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The Lonely Visitor

A few weeks ago I had an unusual experience for a church pastor: I went to another church as a visitor. I was there by myself, because I wanted to experience its creative worship and approach. It was, in many ways, a professional visit. and yet, what I experienced gave me some unique insights into how visitors often see churches when they visit.

I arrived a few minutes late, but worship had not yet started. And yet, no one greeted me and handed me a bulletin. I grabbed my own. The pastor noticed me and made a point of welcoming me warmly.

I sat in the back, next to a small group of folks. My neighbor introduced herself and was very friendly. We then, as is the custom of worship architecture, faced forward and worshiped independently.

The passing of the peace was a ten minute “break” in the middle of worship. I shook hands and shared the peace with about a dozen folks, all of whom were friendly, and one of whom engaged me in conversation. For the next eight minutes, I stood alone. I was tempted to pull out my cellphone to pass the time, but knew that it was important to stay in the discomfort.

The pastor, who was making her way around the room, greeted me and engaged me in wonderful conversation.

At the end of worship, I was the first to leave. I shook the pastor’s hand at the door and headed out.

Let me be clear: this was not a “cold” church – not at all. The community is warm, positive, energetic, and friendly…to each other. I was not inside the community, and so, I was mostly left to my own devices. I understand why that’s the case. I get that. Before and after worship is the time for the community to say hi to their friends they don’t see all week. Because of this, though, I slipped through, largely unnoticed, alone.

Is this what visitors experience at my church? They often arrive late, sit at the back, and are the first to leave. We are a warm, welcoming community; and yet, do we get so busy loving on each other that we forget to share that love with those whom we don’t yet know, those who have come with a genuine desire for community?

I am concerned that our admirable love for one another risks becoming an obstacle to welcoming others. If the focus of our love is turned inward, we will miss those who are still outside. We do not need an overhaul; and yet, our welcome needs fine tuning so that it is more and more like the extravagant hospitality of Christ. We shouldn’t let others slip through, largely unnoticed, alone.

Preparing

We’re not perfect.

I hope I’m not the one to break the news to you, but I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. We’re not perfect. Simply acknowledging this fact is where worship can begin.

This morning, we continue our closer look at worship – its shape, its purpose, its intentions. And as we do, we linger over this moment of preparation.

Worship begins in the gathering; and as we talked about last week, the moment that we actually gather for worship is a bit of a mystery. It happens somewhere along the way so that, by the time we physically gather in the Sanctuary for the worship service, the moment of gathering in God’s presence has already happened.

From there, our worship moves into a time of preparation. Again, it’s not a cut and dried moment, but rather a shift, a second layer to this process of gathering.

You see, for Presbyterians, the fulcrum of worship is the Word. It is the high point. We elevate the Word, because we believe God is accessible in the Word. What do we mean by “Word”? Well, for one, it’s the Word as found in Scripture. And it’s more. It’s the Word that is spoken or heard in the sermon, or sung in music. It’s the Word we touch, taste, and feel in sacraments of baptism and communion. And it’s the Word Incarnate – that is, Jesus himself.

Before we get to the Word, though, we have to be ready. Prepared. And that preparation has three movements.

The first one is our honesty. If we really want to come to God, access God, hear and experience the Word of God, then we first need to be honest with ourselves, with each other, and with God. This is why our worship always contains confession toward the beginning. And boy, it can be a tough moment to face.

We have just gotten here. For those of us who have been here for a while, we have greeted familiar faces. For those who are relatively new, Oglethorpe Presbyterian prides itself on our hospitality, so I hope you have been welcomed warmly into this place and this time. There is a sense of eager anticipation as the music begins. We quiet down as the bells ring, and listen to a couple of announcements – possibly even getting excited about upcoming events in the life of the church, or in sharing good news. We rise to sing a song of praise, one that gets us going, puts a smile on our face. And then: sit down. Tell the truth. You didn’t get everything right this week, did you?

If we are taking worship seriously, this is the moment all of the air can get sucked out of the room. I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. We’re not perfect. And it’s time to own it.

Before we pray, we are reminded why: if we say we have no sin, we are not fooling anyone but ourselves. But in the act of confession, we come before God honestly and openly. That word, “sin,” is a loaded one. And it means more than the meaning we tend to give it:

  • “Sin” includes those things we should not do that we do anyway. We vent our anger at someone who had nothing to do with what made us angry in the first place.
  • It also includes those things that we should do that we don’t. We miss an opportunity for generous compassion with someone in pain and agony.
  • And over all of this, “sin” is our general state of imperfection. We are mortal. We get sick. Our bodies betray us.

Even at our absolute best, we will always miss the mark. Just as no bowler consistently rolls a 300, just as no basketball player has 100% free throw percentage, just as no singer hits the perfect pitch every time, no matter the excellence we strive for, we might make it most of the way, but we won’t get all the way there.

I want to be clear: this focus on “sin” is not meant as an exercise in flagellation or a belittling or a shame. For some, I know that this is how it can be received. But if that is the intent, then even our act of confession is missing the point. The reason, rather, is honesty. It is self-reflection. It is an effort at transparency before God and within the congregation.

Other manifestations of Christianity focus on the private act of confession: the intimate secrets told in the sanctity of a confessional booth. While we may not have a wooden box tucked away in a corner, we, too, believe there is purpose in personal confession. It happens, more often than you might think, in the pastor’s office, or with a trusted therapist. And it happens in worship.

