Feeds:
Posts
Comments

My News

goodwp.com_32400Dear Oglethorpe Presbyterian Friends and Family,

I write to you with bittersweet news. After worship yesterday, I shared with Session leaders that I have accepted a call to begin a new Presbyterian worshiping community. While my family and I are sure of God’s voice in this new adventure, we will miss Oglethorpe Presbyterian deeply.

I have often described my call to Oglethorpe in 2005 as “magnetic”, having arrived with absolute, gravitational clarity. And so, I knew that my next call would be similarly irresistible: not a call away from Oglethorpe, but a call to something new.

For the next year, I will be in Atlanta apprenticing with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s national initiative 1001 New Worshiping Communities. The program is meant to “ignite a movement”, where leaders will be “using new and varied forms of church for our diverse and changing culture.” The process is flexible and shifting, a prospect thrills and overwhelms me. I have learned to recognize these as the hallmarks of God.

Elizabeth and I will always cherish our ten and a half years at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. We have raised our boys here, and, blessedly, you are everything they know of Church. Your openness, willingness to experiment, and overflowing grace have allowed all four of us to grow in faith, hope, and love. And this character of Oglethorpe Presbyterian is the foundation of what lies ahead. As you welcome your next pastor and move into what God has in store, I pray the words of the prophet Jeremiah will be an anchor: “Surely I know the plans I have for you…a future filled with hope.” (Jer. 29:11)

My last day at Oglethorpe Presbyterian will be Sunday, June 19, at which point my pastoral duties will draw to a close. This change in relationship is required by the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, and also must be done out of fairness to current and future leadership at Oglethorpe. I appreciate your willingness to honor this new reality.

I leave Oglethorpe rejoicing in the sure knowledge that we may not know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future.

Grace and Peace,

Marthame Sanders, Pastor

Consoling Soon

20101108-082626.jpgIn the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.

I have told the story before of my friend Fr. Thomas, the Greek Orthodox priest. We got to know him when we moved in as his neighbors during our time in Palestine. If you were going to craft a caricature of a Greek Orthodox priest you wouldn’t end up with someone as magnificent as Fr. Thomas. Everywhere he went, he wore his black robe and black hat. His grayish white beard flowed down onto his chest, and his long hair in back was tied up in a ponytail.

Fr. Thomas was never quite sure what to do with us Presbyterians. We weren’t Catholics, which was a plus in his book, but we were Protestants, which had historically had little to do with the Orthodox church. Over time, he learned to trust us. One Friday, I rode with him down to Tubas, a little village to the south of the one in which we lived. The 50 or so Christians there lived among 17,000 Muslims.

As we stood by the side of the road waiting for a car, Fr. Thomas turned toward me: “You Protestants.” I waited for the accusation that came next. “Why don’t you cross yourselves?” I paused, thinking about how Protestants had distanced themselves from Rome, probably throwing out some practices because of guilt by association, and I decided I had more to learn by listening than talking.

“Don’t you see?” he said. “These three fingers represent the unity of God in Trinity! And these two are the humanity and divinity of Christ, born from the womb of the Virgin Mary! He is True God from True God, descended to be one of us. He rose again, sits on the right hand, and will come again.”

“Oh, that! We’ve got that. Here’s the church, here’s the steeple…”

We are better in community than we are on our own.

Today we mark Trinity Sunday. In 2016, the Trinity can come across as one of those archaic philosophies that might have made sense back in 325 but not anymore. We are monotheists, but believe that God is in three persons? Jesus is God, and also God’s Son? Let’s just skip all the complications and boil it down to “try and be nice to others.”

Let’s be honest. Christian faith comes with a series of challenges. First, we claim to find eternal meaning in a collection of books written almost 2000 years ago, intended for a Middle Eastern sheep-herding, olive harvesting people. Second, we are guided by doctrines like incarnation and the Trinity that grew out of ancient Greek philosophical notions about life, the universe, and everything. And third, we live in a culture that runs counter to our faith – especially among those whom we would consider our fellow adherents, treating Christianity as a national tribe of self-defense rather than a sacrificial way of selflessness to a world in need. Why bother?

Because we are better in community than we are on our own.

Look. The Trinity, as a doctrine, might seem like impenetrable philosophical gymnastics. God is Father, God is Son, God is Spirit. Father is, and isn’t, Son; Son is, and isn’t, Spirit. Spirit is, and isn’t, Father. Three, and One. It’s like steam, water, and ice. Or like idea, word, and breath. Or like one finger with three segments. Does any of this help? And if it does, does it help us to understand something about God, or what it means to have faith in that God?

If nothing else, here’s what I hope the Trinity suggests to us today: the essence of God is community. God is one. There is no god but God. And that same God, the source of all that was, is, and will be, is expressed in the community of Trinity. The Father needs the Son. The Son needs the Spirit. The Spirit needs the Father. They all need each other for their holiness to be made real.

And what that means for us, those of us who want to reflect the character of God that we know and love, is that we are meant to be in community; because we are better in community than we are on our own.

