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Home: A People

What does your family look like?

I met my friend Eric the summer before senior year of high school. At first, we got to be friends through a large of people who hung out together. Pretty soon, though, we became inseparable. What sealed the deal was the fact that Eric had no curfew, so I often ended up spending the night over there. Truth be told, though, we were rarely up to anything more adventurous than drinking gallons of Mountain Dew to stay awake, driving around listening to R.E.M.

As I describe it that way, this doesn’t really seem like the sturdiest basis for a friendship. But even now, I would consider Eric one of my closest friends. He lives with his family in Denver, and I don’t see him very often – maybe once a year or so – but it’s a friendship that still feels like it can pick up where we left off.

Who is like that for you? What does your family look like?

There is something crucial about this kind of friendship. They seem to exist to remind us that we are not alone in the universe. Literal family relations can be complicated – we know that. No one knows you like family, and that’s a double-edged sword. Families remember things about you, like that time you lied about spending the night at a friend’s house, and they can get stuck in the assumption that nothing has changed, that those temper tantrums you threw when you were seven years old are still the way you operate in your 30s or 40s. That said, families can be there for you when no one else is.

At the same time, there’s nothing truly universal we can say about families. They can be messy, even destructive. And in those situations, the healthiest thing we can do is protect ourselves and those we love, even if it means we have to sever relationships with those whose DNA is closest to our own. We can’t choose our families. But we can choose our friends. And sometimes, they can become our truest family.

There is something powerful about redefining family. There is also something deeply Christian about it, too. Jesus inherited the assumptions about bloodline of his day, and chose to challenge them directly. “Who is my mother?” he asked. “Who are my brothers?” The letter to the Ephesians takes these questions and runs with them.

Paul, the originator of the letter, was in a unique position. He had once been known as Saul, a fierce Pharisee, a scholar of the sacred Law, a persecutor of the fledgling Christian community. He oversaw the murder of Stephen and was on his way to Damascus to stamp out the movement when he was struck blind so that his eyes might be truly opened.

Paul was, as the saying goes, more Catholic than the Pope. He had all of the tribal bonafides of Jewish observance of Law and blood relation. So it is intriguing, to say the least, that his call ends up being not to those he is like, but to those very different from himself. Paul is the Apostle to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish nations and peoples.

This was a controversial issue within the early church leadership. All of them were Jewish, and in the earliest days, most of those who had become Christian were Jewish as well. In fact, Christianity began not as a separate religion, but as a sect of Judaism, meeting in synagogues and following Jewish rituals. Paul broke all of that wide open, and pretty soon, other apostles were being confronted with similar revelations about the universal purpose of Jesus and his gospel.

By the time we get to Ephesians, things have evolved to the point that we have this radical statement: “Christ is our peace, bringing Jews and Gentiles together.” It goes on to say, “You are no longer strangers or aliens. You are citizens with the saints, members of the household of God.” In other words, family within the church is a very different reality.

I’m struck by that truth – or by the vision it paints, at least – in light of developments in the Middle East. In many ways, the place that gave birth to Christianity seems more divided than ever. Our own nation is gearing up for war with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a brutal movement sweeping through Syria and Iraq. They seem intent on wiping out what little cultural and religious diversity is left in that region.

Some of you know that Elizabeth and I spent a significant part of our lives living in the Middle East. We were blessed to visit with Christian communities in Syria and Iraq – communities that, in some cases, no longer exist thanks to ISIS. Churches where we worshiped ten years ago are now shuttered. Friends have been threatened, a few even killed. If we as a church take Ephesians seriously, that means that our family is in danger.

What does your family look like?

I don’t plan to get into the politics of all of this today. In fact, I don’t even know what I think about any of it. On the one hand, I know that ISIL is a horrific threat. You know you’re out there when even Al-Qaeda looks at you and says, “What ever happened to subtlety?” On the other hand, if Jesus is the Prince of Peace as we say he is, then what place, if any, does war have for those who call him Lord?

Even if I knew what to do, I struggle with what I could do as only one person to affect some kind of change. But today, I am convicted by this idea that we can do more, much more, to build the family of faith, the household of God, within our own lives and communities. Long before we get to the point of having to decide whether or not to pull the trigger, we should expend our energy strengthening God’s family – that is, our family.

One of the things that sticks with me from our time in the Middle East is the overwhelming presence of hospitality. When you are welcomed into an Arab household, you are greeted with a beautiful phrase: ahlan wa-sahlan. Most people will tell you it translates to “welcome”, and that’s more or less true. The more literal translation, however, reveals something potent: “May your way be easy; and may we welcome you as though you were family.”

