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yihivStay awake.

It’s a fitting message for this morning, isn’t it, when the alarm went off an hour earlier than desired? Stay awake…

Jesus’ message to his disciples, to stay awake, comes as they have arrived in Jerusalem. The events of the coming weeks have already begun to unfold. It is now only a matter of time before he is betrayed, arrested, tried, and executed, filling the disciples with doubt and fear. If there was any week that they might have chosen to sleep in, this is it.

Stay awake.

Our lesson this morning opens as Jesus and the disciples exit the Temple, the center of Jewish ritual and religious life. The building itself loomed large in the imagination of the people. It was actually the Second Temple to stand on that site. The first, built by King Solomon, had long ago been destroyed and the people carried off into exile. The Persian King Cyrus had freed them, sending them to Jerusalem to rebuild. What they constructed was a mere shadow of the original.

The disciples would have had all of this in mind as they took in the view. The Second Temple was a sad reminder of what once was: a powerful nation, free of foreign entanglements. Even so, the building was magnificent. We get the impression that they were like hicks in the big city, staring up in amazement at the skyscrapers towering above.

The stones had been cut from massive limestone, weighing anywhere from a few tons to 160,000 pounds each. It may not have compared to the original, but it was still quite the sight to behold. Surely nothing could be more permanent than this.

And yet, it was not to be.

The first thing Jesus tells his disciples is that these stones are nothing. They will be torn down, knocked over, such that even the mighty Jerusalem Temple would stand as a ruin – nothing more. History proved Jesus right. It was in the year 70 CE that the Romans did just that – knocked the Temple down, razed it to the ground. Even those permanent-looking 80-ton stones were demolished. They were broken down, repurposed, reused in other parts of the region. For those who saw the destruction with their own eyes, surely it must have seemed like the end of the world.

That’s the thing about the way we see the world, isn’t it? We are, by nature the extent of our years, short-sighted folk. It is hard for us to imagine things that predated us and will outlast us. In other places, there are ruins of bygone years – the pyramids of Giza, the coliseum of Rome, the temples of Machu Pichu – reminders that human history has a much larger footprint than the one that we can imagine. And yet, none of this is permanent.

We have this odd sense of the way time works. And we impose that view on the way we read the lessons of Scripture, don’t we? In some ways, it couldn’t be clearer. As Jesus paints the picture of the way it will all come to an end, he describes a world in which there are wars and rumors of wars. Nations and kingdoms will fight, he says, and earthquakes and hunger will rock the world. For more than 1500 years, people have tried to read the tealeaves, predicting that this season or that is the one that Jesus promised.

2016 is no different. You would think that we would be used to it by now, but every four years, as a presidential race ramps up yet again, we are thrown into this sense that the world is shaken to its core, that things are about to explode, erupt, and that we are on the precipice of the end of history.

But look what Jesus says: wars, natural disasters, these are just the beginning. They are nothing. We will know that things are drawing to a close not when things are unstable. Rather, we will know that things are drawing to a close when the cosmos itself begins to change. The sun turns dark, giving the moon no light to reflect. The stars and planets will appear as though they have become unmoored from their fixed spots in the heavens.

In other words, God’s timeline looks quite a bit further down the road than ours does. Just like the disciples, we might look at the grandness of our own culture and assume it is indestructible. Or when we begin to see that there might be cracks in the surface, we panic. We are cornered into fear, which is a dangerous thing. And we then project our own fear out onto the entirety of creation. In other words: if what I thought I knew was reliable is now ending, then everything must be ending.

That’s what’s hard about this faith thing – and it is what frees us, if we allow it to do so. Faith in what Jesus lived and died and rose for calls us far beyond ourselves, into this grander, universal reality of God’s eternal timeline. It lifts us above our myopic self-interest and out into the reality that, no matter what, God is at work!

For years now, we have heard predictions about the end of Mainline Protestantism. Membership numbers are on the decline. Worship attendance is down. Churches are closing, and buildings are being sold. Every year, we find something to blame for our demise. Every week, there is a dire prophecy that the “end is nigh”. Every day, there is a new “fix all” solution – if only churches and leaders were brave enough to step up.

Folks, I’ve got news: God’s future is much, much bigger than the structures we build up. God looks beyond Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. God’s desires encompass far more than the destiny of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). God’s history extends far beyond the reach of the United States of America. If we can’t say that, then our faith isn’t ultimately in God at all. Instead of believing that God has fashioned us to seek God’s desires, we have fashioned a god that suits our desires.

Look: I’m not saying that what we do is unimportant. Quite the contrary: what we do matters, and matters a great deal. That’s actually the point. Because the invitation is not to stick our heads in the sand and wait for the inevitable collapse of society. Instead, the invitation is to pay attention and to respond in faith.

A farmer sees the leaves change and knows that summer is just around the corner. A servant sees the owner returning down the road and knows it is time to get the house in order. If we stay awake, if we are alert, aware, attentive to the world around us and beyond it, then, sure: we will know when all of this is really coming to an end. But more importantly, we will be in tune with what it is that God is calling us to do in the here and now.

After all, God is not just God of the past. And God is not just God of the future. God is God of the present. That’s what this incarnate faith of ours reminds us: God chose flesh. God chose to be embodied. God chose to become material in Jesus. Because this stuff matters!