When Paul and Timothy write to the church in Corinth in our lesson this morning, it is the sense of being knit together as people of faith that emerges in their writing. Paul and Timothy know that the Corinthians are suffering, a suffering that Paul and Timothy empathize with and even share in. In that suffering, they write, they are connected to the suffering of Jesus himself.

One summer, I worked as a chaplain at a Catholic hospital outside of Chicago. I visited one day with a young woman who had come in because of a nasty infection, only to get another one at the hospital. In abject pain and sleepless nights, she looked up on the wall and saw what was on every room in the hospital: Jesus on the cross. It was as though, she told me, Jesus was saying to her, “I know your pain. Your pain is my pain.” And being joined with Jesus’ suffering, she said, gave her great comfort and strength to endure.

As Paul and Timothy tell the Corinthians, it is the prayers of the Corinthians that give Paul and Timothy hope and perseverance. We are better in community than we are on our own.

This is why we form churches and worship together and serve together and become members – to be in community, to strengthen, challenge, and grow our faith in Christ.

We are better in community than we are on our own.

The Orthodox liturgy Fr. Thomas celebrates is a complicated liturgical dance. From the intricate clothing to the detailed instruments, everything tied into Scripture and theology – perhaps nothing more than the Eucharistic bread.

The bread itself bears a stamp that is baked into it. There is the shape of the cross, with “Christ is Victory” written three times down the middle. As the priest prepared the bread for the liturgy, he takes a golden knife in the shape of a spear, piercing the bread, carefully taking out a piece, and placing it on a plate, under a tent of sorts. This represents the grotto in which the Christ child was born.

The priest then takes the piece of Christ-bread and mixed into the chalice of wine, the body and blood coming together. He then cuts pieces of bread for the patriarchs and matriarchs of faith, the prophets and angels, the disciples, apostles and saints of the church, and mixes them into the cup. Then, as members of the congregation come forward to whisper their prayer requests to him, he cuts out pieces for each of them, mixing those into the wine.

Finally, the congregation processes forward, as the priest spoon-feeds the communion mixture to each of them. Much like the prophet Isaiah’s lips were purified with the burning coal, so the members of the congregation are being purified, the spoon representing the tongs that held the coal.

In other words, in communion, Orthodox Christians are united with this whole stretch of God’s salvation history: stretching back to creation, through Noah and the flood, sweeping through Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, into the birth of Jesus, his ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection, catching up Paul and Timothy and the Corinthians, and on into the present day, with hope for what is to come. All of this is done in community: the sufferings and joys alike united in that cup, and shared by all who are there, bearing one another in grief and celebration, all of it tied back into Jesus himself, the one who lived life out of death, redemption out of suffering, hope out of despair.

And that’s what we do today at this table. In form, it looks very different from what Fr. Thomas brings to his people. There is no spear, no spoon, no grotto. What we do have is bread and cup. And as we share in these things, we do them together, because we are better in community than we are on our own.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rising Soon

neanderthal-national-geo_front-300x199We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

Our lesson this morning, coming from the end of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, is a curious one. The community to whom he writes is one about whom he clearly has mixed feelings. It is a church he had a strong hand in starting, having spent three years living and teaching among the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus.

His letters are a collection of responses back to them, mostly fueled by reports he hears emanating from the community. In a lot of cases, the reports are of conflict and questioning. Paul writes to them about dietary laws, schisms, baptism, and communion, among other critical issues. Our text addresses questions around, of all things, resurrection.

Since we only have the letters Paul authored and not those he received, it takes some detective work to figure out what exactly he is responding to. In this case, it seems that some are saying that there is no resurrection – in other words, that once you die, that’s it. Paul goes on to say, in quite pointed fashion, that if there is no resurrection, then Christ experienced no resurrection. And if that’s the case, then the only thing faith is good for is the life we live, which Paul says is “futile”, “in vain”, “pointless”. In other words, without resurrection, without the promise of life beyond what we know, the whole faithful enterprise collapses on its own weight.

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

When this congregation was founded in 1949, no one could have anticipated what the world would look like in 2016. Those who helped buy this property and build these buildings did so because they knew that this community at the end of the trolley line needed a Presbyterian church. What worship would look like, what leadership would look like, what ministry needs would look like, what technology would look like…none of that would have been on their radar. I don’t know this for sure, but I would guess that they did not spend a whole lot of time worrying about that, either. They were focused on being faithful to what God was calling them to be.

It was a couple of years ago that we had a worship series focused on the history of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. And the thing that kept arising, again and again, was that the key moments in our collective history were those where the church did its level best to be faithful disciples of Christ in that particular moment. As our vision and mission statement says, “Ours is a story that belongs to God.” And that is where we are expected to root ourselves.

If incarnation has any hold, if Jesus really is the embodiment of God, then that means that God is just as much at work now as God was 67 years ago, or 200 years ago, or 2000 years ago, 14 billion years ago. And if the same is true looking back, then the same is true looking forward.

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

This past Christmas, our family gift was participating in the National Geographic genographic project. The results of our DNA sample came back this week, and we’ve been spending time looking at the results. And in doing so, we were reminded of the incredible sweep of human history.