We heard this phrase from Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims alike, this desire, this hope, to be knit together as family. So even as I hear this lesson from Ephesians, I can’t help but wonder: do we try to limit God’s grand vision for humanity by building walls to divide? According to our text today, that walls are not meant to go up, but to come down. Whatever confessional divisions we might create, no matter how important those connections within the community of faith might be, I’m pretty sure that God has a bigger picture than any of that for who matters and who is in God’s circle of grace.

That’s one of the reasons I’m committed to participating in Oglethorpe University’s interfaith panel each year. I am a Christian. And on good days, I’m fairly sure I know what that means. That said, if I treat faith as a way to keep others out or keep myself in, then I think I might be missing the point.

The more we are able to put ourselves out there, the more likely we are to be moved by the things that move the heart of God. It may not be the easy thing to do. But it’s almost certainly the faithful thing to do. And in our highly mobile world, especially within the odd and wonderful diversity of this nation, we have more opportunities to erase those lines and enter into new and challenging relationships. The Oglethorpe University panel is just one opportunity of many before us.

At the same time, I don’t have any illusions that what I do today will change the world. But if that’s the requirement we put before we act, then we won’t get much done, will we? It always starts with something small. And yet, those small things can build together to change the world, to shape little corners of it into grace-filled corners of the kingdom of God.

Today, I want you to think of people in your life who are not blood family and who are not part of your church community. And I want you to send them a simple note, saying something like, “When I think about my life, I am grateful that you are in it.” Feel free to link to this blog.

It’s a small step. And yet, it’s one that can help us remember who is important to us. And when we do that, we begin to take down those walls and open ourselves up to the promises of what it looks like to live in the household of God!

May it be so.

Amen.

As a pastor, I have the chance to talk with many people about what they are looking for in a church. Some have landed at Oglethorpe, others have not. Here are a couple of things that I have learned along the way:

1) You’re Shopping. And That’s OK.

Some people are troubled by the idea that they are doing something as crass as “shopping” for something as important as church. If you are “brand loyal” (i.e. your theology is only at home in a Catholic, or Associate Reformed, or Orthodox, or COGIC church), then you shouldn’t shop. Otherwise, get over it. Even if a congregation has a denominational affiliation, this label probably says more about how they are governed than about how they worship or what they do.

In our case, we are Presbyterian, which means that we are connected to other churches in accountability and support, and that our decision-making is an open process. While our worship style comes out of a Presbyterian background, we incorporate things we have learned from both high church (communion, baptism, ordination) and low church (the roof doesn’t collapse when the drums come out).

In other words, finding a church where you are at home is important enough to give it the time and energy it deserves.

2) Don’t Judge a Church by Its Cover.

Many people make the mistaken assumption that how a church appears says everything about what they believe. If there are bright lights, casual clothing, and modern music, then the church must be “hip” to the 21st century. If there’s an organ and the preacher wears a robe, then they must be hopelessly stuck in the past. The reality is that this is almost never the case; in fact, the opposite is more likely to be true.

Dig deeper, ask questions, and don’t be bullied. Does this church allow women to participate in all leadership roles, or just some? What is their stance on marriage equality? How transparent are they about leadership and decision-making, money and salaries? If there is a crisis (in case you didn’t know, churches make the headlines from time to time, and not for the right reasons), who will hold them accountable?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not about finding people who already agree with you. That’s the subject for another day. In fact, any church that is worthwhile is going to stretch you and change you. But if you have deeply held convictions, be sure that they will be respected, not merely tolerated until you “see the light”.

3) One Visit Is Rarely Enough.

Churches have off days. And they have exceptional days. You won’t know which is which until you go back. Was the sermon lackluster? Maybe the pastor had a head cold. Did the choir hit a sour note? Maybe the best singers were on vacation that day. Did they sing that hymn that you hate? Maybe they had to do that in order to figure out that they hate it, too. Did no one speak to you? Or did they swarm you like “fresh meat”? Maybe their best greeters were in charge of the luncheon after worship.

When you encounter worship that’s a little “bumpy”, that probably means they think grace is important, where you can try new things, fall flat on your face, and get up again. That’s not always the case, of course. Some churches just worship poorly, and that’s a problem. But you won’t know if you only go once.

A word of caution: there are those churches that break out the “Kool Aid” on your first visit. You might want to refuse politely and be sure you know where the exits are.

4) For Parents: Be Selfish.

I often meet with parents who are looking for the right church for their children. I think that’s a mistake. If you find a church that your kids enjoy but you hate (or tolerate mildly), they will know. What they learn is that church doesn’t matter to you. And one day, they will follow suit. However: if you find a church that feeds you and stretches you in all the right ways but doesn’t have a strong children’s program, what they will learn is that church and faith matter for the long haul.

