Expecting Reward

10-20-00 (M Olives 2)Heaven is not a meritocracy.

There is a reason that Jesus’ preferred teaching method is the parable. He is describing something – the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven – that defies description. How do you paint a picture of something that no one has ever seen? Jesus starts with scenes his audience would be familiar with: the pastoral images of shepherds and vineyards, the patterns and customs of the small village. The stories are often allegories, where each character is a stand-in for someone or something else. And though it begins with the familiar, there is always, always a twist, a subversion of what is expected.

Our parable this morning is a perfect example. It begins with a vineyard in need of work. If it helps to picture things into our context, imagine a landscaper pulling up to Home Depot on Windy Hill. Those who successfully scramble to get on the truck first agree to the usual daily wage. The boss apparently sees the need for more workers, because he goes back every three hours, promising to pay these new workers “whatever is right”. His last trip takes him through the parking lot with just an hour left of work; and yet, he still picks up more workers. We can all imagine who would be left at the end of the day: the weak, the aged, those who slept late…in other words, those who are not fit to work.

So far, so good. Jesus has set up the expectation that those who worked the full twelve hours will be paid more than those who worked a mere hour. And then comes the twist: the landscaper decides to pay each worker the same amount. Whether they worked twelve hours, nine hours, six hours, three hours, or one hour, they are all paid the same. And the result is a very polite labor riot.

How we react to the story depends on who we see ourselves being in the story. If we’re the full-day workers, we hate it. If we spent the whole day hanging around the parking lot, then we love it. And that makes us pretty similar to the original audience.

For that first century community listening in on Jesus’ story, the allegory is a little more pointed. The landowner is God. And the workers represent the faithful. The challenge is that those who show up first are the Pharisees, those self-righteous keepers and defenders of the orthodoxy of faith and practice. They’ve been at this faith thing long before the latecomers even bothered to try and show up and Jesus’ table: tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, Gentiles. And yet, they, too, are ushered into the kingdom.

Can you hear how radical, how subversive, how dangerous Jesus’ message is? Can we begin to understand why he was seen as such a threat to the religious (and political) status quo of his day, and why crucifixion started becoming a viable option for those who had so much at stake in the way things were? After all, not only does he try to level the religious playing field; he even flaunts it, healing on the Sabbath and forgiving sins. This is not a man to be handled gently, lest his followers get the wrong idea.

At the very root of it all is Jesus’ clear condemnation of the idea that heaven is some kind of meritocracy – that those who are most worthy, those who work the hardest, who scramble to get in the truck first will be the ones who will be ushered into God’s perfect presence. It’s hogwash. It just isn’t true. And I don’t know about you, but I find that idea kind of threatening.

If we go back to the Protestant Reformation, back to the roots of our Presbyterian branching off of the ancient Church, we find important things happening to challenge the theological and ecclesial status quo. The Reformers, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, confronted the very idea that salvation was something to be earned. The concept of indulgences was particularly offensive, where people were able to purchase their loved one’s way out of Purgatory and into Heaven. Salvation was not a financial transaction for the wealthy alone, nor was it a means to bilk the poor to enrich the enthroned. Salvation, the Reformers said, was through faith alone. In God’s economy of salvation, the leper and the Pharisee were potentially on equal footing. Only God knew the truth that lay within.

It wasn’t long before Protestants developed our own version of deserving God’s reward through a theological loophole. It wasn’t that you earned your way into heaven, but your works were the clearest demonstration of your faith. The Protestant Work Ethic became one manifestation of this: your dedication was an outward sign of your inward faith.

And if we are honest, most of us have some version of this approach to faith: it doesn’t matter what you believe; if you’re a good person and you do good things, then you’ll find your way into heaven. Even if we would never admit it in public, most of us expect some kind of eternal reward for all of our good deeds in life.

But there’s a problem with this: heaven is not a meritocracy.

You see, that’s the problem with this Jesus character. He seems to be uncomfortable with our comfort. The surprise ending of the parable is the whole point of the parable. There is no VIP section in Heaven, no reserved seating in the kingdom of God. There’s no preferred rewards club. Whether you were born into faith or came into it later in life is irrelevant. And there is no way to tell just by looking at someone or their reputation. It doesn’t matter if they are a pastor or an elder or a deacon or a member or a visitor. It doesn’t matter if you are a well-behaved child or a noisy teen. There is no seniority in God’s faculty.

I don’t know about you, but I can get to a level of comfort with this concept if we confine ourselves to talking just about heaven. I am willing to accept that there are no first class harps or exit row clouds. I can believe that heaven will be full of surprises – in fact, that there might not even be any harps or clouds. I can live with that.

But the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God does not just exist “there”, wherever “there” might be. It’s here – at least, it’s supposed to be.

Throughout his teaching ministry, Jesus goes to great pains to point out to his audiences that “heaven” is not just a theoretical concept. “Heaven” is what those who would follow him seek to create wherever they are. The parables are not just helpful teaching tools. They are meant to give us an image of what the world might really look like if people of faith followed through on what we say we believe.

So, how are we doing?

Look: I know that this isn’t what we expect. Religion is most effective – maybe not most faithful, but most effective – when there is a clear incentive to behave, when we know that our good works lead to our reward. So when you take that away, what are we left with? Or does it just bring us to the point where we just want to be left alone?

Friends, the good news that undergirds all of this is what it always is: the love of God we know in Christ is unconditional. God’s mercy has no strings attached. In Jesus’ economic model, there’s no quid pro quo. And what I hope that leads us to find is freedom – freedom to chance, freedom to risk, freedom to be faithful! There’s no need to prove ourselves. There is only the invitation to pick a few grapes and get ready for the celebration, because all the heavy lifting has already been done.