About 350,000 years ago, the ancestor to our species centered around sub-Saharan Africa, with a branch migrating northwest into West Asia and Europe. These were the Neanderthals. By about 130,000 years ago, our African ancestors were identifiable as Homo sapiens. 60,000 years ago, some of those humans moved north and on into Eurasia, encountering the Neanderthals, where they mated with them and absorbed them into humanity.

The results also go on to identify the various ethnic groups with whom we share DNA, as they also share the incredible story of human migration over time, one that has only become accelerated with the advent of technology. For me, in looking over this research, there is a deep sense of awe. It is one of the ways that I touch holiness, staring into that wonderful abyss of time, recognizing how little we understand of it all. It reminds of how we are, all of us, interconnected, no matter how different we might look, or no matter what those who try to divide us might suggest. For those of us with European or Asian ancestry, or indigenous American roots, we can trace our lineage back across thousands of years of roots in Africa and the Middle East!

That same holy sense of awe I get looking back is also there when I look forward – although, admittedly, with a touch of anxiety. Not knowing what is to come can be fearful, because we are not in control. And here is what faith says to that:

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

This is something critical for us to remember during this awful political season. God is God…no matter what! And it is particularly critical for us as people of faith, and as disciples of Jesus, as those who live within the hope of resurrection.

There are those who would try to domesticate Jesus, to box him in to fit their own agendas – political, economic, theological, national – but Jesus, as that incarnate embodiment of God, is a slippery figure. You can’t trap him or mold him into your own likeness!

This is important for us to note as we read Paul’s words today. This text, along with some others, is one that has given shape to notions of the Rapture, the Second Coming, the Apocalypse, Armageddon, Judgment Day, whatever title you want to give it. Paul writes that we will be instantly changed in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet, when the dead are raised.

Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of two people in a field, one taken and one left. And in Revelation, John writes of the seven seals and the seven angels and the seven plagues. There are other odd descriptions from the prophecy of Daniel and elsewhere. Some have used these texts to cobble together a detailed description of what the last days will be like. Such is the popularity of this practice that it even brought Kirk Cameron and Nicolas Cage together.

But here’s the thing: we do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

You see, all of this talk about the Rapture is a pretty new phenomenon. It wasn’t until American Protestantism arose, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, that this idea of people being plucked out of thin air became popularized, and it really only gaining traction with the publication of Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth in 1970. As you probably notice, there’s a whole lot of church history before then – shoot: even the Beatles predate that.

Besides which, none of that was Paul’s point. The point, instead, is that the future will not be like we expect. And that is good news – indeed, the best news of all. Because it is not in our hands! It is God who holds the future. Thanks be to God!

We live and serve as those through whom God works to bring that future into being, people of the resurrection, of the hope it promises, of the mystery and awe that it brings. Let us live as though it is true.

Amen.

Reconciling Soon

The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ.

Our two lessons this morning remind us of some critical shifts in the early days of Christianity. At first, Christians were primarily Jews who saw Jesus as a Messianic figure. They worshiped in the synagogues, followed Hebrew dietary laws, and celebrated the Jewish feasts. When Jews were persecuted, Christians were, too.

Then along comes Paul.

Paul first appears as Saul, a fierce persecutor of these followers of Jesus. He oversees the public lynching of Stephen, he of strong leonine faith, who is often called the first Christian martyr. When Saul is on the way to do more of the same in Damascus, he has an otherworldly conversion experience, a blinding encounter with Jesus himself. And in that moment, Saul becomes Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul’s new mission is one of preaching. He takes that same fierceness with him as he brings the message of Jesus far beyond the Jewish community. The letters attributed to him make up the bulk of the New Testament, and his writings are critical in establishing Christianity as its own faith, distinct from Judaism, one in which people of different tribes were meant to be together in community.

The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ.

Paul’s mission pointed back to Jesus’ own ministry, calling attention to the fact that his own message was quite broad. In Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, as he reads Isaiah’s words about God’s liberating power, the two stories of the Hebrew Bible he uses to illustrate his point are both ones in which prophets are sent to Gentiles, not Israelites. And Jesus regularly violated strict Sabbath observance in order to make a larger point about God’s limitless power.

With God’s urging, Paul took these moments and ran with them. The gospel, with Paul as its instrument, was not meant to divide, but to unite – to heal, to reconcile, to reach far beyond boundaries.

The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ.

Our lesson this morning finds Paul on the road again, heading from Athens and arriving in Corinth, about fifty miles to the west. The Romans had rebuilt Corinth as a major trading hub where Romans, Jews, and Greeks all mixed together. After he arrives, Paul connects with Aquila and Priscilla, Jews who had been kicked out of Rome. The three find common ground over their shared trade of tent-making. And Paul gets a place to stay while he puts his powers of persuasion to work in the synagogue, bringing the message of Christ.

Paul’s efforts there are critical in establishing the Church in Corinth. Though Paul eventually left to continue his ministry elsewhere, his authority loomed large enough in the community that they still regularly sought his wisdom. And he thinks of enough of them to reply in depth to the questions and struggles of faith that they have.

