Waiting for the Kingdom

8b740d81-3dbd-40d3-aff7-fae3c852df91-2060x1236The season of waiting begins…

You might not know it from the way our society keeps time, but Advent begins next Sunday. Four weeks later Christmas begins, a season of its own that lasts 12 days. But in the world outside the church, where ringing bells have historically meant ringing cash registers, Christmas started before Halloween. We might roll our eyes at the commercialization of it all, but we eventually fall in line and shop our way to the manger. Because truth be told, we don’t really like to wait.

And yet, the season of waiting begins.

We are supposed to be a people who know how to wait. Twice a year, we set aside time in the calendar to do just that: to wait. Before Easter, we have Lent: a period of weeks meant for self-reflection so that we might celebrate the resurrection with readied joy. And before Christmas, we have Advent: a season of joyous expectation at the birth of the Christ child.

But in 2015, why bother waiting at all? Do you want to watch a movie? Just figure out whether it’s on Netflix or Hulu and watch it. Want to buy a product? Hop onto Amazon and it’ll arrive in two days – or, in some places and some products, two hours! Waiting, it seems, is no longer relevant. It has become something quaint that people did way back in history, like, in the 20th century when we lived uncivilized lives. Our phones were only used for talking to people! When we wanted to buy something, we had to put on clothes and leave the house! People used things like postage stamps! I mean, we were practically Amish!

I kid, of course; but the truth is that the pace of technology and change seems to be consistently accelerating. We have become really good at asking what we want and figuring out a way to get it without necessarily asking what we need. And in the process, we are losing the ability to wait.

I’m convinced that this is not just a question of temporary impatience; this is a matter of spiritual survival.

Of course, if you know me, you know I love technology. I use it all of the time. I am an impatient person by nature. So you would think I would be thrilled with the direction in which we are moving. And the truth is I am. And that terrifies me. I am exactly the kind of person who needs to be reminded to slow down and wait.

At the heart of Advent is waiting. It was born in the early years of the Church. The four weeks of Advent is meant to mirror the forty days that Noah carried the animals in the ark, the forty years that Moses led the people in the wilderness, the four centuries of Scriptural silence that followed the last of the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. Each of those moments led to something momentous. Noah and his family found a cleansed planet to begin again. Moses’ people had left slavery behind and moved into a future of promise. And God’s silence was simply waiting for the birth of the Messiah, Jesus, the Christ child. Seasons of waiting always, always pay off – maybe not in the way we expect or want, but in the way that we probably need.

And that’s the other thing about waiting. We wait not just to remind us of what happened before, but to remind us that there is more yet to come. This world is far from the way that God desires it. But I don’t need to remind you of that, do I? Every day this past week has brought news of this attack or provocation as the pitiful Caliphate of Raqqa – or Daesh, the so-called Islamic State – gains far more recognition than their actual power deserves. These feel like scary times. And, indeed, if it feels scary, that’s all we really need to be scared.

Meanwhile, we revisit this arcane holy day in the church calendar of Reign of Christ, or Christ the king: the moment for which we wait, when Jesus will be in charge of it all. It is, after all, the promise of the lesson we read today. After Isaiah pronounces God’s judgment on God’s people, of a once sacred vineyard now destroyed, he then reiterates that God’s promises cannot be defeated by human pettiness. The once mighty tree of Jesse, the father of King David, will sprout again. And this promised one to come will be just, righteous, fair, wise, compassionate, faithful. All he will need to do is speak and those wicked and violent destroyers will be gone!

The disciples believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of these prophecies about the Messiah. And because of that, they can be forgiven for thinking Jesus’ kingdom was to be a political one. If we remember, as they prepared to join him in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, they were convinced he was going to lead them in armed revolt, driving our King Herod and his Roman overlords, restoring the kingdom of Israel to its rightful lineage. As we know, the story didn’t quite turn out that way…but Jesus did tell them he would come back.

And so, not content with failing to learn our lesson once, we have built up the mythology around this return of Jesus so that it will be the militant overthrow of evil powers that Jesus failed to accomplish the first time around; but this time, it’ll star Nicolas Cage and Kirk Cameron!

The season of waiting begins…

Not that we sit idly by. But if we, for even a moment, think we know what it is that God has in mind, we really haven’t learned anything. In the meantime, we build the kingdom.. We do our best to follow Isaiah’s promise of the coming Messiah. We delight in the awe of the Lord. We give justice and righteousness to the poor, and fairness and equity to those who suffer. We clothe ourselves in faithfulness. We follow what it is that Jesus taught us to do: to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to visit the prisoner; to welcome the stranger. And we do these things because Jesus told us that when we do these things, we do them to and for Jesus himself.

Friends, I have to be honest with you. I have been seething this week. Our political climate has disheartened me in brand new awful ways. I have never been a fan of presidential primary season, because it tends to appeal to the worst and most extreme segments of our society and widens gulfs that already exist. I know that being angry is not always the most helpful approach in our ever-dividing world of blue and red, conservative and progressive, tribe and tribe. I get that there are reasonable political differences of opinion when it comes to just about every political issue we address as a nation and as a world. I want to be a good steward of my citizenship, and I want to engage in those conversations – those reasonable conversations.

Beyond that, more than that, I am a Christian. That’s far from a simple thing to say. Depending on where I am, or who I’m talking to, that’s a good thing. Or that’s a bad thing. Or they might think I agree with them when I don’t, or think I disagree with them when I don’t do that, either. So here’s what it means to me:

I have tried on other ways of seeing the world and being in the world; but I have found no other way that calls the best out of me and restrains the worst in me and puts all of it in a context that just makes sense to me. And so, because of that, regardless of my politics, I am horrified by the rhetoric and the decisions being made around refugees. Like I said, politics is one thing. But if, as a politician, you cloak yourself in faith, and if you claim that your faith – your Christian faith – is a qualification for office (which is problematic for all kinds of reasons), then just as you must feed the hungry and visit the sick, you must welcome the stranger.

The faith that God makes real, physical, embodies in Christ calls us to many things. It even calls us to things that contradict our natural inclinations. One thing it never calls us to us is self-preservation – not personal preservation, not family preservation, not institutional preservation. We cannot follow Jesus at the manger and leave him when he flees to Egypt. And we certainly can’t ignore him at the cross.