I find it hard to connect to Jesus’ pastoral parables. I am a city boy, through and through. The closest I’ve come to any of this was the time Elizabeth and I spent in the olive orchards of Palestine when we lived in a small, rural Palestinian village.

Every October, the village would shut down for the olive harvest. School is closed, and whole families head out to their ancestral lands to strip the trees of olives, taking the fruits of their labors to the press, where it is turned into miraculous oil. Elizabeth and I had no land, but were invited by several families to join them for a day among the trees.

What we learned is that the olive harvest is a time for more than just picking fruit from trees. It is a celebration. There is work to be done, but there is also fun to be had. We sang, we ate, we napped. Children grabbed the olives knocked to the ground by older siblings up high in the branches. The elderly sat on the ground, sorting through and picking out the sticks and leaves. Everyone has a role.

For my own part, I brought zero experience to the work, and did my best to follow directions. I am pretty sure my labor paled in comparison to those for whom this was a yearly exercise. And yet, when it came time for lunch, I was given my full share.

The work itself was its own celebration, but it also anticipated the times we would gather around tables with these same families, dipping fresh baked bread into the oil that was the work of our labors.

Friends, I want each of us to consider our place in the vineyard.

At Oglethorpe, we are launching a program for April and May called Engage. Engage is a short-term study on Evangelism. Now: knowing Presbyterians like I do, and how excited we get about the word “evangelism”, so I’m pretty sure the program sells itself. But just in case, let me put it this way:

Evangelism is a word that has been twisted – and not the kind of twist we might find in the parables. It has become associated with those who arrive to the vineyard early in the morning to lord it over those who are still stuck back at the Home Depot at the end of the day. What it should be, instead, is an invitation to a work that not only prepares for the celebration, but is also its own form of rejoicing.

With Engage, groups will be gathering at different times throughout the week. At the end of those two months, it is very unlikely that you will have baskets full of grapes. What is far more likely is that you will experience the joy of the fields, leading you to invite others out there with you. You may have no idea what you’re doing, but there’s nothing like a nap under the trees.

Are we ready?


Expecting Forgiveness

In forgiveness, there is freedom.

In our lesson this morning from the gospel of Matthew, we get to listen in on three different conversations around the topic of forgiveness. First, Jesus offers up a kind of “how to” primer on dealing with conflict.

On the heels of hearing that advice, Peter and Jesus trade numbers on forgiveness: three? Seven? Seventy-seven? 490?

Jesus then finishes off our lesson with a parable in which a servant is forgiven an extraordinary debt only to lord a small debt over a fellow servant’s head. The master is swift in punishment for the man’s hypocrisy; as will God be, Jesus says, for our own hypocritical approach to forgiveness.

At first glance, it’s not clear whether the three stories are related or not. They all touch on forgiveness, but in no single coherent form. And maybe that’s the point here. There may not be a “one size fits all” approach to forgiveness. What Jesus makes abundantly clear, though, is that forgiveness is not optional for those who want to follow him. Forgiveness, it turns out, is expected.

But what is forgiveness? It’s one of those words where we know exactly what it means until it comes time to define it. Does forgiveness mean that we live as though the wrong in question never happened? Is it something meant to be ignored briefly but stored up for a later date when we can throw it back in their face? Is forgiveness a generous gift of the powerful, or is it an unwelcome imposition on the weak? In our culture, we often lump “forgive” with “forget” – but should we?

This morning, I want to touch on forgiveness from three different sides, using the three separate lessons in our Matthew reading:

  1. Forgiveness has accountability
  2. Forgiveness is abundant
  3. Forgiveness starts and ends with God

Let’s start with accountability. In the first part of our reading, Jesus outlines this beautiful process for dealing with conflict. The first step, he says, is to deal with it directly. If someone wrongs you, you try to work it out with them first. If they recognize their fault, the relationship is restored and all is well.

If they don’t, you move onto step two: bringing witnesses. The hope, of course, is that these third parties will be able to achieve the restoration that didn’t happen in the first step. And though it’s unstated, there is also the possibility that these witnesses will hear the story and recognize that you, in fact, are the one who should be held accountable; in which case, the obligation to repent is yours.

And if step two fails, there’s a step three: bringing it to the church, involving the wider community. Much like in the second step, the hope is that they will be able to bring restoration and that the relationship is healed.

Of course, there is the possibility that step three will fail. If so, Jesus says, the church ought to treat the one who has done wrong like a Gentile or a tax collector. At first glance, it sounds like that means they’re kicked out; and yet, if we know the story of the early church well, it included both Gentiles and tax collectors. And so, though they have failed to admit their wrong, they are not beyond the hope of redemption.

Notice what happens throughout, though: the wrong in question is not ignored. There is no proverbial “elephant in the room.” Instead, it seems like it’s the only topic to be discussed. Forgiving does not mean forgetting that we have been hurt. Forgiving means doing what we can to heal the wounds; which means that forgiveness recognizes our vulnerability, our brokenness, our imperfection. The injury may heal; but depending on how deep the cut, there will always be a scar.

Forgiveness knows that there should be accountability.

Second, forgiveness is abundant; and extravagantly so.

After Jesus outlines his conflict resolution strategy, Peter steps up to offer his take, as he often does. He knows that the prevailing religious wisdom of the day regarding forgiveness is that the generous soul has three servings in supply. And so Peter, ever the show off, pushes it up to seven. Others may only have three; but Peter has extra in reserve and is willing to share.

