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In my previous post, I mentioned the email conversations I’ve been having since Sunday’s sermon. Here is another I wanted to share. It comes from another friend. As you’ll see from the reflection, she is in a multi-racial relationship with an African-American man (whose name I have changed). They recently got celebrated their engagement.


At least from my limited experience of being 1/2 of an interracial couple in a state that, within our parents’ lifetimes, had miscegenation laws, a lot of what you said resonated with me. Jim is from the inner-city, from a neighborhood that with the recession became increasingly impoverished and dominated by drug trafficking and gang violence. He intentionally wears glasses most of the time when he’s in middle class white America to look intellectual and “safe” and also smiles a lot, while in the “hood” (his term, not mine) he wears contacts and scowls. His parents taught him early on how to interact with police officers. Where we live now, he’s cautious not to walk behind white women at night, especially not with a hoodie on. And the fact that he and I are together makes things more complicated. While being with Jim usually only earns me a few nasty looks and a couple of very confused pizza delivery guys, there are real risks associated for Jim. When Jim and I are together anytime, and especially after dark, it needs to be clear in every interaction that I’m there by choice and Jim isn’t hurting me.

Jim and I are hoping to have children within the first few years of marriage. When we have children, our society will never see them as white–the “one drop” rule still persists, de facto. I hope and pray that I have sons who are like Jim in the important ways. I’m scared that one day, lighter-skinned though they may be, they’ll find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. As a (future) parent, I want to prepare my children to face that possibility in a way that’s realistic and yet neither quashes their sense of the imago dei within themselves nor their hope for humanity’s fulfillment of God’s designs for it. Lucky thing I have some time to work on that. 😉

But at no moment of our relationship, from deciding to date to deciding to get married, have our races been a major factor. The challenges of being an interracial couple have always seemed secondary to what God is doing in giving us this love for each other. It’s an odd moment, I’ve found, going through this engagement process in the midst of everything happening in Ferguson and elsewhere. While my newsfeed on Facebook is full of people more informed than I am posting articles and expressing opinions about Ferguson and other instances of racialized violence, I’m busy posting engagement announcements and pictures. In a way, that’s perhaps my own internalization of the narcissism of our age, but in another way, it makes me think about our calling to live as hopeful people in this season of Advent. Yes, Ferguson is real, and ugly, and heartbreaking, and it’s part of a system of racial oppression we’re called to dismantle. But I hope and pray that in some small way, Jim and my relationship–and family–can embody the reconciliation God has already accomplished in Christ, the reconciliation that I believe is even now breaking in as the Kingdom of God comes closer at hand to us. It’s hard to see that hope right now in the world, but the love inside me tells me that it isn’t misplaced. (Or maybe that’s more narcissism.)

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This past Sunday, I touched on Ferguson as part of my sermon. More than most of my recent sermons, this topic has touched a raw nerve. Several other friends shared their own blog posts with me, which I will link here and also here.

I have also had an ongoing email correspondence with a friend who has given me permission to share his response to the sermon along with his own thoughts about Ferguson. He also happens to be something I am not, namely a young African-American man. Here it is.


At the end of the day a young man tragically lost his life a lot earlier than he should have. So regardless of the point of view, I think it’s important to try to see the world through the eyes of the marginalized, and at the end of it all return to God. I especially liked the story of Habakkuk, specifically the fact that God challenged him to change was he saw as unjust. When I read that, it made me smile.

The social implications of the Ferguson case frustrate me. I believe there is somewhat of a schism in America when it comes to the issues of race and racism. I have a feeling that many people believe that racism in America is dead and that we have finally reached the equality in America envisioned in the Constitution. In my opinion, we are far from that promise, and the Ferguson case along with the Trayvon Martin case prove that.

We, as a society, have moved on to subtle forms of racism that are a lot harder to explain, because the bigoted, overt forms of racism are no longer socially acceptable. One example is the St. Louis Rams players’ “hands up don’t shoot” gesture. On one side you have the players who believe in a cause and are standing in solidarity with the family of Mike Brown and society at large. One the other side you have the Ferguson/St. Louis PD who feel like they’ve been unduly scrutinized. The act itself was non-violent, and honestly I didn’t think it was meant to further scrutinize the Ferguson/St. Louis PD. I thought the act was meant as a show of solidarity reminiscent of the 1968 Olympic game’s “black fist” gesture.

I have done some limited reading of the evidence that was released following the decision, and one of the things that strikes me the most is Darren Wilson’s testimony, in which he refers to Mike Brown as a demon (or looking like a demon). I understand that the use of language could be deemed trivial in a case like this, but to me it is a huge point in the testimony. By equating Mike Brown to a demon, Wilson was able to rationalize and even, in a way, warrant Mike Brown’s death. His testimony, to me, reads like something out of a novel where the rampant beast needs to be put down or else the entire town will be in danger.

I’m not at all trying to argue the finer points in the case. Only Mike Brown and Darren Wilson know what actually happened. From Wilson’s testimony it does appear like he was in danger. I’m not sure if that danger warranted the use of deadly force, but he was in danger nonetheless.