What we do, especially during this season of waiting, is follow as faithfully as we can. We live as faithfully as we can. We act as faithfully as we can. In other words, we build the kingdom – not of our own design, but of God’s. We do so prayerfully, led by the light of the manger that shines even in the shadows of the cross.

And where we fall short, where we misstep, where we go off track, we lean into the grace of God that makes all of this possible. If not even death can defeat Jesus, how can we think that our imperfections can derail God and God’s desires?

That’s what this table is ultimately about. God meets us around this table, even with our imperfections and arrogance and uncertainty and fear and anger and despair and brokenness. In broken bread and poured cup we meet Christ, who chose his own brokenness as the means of healing the world. And we, following him, open ourselves to the hope that our brokenness and imperfections can be a means of healing a broken and fearful world. Perfect love – perfect, holy, sacred love – casts out all fear. So let us come to this table with the courage God desires. Let us come to this table to be fed and sated, so that we might have the strength to build the same kingdom we await.


Fearless Serving

“To whom much is given, much is expected.”

So Jesus said in the gospel of Luke.

Or, if you prefer the gospel of Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Our lesson today from First Kings is a cautionary tale of how not to wield power. It is a glimpse on the much larger story and battle for power following the death of King Solomon.

Stepping back a touch, King Solomon inherited the united kingdoms of his father David: Israel in the north, and Judah in the South. He also inherited his father’s wandering eye, accumulating about 1000 wives and concubines. Unlike David, though, Solomon also adopted many of the gods of his wives, setting up altars and places of worship not just for God, but for Molech and Astarte and Milcom and Chemosh.

By birth rite, the united kingdom was left to Solomon’s son Rehoboam to rule. But before Solomon’s death, his trusted servant Jeroboam rose to power and challenged Rehoboam for the throne.

All of this drama led up to the conflict we just read about, for Rehoboam’s coronation. There is tension between the two regions, but Rehoboam has the chance to reconcile through a gentle-handed, fair reign. Instead, he chooses toughness, and the kingdom is split in two. Rehoboam retains Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, but Jeroboam rules over the majority of the land.

“To whom much is given, much is expected.” It’s a lesson that Rehoboam failed to heed.

In the north, Jeroboam is handed a golden opportunity, which he blows. Driven by fear of losing control of everything back to Rehoboam, he crafts golden calves for his people to worship.

From there, things just spiral out of control. The kingships of north and south become revolving doors of mostly reprehensible characters, while the prophets of God become the central characters, the heroes, issuing warning after warning which the kings reject until both are overthrown and the people are carried off into exile as the spoils of war.

“To whom much is given, much is expected.” Unfortunately, these wise words often fall on deaf ears – and not only in the lessons of Scripture. I can’t help but think of them, again, during this political season ramping up toward elections. As I think through how I respond to the gift and responsibility of citizenship, one of the things I take into account is the record of particular candidates’ charitable giving. It’s not necessarily the deciding factor, but I have found that it is something that sheds light on their character in interesting ways.

There are those candidates whose giving is habitually low and suddenly ramps up in anticipation of a campaign. There are those whose giving is quite generous. And there are those whose giving is nothing short of pitiful. Given the fact that running for national office in our country is now the domain of the extremely wealthy, I am disappointed in those who might appear selfless because of their desire to serve in public office but can’t be bothered to open their wallets.

It’s not that financial giving is the only sign of generosity; however, it does tend to reflect how willing people are to share their lives and their gifts with others.

Maybe I’m struck by all of this because we are in a season of Stewardship here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, where we focus on God’s plans for 2016 and the hopes that our leadership has for our shared ministry. We are able to do what we do because so many are willing to share – not only their financial resources, but also their time and incredible talents. Imagine our music program without singers and ringers and players, or our Bargain Shop without lifters and sorters and pricers. Imagine our communion without baked bread; or our worship service without light or heat or a sound system or a new roof. We can do these things because we share.

If only Rehoboam and Jeroboam had learned that lesson. Unfortunately, I believe, they were driven not by the joy of serving, but the fear of losing. Rehoboam had this golden opportunity handed to him. The people of Israel, the northern kingdom, were willing to give him a shot, even though they felt his father, Solomon, had taken advantage of him. Rehoboam consulted with two groups of advisors. The first council suggested he serve them with gentleness and win their trust and loyalty in return. The second, made up of childhood friends, told him not to serve at all, but rule: double-down on toughness in order to win their fear and respect. By choosing this second group’s wisdom, Rehoboam lost all but a fraction of his father’s territory and people.

You would think that Jeroboam would learn from this lesson of his rival. And yet, instead of serving God and God alone, Jeroboam’s fear led him to pander – pander to the people, pander to other gods, pander in order to preserve his power. In the end, both Rehoboam and Jeroboam served for a relatively long time: Jeroboam for twenty-two years, succeeded by his son; Rehoboam for seventeen years, also succeeded by his son. And by then, the damage was done. All that was left was for the results to play out over the generations.

“To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Look: it’s an easy thing to play armchair quarterback to kings long dead and gone, or to politicians whose every move is under the withering light of the 24-hour news cycle. The question that is much more important to ask is: what does this have to do with us? Or, in the same vein, what does it have to do with me?

What I know of this community at its best is of a church where service and fearlessness are central, both of them rooted in the cross and the God we know in Christ. Today, we celebrate the saints. That word, “saint”, means many things to many people. What I hope it doesn’t mean is some kind of impossible vision of perfect living. What “saint” literally means is “set apart”, not “perfect”. Saints are those people of faith who have gone before us. They did not live perfect lives, but strove anyway for what God desires in spite of their imperfection.

Can you think of a “saint” in your own life? Is there someone who comes to mind as that example of a person whose faithfulness shone through, even with their imperfections? Can you recall someone who lived their lives as though grace led them by the hand?

I often think of my own grandparents. They were imperfect, of course; being the grandchild gives me the benefit of seeing them through rose-colored lenses. What is embedded within me, though, is of two people who patiently raised my sister and me in worship – separating us when necessary, giving us paper to draw on and keep us occupied during the interminable sermons, holding the hymnals for us – in short, shepherding us until we were acculturated to the rhythms and patterns of worship. They let us pretend to nap; they let us fake a cough in order to get a sugary cough drop. And our lives have been forever changed because of that.