Until Jesus blows Peter out of the water: seven isn’t even close. It’s more like seventy times seven. Jesus tells Peter that those who follow him have to forgive almost 500 wrongs before the supply runs out. Some of you may want to take this on as a spiritual discipline. You can keep a running tally of how many times various people have wronged you; and when one of those people hits 490, you can safely say, “I’m done.” Of course, that may be the most dangerous diary you could ever possibly keep!

The point, rather, is that forgiveness is meant to be abundant. No matter how gracious we think we are, we can never truly be gracious enough.

And that leads to the third point: forgiveness starts and ends with God.

We know this. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm this fact: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Our ability to forgive others is intimately connected to the fact that God forgives us.

The word “forgiveness” in Greek gives us some picture of this. Forgiveness means to send away, to dismiss, to pass over, to leave behind. If God, therefore, is willing to send our sins away, then we are called to do the same with those who sin against us.

The parable Jesus tells lays it out in stark detail. We have the master, representing God in this allegory, willing to forgive one servant a massive debt: somewhere on the order fifteen years worth of wages. That same servant, just having received incredible financial release, holds a fellow servant to a much smaller debt, worth about 100 days of labor. And because of his hypocrisy, the servant is punished.

The meaning is crystal clear: God forgives us. How in the world can we not turn around and forgive?

You heard the news, no doubt, last Sunday, ISIS released a video of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. The men had gone to Libya looking for work to support their rural families back home. They were captured and killed for what ISIS called “carrying the illusion of the cross.” Egyptians tattoo small crosses on their wrists, carrying the mark of Christ with them wherever they go. And this led to their death.

My personal feelings upon hearing the news were a mixture of deep heartbreak and fiery anger. When I heard the next morning that the Egyptian government had retaliated by launching airstrikes on ISIS in Libya, I was pleased: Egypt’s Christians live as a struggling minority, and here was proof that the government of Egypt would not let this brutal treatment of its citizens go unpunished.

And then, I read this statement by Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church:

“While it may seem illogical or incomprehensible, we…pray for those who have carried out these horrific crimes, that the value of God’s creation and human life may become more evident to them…”

I was cut to the quick…but that soon passed. After all, I thought, this is a bishop, a religious professional, a modern-day Peter. He is supposed to say things like that. And while that might be the correct theological answer, nation-states have different values, purposes, and reasoning. I soon settled back into my own comfort, world gentle de-rocked.

And then, I came across an interview with the brother of two of the victims. Bashir Kamel, speaking with an Arabic Christian program, began by thanking ISIS – thanking ISIS – for not editing out the men’s declaration of belief in Christ, something that has strengthened his family in their loss. He went on to say that such suffering “only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.”

It sure does…

When asked about forgiveness, Bashir related what is mother said: “she would ask her son’s killer to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes.”

The word studies, the nuances, the numbers and supply of forgiveness all pale in comparison with what it means to be living witnesses of that grace. Thank God for Bashir, for the Coptic Church, for the church on the margins, because it is there that we can find the truest, noblest, most merciful and holy version of faith there is.

Friends, we are expected to forgive; because we expect to be forgiven. This is the character of God we know in Christ, a character that we should strive to exhibit to the world. This does not mean that forgiveness is easy; quite the opposite. Forgiveness bears the scars of wounds that are deep, but healed.

More than anything else, forgiveness means freedom: freedom from what we have done, freedom from what others have done to us, freedom from keeping score. And that, my friends, is a gift we can count on.


Made New

Giving up giving up…

This coming Wednesday, we begin the Season of Lent. Here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we will gather nearby with our brothers and sisters in Christ at Brookhaven Christian Church, just down the street, at 7:30pm for a joint service where we will pause to mark the beginning of these forty days of Lent. Some of you, I am sure, are thinking about what it is that you will give up for Lent. In case you are in that category and wondering about the company you keep, here are the top ten things Twitter says people plan to give up for Lent: Twitter, Chocolate, Swearing, Alcohol, Soda, Facebook, Fast Food, Sex, Sweets, and Meat.

My favorite fell just outside the top ten: Lent.

And while I’m pretty sure most of the people who said this were being funny (or at least trying), I want to suggest that we might consider trying something this year: let’s give up Lent for Lent.

What I mean by that is not that we’ll jump straight from Transfiguration to Easter. It is important to spend time in contemplation and preparation. And the rhythms of the church year are just not complete without the drama of Holy Week, from parade to grave and beyond. What I mean, instead, is that for Lent we consider giving up…giving up. If we do, we have some good company from our own Presbyterian history.

In 1536, William Farel invited John Calvin to stay with him and reform the church in Geneva. As French Protestants in exile, they were keen to rid Christianity of anything that they understood as contrary to the gospel, and they often fought bitterly with the City Council of Geneva to do so.

One of the practices they sought to eliminate was treating the year as a series of unbreakable, holy seasons. They supported spiritual disciplines, but they also thought it was more important to clarify what was Biblical and what was unbiblical. Lent and Easter fell squarely in their sites. Geneva required fasting during Lent from such extravagancies as meat, and communion was expected during Easter. Calvin and Farel both knew that fasting was an important practice, and that celebrating the resurrection was at the center of the entire faith. What they resented was the suggestion that Lent was Biblical. It may have been inspired by Scripture, but the word never appears there. And setting Easter as the first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox? This was not something the gospel writers had much interest in.

Calvin and Farel lost their battle to reform these practices; but they were apparently not above attempting passive aggressive drama. Not only did they refuse to serve communion on Easter, which caused a city-wide riot, they also held the 16th century equivalent of a barbeque in the City Square, with meat galore, on Good Friday. The City Council had had enough, and they were driven out of town.

So: sound good? Are we game?

My point is not to give up on what works for you. If Lenten fasting draws you closer to God, then by all means do it. That said, there are times when we need to get out of our spiritual ruts. And these are the moments when we might just find ourselves on those transformative mountaintops.