You see, what we do during this one hour on Sunday should shape everything we do throughout the week. It is, at the very least, a touchstone, that one moment where we are reminded of what faith calls us to do. And among those things we are meant to do, being honest with others and with ourselves is central.

In the world in which we live, in the society of which we are a part, such an act of confession is counter-cultural – downright revolutionary, in fact. The public apologies we see and hear are rife with conditions: “I am sorry if my actions offended.” They become meaningless, and we who hear them become jaded.

So what would it mean if we were to offer apologies without following them with rebuttals? What would it mean to say, “I’m sorry” and not follow it with “but you have to understand…”? Isn’t it enough to be contrite, to confess? Aren’t relationships bigger than just the one moment? Can’t it bear the rest of the conversation? Where is the harm, really, in admitting a mistake? Is it because we are afraid that others will see us as weak? Is it that we are afraid that others will smell blood in the water?

It is my conviction that we have something very different to offer the world. Our vulnerability, offered without fear, speaks volumes. It may be the most important witness we can offer society. Where Christians can be seen as self-righteous and judgmental, we can be living proof that not only is there more to the picture, but that this other image is simply unfaithful.

And that is because confession does not stand alone. It is just the first act. And without the rest, then it does become a moment to beat ourselves up for what we do or don’t do. But our confession is always – always – followed by second movement: pardon.

There is mercy; forgiveness. We are reminded that this honesty about ourselves is not done in a vacuum. You see, the counterpoint to our imperfection is God’s perfection. When we get it wrong, God makes it right.

Our lesson this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews draws particular attention to the grand sweep of the whole drama. From the very beginning, God has been whole; while we, though beloved of God and created in the image of God, are broken. Think back to the many lessons of Scripture: Adam and Eve, violating God’s one request, and eating the forbidden fruit; Noah and his family, singled out among a world of corruption to continue this grand experiment; or Abraham and his offspring, selected to live in covenant with God; the Israelites, neglecting the promises over and over again; the prophets, sent again and again to remind them of God’s faithfulness.

Time and time again, our ancestors veered off the path. And we, unfortunately, have followed proudly in their wandering footsteps. And yet, this moment of Jesus brings it all back together, giving us the wholeness we so desperately need.

You see, as much as we are unable to make up for our missteps, God pulls it all together in Jesus. Our imperfect, broken vessels are filled with healing. And the light within shines out through our cracks. Jesus became, in the words of Hebrews, “like his brother and sisters in every way. This was so he could become a merciful and faithful high priest serving God, wiping away the sins of the people through sacrifice.”

As we say, week in and week out, in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! This is what gives us the strength to rise, to sing praise to God, to prepare ourselves, truly, to hear and sense and experience and then live the Word of God. And that’s just what is meant to happen in worship. For the rest of the week, and for the rest of our lives, we are meant to carry this joy, this knowledge, this wisdom with us. And when we do, when we recognize that we ourselves are forgiven, then we might just have the strength and ability to forgive others.

We are honest. We are forgiven. And then, we are on the move.

My favorite moment in worship here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian is the passing of the peace. As one of our former student pastors once said, “It is the moment in worship when we are most ourselves.” Amen! One of you commented to me that passing the peace in many congregations is a formal, mechanical turn of 360 degrees, where you shake the hands of those next to, in front of, and behind you. For us, by contrast, it is the opening of the flood gates, the beginning of a moment of holy, almost unbridled chaos. We get up and out of our seats. We are on the move.

When you are visiting with us, I know it can be disorienting. You might be expecting a brief delay in the important business of worship. In truth, though, passing the peace is, in itself, an important part of our worship. It really is who we are, that holy image of God within. We are, at our best, a people who genuinely love and care not only for one another, but for all our brothers and sisters who bear God’s sacred imprint.

And whether we recognize it or not, it flows right out of that act of confession, of honesty and transparency. From where I stand, it is as though mercy enters our honest imperfection, and in so doing, fills us to overflowing. And this causes us to spill out of the pews, into the aisles, filling the air with greetings, laughter, and joy.

And so, in our honesty, in receiving forgiveness, and in passing that forgiveness along, we are prepared to hear the Word of God. We receive it. We rest in it. We are troubled and blessed by it. And as worship comes to a close, the hope is that we are carried by it, spilling out into the streets of God’s beloved, broken world.

May that be what we do this day and every day.

Amen.

Gathering

horse-race-2“Worship begins as the people gather.”

This is what our constitution, as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), says about worship: worship begins as the people gather. This morning, we pick up on our worship series on worship. Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at the rhythms and movements of worship; why our worship tends to be in a certain order; the purpose of it. And so, this seems a fitting place to pick up: where and when worship begins.

It would be logical to consider that worship starts with some kind of formal piece of liturgy. Until it has been announced that we are worshiping, it feels more like social interaction. Worship should be formal. Quiet. Respectful. So perhaps it’s the call to worship…or the first hymn…or, at the very least, please say it’s after the announcements are over! Right?

Nope. Worship begins as the people gather.

OK – so, when we gather in the Sanctuary, right? This is the official worship room, after all. What we do in the Narthex doesn’t count, does it? Or in the lobby, or the hallways?

Worship begins as the people gather.

There’s an odd kind of segmentation that has crept into our life of faith over time. Even if we don’t acknowledge it, we tend to believe that there are times and places where we ought to behave a certain, more worshipful, way; if we believe this, though, then we must also believe that there are times and places where God is “off duty” – or, at the very least, not as present and aware as at other times. But if we take this notion to heart, that worship begins as the people gather, then these divisions start to fade away. Worship becomes, as it should, a seamless whole.

