Archive for the ‘Evangelism’ Category

A few weeks ago I had an unusual experience for a church pastor: I went to another church as a visitor. I was there by myself, because I wanted to experience its creative worship and approach. It was, in many ways, a professional visit. and yet, what I experienced gave me some unique insights into how visitors often see churches when they visit.

I arrived a few minutes late, but worship had not yet started. And yet, no one greeted me and handed me a bulletin. I grabbed my own. The pastor noticed me and made a point of welcoming me warmly.

I sat in the back, next to a small group of folks. My neighbor introduced herself and was very friendly. We then, as is the custom of worship architecture, faced forward and worshiped independently.

The passing of the peace was a ten minute “break” in the middle of worship. I shook hands and shared the peace with about a dozen folks, all of whom were friendly, and one of whom engaged me in conversation. For the next eight minutes, I stood alone. I was tempted to pull out my cellphone to pass the time, but knew that it was important to stay in the discomfort.

The pastor, who was making her way around the room, greeted me and engaged me in wonderful conversation.

At the end of worship, I was the first to leave. I shook the pastor’s hand at the door and headed out.

Let me be clear: this was not a “cold” church – not at all. The community is warm, positive, energetic, and friendly…to each other. I was not inside the community, and so, I was mostly left to my own devices. I understand why that’s the case. I get that. Before and after worship is the time for the community to say hi to their friends they don’t see all week. Because of this, though, I slipped through, largely unnoticed, alone.

Is this what visitors experience at my church? They often arrive late, sit at the back, and are the first to leave. We are a warm, welcoming community; and yet, do we get so busy loving on each other that we forget to share that love with those whom we don’t yet know, those who have come with a genuine desire for community?

I am concerned that our admirable love for one another risks becoming an obstacle to welcoming others. If the focus of our love is turned inward, we will miss those who are still outside. We do not need an overhaul; and yet, our welcome needs fine tuning so that it is more and more like the extravagant hospitality of Christ. We shouldn’t let others slip through, largely unnoticed, alone.

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So what now?

Many at Oglethorpe Presbyterian have been taking part in our congregation-wide study Engage, where we spent the last two months taking a deeper look at how our own faith has been shaped by others, as well as the roles we all play in shaping the faith of others. In short, even though it might make us squirm, our subject has been Evangelism: or, how it is that we share our faith with integrity.

In case you haven’t read the headlines recently, we mainline Protestants are on the decline. In the last seven years, the percentage of the U.S. population that self-identifies as Christian has fallen from almost 80% to just above 70%. All stripes of Christians shared in the decline, none more pointedly than mainline Protestants, who went from 18% to 14.7%. In short, the status quo is one in which the American church shrinks.

Though it might be shocking to see these statistics, this really can’t come as a surprise to any of us. Simply looking at our own pews would have given you a hint of this. With summer here, we are more likely to notice the change, when our Sunday attendance is such that we could probably all fit comfortably in the choir loft. And yet, in this context, we are actually faring better than average. Over that same period, our membership numbers and average worship attendance have gone down, but not nearly as much as the national average. Meanwhile, our stewardship participation and giving have actually increased. In any case, we are part of this larger trend of a contracting faith.

I have read more interpretations of the Pew Research data than I care to comment on. Every single one of them tries to pinpoint why it is that Christianity, especially the mainline Protestant “brand”, is shrinking. I haven’t found any of them particularly insightful, as they act more like a horoscope than any kind of analysis, revealing more about the bias of the writer than concrete reality:

“Presbyterians are self-reliant; and yet, we desires relationships.”

“That is so true! They really know us!”

So let me run the risk of adding my own reading of the tea leaves, and put it this way: the status quo isn’t working. More important than that, though, the status quo isn’t faithful. Christianity should be comforting; but never comfortable. Any faith that takes the cross as its central symbol can never be OK with the way things are.

This recent news of decline feels particularly galling because it’s over a period of only seven years. That said, do you know what else is only seven years old? Twitter. iPhone. Facebook. And that’s just in the world of technology. For some of us, these are things that we already take for granted. For the youngest in our community, this is the world they have always known, where phones are things you use to take pictures and movies, look up information, listen to music, watch TV… In other words, we are in the early days of seismic shifts in the world. The fact that Christianity is affected should not be surprising. So what now?

The temptation is to move into panic mode: to implement strategies and throw programs out there in hopes that something sticks. And yet, faithfulness calls us to something different.

Our Scripture today, the first of the ancient hymns known as psalms, sheds light on this. It shares wisdom about the faithful, and how they are like trees planted by streams of water, the psalmist writes. They bear fruit and do not wither. That should be our goal: to plant ourselves, our trees of faith, as close to these streams of living water as we can. It is water, after all, not panic, that gives growth. What I want to encourage us to do is to move into regular spiritual disciplines, practices of being still and knowing God is God, of sitting by those streams of living water, of being well-rooted, grounded, and patient.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the practice of Examen, created by St. Ignatius in the 16th century. It is a daily reflection exercise, a self-examination that asks two simple questions:

  • What gave you life today?
  • What drained life from you?

Over time, this is practice gifts us with recognition of those places where God is at work, those life-giving moments. We learn to live in life-giving ways, like trees of faith planted by streams of living water. It is when we root ourselves in faithful practices, when we come to rely on these habits, that we find ourselves bearing fruit: not just living or surviving, but thriving and feeding others!