No matter how spiritually grounded we might be, no matter how close we might feel to the holy, there is no doubt that every single one of us has more to learn, much more to learn. And so, we ought to beware resting on our laurels.

Take the disciples as a case in point. Jesus has just implored them to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. After that, he invites the three disciples in his inner circle to go up the mountain with him. And there, they are witnesses to a most bizarre sight. There Jesus stands, as though he himself is the source of light, flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of the holiest Hebrew prophets, just talking. Peter is struck by what he thinks is inspiration: “Let’s build three shrines to preserve this moment!” In other words, Peter is convinced they have struck spiritual gold and should mine this vein for all its worth. Instead, the moment passes, and down the mountain they go.

Here’s the thing about Peter: he knows that he has experienced something holy and profound; and so, what he knows from his own tradition is that you build monuments to capture those moments. What he seems to forget is that Jesus, the very embodiment of holiness, is right there with him. It doesn’t matter if they’re on the mountaintop or down in the valley. The place where heaven touches earth can’t be confined to a shrine; it’s there in Jesus himself!

And if we’re honest, we are not that different from Peter. We hold onto our sacred moments and monuments. We work hard to recreate them. The problem is that we are not even sure what it was that made them holy to begin with. And so we end up recreating the wrong thing, missing the holiness right in front of us.

I am convinced that this is one of the challenges of what churches try to do in worship. There are so many congregations embattled over the style of music or the words of prayers, fights that probably have more to do with our sacred memories than with Jesus himself. One of the things that I appreciate about Oglethorpe Presbyterian is our willingness to experiment. There are times we have tried something new, and it has landed well. There are also those times when it just didn’t work, and we shrug it off and keep moving. When there’s no shrine, there’s no need to stay put. The important thing is to remain open to the possibility that we don’t have it all figured out.

So back to giving up “giving up” for Lent. Here is what I would like to suggest.

Beginning after Easter, Oglethorpe Presbyterian is going to launch a program called “Engage”. Engage is a congregation-wide study that would help us learn how to share our faith – or, to use a word we Presbyterians seem to have given up not just for Lent but perhaps for eternity: “evangelism”.

If the word “evangelism” makes you cringe, then rather than running down the mountain, I want to encourage you that this program might just be for you. First and foremost, Engage reminds us that “evangelism” is not the process of going door-to-door, forcing pamphlets into people’s hands, or manipulating every conversation into matters of faith and Jesus and salvation. That’s not evangelism. Instead, evangelism is meant to be a natural experience. It means living lives of integrity that speak for themselves. It means being comfortable enough at expressing our own faith. And it means that conversations about faith end up arising naturally. What Engage is designed to do is to lead us into genuine moments of integrity, not forced platitudes and false pieties.

In the coming weeks, you will hear much more about our plans for Engage, which will start in early April. We will be offering groups that meet at many different times during the week, so that it might match your schedule. So rather than spending Lenten time avoiding things, my invitation is to spend that energy carving out space in April and May for Engage.

Our goal is to have half of our community participating in one of the groups meeting for discussion, fellowship, and sharing. Much like that mountaintop moment, we will not be alone. We will be with each other, connecting, sharing our challenges and joys alike as people of faith who are trying to figure it out, or even just muddle through.

And as we do, we are not going to be building shrines. Instead, we will be carving out those moments, opening ourselves so that we might recognize that holiness that has been right in front of us all along!

New Prayers

Our desires matter to God.

Our lesson today continues with Jesus preaching his Sermon on the Mount. After last week’s list of all who are blessed (especially those least likely to feel that they are among the blessed), Jesus moves onto the topic of prayer. Given his growing following as a spiritual teacher, there’s no doubt that many would have sought his wisdom on how best to pray. What he shares is what we, the Church, have enshrined as the Lord’s Prayer. Congregations may differ on whether they offer up themselves as “debtors”, or “trespassers”, or “sinners”, but you would be hard-pressed to find a church that doesn’t pray some variation of this prayer from week to week.

And yet, notice what Jesus didn’t say. He did not say, “When you pray, use these exact words.” What he said was, “Pray this way.” His point, most likely, was to offer up a template, more of an ethic and outlook of prayer that we might emulate rather than a formula that we might copy. And thus ended the only time in history when Jesus’ words were misunderstood.

All kidding aside, my hope is that our weekly expression of the Lord’s Prayer would remind us to be thoughtful of all the prayers we offer. And in that Spirit, let us take some time looking at what guidance Jesus gives us about prayer.

I want to suggest today that our prayers should be marked by three things: their simplicity, their honesty, and their desire.

First, our prayers should be simple. Jesus spends more time on this point than he does on the actual prayer that serves as our model. The kinds of prayers that frustrate him are those that take pleasure in stockpiling empty words. He finds it tasteless when people take prayer as an excuse to look like they’re hard at work, disfiguring their faces so that others will see how amazing and fervent their prayers are, how much better their prayers are.

But prayer is not meant to be hard. Nor is prayer meant for public consumption; not that we shouldn’t pray together. Rather, it’s that prayer is, in the end, between you and God. And no one else.

I know for many of us the idea of praying in public is terrifying. If that’s because we’re afraid of what others might think, then Jesus has some good news for us: it doesn’t matter what they think. And if anyone decides to tell you that you’re not praying right, then apparently they haven’t been paying attention to Jesus.

In your prayers, aim for simplicity. It’s what God desires.

Secondly, our prayers should be honest. We can see this in how Jesus models asking for forgiveness in this text. There is a connection, Jesus says, between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others. There are volumes to be written about that connection, so that’s a topic for another day. The point here today, at least, is that we should ask God for forgiveness where we know we have fallen short.

