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Posts Tagged ‘embrace’

Sa2GuDhYou are ambassadors for Christ.

It has been my privilege to be your pastor for these past ten plus years. Today, as my family and I bid you all farewell, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on that time, as I have been doing over the past few weeks. There are many precious moments I will treasure from our brief time together. Speaking personally, I will always remember how you rejoiced with us in the birth of our two children. You are the community that, when they were baptized, made promises on their behalf. Elizabeth and I have passed milestones in our marriage and in our ages – well, at least I have. I have also celebrated milestones in my ordination. You have prayed with us as we have worried about our family. As Elizabeth’s mother’s health has deteriorated, you have cared for her. As my father died too young and my grandmother died at a blessed 99 years, you have wept with us in grief, a critical part of our healing.

You are ambassadors for Christ.

All of this mirrors the love and welcome you show the world around you. When a young Oglethorpe University student died suddenly over a winter break, you opened up this space for the community to grieve. You did the same as a young man at Chamblee High School tragically took his own life. None of them were members of the congregation, but that wasn’t what was important. What mattered was that they hurt and you ached with them.

You have done as Christ taught, welcoming the stranger, providing sanctuary and worship space for Spanish-speaking immigrants, giving them the opportunity to grow in their witness and move into their own space with expanded ministries.

You have followed Jesus’ teaching, giving home to the homeless. You have built more than a dozen Habitat homes. You have provided meals and fellowship and hope at Journey Men’s Shelter. You have given coffee to Mercy Community Church for their daily stret ministry. You have shared support with Thornwell Home for Children. You are embarking on co-sponsorship of a refugee resettlement program with New American Pathways.

You are ambassadors for Christ.

You have also done as Christ commanded in welcoming the little children. You have nurtured hundreds of children in our Preschool program, even when they sang “This Little Light of Mine” for the umpteenth time. You have welcomed children into this space, so that their voices can also cry out in praise. This is how they learn what it means to worship God as part of a community of love and warmth.

You have made space in worship for different styles of music, remembering that we are not the audience – God is. I still remember the first time we had drums in the Sanctuary, finishing the worship service with “When the Saints Go Marching In”, and Ralston Woods hobbling up to me at the end of the service, saying with a touch of menace in his voice, “There was only one thing wrong with that last song.” After a pregnant pause, he continued, “It wasn’t long enough! We need more of that!”

You are ambassadors for Christ.

A couple of days ago, Elizabeth, the boys, and I walked up and down the hallways, nooks, and crannies of this place. We shared memories and told stories: moments of celebration, times of grief, hard conversations, illuminating conversations, places where our children were cared for, where we were cared for.

I remembered greeting children as they arrived for Preschool, counseling with families in my office in times of distress, celebrating communion around the table and even around the sanctuary. The boys remembered playing in Preschool classrooms and on the playground, Sunday School classes and children’s choir. Elizabeth remembered Worship on the Lawn and Screen on the Green and painting walls and hanging pictures. Each and every room had its own special memory. Some of these, I know, will fade with time. Some will grow stronger. And some, as is the nature of memory, will change. Regardless, the core of these remembrances will remain the same: you are ambassadors for Christ.

We ended our tour in the Memorial Garden, where the ashes of at least forty one of the saints of the Church are interred. There are rocks scattered as well, names written on them from our All Saints’ Services where we remember those for whom we have prayed and loved.

This was a fitting place for the family to end our extended walk, as it gave me pause to look back not just over ten years, but over the more than sixty-five years that Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church has ministered, witnessed, and worshiped. There have been many times that I have found myself aimlessly wandering the grounds, lost in thought and dicernment, only to arrive back at the Memorial Garden. It is there that I would sit in prayer. I would invite the saints to pray with me. And in that prayer, I sought communion with them. Together, we prayed for wisdom for the faith, hope, and love of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church.