The point I want to make is that time and time again with these cases a similar script is played out, in which (it seems to me), a young, black man is killed for acting exactly how America thinks we are supposed to act. We are seen as the thuggish, thieving “other” and that in itself warrants the use of deadly force. And still it seems like a majority of America does not care. I’m all for allowing the judicial system to work, but sometimes I believe it doesn’t work out to be as fair as it is intended to be. Maybe this case wasn’t the perfect avenue for catapulting the issues of race into the public spotlight, but I think it serves as a good measuring stick for where we stand in America today. If we want to even begin to heal these scars, we need to start having meaningful conversations about race and racism in America. Until we do, the divide in America will only continue to grow.

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Before we turn to our morning’s Scripture lessons, I want to take a moment of pastoral privilege. I don’t often focus on current events during worship – not because I don’t care, but rather because I don’t want to be in the habit of chasing ambulances. Our response to the world around us ought to be one of compassion, concern, and engagement. For people of faith, this engagement runs much deeper than taking a particular side on a particular issue on a particular Sunday.

That said, I think we have passed a watershed moment in our society this week with the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, and I want to take this moment to speak into this space from my own perspective. I know that we have different opinions in our pews on the issue of same sex marriage. I know that many of you are pleased or even elated because of Wednesday’s ruling. I know that some of you are disappointed, even angry. I also know that we are a stronger community because we encourage a healthy diversity of perspectives. And if you hear nothing else I say today, I want to be sure you hear this: no matter your opinion, I am your pastor. And our relationship in that regard is unrelated to whether or not we agree on a particular issue.

As I have read commentaries and responses to the ruling from various church leaders, the one thing that I have seen again and again is a near-universal consensus that we are moving toward a national consensus in favor of same sex marriage. Even the most ardent opponents acknowledge that this writing is on the wall. It is my own observation that the real game changer in public opinion happened not Wednesday, but three years ago when the military repealed “don’t ask don’t tell.” The biggest gulf in opinion on this issue is not even between conservative and liberal, but between generations. For example: 51% of white evangelicals under the age of 35 support same sex marriage. That number represents a majority of those raised in churches that have been the most outspoken opponents of same sex relationships. We have passed the tipping point. The question now is: what do we do?

And here, I want to say that I recognize the fact that our worship space and service does not lend itself to two-way conversation. So after worship today, after we greet one another, I move to the Parlor in case anyone wants to continue in conversation. This is our strength as a church, our ability to talk honestly with each other, because we know that grace abounds, bridging gaps that might be impassable otherwise.

Back to the question: what now?

It must be said that just because something is popular does not mean that we as a church must go along with it. I think we have a responsibility to speak into places where our society has gone off the rails. We advocate for the most vulnerable among us, witnessing to the compassion of Christ. We speak against cultural tendencies toward excess and greed and drive, giving voice to deeper, holier purposes for life. This is one of those moments when churches will see this as just such an opportunity, to oppose the prevailing winds of culture. Speaking personally, I think resistance is a mistake, one that history will judge as a poor choice.

I choose, instead, to see this moment as an opportunity to live out the love of Jesus Christ in an imperfect world. We are, all of us, imperfect; that’s why we begin our worship service in confession. Our sexual desires are imperfect; that’s no less true for heterosexuality than homosexuality. It is because of this that we Presbyterians call marriage a covenant, not a sacrament. Ben Affleck was right (and that’s probably the only time you’ll ever hear me make that statement): Marriage is work. And because it is work, because it is imperfect, the marriage covenant is a public promise. We ask those who witness to promise their support to the couple. We pray for God’s grace, mercy, and blessings on the covenant of marriage.

By virtue of being an ordained minister, I have the authority of both church and state to play an official role in this covenant. It will not be long before I have the opportunity to do the same with same-sex couples. And it’s an opportunity I will likely take, because it gives me the opportunity to share the gospel with its promises of hope, redemption, and perfect love in the midst of imperfect relationships.

I know that many of you are already there, favoring full inclusion. You can even point to our mission statement where we describe ourselves as “an inclusive community of faith.” And I know that for many of you this is not an abstract issue of pros and cons, but one that has a face and a name…one that has to do with family members whom you know and love and support, desiring nothing more than their happiness. And yet, I know that this does not describe all of us. So whatever we do today and beyond, I trust that we will do it with the utmost grace – grace toward one another, grace toward all.

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What would Jesus’ prayer for us be?

This past summer, we spent a great deal of time looking at the Lord’s Prayer in detail. For me, the most meaningful takeaway was that we ought to pray, and pray simply. In his model prayer, Jesus doesn’t say, “If you pray”, but “When…” And so the assumption is that we do pray. And for those of us that don’t, the most common barrier is being worried that our prayers aren’t interesting enough, or flowery enough in their prose. And so, when we peel away the centuries of tradition that have built up around this prayer, it is important to recognize what remains: a simple prayer with simple words. And that is all the model for prayer that we need.

When we pray to Jesus, the lesson is straightforward: keep it simple. But today, I want to flip the equation: what would Jesus’ prayer for us be? When Jesus looks at our lives, as individuals, as a church, what is it that Jesus desires for us?