I watch parents drag their children out of bed when they hate school. I see them force their kids to play sports when they’d rather play in the dirt. For some reason, though, making it clear that faith is central isn’t “worth the fight.” If that describes you, that might say more about you than you wish it did.

5) The Church Where You Grew Up Is Gone.

Let’s be clear: nostalgia is not good. And when it comes to finding a church home, it’s a problem. If you are looking for a church that is “just like the one I grew up in”, you will never find it.

There’s the simple fact of history. Whether you grew up in the 1980s or 1950s or the 2000s, the world is a very different place than it was. When you grew up, was FourSquare how you checked in, or a playground game? Did your childhood church eschew PowerPoint because they had a problem with it, or because it hadn’t been invented yet? If you find a church that treats the world as if it hasn’t changed, then there’s usually something very wrong.

And I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you probably don’t even know what you mean when you say that about your childhood church. What does “just like” mean? Are you fixated on a single pastor? Are you looking for your grandmother’s pew or your mom in the choir? Do you need someone to pat you on the head or offer you a cookie during coffee hour? If you can’t explain it, then you just need to let this one go.

If you do know what you mean, then this aspect of a search can actually be helpful, if you do it right. You have to be sure you can articulate the characteristics of your childhood experience that mattered, and that can translate to other churches. Those points can be the launching pads to a new church home. Just be sure you’re going deep enough.

Home: A Plan

What is your plan to know God’s plan?

I got a kick out of revisiting this Jeremiah lesson. Some of you will recognize it as the prophecy in which we rooted our Capital Campaign here almost two years ago. We had mapped out this whole worship series about Home back in May, including texts, themes, and music. Planning worship so far ahead can be dicey business at times. So today, as I read of God’s promise to God’s people through the prophet Jeremiah, I can’t help but see myself in this promise to return home; and if that’s the case, then I guess that means that Chicago was my land of exile, my Babylon.

For the ancient Israelites, though, this promise could not have come at a more bitter time for them. They had lost it all, everything God had promised them, because they had lost both their gratitude and their memory of who had been the source of all their bounty. They had been dragged away into exile, in that faraway land of the Babylonian Empire. And there, as they grieved and mourned, the prophet Jeremiah came to them with this promise directly from God, that they would be restored, that their exile would come to an end, and that they would go home again.

That said, this promise of God can tempt us to leap right over what might be the most important part of the whole lesson: God tells the people to make a home right where they are. Build houses! Have children! Marry them off! Even more than that, though, seek the welfare of your place of exile! Don’t just wall yourselves off and make the best of it. Even though you are a conquered people, make the society you find yourself in the best it can be. It’s in your own best interest, after all.

Think about that from the perspective of those who first heard this prophecy. What God is telling a people living with the consequences of military defeat is that they are to do right by their captors! If you were in their shoes, could you handle following through such a demand?

The point for us in all of this, I think, is that home is what you make of it.

I grew up in a construction family. My father and grandfather, my namesakes, were both general contractors. I spent summers working in the field and office for their company, marveling at the way line drawings on a sheet of paper would be turned into actually, physical structures.

When I was a teenager, we moved into the house my dad grew up in. To put it mildly, it needed some work. And over the course of several months, I got to watch that work take place. It was downright miraculous. Areas that had once felt cramped and closed off were suddenly open and inviting. Rooms that had once been dark and cold were suddenly bathed in light. In short, what had once been my grandparents’ home had become ours. And what it took to get there was the vision of someone who could see a bigger picture than I could, who could imagine the potential within a space and craft the plan to forge it into reality.

Home requires a plan.

So what’s your plan?

I don’t know about you, but that’s where I get hung up. I tend to think that I’ve got to map out some grand course from here to there. And as soon as I do that, I am immediately tempted to pay more attention to what is wrong with “here”.

I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone, that many of you look at what you have and where you are and cast your eyes off toward the future. You don’t love your job, but you can gut it through until the right one comes along. Your teacher really grates on you, but you know there’s a long-term purpose to all of this. We are really good at putting caveats on our current situation, because it’s only temporary, deluding ourselves into thinking that perfection lies just beyond the horizon.

The hard truth is that, while perfection is real, none of us will ever see it fully in our lifetimes.

You didn’t know Chicago was going to turn me into such an optimist, did you?

I think there’s actually a gift in recognizing that we live imperfectly in an imperfect reality. It’s not that we lower our expectations. It’s that we realize what a gift grace can be. When we are honest about our own imperfections, we are more likely to be gracious to the imperfections of others, giving them the blessing we so desperately desire. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that we lose sight of accountability; instead, we temper it with healthy doses of mercy.

Even more, I think, it’s the message of Jeremiah that should cut through: make your home here. Yes: whatever situation we are in is a temporary one. But it is the one we are in! Seek its welfare! Live your life now! For the time being, whether it’s a matter of days, or weeks, or months, or years, this is home, and God is here. In fact, God is the one who embodied that for us in Jesus Christ, not just putting up with us, but physically making home in the midst of humanity.

