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Engaging Your Story

Welcome to the Galilee!

Last week, we met the risen Christ in Jerusalem, who told us to meet him up in Galilee. So this week we find him on the mountain. Some of us doubt; some of us believe. Whatever the status of our individual faith, Jesus tells us all the same thing: go and make disciples. Our marching orders are clear. We have now inherited his ministry of teaching and serving. It’s time to go. Are you ready?

Why does this seem so difficult? We have no qualms about recommending movies, TV shows, music, restaurants to friends and family. Some of us can even get a little belligerent about it: “What do you mean you haven’t seen The Big Lebowski? The Dude abides, man!”

We can be evangelists for gluten-free diets or yoga or our favorite technology with passionate fervor. But an evangelist for Jesus? Well…let’s not get crazy!

I’m sure some of this is our cultural training. Our schools and places of business are no-go zones for religious conversation. I’m not necessarily opposed to that. I think there are good reasons, frankly, for keeping things a little crisper in that regard. At the same time, the popular models we see for evangelism might strike us as at least distasteful if not downright obnoxious or manipulative. And so, because we have learned that faith is a private matter, we have built it into our belief structure. I believe what I believe; you believe what you believe; and that’s as far as we need to go.

We also, for very good reasons, put a priority on our relationships. Relationships matter. They matter a great deal. And so, because they matter, we don’t want to risk them by introducing controversial, divisive topics. So we tend toward keeping it safe and comfortable.

The problem with all of this is that most of us are incapable of expressing anything about what it is we actually believe. And if we’re honest, most of us are probably not clear on what it is we believe anyway.

When Elizabeth and I first returned from living in the Middle East, I used to joke about how we Americans are trained not to talk about religion or politics. In the Middle East, however, there really isn’t much else to talk about. Whether it was a conversation with Eastern Orthodox Christians or observant Sunnis, over time and through patient and impatient trial and error, we learned how to hold our convictions, express them with (or without) clarity, and honor the convictions of others without watering anything down in the process.

And that’s just it: the only way we can do the very thing that Jesus expects of us here on the mountain is to practice.

After all, practice makes…perfect?

Does it really? “Practice makes perfect.” The phrase is natural to us; but that doesn’t mean it’s true. We all know that the more you do something, the better you get at it. But…perfect? If perfect existed, there would be professional bowlers who retire with an average of 300; but the all-time greatest hover in the 220s. If perfect existed, then there would be professional basketball players who have never missed a free throw. But only three players in the history of the sport have averaged 90%.

Practice makes perfect? Nope. But practice does make a difference, doesn’t it?

Let me put it this way: when was the last time you talked to someone about your faith? Last week? Last month? Last year? Never? Practice may not make perfect, but the lack of it certainly isn’t going to get us closer to proficiency.

This week, our congregation has launched a small group study called “Engage”. Despite the fact that the subject of the study is evangelism, a big chunk of us have signed up! While this study is taking place, our Sunday morning worship will hopefully be a productive way not only to continue the conversation, but to loop the rest of us in as well.

And so, let us notice something about our title today: it all starts with our story. So what is your story? Where is it that faith began for you? What is the journey it has taken you on? If a timeline of your faith were a historical trail, what would be the markers along the way that you would want others to stop and read? What are the moments, the experiences, the people that stand out for you?

In fact: let’s sit with that question for a while: who are the people that have modeled faith for you?

If we really want to spend some time on the mountain with Jesus, if we really want to walk in the footsteps of the disciples, then this is most productive place for us to begin our practice. After all, when the disciples began this work of going out and making disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, of teaching them everything that they had been taught, that’s really all they had to go on. There were no gospels for them to quote – those wouldn’t come for at least another 50 years or more. There were no tracts for them to hand out, no videos for them to share on social media. All they could do was share their own stories of their encounters with Jesus himself and how they had been changed in the process.

“Why did you drop your fishing nets and follow this guy? Did he really feed 5000 people with the wave of a hand? An empty tomb? A risen Lord? The heavenly God in human form?!?”

We elevate the gospel accounts of Jesus – and we should value them, and value them highly. And yet, when we get right down to it, they are simply first-hand accounts of encounters with Jesus.

Most of us do not have the luxury of such experiences. And yet, each one of us can call to mind at least one person who formed us in faith through our encounters with them. Here is the way our Engage study guide puts it:

“Your experience of meeting the love of God in Jesus Christ may have been a dramatic, life-changing experience, our your story may witness to a steady, growing, confident awareness of God’s presence and providence in your life. Yet whatever your story is, like each one of us, you have been cared for, guided, loved, lifted up, and inspired by other Christians.”

Think of one person that fits this description for you. Who is it? A family member? A Sunday School teacher? A friend, colleague, neighbor, pastor? What was it about them and their faith? How did they share it with you? How did sharing it shape your faith?

There are many I could name on my own journey. One particular pastor comes to mind for me. I was a teenager, wrestling with many of the aspects of what it means to be a person of faith in the late 20th century. And I went to this pastor with those questions. And what he did forever changed me.

I was frustrated with the hypocrisy of church. Each week, we were reading story after story of this rabble-rouser Jesus, accomplishing incredible things, challenging the status quo, and pushing buttons. And yet, what I experienced in church at the time was a deep investment in the status quo, a safety and a comfort, a place where people came to judge others for the way they looked or dressed or behaved. In short, I saw a community that looked very little like the wandering rabbi whose stories they had raised me to treasure and emulate.

When I shared all of this with my pastor, he responded with a surprising grace. He made no argument on behalf of church; in fact, he did just the opposite, telling me that the worst thing I could probably do right then was to be involved in church. The best thing I could do, he told me, was to take a break.