I make no pretense to speak for God today. That’s a fool’s errand. And I make no attempt to address all that ails us. The best I can hope for is to glance off the world we live in by offering my own observations on this world. I do trust that the Spirit fills in the gap between preacher and congregation. And I trust that the still small voice within each of you will flesh out God’s desires for you in the here and now.

What would Jesus’ prayer for us be? Today, I want to touch on three things.

And the first is that we would see the Christ in others. In some ways, this is the lesson that probably undergirds all that we do as a church, and all that we do as people of God. Seeing the Christ in others is a call to compassion. It is a call to justice. It is a call to mercy and righteousness. We not only weep for the children of God that suffer; we not only reach out a hand to those who constantly live on the margins of our world; we also get angry for them, because the world can be such an unfair place.

When we learn that a close friend has been struck with an untreatable illness, or when we hear of innocents who have become casualties of war through no fault of their own, or when we see a political system that has become absurd in its theatrics and brinksmanship, our hearts break for those who suffer; and our anger rises against those who seem not to notice the result of their actions. If we ever lose sight of those who constantly live on the edge of our vision, may God have mercy on us. It was with such as these that Jesus spent the bulk of his ministry: lepers, prostitutes, murderers, children, widows, orphans. And for those of us here in Brookhaven, even though we may feel like it at times, we are rarely the ones the world has forgotten. Our own spirits are in danger if we live in a bubble with only those who are just like us.

At the same time, as hard as it may be to admit, we cannot lose sight of this: the faceless corporate CEOs whose chemicals unleash the cancers of the world, the soldiers whose bombs have taken lives they were never intended to take, the politicians who such easy fodder for mockery and revulsion, they, too, deserve the dignity of Christ within them. After all, we are not only commanded to love our neighbors, but our enemies as well. That love may take a different form, but it is still love that is required.

Underneath all of this is the fact that we need to honor the Christ within us. Loving your neighbor as yourself requires loving yourself. And so, the first prayer: see the Christ in others.

The second prayer is that we would trust in God’s abundance. So often, we seem to live our lives as though we live in fear of scarcity when the Scriptures speak most often of God’s rampant generosity. Think of the sower who goes out, casting seeds this way and that. Some fall on good soil, most don’t. Beyond the question of what makes for good soil is the fact that God has way more seeds than there is soil to receive them. It reminds me of the image of the woman walking a worn path to the well from which she draws water daily. The pot she uses is cracked; so much so that by the time she gets home, half of the water is gone. And yet, as a result, the path itself grows with the abundance of well-watered earth. There is always more than we think.

When we launched our capital campaign this Fall, the biggest question we had was, “Can we do this?” And I was one of those asking the question. In the end, not only did our stewardship look exactly the same as the past few years, but we discovered an additional $350,000 out there – so far. Not everyone can give, I know. Each of our circumstances is different. Those of us on fixed incomes and with battered savings in a rough economy are doing what we can, I know. And at the same time, as a community, we clearly underestimated the riches of God’s blessings in our midst and how much more we had to share than we ever knew.

Where else are we living practices of scarcity? Where else do we keep our lights hidden away rather than letting them illuminate our surroundings? I have often heard it said that Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church is the best-kept secret in Brookhaven. Why is it a secret? Who ever told us that we shouldn’t talk about it? This isn’t Fight Club! When it comes to Jesus, is mum the word? Are we worried that more people will water down what makes this church special? If so, then we would do well to hear this prayer again: trust in God’s abundance.

And the third prayer is that we would rest in the presence of the Spirit. Or, to say it in a less churchy way, may we get some sleep.

As silly as that might sound, and as much as you might think my subtext is how much I hate springing forward, I’m actually quite serious about this. It’s my conviction that we are a sleep-deprived society, living with all of the dis-ease and disease that this deprivation brings. Whether it’s hustling between three jobs to make ends meet, or working our fingers to the bone at the one job that expects more of us than we could ever give, we are working ourselves sick. We get up too early. We stay up too late. We go on vacation, but we still answer emails and field phone calls. We are tired. We don’t think straight. And we still don’t manage to cross off everything on our “to do” list.

Make no mistake: I’m not speaking as one who has this figured out by any stretch, but rather as a fellow struggler. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, we might not even realize it when it happens to us. Are we really trapped? Or are there choices we make that trap us: mixing up our priorities, confusing what we want with what we need, our inability to say “no”? And what example are we setting for our children? What are we expecting of them by giving them more to do in a day than is reasonable to expect? Their brains aren’t even fully formed yet. Sleep is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. It’s the way God designed our bodies so that they can heal and strengthen themselves. Even Jesus slept. Right there in the boat, even when the storm was raging, Jesus slept. Friends, the storms are always raging. We can always find a fire to put out. We can always find more to do. But God created other people, too. The fate of the world is not on your shoulders.

May we see the Christ in others; may we trust in God’s abundance; and may we rest in the presence of the Spirit. What is Jesus’ prayer for you today?

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Well, friends, this is it. Friday is coming, 12/21/12; and if the Mayans are right, then this will be our last time together. So I just want to say, “So long, and thanks for all the good times.”