And here’s the best part of it all, right there in what Jeremiah tells us: the plan belongs to God! Like that gifted architect that can look at an existing structure and imagine it transformed, God looks into our lives and imagine what we could be. If you’re tracking the comparison, that makes us the house. Have you ever seen a house plan its own renovation?

So here’s my question for us today: how can we tap into God’s plan for our lives? Or, to put it another way, what is your plan to know God’s plan?

First and foremost, it takes intention. We spent much of the Spring talking about how important it is that we build practices of intention into our own lives. And that’s a point worth returning to again and again and again. Is it a discipline of daily prayer? Is it one of weekly worship? Is it regular service to others? Is the physical activity of biking, or walking, or running?

This isn’t the kind of thing that can happen by accident, though it may take an accident for us to wake up to the need for it.

When we do this, when we forge our own plan to know God’s plan as individuals beloved of God, then we as a community can better forge our plan to know God’s plan for all us, so that this church can become more and more the home that God intends!

It is so easy to dwell on the ways that we’re not there yet. But as Jeremiah reminds us, God invites us to make our home in the here and now. Even though it might be temporary, it’s still home.

Amen.

Risen in Deed

A lot can happen in three months.

So the next time I will see you all will be September. That’s three months from now. A lot can happen in three months.

Three months may not be that long of a period of time, but things will be different in September. I know that I will be different when I get back. I have a full summer planned, but a relaxing and refreshing one. So I know I will come back changed, refreshed, renewed, different.

In two days, construction starts on building renovations. So I’ll get to see some of the dust fly before I leave, but not the end result. So our building will look different: better, more welcoming, ready, different.

What about you? Will you be different? If so, how would I know? How would you know?

Over the past few weeks, we have been spending time with these Easter lectionary texts, these lessons where Christ speaks of his resurrection. Today’s reading actually comes from the Last Supper, before the transformative events of Holy Week, as Jesus projects forward to the Easter promise and beyond. The disciples end up scratching their heads in bewilderment. They understand that things will be different; but what that different looks like, they have no idea.

How could they? How in the world would they possibly understand that Jesus was going to die, rise from the dead, visit them, and then ascend out of sight? How could they have anticipated Pentecost, when the Spirit shoved them out into the streets, speaking in tongues, the church exploding right before their eyes? And how in the world could they have expected the miraculous turn in the life of the one who used to be named Saul?

As the early church grew, one of its fiercest opponents was Saul the Pharisee. Just last week, we read how when Stephen was stoned by the crowds for preaching Christ, the perpetrators lay their cloaks at the feet of Saul to watch over them while they lynched an innocent man. It’s not long before Saul is blinded on the road to Damascus, healed, and becomes one of the fiercest defenders of Jesus.

Our lesson today finds him in Athens – no longer Saul, but Paul – standing at the Areopagus, the site of the ancient high court. It is here that this persecutor of Christians preaches a sermon “to an unknown god”. Having seen this inscription on an altar in the city, Paul knew it was the perfect way to tell them about the God he has come to know in Jesus. “It’s time to put the past behind us,” he says, “and look toward the future. God knows you, and knows you well; it’s time for you to know God, too.”

I wonder how many of us have sympathy for the people of Athens? How many of us resonate with this idea of an unknown god? Maybe we can get our minds around the idea that there is a god, some kind of higher goodness or force in the universe; but to know much, if anything about this god?

You see, this is the ridiculous thing that Christians say: not only that God is knowable, but that we know God and God’s character, because we know Jesus and Jesus’ character. We read the stories of his healing, and we understand that God desires wholeness. We listen to his teaching and we hear the wisdom of heaven. We witness his compassion, especially for those who are most vulnerable, and we are grateful that God cares about those whom the world neglects.

There are some of you here today for whom that description makes absolute sense. My hunch is that there are many more of you here who dearly desire for that to make sense. And I also know that there are some of you here today who hear this all as utter nonsense. Whatever the case may be for you, the point remains the same: how is it that we know God? And how is it that we come to deepen our knowledge of God?

I think, oddly enough, that knowledge of God is nested in our knowledge of self. It’s not that we should confuse the two: we are not God, and thank God for that. At the same time, we say that God has made an impression on us, that we are made in the image of God, so there is certainly an element of holiness within us. So one of the ways that we get to know God is by getting know ourselves. So here’s my question for you today: what is it that you want to know?

I want to make today an opportunity for us as a community. And I want to suggest that from now to September can operate as a kind of three-month process for you – for all of us, really. What is it that you want to come to know in the next three months? What is it that you want to know about yourself, about God? Is there some kind of concrete goal you want to set for yourself?