I did – for about three years or so. And when I returned, my faith had been challenged and deepened in ways that meant I no longer took church for granted, or simply at face value. I came back as one who both appreciated what church could be and often was, but also very much willing to challenge and nudge the places where I saw church being less than what it is called to be. Little did I know it at the time, but there is no doubt for me now that this one hour conversation planted many of the seeds that have been sprouting in my ministry and faith ever since. It was, in a sense, my own Galilee mountaintop encounter with the risen Christ.

What about you? Who is that one person that comes to mind for you? What is it that they did that helped encourage or disrupt you on the journey that faith is?

You see: that’s all we are talking about here! When we speak of evangelism, what we mean is engaging our own stories of faith. It is one of the few areas where we have true expertise. All that remains now is to practice – practice sharing those stories. The more we do, the more proficient we become.

After all, when it comes down to it, people are hungry for models of faith they can embrace. Could it be that we are the ones they are looking for?

Amen.

Expecting Life

The Easter journey may begin in Jerusalem; but the destination is Galilee.

Once a year, we read some version this story. The angel rolls the stone away. The women who followed Jesus are the first to arrive at the grave, the first to meet the risen Jesus, the first to preach resurrection to the rest of the disciples.

Once a year, we are reminded that the story of resurrection that is at the center of our faith. Everything that came before and follows after is just commentary on that single moment when Christ defied and defeated death.

Once a year, we are invited to consider absence more than presence. The cross that once held a lifeless man is now empty. The tomb where a hopeful Messiah had been buried now stands bare.

Once a year, even when death is anticipated, we learn to expect life.

And once a year, we gather in a packed church. Children exhaust themselves “hunting” for eggs. Choirs, bells, musicians raise our spirits in song. The smell of fresh Easter lilies fills the air. Oh, why can it be like this all year long?

I can’t tell you the number of times I have thought that very thing – actually, yes I can. I can tell you exactly how many times: ten. Ten times I have stood in our chancel, looking out on a “full house” on Easter Sunday, with people smiling and singing, and have thought to myself, “Why can’t it be like this all year long?”

But it isn’t always like this. If you come next Sunday, it won’t be the same. It’ll still be Easter – in fact, the Easter season lasts through the end of May. But we won’t be hiding any more eggs. We won’t have communion for a while. The congregation will be about half the size of what it is today. We’ll have children, enough for an active nursery and a couple of bustling Sunday School classes, but not nearly the throng that swarmed the front lawn this morning. There will be refreshments, but not quite the spread that we have today. If we’re honest, after the rush of Easter morning, the following Sunday is a bit of a letdown.

But then, that’s nothing compared to the summer time! If you want to see the opposite of Easter, come in July! School is out. Everyone seems to be traveling. That’s when we really get to spread out, find some elbow room. Man, does this place clear out when the weather gets warm! Some years we have even cancelled Sunday School because the attendance is so low! It’s actually quite depressing! Ha!

If I really think about it, in reality, there are three times a year we have a huge blowout presence: Easter Sunday, Christmas Eve, and Preschool Sunday. The rest of the year, the other 49 or 50 weeks, seem like a mere shadow of what could be. You know, if you stopped to think about it, it could really take the wind out of your sails! (sigh)

Oh well…Anyway…Where was I?

Oh, yes: the Easter journey begins in Jerusalem; but the destination is Galilee.

Galilee is where this story of Jesus first started to build momentum, three years before all the events of Easter morning happened. Galilee is where Jesus grew up. It’s his home territory.

Jesus first gathered a following in those fishing villages around the Sea there. Disciples began to accompany him from town to town. His reputation as a teacher and healer and miracle worker preceded him, and so the crowds grew larger and larger. And then, suddenly, after three years, he turned everything toward Jerusalem. It can’t have been an easy decision. Galilee is quiet – kind of boring. Jerusalem is everything Galilee isn’t. Jesus knew what awaited him there, the drama that we have just remembered over the past week. What began in Palm Sunday with adoring crowds waving branches quickly turned to calls to crucify him. Even his closest friends, those who come with him from the Galilee, soon betrayed him and hid in fear.

And then…the unprecedented happens. Jesus rose again that Easter morning. And as our lesson begins to unfurl today, we get to see this news as it dawns on those who loved and cherished him. The one they had pinned their hopes on, the one they had willingly followed from the boring countryside into the bustling capital city, the one they had grieved beyond grief: he was alive! We can almost imagine their thoughts:

Time to seize the moment! What pageantry will surely follow! Another grand parade, but in this one, Jesus, you’ll take the throne of Herod and re-establish the great and storied lineage of David! Jerusalem has finally met its match! Those who have been cast aside will now take center stage! Trumpets will blare, throngs will gather, the ancient glory of Israel will be restored, the crowning jewel of God’s glo –

Wait, what’s that, Jesus? Oh…we’re not staying in Jerusalem, you say? Back to Galilee, is it? OK, then. We’ll go tell the others. Should we carpool? No? You’ll meet us there? OK. Um, all right…Welcome back! Good to see you! Happy, uh, Happy Life Day? Easter? That’s what we’re calling it? OK. Sure. Happy Easter.

All of that build up! For three full Galilee years, Jesus gathered disciples, taught and healed, performed miracles, and revealed prophecies, all leading to this resurrection moment! So, now where’s the payoff? Where’s the sustain, the hook? We’ve seen the comeback. Where’s the big follow-up?

But that’s not what we get. We are told to go back to Galilee. And there, we will spend time with the risen Jesus. In the few weeks ahead, he will ready his followers for the road ahead. It’s time for the message and the movement to pass on from him to us. More preaching, more teaching, more traveling, more healing…along with our persecution and suffering, glory and wonder.

The Easter journey may have begun in Jerusalem, but the destination is Galilee.

Jerusalem has this mystery, this allure. It feels like the prize, the goal. The truth, however, is that the normalcy of Galilee has been the point all along. That’s what God had in store from the beginning. Jerusalem has it’s place, but it’s only the fulcrum, the tipping point, the grand moment of drama that puts everything else in perspective. You can’t stay in Jerusalem; you have to go back to Galilee.