Much of Paul’s letters to the Corinth address the divisions that mark them – and there were plenty, apparently. There were conflicts over whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. There were conflicts over what role the Lord’s Supper was to have in their gatherings. There were conflicts that arose because of the cultural stew that the city of Corinth reflected, and Paul tackles them head on, over and over again.

The second part of our lesson highlights one of these divisive moments. Chloe, a leader in the Corinthian church, has sent word to Paul that factions are forming. Paul blasts them for these arguments. It is not, he says, about whether you “belong to Paul” or “Cephas” or “Apollos”. Christ, he says, is not divided. And if Christ is not divided, Christ’s church should not be, either. Paul reminds them that it is Christ who was crucified, not Paul. It was in the name of Christ that they were baptized.

He has this stumbling little tangent, too, which I love – a reminder that Paul didn’t really have the time or the resources for editing. He writes: “I only baptized Crispus and Gaius. And no one else. Except for Stephanas. And his household. Actually, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else. We did do the nose. And the hat. But that’s not the point! You were baptized into Christ, and into the message of the cross and its power. That should be what unites you!”

And Paul’s message was so effective that the church was never divided again.

If anything, the church seems to be marked by division: division between Orthodox and Catholic, division between Catholic and Protestant, division between Presbyterian and Lutheran, division between evangelical and traditional, division between conservative and progressive…So let us be absolutely crystal clear about this: the church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ!

This is the message that ought to ring home for us today – not just today, but especially today. Later on in the service, we will baptize little Norah, and we will welcome her parents, Adam and Victoria, into membership, as we also officially welcome the Kim family into the life of Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Each and every time we baptize and welcome members, we should be reminded of this fact: the church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ. And it is in Christ that we should find our life, our meaning, our purpose.

Even the word “church” ought to remind us of this focus. “Church” is an old, old English word that comes from Greek by way of German. And in Greek, it owes its root to the word Kyrios – that is the Lord, or Christ himself.

The problem comes when we confuse life in a church with life in the church, with life in Christ. We can easily get caught up in institutional survival, or denominational division, or even political disagreement, such that we fail to recognize what our calling actually is.

This is the challenge that confronts us every time we talk about church membership. If we fail to make it clear, we can be led to believe that membership means some kind of exclusive access to God that sets us apart from the world. And this is what leads into division, reinforcing the very separation and conflict that Paul was trying to discourage.

What membership should mean is this: it is a public commitment to be part of a community that is in an ongoing relationship with Jesus. And in that relationship, we try to reflect that the character of Jesus we meet out into the world.

I am not saying that there is nothing at stake in church membership. Quite the opposite: church membership is one clear way to demonstrate that we believe in something larger than ourselves, and that we are willing to be part of a shared vision, one we shape just as it shapes us.

And yet, joining Oglethorpe Presbyterian does not mean cutting yourself off from the world. We do not have some kind of inner road to truth that other congregations or denominations or religions lack. We are, simply put, a community of people doing our best to be part of what it is that God desires in this little corner of God’s amazing world. And this work does not end when we leave the property; in fact, it is just beginning, spreading out through all space and time!

Wherever we go, our goal should be to create little glimpses of grace – moments that point not to ourselves, or to Brookhaven, or to Oglethorpe, or to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or to Paul or Cephas or Apollos. They should, instead, be windows onto to the God whom we are coming to know more in Jesus each and every day!

Immediately following worship today, our Mission leadership is going to be hosting a Town Hall forum on some of the opportunities we believe God has led us to prioritize, ways of being this church that belongs to Jesus far beyond the walls of our buildings and the lines of our property. Some of these ministries have a long history here, and some are brand new. And each of them, we believe, are visible reminders of God at work in this broken and beloved world.

This is the church into which we are baptized – a church that does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the gospel and its healing, reconciling power, with its words of compassion, words of peace for us, and for all. May we have the wisdom and the faith to embrace its claim upon us!

Amen.

Healing Soon

Leather covered bible lying on a tableHow are you a part of God’s story today?

There are several things that we are required to do in a worship service in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Prayer is one – it can be spoken or sung, but we must pray. Preaching is another. It can be spoken or performed, but there must be some kind of interpretation of God’s word for God’s people. Offerings are also required, oddly enough. That’s not because of the pragmatic need to pay the light bill. The category of “offering” is much broader than just the money we give. Instead, our weekly “offering” is a reminder to offer ourselves to God continually. And, in order to worship, we must read from the Bible.

It’s important to remember why it is that we read from the Bible. We do so not because we worship the Bible. After all, God alone is worthy of worship. We read from the Bible, from Scripture, because it points us toward God. The Bible is not the only book in which we can find meaning. After all, there are valuable lessons in fairy tales and ancient mythologies. Authors from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling can teach and move us. But what we believe about the Bible is that it is, in its own unique way, God’s own word. It is not merely a historical curiosity. It is the story of God’s love for God’s creation, and as such, its wisdom is one from which we continue to draw meaning for our lives.

So: how are you a part of God’s story today?