Why do we even know about things like this?!? Apparently, the ancient Mayan calendar was divided into eras, and the current era draws to a close this Friday. It wasn’t until the 1990s, one author/pseudo-scholar described the date as the Mayan apocalypse; and from there, it got picked up by conspiracy theorists and other fringe elements and spread into our popular culture. Mayan scholars have come forward to proclaim this whole idea as nonsense. NASA has made it clear that there are no extra-terrestial “events” afoot that might lead to some cataclysm. It’s all fatuous fantasy. And yet, almost every one of us here knows about the supposed significance of this date.

It’s clear that our 24-hour news culture is partially to blame. After all, they feel compelled to fill the airwaves with sound and fury. As much as we might like to blame “the media”, the truth is that they sell what we buy. And boy, do we buy it! Listen to the holiday blockbuster films coming out: Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, which takes place sixty years after earth has been evacuated; Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, where aliens rise up from inside the earth’s crust to attack; Will Smith’s After Earth, where he and his son crash land on the planet 1000 years after it was abandoned; the next installment of Star Trek, where the Enterprise crew looks to defend an entire planet against destruction…do you see a pattern here? There seems to be a general sense of doom and unease in our world today.

Now, it’s important to note that we are not the first generation to feel as though everything is crashing down around us. Look no further than our text from Luke’s gospel. The spectacle of John the Baptist is gathering the crowds in the wilderness. And John is never one to mince words: there is a coming wrath; don’t just sit there and rest on your Abrahamic laurels; a tree that bears bad fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Or, as the cheeky bumper sticker puts it, “Jesus is coming; look busy.”

Every era of humanity is convinced that we are the last. And in a sense, we may all be right, because our world seems so permanently fragile. As if we needed any reminder of our tentative ability to hold things together, this past Friday news began to trickle, then stream, in from Connecticut: another mass shooting, this one at an elementary school, where the heaviest casualties were, most cruelly, among the youngest.

It’s one of those moments in our national consciousness where we remember for years exactly where we were when we first heard. And in the 24-hour news vacuum, predictably, questions about gun control have arisen immediately. Advocates on both sides are citing the incident as evidence in their favor. I have my own strong opinions about that issue, which I will refrain from sharing this morning; but for my money, the most coherent, and frankly, theological, thought came not after this shooting, but two weeks ago.

You heard about this, I’m sure. During the broadcast of Sunday Night Football, Bob Costas spoke about the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide in Kansas City. Whatever you might think about the stance Costas took, or whether a football broadcast was the right place to do so, I personally think he nailed it with his first words. He talked about how the most common refrain we hear at moments like these is that tragedies put everything in perspective. Costas retorted:

…if so, that sort of perspective has a very short shelf-life since we will inevitably hear about the perspective we supposedly again regained the next time ultimate reality intrudes…

In other words, when we bear witness to these events, even from afar, do we do anything about it? Do we strengthen our resolve to make the world a better place? Or do we chalk this up to yet another example of how broken our world is, and muddle on with life until the next chaotic moment intervenes, bringing us to church seeking some word of comfort or clarity?

Suddenly, it feels like we pulled back to the wilderness, standing with the crowds around John the Baptist, listening to his words of direct challenge. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am convinced that, in the face of violence and evil, our first act as Christians is repentance. We turn to God, searching our souls, and bearing it all before the one who creates and loves us. Then and only then, having turned and come face to face with judgment and mercy, only then can we turn back out and make sense of what comes next.

John’s audience heard his call. In response, they asked, “What should we do?” His answer was straightforward: share. If you’ve got two coats, share one with someone who doesn’t have one. If you have more food than you know what to do with, then pass along those blessings. To tax collectors and soldiers, his message was a little more details, but also simple: be honest. Do what you are supposed to do – nothing more, nothing less.

Share, and be honest. That may be the clearest and most thorough summary of Christian ethics I have ever heard.

But where does that leave us, here at OPC, in the wake of a school shooting 1,000 miles away? Is there anything for us to say or do that might echo of faithful repentance? Where does our obligation to share and be honest fit at this particular moment in our lives?

On Friday, at the very moment that this tragedy was unfolding in Newton, Connecticut, our Preschoolers were getting ready for their Christmas program. When their parents arrived at our sanctuary, I don’t know how many of them had already heard the news; I did not know anything about it until later that afternoon. But for half an hour, their children paraded through our sanctuary, singing songs of shepherds and donkeys and Mary and Joseph and a little baby Jesus. Their parents and grandparents were beaming and laughing and even wiping away tears of joy. It was a holy, holy moment on a day that needed more moments just like it.

You see, we may not have a close connection to an elementary school in the northeast; but we have a school right here in our own building! What are we doing, as faithful stewards of this place, to ensure that the children and their families who come here know that they are not only safe, but that they are loved to the core of their being by the God and Lord of the universe? How is it that we can embody the promise the prophet Zephaniah bore so long ago, that we shall fear disaster no more, that the lame and the outcast shall be saved, and that blessings are restored?