Isn’t that true about life in general, though? Is there anything we do that stays in elegant drama? Graduation is a celebration of hard work paid off. The moment itself is full of pageantry, but hard work also waits on the other side. Vacation is a treasured respite, but their days are fleeting. The Road Race comes after a lot of training; but the feeling of satisfaction that follows its completion fades quickly. The wedding is quite the joyful moment. The honeymoon follows. But the marriage itself has little in common with either one.

Most things in life have their Jerusalems, their peak moments. But there’s whole lot of Galilee, of trudge, of normal, on either side. If that’s the case, why would our approach to faith be any different?

I don’t know what might have brought you to church today. Some of you are there week in and week out. Others of you are there once or twice a year, coming in and out just for those Jerusalem moments – maybe trying to revisit your own ancient memories of the pageantry. Some of you might be looking for a place to call your Galilee, your spiritual home. There are those of you there because you might be wondering all the fuss is about anyhow. And I’m sure there are those of you who have a church home already but went to Oglethorpe today because it’s easier to find a parking place and get a seat.

Whatever the case is for you, if you take nothing away from today’s service, I hope it is this: Easter is not the destination. It’s not the end all and be all of loving God and being loved by God. It is a crucial, pivotal, tangible moment – but it is just that: a moment; because after today, it’s time to go to Galilee. After all, Jesus is waiting to meet us there.

This is important: Jesus is waiting to meet us there. The life of faith isn’t about you alone and Jesus, off by yourselves. It’s about ya’ll and Jesus together. Life in the everyday of Galilee is life lived in community. We strengthen one another. We challenge one another. We lift up one another when we fall; we pull each other back to earth when we get too lofty. In the life of faith, being in community is what makes us better. It’s how we grow, how we are stretched, how we train for the great race.

Friends, going from Jerusalem moment to Jerusalem moment is easy, but it’s unsustainable. It’s the in-between, the life lived in Galilee, that makes all the difference in the world. Those are the stretches where we learn how to be people of faith. Those are the periods where we learn what it means to be love God and be loved by God, to be living witnesses to Christ and Christ’s love. Those are the seasons where we learn that faithfulness is embodied the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.

After all, the Easter journey may begin in Jerusalem; but the destination is, and always has been, Galilee. Are you ready to go and meet Jesus there? If so, I’ll see you next Sunday.

Amen.

A Tale of Two Tombs

In Jerusalem, there are two pilgrimage sites that hold competing claims for our resurrection scene today, that empty garden tomb where Christ had been laid to rest. The first is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In Arabic, it is called the Church of the Resurrection, which is a far more appropriate name. Nested amid the winding streets of the Old City, the Church is surrounded by vendors selling religious knick-knacks and glow-in-the-dark Jesus figurines; that is, until you reach the open courtyard. There, shrouded clergy rush to and fro across large paving stones smoothed with the passage of time and millions of pilgrims’ feet. The place smells of history; candles and incense burn around the clock. Bells chime. In one corner, Ethiopian Coptic monks chant prayers in Amharic in front of large-eyed icons withered with time. In another, Italian tourists follow their priest, celebrating Mass in the newly-renovated Franciscan chapel. The place is huge. The architecture is chaotic, as the divisions of the Christian community through the centuries have been played out in this building. There are ecumenical committees formed to decide who can change lightbulbs and who is responsible for repairs. If this is the scene of vacant tombs and empty crosses, of stones rolled away and folded linens, it remains hidden in the solemn echoes of feet and the fervent whispers of prayer.

The other site rests outside the walls of the Old City, a short walk of ten minutes. Trinket salesmen have set up shop there as well, but this place, known by the less formal name of the Garden Tomb, becomes an instant place of respite from the noise and traffic of East Jerusalem. The place is serene. It is, in fact, a garden, and it was a garden roughly around the time of Christ, as the eager tour guides will tell you. Olive trees, blooming flowers, and the open sky surround. From one vantage point, you can look over the East Jerusalem bus terminal and see the Old City walls. And just off to the left is a cliff whose face is very much in the shape of a skull. Golgotha, perhaps? The tour of the Garden Tomb ends at its namesake – an ancient stone grave, which also possibly dates from the time of Christ. There is a stone trough in the ground directly in front of the door, a groove in which the massive stone would have been rolled to seal the tomb. There is no such stone now; only a simple wooden door that bears a sign, in English, that reads: “He is not here; for he is risen.”

In terms of history, there isn’t much competition at all. The Holy Sepulchre is the real place. Early Christians venerated the site long before there were any buildings there. The first Church building was erected in the fourth century. Even the Garden Tomb guides willingly admit as much when pressed. But, they also say, “Unlike the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb can give you the feel of what it must have been like at the time of Christ.” And though I doubt very much that Mary Magdalene had to walk through the giftshop on her way back to share the news with the disciples, and though the stones are a little too pristine to have that sense of the Holy Sepulchre’s history, I must agree with the guide. You can feel it there. You can see a skull shaped hill – even if it’s not the skull-shaped hill; and you can set foot inside a tomb – even if it’s not the tomb. It feels like the place where our Easter morning celebration took place, where stones are rolled away and figures in dazzling white bring the most absurd of good news: “He is not here, for he is risen.”

Is that enough, though? For a place to feel like it’s the place? Or is it more important for the place to actually be the place?

In part, the divide between the two places is an historical one. We Presbyterians are newcomers to the faith; the ancient holy sites are firmly entrenched in the control of the Eastern Orthodox branch of the family tree. So when a German Lutheran archaeologist learned of the ancient garden site in 1867, it quickly became the Protestant site of veneration. And even with the overwhelming evidence that this isn’t really the place, it remains a huge pilgrimage site because of that spiritual feel of being transported back in time.