We ask forgiveness for our debts; those times where we owe God something, where we ought to have acted but did not. We ask forgiveness for our trespasses; those moments where we have crossed a line, where we have done something we should not have. We ask forgiveness for our sins; those moments where we have made mistakes, missed the mark, gone astray.

In other words, this is where we lay it bare before God. We might be tempted to think that there are corners of our life that remain hidden to everyone, but if we are really honest, we know that God knows. And while this might send shudders through us, it truly ought to give us comfort beyond all comfort. If the things we hide bring us such shame, then there should be hope in knowing that the one who knows it all is the one, the only one, who can heal our deepest wounds. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God – nothing in heaven, nothing on earth; nothing we have done, nothing God has seen.

You see, that’s just it: God, knowing everything that God knows, still wants to love us! God, having seen what humanity is capable of, still has hope in us and for us! So there’s really nothing to lose, except, perhaps our guilt, in bringing it all before God: our triumphs and failures, our certainties and our doubts, our wonder and our horror. If God is really God, then God can surely handle it.

In your prayers, aim for honesty. It’s what God desires.

And finally, our prayers should be filled to overflowing with our desire. In my own prayer life, this is the thing that has been the hardest to learn; that God wants to know what I want. Yes, even if you want to pray that the Seahawks beat the spread tonight, God wants to know what you desire. OK – that might be a stretch to the sanctity of prayer.

That’s the thing, though: I can get so wrapped up in making sure that I’m asking for the right things that I might end up not asking God for anything at all.

It’s what I like to call the “Genie Dilemma”. I know I’m not the only one in the room who has fantasized about stumbling across the genie in the lamp, crafting my three wishes so that I get maximum benefit while trying to anticipate the potential downside: “Let’s see: if I ask to be the richest man in the world, the genie might just give me a lot of money, or he might actually wipe out the rest of humanity…”

The prayer version of the Genie Dilemma is to become so consumed by theological correctness in our prayers that we end up not saying anything at all: “Let’s see: I could ask God to heal my foot, but what if this cool limp is all just a part of God’s plan?”

When Jesus offers up the model prayer, he does so with this important detail: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Is it any stretch to recognize that earth doesn’t resemble heaven a whole lot? Do we have to turn far to point out places where it might just be that God’s will is not at work?

We could go global, pointing out the many, many places where war rages. We could go national, where our political system seems broken beyond repair, or as one recent study has found, a democracy that risks becoming an oligarchy. Or we could go personal. We know those places in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love where brokenness has taken hold: the grips of addiction, the abuses of power, the strangleholds of illness…Is it any stretch that we would cry out to God, saying, “We need earth to look a little bit more like heaven”?

I don’t pretend, for a moment, to have figured out why things are the way they are. I know that while history is ultimately in God’s hands, this does not mean that God predetermines every twist and turn. I know, as we all do, that there is a gap between God’s perfect grace and the imperfections of this world. I know for certain that it is wrong to chalk up tragedies as simply being “God’s will”. This kind of thinking excuses our inaction in the face of true evil; at the same time, if we learn anything of Christ’s misery on the cross, God’s heart is the first to break. After all, God desires nothing but goodness for us.

In some ways, our prayers are an effort to bridge the gap between God and us. We raise our desires to God, because God wants to know what it is that we desire! Will those hopes match up with God’s all of the time? Most certainly not…but if we let the Genie Dilemma rule our prayers, worrying that we’re not “doing it right”, then we have already made sure that we will get it wrong.

My own prayers, of late, have been for growth here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. And by that, I mean growth in numbers, but more importantly, growth in faith. Unless our faith grows, our numbers won’t grow.

I pray for this growth for several reasons. One is that our financial situation points me in that direction. After years and years of deficit budgets, we have managed to balance our expenses the last three years. And we have had to do so by coming back to the congregation, a decision that Session has not taken lightly. This year is no exception. It’s not all gloom and doom, though; each year, our financial picture improves slightly… slightly.

Another reason I am led to this prayer is what I see around us. Church is an optional activity. Sundays face stiff competition from many quarters. Congregations like ours are shrinking, as mega-churches take up more and more of the landscape. There is good news, however, in the fact that we are still here, and that we have held steady while others have not.

For these and other reasons, I am led to pray for growth. And in those prayers, I trust that we will grow in our faith, ever closer to God. And as we grow, I trust that we will grow in our generosity and in our willingness to share our faith with all whom God loves.

And yet, here’s the thing: I might be wrong. Maybe my desires for growth are not God’s desires. I kind of doubt it, but the gift is that it’s a risk-free scenario.

And that’s true of whatever it is that we pray, whatever it is that we desire. The very act of praying opens us up. The promise of prayer is that when we speak to God, God speaks to us. Whenever we offer up our simple, honest, desire-filled prayers, God takes them and perfects them.

The Apostle Paul puts it this way in the letter to the Romans: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know how to pray; so the Spirit pleads our case with sighs too deep for words.”

When we pray, no matter how simplistic, no matter how brutally honest, no matter how desirous, even whether or not we can even use words, God takes those prayers to heart. And as we pray, as we learn to pray, our desires become one with God’s desires. That’s the moment where we recognize that this gap we have been trying to bridge all along has already been bridged for us. God’s desires for us are closer than we ever even knew, carrying us in faith and strengthening us in hope.

And that, my friends, is the gift. In the end, we have nothing to fear in prayer. We don’t need to worry about “getting it right”. It’s all in God’s hands, the one who crafted the world and all that is in it; the one who knows, loves, and enjoys us; the one who has not given up on us.

May this knowledge set us free to pray, to love, and to rejoice.