Maybe you want to aim for establishing a daily discipline for yourself. I know we have talked a lot about prayer this year; is that something that has rooted itself in your life, or not yet? Perhaps you want to be more committed in your Sunday worship attendance. Or maybe you want to find ways to participate more – in mission, in Sunday School, in service.

Or perhaps you’re sitting there saying, “The last thing I need is one more thing to do.” If that’s the case, what can you give up? What is one burden you carry that you can spend the next three months removing from your plate?

Or maybe you want to become more generous. Look: whenever we have a financial challenge here at Oglethorpe, I am always amazed by the response. As Paul shared with you earlier, we have already met and beat our challenge gift. And that only took a week. We still have a little ways to go before we can comfortably say that we will meet our expenses for 2014. And I know that some of you squirm when we talk about money; some of you might put up with it, knowing that we have to do it some, but would prefer we didn’t. Fair enough. But that’s not my point.

My point is this: what we do with what we are given says a lot about who we are and who we want to be. If you added up everything you gave away, how would it compare to what you take in? Would it be 1%? 10? 3? 15? Nothing? Does your giving say about you what you want it to?

I hope it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: life is a series of phases. There are times when the going is rough and times when it’s smooth sailing. All of this is to say that there’s no magic formula for all. At the same time, do you know God well enough to know what is truly in store for you right now?

This is all a long way of saying that I’ve got something I want you to do today.

I want you to concentrate on one thing: how would you like to be different three months from now? It could be that you have something concrete in mind, like a developing a discipline or giving up a difficulty, in which case the goal is relatively clear. It could be that you are contemplating something more abstract, like less fear or more hope, something that, when you wake up in the morning three months from now, you will recognize some sign that things are really different. Maybe you’ll wake up with a smile for the first time in a long time.

Whatever it is, I want you to choose one thing.

A lot can happen in three months. When we meet again, we will be different. But I know this: when we meet again, we will have grown in our knowledge of God. And that is something to celebrate!

Risen in Word

We are connected.

One of the words that is often used to describe Presbyterians is “connectional”. It’s a helpful way of explaining our system of churches. Each congregation, like Oglethorpe Presbyterian, is independent enough to allow for creativity and flexibility. Most of the decisions we make as a church are done by those whom we elect into leadership. We call them elders. At the same time, we are also in partnership with other Presbyterian churches – by last count, about 100 in the Atlanta area and about 10,000 nationwide. And it is these connections which are crucial to my mind: they provide systems of both support and accountability.

When we struggle, we do not struggle alone. Instead, we have access to resources locally and nationally that can provide guidance, prayer, and support. And we are also nested in a system of checks and balances that makes sure we don’t go off the rails. In 2014, I don’t need to tell you how important that is. Too many churches and pastors, left to their own devices, have betrayed the sacred trust of the gospel.

We are connected.

That’s the message that lies at the heart of Jesus’ conversation with his disciples that we read in our lesson from John. That text is part of a long conversation that takes place during the Last Supper. Jesus speaks somewhat cryptically, talking about how he is in the Father and the Father is in him, which points to this idea of connection, that Jesus and God are intimately related. That’s hard enough to get our minds around. But Jesus goes on: “Whoever believes in me will do greater works than mine.”

Did you catch that? Philip demands to see God as proof of all of this talk, and Jesus replies by telling him that seeing what Jesus has done is all the evidence he needs. His teaching, his healing, that whole “water into wine” thing, that was all God at work in Jesus. But apparently, that was all peanuts compared to what those who believe in Jesus will be capable of, because Jesus will be at work in them.

Those who believe in Jesus will do things that eclipse Jesus himself? I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty hard to swallow…

It all seems to go back to this connection thing. God is at work in Jesus, Jesus will be at work in the disciples, and one down through the generations. And that brings us up to today.

We are connected.

Today, we do one of my absolute favorite Presbyterian things, and that is ordination and installation of elders and deacons. “Elders” is the title we give to those whom we elect into leadership. They include the pastor and members of the church. “Deacons” is the title we give to those whom we elect into ministries of care and compassion. And when we ordain folks and install them to these offices, we are living out an example of correction.

I remember the day of my ordination to ministry, which happened 14 years ago in Chicago. As I kneeled, the elders of First Presbyterian Church of Wilmette stood around me and placed their hands on my shoulders. My mother was in that elder “scrum” too. When my mother knelt for ordination at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, elders stood around her and placed hands on her shoulders. And they had once done the same.