This is the question I want to lift up this morning. And I want to do so by triangulating it with three other questions.

People come to worship for all kinds of reasons. Some come because they are full of joy and want that joy magnified. Others come because they are hopeless and want to know that God hasn’t given up on us yet. Some come because they are angry…or anxious…or afraid…or looking for direction. Others are looking for confirmation for what they already know. Some are auditioning a new church, looking for a more permanent sense of community, trying on a church to see if it fits. And others come because it’s the rhythm of their week: without worship, it isn’t Sunday.

Whatever your reason for coming, here is the first question I want you to answer:

What is it that you need to hear today?

This question is one way to enter the lesson. Do you need a word of hope? Challenge? Comfort? Wisdom? Surprise? Purpose? Reassurance? Direction? Forgiveness? Before we dive into our lesson from the Book of Acts, I invite you to take a moment right now. Anchor yourself in this place at this time and let your answer rise to the top: what is it that you need to hear today?

In our lesson today, the disciples have left the nest. They have overcome the shock of the risen and ascended Christ, regrouping and moving forward. The eleven have replaced Judas the betrayer, becoming the twelve again. Pentecost has multiplied them into the thousands. And now, they are spreading their wings and taking flight.

Peter and John are the first ones out of the gate. Going up to the Temple for daily prayer, they encounter a man begging for his livelihood. We learn that he was born with a disability, meaning that reliance on the kindness of others was his primary means of earning a living.

Peter and John, rather than turning their heads like the bulk of the crowds, or tossing a coin as some might do, stop and speak to him. Peter comes right out and tells him: we are broke. We can’t give you any money. But what we can give you is far more powerful: healing. The man leaps to his feat. As he heads into the Temple, his very presence usurps the sacrifices and prayers of the altar. He is the surest sign of God’s power in evidence that day.

Who do you identify with? Is it Peter and John, the disciples who represent the early church? Is it the beggar, the one who is tolerated but not embraced? Or is it the crowds, spectators to it all?

This, too, is a good way to enter the lesson. My hunch is that if you are feeling empowered, you are more likely to see yourself in Peter or John. If you are feeling beaten down, you might look to the one who is miraculously healed. And if you are unsure of what this lesson might teach, you could see yourself in the unnamed crowds, sitting back and watching it all take place, unsure where to jump in and take part.

So let’s introduce a second question alongside our first:

Who are you in this story?

Take another moment. Which character resonates with you? Inhabit that character. Hold that character alongside your first answer, reminding yourself what you have come here needing to hear this morning.

Peter is the compulsive one, the disciple who rushes into the water to walk alongside Jesus, only to sink beneath the waves. He’s the one who identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, but then tries to turn Jesus away from the cross. He defends Jesus’ life in the Garden, but then denies ever having known him a few hours later. Peter is the rock. And after Jesus’ ascension, Peter takes over the reigns of leadership, doing so with a great deal more maturity than he had exhibited up to that point.

John is also known as the “beloved disciple”. He’s the one in whom Jesus confides. Along with Peter and James, John is part of Jesus’ inner circle. From the cross, Jesus urges John to take Mary into his home as though she were his own mother. John never utters a word in our story – and yet, his presence is important and powerful. In modern terms, John is the introvert to Peter’s extrovert.

Then there’s the man who is healed. Unnamed, he serves as a living parable of God’s mercy. He is a fixture, the man who begs daily by the Beautiful Gate. He has known nothing but brokenness his whole life. This brokenness, while it makes him vulnerable, also makes him virtually invisible. Ignored. In his healing, he takes center stage, a witness to Jesus, himself an embodiment of the power of resurrection.

And let’s not forget the crowds, the Bible’s version of the Greek chorus. The nameless, faceless crowds are the ones who pursue Jesus throughout the Galilee. They parade him into Jerusalem, pronouncing him the Messiah, the Son of David; and within a week, they proclaim their allegiance to Caesar, calling for Jesus’ death. They are the same ones who swarm the streets on Pentecost, their lives changed at a moment’s notice. And here they are again, marveling at the transformation that has taken place. Of course, it is not long before they are back to their old ways, part of the movement to oppress the early church.

Who are you in the story? And how does that connect with what it is you need to hear?

And before we get too far down the road, let’s add our third question:

What is it that God needs you to hear today?

We come here with our hopes and desires. And God always, always meets us where we are. And yet, that doesn’t mean that we stay there. No one in our lesson today leaves it the way they entered it. Each one experiences transformation – each one in just the way they needed it, too.

The man who receives healing is the clearest example of this transforming power of God. As the story begins, it is just another day for him. He has made it to his usual spot, along the roadside, waiting for the Temple pilgrims to come by so that he might survive from their gleanings. As Peter and John arrive, he looks to them for alms. And when they respond, he expects they will come through in some small way.

And when Peter first begins to speak, we can imagine the man’s disappointment: “I have no silver or gold.”

I can almost imagine him thinking, “Unless your next words are going to be, ‘but here’s a sandwich’, then just keep on moving.” Instead, Peter offers him the one thing he has truly been seeking his entire life: wholeness.