And I remember all of this because I recognize that there are those who will look to me as the model of what a “church person” is like, whether I do it well or not, and whether I want them to or not. Do I live my life in such a way that others would easily know what it is that moves me? Can I behave in such a way that I point not to myself, but to the God who empowers me to do the good I do and forgives me for the many, many times I miss the mark?

This, I believe, is the model we ought to strive for in our own lives: not perfection, because it is unattainable and will only drive us crazy; but imperfection infused with grace, knowing that it is grace alone that allows us to be faithful.

And this, I believe, is the model by which we ought to be fearless in our serving and in our sharing. It is, ultimately, what this table is all about.

When we come to this table, we do so not because we believe that we are somehow worthy, but because we recognize ourselves and our condition in the elements we share. We break bread. We pour out the cup. We do so in the echoes of the saints who have come before us, remembering that they, too, in ways that God alone can fully comprehend, are here with us in this meal.

And somehow, it is in the parceling out of the bread and cup that we are reminded of the wholeness we share with one another and with God. It is not perfection that brings us here, but hunger and thirst. Let us remember that as we share what we have been given with God’s precious children who hunger and thirst. After all, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”


Fearless Sharing

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.

These words, that end our Psalm today, close out the whole book of Psalms, the ancient hymnal of Israel: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.”

Those who put together our readings this morning have imagined, and possibly so, that David penned these words in response to the triumphal parade, when the seat of his kingdom moved from down in Hebron up to Jerusalem, dancing before the ark of God. As petty and errant as David can be, he also knows, in his heart of hearts, to share his victory – to credit it, really – to God and God alone.

David’s place in the Hebrew Bible is a critical one. The Israelites have made the transition from wandering nomads to a nation governed by tribal judges. Saul has served them as king, but only in the South – in Judah. The north, Israel – or Samaria – is disconnected. David will unite the kingdom under his rule, passing his legacy along to his son Solomon. Unfortunately, David’s grandsons will divide the kingdoms again between North and South, and this will ultimately lead to their undoing. It also means that David’s rule serves as a kind of “good ol’ days” to which the Israelites will look back with nostalgic longing.

That’s the thing about nostalgia, isn’t it? It remembers the good stuff but forgets the rest. Either that, or it tries to justify the bad in light of the good. That’s the kind of thought that hears every criticism and follows it up with, “Yeah, but…” We are capable of so much more nuanced thought! That’s what makes humanity so amazing: not only do we have the capacity for critical thinking, but we also are able to hold conflicting ideas in tension when the evidence warrants doing so.

Let me put it this way: as I see it, we have three ways of looking at David’s reign. One way is to see the whole thing as nothing but “good”; and therefore, anything we might otherwise consider “bad” is just stuff we have probably misunderstood, because it’s ultimately in service of the good. Another way of looking at it is as nothing but “bad”, which casts the “good” stuff under its shadow and, therefore, must not really be “good”. The third way is to be honest about the “bad” and the “good”, while still knowing that God is God and hope is always God’s desire for the world.

A couple of examples might help illustrate the point. David fathered the wise king Solomon. That’s a good thing. The way he did so was to betray his trusted general Uriah so he would die and battle and David could sleep with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. That’s a bad thing. If we assume that everything is good, then Uriah’s death is merely collateral damage toward the unifying of the kingdom. If we assume that everything is bad, then Solomon is suspect from the moment of his birth. If we live with that middle honesty, then Solomon is still wise while David is held accountable for murder and adultery; all the while, God is still God, lifting up Solomon, humbling David, and loving and correcting them both, even at their most unlovable.

Our reading today offers another example. David lets everyone know outright of his hatred for the blind and lame. If everything is good, then the blind and the lame deserve to be hated – or, perhaps, the Jebusites deserved to be wiped out. If everything is bad, then David taking Jerusalem is just evidence of his greed to rule as much territory as possible. If we live with that middle honesty, then we recognize that this was, in many ways, simply a strategic victory: moving the capital city to a fortified hill; that Nathan, David’s trusted prophet, was a Jebusite; and that Jesus himself came to reach out to the blind and the lame who had long been turned aside, and wrongly so, evidence that God can continue to be at work.

Does this make sense? I raise all of this because I am concerned with how we read the Bible. We have a tendency to do so by seeing it as the story of victors who are always be doing as God desires; otherwise, why would God allow it to happen? This tends to make us overlook all the wrong that was done, even supposedly in the name of God, when even the Bible itself goes through pains to point out the times when those wrongs were as clear as day!

When the Israelites chose Saul as their king, they did so not because they thought monarchy was the best system of government, but because they were jealous of the other nations and their kings. They chose Saul not because he was the wisest or the smartest, but because he was the tallest – something, you may recognize, as utterly irrelevant to fitness for office. In the end, God’s word was to the effect of, “This is a bad idea; but if your hearts are set on it, so be it.” This doesn’t mean that God sanctioned Saul’s kingship and everything he did. This also doesn’t mean that God abandoned the Israelites and stopped caring about them and their fate. It simply means that God is still at work in the midst of a messy, messy history; and that God doesn’t give up on God’s beloved easily.

The story of the Prodigal Son illustrates this quite well. One son stays at home; the other takes his inheritance, essentially telling his father to his face, “You’re as good as dead to me”, and takes off. He loses everything and comes crawling home. His father welcomes him back with a celebration, so great was his love for his lost son. None of this justifies the son’s actions, or brings back the wealth he squandered. Nor does this position the dutiful son over the disobedient son. Instead, it is a story of God’s character at work in the father, giving us freedom – even the freedom to make dumb choices – and loving us all the while.

What troubles me about overlooking or justifying wrongs when reading Scripture is that it leads to doing the same in our own lives and in the lives of our own tribes. And we do this all the time. We do this as Christians, speaking only of the times the Church has been persecuted while forgetting the centuries when the Church was the foremost global persecutor. We do this as Americans, focusing on the good only while ignoring the legacy of egregious wrongs committed.