Think about where our faith comes from historically. If we begin with the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, faith in the God of the Israelites gained a crucial geographic focus. There was a place that was holier than holy. Priests had to go through particular cleansing rituals; sacrifices were carried out here, and only here. No wonder we developed the sense of a special place where heaven and earth meet.

And yet, there was much more to it than that. Synagogues dotted the land – places where people gathered for reading, reflection, and prayer. It was not the Temple; but it was still a place – at times, very far away from Jerusalem – where people would gather around their shared devotion to God.

This was the situation that greeted Jesus. He had made the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, and his parents had provided for a sacrifice of thanksgiving because of his birth. He grew up a child of the synagogue, hearing – and eventually proclaiming – God’s word through the Law and the Prophets. And as our Scripture lesson this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, Jesus came in the echoes of all these who spoke in the name of God, but has now surpassed them all in power and word.

You see, at the risk of understatement, with Jesus, everything changed! The intersection of heaven and earth was now found within him. In Jesus, Creator and creation were knit together in new and wondrous ways. In Christ, grace trumped sin. Life defeated death. And the unbridgeable gulf between God and us was overcome!

And the moment this all happened is the moment that transformed all we know about what and where is holy. The author of the universe, of all that is and ever will be, became like one of us – knowing our pains and suffering, our joys and wonders – and in the process blessed what is material, made, known, so that it – and we – might be a blessing in return. It’s just as we pray each and every week, for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” There is, in Jesus, the possibility that our world would become more and more the way God desires it to be.

Do we really need to be reminded that the world is not yet there? We are a year on from Ferguson, Missouri, and issues of race and division and prejudice and life and death are every bit as pressing as they were twelve months ago. Presidential campaign season is just getting warmed up, but our press has already failed to remember what is important. They don’t tell us where candidates stand on issues. They don’t tell us what solutions they are offering to our racial, environmental, military, economic sickness. Instead, our airwaves are filled obscenely with who is leading in polls or what a particular candidate did or didn’t say. None of this matters. And a year from now, when the weight of it all begins to come into focus, the fourth estate will still be more concerned about the horse race rather than how we might strive for those angels of our better natures.

Friends, before we are anything else – before we are divided racially or politically or ethnically or nationally – we are made in the image of God. And before any of these other identities come into play, strongly though they might, we are the body of Christ! This is our tribe. What makes this tribe unique is that it does not exist for its own sake. Instead, it exists for the sake of everything and everyone beyond our tribe.

If we learn nothing else from the example of Jesus, let it be this: the love we know at the core of our being is one that we treasure, but one we hold lightly and let go so that others may know that they, too, are loved. We do not hoard; we share. We do not believe in scarcity; we believe in abundance. We do not live out of fear; we live out of hope and generosity and holy, creative, imagination.

This is why we gather for worship. In the speed of days, when left to our own devices or caught up in the press of the world, we forget. We forget! Just as our bodies need sleep so that they can return to activity, so our souls need to rest in the presence of God so that we can return to faithful living in this world that so desperately needs fearless, generous people.

If we don’t, then we risk being used up and useless. We become cynical. We retreat into the shells of self-imposed solitude and our camps where everyone already agrees with us. What could be righteous indignation at persistent injustice becomes, instead, self-righteous certainty.

We gather for worship because, in our heart of hearts, we know better. We know that there is more to life than running on fumes and running out of time. We know, deep down, that we have been created for more – far more – than we would ever be able to imagine on our own. And it is this knowledge that brings us here, in this holy moment, in this holy space, on this holy day, because we trust that God will be the still, small voice that calls us beyond our own limited sight and into God’s holy vision.

Worship is not, ultimately, about what the preacher does or doesn’t say. It is not, ultimately, about what the choir does or doesn’t sing. It is not, ultimately, about the things we do or do not pray for. All of these things, at their best, are vehicles. They are channels that open up the possibility that God might, yet again, bridge that unbridgeable gap between heaven and earth so that we might hear and sense and know beyond knowing what it is that God desires of us, who it is that God has created us to be.

When we gather for worship, we do so as a moment to reflect this holy imagination of what we can be and do. And it begins, paradoxically, not at a specific holy time or moment, but seamlessly and almost unnoticed. Worship begins somewhere on the drive over, or in the parking lot. It starts in our Sunday School rooms, or in the hallways. It gets going in the Narthex, as we greet one another, as we take our seats.

Somewhere along the way, worship begins. And our gathering continues as the music draws our attention into this room, and as the three chimes focus us forward. It continues in announcements, as we lift up news and information, events and ministries in the life we share in this community of faith. And as we move into calls to worship spoken and sung and hymns of praise, we have somehow become, by the design of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the community of faith, the body of Christ, gathered here, in this place, for worship.

There is more to worship than this – much more, of course. And that is a topic for another day. For now, as God’s people, gathered in this place now made holy, in this moment now made holy, on this day now made holy, continue our worship.

Amen.

Praise

IMG_8506God’s love is as strong as death, Christ’s passion as fierce as the grave.

There are several books included in Scripture that are noticeably different. The book of Esther is one – it is part of the Hebrew Bible often referred to as history, of a young Jewish woman growing up in Persia, with a destiny to save her people. There is, however, in the book of Esther, not a single reference to God.