And that fact, that the spiritual feeling holds such power in a place that really isn’t the place, may give us thought for how we approach our faith. There is a gift when we give a boost to the spiritual meaning of our story. The risk, however, is that we do so at the cost of its material truth. If so, then Christ’s ministry among those who live in abject poverty becomes a word only about spiritual poverty. It loses its original power of promises made to those who literally have nothing. And the words which we read this morning, “The Lord is risen; he is risen indeed,” some of their material muscle atrophies when we begin to speak only of a spiritual resurrection.

So which is it: the material essence of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the spiritual force of the Garden Tomb?

Whenever I have had the privilege to visit Jerusalem, I have felt torn between these competing holy sites, this spiritual and material promise of the gospel. In the Garden Tomb, there is this sense of relief and respite. It becomes an escape from the overwhelming exhaustion of a land of conflict and pain, where the dual violence of Occupation and Terrorism beat down and destroy. The Garden is escape, quiet reflection, meditation.

And yet, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre became my first Jerusalem stop. There is an exquisite path through the Old City’s crooked lanes, past excitable shopkeepers and anxious pilgrims. Entering that courtyard, the sky itself opens up for the first time. In the Church, you get lost in space and time. Every visit uncovers a new nook or cranny claimed by this ancient Christian sect or that: the Armenian stairway with its grand arch; the mud huts of the Ethiopian monastery perched on the roof; the exquisite iconography of the large Greek Orthodox sanctuary; the small Egyptian Coptic chapel at the head of Christ’s tomb. Each spot is a reminder of how little we actually about church history; and, by extension, how little we really know of the fullness of God’s power and mercy.

I still don’t want to give up that spiritual feel of the Garden Tomb, this pitiful Protestant protest. But this morning, I invite you to walk with me among the cold stones of the Holy Sepulchre, as hymns of mystery mix with the smoke of incense and candles, unfurling into the ancient domes. And as the bells ring for yet another prayer in yet another language we don’t understand, may this question ring in our ears: What if this is actually the place? And what if what we have read is actually true? Not just spiritually true, but materially true as well?

And not just literally true, either; for if we only believe in a literal story of resurrection, then all we need to say here today is that Christ was dead and buried. The tomb was sealed. The angel came, the stone was moved, the Lord was raised; and one day, we, too, shall be raised. If we move away from the spiritual meaning to the literal meaning alone, then we’re done. The Easter sermon is finished and we can all move on to the rest of our Sunday plans.

But what if the story is materially true, as real as those old paving stones in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre? What if there is something to that haphazard building amid the crowded streets of Old Jerusalem? What if the very fabric of reality was changed on that ancient Easter morning? And what if we, who seek follow the risen Christ, are materially – really – changed by that moment of resurrection? What if we were willing to believe that the stone was rolled back every single day from our tombs? What if we are transformed into people of the Resurrection, the promise of life anew, the strange hope of encounters with dazzling angels and open graves?

The message that rings from the church bells of ancient Church is for those who have ears to hear: the promise of Resurrection is really true. It can and will transform old conflicts into new promises of reconciliation. It can and will build up what has been destroyed. It can and will bring an end to war and a beginning to peace. And it can and will transform us into the body of Christ, that community of the faithful bringing spiritual and material hope to a world so desperately hurting.

Are we listening? Do we have ears to hear? Are we willing to walk those crowded streets?

Expecting Crowds

Who is this Jesus?

One of my favorite points of entry into studying Scripture is looking at the different characters of a particular lesson and then seeing which ones resonate with me the most. In this case, you’ve got quite the cast: Jesus, his disciples, the donkey owner… Whatever the story, I’m often most intrigued by the nameless masses. The gospels often call them “the crowds”. Their participation is always more central that their general anonymity might suggest.

Imagine the feeding of the 5000 without the crowds…or the Sermon on the Mount…or the introduction of Zacchaeus…in fact, the crowds often act as a kind of Greek chorus in the life and ministry of Jesus. Even in the final drama of Holy Week, the generic “crowds” go from being the ones who celebrate Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem to those who call for his death just a few days later. There is, in the crowd, a sense of what it means to be human. And there are times when it’s a little too on the nose.

What sets our lesson today apart is that there are two different groups. There is the crowd and there is the city. The crowd spreads their cloaks and palm branches on the road. The crowd surrounds Jesus. The crowd shouts out “Hosanna!” The crowd names him as the prophet. The city, on the other hand, can only manage a question: “Who is this?” The city, in response to the parade, is in turmoil.

So my question today: Are we the crowd? Or are we the city? And which one should we be, anyway?

In our lesson, the city folks are seeing the stir this donkey-riding fellow is causing. They are curious, intrigued by all the excitement, and can only manage a simple question: “Who is this?”

The crowds, on the other hand, are the ones who already know about Jesus and are eager to celebrate him. They are the insiders, the excited ones ready to throw him a party. They elevate him and honor him with a title. And even though Jerusalem is in turmoil, they go with him willingly.

Where do you feel more affinity? Do you see yourself at home in the crowds, or in the city?

For some reason, this question has grabbed my attention today. I think it has a lot to do with the world we find ourselves in, as a church person in an increasingly non-church world. Our cultural landscape is changing dramatically, and we’re not even clear what the new landscape looks like. Some would have us believe that the separation is between those who are religious and those who are secular. That’s not the case at all, however. As a nation, we are no less “Christian” or “religious” than we have been at any time over the last sixty years. What is changing, however, is what “Christian” means.

On the one hand, churches are consolidating. Small churches are eroding as their members leave to join medium-size churches. Meanwhile, medium-size churches are breaking even as they take on these members while others fade out the back door to large churches. And large churches are facing the same reality: while people arrive from other churches, their members are departing for mega-churches. Mega-churches are growing; but almost all of them are centered around a particularly charismatic pastor (almost always the son of a pastor) so that when they retire, die, or fall in disgrace, their church disappears and the whole process starts over again.

