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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.

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?

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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