So when we ordain and install elders and deacons today, it is as though our circle is surrounded by ever-widening circles that go further back in time, connecting us to that ragtag bunch of disciples, sitting in an Upper Room, listening to Jesus, and being promised gifts beyond imagining. And so, what we do here today is much more than just an odd little remnant of an ancient ritual. We are resting on the belief that this same power of Jesus echoes down through the ages, from touch to touch, from shoulder to shoulder, giving us the faith and ability to speak and act and pray as though Jesus is working through us!

And here’s one more Presbyterian spin on things: we are skeptical of individuals acting on their own, claiming to speak for God. We prefer to trust the wisdom of groups. When the elders meet together as a session, we discuss thoroughly. And when the group decides, even if I don’t agree with the decision (and that does happen from time to time), I am called to trust that we have done the best we can to discern God’s desires for the moment. And that should mean a great deal to us right now.

Next Sunday will be my last Sunday with you for three months. I cannot express my gratitude to you enough for this summer Sabbatical for my family and me, for the rest and refreshment it will provide us. And I also have to say that I am grateful to the Lilly Endowment for footing the bill for us as a church! I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to leaving. The truth is, I’m pretty excited. And yet, I will miss you all. I may not miss you all right away, but I will miss you. And I will look forward to returning in September so we can share stories with each other.

But the reason that I go in confidence is because of everything we have just talked about. The pastor is one of the elders in the congregation, and in influential one at that. But I am just one of the elders. There are nine other phenomenal leaders who prayerfully deliberate the direction of our congregation month in and month out.

By now, many of you have read about our Summer Minister, L’Anni Hill. If you haven’t, please pick up a copy of the newsletter in the lobby or check it out on our website. And be sure to welcome her on Sunday, June 1. She will be preaching, teaching, caring, and leading our congregation during my absence, all of which fills me with energy and excitement for Oglethorpe Presbyterian.

God is looking out for us. Of course, if you know our staff, you know that already. What can I say about our staff? Tim, who does everything in our music program, short of juggling, but I hear we might add that to his job description, too; Cheryl, who wears, at last count, 482 hats as our Office Manager and Christian Educator (on top of which she is both an ordained elder and deacon); Francisco, who I like to call “MacGyver” for his ability to use the most unusual of materials to hold our vintage building together; the unparalleled Linda Hawthorne, my tremendously gifted pastoral care partner in crime; our Preschool team, our amazing Preschool team, where I have been blessed to be both pastor and parent…

In short, I hope you hear how well supported we are as a congregation – make that, well-connected, because undergirding all of this is not just a human connection, but a godly one.

We are connected.

One more example of connection. As we bid Bethany farewell today as our Student Pastor, I am reminded of the many seminary students who have come through our doors over the years. Think of the many congregations and ministries they are now serving and the many, many people whose lives have been touched by them. They are leading congregations, teaching in seminaries, working in hospitals…Oglethorpe Presbyterian is a living, breathing example of this connectional DNA!

Because we are…connected.

Risen in Thought

God is speaking. Can you hear it?

When I was 13, I got my first walkman. For those of you too young to know what I’m talking about, it was essentially a giant ipod that could store up to one whole album at a time. The album that was on constant rotation at the time was 90125 by prog rockers Yes. I had to be careful not to turn the music up too loud, lest I miss the dulcet tones of my parents calling me. The first few times I listened to the opening song, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, there was this sound that came right before the vocals kicked in. It was a kind of a squeal. The problem was that it sounded exactly like my mother’s call, “woohoo!”

I knew the sound of my mother’s voice – probably better than any other sound in the world. But here was this random sound scrap from an 80’s rock song that imitated what I thought I knew.

What about the voice of God? Friends, God is speaking. Can you hear it?

If God is really God, then surely there are times when God’s voice splits the clouds, sets a bush on fire, brings light into being. And yet, most of the time, God’s voice comes through others. In a world of cacophony and chaos, that’s not easy to do. And there are far too many who claim that they speak in God’s name when all they really do is use God’s name. So how do we develop that capacity to tell the difference? How can we cut through the noise to know when it really is God speaking to us?

There’s an app that I have learned to love. It’s called SoundHound, and it’s a song recognition program. If a tune comes on the radio or in the restaurant that I don’t know, all I do is touch a button and, within seconds, it gives me an answer. The way it works is that it has access to a massive database of songs. It essentially takes a fingerprint of the song sample you give it, and then matches it up with its massive database. The problem comes when there is too much other noise – either the song is too quiet, or the crowd is too loud. As precise as this technology might be, it doesn’t know how to focus on what’s important.

We do have that advantage over programming, that we can filter out what is unimportant. The trick is learning what it is that is necessary and what is frivolous. In our Scripture lessons today, we have these images of the shepherd and sheep. We have the shepherd of Psalm 23, who calls the sheep by name so that they follow him faithfully into the greenest pastures and the stillest waters. In the gospel of John, Jesus uses a similar image to talk about the faithful as sheep who recognize the sound of the guard who leads them out. When they hear a stranger’s voice, he says, they will know to flee. In other words, the sheep know without a doubt whose voice they can trust.