If you had asked me what the result of those prayers would have been, I would have been wrong. I assumed that, in this place that memorializes the past, I would sense a call to tradition, an obligation toward preserving what was and has been. Instead, I have experienced freedom. It is a freedom that is rooted in that past, yes, in the legacy of this congregation and in the Christ we serve. And in that history, I have been reminded of how this community has stepped out on faith time and time and time again. Oglethorpe Presbyterian was on the forefront of support for civil rights and in electing and entrusting women to leadership as deacons, elders, and ministers. Through it all, the saints of Oglethorpe Presbyterian have been a reminder for me that what is of utmost importance is doing those things that are faithful.

It is not about doing what is popular, or what keeps the peace or even what is expedient at a given time. Rather, it is about doing what is faithful to the God we know in Christ. And it is about doing these things not just when it is feasible, but when it is just and right. Not in human time, in other words, but in God’s time.

This central principle is in your DNA. It is imprinted on you as the precious image of God. It has served you well, and I know that it will for all of the years to come.

In the words of our lesson this morning, it is not the superficial things that drive you. It is not human standards by which you measure things. It is rather through the lens of reconciliation that you see the world. You are, in Paul’s words, ambassadors for Christ, messengers of grace, envoys of love and mercy.

And as I take my leave of this place, I go out to be an ambassador for Christ, too, carrying the hope and joy and faith of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, of the God we serve in Jesus Christ.

You may have noticed that this ministry is no less important in 2016 than it was in 1949. People are being targeted for death because of their sexuality; and we are called to embrace all of God’s beloved. The stranger and the exile are blamed for every problem under the sun; we are those whom Christ commands to welcome the foreigner in our midst. Those who view God differently than we do are treated with abject suspicion; we are ambassadors for the one who sought out the despised, risking that he himself might be despised.

This is the hope you all carry within you. You are the body of Christ, the community of faith, the saints of Christ’s Church. No matter what else you do, if you keep welcoming those who are unlike you, if you continue to reach out beyond those idolatrous boundaries that we are told are there keep us safe, if you remain faithful to the God who constantly stretches and reaches and loves the world, even at its most unlovable, then you will be what you have always been: ambassadors for Christ.

I thank you for an amazing ten years. And above all, I give thanks to God for you and your witness. As I go, I will pray for you, holding you, God’s people, in my heart.

Amen.

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Welcomed and loved…

Bob was a member at a church in Chicago where a friend of mine was pastor. Bob was a child of the church, born and raised there. But because of his mental faculties, he had never become a member, because when it was time for confirmation, he wasn’t capable of “understanding” the classes. And some forty years later, this had all been forgotten. Upon learning of this, my friend made sure to include Bob in the next new members’ class. Because the truth is: how many of us really “understand” faith? Bob knew that this church was a community where he was welcomed and loved, when there were so many places where he was left out. And because of that, on many levels, he actually understood faith better than most of us ever might.

Welcomed and loved…

When we look at the narrative sweep of the Bible, some times it seems like those two concepts are sorely absent. There’s a familiar predictability in the Hebrew Bible, the narrowing of the community of God. By the second generation of humanity, there’s already sibling rivalry and murder. At the flood, God has decided that only one couple of each species was worth preserving – including out own. By the time we get to Abraham and Sarah, God has promised an eternal inheritance to this one couple and they’re offspring. On and on the story goes: Isaac is in, Ishmael is out; Jacob is in, Esau is out; David is in, Saul is out. Even after ancient Israel is established as a kingdom unto itself, things get so bad that the prophet Jeremiah proclaims that only a “righteous remnant” would remain faithful to God. The whole narrative seems designed to figure out who God’s people are, and who they are not.

By the time the New Testament rolls around, it comes as no surprise that the Pharisees are in charge. They are the guardians of the boundaries that determine who is in and who is out based on what they do – or don’t – do. What can you eat? Who can you hang out with? If you behave, you’re in; if not, well, you’re out.

And right into the middle of this mix drops Jesus. He comes across as a wandering rabbi, and yet he is immediately clashing against the Pharisees’ standards. He heals people on the Sabbath. He touches those who are supposed to be unclean. He eats with prostitutes and tax collectors. He just doesn’t behave. But it’s not just petty crimes that mark his behavior; it’s capital offenses. He forgives sins! He claims divinity! He takes on the Pharisees’ notions of what is good, moral behavior. And yet, he should be considered an outsider, revealed by his own lack of moral fortitude. But instead, he seems to be getting more and more supporters as he goes, and from people who ought to know better!