New Blessings

Andrew McFarlane, 2008. Creative Commons (https://www.flickr.com/photos/farlane)

Andrew McFarlane, 2008. Creative Commons (https://www.flickr.com/photos/farlane)

It all begins here. The question is where we go next.

With our Scripture lesson today, Jesus begins the “Sermon on the Mount”. The whole discourse covers three chapters in the book of Matthew. It includes not only the blessings we read today, or the metaphors of salt and light for faith in Christ. It also looks at the sacred Law in depth and what it means to keep up with God. It holds Jesus’ prayerful example up, which we have adopted as our weekly prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. In short, it is a summary of Jesus’ teaching and ministry and stands as a kind of “mission statement” for the kingdom of heaven.

Before we jump too quickly from this reading to an application for us today, we would do well to sit with it surrounded by the rest of Matthew’s gospel. If we remember, Matthew’s account of the story of Jesus begins with King Herod’s jealous rage. Unable to locate the infant upstart who might challenge his throne, Herod orders the slaughter of innocents throughout the Bethlehem region. Blessed are those who grieve…

And while Matthew’s gospel ends with an empty tomb and a risen Christ, the grisly details of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and death must come first. Blessed are those who are persecuted…

It can be tempting to take the lessons of Scripture and move to what it might mean to us. Don’t get me wrong: we should get there, eventually. That said, to make that leap without first resting in the story for a while risks domesticating Jesus’ message to empty platitudes as we deal with the neighbor with the messy dog or the cousin who derails every reunion or the co-worker who takes credit for everyone else’s hard work. It’s not that these problems are unimportant; in fact, they can often feel like they consume our entire world. Instead, my point is that wrapping up these personal matters in Christ’s blessings might keep us from recognizing that, in the Beatitudes, Jesus was concerned with life and death.

What matters to God is what matters in the kingdom of heaven. And what matters in the kingdom of heaven is what should matter to those who love and follow Jesus, those who call themselves “church”. And that, I believe, is the charge to us today. Are we, those who gather for worship at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church today, open to these Beatitudes – these blessings, both old and new – moving from idea to reality? And are we willing to let God use us to make that true?

Blessed are the grieving, the humble. Blessed for those who desire righteousness and make peace. Blessed are the merciful, the pure. Blessed are the persecuted, the insulted, the harassed, the hopeless. In other words, blessed are those who don’t feel particularly blessed. What is it that we do – or rather, what is it that God does through us – to shower new blessings on those who are more likely to feel forsaken and alone?

It all begins here. The question is where we go next.

Today’s service, especially our liturgy of healing that will take place later on, are the gift of our deacons’ ministry to the kingdom of God. Many of you know firsthand what these loving people do, offering a comforting presence at those times when we are most in need of comfort. When I think of those who grieve, and how they are blessed, it is through our care for one another that Christ’s promise is fulfilled. My own family has been carried through the chaotic joy of birth and sorrow of death alike by meals, cards, prayers, visits, babysitters, gifts, memorials…all of them in the name of Christ. And I know from what you share with me that I am not alone.

This is, I believe, is a glimpse of what Church can be. What begins with just a few very quickly grows into something much larger, reaching out to the world with love and concern. When we do what Christ calls us to, to be a blessing, then those whom we bless will, in turn, reach out and bless even others. The hope is that this ministry of blessing would reach not only within these walls, but well beyond. Indeed, if our efforts to bless are ever confined by architecture or membership or even whether we judge someone worthy of our care, then they do not reflect the boundless love of God.

That’s both the challenge and the gift of what we do here, week in and week out, as we gather for worship. We are here to be both nudged and encouraged not so that we can live our lives in the church’s echo chambers, but so that we can be voices, hands, acts that nudge and encourage the world with the good news of God’s healing love. In order to breathe, you must both inhale and exhale. We come here to breathe in the Spirit that we might share it with the world, so that others, too, might experience the life-giving breath of God’s grace.

It all begins here. The question is where we go next.

Because when we look at the rest of the Beatitudes, at the rest of those whom Christ calls blessed, that is where the church is called to be. We are called to be a blessing to those few who truly seek justice, peace, and righteousness, which is a lonely calling. We are meant to encourage and support those for whom faith is a matter of life and death. I especially think of our faithful, death-defying sisters and brothers in Christ in Syria and Iraq. We are supposed to care for and with those whom society casts to the margins: the poor, the homeless, the sick, the unlovable, those who have lost hope.

It is when we do these things that we will discover not only that we have already reached out to those whom Jesus calls merciful, pure, humble. We will also see clearly that they have ministered to us in ways we can only begin to understand.

Beloved friends, maybe it helps to think of it this way: today we put on our bibs that we might feast in God’s healing presence. Tomorrow, we put on our aprons that we might feed the world in its hunger.


New Tests

Faith, true faith, is faith that is tested.

My sister has taken to putting things that my four year old nephew says on Facebook. The latest one was a bedtime conversation on where he came from. It ended up with his insight, “I was a newborn baby?”

“Yes,” my sister said, “you were.”

“I’m Jesus.”

“Um, no. You’re not Jesus.”

“Yes, I’m Jesus. I’m God. Gooooooooooooddddd!”

We might not admit it, but we, too, can be inclined to think of ourselves a little too highly. And we can also put ourselves down unfairly. The truth is somewhere in the middle. We are imperfect, beloved of God, and called to live our lives in faith. We may not be Jesus, but as those who try to follow Jesus, we do well to learn from his example.