And that, I believe, is how we address this crisis of Christianity: not by responding in fear and looking for institutional preservation, but by responding in faith and trusting God’s life-giving presence in Christ.

So what now?

I’m not sure why, but our conversations around our chapel space seem to be a perfect example of this to me.

A few months ago, we bid farewell to Iglesia Cristiana de Restauración, the Spanish language ministry that worked out of our chapel building for seven years (seven years, huh?). They have planted themselves in a new building, where there is room for them to grow and thrive. This left us with the question: what do we do with what is, essentially, new square footage in a community where space is at a premium?

Well, like good Presbyterians, we appointed a study committee. And before we talked about the what, we rooted ourselves in the why. We prayed and discussed and discerned our purpose, and therefore, the purpose of the space. Session then designated the space accordingly, as:

  • daring – that is, that faith in Christ is a faith that always moves beyond what we know;
  • incarnational – a space where our faith can be lived out in tangible ways that our community would recognize;
  • evangelistic – a space that is meant for those who are not yet here;
  • bridging the spiritual and the civic – a space that serves the community’s needs and our central purpose as people of God;
  • flexible – a space intended for multiple uses;
  • quality – it has to be done well, because beauty honors God;
  • maximized – it will be used as much as possible;
  • budget-building – that is, something that will not only be self-sustaining, but would contribute to our financial well-being so as to enhance our mission and benevolence.

What is surprising about rooting yourselves in the “why” first is how it sheds light on the “what”. So the committee generated ideas, sought and received your input, and took all of these possibilities into our many lenses of purpose. And, in good Presbyterian fashion, Session has recommended further study, focused on two possibilities in particular:

  • Designating the downstairs space as a Kindergarten (and possibly an after-school program)
  • Designating the upstairs space as an art/performance space and coffee shop (or a venue rental)

So what now? We research the feasibility of these options and make recommendations to Session accordingly. If you are willing and able to take part in this study phase, please let me know. It’s a short-term commitment. In the meantime, we will use the space several times this summer for worship and other events.

I, for one, am excited about all of this, as it gives us an opportunity to spend dedicated time in prayer and discernment for what comes next – to sit patiently by those streams of living water, to be fed and to feed. After all, what we are about here is to be and do what it is that God is calling us to be and do!

So what now? My friends, it’s time to engage – engage our faith, engage our community, engage one other, engage our God.

May it be so.


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What needs to die so that Christ can live in you?

In the 16th century, a Spanish nobleman named Ignatius changed Christianity forever. He left comfort behind to join the priesthood, establishing the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests.

One of Ignatius’ legacies is the spiritual practice known as Examen. Examen is a daily discipline of reflection designed to develop attention to where God is at work in one’s life. There are many variations on the practice. The one that has come to mean the most to me is one which focuses on two questions at day’s end: What gave you life today? And what drained life from you? The hope in doing so is that, over time, you are drawn closer to those things that are life-giving; and in doing so, you draw closer to God.

It is a practice that parallels with our text from Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome this morning. In it, Paul uses the image of baptism, of descending into the water and coming out again, as an image of death and resurrection. Not just an image, though, but an act that binds the follower of Jesus with Jesus. Going under the water, we die to sin. Coming out, we rise, renewed and refreshed, to live in faith and hope.

And for most of us, the journey of faith is not “one and done”; rather, it is one of multiple spiritual baptisms, of deaths and births – some large and some small – that happen time and time again. None of us rise out of the waters of baptism to live lives of perfection. If we do, then we certainly don’t need any of this, since we’ve already got it all figured out.

This leads us back to this daily practice of Examen; and thus our question today: what needs to die so that Christ can live in you?

As Christians, as those who try to follow Christ’s example, we are called to serve others. We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. Let’s be clear, though: we can only love our neighbors if we love ourselves. It is easy to confuse the call to service with a personal desire for martyrdom. But we are followers of Jesus. We are not Jesus. We do not carry the sins of the world. We don’t even carry our own: that’s Jesus’ job!

We can only honor God if we are willing to honor the image of God – that goes for the image of God within others and the image of God that is on our own truest selves.

Faith requires examination. And the purpose of this examination is so that we grow in clarity about what it is that weighs us down. When we do, we also grow in awareness of what it is that the world puts on us and what it is that we pick up of our own accord. Just as there is faithfulness in saying “yes” to things that could possibly make us squirm, there is also faithfulness in saying “no” to things that drain life from us. The thing is that saying “no” is what gives us the freedom to say “yes”.

So what needs to die so that Christ can live in you? What is it that you need to say “no” to so that you can possibly say “yes” to what God is putting before you? What is it that needs to go under the waves so that you can come up renewed and restored?

That’s the essence of our topic today, this idea of weaving the big story with our stories. We have the temerity to believe that our daily lives are sewn into the grand drama of the universe, of God’s creation and redemption and salvation and hope and resurrection. In other words, that Easter morning resurrection was not just a once in an eternity experience. Instead, we should experience that resurrection each and every day. As those things that pull us away from Christ die little deaths, seeds of new life should take root and blossom.

The Sanders have been doing our own version of the daily Examen in our house for a while now. In order to span the generations, we call it “happy sad time”. Each of us shares something during the day that made us happy and something that made us sad. It has become part of our evening ritual every bit as important as brushing teeth, reading bedtime stories, and saying prayers. There are many days that boo-boo’s top the sad list. And yet, the gift that has emerged is a growing awareness of how we interact with the world on a daily basis. It has become our way of figuring out what has to die so that Christ can live within us.