On the other hand, the pattern of church attendance is changing rapidly. Even those who consider themselves very active in their congregations are attending less and less. Weekly attendance has become monthly; monthly has become quarterly. As weekends have more and more competition for our time, churches are on the losing end.

And on the other hand (the third hand?), those who might have had only a passing interest in church are now completely disinterested. Whereas in years past people might move to a new area and locate their bank, their grocery store, and their church, the church is being left off the list. There are the growing numbers of “de-churched”, those who have been burned by negative experiences in so-called Christian community. There are the children of the “de-churched”, who have never even set foot in the doors of a church, and whose experience of Christianity is shaped by what they see in society. And I’m sorry if I’m the one to inform you, but our co-religionists don’t always represent us well.

With all of these dynamics at work, I think our cultural reality is way more “crowd and city” than we might expect. And in that reality, we are the crowds. We surround Jesus and elevate his name with praise. The “city” might be intrigued by what we are doing, but our response is to wave palm branches and shout strange words like “Hosanna!” None of that does much to translate from our world to theirs. We might be the crowds…but should we be?

I think there’s much to be said for finding our place among the crowd in the city – and to do so with clarity and integrity. If we really believe that Jesus was the embodiment of the divine, if we really do proclaim that Jesus is the Christ, the incarnate God, holiness in fleshly human form, then the faithful church is the one that lives firmly within its culture. In other words, just as God took tangible form in first century Palestine, using the language and culture of the region, so must the church, as the so-called “body of Christ”, take tangible form in every language and culture it finds itself. And so, we must not separate ourselves into “crowds” and “cities”. We are not called to pull apart from culture. Instead, we are called to act as the bridge.

And that is both the gift and the challenge. Those of us who have been among the crowd for so long have largely forgotten what it’s like to live in the city. We have made Sunday morning worship a priority to the point that it might not even occur to us that there are other options out there. We know the insider language so well, knowing where the Narthex is and why we call it Palm Sunday and automatically bowing our heads whenever someone says, “Let’s pray” that when the city asks us “who is this” we are hard-pressed to come up with ways to translate what we believe and what we do into ways that the city might be drawn closer, let alone understand. The goal, I believe, is to be part of the crowd, living in the city, and moving between the two with clumsy grace.

How do we do this?

To be in the crowd and in the city is not easy. We like knowing who our tribe is. It helps us know whom to ignore. But living in both and in between is a much more interesting place to be! The beauty is that it is a place where we are constantly transformed – not because we want the crowd to act more like the city, but because we become the crowd that God wants us to be! You see, we know that God’s tribe is always bigger than ours. God never draws those circles as tightly as we like to. God finds pleasure in seeing us stretch – not to the point of breaking, mind you, but to the point of flexibility and growth.

Does this mean we change? Absolutely! But not the way that we might think. It’s not that we rearrange our lives in a way to accommodate a city that may not ever move beyond mere curiosity. What it does mean is that we spend more and more time with the citizens of the city in which we live.

The easy thing is to spend all of our time among the crowd. After all, they are our “people”. And yet, the faithful thing is to spend as much – if not more – time in the city square, willing to hear what it is that the city really thinks about our parades and prophets. We nurture relationships with our neighbors – not necessarily because we think they should be part of the crowd, too (though they should), but because God wants us to care about them as much as God cares about them.

Let me put it this way: it would be one thing to think of our hobbies and interests as things we can manipulate for the purpose of church growth. It would be one thing if our gym membership existed merely because we are looking for excuses to share the gospel and invite people to church. There are those for whom that works; but in this city, most of our fellow residents will simply learn to steer clear of the preachy spin class student.

It is another thing altogether to view our interests and hobbies as things that God has designed within us so that we might have relationships of integrity beyond the crowd. It is another thing altogether to sign up for an art class because we want to learn art and build authentic relationships with others who share our intrigue for creativity. If we do that, the opportunities to answer the question “who is this” will arise naturally.

The truth is that we are already there more there than we might like to admit. We are the crowds. We are here on a Sunday morning when there are an infinite number of other places we could be. We already know this Jesus. We sing his praises and give him titles like “Christ” and “Lord”. And at the same time, we are the city. Even those of us who have been in the crowds for as long as we can remember often feel like newcomers on the scene. We know there’s excitement around this Jesus, but we feel like we are just beginning to know who he is. We are intrigued, curious. We want to follow. We want to know more.

Who is this Jesus? That’s easy. In the end, he’s the one that turns the tables on us.

Amen.

Expecting Jesus

Our acts of compassion should be as natural as breath.

In our lesson this morning, Jesus speaks to his audience in a parable about righteousness. Using the image of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats, Jesus paints a picture of what it looks like when our lives reflect mercy or unkindness.

The thing about sheep and goats is that, to the untrained eye, they can be hard to distinguish. There are subtle differences in the tail, the ears, the eyes, the coat, even the smell that are helpful to tell them apart. Even then, though, it’s not foolproof. And so, the only thing that can truly separate the sheep from the goats is the seasoned eye of a professional. In the case of the parable, it’s the shepherd alone who can draw the dividing line, sending the sheep one way and the goats the other.

The story ends with the sheep in everlasting life and the goats in eternal punishment. What is particularly striking is the fact that those that are judged have no such recollection of their behavior. For the righteous, as they enter into paradise, they are told that they have served Christ himself with kindness: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the lonely and abandoned. And yet, they have no memory of this.

As for the unrighteous, even though the end of their story is quite different, their surprise matches that of the righteous. As they are told that they have greeted Christ with indifference – ignoring the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger, they claim to have no memory of this at all.