The tension of faith is what it means to live as though it matters while keeping that greater, divine perspective intact. Yes: there are wars. Yes: there are rumors of wars. Yes: there are pretenders to faithful leadership. Yes: there are nations rising and collapsing and earthquakes and floods and destruction and death and violence. And: we are still called to faithfulness in the midst of it all.

When there is war, we are the peacemakers. When there are those who preach false gospels, we speak – and live – the truth in love. When there is hunger, we feed. When the world is shaken, we extend a steady hand.

And when we seek war, we trust that the peacemakers will stand in the way. When we preach false gospels, we hope for the wisdom to hear those who tell us the loving truth. When we are hungry, we know that we will be fed. When our world is shaken, we depend on God’s steady presence.

And in all of this, we keep the true lesson of history in mind: in all of human history, there has never been a time of perfect faithfulness. Even the Garden of Eden was nothing more than a flash in the pan. We don’t look back to find the blueprint for looking forward. Instead, we look back to learn from those who have, in each time and in every place, followed the call to faithful living, giving God’s desires shape and form and breath and life. And in so doing, we learn something about what it means to be faithful in this time and place, as well as in the days to come, whatever they may bring.

This, friends, as we say each and every week, is the truth of the gospel: in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. May our lives be living examples of this faith, mirroring the grace we receive and reflecting it out onto this broken, hurting, and fleeting world – today, tomorrow, and all the days to come.

Amen.

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4062867719_9f5c6b581f_oChange is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

If you travel from Galilee up into the Golan Heights, you will notice a natural spring alongside the road. Tradition holds that this spring was the site where Jesus and the disciples retreated from the crowds in Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asked them the question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus focused his ministry on the villages around the Sea of Galilee before he led the disciples south toward Jerusalem.

Banyas, which is the name of the spring, is to the northeast. It’s not a place they would have just happened upon. They would have to decide to go there.

So it must have been in our lesson today. Jesus and the disciples frequently tried to get away from the crowds, but were often pursued in their efforts to rest. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, allowing them to have a moment to themselves, a retreat of sorts. It is, in short, an opportunity to have an open and frank conversation about where they are, what they are doing, and what is coming next.

The crowds have been speculating on Jesus’ identity. Much like Herod and his advisers, the folks that have been coming out to see him think he might be a prophet in the mold of the ancients; or perhaps John the Baptist, head miraculously re-attached to his body. Or maybe, they think, he’s Elijah. To understand why this idea would matter, let’s take a step back into history.

In the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah was second only to Moses. The great Moses, of course, was the one who led the people out of their Egyptian slavery. They crossed the Red Sea on dry ground, spending forty years in the wilderness. In the early days of their sojourn, Moses encounters God at the top of the mountain. But before they could enter the Land of Promise together, Moses dies and his buried in an unknown location.

Elijah encountered God at the top of the mountain, too. He spent extended periods of time in the wilderness, and crossed the River Jordan on dry ground. And his death was also surrounded in mystery, as he was whisked away into heaven by a fiery chariot.

Such was the legend that had grown up around Moses and Elijah that the tradition emerged that they would return as harbingers of the Messiah, the great savior of God’s people. And like most legends, this tradition brought its own set of expectations.

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

At the retreat by the spring of Banyas, Peter is the one who names the truth right before their eyes: Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the expected one. In other accounts of this story, this is the moment that Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter. And Jesus takes it as the opportunity to clarify what it is they have signed up for.

He tells them that the Messiah’s destiny is rejection, execution, and resurrection. The clear implication is that the same fate awaits those who follow him: “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Jesus is not speaking of a metaphor of inconvenience. He is clear that following Jesus means the very real possibility that your life will be on the line. And that, Peter says, is not why they enlisted.

The interpretation that had built up around the coming of the Messiah was that of power. The Christ would ride into battle, overthrow the hated occupiers, and take the throne for himself and his people. In this scenario, those who followed him would soon take their own seats of authority around him. As you may have noticed, this is the exact opposite of what Jesus has just informed them.

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

Churches are notoriously difficult when it comes to change. Part of that is just human nature: once an institution is founded, it is embedded with its own kind of DNA; anything that seems to run counter to it meets resistance. Part of that is the extra weight that religious institutions carry. After all, our stories stretch back into ancient times, and as such everything we do feels like it has sinews reaching back into the beginning of history itself. It’s why churches have major conflicts over things like worship music, how we serve communion, paint and carpet colors, as though Moses descended from Mount Sinai carrying those little tiny cups on golden trays, carpet samples draped over each arm.

We know that’s not true. The problem is when we live like it is. If we, as people of faith, aren’t willing to grow and change, then our faith will fail to do so as well.

I am fortunate, as your pastor, to serve a church where flexibility seems woven into our DNA. In the last ten years, we have weathered changes to our worship order, the addition of technology into the sanctuary, experiments with communion, diverse styles of music and instrumentation. There is, I have seen, a willingness to try new things, and to do so with grace, recognizing they’re not all going to work, and we can learn from those moments when they don’t.

Such an approach to church is not only vital, it is critical in a world that has already changed and continues to do so. Because change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

Let’s be honest. For all of our flexibility, we are still a traditional church. I wear a robe. Most of our music uses the organ, and many of our hymns we sing date from the 1800s. The Scripture may be read on paper, projector, or tablet, but we still consider it the Word of God, handed down and translated from ancient scrolls. Our pulpit has moved in the time I have been here – from the center, to the left, now to the right – even though I rarely use it to preach from, but we have a pulpit. We worship on Sunday mornings, and other than special occasions, we worship only on Sunday mornings.