Admiring Tom Brady’s athleticism does not mean you have to agree with his politics. Loving the Huxtables does not mean defending Bill Cosby at all costs. Being a Redskins or a Braves fan does not preclude wanting to ditch the mascot. Though our national political scene tends to work against this kind of nuanced thinking, we are capable of intelligent, critical thought that transcends tribal allegiances. And the same goes for us: people are capable of loving us, even when they disagree with us.

Jesus put it quite simply: before you point out the speck in your brother’s eye, take care of the log in your own – whether that’s individually or collectively.

I may be wrong, but I think the reason we shy away from this kind of honesty is that we are afraid. We do not admit mistakes because we are afraid they will be thrown back in our face. That level of transparency can be a scary thing. There’s a reason we rarely see it. Fear is a powerful motivator – and yet, fear can get in the way of faithfulness.

I think we’re better, wiser than all this. We are capable of believing two things at the same time without picking sides. We can be grateful to the service of police officers who put their lives on the line while being troubled by the increasing militarization of police forces and the distressing statistics around the treatment and incarceration of people of color. These two things can be held in tension, because compassion is not a finite resource – at least, not when it echoes the light of God’s compass.

We don’t have to pick sides – let me rephrase that: we should pick sides, as long as that side is God’s side.

You see, as much as we might cast the Bible as the story of Israel, or the story of the Church, the Bible is the story of God, and God alone – and God’s love for God’s creation.

And King David, as great as he was and has imperfect as he was, recognized that, ultimately, his place in history paled in comparison to what God had in store for him. As our reading says, “David knew that the Lord had made him king over Israel, and that his rule would be exalted for the sake of all Israel.” No sooner has this been said, though, when we are reminded that David’s ascension to Jerusalem was accompanied by more wives and concubines – not exactly a paragon of monogamy.

You see, that’s the thing: the bigger point risks getting lost in this. David was far from perfect. And yet, he was still able to accomplish great things. We have to hold these two things in tension with one another. That’s the faithful thing to do. Because the bigger point is that David was, at his best, God’s vessel of grace. And he knew that. With all of his flaws, he knew that any glory he experienced was due to God and God alone. He knew that the spotlight was not his to hog, but to share.

You see, this is one of the reasons I am a Presbyterian. I don’t think we have a monopoly on the truth, or that we always get it right. At the same time, I think we shape and reshape our lives in such a way that we can strive for this kind of honest, fearless sharing – of our time, our resources, and even of ourselves.

In the Presbyterian Church, we often describe ourselves as the Reformed Church, always being reformed. In other words, we come out of that Reformation period of history when there was a need for sweeping change – but we don’t, even for a moment, think we have gotten it all figured out, or that we will never need to be transformed again.

We are a church that values education and critical thinking. Faith is not necessarily in opposition to doubt; instead, doubt can be the very thing that strengthens faith, as long as we don’t fear it.

And we are a church that strives for transparency. Our leadership meetings are open meetings. Their notes are a matter of public record. We manage our financials in the light of day – our Town Hall meeting following worship is an example of this desire for transparency, of the fearless sharing of information.

And…and…and…we will get it wrong from time to time. That’s not an excuse; it’s the truth. It’s the truth that the God we know in Christ desires from us. It’s the truth that leads us not into perfection, but into a more perfect love and empathy for a world and a creation that creaks and groans to sing praise to the God of all creation, the God who loved, created, and redeemed King David, the God whose judgment held him accountable, the God whose glory shone through him at his best.

May we, too, be such broken vessels of the goodness of God.


Fearless Loving

“Wherever you go, I will go. Your God will be my God, and your people will be my people.”

With these words, Ruth follows after her mother-in-law Naomi. She leaves behind her homeland of Moab, crosses the Jordan River, and enters Judah, settling down in Bethlehem. She meets and marries Boaz, and becomes the great-grandmother of King David, as well as part of the ancestry named in the lineage of Jesus.

“Wherever you go, I will go. Your God will be my God, and your people will be my people.”

On one level, this is a story about devotion and love. Such was the love and affection that Naomi showed her daughters-in-law that they both wrestled with whether or not to follow her to a foreign land. Orpah decides to stay; Ruth decides to go. On another level, it’s a reflection of a particular time period. All three women have become widows, a particularly vulnerable position in the ancient world. Marriage and family would have been their most reliable means of support.

Naomi knows her chances will be better if she goes back to her “tribe” back in Bethlehem. Orpah figures she will be more likely to remarry if she stays in Moab. Ruth throws her lot in with Naomi, which is quite risky: marrying across tribe is unusual, and it is quite possible that the two widows will end up having to rely on Naomi’s family, if they will take them in.

In other words, it’s a story about history – a time period very different from our own. It’s also a story about love – a love that transcends blood and tribe. And it’s a story about trust – a trust that leans into love, and ends up risking for the sake of it.

Over the past few weeks, we have been talking about fearlessness – about the fact that fear is not a bad thing; in fact, it’s a necessary component for survival. And yet, we can’t let fear rule all that we do. The instinct of fear hearkens back to a primal time in our species, when there was survival and only survival. Human society has evolved dramatically in the intervening centuries, meaning that there are times when fear is simply outdated. It’s the emotional equivalent of using stone tools in the age of the smart phone.

Fearlessness, quite simply, takes practice. And that practice can lead us to the kinds of leaps of faith that we see in Ruth’s story.

Her story is a remarkable one. Think of it as two streams. On one side is her future as a Moabite. If she bids farewell to Naomi and goes back to her childhood home, she may or may not remarry. But she will be taken care of for the rest of her life. On the other side is her future as a foreigner in Bethlehem. As far as she would have been able to predict, nothing is certain. Once Naomi is gone, would her family feel obliged to care for Ruth? She is likely resigning herself to a life of poverty.

Think of it this way: to follow Naomi, Ruth not only pledges her loyalty to her; she obliges herself to a foreign nation and a foreign god! If you’re on the side of Judah, she’s a hero. But if you’re on the side of Moab, she’s nothing short of a traitor.

That’s the level of risk she takes. And what ends up happening is she ends up being part of this Judean stream of history that becomes a crucial part of the grander story of salvation, of God’s love for humanity. Through Joseph’s ancestry, Ruth is thirty generations removed from the birth of Jesus. In the long patriarchal list in Matthew, Ruth is one of only five women named. Moving from one stream to the other moved her story from being one of security and safety in Moab to one of history and destiny in Judah.