And what’s most shocking of all is that he is breaking open the boundaries of who is in and who is out – not reversing them, mind you, which would be easy enough to confront.  It would be one thing if he were replacing Pharisees with lepers. But it’s another thing altogether to say that Pharisees and lepers ought to hang out together. No wonder he was perceived as a threat.

Jesus was challenging the very basic assumption about the Biblical narrative and its narrowing purpose. He wasn’t making the community smaller; he was expanding its circles ever wider. He was reversing course. In Jesus’ mind, who was “in” and who was “out” was up for re-examination. And, worst of all, he claimed that he was doing all of this in the name of God!

By the time we get to Acts, the religious authorities are convinced they’ve set everything back in order. This pesky Jesus has been eliminated. His followers still seem to be hanging on, but no movement survives long without its leader, right? And yet, they seem to keep growing. And growing. And growing.

Up to a certain point, that growth is all within the “people of God” as understood at that time: the Jews, the descendants of Abraham’s righteous offspring. Even Jesus seemed to keep things “in the family” for the most part. But things are about to change.

Peter has gone off to the coastal city of Joppa. And while in prayer, he has a vision that changes his, and the church’s, mission forever. A sheet lowers from heaven. And in the sheet are animals of all varieties, including those that were forbidden for human consumption. But in the vision, he is told that what God makes clean is clean. And not only are dietary boundaries burst open, but the very boundaries of God’s community disintegrate. Peter is convinced that “God shows no partiality” but that “in every nation” anyone who fears and and does what God thinks is right is acceptable to God.

And that’s where we came into the lesson this morning. As Peter is preaching, Gentiles – that is, non-Jews – start acting in ways that show the Holy Spirit is at work in them in the same ways that marked the early church. The Jewish “believers” – that is, those who have become followers of Christ – cannot deny baptism to them. God must want them inside the community, too. And so, inside they come.

Welcomed and loved…

How often do we need to hear these lessons before they finally sink in? We are inheritors to a church which has alternately raised and lowered its own walls. Theological diversity in the early days of the church quickly gave way to definitions of “orthodox” and “heretic”. Churches were split off from time to time because of liturgical and theological subtleties that are lost on our current sensibilities. Eventually, West split from East (or East split from West, depending on whose version of history you read), each one claiming that the other was “out”.

Our own Protestant ancestors challenged these assumptions, breaking with the Catholic Church because of its own rigid boundaries. John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism, spoke of the “Invisible Church”, one where only God could draw the true boundaries. We soon forgot. Northern and Southern Presbyterians, Fundamentalist and Modernist, liberal and conservative, traditional and evangelical, we build up walls again and again and again only to see them fall before our eyes.

We have decided who can serve or even worship in the church based on their race or gender or orientation. And we make the table, the very thing that should unite us as Christians, the place with the highest walls of all. You have to go through a special class so that you understand what communion means. Or you have to be baptized first, because that’s the sacrament that marks who is “in” and who is “out”. But what about Bob, up there in Chicago? Doesn’t he get it more than any of us, what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be welcomed and loved…?

Friends, don’t get me wrong here. Being a community without boundaries does not mean that anything goes. And it does not mean that we open the community simply for political expediency or for the sake of openness itself. We do so rooted in the words from John’s letter that we read today. We do so because we show our love for God by our obedience to God’s desires! We find ourselves so deeply rooted in the Biblical narrative that we begin to see the world as God sees it: a very imperfect and broken imperfect place that is worthy of our disdain, but deserving of our compassionate, even sacrificial love!

Was God narrowing the community in those early days? Or was it remarkable that we even made it to the second generation after Adam and Eve’s behavior in Eden? Do we miss that Isaac and Ishmael, that Jacob and Esau are reconciled? Do we see that Jesus wasn’t actually changing the story at all, but magnifying its deeper purpose? For Jesus, and Peter after him, and even Paul after him, opening up the community was an act not of religious defiance, but of pure obedience?