The Song of Solomon is another one. It is credited to King Solomon, but was probably written centuries after his death. The more traditional name, Song of Songs, is a little more accurate, therefore. In the book, the author mentions God, but never by the Israelite name Yahweh – another uniqueness. In style and in form, it is a love letter between a man and a woman more than anything else. There is passion, love, intimacy, desire – some steamy stuff, in other words. The particular excerpts we read this morning are often included at weddings, and that makes some sense. But why in the world would it be in the Bible?

While that question hangs in the air, we are beginning a worship series this morning on…worship. And over the next few months, we will be looking at the particular form and style of Presbyterian-flavored worship – why we do things in the order we do them in, what the purpose and hope is for worship, how it can shape the rest of our life. In a day and time when worship attendance is on the dramatic decline, we will also look at a more pointed question: why bother?

I’m tempted to just stop there, with these two questions dangling over us – just leave them there, drop the mic, and walk away. After all, there is faithful purpose in tension, in discomfort, in the mystery and even the frustration of unanswered questions. In some ways, I would love to attach these two questions to the ceiling today – namely, why do we consider Song of Songs Scripture and why bother with worship – and then run a string between them, on which we could hang all of our great unanswered questions. Then I remember that we have just recently replaced the roof, and I’m not sure it would be able to withstand all the weight of what we do not know.

So instead, here’s what I’d like us to do. I’m passing around a stack of post-it notes – invented by a Presbyterian, by the way. Take one or more, and pass them along. In the pew pocket in front of you, you’ll find pens and pencils. And during the offering, I want to invite us to write down our great, global unanswered questions. When we leave worship today, I invite you take your own questions of faith and stick them to the baptismal font as you leave. My hope is that they will form for us a kind of collective desire for knowledge, a yearning for God, that connects with the baptismal hope of being born anew, cleansed and renewed.

In some ways, that right there is the purpose of worship. It is a place, a space into which we bring these grand mysteries – the questions that seem to defy answer. And it’s not that they always wrap up nice and neat, tied with a bow. Sometimes, I’m sure, they are meant to be messy. But that may be the very thing that drives us toward God and knowledge of God day in and day out, week in and week out: our search for a deeper purpose, our desire for wisdom.

Our desire for wisdom…could that be the connective thread that hangs onto our Scripture lesson? Song of Songs is about desire. One of the reasons it was included in the Hebrew Bible was an allegorical interpretation that arose early on, that the poetry of love between two people was meant as a metaphor for God’s love for God’s people, and vice versa. In other words, it was intended as an elegant and intimate description of covenant. God pursued the people with deep desire – and the people, in turn, sought God with driving passion.

When the early Christian community embraced the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament, a similar interpretation arose. The love of God for God’s people became Christ’s love for the Church, the Christian community. Christian mystics like Teresa of Avila expanded on this understanding, giving added meaning and passion to the relationship. Christ’s willing, self-sacrificial love was for the sake of the Church; and so, the Church’s covenant with Christ should have that same kind of desire, hope, attraction.

It may be difficult for us to connect with that kind of understanding of Song of Songs, especially with the more Victorian and Puritanical cultural strands that have run through our heritage in recent centuries. And yet, if we can get past those, if we can put our somewhat prudish thoughts aside, even for just a moment, we might be able to get at what it means to be in relationship with the God we know in Christ.

There are three different Greek words in the New Testament that are translated as “worship”. And, not surprisingly, none of them have the meaning “to sit in pews and look at the same wall.” Instead, they each have their own nuance that teaches us something about what it is that worship should strive to be.

The most common one, occurring about sixty times, literally means to prostrate oneself. Think of Muslims at prayer, kneeling, foreheads touching the ground in front of them. Worship is an act of love and devotion toward God.

The second most common word, appearing about twenty times, means “to serve”. This parallels with the Hebrew word for worship, which is the same root as the word “servant”. Everything we do as people of faith is a response to what God has done for us; and so we seek to live for God.

And the third word, appearing about ten times, means “to show reverence and awe.” Our relationship with God is not a partnership of equals; instead, we should be struck to the ground by our gratitude to the driving force of all of creation! That’s why we baptize children, even before they are old enough to grasp any of the meaning – because we know that God was at work in our lives long before we had any clue that this was at work! It’s why we don’t have membership dues or charge entrance fees or ask for tax returns, because our generosity in giving should flow in recognition of God’s generosity toward us.

And when we gather for worship, here, on a Sunday morning, at 11am, it is not because there is something necessarily sacred about the day, the time, the room in which we gather. Yes: there is historical reason for Sundays being the Christian Sabbath, the first day of new creation, the day of resurrection. And yes, history also points back to the Temple and the synagogue as special places for Sanctuary, for worship. And yes, it is true that Moses descended from Mt. Sinai at precisely 11am.

That last part isn’t true. But let’s get real for a second: is there a day that doesn’t belong to God? Is there a physical location that can keep God at bay? Is there a time of day where Christ can’t be at work? We set aside this time on this day in this space because we know that if we don’t do it, we will get so busy with the distractions of the world that we may never set our hearts and minds on God at all.

The purpose of worship is love. The goal of worship is intimacy with God in Christ. It may come in prayer, in song, in word, in deed, in fellowship and community, in service and generosity. And if we can do that here, then we might just be able to do it elsewhere, so that our whole lives become ones of worship.