I want to be absolutely crystal clear with you: I have no agenda here today. I am not proposing specific changes to the way we shape our lives together. Neither am I trying to lay the groundwork for specific changes that I am holding back from mentioning today. I have never done that, nor do I intend to do so. What I am saying is this: we must hold this thing, this church thing, this faith thing, loosely. And we must open it, and ourselves, to the possibility that it will be transformed right before our eyes. Because as it transforms, so do we.

Which brings us back to our lesson. Less than a week after Jesus clarifies to the disciples what discipleship means, he takes his inner core of Peter, James, and John up to the top of a mountain.

And there, the moment happens from which our day gets its name. Jesus is transfigured, more or less taking on the form of embodied light. And there, standing with him, are Moses and Elijah, the great luminaries of the Hebrew Bible. Peter was right: Jesus is the Messiah, the expected one. And Moses and Elijah have come to make that point abundantly clear.

This is the scene that puts flesh on our central point today. Jesus transfigures, transforms, changes. Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult. Peter, once again, plays the disciples’ straw man. The discomfort of it all is so palpable that Peter breaks the awkward silence with the suggestion to build monuments to it all. No one seems to take him seriously; he doesn’t get any kind of response to his statement. Instead, the incident passes, and life moves on.

Following this bizarre encounter, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem.

We cannot emphasize the significance of that decision enough. For almost three years, the disciples have been at home in the pastoral setting of the Galilee. Their ministry of teaching and healing has slowly built up a following. The Galilee is the countryside. There is room. There is nature. You can breathe.

Jerusalem is the big city. It may be the holy city, the site of the ancient Temple, but it is dirty. Crowded. Corrupt. It is everything the Galilee is not. And even more than that, Jesus knows that going to Jerusalem means the very things he told his disciples are about to happen. He will be rejected and betrayed. He will be sentenced and executed. And he will rise again. Rather than saying Jesus “sets his face” toward Jerusalem, perhaps we should say Jesus “accepts his fate” in Jerusalem.

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

Here’s the thing: we don’t change for the sake of change. That’s not change; that just makes us untrustworthy. We change when it is the faithful thing to do. And doing that involves both wisdom and courage.

Change is disruptive and even terrifying. Especially when it comes to those things that give us comfort, change is threatening. A change in home, family, job, school, even church…a change in life, where we are no longer able to do what it is that we thought gave us meaning and purpose…a change in opinion, in direction…These are the kinds of changes that can be downright scary. And yet, we know they are often right, even faithful.

Our whole tradition as Presbyterians is rooted in change. We were birthed out of the Reformation, when faithful people did crazy stuff like translate the Bible and liturgy into languages that the masses understood. The Church itself was borne out of change, as the fledgling Messianic Jewish movement left the synagogues, moved into homes, and then into churches. And even though we are centuries removed from those dramatic shifts, we must still be open to faithful change. And that is no less true, even when it means potentially putting our institutions and our lives on the line.

You see: in the end, faithful change is not actually as daunting as we think it is. We only fear it because we think that we are in charge of it. Which, as you may notice, puts us dangerously in the place reserved for the one we worship and serve.

This is the very reason we gather around this table. Every time we do, we remind ourselves of the moment that gave birth to this practice, when Jesus, facing imminent death in Jerusalem, brought his disciples together. They shared the most intimate of meals, as they shared bread and cup. What we share today is not historically accurate. For starters, our bread contains no gluten. Second, in addition to wine, we have unfermented juice. And third, we’re not lying down to share our meal. In other words, this thing we do has changed. And yet, even with that change, it is no less sacred. Because those these are simple things, grain from the field and fruit from the vine, they contain the spiritual substance of the faithful change we need.

Amen.

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Welcome to the Galilee!

Last week, we met the risen Christ in Jerusalem, who told us to meet him up in Galilee. So this week we find him on the mountain. Some of us doubt; some of us believe. Whatever the status of our individual faith, Jesus tells us all the same thing: go and make disciples. Our marching orders are clear. We have now inherited his ministry of teaching and serving. It’s time to go. Are you ready?

Why does this seem so difficult? We have no qualms about recommending movies, TV shows, music, restaurants to friends and family. Some of us can even get a little belligerent about it: “What do you mean you haven’t seen The Big Lebowski? The Dude abides, man!”

We can be evangelists for gluten-free diets or yoga or our favorite technology with passionate fervor. But an evangelist for Jesus? Well…let’s not get crazy!

I’m sure some of this is our cultural training. Our schools and places of business are no-go zones for religious conversation. I’m not necessarily opposed to that. I think there are good reasons, frankly, for keeping things a little crisper in that regard. At the same time, the popular models we see for evangelism might strike us as at least distasteful if not downright obnoxious or manipulative. And so, because we have learned that faith is a private matter, we have built it into our belief structure. I believe what I believe; you believe what you believe; and that’s as far as we need to go.

We also, for very good reasons, put a priority on our relationships. Relationships matter. They matter a great deal. And so, because they matter, we don’t want to risk them by introducing controversial, divisive topics. So we tend toward keeping it safe and comfortable.

The problem with all of this is that most of us are incapable of expressing anything about what it is we actually believe. And if we’re honest, most of us are probably not clear on what it is we believe anyway.