There is, I believe, faithful purpose in practices like Examen. There is also, I believe, practical purpose as well. The paradox of letting things die in order for Christ to live is that, by doing less, we actually accomplish more.

When we deprive ourselves of sleep, we may think we are getting more done. But if we are honest without ourselves, we know that what we do, we do with diminished capacity. We do it poorly. We do it under duress. And we do it with less attention than it demands. If we take seriously our call to self-stewardship, including so-called frivolities like play and sleep, we are actually fine-tuning ourselves toward faithfulness, toward that daily baptism of newness and renewal.

Here’s the hones truth, some good news and bad news. The bad news is that there are only 24 hours in a day. That “to do” list that currently haunts you? It will continue to do so. Whatever it is you have to accomplish, you will always only be able to do so within the confines of the amount of time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis.

But there’s good news, too. Are you ready? There are only 24 hours in a day.

Whatever anyone else expects you to do with that time, including your own expectations, what God expects of you is to spend that time as stewards of what God has given you! That includes work and obligation, yes. It also includes sleep and rest. It includes joy and fun. It is, in short, an effort to allow our lives to be transformed so that we spend more and more of our time doing those things that give us life.

This past week, my college alumni magazine came in the mail. The first section I always turn to is the alumni news, where I get to see all of the amazing things that I am not doing with my life. Do you know what I’m talking about? How often do we spend time comparing ourselves with others? How often do we marvel at those who have gone on to greatness, and sowing some seeds of disappointment within ourselves in the process?

How much more faithful would it be to focus on what it is that God expects of us? Friends, success is a fraud. It is a false idol. So is happiness, but that’s a topic for another day. As people of faith, we are never called to be successful. We are always called to faithfulness. After all, it is faithfulness, not success, which gives context to our failures.

We are not asked to defy the laws of physics. We are not called to do physical harm to our bodies and psyches in order to please the gods of others’ expectations. What God expects of us is to spend our time faithfully and wisely in order to give glory to God! For us old school Presbyterians, the archaic language of the Westminster Catechism put it this way:

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: To glory God and enjoy him forever.

Our whole created purpose in God’s eyes is this two-fold expression of enjoyment and glory! If we can begin to see our lives through this lens, then the invitation to let things die in order that Christ might live in us might finally grab hold.

Today, we are ordaining and installing elders. In the Presbyterian Church, elders are those we entrust with leadership, wisdom, and discernment. I am very aware that many of our elders and deacons have busy lives. And what we say is that, through the voice of this congregation, God is calling them to these ministries of leadership and service.

I want us to be just as clear about what ordination is not about. We do not ordain elders and deacons so that they can be busier. We do not ordain them to add one more thing to their “to do” lists. If ordination and installation – if leadership and service – are things that drain life rather than give it, then they are not of God. They are not what God desires of us. They are not what God has created us for.

My hope, instead, is that we will live into this vision of letting things die in order for Christ to live within us. So as we absorb the absurd promise that death actually gives way to life, that is when this grand story of God’s purpose really weaves itself into the fabric of our day-to-day lives. Resurrection becomes the moment that smashes our false idols and makes room for Jesus. And when we allow this to happen within ourselves, as we demonstrate that love of self God desires us to know, that is when we can begin to do the same for others, for our neighbors, for those whom God calls us to love and serve.

You see, this grand story, this sweep of God’s history, is not just tied into the lives of those of us here. The bricks and mortar of church buildings cannot limit God’s tapestry. God’s weaving is meant for all created in God’s image. The disaster is that there are so many of God’s children who either think that God doesn’t care for them at all or who believe that God expects more of them than they can ever reasonably accomplish. Our role is to let them know otherwise, and that there are communities of faith that practice realistic, faithful expectations so that the world can look more and more like the one God desires.

So here is my invitation to you today. I invite you to adopt some version of that daily examination, the Examen, in your own lives. I invite you to spend a few minutes at the end of the day reflecting back on the day’s events, taking note of those things that gave you life and those things that drained life from you. I trust that as you do so, you will grow in awareness of those things that ought to die so that Christ can live in you.

I also trust that, as we grow in our awareness of Christ’s presence, we will be able to nurture that awareness in others, to invite them into the astonishing journey that promises life out of death.


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As a pastor, I have the chance to talk with many people about what they are looking for in a church. Some have landed at Oglethorpe, others have not. Here are a couple of things that I have learned along the way:

1) You’re Shopping. And That’s OK.

Some people are troubled by the idea that they are doing something as crass as “shopping” for something as important as church. If you are “brand loyal” (i.e. your theology is only at home in a Catholic, or Associate Reformed, or Orthodox, or COGIC church), then you shouldn’t shop. Otherwise, get over it. Even if a congregation has a denominational affiliation, this label probably says more about how they are governed than about how they worship or what they do.

In our case, we are Presbyterian, which means that we are connected to other churches in accountability and support, and that our decision-making is an open process. While our worship style comes out of a Presbyterian background, we incorporate things we have learned from both high church (communion, baptism, ordination) and low church (the roof doesn’t collapse when the drums come out).

In other words, finding a church where you are at home is important enough to give it the time and energy it deserves.

2) Don’t Judge a Church by Its Cover.

Many people make the mistaken assumption that how a church appears says everything about what they believe. If there are bright lights, casual clothing, and modern music, then the church must be “hip” to the 21st century. If there’s an organ and the preacher wears a robe, then they must be hopelessly stuck in the past. The reality is that this is almost never the case; in fact, the opposite is more likely to be true.