Friends, we often speak of the important role that our church plays in this community. But I don’t know if that role resonates within us. This morning, I came across these words from a student at Oglethorpe University, a young Muslim woman whom I have gotten to know through our interfaith partnerships there, words that I want to be sure we hear. She wrote:

After a much dreaded Friday full of deadlines and a final, I left Oglethorpe to head home. My heart was still heavy…and all I wanted to do was see my little seven-year-old sister. I knew what happened was senseless, but I was desperate to try to make sense of it all.

As I turned out of the school, I stopped suddenly because there were cars lined up and down the street…They were all parked in front of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. As I saw the light shining from the church, it took my breath away.

In a world where religion is becoming increasingly obsolete, it gave me a little hope to see a small beacon of light on such a dark night…When I finally managed to make myself drive away, I felt myself smile for the first time that day. As a Muslim driving home from school, my beacon of light that day came from a church.

What she saw was our AA meeting. And what they do, in bringing hope to those who get trapped in the despair of addiction, is just one way of living out John’s call to share and be honest. What we provide them is a safe and trusted place to gather, to heal, and to be healed.

This young woman indeed saw a light shining from the church. And the light she saw is not ours. It is not a light we hold onto. Instead, it is a light that we reflect, the same light to which John pointed: the light of the Christ child. We are not the light of the world; and yet, we have received the gift of that light so that darkness might be sent away!

I want to close this morning with a prayer written by Christian author Max Lucado, words that speak powerfully to this moment where we find ourselves, and the hope to which we cling this Advent and Christmas season. Will you pray with me?

Dear Jesus,

It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately.

These killings, Lord. These children, Lord. Innocence violated. Raw evil demonstrated.

The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation?

Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence.

Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene.

Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won’t you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger.

This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us.

Hopefully,
Your Children

Amen.

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There’s something about us that makes us root for the underdog. It’s the way we tend to view our own origins as a nation, the under-funded and poorly-trained Minutemen up against the massive firepower of the British Empire. It is also how we tend to describe national triumphs over injustice: ending slavery, burying Jim Crow, championing equality for those who were once excluded.

The underdog stories, whether in real life or in fiction, are the ones we turn to again and again as evidence of the world we want to believe in, where anything is possible: Jeremy Lin leading the Knicks on a surprise winning streak, Luke Skywalker saving the galaxy from the Empire, William Wallace holding the British at bay, Frodo Baggins destroying the ring and sparing Middle Earth, the US Hockey Team taking the gold from the Soviets.

We may know that such stories are the exception, not the rule, but they seem to serve as a way to give us hope in a world that can often seem so unfair, where injustice seems to have the last word all too often. We want to believe that the worst team can beat the best team on any given Sunday. And while it’s theoretically true, the odds tend to be pretty stacked.

What’s most distressing is that there are losses that are about more than just team rivalries, losses with real life consequences.

On Good Friday, two men drove around northern Tulsa with intent to kill. Details are still emerging as the two suspects have been located and arrested, but this much is true: three people are dead because of their rampage. One of the victims was 49 year-old Donna Fields. Fields had battled some fierce demons in her own lifetime, including addiction to drugs and alcohol. But she had turned her life around, getting involved in her church and reaching out to help those who had fallen prey to the same problems.

What had seemed like a victory for the underdog, a broken life transformed into one of healing, turned quickly back to sadly predictable defeat. And rather than this being a loss in an otherwise winning season, such moments feel much more like part of humanity’s long-standing losing streak.

And yet, here we are, people of faith, walking in the footsteps of those who insist on telling us that hope has the final word, that life beats death, that the tomb is empty and the Lord is not here but risen.

Those messages of victory are the ones that we see again and again in Scripture. In the book of Acts, the plucky little band of Jesus’ followers picks up where the Messiah left off. Defying the odds, not to mention the strong hand of the religious leaders, they go on to spread the gospel and build the church in the most trying of circumstances. In the lesson we just read, we see the bigger drama in miniature. Peter and John are arrested. They have healed a man who lay at the gate of the temple, and have been teaching about Jesus and resurrection. In the midst of their defense, they cite the ultimate underdog text from the Psalms: the stone the builders tossed aside has now been used as the very foundation upon which everything rests. Despite the overwhelming opposition, they are freed with nothing more than a warning. The little guy wins. The favorite sulks away in defeat. And the drama goes on.

It begins to feel like disconnect, doesn’t it, between faithful hope and real life experiences? As Christians, we are asked to believe in the borderline absurd. On our best days, we might actually get close. And yet, much of the time, we tend to live as though such stories are just that: stories, myths, stuff that would be nice to believe if we could just suspend logic and reason and critical thought, not to mention experience. Either that, or we manage to survive with a kind of cognitive dissonance, putting our mental and spiritual trust in Jesus, but living life as though it all depends on us. Our faith tends more towards word and speech, not truth and action. What happens in Tulsa doesn’t just stay in Tulsa; it re-affirms our suspicions that the odds are stacked against us.

But maybe that’s the problem: we are so steeped in our culture of either/or, of win/lose, that we don’t even know that we’ve started out with the wrong question to begin with. If our options are polarized, if we can end up with either victory or defeat, with success or failure, then we will do everything in our power to be sure that we win. Because the alternative, well, it’s for losers, isn’t it?