For the characters in the parable, it is as if their behavior, whether in cruelty or gentleness, has become nothing more than a reflex. It has left the realm of conscious choice and entered the land of unthinking. Their actions, for good and for ill, have become a kind of muscle memory.

It reminds me of the apocryphal story of Jim Thorpe, one of the first superstar athletes. Thorpe won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics in the decathlon and pentathlon. He then went on to play professional football, baseball, and basketball. There is a legendary story told about him that he once tried to spend a day mimicking the movements of a newborn baby. He gave up, exhausted, after only a few hours. The constant action was simply too much.

Whether or not the story actually happened, there is some truth to it. Infants have to learn how to do everything. Through a grueling process of trial and error, they figure out how to focus their eyes, control their voices, manipulate their muscles in order to move parts of their body. Things that we might take for granted, such as the simple act of waving one’s arm, are actually not that simple. It’s just that we have practiced them to the point that they we do it with no clue how we actually managed to make it happen.

And while it might be difficult for us to imagine that process of learning how to talk and walk, we actually still do this all the time. We are always taking what is learned and internalizing it to the point that it becomes automatic.

If you’ve ever had to go through some kind of physical therapy after an injury or a surgery, you know what I’m talking about. Those are the moments where you are made aware of things you take for granted. I remember breaking my thumb in a glamorous sports injury. After several months of keeping it immobile, the muscles had atrophied to the point of near uselessness. Every day I had to practice things like bending it, pushing down on it – a little at a time, until I regained that full use. After a while, it was as though the injury had never occurred in the first place. But it took work to get to that point.

Maybe you’ve never experienced such an injury. But think about something like starting up a car. When you first learn to drive, you sit down, close the door, put on your seatbelt, check your mirrors, put the key in the ignition, put your foot on the brake, turn the key…After doing this several hundred times, though, it becomes almost one smooth, unthinking motion. “When did we do all this?”

That kind of automatic reflex should be our goal. The unconscious compassion of the sheep in the parable, the righteous ones, should be the kind of unintentional beauty we create. And there is only one way for that to happen: through practice. When we emulate the shepherd, learning through seasoned experience the differences between sheep and goats, separating them eventually becomes second nature. But it doesn’t begin that way. It takes time.

Whether it’s a spiritual discipline like prayer or study or service, these are things that take patience and effort. The more we do it, the closer it comes to being effortless. And then, one day, we cross that threshold unaware that our acts of compassion have become as natural as breath.

The subject of our upcoming Engage series is evangelism. I know that “evangelism” is a word with a lot of loaded meaning, and I feel like I have spent a lot of time trying to unload it so that we can engage the subject afresh. Let me just say today that what I mean when I say “evangelism” is the ability to share your faith with the same thought, intention, and care that you share any other part of your life. It is probably more accurate to say that the goal of Engage is to learn evangelism with integrity.

You see, that’s just the thing: sharing our faith should be the kind of thing that we do automatically, naturally, reflexively – not with manipulation or confrontation, but with the same kind of smooth, natural action we have when we wave our hand, when we start up the car. “When did we share our faith with you?” We shouldn’t even be aware that it’s happening. And that’s the kind of thing that can only come with practice – the practice that our Engage series begins to offer us. I heartily encourage you to take part, so that we become like the sheep – not a mindless herd, but an amazing, lithe, fluid force for good in the world.

And lest we forget, there is always the possibility that we mind end up like the goat. Without the kind of practice that kindness requires, we risk falling back into habits of indifference, ignoring the vulnerable and weak and marginalized. The worrisome thing is that this, too, can become an unthinking reaction. If that’s the path we take, we do so at our own peril.

And that’s just it: it would be one thing if our behavior would only affect others. As a force for good, the repercussions would be incredible, taking the potential for grace within each of us and sending its waves out into the world. It’s a transformative possibility! Sadly, the same is true for our ill will. It can send out ripples far beyond what we can imagine.

And it would be another thing if our behavior would only affect ourselves, sending us to the left or the right of the glorious throne. The crucial point of the parable, though, is that our behavior affects Jesus himself!

This is both the risk and the gift of the sheep and the goats, of unconscious mercy and reflexive uncaring. When we meet others, it is as though we are meeting Christ. And therein, I believe, lies the key: Learn to expect Jesus in others. If we manage that, we are capable of incredible acts of grace and compassion!

Doing so takes practice. We might do well to have a mantra that runs through our head, especially when we meet up with those who seem particularly un-Jesus-like, something that would remind us that this person is every bit as beloved of God as we are. Whether it’s a co-worker, or a neighbor, or a family member, perhaps it would help to consciously think, “child of God; child of God; child of God…”

It is through careful discipline that this way of looking at others, looking at the world is internalized. That’s when our muscle memory will kick in, when our acts of compassion become as natural as breath, as the breath of God, within us.

This is the goal of our Engage study series, that we would practice together the subtle art of expecting Jesus in everyone we meet. I hope you will be a part of this incredible opportunity.

Friends, my prayer today is that the work God begins within us will not only move among us, but out into the worlds we inhabit and, indeed, into the world that God loves and desires and redeems.

May it be so.

Amen.

Expecting Light

How is your oil supply?

Matthew seems to be enjoying throwing us these tough parables, ones that demand more than just a superficial reading. In our lesson today, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a group of bridesmaids planning to join in the wedding celebration. In Jesus’ time, the whole village and their extended families would be part of the ceremony.

Since weddings would take place in the summer, they would often go on into the night to keep cool. The procession of the groom winds its way from house to house to meet the bride, picking up well-wishers along the way. At each stop, the crowd would gather and shout to those inside to wake up, come outside, and join the parade.

When this particular celebration arrives at the house in question, the five wise bridesmaids have their oil; the five foolish only their lamps. When they are shouted to attention, the foolish run off to find oil. The parade passes them by. They are shut out of the banquet and miss out on the celebration. The message seems to be relatively straightforward: when Jesus comes, you’d better be ready.