Dig deeper, ask questions, and don’t be bullied. Does this church allow women to participate in all leadership roles, or just some? What is their stance on marriage equality? How transparent are they about leadership and decision-making, money and salaries? If there is a crisis (in case you didn’t know, churches make the headlines from time to time, and not for the right reasons), who will hold them accountable?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not about finding people who already agree with you. That’s the subject for another day. In fact, any church that is worthwhile is going to stretch you and change you. But if you have deeply held convictions, be sure that they will be respected, not merely tolerated until you “see the light”.

3) One Visit Is Rarely Enough.

Churches have off days. And they have exceptional days. You won’t know which is which until you go back. Was the sermon lackluster? Maybe the pastor had a head cold. Did the choir hit a sour note? Maybe the best singers were on vacation that day. Did they sing that hymn that you hate? Maybe they had to do that in order to figure out that they hate it, too. Did no one speak to you? Or did they swarm you like “fresh meat”? Maybe their best greeters were in charge of the luncheon after worship.

When you encounter worship that’s a little “bumpy”, that probably means they think grace is important, where you can try new things, fall flat on your face, and get up again. That’s not always the case, of course. Some churches just worship poorly, and that’s a problem. But you won’t know if you only go once.

A word of caution: there are those churches that break out the “Kool Aid” on your first visit. You might want to refuse politely and be sure you know where the exits are.

4) For Parents: Be Selfish.

I often meet with parents who are looking for the right church for their children. I think that’s a mistake. If you find a church that your kids enjoy but you hate (or tolerate mildly), they will know. What they learn is that church doesn’t matter to you. And one day, they will follow suit. However: if you find a church that feeds you and stretches you in all the right ways but doesn’t have a strong children’s program, what they will learn is that church and faith matter for the long haul.

I watch parents drag their children out of bed when they hate school. I see them force their kids to play sports when they’d rather play in the dirt. For some reason, though, making it clear that faith is central isn’t “worth the fight.” If that describes you, that might say more about you than you wish it did.

5) The Church Where You Grew Up Is Gone.

Let’s be clear: nostalgia is not good. And when it comes to finding a church home, it’s a problem. If you are looking for a church that is “just like the one I grew up in”, you will never find it.

There’s the simple fact of history. Whether you grew up in the 1980s or 1950s or the 2000s, the world is a very different place than it was. When you grew up, was FourSquare how you checked in, or a playground game? Did your childhood church eschew PowerPoint because they had a problem with it, or because it hadn’t been invented yet? If you find a church that treats the world as if it hasn’t changed, then there’s usually something very wrong.

And I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you probably don’t even know what you mean when you say that about your childhood church. What does “just like” mean? Are you fixated on a single pastor? Are you looking for your grandmother’s pew or your mom in the choir? Do you need someone to pat you on the head or offer you a cookie during coffee hour? If you can’t explain it, then you just need to let this one go.

If you do know what you mean, then this aspect of a search can actually be helpful, if you do it right. You have to be sure you can articulate the characteristics of your childhood experience that mattered, and that can translate to other churches. Those points can be the launching pads to a new church home. Just be sure you’re going deep enough.

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Where do we see the face of God?

It was probably third grade or so, and we were headed on a field trip to the symphony. It I don’t remember much about the experience, but our teacher’s words still ring in my ears, as she reminded us to behave: “Remember: you are representing the whole school.”

I was so annoyed at that comment! And as with many things, I later realized that my teacher was right. The ushers might not remember whether it was the redhead or the blonde kid that acted up, but they would certainly mark the school whose children misbehaved. But at the time, I knew this wasn’t fair. I knew I wouldn’t misbehave, that I would act responsibly. How much more could she expect from me than that? Isn’t everyone else similarly responsible for their own actions? Or am I my classmate’s keeper?

Like I said, my teacher was right. And the reality is that this truth is not limited to field trips. Wherever we go, we are always representing something, whether we want to or not. On a road trip, people will note the state on your license plate. Folks will notice your age, your skin color, your accent, and will make generalizations based on the way you behave. It’s probably not accurate, it’s definitely not fair, but the truth is that this is how our species interacts with the world. Wherever we go, we represent something.

That is partially what is at work in our text from Psalm 23 today. We have shifted from talking about God to talking to God. The psalmist has been telling us all about the divine shepherd who leads us and guides us and restores us. Now, as we continue through that valley of death and fear, the author has turned from us in order to address God directly: “You are with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me.” In other words, God is close…close enough to speak to.

There’s not a whole lot in Hebrew to distinguish rod from staff; the truth is it sounds better than “your big stick and your other big stick.” The rod and staff represent power and protection. They fend off attacks from those things that want to harm the sheep. And yet, curiously, it is not power which the psalmist chooses to highlight, but comfort. The rod and staff may represent a threat to attackers, but to the sheep, they represent reassurance and comfort.

The same is true in our two Scripture lessons this morning. In Exodus, as the people of God wander in the desert, newly freed from their Egyptian captivity but before they are dry and safe on the other side of the Red Sea, they are desperately in need of direction. After all, they have spent generations under the watchful eye of those who had enslaved them, being told what to do. And so, during the daytime they followed the cloud, and at night, the fire led them. Normally, smoke and fire would not be the most reassuring of signs; but here in the wilderness, struggling to find a way, with the Egyptians hot on their trail, they are surest sign of comfort.