Think about that: this man’s whole life has been one of waiting, of a routine marked by helplessness and vulnerability. And now, in the blink of an eye, he receives not only the ability to walk for the first time. He is given the gift of an unknown future, full of possibility and imaginings!

So what about you? How are you a part of God’s story today?

Are you among the crowds – watching from the sidelines, eager to react, but not to jump in? If so, will you take that chance today? Will you not just keep on watching, but to join Peter and John and the other disciples, living in the footsteps of Christ?

Are you Peter, holding onto some precious gift that, if you were bold enough to release it, would change someone’s life forever? If so, will you do it? Will you open your hands and your heart in order that the world might look just a little bit more like the way God desires it to be?

Are you John, not taking the lead necessarily, but being that steady, loving, quiet presence that nonetheless communicates volumes about the healing and encouraging power of God? If so, will you lend your strength? Will you give that gift of reassurance and encouragement to someone who truly needs it?

Are you the broken man made whole, coming here out of habit or routine, not expecting much to change, and yet open to the possibility that, once you leave here, life will never be the same? If so, will you embody that resurrection? Will you leave here today not just a little more whole than when you arrived, but dancing in your heart for all the world to see?

How are you part of God’s story – not just today, but from now on?

preview1_450_03Easter does not sit still. Easter is on the move!

We have become so familiar with the Easter story that becomes difficult to see how dramatic it really is. For a moment, let’s flash back to Friday. Just two days ago, we witnessed the betrayal and arrest in the garden, the trial and torture and sentence at the hands of Pilate, the execution and burial that seemed to bring an end to this Jesus and his status quo threatening revolutionary movement.

When we do that, it is a little bit easier to walk in the footsteps of the disciples. We can imagine their shock and horror as they realize they had followed Jesus into the deathtrap of Jerusalem. No doubt they were terrified, frozen, numb. The arrival of the Sabbath may have even come as a welcome, giving them religious cover for the passivity they would have felt already. They were unable to move – afraid to move – and the Sabbath arrived, commanding them to stay put.

And then Sunday comes. The sun has barely poked its head above the horizon when the three women hustle to the tomb to embalm Jesus. They wonder aloud how they’re going to pry the giant entrance stone out of the way, only to discover that their worry was unfounded: it has already been rolled aside. As for Jesus? He’s not there. Instead, there’s a young man in a white robe, an angel or messenger of some kind, telling them to head north to the Galilee to meet up with Jesus. In response to this news, they flee with a confusing mixture of joy and fear.

Apart from the seated figure in white, the whole story is one of frenetic energy: swift movement to and from the tomb, a large stone mysteriously moved, a command to move on to the Galilee.

Easter does not sit still. Easter is on the move!

I will be honest with you. As a pastor, having gutted out the Holy Week grind, there is probably nothing I look forward to more than that most sacred of family traditions, the Easter afternoon nap. I am sure there are many church professionals and busy members who feel the same way. Don’t get me wrong – the power of Easter morning still grabs me. A sunrise service where the sky passes from night to day still feels almost miraculous. A full sanctuary singing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” gives me chills. That uncertain pause at the end of the “Hallelujah Chorus”, just a little bit longer than you think it’s going to be, almost reduces me to tears every time.

But if you tell me on Easter afternoon that I need to move…

That’s the thing about following Jesus. To be a Christian, to call Jesus Lord, demands a shift in thinking. It’s a shift from the fear of Good Friday and the paralysis of Holy Saturday into the hopeful motion of Easter Sunday. And that shift is what makes all the difference. It is, in a nutshell, the reward of discipleship.

I don’t know about you, but it seems that there are days where the fear and the paralysis make a lot more sense. Whether we are talking about political races or legislative decisions or wars and rumors of wars, fear seems like a healthy response. We can also pushed out of Sunday’s hope back into the despair of Friday and Saturday with things that are much closer to home. Just a quick scroll through the Facebook feed of our friends and family can be enough for us to question whether there’s any hope at all. There are times when it feels like the world is filled with the mean, the unfair, the inhuman. And these are the moments when hope feels nothing short of delusional.

That’s why the rhythm of this whole week is critical. If we take a leap from waving branches on Palm Sunday to singing resurrection hymns on Easter, then our joy is not rooted in reality, but in selective ignorance during the rest of the week. And that really is deluded. Hope does not come from pretending that the bad stuff isn’t there. Hope is born out of the hopelessness that looks that bad stuff right in the eye and lives to tell about it anyway.

For the disciples, there was no way around the awful truth of that week. For three years, they had ridden high on the expectations they had placed in Jesus. They followed him around the Galilee, hearing his teaching and seeing his miracles, while the crowds around him swelled to the point that they could not be contained.

When Jesus told them it was time to head to Jerusalem, no doubt they were filled with a mix of emotions: sad to leave behind the fame and glory they had gathered, but anticipating an even greater power as they rose to power by his side. The esteemed theologians Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber got it right with their catchy show tunes about the disciples jockeying for position in the upcoming political revolution, and being thrown into confusion and despair by the sudden appearance of swords and whips and spears and crosses and burial cloths and tombs.