My friend, the author Cathy Townley, writes that “a worship lifestyle is our relationship with God and our way through life.” In other words, worship may begin – or end – here. It may find some kind of familiarity or authentic discomfort here. It may find an anchor or disruption here. But if it is worship, true worship, then it cannot be contained here. If it is, then it ceases to be worship and becomes idolatry, confusing the act of worship with the object of worship.

And that’s the tension that I hope bears out in our time together in the next few months, in a worship series about worship. If all it does it point back to itself, then it really is idolatry, because we have confused the practice of worship with the God whom we are meant to worship. Instead, my hope is that our time in worship would reflect on it in such a way that worship becomes not just a rote activity taking place one hour a week (on a good week), but instead a critical practice that gives meaning and hope to the fullest extent of our lives, moving us from a worship service to a worship lifestyle.

When we do that, then all of these questions that trouble us or nag at us or tie us in knots will cease to be barricades we construct between us in God, keeping us at arm’s length. Instead, they will become part of the bridge, the pull, the drive, the desire, the very thing that encourages our thirst and hunger and pursuit for the knowledge and wisdom of God.

After all, God’s love is as strong as death; Christ’s passion is as fierce as the grave.

Amen.

11027509_414321162086188_971865246565815442_nToday is the kind of day that would have annoyed Frances: all of these people making a fuss over her. Even so, it is important that we do it. It is important because as we celebrate Frances’ life and all she has meant to us, we also grieve, because we miss what we love. And so, beyond what we do today in this service, I encourage you to tell your own stories of Frances, and to do so again and again, even if you know it would have driven her nuts, because one of the ways that we encourage others in the legacies we have inherited is to pass them along.

I can only speak of my own experiences. I was Frances’ cousin: to be precise, I was her first cousin, once removed. I grew up in the house next door to her parents Foster and Frances, whom we knew as Uncle Wig and Mama Spain. I also remember that Fran lived in the apartment above the garage in back, and that you would babysit my sister and me from time to time. I also remember when Claire and Hal and families would come to town to visit Mama Spain – mostly, though, I remember all of the hair!

These are some of the fuzzy memories of childhood that linger for me. And like many of us, I have only been able to make sense of those old pictures with the benefit of time and hindsight as they come into some clearer focus; and today, they help me to paint a portrait of Frances.

I knew I was related to all of these folks that passed in and out of the house next door. But I have this feeling that it took me a while to figure out that Frances was part of this matrix, too. You see, for the kids at First Presbyterian in the 1970s, she was a bit of a celebrity. She sang in the choir, so we saw her every Sunday in worship. On top of that, I remember spending a lot of time in the Library, where there was this aura around the Librarian. She seemed to know all of us by name. When it finally dawned on me that I was related to this famous lady, I’m sure my chest puffed out a little bit with pride.

As the years went by, I was fortunate to spend more and more time with her. In college and beyond, I would always make a point of visiting with Frances and Tom at their home on Battle Overlook whenever I came back to town. It was a family visit, certainly, among several when I came home. And while visiting my grandparents was enjoyable, there was always this sense of requirement about it. Visiting Frances and Tom, on the other hand, was refreshing, something I did of my own accord.

For me, Frances had a kind of spark that always felt so inviting. In her presence, I always felt like the most important person in the world. I remember once when I had returned from traveling around Europe. Frances asked me how it was. “Great,” I said. “I don’t want to hear what you tell everyone else,” she told me. “I want to really hear about it. I want you to come over and show me your pictures. In fact, I want you to show me all of your pictures, including the ones you won’t include in the photo album.”

Part of her interest in others, I think, was her sense that life experience could be trusted – for what it could bring and teach, for how it could shape in both its ups and downs. That’s why, I think, she was able to drop you off, Hal, for your cross-country hitchhike. And it’s why she was willing to camp out at the Farm with you and your family, Claire, to help care for the new grandbabies.

And unless anybody was unclear on this point, Frances was not a pushover. She could be uncomfortably honest. My mother tells the story of a spiritual retreat she attended with Frances and others. The mood was somber, appropriate for meditation. The room was dark, lit by candlelight. Everyone had readings to share, and struggled through them, unable to see. Finally, Frances said, “Oh, to heck with it,” stood up, and turned the light on so everyone could read.

It’s a funny story, and one that illustrates that forthrightness that was such a part of her character. And, in an odd way, it strikes me as the perfect image for what we do here today. I stand up here not just as Frances’ first cousin once removed, and not just as an ordained pastor, but as her brother in Christ. And in that, I find not only hope in Christ in the promise of resurrection. I also find meaning in Frances’ life that speaks to me of faith, of eternity, of what it is that holds us all together.

We seek light – the light of wisdom, the light to see clearly – and we seek that light not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world, so that all can see, and see clearly.

I know first hand, and I have heard echoed in the stories you have shared, that Frances was always more interested in people than in things. She cared about you. She cared about you. She made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. She really wanted to know what you were up to: what made you tick, what interested you. She wanted to know what experiences life had brought you and how it had made you the person you are. And, when she saw fit, she told you the truth – even if it wasn’t the polite, genteel, Southern thing to do.

In all of this, I am convinced that Frances reflected the light of God – the same God who created her, who loved her, who redeemed her, and who now makes her perfectly whole in God’s holiest presence. That’s what our two Scripture readings point to so clearly: the Psalmist sings God’s praises, grateful that God knows us completely. There is nowhere we can go that God will not pursue us. And there is no darkness, no matter how meditative, that can outpace the light of God.