When Elizabeth and I first returned from living in the Middle East, I used to joke about how we Americans are trained not to talk about religion or politics. In the Middle East, however, there really isn’t much else to talk about. Whether it was a conversation with Eastern Orthodox Christians or observant Sunnis, over time and through patient and impatient trial and error, we learned how to hold our convictions, express them with (or without) clarity, and honor the convictions of others without watering anything down in the process.

And that’s just it: the only way we can do the very thing that Jesus expects of us here on the mountain is to practice.

After all, practice makes…perfect?

Does it really? “Practice makes perfect.” The phrase is natural to us; but that doesn’t mean it’s true. We all know that the more you do something, the better you get at it. But…perfect? If perfect existed, there would be professional bowlers who retire with an average of 300; but the all-time greatest hover in the 220s. If perfect existed, then there would be professional basketball players who have never missed a free throw. But only three players in the history of the sport have averaged 90%.

Practice makes perfect? Nope. But practice does make a difference, doesn’t it?

Let me put it this way: when was the last time you talked to someone about your faith? Last week? Last month? Last year? Never? Practice may not make perfect, but the lack of it certainly isn’t going to get us closer to proficiency.

This week, our congregation has launched a small group study called “Engage”. Despite the fact that the subject of the study is evangelism, a big chunk of us have signed up! While this study is taking place, our Sunday morning worship will hopefully be a productive way not only to continue the conversation, but to loop the rest of us in as well.

And so, let us notice something about our title today: it all starts with our story. So what is your story? Where is it that faith began for you? What is the journey it has taken you on? If a timeline of your faith were a historical trail, what would be the markers along the way that you would want others to stop and read? What are the moments, the experiences, the people that stand out for you?

In fact: let’s sit with that question for a while: who are the people that have modeled faith for you?

If we really want to spend some time on the mountain with Jesus, if we really want to walk in the footsteps of the disciples, then this is most productive place for us to begin our practice. After all, when the disciples began this work of going out and making disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, of teaching them everything that they had been taught, that’s really all they had to go on. There were no gospels for them to quote – those wouldn’t come for at least another 50 years or more. There were no tracts for them to hand out, no videos for them to share on social media. All they could do was share their own stories of their encounters with Jesus himself and how they had been changed in the process.

“Why did you drop your fishing nets and follow this guy? Did he really feed 5000 people with the wave of a hand? An empty tomb? A risen Lord? The heavenly God in human form?!?”

We elevate the gospel accounts of Jesus – and we should value them, and value them highly. And yet, when we get right down to it, they are simply first-hand accounts of encounters with Jesus.

Most of us do not have the luxury of such experiences. And yet, each one of us can call to mind at least one person who formed us in faith through our encounters with them. Here is the way our Engage study guide puts it:

“Your experience of meeting the love of God in Jesus Christ may have been a dramatic, life-changing experience, our your story may witness to a steady, growing, confident awareness of God’s presence and providence in your life. Yet whatever your story is, like each one of us, you have been cared for, guided, loved, lifted up, and inspired by other Christians.”

Think of one person that fits this description for you. Who is it? A family member? A Sunday School teacher? A friend, colleague, neighbor, pastor? What was it about them and their faith? How did they share it with you? How did sharing it shape your faith?

There are many I could name on my own journey. One particular pastor comes to mind for me. I was a teenager, wrestling with many of the aspects of what it means to be a person of faith in the late 20th century. And I went to this pastor with those questions. And what he did forever changed me.

I was frustrated with the hypocrisy of church. Each week, we were reading story after story of this rabble-rouser Jesus, accomplishing incredible things, challenging the status quo, and pushing buttons. And yet, what I experienced in church at the time was a deep investment in the status quo, a safety and a comfort, a place where people came to judge others for the way they looked or dressed or behaved. In short, I saw a community that looked very little like the wandering rabbi whose stories they had raised me to treasure and emulate.

When I shared all of this with my pastor, he responded with a surprising grace. He made no argument on behalf of church; in fact, he did just the opposite, telling me that the worst thing I could probably do right then was to be involved in church. The best thing I could do, he told me, was to take a break.

I did – for about three years or so. And when I returned, my faith had been challenged and deepened in ways that meant I no longer took church for granted, or simply at face value. I came back as one who both appreciated what church could be and often was, but also very much willing to challenge and nudge the places where I saw church being less than what it is called to be. Little did I know it at the time, but there is no doubt for me now that this one hour conversation planted many of the seeds that have been sprouting in my ministry and faith ever since. It was, in a sense, my own Galilee mountaintop encounter with the risen Christ.

What about you? Who is that one person that comes to mind for you? What is it that they did that helped encourage or disrupt you on the journey that faith is?

You see: that’s all we are talking about here! When we speak of evangelism, what we mean is engaging our own stories of faith. It is one of the few areas where we have true expertise. All that remains now is to practice – practice sharing those stories. The more we do, the more proficient we become.

After all, when it comes down to it, people are hungry for models of faith they can embrace. Could it be that we are the ones they are looking for?

Amen.

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Jesus came to take away your sins, not your brain.

The title of this morning’s sermon is lovingly borrowed from Robert Fulghum’s popular book from 1986, which shared the thought that all we really need to know we learned in kindergarten. The lessons were simple ones, helpful ones:

Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Live a balanced life: learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

That’s not at all a bad place to start. Regardless of the situation, we would do well internalize these lessons. It also seems that our Congress would do well to revisit these little maxims today, especially the one about taking afternoon naps.