But how is it that we define winning? What does success look like? Did Jesus succeed? By the standards of our society, absolutely not. He was born poor and remained poor; he was supremely gifted, but used those gifts not to amass wealth or power, but a small, committed band of followers. And when the going got tough, those followers fell away, one by one, until he was all alone. And that’s when he died: broken, humiliated, friendless.

Of course, we know the rest of the story: Jesus rises from the dead, goes on to encourage the disciples, ascends into heaven, et cetera; but that’s not success in the way we view it. It’s too ethereal, other worldly, metaphysical. It’s not nearly material enough. And so we end up crafting our visions of Jesus’ return to make sure that it conforms with how we view success: the master warrior, destroying his enemies, reigning as king forever and ever. Amen.

It feels like a visit to the eye doctor: better or worse? Number one, or number two? Maybe the problem starts because we’ve got on the wrong lenses to begin with.

Back to Tulsa. As Donna Fields’ pastor reflected on her life, one that had been ravaged by addictions but had become marked by hope and joy, he spoke of her this way:

“She stood for justice. She understood the streets…She has been an inspiration to us rather than us to her…to see what God can do with anybody.”

Do you notice the turn? Do you see how the script gets flipped? This isn’t a lesson of how the church saved her, or even of how good Christians ministered to her. As her pastor said, it’s about how she, the ex-junkie, ministered to them. It’s about what God, not the church, did to and through her; and how that stands as proof of what God can do with anybody.

The impact of Donna Fields’ change life becomes clearer the more we hear about the aftermath. Her brother is anxious to see justice for his sister. But when he was asked about the death penalty as a form of justice, his answer is clear:

“I don’t hate them. That’s not what God put us down here for, to hate.”

The principle that ought to underline all that we do is not winning or losing, not betting on the underdog or rooting for the favorite. The point is to recognize how God is at work, and to find out how we can get in on that action!

In our Acts’ lesson, our win-lose lenses show us a temporary victory by Peter and John. But the bigger story is that God used them for healing: the physical healing of the man at the gates of the temple, spiritual healing of the people who hear them speak and see them not backing down. And even though they know they have the true power, the power of God, the power of the risen Christ on their team, they don’t Lord it over their opponents. Instead, they give witness to the one who gave them that power in the first place. And once again, the script is flipped: the stone the builders rejected not only became useful, but became the cornerstone of the whole structure.

And in the lesson from John’s letter, the clearest sign of Christ’s presence within us is not victory or success. It’s love; the love we demonstrate with our words and with our actions, the way we put our money and our time and our talents where our mouths and our hearts and our faith reside. After all, as the lesson of Tulsa reminds us, God didn’t put us here to hate anybody.

Can we re-evaluate the rules of the game? Can we move beyond winning or losing into healing and loving? Is it even possible in an election year where campaigns are just barely getting warmed up?

Friends, God wants to work through us. Christ wants to live within us, and to let the world know who it is that motivates our love, our compassion, or desire to keep on, even when it feels like the odds are stacked against us.

Let the games begin!

Amen.

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Loving and perfect God, every time we gather at this table we repeat the words that have been handed to us from our Lord Jesus: “In remembrance.” Today, these words have added meaning, as so many in our nation gather today to remember the horrific and tragic events of ten years ago. So many bodies broken, so much blood poured out, so much life and promise cut short as so many of us looked on in fear.

And in the ten years since, there has more destruction – the numerous deaths of combatants and civilians, the countless wounds to body, mind, and spirit. What has become clear is that what happened in New York City and Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania ten years ago were not an anomaly. If we are honest, we know that the one real difference was in their proximity to us.

It is true that we have come to this table in memory, yes; but we also come because we want to be close to you, closer than global agony, closer than national tragedy, closer than even our own breath. And so, O mighty and merciful Lord, may your body broken and your blood poured out for our sake be the very thing that fills our voids and heals our wounds, binding us close to one another, to all who share in this feast, to all those who have come before and surround us now as a great cloud of witnesses.

We pray all of this in the name of Christ our Lord, the bread of life, who taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

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He had been sleeping on the front porch. Here at the church. That’s not all that surprising; since I’ve been here at OPC, I probably encounter one person a year who spends the night under that roof. Usually, it happens when I get to church unusually early on a Sunday morning, surprising them – and me – with my arrival. I often greet them, ask what we might be able to do to help them – some food, a Breeze pass, maybe a bus ticket – and they are soon gone, never to return.

But this guy was different. The first time I saw him, I was so startled that I entered the church by another door. I assumed that he, too, would simply spend one night and then move along. But then, a couple of times I saw him riding down Lanier Drive on his bike as I came into the parking lot. On Ash Wednesday, I came back to the church after the service over at Brookhaven Christian. It was about 8:00 at night, and I could see the silhouette of the bicycle and the sleeping figure against the street lights.

I called up Brian, one of our members who is active at the Druid Hills Night Shelter, and we came back to the church to talk to this man to see what we might be able to do. He was polite, with a very gentle demeanor. He listened as Brian mentioned the Night Shelter and several other services, taking out a pad of paper and a pen to write them down.