Jesus reflects on that same abundant, divine presence, reminding us of the thing that we so often forget and need to hear again and again and again: do not worry. Do not worry! We are God’s beloved. Why would we ever have cause to sweat the small stuff? The message, quite simply, is this: God cares about us. God cares about you – what you are up to, what makes you tick, what interests you. God knows that the experiences of life, whether pleasant or painful, have the potential to be lessons of faith for us, shedding light on the God who is at the heart of it all. And God, especially in Christ, may bring us face to face with the truth – even if it isn’t the proper, genteel, polite thing to do.

That, to me, is the gift of this day. In the stories we share of Frances, we not only remember ninety-one full years of life and love; we can come face to face with the heart of God, seeing God’s grace, mercy, and care shining through so that we might all see a little bit more clearly.

Friends, God loves Frances even, and especially now. And God loves us even, and especially, now.

The First Supper

As long as I can remember, I have been a fan of the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. It was originally penned by Pete Seeger, taking the words from the book of Ecclesiastes. The Byrds made it famous, with Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string Rickenbacker guitar cementing it in public conscience.

As a teenager, I was part of a youth mission trip to inner-city Denver. We were working on a church there and providing programming for some of the children of the neighborhood, who were among the poorest of the poor. Every day we had a brief chapel service, and one day it was my turn to lead. I chose this text. I planned to teach it to the children, and then we would sing it together. And as I read it and asked them to reflect what they heard, it hit me: here I was, a well-off white kid from Atlanta, telling poor Hispanic kids in Colorado that hardships and good times were all just a part of life. I might as well have told them to just “suck it up”, because that’s just the way life is. I was horrified…and so, quickly, we brought the reflection to a close and started to sing: “To everything…”

It is only when you strip the song of its beautiful melody that you see the blunt lyrics that they hide: there is a time for everything. A time to destroy, a time to build; a time for war, a time for peace; a time for love, a time for love; a time for birth, a time for death…not exactly your typical pop song fare.

In many ways, it is an unflinching look at life on Earth with its ups and downs, such as they are. And it becomes so much more when we look at it in its context in the book of Ecclesiastes. Because the author is identified as a son of David, many associate it with Solomon; it is, though, ultimately an anonymous collection of wisdom sayings by someone who has seen it all and as declared that it is all pointless. There’s nothing new under the sun. There is nothing to be gained by work, except to eat and drink and enjoy.

So…happy Sunday?

This is a tough reading. I think that is especially so in our culture, where we expect all of our stories to end with “happily ever after” and have somehow absorbed that real life should be that way, too. For me, what this highlights is the fact that our cultural identities and our faith identities exist in a tension that we tend to ignore.

We love that our central story is resurrection – but forget that it is also crucifixion. We relish the community of standing around a table and sharing in prayers, in bread, in cup – but tend to hurry past the words Jesus spoke, of a body broken and blood poured out. We act surprised every time we hear about violence and injustice at work in the world – but ignore that our own Savior was betrayed by one of his closest friends and put to death by a brutal regime. In many ways, the up and down rhythms of Ecclesiastes get it right. It’s not all up…it’s not all down…it…just…is.

What are we supposed to do with this?

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this text. I know that sin is pervasive: whether in individual unrighteousness or societal injustice, we are far from perfect. And yet, I rely on the conviction that hope has the final word, that God has not given up on us. After all, isn’t that the whole point of our shared story?

Whenever we gather around this table, we remind ourselves of this sweep of salvation. God created the world, called it good, and formed us in God’s own image. We messed up; but God forgives. In fact, God called forth a people to give them a place and covenant of promise. They veered off course; but God is merciful. God sent prophets to remind them of the true way. They strayed time and time again; but God is gracious. God sent his son, Jesus, as holiness personified. In his life and ministry, he showed what it means to live as God desires. And on the night he was betrayed, he gathered around the table with his disciples and established this feast we now share.

We call it the Last Supper. My mother-in-law loves to point out that we should refer to it as the First Supper. After all, the Church has been gathering together now for centuries in the echoes of that ancient meal, remembering the whole sweep of our story – or rather, of God’s story – and resting in God’s hope for us.

And then we look back to the Old Testament, to the Hebrew Bible, to this book of Ecclesiastes, and we wonder: is any of this worth it?

Part of the challenge, I believe, comes from the fact that there ain’t a whole lot of Jesus in Ecclesiastes. Part of that is historical, of course; it was written at least 300 years before the birth of Christ. For me, that’s – at best – a partial answer. After all, the gift of Scripture is its enduring meaning: what it teaches us about ourselves, what it teaches us about God, and what it teaches us about what it is that God desires for us. As much as I might want to, I won’t pick and choose which texts I like and which ones I don’t. Instead, I do my best to read them all through the lens and focus of the cross and its love, inclusion, and redemption, regardless of which Testament they happen to be in.

So it goes for the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. The title of the book comes from the Greek, and is a rendering of the job ascribed to the author: namely, “Teacher”, or rather, the one who speaks to the gathered congregation. In that way, it is meant to be like the wisdom of a sermon, a reflection on who we are and who God is. And that, ultimately, is the point of what the author is trying to convey. Life, they write, is fleeting. Ephemeral. Short-lived. This is not a call to strip life of all meaning. It does not mean we are supposed to live in sackcloth and ashes; nor does it mean we ought to hoard and party like there’s no tomorrow. Instead, it is a call to humility. It puts everything we do in context – no matter how much or how little we might think of ourselves, it is what God thinks of us that matters.