Our lesson from Matthew is similar, but stands in stark contrast to our Exodus lesson. It is not the elemental powers of nature that will represent the divine; instead, God will now appear in human form…and not just any human form, but as the most vulnerable of all, a newborn baby. This child will be known as Emmanuel, God with us, and will save the people from their sins! The infant Jesus, to be born to Mary and Joseph, he will be the comforting presence. He will be the face of God.

Where have we seen the face of God? Where is that symbolic rod or staff of protection and comfort? Where are the smoke and the fire that represent not destruction but direction? Where is Emmanuel, the infant Jesus, the royal Christ?

Over time, whether I like it or not, the truth is that for some people, the pastor represents the face of God. Now if our theology is intact, we know what is wrong with that thought: pastors are just as human as the rest of us, prone to the same errors and triumphs that we all are. And yet, I have been at this work long enough to recognize both the burden and the joy it is to wear these vestments and carry the title of “pastor”.

I have said it before, but probably not often enough: what a privilege it is to represent Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church beyond the doors of this building. Whether it is to officiate at a wedding or a funeral, or to be on a panel at Oglethorpe University or the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, or even to stand at the door as our little Preschoolers are dropped off at carpool, most everywhere I go I am reminded of the role that this church plays in the community. Even a simple trip to the grocery store is a guarantee that I will run into someone who recognizes me, even if I have now reached the point where our Preschool children are more likely to call me “Ramsay’s dad” or “Cyrus’ dad” than “Pastor Sanders.”

I cannot think of a better word to describe this all than “privilege”. It is my privilege to be your pastor. In the past few years, I have been invited into difficult situations not only in your lives, but in the life of the community around us: the untimely death of a high school or a college student; the grieving of a school community over a beloved teacher; the agony of a young couple whose first pregnancy ended not in gain, but loss. And each and every time, even though it’s part of my job, that’s not why I go. I go because I should. And I don’t go because I know exactly what I’m supposed to do. I go because I know that it’s somewhere I need to be. I need to be there because it’s where God is already…some folks just need to be reminded of that fact.

But…here’s the catch: I’m not the only one that represents this church. My teacher was right: every single one of us, warts and all, represent Oglethorpe Presbyterian. You are the face of God to a world that is desperately looking for that rod and staff, for that smoke and fire, for those signs of comfort and presence, for Emmanuel.

When I was in Chicago, the church I attended was exploring using a youth program called Logos. While most youth programs look to a handful of leaders to chaperone “the kids” of the church, Logos requires the whole congregation be on board with youth ministry. Directly. We had several mid-week suppers and meetings about the program, and whether or not it would be a good fit for the church. One evening, I remember a member making a really good point: “Some people are good with kids, and some aren’t. We want people who are good with kids to lead the youth. Why should someone who is grumpy and negative be there, too? That seems counterproductive.”

The statement caused a lot of heads to nod around the Fellowship Hall in agreement, mine included. Then one of the elders then spoke, saying, “You want to know the truth? Whether you are involved in the youth program or not, the youth of this church will look to you as an example. If you are 40 or 50 or 60 or 90 years old, you put a face what a 40 or 50 or 60 or 90 year old Christian looks like. So whether or not you want to be directly involved in the youth program, you are already.”

That elder was a teacher, by the way, and she, too, was right.

Each of us here represents the face of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church to those we meet: not just the pastor, not just those of us who are paid to be here, not just the elders or deacons, but each one of you. You intersect with people every day who hunger to see the face of God: friends, neighbors, co-workers, customers, providers, even the stranger sitting at the next table or walking their dog past your house. Like it or not, you are the smoke and fire, the sign they are looking for.

So: are you ready for your homework this week?

If you’re not already, I encourage you to spend one month in a daily discipline of prayer. Make it easy: five minutes. No matter how busy we think we are, all of us can carve out five minutes a day for God. And here’s what I want you to pray for: pray that some time during the day, God would stir you, would quicken your heart for someone or something. Now here’s the tangible part of your homework: we have these generic Oglethorpe Presbyterian cards in the back with the church info. Grab a couple on your way out; and when God moves you and you suddenly find yourself in that moment as the face of God, use those cards as seems fit to do. Invite that person to church. Give them your contact info, or the church’s. You may not know what to say, but you do know where to be. And the shepherd is there, protecting and comforting. Emmanuel is, as promised, right there with us, each step of the way.


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There is no greater figure in all of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, than Moses. He is the prophets’ prophet, God’s translator, Law deliverer, freedom leader, desert organizer. His birth is enveloped in miracle, spared the cruel wrath of Pharaoh by his quick-thinking and risk-taking mother. His death is shrouded in mystery; having seen the land of promise, he dies and is buried on Mount Nebo, but no one knows where. No one can touch Moses.

In the New Testament, there are several key figures. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jesus is pretty central. As for the non-divine, John the Baptist is the forerunner of Christ, and Mary is the mother of God. Both have a crucial role in preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry.

But afterwards, after the ascension, when Jesus disappears into heaven, the disciples are left to figure it out. And it is Peter who steps forward as their leader. He takes the lead on replacing Judas. He’s the one that stands up to address the crowd in the midst of Pentecost’s confusion. It is Peter who gets called before the Sanhedrin, the Temple council, to account for the early church. And it is Peter whose imprisonment comes to a miraculous end as an angel springs the door open.