And all of it began with a commitment borne out of love.

What would it be like to have that kind of love? What would we experience if we had that kind of devotion to God and God’s story? Where would that kind of fearless loving lead us?

Elizabeth and I lived in Chicago when we were in graduate school. This was way back in the last century, BC (before children). And while we were there, a new call began to grow with a sense of urgency to it: to support the Christian church in the land of its birth. By the time 2000 rolled around, things were falling into place. And in September of that year, we moved to the Northern West Bank, where we spent three and a half wonderful, heartbreaking, joyful years living in a Palestinian village, teaching school and working with clergy and lay leaders there.

Before we left, we had a going away party. Everything in our home was tagged. There was the stuff we were planning to take, the stuff we were planning to put into storage, and everything else. Everything in that latter category we gave away. If people wanted to donate toward our ministry, that would be fine. More important to us, though, was that our “stuff” would find a home: furniture, books, clothes, music, you name it.

I’m not sure I can imagine doing something like that now. But here’s the thing: what sticks with me until this day is how freeing a time it was! We both knew, instinctively, that this is what we were supposed to do. Most of the stuff we had was stuff others had given to us anyway; who were we to charge for it? And letting go of all that stuff was just so…liberating! And all of it – all of it – was wrapped up in a wonderful certainty of this amazing thing that God was calling us into.

What would it look like for us to live with that kind of liberating abandon? What would it look like for you to let go of your “stuff”, however you want to define that, in love and fearlessness? Could we, indeed, follow in the footsteps of Ruth, calling out to God, “Wherever you go, I will go; your people will be my people”?

A word of caution, my friends: if we say this – we really say this and believe it – we will experience not only great freedom. Our hearts will be forever sewn together with those whom God loves. Speaking for myself, my days of living in Palestine are in the past. I have been able to reconnect with so many of those beloved friends by way of Facebook. And these past few weeks, the images they share of violence in the streets of Jerusalem and beyond are heartbreaking. These are people – Palestinians and Israelis; Muslims, Jews, and Christians – created in the image of God. Whatever “side” you feel drawn to in a conflict, whether based on tribe of politics or confessional status or nation, faithfulness requires love. And love requires love not only of those with whom we side – at least, not if we claim to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who said, in no uncertain terms, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

For Ruth, love meant risk – risking the safety and security of home because of the deep bonds of affection that her relationship with Naomi had brought. And that risk brought her great reward.

As noble as all of that is, it is a mere shadow of the love that God calls us to in Christ. We love people not because they are lovable. As wonderful as reciprocated love is, it’s the easy kind. We love because we are loved! You see: God knows what we are really like. And God loves us anyway! If that’s true of us, no matter how “moral” or “noble” or “good” we are at our best, we all know that we are never perfectly lovable. But that doesn’t matter to God! God knows what we are capable of and still calls us to the better angels of our nature.

Fearless loving is the embodiment of Christ’s love. It loves friends, yes, but also enemies. It prays for those precious to us, yes, and those whom we cannot stand. It is not easy; it takes practice, and it involves risk. And yet, it brings us into God’s stream of faithful living, of that amazing history of salvation that God continues to promise to humanity!

What would that kind of love look like in your life? What would like look like to practice that kind of fearless loving? For some of you, it may start with your morning commute and replacing whatever kind of colorful descriptives you might have for that person that cuts you off to call out, instead, “God love you!” For others of you, it might be seeing that co-worker who rubs you the wrong way and muttering under your breath, “child of God; child of God; child of God.” Whatever it is, it begins in prayer. After all, prayer is a two-way conversation where we not only call out to God but open ourselves to God and God’s ways.

Friends: the love that God calls us to be part of us fearless. May we live into it together.

Fearless Living

Fearlessness takes three things: practice, practice, practice.

Our lesson this morning from Deuteronomy takes place two generations after Moses led the Israelites out of their Egyptian enslavement. On the plain of Moab, on the Eastern shore of the Jordan River, Moses is giving what turns out to be a series of farewell addresses. In our reading today, Moses recounts the Ten Commandments delivered at Mount Sinai and what we might call a summary statement, a few short verses that act as a call to action for remembering their covenant with God.

In some ways, the Ten Commandments act as a recipe for faithful living. Follow these and you will live faithful lives: don’t put anyone or anything in the place of God but God. Don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie, envy. Do Sabbath. All in all, it’s not a bad list. If we took care to do these things, we would do well.

But we don’t, do we? I don’t know about you, but I might break a couple just in the span of a morning commute. We can’t do it! And I’m convinced that the reason we can’t is…fear.

There is no differentiation in the list between those commandments that are more or less serious. But we do treat them that way, don’t we?

The commandments we might think of as weightier – killing, adultery, theft – are all, I believe, rooted in fear. We think far less of ourselves than God thinks of us. We are convinced that what we have is what we are – and so, fearing that we are not enough, we want more so that we will be more.

We might do well at avoiding these; but there are others that we take more as suggestions than commandments. “Remember the Sabbath. Keep it holy.” How many of us actually set aside time – serious time – each and every week for Sabbath? Do we really hold a day, or even a portion of a day, sacred for remembering God and restoring our souls? If not, why not? Is it that we think of the idea as “quaint”? Or that the stricter Sabbath observances we are aware of seem antiquated to our 21st century sensibilities – no lights on, no cooking, no driving?

I think it’s fear. If the boss asks us for seven days worth of work, we fear losing our job – and that trumps Sabbath. Maybe there’s no boss to pin it on: it’s work and family and everything in between that keep us running. Some of us have convinced ourselves that if we stop, we fear that the world will, too. We can’t not be in charge – because if we aren’t, then we fear the abject chaos the world descends into – and that not only violates Sabbath, it also puts us in the place of God.

Or maybe our unwillingness to keep Sabbath is driven by fear of what the stillness will stir up for us: those demons of self-doubt or deep-seeded anger or shame, demons we can outpace much of the time, will catch up with us if we stop to rest.

Commandment by commandment, one after the other, if we fail to keep it, I am convinced that it is because fear, not faith, has taken hold.

And that’s where Moses’ summary statement comes in. Because if the Ten Commandments are the recipe for faithfulness, then these six short verses in chapter six are the recipe for fearlessness: practice, practice, practice.