Now: putting aside for a moment the indignity of being compared to sheep, how does this sit with us? How confident are we that we can recognize God’s voice when it calls us out to feast and be satisfied?

I love playing trivia, because I apparently don’t know how to focus on what’s important. We had a trivia team that played together regularly, and each one of us had our areas of expertise. One of mine was song recognition. I could pick out the song, artist, and year within moments almost every single time. But there was one spectacular fail I still remember. The first few notes started, a guitar distorted with a waa-waa pedal, followed by a cymbal crash. That was it. No vocals, nothing. I was stumped, so I gave it my best guess: the theme song to “Three’s Company.” The answer? Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On.” So close!

I had probably heard the song before, but not enough to recognize it. If we compare the brain to something like SoundHound, I simply didn’t have the database in place. The more often we have heard a song, the more often we are likely to recognize it. Even if it’s a song we don’t know by an artist we love, we are better suited to hear it correctly.

So how do we measure up when looking at God’s back catalog? Have we heard enough of what God has already done so that we can recognize it when God’s voice rings through again?

The goal here is competency. If we think of it like a language, whether that’s a foreign language or the insider language of a particular industry, you might eventually get to fluency; but long before that point, you’ll get to where you’re comfortable, even competent. And that’s the point here: we should be aiming for that place where we are confident, but not overconfident, in our ability to recognize God at work in our lives.

There are three phrases I want to suggest to help us filter through the noise. I am lifting these wholesale from Richard Hays, New Testament scholar at Duke University. And they are: community, cross, and new creation.

  • Community: God does not call us to gated lives, but to live in the world. We care about the fate of others. This is why we are horrified by the kidnapping of Nigerian girls. We are enriched by our interactions with others, even (and especially) if they don’t agree with us about everything. We can recognize God’s voice because it speaks to us of God’s desire for us to live connected to others, not to live in isolation. Community.
  • Cross: God’s relationship with humanity becomes most visible in the form of the cross. It was and is the embodiment of selfless love. There are those who will try to emphasize God’s judgment or wrath over God’s grace and mercy, and the cross is the clearest indicator that it is compassion and sacrificial love that reign supreme. Cross.
  • New Creation: Being in relationship with God means that we are changed. Our lives are visibly different because of our encounters with the risen Christ, transformed more and more into God’s likeness and wonder. New Creation.

These three – community, cross, and new creation – are a great way to think about how it is that we recognize God’s voice in the middle of the noisy chaos that envelops us. And the way we build our database, our vocabulary of God-speak? If you’ve been with us some this year, you know what I’m about to say: prayer.

You see, here’s the thing: what Jesus tells us in the lesson from John is something that ought to give us great courage. And that is that Jesus is not the guard in the story, but the gate. Jesus is the very thing that gives us the protection we desire. What I hope this means is that we can have the courage to take a chance, to learn this new language, to step out into this new adventure, confident in the fact that Christ will keep us safe from what it is that truly harms us.

God is already speaking, calling out to us. Can we hear it?

Risen?

Do not doubt; believe.

In the church calendar, we are a week removed from Easter. In our story from John, though, it is still Easter day. It was just that morning when Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty and tipped off the disciples. John and Peter sprinted to the garden to see for themselves. Once they leave, Jesus greets Mary by name. She then runs and tells the disciples the unbelievable word of resurrection.

We have no record of how the disciples received this news. What we do know is that they are still locked away, fearing what their fate might be. After all, the powers that be saw fit to execute Jesus. What might they do to his followers?

And that’s when Jesus just materializes. “Peace be with you.” They see his hands and side. They rejoice. And Jesus disappears into thin air.

Poor Thomas – he must’ve been out running errands or something, because he misses the whole thing. The disciples try to share with him what they just experienced. Thomas responds, “If I’m going to believe this nonsense, I need to see it for myself.”

And this is how Thomas the Twin came to be known as Doubting Thomas.

I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as unfair. So far, everyone who has encountered this news of resurrection has doubted. Mary was convinced that grave robbers were at work – that is, until she sees him face to face. John and Peter, we are told, believed but did not understand, which I take to mean that they had some kind of faith experience that took a while for their mental processes to catch up with. The rest of the disciples are hiding, even though Mary told them she met the risen Jesus. When he appears to them, he shows them his hands and his side.

Thomas, it seems to me, is more the victim of bad timing than doubt. He is not asking for any more proof of resurrection than anybody else has had the opportunity to experience. And once he sees, he believes, just like everyone else. And yet, we still know him as Doubting Thomas.