After Peter comes Paul. With his dramatic conversion and “take no prisoners” attitude, as soon as he steps onto the stage, Peter fades into the background. But Peter still remains an important figure in church tradition. Origen says that Peter was martyred inRome, crucified upside-down. The Roman Catholic Church considers Peter the first Pope. And on the holiest level of all, every joke that begins with “Three people die and go to heaven” feature St. Peter as the pearly gatekeeper. For the church, Peter is the Rock.

Moses. Peter. They have secured their place on the Biblical all-star squad. And yet, reading our two lessons today, it would have been hard to predict greatness.

Last week we read of Moses being saved from the Nile. We can sense that the writer of Exodus is setting us up, giving us a hint of Moses’ greatness to come. And yet, quite a bit has happened in the intervening years. As a young man, Moses sees an Egyptian abusing a Hebrew; and seeing no one in sight, Moses kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. Word spreads quickly, and Moses runs away to Midian, where he marries and seems to settle down as a shepherd.

And that’s where the story picks up today. God has decided that it is time for the Hebrews to be freed from their cruel slavery; and God has also decided that Moses is the man to do it. The conversation that took place must have been maddening. A talking, burning bush speaks to Moses and gives him an assignment: go to Pharaoh and get the people out of there. But Moses demurs; not only that, he argues with God. “Who am I that I should do this? What am I supposed to tell the Hebrews? Who should I tell them sent me?” I half-expect God to reply with something like, “tell them the burning, talking bush sent you.” But God’s patience wins out – patiently explaining that God is the one who was, is, and always will be. That should be enough to convince the Hebrews.

What happens beyond this morning’s lesson is nothing short of frustrating. Moses wants something better that just an “I will be with you” promise, and God gives him three miracles to perform: a stick that turns into a snake and back into a stick, a leprous hand that heals itself, and Nile water that turns into blood. Still not good enough: “But I’m not eloquent,” Moses says. So God agrees to send his brother, Aaron, along for the ride. Finally, Moses goes to Egypt.

It’s not the most inspiring start to the story that becomes the legend of Moses. Can you imagine trying to sell this as a movie? “I love the whole baby in the bulrushes thing; and the early failure bits build some good tension, but…I’m not sensing greatness. This guy is gonna be a leader, right? Let’s add in some foreshadowing, some early childhood moments, like where he raises his hands and, uh, parts his hair…something that lets the viewers know what to expect.”

And yet, that’s exactly what happens. From these less-than-inspired beginnings, Moses goes on to be the great leader that sets the stage for the rest of the journey of the people of God.

Peter’s story isn’t much different. Last week we looked at the disciples gathering up in Caeasarea Philippi. They have managed to get away from the crowds for a little breathing room. And there, as Jesus asks them what they think about all they have seen, Peter is the one who gets it right: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Yes, Simon! You nailed it! That’s it! You are so right that I’m changing your name to Rock; that’s how solid your faith is, how reliable you are!

And as Jesus goes on to explain exactly what being “Messiah” means, that they’re on their way to Jerusalem where he is going to suffer, be killed, and rise again, Peter takes advantage of his new-found influence and pulls Jesus aside: “Alright, listen; I’m ‘the rock’, right? OK, then; let me give you some advice. All this suffering and death stuff just puts a damper on it. We have only established that you’re the Messiah. If you start saying things like this, you’re just going to turn people off. It’s a downer.”

Peter seems intent on setting the land speed record for moving from faith to doubt. He has already been transformed from Simon to Peter; and in the blink of an eye, he is now “Satan.” That can’t be good.

Just like Moses, Peter seems to have blown his recently acquired status as Biblical hero. It’s an inauspicious beginning to the legend of Peter.

Have you ever found yourself feeling like Peter? Or like Moses? Someone has asked you to do something that you are sure is beyond your skill-set? Or circumstances have conspired against you, putting you in a position where you just know you are in over your head? We have all found ourselves in this situation. Some of you may feel like you are in the thick of it right now.

There are things which we are clearly gifted to do. We know what we are good at; and we might even have an idea of how to use those skill-sets for God’s sake and God’s desires. But what about those things which aren’t in our wheelhouse?

We have been talking about evangelism the past few weeks, and it seems that this is an appropriate topic again today. I am certain that much of what God hopes for us is to recognize who we really are, deep down inside. Our personalities, our abilities, our worldview, I believe that so much of this is what we are created to be. And yet, I also trust that God wants us to stretch.

And I think we do, too; if we didn’t, then none of us would be able to read, or count, or walk, or drive, or sing, or pray. We may have been doing these things for so long that we take them for granted, but these are all things that we had to learn.

When I was 17, my parents bought a car with a manual transmission. My dad took me to the steepest hill in Ansley Park and stopped the car halfway up. “Your turn,” he said, switching seats with me. I must’ve stalled that sucker out three hundred times; I also must’ve drifted backwards about 2 ½ miles – at least, it felt that way. . Frustration mounted; but eventually, I was able to get the car in gear and head up the hill.

Maybe evangelism feels like that to you? I hope that we’ve deconstructed the word “evangelism” enough, that it’s not about screaming on the street corner, or meeting a complete stranger and making sure they have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Instead, I hope we have discussed the topic enough that it we have come to see it more as a natural extension of relationships marked by honesty, integrity, and depth. If we are willing to talk to our closest friends and family members about life and death, about politics and the economy, surely we could also talk with them about those things of faith, those things that give us our grounding, our ultimate sense of meaning?