He had worked steadily in manual labor since arriving in Atlanta more than 15 years ago. Recently, not only had work slowed down, but he was dealing with debilitating arthritis in his knees. The increasing medical bills and the decreasing employment finally caught up with each other, and he was forced onto the street. The two bills he could still manage to pay were his cellphone, in case of work, and a storage locker. We exchanged phone numbers, prayed, and parted ways.

On Friday, I called him to see how things were going. He had been down to the Night Shelter the day before. They don’t take walk-ins, but rely on referral agencies. He took the name and address of one, but it wouldn’t be open until the next Monday. After a few phone calls, I arranged a hotel room for him in Chamblee for a week, and promised to check in on Monday. And it was then that I began my education – rather, my steep learning curve – on resources for the homeless in the city of Atlanta.

He and I both began calling the referring agency the Night Shelter told him about, leaving messages. After not hearing back, I called our friend Bill at the Night Shelter, who mentioned two other agencies that sent referrals. One was Central Presbyterian. Caitlin, our former student intern, is working there now, and she was able to give me the name and direct number of two folks there. I called them and left a message. The first told me that the procedure was to line up around 7 am in front of Central; people were handled on a first-come, first-serve basis when they opened at 9. The second informed me that they only referred people when the Night Shelter told them that they could.

Time was ticking away; the week at the hotel was about up. The Night Shelter had space for him, but we couldn’t get anyone to make a referral. After a few more phone calls, I received word that the Night Shelter would let Central know that they could make a referral. That was good enough for me.

At 6:30 the next morning, I picked him up in front of the hotel, and we drove down to Central Presbyterian, right across the street from the State Capitol. It was cold, and for some odd reason, bundled up sitting on the cold stone wall with my new compatriot, I couldn’t help but be reminded of camping out for U2 tickets in high school with my best friend Eric down at the Omni.

We were fifth in line. And when the doors opened, the woman whose name had been given to me was the first person I saw. I introduced myself and my companion, and she assured me things would move along. After going through the intake process, he was given a letter of introduction and referral to the Night Shelter. By that afternoon, he had checked out of the hotel and moved into Druid Hills.

Why in the world would I tell you that story? There is plenty to be learned, of course, and I hope you take some of that with you. It’s a story of some good that we were able to do as a church, helping this man get off the street and, hopefully, back on a firm foundation. I was able to help move resources by virtue of the connections that I have both by virtue of being connected to Oglethorpe Presbyterian and because I am a member of this Presbytery. And, at the same time, I became aware of what a bureaucratic nightmare the whole process is, even for the most motivated of people. He didn’t have the personal or professional connections that I did; no one gave him names of people that he could call, just organizations. Simply because I have access to the internet and can use the word “pastor” in front of my name, doors were opened; information was shared; and resources eventually came together – and even then, only after three or four days of concerted work. Left to his own devices, he didn’t have a prayer.

That’s all well and good, I supposed. But what in the world does that story have to do with Jesus and the blind man? In that story, too, there are several layers at work. It begins as a conversation on the nature of sin: was the man’s blindness evidence of his sinfulness, or his parents? That’s where it starts, anyway, with this flawed first century understanding of physical ailment. It can’t just happen – there must be someone to blame, right?

For Jesus, though, the only purpose this man’s lack of sight could possibly serve would be to point to the miraculous healing work of God. Jesus spits in the ground, putting mud in the man’s eyes – most likely, a reference to Genesis and God’s molding of humanity out of the clay of the earth. And once the man was able to see, no one seems to celebrate. Instead, he becomes and object lesson for the whole community. His neighbors are convinced it is someone else. The Pharisees are outraged that this whole thing has violated the sanctity of the Sabbath.

Then doubt re-enters: they all refuse to believe that he was healed until his parents ascertain that yes, indeed, this is their son, and that yes, indeed, he was blind. Suddenly, he is testifying to Jesus’ power, horrifying the Pharisees, who force him out because he is a sinner – back to the original assumption about disease and sin.

Then at the very end, there is the dramatic flip. Jesus pronounces that those who are blind are the ones without sin; but those who can see with their eyes are the ones who are really blind to the realities of sin and grace around them.

What could these two stories possibly have to do with one another?

At first glance, perhaps it is the connection of a man who is outside of the “norm” beginning the long process of healing: from blindness to sight, from homelessness to steady employment and housing. And in both cases, it is a process: the blind man isn’t instantly healed. He has to go wash, then debate neighbors and religious leaders. His parents are sucked into the controversy, until he finally becomes an outspoken witness to Jesus’ power. Our friend, on the other hand, didn’t just wait for someone to get him off the street. And the story isn’t over. Some of his situation is better. He has a warm place to sleep. He has been able to get affordable medication to help with the arthritis. And his employment situation has improved. But…he’s looking to get new skills so that he isn’t relying on his physical strength for work. And in the meantime, he has to get used to sleeping in a room with a couple dozen other guys. It’s a start, but there’s a ways to go.

But that’s about where the stories part ways. Because if we stick with that parallel, pretty soon the pastor in one story becomes Jesus in the other; and I hope you know me well enough to know how uncomfortable that idea makes me. And I’m sure I know you all well enough to know that we are not a community of Pharisees, ready to call into question the whole enterprise of healing, how resources of time and money were used, what day these activities were carried out, itching to boot sinners out of our presence.