The great Reformer Martin Luther wrote of the book this way, saying that it condemns us because we want to “accumulate riches, honors, glory, and fame, as though we were going to live here forever; and meanwhile we become bored with the things that are present and continually yearn for other things, and still others.”

To put it rather bluntly: we are going to die. And yet, paradoxically, this should not lead to hopelessness, but rather delight because of all we receive from God. That is our hope – that God’s eternity cares for our mortality. We do not experience good because God loves us more than others; nor do we experience evil because God despises us. Instead, we receive life as it comes and are given the opportunity to do something with it, to recognize that God can transform it all for the sake of God’s desires.

All of this reminds me of the story of Shaka Senghor. Growing up in inner-city Detroit, Senghor was an honor roll student who wanted to be a doctor. Turmoil in his family led him to places that young men should not go. At 17, he was shot three times. Coming home from the hospital, the trauma left him paranoid and hyper-violent. Just over a year later, he committed murder and was in prison. Not surprisingly, he became even more bitter and angry. The warden called him “the worst of the worst.” He spent seven and a half years in solitary confinement.

Then one day, he received a letter from his young son. It read, “My mama told me why you’re in prison: Murder. Dad, don’t kill. Jesus watches what you do. Pray to him.” The message jolted him, and he began to change.

After 20 years, Senghor was released; and since then, he has tried to model the possibility of transformation while he works to change the system that once held him – a system, he says, which is designed “to be a warehouse, rather than the rehabilitate or to transform.”

In the end, Senghor hopes his life can stand as an example, a hope, that “anyone can have a transformation if we give them the space. Misdeeds should not define you for the rest of your life.”

To me, there is no better definition of grace: that your misdeeds should not define you for the rest of your life. And that is the hope of this table. Life is fleeting – yes. It will not last. And in this, there is cause for both grief and celebration.

When we come to this table, we bring our shared life experiences, both good and bad. No matter how fortunate we might be in the grand scheme of things, each one of us has experienced heartbreak, loss, disappointment. The point, though, is not to despair; nor is it to lord it over others. Instead, we ought to recognize our brokenness in the broken bread. We ought to see our failings in the cup poured out. And in them, we can be redeemed, saved, healed.

Our misdeeds do not define us – only God can do that. The bread and cup we share are reminders of mortality, that we need food and drink to survive, to keep our bodies alive and well. And even though our time around this table is fleeting, it can and will transform us into the people that God desires us to be: fed and strengthened to seek out and love all those whom Christ loves.

The Last Supper

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.” – The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This morning, we gather around the table yet again for this feast. Since the beginning of June, we have done so each week – and we will do so again next Sunday, in our chapel next door, as our summer worship series draws to a close. And as we do, we consider these words of Dr. King’s, about trusting in the path of God’s journey, even when we are unsure of the destination.

It’s hard to do so at times, in the wake of news cycles that draw our tribal divisions more starkly than they tend to exist in reality. Shootings in Chattanooga; Klan rallies in South Carolina; political campaigns ramping up, wars raging, environmental catastrophes looming…there are days when it feels like it’s hard to put one foot in front of the other.

Those are the days we would do well to listen to Dr. King, who faced brutal injustices and inhuman divisions, embodying the hope he knew in Christ, and passing on that hope in elegant rhetoric and action that continues to speak movingly to us today.

Dr. King was, before anything else, a Christian. He was taught at the foot of the pulpit. He was encouraged and challenged in the Sunday School classroom. And he was nourished at the table, the one that owes its origins to Jesus, to that ancient feast.

That meal took place the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. It was the last time he would gather with his disciples before his death. And so, as he broke bread and shared cup with them, this Last Supper was one final chance to be with them. It would be one last opportunity to encourage these faithful friends to continue what they had begun – and to do so, now, without him.

At least, we can see that now with the benefit of hindsight. We can see in their confusion that night that the disciples still had no clue what was in store. At this point, some of them were probably still convinced that they were on the verge of launching their armed rebellion against a corrupt, foreign regime.

Jesus, on the other hand, knew betrayal awaited him later that night. Beyond that lay torture, death, and burial. On the other side of the agony, resurrection awaited – and yet, for now, as he spoke of a broken body and spilled blood, it was crucifixion that loomed on the horizon. The best he could hope for was to point them in the right direction, to let them know that there was, indeed, a staircase; all they had to do was to take the first step, and to trust the rest to God’s holy wisdom.

It is that wisdom which our Proverbs’ lesson speaks of this morning. The book of Proverbs is full of wisdom sayings attributed to King Solomon. And the idea at the heart of it all is that there is this divine wisdom existing since the beginning of time. This wisdom was there creating alongside God: folding mountains, spewing oceans, leveling plains, carefully molding creation out of nothing.

The puzzling question is this: What is this wisdom? Is it another, but lesser, deity? Was it some form of God’s chief of staff? Was it nothing more than a poetic description of God’s own knowledge and skill? Or do we have an early glimpse of the later Christian theological concept of the Trinity?

We may never know what it was that Solomon had in mind. And yet, as we dig a little deeper, we find this odd little note about the Hebrew word for wisdom. For the most part, its meaning is straightforward. It means wisdom, skill, knowledge. And it also means, “becoming” – that is, I think, in the sense that we are never fully there. It points to us always being on the journey of wisdom and of faith.