Friends, you have heard me say it before: our faith calls us to be different in times that are very different. But what is sacred, what is crucial, what is needed and desired, will always remain.

We – we – are welcomed and loved. That is the eternal inheritance.

Amen.

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Have you ever been excluded?

It was my first youth group trip, a weekend retreat up in the mountains. I knew a couple of the kids, having gone through confirmation with them the year before, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I was “friends” with anybody in particular. And for the first half of the trip, I got the distinct feeling that I was on the outside. It wasn’t that anyone went out of their way to exclude me, or that people were intentionally shutting me out. It was much more subtle than that – what I remember now, many years later, are the inside jokes, a single line of which would send the whole room into fits of laughter.

And then, over lunch one day, I heard one of the other kids quoting a Monty Python routine. Nerd alert! Well, by the end of the meal, he and I were as thick as thieves, reciting whole scenes verbatim in our worst British accents. I had a friend now. The rest of the group’s inside jokes didn’t intimidate me; I had my own, now.

Have you ever been excluded?

Exclusion comes in many forms; and even the most innocuous versions, like that of a church youth group, can be difficult. But some are quite insidious – exclusion because of race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, physical appearance, political affiliation, age, family situation.

The one thing that they all have in common is that they all make the point: “You are not welcome, because you are not like us.”

The lesson from Genesis this morning comes at the very end of such a story of exclusion, and is a reminder of the violence that exclusion can bring. Joseph is one of the twelve sons of Jacob, the one who wrestled with the angel a few weeks ago and came away broken and blessed. And if we remember the story of Jacob the father, he played favorites. He gave Joseph that fantastic, multi-colored coat, and Joseph seemed to lord it over his brothers.

I’m not sure how successful you can be as one excluding eleven, but Joseph gave it his best shot. And his brothers reacted violently against him. They first plotted to kill him, but decided on the much more “humane” option of selling him into slavery. And now, all these years later, Joseph has become Pharaoh’s right hand man. All is forgiven in this instant of reconciliation and embrace, Joseph himself clarifying the moment’s theological significance: what his brothers intended for ill, God used to save them from themselves.

Exclusion can lead to violence. We know the examples of this in our own world:Rwanda; Somalia; Sudan; South Africa; Afghanistan;  Israel/Palestine; Yugoslavia; Northern Ireland…and it reaches our own shores: the shame of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, to name two of the more obvious examples.

Where does it come from? What creates this desire to include some and exclude others which can cause violence both overt and subtle? I’m not sure, but I think it stems from trying to answer the question “Who’s in?”

We are guilty of categorization. And what’s odd is that our categorization often leans toward defining ourselves by what we are “not”. When I lived in Chicago, being Presbyterian mostly meant “I’m not a Catholic.” Here in the South, it means, “I’m not a nitwit.”

And far too often, I hear us at OPC say about ourselves that “I’m not a member of a mega-church.” It’s often easier to say what we are not. So what is it that we are? Who are we at our core, and how does that define us? And how does it help us answer this question that seems to obsess us so: “Who’s in?”

The lesson from Matthew this morning sheds some light on this. I find it to be one of the most intriguing and difficult texts in the New Testament. At first brush, Jesus seems to be playing against type. He is in a foreign land, a land of Gentiles, non-Jews, people who most certainly are not “in” as the people of Jesus’ time and tribe would have defined it.

And as this Canaanite woman comes to him seeking mercy, he first ignores, then rebuffs, and finally insults her before she is able to get the result she wants, healing for an ailing daughter. Does even Jesus get sucked into playing the game of “who’s in”?

Some of you took part in our Connect group last Spring, reading the book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. The author, Kenneth Bailey, walked us through some of the parables and stories of the New Testament, helping us to see them with the benefit of a mindset closer to that of those at the time of Jesus. And one of the texts he wrestles with is this very lesson of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman.