And yet, how many of us would be willing to believe that homelessness just happens? Surely there is someone to blame. Forty percent of the homeless population have substance abuse issues. Twenty-five percent have a mental illness. And fifteen percent are part of both groups. That’s half for whom illness or addiction is tied up in their state. And that also means that fully half have neither – including our friend from the story.

And yet, even for those who do, is their homelessness therefore the result of some kind of moral failing? Or to put it in the framework of the Biblical story, does ailment follow only where sin is present? So many of us have faced issues of addiction and mental illness in our own families, and those experiences color our own understanding of these issues. When folks are abstractions, we are more likely to generalize about them than when we know them personally. I know that’s true for me, anyway. The crowd in the story from John couldn’t celebrate the blind man’s healing. They were more disturbed by the fact that the order of the world they knew had been upset – blind people are blind because of some kind of historic fault. And healing, when it happens, has its time and place – not the Sabbath, for God’s sake.

And that brings me to the hard truth about this story from John’s gospel. Because when I read it, I am painfully aware that I have more in common with the Pharisee, the religious authority figure, the one thought to be the moral standard bearer of the community, than anyone else. That may not be why I went into ministry as a profession; but it has certainly become part of the job description.

And that’s the thing that I have to come face to face with: I am blind. I fail to see. When I talk to this guy sleeping on the porch, I’m ready for a moral failing: the smell of alcohol, a broken home, a felony conviction, bad hygiene. What I’m not prepared to face is plain old bad luck: medical bills, loss of employment, too few connections with those who could make a difference right now.

And that’s the irony: in my blindness comes the good news that my eyes can be opened. I can get a glimpse, as scales fall away, of one person’s life. And that life can open me up to a curiosity about the world and the way I think it works and the way it actually functions. And when I begin to see, when I begin the long process of healing, then I can recognize that this Jesus has been standing in front of me all along. But as long as I insist that I have all the sight I need, I truly remain blind.

What about you? Where is it that you have been blind? Where is that glimpse, that first vision, that long, dirty, muddy process of healing? Do you know that Jesus is right here, with you, through it all?

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Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6

The whole idea from this series on Revelation began with the notion that we need to spend some time de-mythologizing and re-engaging the book of Revelation. And in order to do so, we need to strip away the bizarre political overlays that have come to surround this book and its imagery so that we might get down to its heart. And the fundamental purpose of it is this: to let a suffering people know that God wins. But that God’s victory doesn’t look like victory as we’ve come to know it. God’s victory is marked by its obsession with love, grace, and mercy.

Today we welcome our Preschool families, and with them, this thought occurs to me. I have one word of parenting advice as a fellow struggler: we don’t have to know all the answers to all the questions our children throw at us about God. Mystery is an absolute part of faith. What we do know is God’s character of love, grace, and mercy; we are best at answering these questions when we remember that.

Today’s lesson brings images of a new heaven and a new earth. Revelation is not alone in this, but it has a hand in shaping our image of heaven. So the question I ask today is this: how do you imagine heaven? What do you see and hear and feel?

My hunch is that our collective imagination, when pooled together, can do little more than give us a glimpse; and even then, imperfectly so, as it is limited by the stretches of our imagination. But the kinds of things I imagine hearing echo that Revelation text with suffering removed; joy beyond knowledge; radical equality in the presence of God. And why do we choose these things? Because these are the very things that Jesus’ life and ministry were about. He treated people equally, even those who were gravely marginalized in the 1st century: women, children, lepers. He healed and raised from the dead. He shared wisdom, his own version of imagination that parts the skies and opens up a fuller picture of heaven to us.

And that’s the bottom line for me. Heaven isn’t just about an “over yonder” “pie in the sky” situation. Heaven is about the here and now. We sometimes refer to it as the “in-breaking of the kingdom of God”. We are the body of Christ. We are Christ’s hands and feet. We are the ones to show this world what heaven is supposed to look like. And whether its parenting or anything else we do, the most profound wisdom we can offer is not answers; but the deepest desire to live and reflect the character we know of God in God’s victory: love, grace, and mercy.

Amen.

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This just came into my inbox today. If you have the chance and inclination to visit with our amazing Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebanese brothers and sisters, I highly recommend taking advantage of this opportunity. The trip will be November 5-19, 2010, and is organized by the Presbyterian Outreach Foundation. You can find more details about Outreach trips in general here and this trip in particular here.

In 2001, I was lucky enough to visit Iraq and to spend some time with each of our five Presbyterian churches there. Elizabeth and I kept a journal of our time there, and you can see reflections and photos online here. We also wrote a reflection about our time there which I have re-posted on my blog here (just ignore the political references that make the reflection a bit dated. You may have heard that things have changed in Iraq since 2001. It has been on the news some).

And in 2002, we were fortunate to visit Syria and Lebanon and with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters there. The journal from that trip can be found here.

But don’t take my word for it. Take Philip’s advice to Nathanael. “Come and see” for yourself.

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