Israelites were looking for a powerful leader, and the gifts of the Magi confirmed that Jesus was the one. Living after the resurrection it is easy to see how wrong they were about the power of Jesus, but doesn’t it seem like we are still looking for that same kind of power? One of these days those people are going to get it – straight from the hand of God.

This is not a new thing. The Psalmist echoes that same desire for God to provide a leader to right the wrongs – particularly for the poor – once and for all. In some ways it seems that it has always been fashionable – if not at least reasonable – to ask God to look out for the powerless, the poor, and the oppressed. The poor have always been with us. Power has always been abused, and people can always be trusted to be selfish and to take advantage of one another.

Who else could do anything about any of this but God? 

Is that the Epiphany, the moment of enlightenment and clarity, that we are expected to celebrate as we move from the manger toward the Cross of Christ? Or is there something more that is revealed by the star, the coy king who was secretly mad with power, and the three unsuspecting outsiders who were moved by a relationship with something greater than they could conceive?

I think that is the challenge of this story – to see it from the outside, and to realize that we do not own this story as much as it owns us.  I think that is what Paul was trying to say to the church in Ephesus when he wrote, “Of this gospel, I have become a servant.” And the gospel he wrote about is not an exclusive claim on a doctrinal truth. This gospel – this good news – is the news that the Creator of all that is has made it clear through Jesus that love and community and belonging to one another is not exclusive but entirely inclusive.

Not only that, but when we offer grace and mercy and acceptance to one another in the name of Christ – it has an impact beyond our greatest imagination. “Through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” God has chosen that through you and me – in our relationship together as the church – the very fabric of reality might shift in a way that indicates that God is present and active in a world where people live in doubt and fear and alienation.

That might sound like it puts a lot of pressure on you and me, and perhaps it does. Taken individually, and even as a group of believers gathered in a limited – though very dedicated – community, it sometimes seems like the issues we face are too big. After all, we have a hard enough time just maintaining our building and taking care of one another. And when we do want to do something that goes beyond taking care of ourselves, we either can’t do a thing without a committee or we can’t do anything because of our committees. 

You know the old saying! How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? Well, there are two answers. One possibility is to let you know after the Session appointed task force advises us on how many people to elect on the nominating committee who will then determine those individuals called by God to determine if said light bulb needs to be changed. The simpler answer is a question: Change?

But what if demonstrating the wisdom of God in a way that even the heavens gain a new understanding of grace and mercy is simpler than it sounds? What if it means recognizing that sources of inspiration and knowledge of God might even come from outside of our tradition and experience? Even Herod, the King so paranoid about succession that he killed his own sons, figured that one out. And what of these so called “wise men” who came seeking the child who was born King of the Jews?

All we know of them from the actual scripture text is that they traveled from the East because they saw a new star, and that they had precious gifts to offer the newborn king. In the Greek they are μάγοι (magoi), and many associate them with the science and religion of Zoroastrianism – which was a mystical form of astrology common in Persia.
The Magi – and their assumed wealth – stand in stark contrast to the shepherds of the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel. On the surface they remind us that God calls the rich and the poor alike to give glory to God and acknowledge Jesus as Lord. For centuries they have stood in our nativity sets, and they have been the inspiration for legend and folklore and heated debate. They have been used as an example of the idea that every race and nation will one day recognize Jesus as Lord. Their gifts have been said to represent Kingship, Divinity, and Death, as a symbolic representation of life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

But, again, what if their visit and their gifts challenge us with something simpler than we want to accept? The Magi are never confirmed as non-Jews, but their practice of astrology is certainly outside of the tradition of Judaism. There is no particular conversion event or change in practice, except that they go home by another way. God is never directly involved in their story – not even in the dream that warns them not to go back to Herod.

Either way, they come and go as seekers of – and participants in – a reality that is bigger than their own actions, their own treasures, their own futures, and even their own pasts. I believe their story challenges us to look and listen for what God is doing in the world so that we can be a part of it. And to do that we have to see injustice and poverty, and we have to honor God by doing something about it with the gifts that we have to give. We who are on the inside of society, protected by our safe and healthy boundaries, have to be careful not to become like Herod – protecting ourselves no matter what it costs anyone else.

And when someone comes to our safe and healthy bubble from the outside with a vision of who and what God is about, we need to find ways to hear that so that we can enter into a greater understanding of God’s grace and mercy and justice. Because, in the end, no matter how carefully we might try to order our own world, God is going to find a way to turn it upside down until we realize that it is only through participating with God that we can move into an understanding of the deeper order of the universe.

Truly, God has chosen the church to be the place where we come inside the embrace of grace and mercy. Truly, the experience of grace and mercy pushes us outside of our own desires and limitations. Truly, once we get beyond our own desires and limitations our view of the world can get turned upside down, and we might just have to go home by another way. We might just have to tell someone that we’ve been to a new place inside of our hearts, outside of our understanding, and that now we see the world upside down.
You see, I believe that God has fulfilled the promises of Isaiah and answered the call of the Psalmist through the person, work, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I believe that Jesus came to announce God’s eternal rule, and I believe that the church of Jesus Christ exists to demonstrate love and forgiveness and living together in brokenness. I believe the Epiphany of Christ is that eternal life – whether it is lived enjoying God’s presence or not – has no beginning or end. And that means that we don’t need to wait until we die; instead we just have to learn how to live – inside, outside, and upside down.  And all of this to the glory of God.  Amen!