Our lesson from the gospel of Matthew this morning provides an excellent case study, focusing on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. We meet Jesus now that he is grown. He has been baptized by his cousin John, but has not yet begun his own ministry or teaching. He ends up fasting for forty days before the devil comes to test him. There are three temptations, as Satan tests Jesus with his hunger, his faith, and his power. Jesus manages to rebuke the devil at every turn until he is left alone. And that is when angels come to his side to care for him, nursing him back to health.

It seems, then, that his ability to persevere strengthens him for what comes next, as he begins to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”

Faith, true faith, is faith that is tested.

I don’t know about you, but the people I know run the gamut on faith. There are those who reject any possibility that there is more to life than what we see, all the way to those whom we might describe as “fundamentalist”, and everywhere in between. This morning’s lesson is the kind that tends to bring out those differences. There are those who would read about the devil and immediately picture and believe in a red-skinned beast with horns and a forked tail. There are others who would take it as a metaphor for the battle between good and evil. And there would still be others who would see this as a reason to reject faith as nothing more than stories of fairies and bogeymen.

The words “devil” and “Satan” are two sides of the same coin. “Devil” comes from the Greek, while “Satan” is a Hebrew word in origin. Both words mean “adversary” or “enemy” and often appear in Scripture to antagonize, test, and otherwise trouble faithful people. The image of the goat beast is a much later idea, not really taking fuller form as a way to satirize pagans until the 1800s.

The bottom line is this: whether we are reading more literally or metaphorically, the point is that there is evil in the world. If God’s essential nature is as Creator, then evil is that which seeks to destroy. In the end, we don’t need to pin it on a punk with a pitchfork. There are plenty of forces out there, and within us, that can play that role just fine.

I guess that’s the problem I have with the personification of evil. If we are too quick to blame all of our problems and faults on the devil, it releases us of responsibility for our actions. Some of you may remember comedian Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine, whose refrain was “the devil made me do it.” It was her way of getting out of anything she did wrong. It wasn’t her fault, it was the devil’s.

The truth is more convoluted than that. There are forces outside of us that push and pull at us. And yet, we most certainly have the potential for good and ill within us. Having faith means leaning into grace when we do less than what is expected and giving glory to God when we manage to get it right.

Faith, true faith, is faith that is tested.

Believing in a God who bestows good things on us is not particularly challenging when things go well. It’s when things turn from bad to worse that faith is ultimately put to the test. It’s when faith goes through struggles and comes out on the other side that faith becomes something that will sustain us. It’s when we praise God despite all evidence to the contrary that we our faith starts to look even a little bit like the faith we see in the lessons of Scripture.

We can even see that in the parts of our lesson today that aren’t about Jesus being tempted. The reference is so brief that we might miss it, but Jesus’ return from the area around the Jordan River back north into the Galilee comes about because he hears that John has been arrested. The one who preached about the coming Messiah, the one who stayed out in the desert subsisting on honey and locusts, has now been put in prison. It is not long before he is put to death.

As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Christianity does not put a ‘no trespassing’ sign on our front lawn.” Whether or not we are faithful, the world in which we live is imperfect. There is good, and there is evil. And both will happen to us. The question is not whether we have the inner strength to be tested; it is whether or not we trust God enough to allow our faith to go through trials. In the end, we will be drawn closer to God.

Faith, true faith, is faith that is tested.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the tests to my faith often come along at the moments when it most feels like I’m “getting it right”. When I am most hopeful about the way things are is the time when it seems like hopelessness rears its head. When I am most “on track” with the disciplines of faith is exactly when emergencies interrupt and illness zaps my strength. When I feel like I am most in line with God is the moment when evil veers into my lane and knocks me into the ditch. It’s almost enough to turn me into Geraldine, crying out to the world, “The devil made me do it.”

About a year ago, I was encouraged to reach out to colleagues and friends that might act as an intercessory prayer group for me. I now have six trusted friends, Presbyterian and otherwise, in Atlanta and beyond, to whom I regularly turn. And what I have learned is that in those moments when I feel like I have drifted away, or when I feel that I might be knocked off course, those are the moments I reach out to my people to pray me back on course. It has been a gift to me, and I am grateful every day for their faithfulness.

Faith, true faith, is faith that is tested.

And faith, true faith, is faith that comes out stronger on the other side.

Tomorrow our nation pauses to remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the great prophetic voices of the Christian faith. He was ultimately martyred for his commitment to fairness and justice; and while we have traveled far since his murder nearly fifty years ago, we know that we have not yet arrived at a truly just and peaceful world.

Of the many lessons that King’s life speaks to us, it was his persistence that calls out to me today. He constantly lifted up a vision of the Beloved Community, despite all evidence to the contrary. He persisted in hope for a world that surely felt hopeless to him time and time again. And his commitment to what was possible in God’s time demonstrated the courage to work to overcome society’s barriers of race and gender and economics.

Dr. King once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Friends, my hope today is buoyed by the many people who continue to be inspired by King’s vision, those of us who continue to believe in a world that we do not see.

My prayer today is that all of us would find our strength in God to bear through those finite moments that pull us down, that test our faith, that distract us when we most need to focus on that infinite hope that comes from God, and God alone.

And my encouragement to you is to take time tomorrow to reflect on all of this. Maybe you’re intrigued by the idea of asking others to pray for you, and so you might spend some time coming up with that short list of trusted friends you can ask to hold you and encourage you. Or perhaps you see this as a moment to recommit yourself to making the world a better and more hopeful place; so you could spend some time in prayer for how you might do so. We have plenty of opportunities here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, including our work with Journey Night Shelter and Habitat for Humanity and our Food Pantry and AMIS. If you want to find out more about any of these, I invite you to make a note on the pads at the end of the pew so we can reach out to you.