These verses are known as the “Shema” after the Hebrew word that begins them. “Shema” – listen, or hear. Hear, O Israel – Listen, O people of God: the Lord, the one who delivers and saves us, is our God – the Lord, and no one else. And you shall worship this same God with your whole being: all your heart, your soul, your strength.

How, you ask? By reciting these words over and over and over and over and over again! Teach them to your children. Pass them along as a precious inheritance to the next generation. Talk about them when you are home and when you are away – in other words, all the time. Think about them when you are awake and even when you are asleep – in other words, all of the time.

These words are so central to the Hebrew Bible, so crucial to the understanding of the Torah and God’s covenant with God’s people, that you’ve probably seen them and weren’t even aware of it. They are often contained in a small scroll, rolled up into a small, decorative case, and attached to the doorframes of Jewish homes. The letter “shin”, for “Shema”, which looks kind of like an English letter “W”, marks the outside of the case.

And if you’ve ever seen Orthodox Jews in fervent prayer, with leather straps bound around their arms, and a small black box bound to their forehead, then you have seen the Shema in action. All of this is a very literal understanding of the rest of the Shema: bind these promises as a sign on your hands. Fix them as an emblem on your foreheads. Write them on your doorposts; attach them to your gates.

In other words, keep them always, always, always with you, wherever you go.

Some history and distance has happened between Moses’ words and October 11, 2015. While the Shema still stands as a precious inheritance for us, we also have Jeremiah’s words about God’s new covenant, written on hearts and not on stone. We have Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well that worship of God is about spirit and truth, not specificity of place.

The commandments have not lessened in their importance. And yet, in some ways, we treat them as though they matter less.

There is always a risk in purely outward signs of observance, that they will be nothing more than superficial shows for the rest of society. We need look no further than any of the public failings of our political or religious figures, most of whom have been championing against the very thing they fall prey to in their once-shrouded, private lives.

At the same time, there is just as much of a risk when we move from these physical manifestations of God’s commands, of holy bindings on our heads and arms, of sacred decorations on doorposts and gates. In some ways, we have privatized faith to the point that it doesn’t matter anymore.

So what would it look like to be fearless people of faith with integrity, inside and out? More importantly, what would it take to get there?

As we talked about last week, fear is not a bad thing! It’s a necessary part of our built-in, God-given survival mechanism. Fear is part of what teaches us that food is good and fire is bad. However, there are places where those survival mechanisms trip us up. Our human society has evolved faster than our biology, and our brains have not kept up. And yet, there is a kind of shortcut: practice.

Our brains are remarkable things. Even when they are damaged, they are remarkably elastic and can be retrofitted, in a sense – they can rewire, create new neural pathways. And what does it take to do this? Practice. Practice. Practice.

We practice new ways of behaving, responding, reacting; and our brains adapt, so that our natural reaction in fear and brokenness is replaced by a new natural reaction in hope and health. This is why faith is a discipline, that it takes practice.

As many of you know, we are in the midst of our Stewardship Season. In one month, on Sunday, November 15, we are asking each of you to make some kind of commitment to God’s work here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church for 2016. We will be asking you, to the best of your ability, to make a promise regarding how you will spend your time, how you will use your talents, and how you will use your money for the sake of what it is that God is doing.

In many ways, what we do is very, very private. We don’t have “levels” of giving that we publish. We don’t charge a membership fee – after all, if we believe God’s grace is a gift that is freely received, how can we turn around and charge for it? All we ask about your financial gift is that you pray about it. Be absolutely transparent with God about what it is that gives you hope and what it is that gives you fear. And…listen. Listen to what it is that God is saying to you – not anyone else, just you – about your gift.

And here’s where that recipe for fearlessness comes in: I want to suggest that each of us, each and every day between now and November 15, read these words from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 daily. Let them be a part of your daily prayer and reflection.

Just like last week, I’m passing out cards, and I encourage you to take one. Put it in your wallet, or on your mirror so that you read it each and every day. They will become, more and more, a practice that leads to fearlessness; and a fearlessness that leads to faithfulness.

May it be so, now and always.


Fearless Giving

This morning, we begin a new worship series that parallels our stewardship season. And as we do, we take a look at what it means to be fearless in our faith.

What does that mean, exactly? What is fearlessness? And is that really the goal? After all, it’s not as though “fear” is purely a bad thing. Fear has been essential to the survival of our species. If our ancestors hadn’t feared saber-toothed tigers, then we likely wouldn’t have been here at all.

Fear is an important part of the wiring God has given us. It lets us know instinctively when we are in danger even when we aren’t consciously aware of it. Self-defense classes teach you to trust fear – if a situation feels wrong, then it is wrong.

So in a sense, the suggestion to be fearless is not only counterintuitive; it’s counterproductive. Fear, it seems, is an essential, usually trustworthy part of life.

Usually – but not always.

Our lesson this morning, taken from the first three chapters of Exodus, bears out this complicated role that fear plays in our lives. The Egyptians fear the Israelites because they are growing in number – and so, not only are they enslaved, but their mail children are to be killed. Moses’ mother fears for his life, setting him adrift in a basket on the Nile, an act which ends up saving his life.

The adult Moses, after killing an Egyptian, flees in fear to escape his punishment. And as God tells him to go back to free the Israelites, Moses is gripped by fear again. Fear, it seems, is complicated. It can be life-saving; and it can be imprisoning. While fear may be essential to survival, it is not essential to faith.

You see, when we are afraid, we revert to our most primal selves. We protect ourselves and our tribe at all costs, because somewhere, deeply embedded in our gray matter, are these circuits that convince us that, suddenly, everything is at stake. There are times when fear serves us well. And there are times when it trips us up. The hard part is knowing the difference.

In Exodus, Moses’ mother’s fear leads her to creative ways to preserve the life of her baby; and Moses’ fear of retribution sends him into exile in the Sinai. In both cases, fear led in the right direction. But Pharaoh’s fear led him to unjust brutality; and Moses’ fear of returning led him to protest against what God had set him apart to do. In both cases, fear led them astray. What can we possibly learn about fearlessness when it comes to faith, except that it’s unreliable?