You may have heard me speak of my grandmother on my father’s side before. She was a remarkable woman, who took a year of courses at Yale Divinity School back in the 1920’s. Female students were derisively referred to as “Spinster Ministers”, and one professor asked her and the other women in one class to sit in the balcony so that they wouldn’t be a distraction to the men. She later taught the large Sunday School class at First Presbyterian Church here in Atlanta alongside my grandfather – well, actually, he was there to provide gender cover, since women wouldn’t be allowed such a place of prominence at the time.

When I went to seminary, it was all she wanted to talk about in our visits together. In some ways, it felt like she was living vicariously through me. She had a very specific assignment for me, though: “I want you to find out where I can learn Aramaic.” She was in her mid-90’s at the time, and to say that she was obsessed with this idea would be an understatement. Whenever I saw her, it was all she would talk about. Why? “Because it’s the language that Jesus spoke. And when I get to heaven, I want to be able to talk to him.” I told her that, by now, Jesus probably knew enough English to get by, but there was no dissuading her.

To be wise is to recognize that you’re never fully there. Instead, it is a becoming, a never-ending process of discovery and growth. It is understanding that life is meant to be filled with learning. And it is knowing that all you can do is to take that first step, and then the next, one step at a time, trusting that the staircase is there somewhere, even when you can’t see it.

This is what was at stake for the disciples, gathered for that Last Supper, there in Jerusalem – though they didn’t know it yet. That same pre-existing wisdom, the one Solomon of which wrote so poetically, was the same wisdom Jesus was handing on to them. It was holy wisdom that would give them the opportunity to become more and more the people it was that God had created them to be. It was that same Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised, who would be there to guide them. All they needed to do was ask, to take that first step in faith.

We know that they first stumbled blindly in the dark. If the next few days were a test, the disciples failed it miserably. Fearing for their own lives, they denied him and separated from him. They hid in terror, afraid of meeting the same fate. They forgot all they had been through: the miracles, the courage, the wisdom he had given them and those who gathered in crowds, seeking this man named Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to be too hard on the disciples. I would like to think that I would fare better than they did, which takes incredible doses of hubris on my part. They had the benefit of knowing Jesus first-hand. They were witnesses to the blind seeing, the lame walking, and they still gave into fear. If I am honest with myself, the truth is that I would buckle under the pressure, and fast.

That, to me, is the gift of the disciples. To put it mildly, in those first few days when their faith was tested, they blew it. In the wake of Jesus’ arrest and trial, the disciples failed spectacularly. If there was an opportunity to bear witness to the faith Jesus had entrusted to them, they were sure to miss it, and miss it boldly. And yet, as surely as morning follows night, life came out of death. Resurrection came out of crucifixion. And out of their impressive display of ineptitude came…forgiveness. Peace. Courage. Leadership. Martyrdom. These utter disappointments were transformed into builders of the body of Christ. The wisdom sank in. They healed and taught and spread the gospel, opening themselves and the world in which they lived to new possibilities, giving it the potential to become the world God had created it to be!

This morning, as I read news reports of the violence this week in Chattanooga, I came across the story of an interfaith gathering at Olivet Baptist Church. The final speaker was Dr. Mohsin Ali, representing the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga. He asked the Muslims in attendance to stand – they made up nearly half of those in attendance. And as they stood, he shared that though it was the final day of Ramadan, the day that the fast is broken in celebration. Instead of doing so, they chose to be at a Baptist Church, to be signs of peace and healing and hope.

Among the many lessons to be drawn from that moment, the one that stands out to me is simply this: there is always hope. In other words, the Last Supper wasn’t really the Last supper (spoiler alert). Instead, it set the model for all that was to follow! It was the moment where Jesus passed the baton to the disciples, so that they would know to pass it on to those who followed them, and so on down the line. And as we receive it, we would know that it is not ours to keep, but to share it down the line, one step of faith at a time, trusting the journey in the hands of wisdom that continually calls us toward who it is we have been molded to be.

So, what about us? How is it that we, as a community, make sure that we don’t become complacent, so sure that we have already become what God desires? How do we keep from allowing personal comfort to be our guide, or letting fear float us into stagnant waters? How is it that we continue to make room for those who are not yet here?

Or what about you? When you think back about the steps you have climbed thus far, who was it that gave you the wisdom to do so? And now that you are on the way, what are you doing to nurture that gift? What are you doing to share it? What are you doing to cultivate this inherited wisdom, so that you might be fearless in your faith, in your witness, in your generosity, in your living?

Or are you just looking to take that first step? Maybe there’s a new journey that awaits you: a new relationship, a new phase of life? Or maybe it’s just the end of an old one, without anything clear waiting on the horizon? Perhaps it’s nothing more than a simple restlessness, a wisdom hinting that is letting you know it’s time to move on, to stretch, to do something else, even if that something is fuzzy, at best.

Whatever the case, whether for us as a congregation, for you as Christ’s disciple, for you as someone who simply senses that there is more to life than meets the eye, then the first step, I believe, is to come to this table today.

This is not the same table where Jesus gathered with his disciples. This is not the same kind of bread. There was no unfermented juice there. They did not stand, or even sit at the table. And yet, none of that matters today, because our point is not to be historic re-enacters. Instead, we trust that this feast is yet another step toward becoming who it is that God has crafted us to be. And through the holiest of wisdoms, through the power and mystery of the Spirit, we are intimately connected to that ancient feast, to Christ himself, who is here with us, as we share bread and cup, signs of blood spilled and a body broken.

Today, as we take steps toward this table, we are fed and nourished so that we might move out from this table, continuing out into the world, stepping out with the wisdom and faith we have and in which we are called to grow and become.

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