Along with everything else Friday and Saturday brought, they revealed how badly the disciples had misunderstood the whole point of their mission. Yes – they had followed him at a moment’s notice. Yes – they recognized the truth and wisdom in his preaching. Yes – they knew the power in his healing. And yes – they saw the fear and anger he caused in the religious authorities of the day. And when they put it all together, they were convinced it had been in service of the liberation of a small strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It was as though everything to that point was preparing them to rule an earthly fiefdom.

You can’t blame Jesus. He tried to tell them. He told them about taking up the cross. He told them about dying and rising. But these things didn’t fit into the worldview they had already constructed for themselves. They couldn’t assimilate these things into their existing assumptions. When he talked about these things, they tried to silence him. And when that didn’t work, they just compartmentalized the stuff they didn’t want to hear. They became selective about which parts of Jesus they wanted to believe. Then Friday and Saturday suddenly made that impossible. They had seen his body pulled off the cross and buried in a tomb – and with him, all of their hopes and dreams had become lifeless.

Staring into the hopeless pit of Friday and Saturday is what makes the hope of Sunday so incredible. It’s what ought to ignite us to follow Christ and follow him faithfully. The reward of discipleship doesn’t come from showing up when you find out that the tomb is empty. The reward of discipleship is sticking with it through the horrors – the betrayal, the anguish, the death – so that the hope you find in the rolled away stone is deep, like a wellspring of life itself.

And that hope – that resurrection, moving through crucifixion, hope – that life that comes out of death hope – is why Easter puts us on the move!

You see: faith in Jesus doesn’t work like some Ancient Near East themed Monopoly “Get out of Hell Free” card. It’s not a one-time payment, eternal life insurance policy. It is a movement, a call to new, hopeful ways of being in the world! What happens on Sunday matters. Yes! And what happens every day after that matters, too. Because, as the Jesuit author James Martin writes, “Resurrection makes a claim on you.” That claim means that you cannot just “set aside those teachings you disagree with or that make you uncomfortable – say, forgiving your enemies, praying for your persecutors, living simply or helping the poor.” It means, instead, that you’re all in.

Following Jesus means leaving behind Friday and Saturday’s fear and paralysis, because we can actually grow quite comfortable in our helplessness. Following Jesus also means heading to the Galilee to meet the risen Christ on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday…I think you know the rest.

This is why we ought care about what happens in tiny strips of land all over the world. We don’t root for tribes or nations like we cheer for NCAA brackets. We care and we are there because those people and places drowning in their hopeless Fridays and Saturdays, whether near or far, deserve to know that Sunday is coming!

That is why we are part of a national and global movement of Presbyterians who provide comfort and strength and encouragement, who preach and live out messages of justice and fairness and righteousness. That is why we teach our children to share their resources, to gather up their coins and pool them together, bringing the hope of fish and chickens and pigs through the Presbyterian Giving Catalog – because even if we cannot be there ourselves, we know that we are there with the church that is already there!

Friends, this Jesus – this won’t stay dead Jesus – this Christ is risen he is risen indeed Jesus – does not sit still. Jesus is on the move! If we are going to follow, we better get going!

Amen.

The Cost of Value

he-qui-triumphal-entryIt’s time to value the “in-between.”

We have reached the beginning of what the Church calls “Holy Week”. Beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter Sunday, these intense eight days are the focus of the gospel. If there was ever a time to pay attention, to break the infrequent attending to our faith, this is the time.

This is what the forty nights and days of Lent have been leading toward – toward a full week of focus and attention of what God desires of us.

This is a week in which not even the Sundays are enough. Missing the days in between can even be misleading this week. If we take part in today’s triumphal procession into Jerusalem and jump ahead to the empty tomb and the risen Christ, we might think that this Jesus we follow rides from crest of victory to victory, and that this Christian faith is one of puppies and butterflies. Of all weeks, this is the week to pay attention to the details.

When we piece the story together from the four gospel accounts, we learn that Jesus enters Jerusalem and heads straight to the Temple, where he flips over tables and directly challenges the powers that be. The priests and religious authorities culminate their plot to eliminate this threat, finding in the disciple Judas a willing accomplice.

As Jesus gathers his disciples for the Passover meal, breaking bread and washing feet, he lets them know that his betrayer is one from his circle of trust. As they head to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray among the ancient olive trees, he is arrested. On Friday, he is tried and tortured, and then sentenced to die. The writers do not turn away from the pain of the cross, either, painting a picture of Jesus’ suffering in excruciating detail. Once dead, he is buried in a tomb, sealed with a large rock over the mouth of the cave.

If we contain the gospel to the two Sundays that bookend it, it would be understandable to call the week “holy” and to call its Friday “good”. But when we look closely at what happens in between, these words begin to lose their meaning…

Friends, we increasingly live in a culture where our “faith” is of our own making. No respecter of political affiliation, this “faith” is Christian in flavor, but one where we discard the things that make us squirm and add in the things that reinforce what we already think is true. For many, faith in Christ has become “one and done” – once baptized or confirmed or born again, there is no need to darken the door of the church. From now on, it’s me and Jesus.