Three days ago, a young man killed ten people, including himself, and wounded nine others at an Oregon community college. Accounts describe the shooter as a white supremacist with anti-religious leanings who was obsessed with guns. Our response as a nation is all-too-predictable. We retreat to our echo chambers where we convince ourselves yet again that we are right because we have always been calling for more guns, or fewer guns, or somewhere in between. Surely, cooler heads will prevail and bring about some common sense reforms in our gun laws, right? Or is it that fear undermines our ability to think reasonably about this uniquely American plague of mass shootings?

I am more and more convinced that the primal fears we could once trust no longer serve us well. Society has developed into this complex set of relationships; our tribes of self-identification should no longer matter, but fear causes us to retreat into our groups of those who are “like us”. Our news media knows that fear is an addictive drug and feeds it to us 24-hours a day, such that we seek out only those sources that feed our fears and convince us of our own self-righteousness.

The goal, I believe, is not to eliminate fear altogether. Instead, while we should listen to fear, and expect it, we should not be ruled by it. If we, like Moses, continue to let fear be our guide at all times, we will miss the moments when God is calling us to places and ministries that make us uncomfortable. To be faithful, at times, means to be fearless. And the only way to make that happen is through discipline and practice.

We now know this about ourselves as a species. Those neural pathways aren’t as hard-wired as we used to think. Through consistent practice and readjustment, we can be rewired for the kind of fearlessness that faith can call us to.

When I think back about things that used to terrify me but no longer do, public speaking comes to mind. I did not emerge from the womb ready to preach. I still remember my first church job out of seminary. There were days when the mere thought of preaching would make me physically ill. And while I would be lying if I said I have eliminated the nervousness altogether, it does not control me anymore. It’s not that I have eliminated it or learned to ignore it, either. Instead, I now use it as a helpful reminder that the very act of preaching is a presumptuous one. My most fervent prayer, each and every time I preach, is that the words of my mouth would be acceptable in God’s sight. I never want to be in the position where I assume I no longer need God’s wisdom to be a preacher. At the same time, I never want to be in the position where fear controls me and convinces me that I have nothing to say.

Friends, there are times when faithfulness calls us to acts of bravery we might not think we are capable of. And yet, if it is truly faithful, God will give us what we need to step out in risk. It takes practice, and there are ample opportunities to do just that.

Today, as we begin our stewardship campaign, I want you to consider what it might mean for you to live your faith fearlessly. Fear convinces us that we live in a culture of scarcity; if I don’t grab it, someone else will. If I give it away, then I am vulnerable. Faith calls us to trust: trust in the God of abundance and provision. We give it away as an act of faith in itself – not because we are fearless, necessarily, but because we have an opportunity to practice faithful bravery even while we remain somewhat skittish.

We have cards with our logo for our stewardship campaign on them. I want you to take one for yourself, and to keep it with you for the duration of the campaign – in your wallet, on your bathroom mirror, wherever it is that you will be reminded of our call to fearlessness.

What I want to be absolutely crystal clear about is this: what you give is ultimately up to you and God. So whatever you do, I want you to do it prayerfully. After all, it is what God desires of you, not what the church or the pastor asks of you, that is faithful. Trust God to lead you in faithfulness.

I simply want to encourage you to practice a lifestyle of giving that grows in fearlessness. What do you give currently? What percentage is it of your income? Is it 2%? 3? Can you increase that giving by an additional 1%? How much time do you give away? Is it four hours a week? Five? Can you add an additional hour?

All of this comes with the careful caveat that faithful living is a larger concept of which the church is a mere part. To be what God has created me to be, I am called to be a faithful husband, father, son, brother, child of God. And I am also called to be a pastor – in this case, pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. But being a pastor is not the entirety of my calling.

Similarly, God calls you to be a member of Christ’s church. But that membership is not the entirety of God’s calling. Perhaps you are a parent, or a spouse; above all, you are God’s beloved, called to faithfulness that takes fear into account but is not ruled by it.

The point in all of this is that we are called to fearless giving, and are capable of far more than we think we are. Let us, in our giving, strive for the model of Moses’ mother. The life of her precious son was threatened. She did what she did motivated out of fear, yes, but also out of love and out of faith. Much like the contemporary Syrian mothers with the same set of motivations, she set her son adrift on the water in a vessel that was not seaworthy. She gave her son to the elements, trusting that God would provide. And in that act of trust, a people were given the hope of freedom, following this same helpless infant pulled from his basket of reeds and given a second chance to live and lead.

With this image in mind, is it any surprise that God would call us, too, to acts of faithful giving? As Christians, as disciples of Christ, as followers of Jesus, we surely know that the fullest act of faithfulness was Christ’s own self-giving on the cross. He did it for our sake, not for his own. How can we not respond by our own selfless, fearless giving of what God has entrusted to us?

Many of you have heard of the hero that emerged in the Oregon shooting. When Chris Mintz heard the sound of bullets, his army training meant that he ran towards the shooting, rather than away from it. He told the shooter, “It’s my son’s birthday” before being shot seven times. He survived and is expected to make a full recovery. That act of bravery most certainly saved the lives of others, distracting and delaying the gunman and giving time for police to respond.

I have not seen any reports on whether or not Mintz is a person of faith; in many ways, that is irrelevant. The point is that he embodied fearless giving – giving of himself so that others would have a chance to live. I would hope that our lives would even be a mere reflection of this kind of fearlessness.

When we come to the table, we recognize that I’m not the one who invites us here, nor is it the congregation or leadership that sets the table, except in the most literal of ways. This table belongs to no one but Jesus. And we, fed here, we are sent to feed. Nourished at this table, we are emboldened to live lives of faithful, fearless giving – of what we have, of what we are – to a world that is desperately hungry in body, mind, and spirit.

So come – let us taste and see that the Lord is good!


Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

Our lesson this morning finds the great patriarch Jacob with his family. He sends them across the shallow ford of a river, spending the night alone. At least, at first he is alone, but he ends up wrestling an unnamed man all night long. The man figures out that Jacob is a fierce competitor, so injures his hip. Even with that, Jacob persists, telling the man: “I will not let go of you until you bless me.”