But I digress…

As we have been looking back at the history of our congregation, we have already touched on some important strands of our DNA. Those who first started Oglethorpe Presbyterian back in 1949 did so with a strong combination of faith and effort, speaking honestly and transparently about our financial challenges through the years. In the 1960s, our elders tackled the social issues of their day with a refreshing openness and welcome that has shaped who we continue to be today.

One of the other threads that has been there since the earliest days is a focus on education. That’s somewhat obvious for a congregation that was birthed on a college campus, and that fact has a lot to do with our sixty-five year commitment to being a community of thinking Christians. That also tends to be true of Presbyterians of our stripe, with a commitment to education that marks us internationally. The American Universities of Beirut, Cairo, and Istanbul, all leading intellectual institutions in their societies, were started by Presbyterians. After all, as the cheeky bumper sticker puts it, “Jesus came to take away your sins, not your brain.”

There were moments throughout those early days of our history that stand as indicators of education’s importance. After the chapel was built, the next building to go up was the Education building. It was not long after that it housed our Kindergarten program, which has evolved into our thriving Preschool program. When the Georgia legislature threatened to shut down schools rather than comply with school integration, Oglethorpe Presbyterian was one of many institutions that had back-up plans in place to circumvent the legislative stonewalling so that children would still have opportunities to learn and grow.

The first full-time staff person hired, after a pastor, was a Director of Christian Education. Mary Ann Fowlkes was one of the first ot serve in that position, and the program thrived under her leadership. By the way, she eventually became professor of early childhood education at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, which is the pre-eminent graduate program in the discipline. Throughout the years, our membership has included many, many professors and schoolteachers, and our music staff has included faculty from both Oglethorpe University and Georgia Tech.

One hot topic of our early days was a debate between using the Westminster or the John Knox Sunday School curricula. It was referred to a study committee, who returned after several months with a recommendation, only for it to be referred back to them for further discussion with the Sunday School teachers. All in all, the process took six months, and the reason it took so long is now mostly lost to the mists of time. Even though we might see this as a cause to laugh at ourselves, the important principle stands: we take our time, and we both think and pray through the consequences of our decisions.

That same care and attention is what Jesus encourages in his disciples in our lesson from Matthew. The twelve are being sent out into the villages of the Galilee, bringing with them the message and ministry of Jesus. Those whom they meet will, by turns, embrace and reject them. They will depend on the kindness of strangers, and they won’t waste a whole lot of time on those who won’t spend time on them. And right there in the middle of it all of it is this caution, to be as “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

That brief phrase right there contains all of the simplicity and complexity of the thinking person’s faith. There are times when we are supposed to lean into trust, to stop overanalyzing, and just do what is faithful. And there are times when we are supposed to think about the consequences of our actions, recognizing that what faith calls us to do is more nuanced than first glance might indicate. The life of faith is a balanced life between these two poles. While the foundation of our moral life might be laid out in childhood Sunday School lessons, to leave it there sells short the fact that we should never stop striving for knowledge of God.

I’m reminded of the Jesuit priest I once met at a supper celebration. A mutual friend provided an intriguing introduction: Fr. Daniel had been born to a Jewish family in South Africa, and was now teaching theology to young Palestinian men training to be Roman Catholic priests. The narrative left quite a gap in the middle, and it was the journey in between that fascinated me. I struggled to formulate an intelligent question that would get to the heart of his life’s story. After all, part of becoming a Jesuit is an attention to study that puts most PhD programs to shame. After stumbling over a few words, I finally managed to blurt out, “So what made you become a Christian?”

After a brief pause, Fr. Daniel replied, “Jesus.” It was an answer that managed to tell me both everything and nothing at the same time. It was answer filled with both the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves. And I knew that it was an answer rooted in a lifelong, ongoing search for the knowledge of God.

What if someone asked you that question? What made you become a Christian? What would your answer be?

Here’s the thing: we have always done very well at being a community that gives priority to education for all ages. We staff for it, we make space for it, we provide it and resource it. And yet, do we make room for it in our own lives? Let me put the question to you this way: when was the last time you read a book, or skimmed an article, or engaged in a thoughtful conversation that stretched, changed, expanded your mind and heart when it comes to matters of faith in Christ?

It is one thing, and a very noble thing, to advocate and provide for the education of others. It is another thing to seek that education for yourself. After all, you need to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you even think of putting it on your neighbor. Or to put it another way, those who truly teach are those who never stop learning.

Here’s the problem, and it’s one that completely baffles me. Its roots are right there in our lesson from Deuteronomy, where the people are told never to stop meditating on the Lord their God. We should do so when we are awake, and when we are asleep. I’m pretty sure that covers all the bases. We are also to teach the faith to those who come after us, which means we need to learn it for ourselves first. Now, I can get my mind around all of that.

What stumps me is this: for just over a century, the church’s model for passing on the faith has been Sunday School. And the more I look around, the more I’m becoming convinced that the era of Sunday School is coming to an end. That said, I have no idea what comes next. We are living somewhere in the middle, not quite finished with what was, and not quite knowing what comes next.

We provide a Sunday School program at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, but let’s be honest: as a community, our attendance is mediocre at best. We say that Christian Education for all ages is a priority, and the congregational surveys we have done repeatedly bear that out. And yet, somehow, we don’t live out that commitment as a community. It reminds me of what the comedian Louis C.K. says about himself, “I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of them.”

So…what do we do?