Even so, does it still feel like you’re stalled out in the middle of a steep hill? Is this something that doesn’t come naturally?

Last week, I announced that as we kick off our program year in two weeks, we are encouraging everyone to bring a friend to church. For some of you, and maybe for many or all of us, this might feel like something way beyond the possible. If so, then I want to leave us with Jesus’ response to Peter. I’m using Eugene Peterson’s translation, adding some of my own emphasis:

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am…Don’t be in such a hurry to go into business for yourself.

Evangelism isn’t our business; it’s God’s: the same God who transformed Moses from the frightened shepherd of Midian into the leader of the Hebrew people; the same God who changed Simon into Peter into stumbling block and back into Peter again. What can God do with you?


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Creepy Prayer

Yesterday morning, after the alarm went off, I lay in bed and said a brief prayer: “Lord, please send ten visitors to worship this morning.” At 11:00, I looked around the sanctuary and counted – eleven. I must admit it freaked me out a little bit.

I don’t think prayer is like getting your three wishes from the genie where you have to be careful what you ask for. I’m enough of a Presbyterian to believe that God will do as God sees fit and that I’m in no position to force God’s hand. That being said, I also want to be sure God knows what I want. It’s why I pray for healing even in the most desperate of circumstances; it may not be what happens, but it sure is what the family wants at that moment. And God is big enough to handle us speaking frankly.

What if I had prayed for ten visitors and there had only been nine? Or five? Or two? Or none? I don’t know what that might mean. If there hadn’t been any, my guess is that I would still know that God heard my prayer; but I would probably begin to think that all this talk about growth at OPC was simply not in the cards.

But to pray for ten and to get eleven? That sends me down a different path. Could it be a matter of pure chance? Absolutely. At times I’m enough of a skeptic to put that possibility first (or a close second). But yesterday, I felt it differently. To me it was a confirmation of our desire to have an even greater impact on our wider community.

And that “extra” one? Well, as Nigel Tufnel says, “It’s one louder, isn’t it?” Maybe it’s a nudge to expect blessings to be greater than we might ever imagine…

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Every now and then, we get glimpses of God; if our eyes are open, we will see them. And that connects us to the disciples of Jesus’ time. They, too, saw glimpses of God. Jesus told parables as glimpses of the kingdom, of God’s desires for the world. He himself was a glimpse of God’s character and mercy. Paul writes about how we see in “a mirror darkly” now; we have these unclear glimpses of God’s triumph, glimpses which will be clearer in the full presence of God.

The story of the Transfiguration strikes me as an example of these glimpses. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain with him, and he is transfigured before them, and alongside him stand Elijah and Moses. These two were the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, and because of the odd nature surrounding their deaths, they were understood to be precursors of the promised Messiah. This is a huge moment, a holy moment, a purest of the pure glimpses of the kingdom of heaven. And then, it’s over. They head down the mountain and return to the ministry they had been doing.

We may be tempted to think that there is a separation between earth and heaven, that the kingdom of God is something beyond us, only available when we die. But Jesus is constantly offering examples of seeing that kingdom in the here and now. There is this constant inbreaking of the heavenly realm in earthly reality.

Have you had a glimpse of heaven? I had my own, in a small way, this past week.

We have been talking about an outreach ministry to Oglethorpe University for some time. And as talk has turned to capital improvements, some of us have imagined a coffee shop hangout spot in the courtyard breezeway, right across the street from the campus.

This past week, I was on Emory’s campus, when I ran into a friend of mine, Chip, with whom I went to school back in 4th or 5th grade. He’s an independent pastor and his ministry has intrigued me for some time. It’s called “Bread,” and it’s similar to the kind of thoughts we’ve had here about a hangout spot for college students. It’s a small yellow house, just across the street from the parking deck for Emory Hospital. I dropped in the middle of a book study. Chip has been meeting with some students for much of the year, reading C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Lewis’ book is a satire, a series of letters written from one demon to another, revealing something about the nature of evil, and, therefore, the nature of goodness.

As I walked in, they offered me some black beans and rice as well as some coffee. I sat and listened to the discussion, and as I did, I took in the atmosphere. Above a large couch, one wall was covered in writing. It said, “What do they want from us? To join a cult? To vote Republican? To give them money?”

Nearby, it said, “Talk is cheap. Hospitality is our sermon.” Elsewhere it talked about the ministry, how it really was a free place to drink coffee, how there were no strings attached, and that all are welcome. It also noted some offerings, such as the book group and some work trips.

One of the students raised a question about a sentence in the book. Chip started on an explanation that wove gang violence, Star Wars, and a couple of other cultural references in there. “Marthame?” He turned to me. “Do you have any thoughts on that?”

I noted how it reminded me of the Samaritan Woman at the well, asking Jesus for the wrong kind of water. I was impressed with my spur of the moment Biblical and theological insight. The student looked at Chip. “What’s the story of the Samaritan woman?”

Here was a ministry where young people were reading theological texts of profound insight, and these were folk for whom the stories of Scripture were unknown. At that moment, the heavens might well have split open with Elijah bearing black beans and Moses pouring espresso. I got an amazing glimpse of the kingdom of God, reaching and touching people that most churches never will.

But here’s the question: what’s the right reaction to these glimpses? In the Mark text, Peter wants to hang onto the moment, stay forever. He wants to build huts. He never, ever wants to leave. “If this is heaven,” he might have reasoned, “Why go anywhere else?”