We are never told the identity of the man, but by virtue of everything else that happens in the story, we learn that he was some kind of angel or manifestation of God. He tells Jacob that his name is now “Israel”, which means “God-wrestler.” And Jacob names the place “Peniel”, which means “face of God.” Whatever it was that happened in the encounter, Jacob saw it as something holy, worth remembering and preserving, devoting the whole episode to God and his relationship with God.

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

We have spent the last two months taking a closer look at worship: what we do, why we do what we do, why we do it in the order we do…In short, worship is meant to flow seamlessly from beginning to end. It begins when we gather – when we meet up in the parking lot, in the lobby, in the pews, as the music plays.

Somewhere along the way, we move from gathering to preparing: we praise, we confess and come clean, we are reminded of the absurd gift of undeserved grace, and share that peace with each other.

We encounter the Word of God: read in Scripture, sung in anthem, interpreted in sermon, made visible in baptism and communion, present in the Word made flesh, Jesus himself. From there, everything we do is our response to this meeting with the living Christ: we pray, remember what we believe in creeds, recommit our resources and ourselves to the work and desires of God.

And from there, we are sent. The hour or so of worship draws to a close so that the service begins. We go out to serve God in Christ, reaching out to a broken world in need of healing. And then, one week later, the people gather, and the drama begins again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What this overview fails to account for is the fact that faith isn’t always easy. As the popular phrase puts it, one of the goals of faith is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. In other words, this whole act of worship is one that is meant to take on both our brokenness and our complacency. Worship should be where we find both healing and prodding.

At least, that’s the hope. That’s my hope. If we spend the whole time agreeing with each other, then all we have done is luxuriate in self-righteousness, self-centeredness, and self-justification. On the other hand, if we only remind ourselves of how imperfect, how far off the mark we are, then we end up denying the God-crafted beauty that lies within each of us. Worship, instead, ought to be a balance between these two extremes: meeting us and embracing us as we are, but not content to leave us there, and so nudging, pushing, pulling us into other and better and more faithful ways of being.

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

Each of us has our own encounters with the challenges of faith. Whether it’s the personal pain of broken relationships or undeserved hurts, or the desperate cries of “why me” in the hospital or by the bedside, or the glimpses of agony at a culture, a society, a world so full of injustice and wrongdoing and cruelty…if we take faith with any level of seriousness, we know it’s not a “happily ever after” fairy tale. It is, instead, a reality complicated by both joy and heartbreak, sometimes in the very same moment.

A few years ago, my friend Jim was driving his father to his sister’s rehearsal dinner. His father required the assistance of a cane to get around, and had been in poor health; but none of that was on their mind as they made their way to the celebration. Suddenly, Jim’s dad was having extreme discomfort. It turned out that he was having a heart attack. Jim pulled the car over and called 911, but it was too late. The next day, as the family gathered for the wedding, Jim took his father’s cane and walked his sister down the aisle.

I can only imagine the swirl of emotions at that moment: rejoicing at this celebration, but grieving the devastating and sudden loss; overcome with the agony of physical absence, but comforted by the symbolic presence of what is unseen.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think God visited this suffering on Jim and his family. I don’t, for a moment, pretend to understand why the world works the way it does, but I know that God’s desires good and wholeness and peace. And when the world is troubled by evil and brokenness and wrongdoing, God’s heart is the first to break. God does not cause suffering; but if the cross at the center of our faith means anything, it’s that God is at work anyway, shaping that moral arc of the universe as it bends toward justice.

In their moment of pain, Jim and his family grabbed a firm hold of God, refusing to let go, no matter how much they were hurting. Their faith had taught them that God had joy in store for them ultimately. I am sure it didn’t feel like it at the moment; but they knew to hold tight for that blessing.

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

There is a larger story that surrounds our morning lesson, one that helps to frame it in surprising ways. Jacob’s encounter with the wrestler comes as he prepares to face his twin brother Esau for the first time in ages. If we remember, Jacob had twice betrayed Esau, getting both his inheritance and his blessing. The night of his wrestling is the night before he is to meet Esau face to face. He is understandably terrified. He knows he has wronged his brother, and he fully expects revenge. No wonder he spends the night wrestling with the divine, if not with his own conscience and history.

The next day, as Jacob limps his way across the expanse toward this unknown fate, he sees Esau coming toward him with 400 men. Fearing the worst, Jacob went first, bowing down to the ground as a sign of his contrition. What Esau does next is the gift: he runs to Jacob, throws his arms around his neck, and kisses him. The brothers embrace and weep. In an amazing twist, all is forgiven. Esau is overjoyed to meet Jacob’s family, this incredible collection of nieces and nephews. He rejects Jacob’s attempts to give him cattle, saying that God has already blessed him greatly. After this tender reunion, the two brothers go their separate ways, now reconciled through Esau’s gracious mercy.

In a sense, Jacob had to come to terms with himself before he could come to terms with his brother. The night-long wrestling was, in many ways, a manifestation of Jacob’s wrestling with who he once was and what he had done. Expecting to meet Esau the next day, there is no doubt that all that had transpired between them had come flooding back in overwhelming anxiety, fear, loathing, humiliation, embarrassment. It’s no wonder he slept little, if any, and came away in pain. Even so, through it all, he demonstrated fierce tenacity to his faith, holding on for dear life. Not only would he have to come clean to Esau; he would have to do so with God as well.

Friends, there is a gift of faith in the struggle with faith. It would be one thing to face reality and come away hopeless, with the sense that God has given up on the world, that humanity is doomed, that the planet will cure us as the virus we behave like. That kind of pessimism, as honest and realistic as it might feel, is actually the cop out, the easy route. Because if we are really doomed, what’s the point in being faithful? Why bother with any of it? Why waste an hour on Sunday morning? In fact, why eat well, exercise, befriend, volunteer, be kind?

The harder path, the faithful path, is the path of Jacob and Esau. Like Jacob, it is real honesty, the soul-searching for the wrongs we have done, even if we have to wrestle them through the night. It sends us to our knees, begging for forgiveness when we have wronged another.

And like Esau, it recognizes that past wrongs pale in comparison to the blessings God has given. It forgives – not because doing so is an easy way to forget the past, but because it is the hard work of coming to terms with what has been. And, in so doing, we find amazing freedom!

Faith is not always easy. But it is always worth it. There will be times when we emerge smarting, limping; but the promise is that we will come away singing, rejoicing, worshiping, praising.



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