Our church’s history makes it clear that we think it’s important to be thoughtful Christians. And I know you all well enough to know that you are smart, curious, engaged. Our values have remained strong – very strong, in fact. So what is it?

This is where you come in. Leave a comment below with your thoughts about Christian Education.

Here are a couple of questions to get the thoughts flowing:

  •  What can we do to help you become a thoughtful Christian?
  •  If we were to offer something that you would move heaven and earth to be a part of, what, when and where would it be?

And most importantly, be honest. Don’t put  what you think I think is the right answer. That does us no good. If your answer is “nothing”, put that, too.

If I know us like I do, this is just the beginning of the conversation and reflection. Who knows? We might, in good Presbyterian fashion, even appoint a sub-committee to study the issue.

After all, Jesus came to take away your sins, not your brain.

Amen.

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Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.

Today we wrap up our worship series on Psalm 23, and we start off where we ended: with the Lord. Yahweh. By way of review, the whole psalm begins with the bold declaration that the Lord, Yahweh, is their shepherd. It is the image of God as divine shepherd, protector and provider, which sustains the start of the psalm. About halfway through, the psalmist shifts from talking about God to talking to God, and God becomes the host. Tables are spread, heads are anointed, cups run over, mercy pursues.

And now, we are told that we are no longer guest, but part of the family, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. As one hymn setting of the psalm puts it:

No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.

What does it mean to live in the house of the Lord? In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, the phrase is meant quite literally. When Moses led the people in the wilderness, they gathered around Mt. Sinai. And when Moses descended with the Ten Commandments, they were placed in the ark, which was housed in a tent. That tent became known as the house of the Lord, and was the focus of worship in the early generations of the faithful. When King Solomon built the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant was moved into the new house of the Lord. In fact, most of the places in Scripture where the phrase “house of the Lord” is used it is meant as a descriptor for the Jerusalem Temple. But…what happens when there is no Temple?

The Babylonians destroyed the first Temple, taking the Judeans into exile. After Babylon was conquered and the exiles returned, the house of the Lord was rebuilt, and it stood until Jesus’ time. Jesus was so distraught the way that his “Father’s house” was being used as a marketplace that it’s one of the few times we see him losing his temper. He even predicts the destruction of the second Temple, which the Romans leveled in the year 70.

This is why other uses of the phrase “house of the Lord” become important. In the Old Testament, it is also used to talk about the people of God. Jesus is the one that makes the shift to speaking of eternal life as the house of the Lord, telling his disciples that after his resurrection, he would go to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. Paul picks up on this idea, giving hope to those who see the flimsy, earthly tent of their bodies giving way to the heavenly, eternal house of the Lord.

So even though Scripture uses this phrase to describe variously as heaven, the Temple, and the community of believers, the meaning at the very heart of it is all the same: to be in the house of the Lord is to be in God’s presence.

All of which brings me back to the bumper sticker with which I began today: don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “house of the Lord”, my first thought is of heaven. I am sure that the fact that I have heard this psalm read over and over as a psalm of comfort in times of death and grieving plays heavily into that. I am hard-pressed to remember a funeral where I didn’t hear the text. When someone dies, we are sad; because we miss what we love. And so, the promise of living in the house of the Lord forever is not only hopeful, it is restorative. It gives us a clear focus on the promise of resurrection we know in Christ.

The idea that there is nothing to fear beyond the grave is an amazing thing. We Presbyterians don’t tend to talk about things like life and death until we absolutely have to. But when we do, we cling fiercely to that hope the there is more to this life than meets the eye. I know that each one of us struggles with doubts – some small, some great. My hope and prayer, though, is that when it comes down to it, you can trust that there is a greater reality that holds us fast.

That all said, if we are honest, we know that having faith holds the potential for temptation. And that temptation is to be so focused on heaven that we forget about living in the here and now. There’s a brilliant satirical song from 1911 that put it well:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right.
But when asked, “How ‘bout something to eat?”
They will answer in voices so sweet:
“You will eat, bye and bye,
in that glorious land above the sky.
Work and pray, live on hay:
you’ll get pie in the sky when you die!”

If our answer to every trouble of this world is, “it’ll be better in heaven,” then we have forgotten Christ’s prayer that earth would become more and more like heaven. It is not that we stop yearning for the perfection that heaven promises; instead, if we have the certainty of heaven, it ought to free us to live abundantly in the world around us. We ought to pray that God would open our eyes to recognize those places where the kingdom of heaven is already alive in the world so that we can join in! When we do this, we take that Biblical phrase, “the house of the Lord”, with all of its meanings, and pull them all together.

The house of the Lord is the Temple. It is God’s presence, God at work, right here, right now. The house of the Lord is the promise of eternal life. It is God’s presence, a gift to us that sets us free to love and serve. And the house of the Lord is the people of God. It is God’s presence, God at work within us and through us. Yes, my dear friends of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, we – you – are the house of the Lord! When we are at our best, we are the connective tissue between that which is heavenly-minded and that which is earthly good. When we are, we really are the body of Christ, the word made flesh, living in this world, loving this world, and working for the healing of this world. It is a healing that is not in our hands. The gift is that God allows us to be the vessels of divine healing!

Many of you have read of surveys over the past few years that have announced that the fastest growing religion in America is “spiritual but not religious.” These are folks who know that there is more to life than meets the eye, but they want to avoid the trappings and follies of institutionalized faith. Maybe that describes you, too. The word religious means literally to become connective tissue! Re – ligio, from the same root as ligament.