From there, though, it all starts to get messy: what’s the oil? Where do we get it? What is sleep? Is it contentment? Death? And Jesus says “stay awake”, not “have enough oil”. Even the five wise fell asleep. Does that mean that none of them were up to snuff? In short, how are we supposed to follow the advice of the parable when we’re not really sure what it means?

If we want to take it literally, then it’s time to stock up on coffee and get the Netflix cue lined up. It’s going to be a long night or two…but I’m convinced that it’s far more faithful to take Scripture seriously than literally. So where does that leave us?

I think we start with light. In much of Scripture, light stands for “wisdom”. It’s a reality we’re hard-pressed to connect with, surrounded by technology as we are. In the ancient Near East, when the sun went down, that was it. What was clear in the light of day became obscured in the dark of night. The only way to improve your chances of understanding was the flickering of a candle, a light that needs fuel to keep burning. As long as there’s oil, there’s light. And as long as there’s light, there’s vision.

Actually, I think there is an apt metaphor from 2015 for this. As much as many of us rely on our smart phones, they have become a kind of wisdom for us. We’ll never be lost, because maps will find us. We’ll never stumble around for obscure trivia, because the answer is always right there at our fingertips. We have lost the need to plan ahead. As long as we have our exterior brains handy, we’re good to go – as long as it’s charged…

Aha! A lamp without oil is like a phone without a charge. It is nothing more than an expensive paperweight. And in a society that’s more and more paperless, it becomes quite the relic.

When the phone dies, we become helpless. When the light goes out, we find ourselves in the dark. It is a message we need to heed: more than we think we know.

Let me put it this way: do you need church? That is, is being part of a community of faith crucial to that faith? Or is it possible to be a Christian, praying and reading Scripture alone, communing with God in nature? The answer in our society is a resounding “yes”. The percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has changed very little in the last fifty years while church attendance and membership continues to plummet. American Christianity seems confident that being a Christian has very little to do with Church.

I hope you don’t hear me as being overly critical here. I have been among that number myself, and I am sympathetic. When church Christians act self-righteous, when their personal behavior seems so much at odds with the humility and self-reflection of Christ himself, when their actions are driven more by social status than faith, then there seems to be little to recommend the church to those who would call Jesus Lord, or even friend. Those are the moments when folk unplug from the church, choosing to go it alone rather than be surrounded by hypocrites who fail to recognize their hypocrisy.

That said, you can only remain unplugged for so long before you run out of charge. A lit coal out of the fire can stay hot for a while, but it will grow cold much sooner than when it is surrounded by flame. A lamp will eventually run out of oil and grow dark.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it’s enough to “make peace” with the misbehavior of church. I think church should be a place where we are held accountable. The question, instead, is whether we are willing to work together to make the church look more and more like the kingdom of God that Jesus describes, a community that makes its life out in the open rather than hidden in the shadows.

Time and time again I am reminded how fortunate we are here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian to be connected to a larger body of the 100 or so churches in Atlanta that make up the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. We support and resource one another, and we also hold one another accountable. It’s why we work so hard to make sure that our decision-making processes and our finances are completely transparent. Truth becomes clear in the light of day.

And ultimately, this is all tied into what the parable is about: it’s a wedding! There’s a celebration, a banquet to which we are invited! When church becomes about only meetings and committees and how much can be wrung from membership, then it’s not church. Those things only matter when they can carve out the space, when they make room for the dance floor, so that everyone can get a turn to cut the rug with the bride and groom.

So what about you? Where is your light? How do you keep the oil from running out?

If you have been with us the past few weeks, you are well aware of our upcoming study series called “Engage”. If you haven’t yet had a chance to sign up for one of the groups getting ready to organize, then please do so today. You can fill out one of the inserts in your bulletin, or you can go on our website later today and let us know your preferences. The series focuses on faithful evangelism. Now, before you run screaming for the doors, let me say a word about it.

How many of you would say that, if the opportunity arose, you would feel 100% comfortable talking about what you believe with someone else? You see, at its core, that’s what evangelism is! Unfortunately, the word has become associated with those who have driven good Christians away from the church. It has become steeped in hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and an “in your face” approach that bears little resemblance to what the word actually means.

What Engage is designed to do is to build competencies for evangelism in its purest form. In other words, it is meant to help coach us in how to share our stories, our most closely held beliefs – to give them words, so that they might take flight. You see, the thing is that such opportunities to share with others what we believe don’t have to be forced. If we are living plugged-in lives, if our lamps are connected to a source of oil that never runs out, then these conversations will come about as a result of simply being in relationship with others. And the truth is that, as long as we remain uncomfortable in talking about our faith, we will continue to steer the conversation away from these things so that the opportunity never arises in the first place.

Then again, maybe you feel like you don’t need this, that you have more than enough oil, that you are plugged in enough to evangelize, to share. If that’s the case, then you have wisdom the rest of us can benefit from! We all have our lamps. It’s still daylight, so we can see just fine. But some of us don’t even know where to get oil in the first place. For you, the invitation is to share your wisdom so that the light can spread far and wide!

May it be so.

Amen.

Expecting Invitation

This is a rough story, this Luke parable! First, the so-called “deserving” are invited to a banquet, only to reject the invitation out of hand. Second, when they are re-invited, it’s not enough for them to say, “We’re not coming.” They slaughter the messengers who had the temerity to offer hospitality. Suddenly, we’re cast into open warfare, with the king avenging the murders by murdering the murderers. We get a brief respite when the king turns around and invites the riff-raff. The rejected are embraced, giving us a message we’re more familiar with…until one of them bothers to show up “as is” and is thrown out. Just to be clear: Jesus uses parables as illustrations of God’s desires. So much for puppies and butterflies; this kingdom of God is rough business!