Bailey points out that this meeting has to cross two social boundaries of the day: the first, that between Jew and Gentile; the second, that between man and woman. To get a glimpse of how women were viewed at the time, hear this quote from Ben Sirach, written about two hundred years prior: “A man’s spite is preferable to a woman’s kindness; women give rise to shame and reproach.” Not exactly material worthy of Susan B. Anthony…

What Jesus ends up doing, Bailey says, is taking the disciples through a process of confronting their own deeply held prejudices and, in the process, learning something about the nature of faith.

The very first word’s out of the woman’s mouth are a statement of faith not only in Jesus’ power as healer, but also in his identity within the broader salvation story. She calls him “Lord,” a theological title, and also “Son of David,” a statement of both Messianic and Jewish significance. Jesus’ response is utter silence, as would have been the custom of a rabbi of his day. She is not only not Jewish, she is not a man. She is not worthy of response.

The second moment comes, when the disciples beg Jesus to get rid of her, he draws the ethnic line in the sand: “I came to the house of Israel.” It is a rebuke of her on tribal grounds, even though she seems to know his national significance better than his own people do.

The third moment is the most uncomfortable: she persists, and Jesus calls her a dog. Dogs in the time of Jesus were not objects of affection. They were a step above pigs in terms of cleanliness. The term “puppy love” would have been an oxymoron. Dogs had two roles: vicious guards, or slimy scavengers. It is the latter which he calls her, because you don’t starve your own children in order to feed those who feast on garbage.

And this is the critical moment in the story. Remember that Jesus isn’t on home turf. He is in foreign territory, and has just called this woman “filth” in the presence of her own people.

Bailey’s analysis of the story is most critical here, saying that Jesus is holding up a mirror to the disciples by putting this woman through the ringer, giving them a very uncomfortable lesson in self-reflection. We can almost imagine them recoiling in horror, “Well, we might think that, but we wouldn’t necessarily put it that way, and we’re certainly not going to say it out loud!”

It is at this moment that the woman becomes the teacher. She responds, using Jesus’ own words against him with a flicker of humor: “Even the filthy dogs get the table scraps. You wouldn’t deny scavengers the chance to scavenge, would you?” And at that, Jesus responds in an outburst of joy: “Great is your faith! Let it be done as you desire.”

At this point, even the most thick-headed of the disciples would have recognized what is at stake. Nowhere in Israel have they seen the kind of character that this woman has exhibited, the courage to demand she be taken seriously, the risk she takes on behalf of her daughter’s well-being, the faith she has in the power of Jesus as healer, Messiah, and divine Lord.

It takes a while for the lesson to sink in, but is a short distance from this moment to Peter’s realization that “God shows no preference,” to Paul’s proclamation that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek…male nor female,” and to our own Presbyterian affirmation that God “calls men and women to all ministries of the church.”

There is no exclusion in the true body of Christ; God’s community embraces all.

Or, as the American poet Edwin Markham put it, reflecting the perspective of one on the outside:

He drew a circle to shut me out –

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in.

Over the next few weeks we will be exploring what it means to exhibit Christian hospitality, to evangelize with integrity, to live faith lives that are truly invitational. And so today is merely a starting point, as we recognize what it is we are inviting people to. Our calling is to be a community not merely of inclusion, but of divine embrace. And in that distinction is all the difference: on the surface, Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is a lesson in confronting stereotypes, how we so often make assumptions that allow us to put people in boxes or dismiss them altogether.

And yet, the gospel is never just a superficial morality tale. Instead, it is a lesson in how we recognize faith in the most unlikely of places. Life comes out of death, love out of fear, salvation out of hopelessness, wisdom from the mouth of a Gentile woman. We embrace the other not because we want to be politically correct, but because we want to risk the possibility that we might gain heavenly wisdom.

This is the community that God has created, the circle that Jesus has drawn. And this is what we invite and welcome others to. Who’s in? Are you?

Amen.

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Nothing can get between us and God’s love.