True religion, at its best, is what holds faithful living together! We read the lessons of Scripture not so that we might become convinced of how correct we are. We read them because they reveal the truest character of God in Christ Jesus. Our whole purpose is to be those who reflect that character of love and mercy and grace to the world around us.

That is why we care about people who have no home. That is why we comfort those who mourn. That is why it matters to us what is happening in places as far away Syria and Egypt and as close as Buford Highway and Clayton County. That is what it means to dwell in the house of the Lord forever!

Are you ready? Because your room is waiting…

Amen.

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The community of faith goes on…

What we do here this morning requires a little bit of explanation, this “ritual” known as confirmation. In the Presbyterian church, it is our usual custom to baptize infants. And that’s the case with both Carter and Trent. The reason for this is simple: we know that God is at work in our lives long before we become aware of it. And so the parent – in fact, the whole community – makes the promise that we will do everything we can to encourage the child in the faith that we have inherited, surrounding them with signs and reminders of God at work in their lives.

What happens today in confirmation is that we ask these two young men if they will confirm the promises that their parents made for them at baptism.

There is a potential risk to all of this, however, as a story might illustrate best.

Maybe you’ve heard about the three rural churches plagued by pigeons that roosted in the rafters of their sanctuaries. The three pastors commiserated on their mixed success with pest control. The Lutheran pastor said, “Well, we had some success with this spray we got at the Ace Hardware. That kept them away for a week or so, but they’re back.”

The Baptist pastor was pleased that they had fared a little better: “We used our massive sound system from our contemporary service and played a series of sonic booms. That drove them away for about a month, but they’re back, too.”

The Presbyterian, however, was downright triumphant: “Well, my friends, we’ve solved our problem. The pigeons are gone.” His colleagues were stunned: “How did you do it?”

“Well,” he said, “We baptized and confirmed them, and we haven’t seen them since!”

Now – that’s not the track record of OPC. But I want to be clear about it: if we treat Confirmation like a graduation, then there is a temptation to act as though what we do here is mark an ending. The truth is that confirmation, or membership in the church at any age for that matter, is the beginning of the journey, not the end. It’s the raising of the curtain at the start of the play, as we learn our roles and try out our parts. Take note, all of you: if we ever think we can graduate from faith, then what we are saying is that we can reach a point where we know all there is to know about God.

The community of faith goes on, because knowledge of God is everlasting…

That continuity is what we touch on in the lesson from Acts this morning. The disciples have numbered twelve for some time. But once Judas betrays Jesus and takes himself out of the picture, they need to find a replacement. The lot falls to Matthias, the number is twelve again, and the disciples move out into the world as apostles and evangelists.

The community of faith goes on…and we, some two thousand years removed from that moment, are inheritors to that ongoing tradition.

What we do today is something that tangibly reaches back to that moment when Matthias steps into the spotlight. When we get to the actual moment of confirmation, we will invite forward all of you who have been ordained as ministers or elders to come forward and lay hands on them as we pray for them. It is something we do from time to time in our lives together; and for me, it’s one of the most visceral moments, a reminder of that community of faith stretching back. As we stand up here in ever widening circles, some of us can remember when others stood around us – at confirmation, at ordination – and the invisible hands of those saints who are no longer with us rest on our shoulders as real as memory allows. It’s as though those circles continue to widen further and further, going back into our shared history, until we arrive in that upper room where Matthias kneels with eleven hands laid upon him.

Of course, the church looks very different now from the way it looked then. It’s a theme we return to again and again here: the fact that we are part of an ever-changing church in an ever-changing world. And that’s the remarkable thing: while so many things have come and gone, the community of the faith goes on…

Some of you helped with one of the confirmation projects, which was a survey about faith and church. The last question was an open-ended one: “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” My favorite answer was, “May I have ten more questions?” But all of the answers showed with powerful clarity one thing in particular: the life of faith is marked, most of all, by struggles and doubts. We, all of us, have questions about our ultimate purpose, about why suffering exists both near and far, about whether there really is anything beyond the life we know. Faith is not a panacea. It is not the easy answer to all of life’s questions. It is the very essence of the challenges that life gives us.

And that’s the hope for what we take away from being together today. The faith community goes on, not in spite of our questions, but because of them. We are here, together, because we believe that we are better because of it. It’s like an ember in the dying flame: outside of the fire, it can burn for a while; but it will burn longer when it’s amidst other embers. The church is called to be a community that struggles together. When one member rejoices, we rejoice with them. And when one member suffers, all suffer with them. Because we’re not the only ones in the mix: we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who stretch back into the centuries and remind us that the God whom we serve is eternal.

In a few moments, we are going to affirm our faith. And when we do, we will use words adapted from Carter and Trent’s faith statements. What I think they reveal to us is that, though the questions may change and the world may be different, we are stronger as a community of faith when we are together.

Friends, the world may be a different place than it was when the church was first born in ancient Jerusalem. And the church may look different as a result. But the Holy Spirit who gave us birth is eternal. The God of creation has been and always will be. And the Christ whom we serve calls us into a relationship with the divine now and forever.

And so, the community of faith goes on…Amen.

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Faith is not a spectator sport.

Our New Testament lesson from the gospel of John is a familiar one, Jesus cleansing the Temple. It seems to be used most often as evidence of the fact that Jesus was not a pushover, or of proof that there is such a thing as righteous, even Christian, anger when rightly understood.