Or for those of you who are not already a part of our community, maybe it’s as simple as investing some time reflecting on what church and faith means. We have a golden opportunity with our upcoming new members’ class to do just that; and again, I invite you to let us know by indicating so on the pads.

In hope, in prayer, in courage, may we all find our persistence not in our faith in God, but in God’s faith in us.


Make New

For you, little one, the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation, and the Lord God made covenants with the people. It was for you that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. For you, Jesus Christ suffered death crying out at the end, ‘It is finished!’ For you Christ triumphed over death, rose in newness of life, and ascended to rule over all. All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. So we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own. And so the promise of the gospel is fulfilled: ‘We love because God first loved us.’

These are the words of the liturgy that I typically use when we baptize children. I have no claim on authorship –preachers and theologians have adapted them through the years, but they originated with the French Protestant church. And though I wish I could say this was intentional, it was not my thought to choose this text in a week when the French people have been reeling from their national tragedies. It is a moment like this when I am reminded how the Spirit intervenes and binds us, all of us, regardless of nation or creed, together.

What is so compelling about this prayer to me is how it is, at the same time, both intimate and universal. God brought everything into being – for you! God came as Christ – for you! Christ ministered, died, and rose – for you! You, whom I can fold and hold within my arms, have captured the imagination of our limitless God. “For you, little one…” You!

This comes in the echoes of our lesson this morning, where John baptizes his cousin Jesus in the wilderness, down in the murky waters of the Jordan River. John has been preaching about Jesus, building him up. He knows the crowds have been coming out to see him; he must be aware what a wild figure he strikes, too, that he has grabbed their attention, and that they will listen closely to whatever it is he has to say. Jesus, he says, “is far more powerful than I! I’m not even worthy enough to bend down and touch his filthy, dusty sandals. You think water is powerful? Wait until you see what his holy fire can do.”

So when Jesus comes to John, it is understandable that he would demur. The way he has talked about Jesus, it’s not right that he should baptize him; it should be the other way around. Jesus should be baptizing him into righteousness. Jesus simply says, “Do this. It’s the right thing to do.” And as the hands of the wild prophet release Jesus from under the waters and back to the safety of the open air, the skies ring out: “My Beloved!” as the entirety of holiness joins in to celebrate the moment.

“For you, little one…”

Can we even begin to get a handle on this concept? Do we believe that baptism really represents God’s undying pleasure in us, and that this pleasure has very little to do with whether we had a say in the matter ourselves? Not only is baptism both intimate and vast at the same time; it is also a moment where we admit how little we really know about God’s love. The French liturgy puts it this way: “All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. But we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own.”

God’s love for us does not depend on our love for God. Christ’s death and resurrection did not wait for us to say that we were on board. In the language and metaphors that dominate our household right now, God loves both superheroes and supervillains alike. God may not love what they do, but God still loves them. In other words, baptism is our collective act of faith that God will continue to act in our lives in ways we can only begin to glimpse.

“For you, little one…”

While in seminary, I got to know Ben, who attended the church where I worshiped. He was in his sixties, and had some kind of cognitive issue that meant he was more like a child than an adult. He was a huge movie fan. He gave every film he saw the same review: “Very good.” He had grown up in the church, and had been baptized as a child. Somehow, though, he had never been confirmed. The reason, it turned out, was that he had never been considered “adult” enough to articulate his faith. The more the Session contemplated it, though, one thing stood out clearly: Ben knew that church meant a place where he was included. And in his life, there weren’t many places like that. In many ways, Ben understood God’s love far better than most of us ever will; he joined the church the next Sunday.

Being a Christian is more than being able to understand or explain the faith. Being a Christian is grasping that, far beyond anything we could ever do, the skies are willing to split open for us and name us as God’s beloved! And so, as God’s people, we continue to tell the stories of our faith – of faith both intimate and vast – to others, so that they might receive the gift of making stories of their own. We work alongside God to create a community where people know, more than anything else, that they are included, welcomed, and beloved, too.

“For you, little one…”

As we continue into this new year, and on this day as we consider what baptism meant for Christ and what it means for us, I want to ask you this: what needs to be made new for you? Where is it that you need to know renewal? Where in your life has the dust of the trail built up to the point that you need it to be washed away? Where is your soul parched and in need of refreshment?

Maybe it’s in a relationship – with a loved one, a spouse, a sibling, a colleague, a friend. What once was precious and clear has become murky and worn. Or perhaps it’s in a career; an area of study; a passionate hobby or commitment: what once gave you joy is now a burden. Or maybe it’s in your spirit, your life of faith and commitment to that intimate, vast God. What once was active and crisp has turned passive and soft.

Whatever it might be for you, let’s be clear about this: renewal isn’t about returning to what was. That’s nostalgia, not faith. Renewal is a paradox, such as heading into the desert to find water. When we descend into the depths, the hope is not that we would go back to “the way things used to be”. Instead, the hope is that we would hand over those things to God so that they would return to us transformed and more beautiful than we ever could have expected!

I know of many churches – and I am pleased to say that Oglethorpe Presbyterian is not one of them – that lament the loss of bygone eras. Many pastors of struggling churches have members who recount the multiple, massive Easter services of the 1950s and 1960s and wonder why they can’t recapture those glories. The truth is simply this: being faithful does not mean going back; being faithful means an incarnate living in 2015. And since nothing else looks like it did fifty years ago, why would the Church be any different? It’s not that we seek to merely mirror culture, but rather that we give all that we do over to God so our efforts would be redeemed toward the future that God has in store for us!

The purpose in all of this, the goal, is that we would continue to draw closer to God who is already nearer than breath, who loved us before we even knew how to love, who embodies the vast intimacy we so dearly crave.

“All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. So we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own.”

May it be so. Amen.


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