But the moment passes, and Jesus heads back down the mountain, moving on with the disciples to continue this ministry.

Do you know these glimpses I’m talking about? It could be a moment of listening to a favorite album, or reading a gripping book, a film that captures your imagination, a conversation with a friend that looks as close to holiness as you can imagine. If we’re anything like Peter, our reaction is probably to hang on tight, to put the album or song on infinite repeat, to watch the DVD extras and even listen to the director’s commentary, to stay up late to read a few more pages, to spend as much time as possible with this person with whom moments are near divine.

One of my favorite musicians is Sufjan Stevens, a man who creates simple music of incredible beauty. I remember the first time I heard him, I immediately went out in search of everything he had ever recorded. I listened to the music over and over again. I read anything I could find on the web about him. I was, in a sense, like Peter, trying to build my little tent to stay as long as possible.

My reaction these days is a little different, though unfulfilled. When I hear his music, I want so desperately to create music like his. But I can’t. I can play, I can even compose a little bit. But I can’t come close to his subtlety and brilliance.

And yet, somehow, that’s very close to what I think the right reaction is. When we have these glimpses of the kingdom, when we touch that moment of holiness, the right reaction is to head back down the mountain and continue to work to create that kingdom we have glimpsed.

Here’s my challenge to any readers who might be out there: what one thing can you do this week to help create the kingdom? Maybe we won’t write a great album or create an immortal work of art. But perhaps we could do something small, like offering a word of kindness in a heated moment, or being generous in the face of a world which tempts us to hoard.

I’d love to hear what you do.

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Let’s Go

Mark 1:29-39

This story takes place very early on in Mark’s gospel. So far, Jesus has ben baptized, called four disciples, and gone to Capernaum where he has taught and cast out a demon. On the sabbath, no less.

So they retreat to Peter’s house, where (still on the sabbath) he cures his mother-in-law. Once the sun goes down and sabbath is over, people flock to the house to have their loved ones healed. He silences the demons to speak about him, a curious little detail which is what I’ll look at in depth next week.

Jesus’ response to the growing crowd is a disappearing act. His disciples want him to know how famous he has become. Jesus announces that they are moving on to the next town where he can “proclaim the message.” And that he does all throughout the Galilee.

There are so many curious details in this story. One is the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. As soon as he heals her, she gets back to the assumed role of the day, serving everyone in the household. No time for recuperation, no word or deed about her being an equal now. She goes back to what she was doing. Given Jesus’ radical take on gender roles for that time, part of me expects Jesus to say, “Get up and come sit with us and let Peter serve.” But why not?

And then Jesus intentionally submarines his own successes. He’s got a great racket going right there in Capernaum, healing everybody that is brought to him. Instead of continuing that, he takes off for some solitude. Not even the disciples know where he has gone, and it takes them a while to find him. This is a rhythm in Jesus’ ministry, the public versus the private, the overwhelming crowds versus the need to isolate, get away, regroup, recharge. What is at stake there?

And finally, once he’s been found and the disciples share with him this great news that everyone is looking for him, his response isn’t the expected one, especially for this Messiah. He’s supposed to be thrilled at the number of new recruits and followers, building up steam for the eventual restoration of the kingdom of Israel. No: he tells them that they’re going to head out into the Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons. What’s with the career suicide?

It strikes me that there are several things at work here. First, the solitude. Jesus, throughout the gospels, is constantly trying to get away for a moment of prayer and quiet. It’s the natural rhythm of his ministry. He doesn’t often succeed, but it does strike me as a way that he remains grounded and keeps from losing perspective. We don’t have any sense of what he prays at this point, but from other prayers, we know how intimate his relationship with God can be. We can assume the same is true here. So perhaps there’s part of him that wants to be focused right now.

Second, Peter’s mother-in-law. The healing that she gets means that she stays where she is, in a sense. It’s not a freedom in the sense that we might want, but perhaps it is that she still has a role to play in that place?

Third, the moving on. Jesus is aware of the Messianic expectations of the day. And in a sense, he is trying to undercut them. He heals on the sabbath. He splits when the crowds surge to be alone. And when he learns of his fame, he takes off on a tour. Jesus, perhaps, was concerned that his fame might spread as a “mere” faith healer, and that he wouldn’t be known for the fuller ministry by which we know him now. Faith healers were a dime a dozen. So were wandering teachers.

And then I wonder about how this might connect with me, with us. I think there’s something to the rhythm of Jesus’ ministry that we can learn. Do we have times of solitude and quiet? Of prayer and restoration? Do we carve out places and spaces and moments to share our fears and hopes with God? Do we act as though we know God intimately?

I also think there’s something in the story of Peter’s mother-in-law. There’s something about knowing where it is that we are supposed to be. I don’t mean that in a “know your place” kind of way. I am passionate enough about Christian justice movements and see Jesus at work in those in profound ways. But I do think that there is something to our ministry “in place,” as it were. We are all connected in some way: to families, friends, neighbors, coworkers. How is it that what we do can be transformative? How is it that we can be healed and yet remain “in place”?

And finally, I think that Jesus is teaching something profound to us by moving throughout the Galilee. And it is in this place that the tension develops with the last point in healthy ways. In a very tribal time, Jesus was saying very clearly, “Let’s go. Let’s get beyond that tribe and move among the people.” Far from staying “in place,” Jesus is on the move.

So let’s go!

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