Many have tried to rein in the story through the years. The traditional interpretation of it is probably closest to its original meaning: God begins by inviting those who persistently keep the Law to the banquet, but they’re more interested in watching the rules and regulations than they are in feasting and celebration. The messengers are the prophets, who go out time and time again to return the faithful to the fold, only to be ignored, persecuted, and killed.

The second group of invitees is made up of those who represent the early church: the lepers, the poor, the Gentiles, the tax collectors, the sick, the prostitutes, the lame. If the “right” guests won’t attend, then God will be sure to redefine what “right” is. And yet, that doesn’t mean that “anything goes” – you’ve still gotta show up dressed to the party. You still need to play by the rules, even if the rules are new. Otherwise, there’s no room for you.

There is a lot I like about the traditional interpretation. It contains the wonderful surprise of Jesus, where faithfulness is not necessarily what we expect it to be. The marginalized are now the center of attention. And even though it is grace that brought them there, grace still expects a response.

At the same time, it conveniently ignores all of the gore. What are we supposed to do with that?

Then there was the interpretation I came across recently, suggesting that the parable is actually a satire of first century politics, the way that power is wielded, and all the violence that nations bring against each other. In short, it makes Jesus a kind of Jon Stewart of the ancient world. I admit I’m inclined to like this one, except for the one little nuisance that Jesus starts by saying, “The kingdom of God is like…”

Every time we read Scripture in worship, we finish by saying, “The word of the Lord.” Sometimes that’s easy for me to say; other times, well, I’ll admit that I have to swallow hard. But if I really believe that it is true, even if just a little bit, then I feel like I am left with three ways to approach tough texts. One choice is that I get to pick and choose the parts I like, which means I am now in charge. Another possibility is that I have to get on board with the parts that make me squirm, which might mean some real Cirque de Soleil style contortions. Or the third option is that I have to be comfortable with the fact that I’m going to be uncomfortable.

I am sure that each of you has your own approach, one that makes the most sense to you. I can only speak for myself. And for me, it’s the last one that seems the most faithful and vibrant: learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I don’t know; maybe it’s just the way I’m wired. When I am part of a church, when I am in a worshiping community, I absolutely need to be reminded that God loves me and meets me where I am. When I look back on any given week, I need to hear that message of grace. At the same time, I also need to hear that I don’t have it all figured out, not by a long shot.

I think we do a pretty good job of that here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Hope always has the final word. But if all we hear week in and week out is that we’re totally fine just the way we are, that we don’t need to change at all, then I don’t think that’s faith. That’s just baptizing the status quo, whether that’s within us or around us. And if we’re going to follow this Jesus guy, then we better get ready for a journey with some twists and turns.

The invitation to each of us is to take the trip. And today, I want to suggest three characteristics of the journey: God is in charge of the destination. The tickets ain’t free. And we don’t travel alone.

So let us revisit the parable with these three guideposts in mind.

First, God is in charge of the destination. In the parable, the king is outraged that his messengers are killed for merely extending an invitation. And so, he sends his troops to carry out vengeance, to punish those who have blood on their hands. In other words, justice exists. In the kingdom of God, those who do wrong get what’s coming to them. And that justice, ultimately, is in God’s hands – thanks be to God!

I am willing to bet that most of us know quite well that there is true evil at work in the world. Whether as personal as the betrayal of a friend or as global as the persecution of Iraqi and Syrian Christians, it is clear that there are very real wounds in the world in need of a more perfect healing than I would ever be capable of. It’s the kind of healing that only God can bring, that could only be entrusted to God, anyway. Is there an effective political or military response to ISIS? It could be…but for me, the justice is in knowing that those who portray God as a perpetrator of brutality will one day have to come face to face with how God truly is. And the heat of God’s limitless mercy may simply be too much to bear. In the end, it’s not up to me, or any of us. And that’s good news.

Second, there is a cost. When guests finally enter the wedding banquet, it seems that the celebration can finally begin. We can put all of the nasty business of behind us and focus on this new, glorious reality. That is, until the one attendee is called out for the wrong clothes. Unable to speak, he is kicked out.

The king, it appears, has a thing for fashion. But before we get too hung up on this, remember: this is a parable. It’s not about clothes. It’s about the wedding. Speaking of which, where is the groom? Wait…let’s look again: did the king just kick out his own son, sending him into the arms of suffering? It can’t be…or can it?

Friends, the good news of the gospel is that salvation is a gift freely given to us. That said, salvation itself is not free. After all, we’re in Lent, and that’s what the cross is all about. Injustice involves a cost, and Jesus paid it. So as we guests take part in this feast, we would do well to remember the moment the groom was kicked out of his own party. The hope, then, is that we would all come properly attired to the banquet – again, remember, this isn’t about clothes. It’s not that we are motivated by fear that we won’t get kicked out, too, but that we are reminded that the price paid shall not have been in vain.

Whether the first two points sit well with us or not, the third point brings it all back home: we are not alone. We are in this thing together.

We don’t have to read these stories in isolation – in fact, we shouldn’t. We should read them together as a community of faith. In those moments of discomfort, there are times when others have it figured out and can lend us their wisdom. And there are other times when we recognize that we have really good company with others who are still just feeling their way down the path.

This is the invitation of our upcoming Engage series that we will offer in April and May. Now just to be clear, if you don’t respond to the invitation, we’re not planning to send out the troops. Instead, the hope is that each of us would recognize what an honor it is to be invited to the banquet in the first place! It may not be an honor we expect, but the truth is that the one who invites us knows us better than we could ever know ourselves.

If you can’t decide when you can take the class today, I want to you pray about it. How is it that God is inviting you into this celebration? How is it that God wants you to be a part of this journey? Are you ready – not because you necessarily have it all figured out, but because you trust the one in whose hands the destination rests?

May it be so.

Amen.

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