One interesting fact about this story is the place it has in the different gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all put the incident late in Jesus’ ministry. In fact, it is what Jesus does on Palm Sunday after riding into Jerusalem. He heads directly for the Temple, where he fashions together this whip of cords, completely disrupts the marketplace, even flipping over a table or two in the midst of it all. In the eyes of those three gospel writers, this story begins to explain why it is that Jesus quickly becomes public enemy number one in Jerusalem: he has upset the status quo and has taken on the powers that be.

John’s gospel, the one we read this morning, puts this episode at the beginning of Jesus ministry. In fact, it is the second thing that Jesus does, after turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. There are those that try to explain this by saying that Jesus must’ve attacked the Temple marketplace twice: once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end. I’m not convinced of that personally, but rather chalk up the different placement to being the product of different authors.

But what is it that John could have had in mind by placing this so prominently at the beginning of his gospel? It comes, most definitely, as an early precursor to Jesus’ ongoing debates and conflicts with the religious authorities of his day, a theme to which John returns again and again. And yes, it probably also has to do with the righteous indignation that could motivate Jesus at times.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if this has more to do with the notion that faith is much more than a mental exercise…

The lesson from John is paired this morning with the Ten Commandments, the heart of God’s covenant with God’s people. Moses has led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, bringing them to the foot of Mt. Sinai. And while Moses is receiving this summary of the law, written on stone tablets, the people are down at the base of the mountain, already disrespecting the God who delivered them, building a golden calf and worshiping it instead. When Moses finally comes down and discovers the scene, he shatters the tablets in anger.

I imagine his trip back up Mt. Sinai to meet with God and get his replacement tablets. It’s almost like going to customer service and insisting that your phone screen had a crack in it when you bought it, and not when you sat on it…hypothetically speaking, of course.

The point being that the essence of this relationship between God and God’s people was an embodied essence. We think of the Ten Commandments as a series of “thou shalt nots”, when, in reality, it is a rooted morality – one that begins in relationship with God, and extends from that central point out to our relationships with others. We treat one another with dignity and respect because God first treats us with dignity and respect. What we say and what we do matter – because speaking without acting is not only hypocrisy; it is, simply, not faith. Faith, in order to be faith, must be active.

It reminds me of children playing on the playground. One dumps sand over the other’s head, causing a flood of tears. And when the grown-ups intervene, the one who did the dumping says, almost indignantly, “I said I was sorry!” To be sorry with our words and to be ruthless with our actions says more about our maturity than we might like to admit.

Think about the role that Jesus’ actions play in his ministry. He begins, in John’s gospel, not as a teacher, but as a miracle worker. At his mother’s urging, he intervenes at a wedding banquet, allowing the celebration to continue in full stride. As soon as this happens, he arrives in Jerusalem, not to teach and preach, but to show some muscle, overturning tables and driving the vendors out of the Temple. It is only then that the stage is set for his late night meeting with Nicodemus, the skeptical Pharisee, or his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus is shown first as a man of action; and then as a man of wisdom.

After all, this is what is at the heart of the Christian faith. We Presbyterians tend to focus so much on “word” that we forget how John’s whole gospel begins, where that divine word becomes flesh. The faith we believe cannot remain one of thoughts alone; it must be transformed into whole lives that can be vessels of the God whom we know in Jesus Christ. After all, Temples and monuments to faith can be razed to the ground; lives of faith, however, will rise again and again from the ashes.

On Friday, Reuters published a story on church foreclosures, a story mirrors that of our housing market. Since 2010, 270 churches have been sold after they defaulted on bank loans. That’s a record high number. Now before we go hitting the panic button here, remember that OPC has no debt. There is no mortgage on the building or on the property. Financially speaking, we owe no one anything. We have funds in the bank, and, as you know, Session is working hard to make sure that our reserves stay just that: reserved.

And yet, is that ultimately the point? Throughout the New Testament, the word “church” is used time and time again. But the one thing it is never used for is to refer to a building. “Church” is a people; a community; a gathered group of disciples, followers of Jesus. The Greek word for “church” emphasizes this: ekklesia, literally those people who have been called out of the world and into the presence of God – not merely into a physical space, but into a whole reality that shapes and moves us for the lives we lead.

A couple of years ago, we were reading a book together as a congregation titled Unbinding Your Faith. One of the exercises in the book was to interview someone who was not active in church, and to ask them a series of questions. The first question was something along the lines of “What comes to mind when I say the word ‘church’?” The answer, more often than not, was “hypocrisy”.

We don’t need to look very far to see why this might be the case: from politicians who seem to use their faith as nothing more than a tool for election, to ministers who engage in absurd and horrific abuses of power, even coronations? Everywhere we look, there is ample evidence of those who call themselves Christian, who say one thing but do another.

Friends, we are the church. And when we leave this building today, we will still be the church, wherever we go. What does that mean to us? What does it mean to be a people who have no other gods, only God? What does it mean in 2012 in Brookhaven to observe the Sabbath, or to abstain from murder, adultery, theft, lying, lust? It is not enough to say we believe; we must live as though this all might actually be true, each and every moment of our lives!

Faith is not a spectator sport. We can’t just wait for the movie. Faith is a way of life that strives to reflect the character of God to a world that is so much in need. That is our calling. That is our story. May that truth come alive each and every day within us!

Let the church says, “Amen.”

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