Do not doubt; believe.

How many of us are like Thomas? We want to believe in this outrageous thing called resurrection, and all we are looking for is a little proof. Is that so much to ask? Unless we see his hands and his side, we might not believe, either.

I am enough of a product of the 21st century that I am naturally skeptical of anyone who tells me that have met Jesus. At the same time, I have had enough encounters with people’s faith experiences that I know it can happen.

I was fresh out of my seminary book-learnin’ experience when I worked as a hospital chaplain in Chicago. On my rounds, I met a young woman who had gotten a dangerous infection when recovering from surgery. Knowing that she was possibly near death, she had a late night vision of Jesus, standing at the foot of her bed. And that was all she needed to know that no matter what happened, he was suffering right there with her. And I knew, no matter what my critical thinking might say to the contrary, that she was telling the truth.

Do not doubt; believe.

Is this the message we are supposed to get from this lesson, that doubting is wrong and believing is good? Sure – somewhat. That said, I think there’s something much deeper going on here. And the last few verses we read today shed some light on that. You see, the stories about Jesus that are shared are not just for the select few in that initial first or second century audience. They are meant to shore up the faith of those to come many, many years later. That includes us.

So when Jesus confronts Thomas, he already knows the pattern. Even those closest to him have trouble believing until they see. And so Jesus adds this little tweak at the end: “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who do not see and still believe.” (I think he’s talking about us!)

You see, here’s what happens to Doubting Thomas. According to tradition, Thomas headed east and ended up bringing the gospel to India. The members of the church he founded there are often referred to as “St. Thomas Christians”. They were part of the larger Eastern Orthodox Church in the early centuries, but by the 1300s, they were essentially cut off and isolated. In the 1500s, European nations began expanding their colonial reach. When they arrived in India, they were stunned to find these dark-skinned non-Europeans worshiping Jesus.

In short, this amazing legacy is what remains of Thomas’ work. Things like this don’t happen if doubt still has a stranglehold. At some point, Doubting Thomas became Believing Thomas.

Do not doubt; believe.

We tend see doubt and faith as opposites. Either you doubt, or you believe. But I’m not sure that’s a helpful approach. What would it look like if we embraced doubt as a way to serve faith?

Let’s take this ridiculous example of the cup and the cardboard. Why does it work?

Maybe I gamed the system. There’s something weird about the cup, or the cardboard has some kind of adhesive on it. We know when we see magic that there’s something else going on, something that has deceived us, if only we knew.

In this case, it’s a matter of science. I am no scientist, but as I understand it, because there is no air in the cup but just water, the water pressure pushing down on the cardboard is less than the air pressure pushing up, and that’s what keeps it in place. In other words, it’s not a trick. We just needed more information in order to understand why this works.

That, I believe, is the kind of approach we should take to faith. I don’t think it’s wrong to question, or test, or prove (a word which means “test”, by the way). In fact, I think it’s a healthy, even faithful thing to do. After all, as the saying goes, Jesus came to take away our sins, not our brains. At the same time, I think it’s important to keep the goal in mind. And that goal is faith.

Think about the cup. The purpose of asking questions is not to disprove that this weird thing happened. It did. We saw it. Instead, it’s to understand how it happened. And I think that taking this kind of approach to faith in Christ Jesus might transform both us and the church in amazing ways!

We don’t understand? That’s great! Then let’s ask! Let’s search! Let’s dig and explore! All the while, let’s trust the outcome, knowing that the purpose is not to disprove, but to improve. You see, the world we once knew doesn’t exist anymore. There was a time when a church could open its doors and expect people to show up on a Sunday morning. But that time is past. So we can’t just throw around our insider language and expect people to understand it.

“Greet the session in the narthex after the benediction.”

“Greet the who in the what now after the huh?”

We have to be translators of the gospel. And in order to do so, we have to ask those questions: of each other, of ourselves, yes, even of God! And friends, if I know Oglethorpe Presbyterian, then I think we are well-suited for this kind of work. We have always been a place that welcomes questions and examination. It’s no accident that we were birthed on a university campus 65 years ago. We have always been a community that lives with heart and head intimately connected.

Do you know how unusual that kind of church is, where doubting and questioning are par for the course? And do you know what I think? I think that means that we have an opportunity to offer the world a very different image of what church can be, a community where intellectual curiosity and compassionate service come together in a potent mix of smart faith.

We do not need to fear doubt. In fact, if faith is really as powerful as it is supposed to be, if God is really God, then they can handle doubt. They can field our questions. They can absorb our confusion, our troubles, our anger.

Friends, I trust that doubt can have a transformative purpose, that it can be a powerful means to serve our faith, to strengthen our belief, and to move us closer to understanding.

Risen?

Risen indeed!

Amen.

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