Let’s make no mistake. Churches have helped to erode this relationship. The scandals of child abuse make for headlines and sell papers. The self-righteous hypocrisy of preachers is cartoonish in its villainy, holding their people hold to an unreasonably high standard while taking gross advantage of the power and influence they hold.

Meanwhile, as the world seems to move at a million miles an hour, churches – for the most part – have chosen either to throw their lot in with the whims of today, priding innovation over tradition, or they have stuck their heads in the sand, believing that nothing good can come from our cultural Nazareths. Those who, in past generations, might have become active church members have been turned away by the parallel idolatries of entertainment and institutional preservation.

In other words, the bookends matter, and matter a great deal; and so does everything in between. The difference is that it’s a lot harder to live in the in between. The very place that the Church has abandoned is the very place that we need to value and need to be.

This year, Holy Week is the week for spending time in the in-between.

It’s the second half of this morning’s lesson that highlights how much more difficult it is to stay with the in-between. Jesus, at the home of Simon the Leper, becomes himself an object lesson. An unnamed woman carries in an expensive alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. In an over the top act of affection and adoration, she shatters the jar and pours the perfume on Jesus’ head.

Almost immediately, there are those who leap up to criticize. If she had chosen to sell that jar and its perfume, so much good could have been done! What a waste!

Jesus, much to our surprise, defends the woman. She has done a good thing. There will always be poor people. But Jesus will not be around that much longer, as she seems to know, offering a ritual of burial, if a bit prematurely.

This is a critical, in-between moment. On the one hand, we can sympathize with those who think the value of the perfume jar could have been used more justly. On the other hand, we can see how some could take Jesus’ words “the poor you will always have with you” as permission to ignore the poor so that we can focus on glorifying God. And yet, neither of these gives voice to the holiness of Holy Week.

Jesus is the incarnation of God’s holy presence. This is something truly worthy of adoration, something that only this woman seems to notice. And, at the same time, listen carefully to what Jesus actually says: “You always have the poor with you. You can show them kindness whenever you want.” In other words, the poor deserve to be treated with kindness. It is the faithful thing to do. In fact, in Jesus’ absence, being kind to those who are unlike us may be the closest we can get to pouring costly perfume on his head.

You see: instead of planting ourselves at one extreme or another, self-righteously proclaiming that true holiness is found only in serving the poor or only in serving Jesus, we ought to nestle in-between, recognizing that they are one and the same! After all, look at the Palm Sunday procession: the colt on which he rode into Jerusalem was a borrowed one. And look at the Friday burial: the tomb where his body was laid had been donated for that purpose. To love and serve those at the margins of society is to love and serve Christ himself. And if there was any doubt about that, Jesus says it himself: “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat…I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink…I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”

You see, in the kingdom of God, in the world the way God desires it to be, we value people – because by doing so, we value the image of God imprinted within them. It is not enough to show up only on the Sundays of faith. We must also be there on the Thursdays and the Fridays. We share at the table, not only with Jesus, but with his betrayer, experiencing the heartbreak first-hand. We pray with him in the Garden, faithfully putting away our swords even when we would rather raise them in anger. We take the lashes with him, and stand at the foot of the cross, suffering with him as he dies.

It is not enough to stand beside the road and shout “Hosanna!” as Jesus enters to Jerusalem and then sing “Alleluia!” as we discover the tomb is empty. We must also cry “I am thirsty!” and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “It is finished” at the foot of his cross. We must value the in-between. And when we do, that is when the triumphal processions begin to deepen and offer the hope that they are meant to bring.

There is no resurrection unless there is a crucifixion. There is no ultimate victory unless there is defeat. There can be no “new life” without death first taking hold. It is only when we live in-between that we can understand that “Hosanna” is not a shout of victory, an anachronistic synonym for “Yay!” It is, instead, an ancient cry for help – an adaptation of a Hebrew prayer meaning “Save us!”

Friends, life is not an endless series of “good news” – you only have to live in order to know that this is true. There is much from which we have to be saved, not least of all, ourselves. And when we are saved, when we are pulled out of trials and into the arms of mercy, we cannot turn around and lord it over those who are left, still in-between, still in despair. We must, instead, recognize that we ourselves might just be the very instruments of saving that God calls us to be.

That is the place of the Church. We are meant to be those who do not fear the past, the present, or the future, because God is present in all of them. We do not fear innovation, because we know that God can be at work in our transformation. We do not fear history, because God redeems it all for the sake of God’s desires. We do not fear the death of institutions, because we are a people of resurrection. And we do not fear the in-between, because we know that God holds it all!

My prayer is that this table today would be a solid reminder of all of this. Once we are fed, God is not honored if we take it as a sign of favor above those who go hungry. Instead, we lift it up as a sign of undeserved grace. And so, our hunger fed and our thirst sated, we go out to feed the world. For in so doing, we love and serve Christ the Lord himself.

Amen.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.