This lesson from Romans 8 is not one that we get to read often on Sunday mornings. We usually hear it in the context of a memorial service:

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

It makes sense to read Romans 8 at a time of death. We’ve all been there – whether it is losing someone close to us, or even just picking up the newspaper and reading the headlines: “Norwegian man kills 85 at youth camp.” Paul’s words of comfort to that early band of Christians in Rome resonate for us as words of hope: death will not have the final word. Not even death can separate us from the love of God, and so we are forever connected to the ones we miss.

Death cannot separate us from the love of God…How about life?

Paul’s ultimate point is about God’s love – as Eugene Peterson translates it, God’s embrace. And nothing at all will get between us. But as Paul enumerates the things that might get in the way, the second one is…life. Not even life can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord…

Do you ever feel like life disconnects you from your faith? Stress. Work. Family. Money. Anxiety. Fear. Expectation. Self-Worth. Anger. Depression. Disappointment. Physical pain. Emotional pain. Does anyone not resonate with at least one of these? Life can be a struggle.

These can be the kinds of things that can strengthen our faith. When what we have or who we are is stripped away, for some of us, that’s the only time we can be vulnerable and open to that embrace. But they can also be the times when we are so overwhelmed that we don’t think we have time to pray, to check in with God, to do the things we need to do to nurture a healthy faith. Life seems to do its best to separate us from God’s love.

What about when things are good? We’ve got success, good friendships, good health, good outlook. Money’s in the bank, depression’s been medicated, life is good. Can these moments get in the way of faith? In some ways, this may be the more precarious of life’s positions. When things are going well, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve done it all by ourselves; and so faith can take a backseat. Sometimes, it seems, life succeeds in driving a wedge between us and God.

I want to be clear about one thing: I’m not equating faith with church. Faith is a much bigger category. Good church attendance doesn’t necessarily mean better faith. But neither am I convinced that we can do faith in isolation: a coal separated from the fire will burn brightly for a little while; but a coal surrounded by others burns longer.

Let me ask you this: does church ever get in the way of faith? In the same way that life encourages us to turn our backs on God, does church ever encourage us to turn our backs on faith? I’ve met people – I’m sure you have, too, or maybe you are one of them – who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”. And when you scratch the surface of that conversation, you almost always find someone who has been to church at one point in their life, but was turned off by something that happened there – a betrayal, a judgment, behavior during a church conflict, something took place that, for that person, illustrated hypocrisy. And they may say that they believe in God, they may even believe in Christ, but they don’t believe in church. “Do you pray?” I ask…and the answer is almost never “yes”.

Church can very easily get in the way of faith. We get so caught up in playing Christian that we forget to be Christian. Our assumptions about what faith is – a set of behaviors, kind of a moral “chutes and ladders”, a way of looking or acting – those assumptions can easily get in the way of faith.

One example of this among many was the early outcry among Christian leaders against the Harry Potter series for its encouragement of paganism and witchcraft. Cardinal Ratzinger (the current pope), James Dobson, Chuck Colson, all of these were among those who joined the chorus against the books because they planted seeds that led our children down this dangerous, anti-Christian path. It was only after the publication of the seventh and final book in the series that the author, JK Rowling, began talking openly about her faith – as a Christian. She didn’t say anything earlier, because she was worried that her faith would give away the ending. Responding to the earlier accusations, Rowling said, “I don’t take any responsibility for the lunatic fringes of my own religion.” Oh, and I have to point this out: she’s a Presbyterian.

Faith in Christ means a lifetime of conversion. It means that we never stop having those moments when the scales fall from our eyes and we recognize something about faith that makes us feel as though we are seeing for the first time in our lives. That’s the power of the embrace.

And it’s an embrace that I’ve seen here at OPC. It’s there in our mission, that the community is our congregation. We don’t serve or minister based on church affiliation. We serve because Christ first served us. We embrace because Christ first embraced us. And that embrace wasn’t predicated on our theological orthodoxy or our moral righteousness. It was based purely on God’s love for us.

I say all of this because we’ve got something here that we ought to share with the world. And we need to be careful that we’re not just playing church. What we do here is center ourselves in God’s embrace that we might be that embrace in the world around us. And when we do, we move beyond the dichotomy of life and death into this new reality of resurrection. The old life has gone; a new life has begun. Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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