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Posts Tagged ‘Evangelism’

So what now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: To glory God and enjoy him forever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Who is this Jesus?

One of my favorite points of entry into studying Scripture is looking at the different characters of a particular lesson and then seeing which ones resonate with me the most. In this case, you’ve got quite the cast: Jesus, his disciples, the donkey owner… Whatever the story, I’m often most intrigued by the nameless masses. The gospels often call them “the crowds”. Their participation is always more central that their general anonymity might suggest.

Imagine the feeding of the 5000 without the crowds…or the Sermon on the Mount…or the introduction of Zacchaeus…in fact, the crowds often act as a kind of Greek chorus in the life and ministry of Jesus. Even in the final drama of Holy Week, the generic “crowds” go from being the ones who celebrate Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem to those who call for his death just a few days later. There is, in the crowd, a sense of what it means to be human. And there are times when it’s a little too on the nose.

What sets our lesson today apart is that there are two different groups. There is the crowd and there is the city. The crowd spreads their cloaks and palm branches on the road. The crowd surrounds Jesus. The crowd shouts out “Hosanna!” The crowd names him as the prophet. The city, on the other hand, can only manage a question: “Who is this?” The city, in response to the parade, is in turmoil.

So my question today: Are we the crowd? Or are we the city? And which one should we be, anyway?

In our lesson, the city folks are seeing the stir this donkey-riding fellow is causing. They are curious, intrigued by all the excitement, and can only manage a simple question: “Who is this?”

The crowds, on the other hand, are the ones who already know about Jesus and are eager to celebrate him. They are the insiders, the excited ones ready to throw him a party. They elevate him and honor him with a title. And even though Jerusalem is in turmoil, they go with him willingly.

Where do you feel more affinity? Do you see yourself at home in the crowds, or in the city?

For some reason, this question has grabbed my attention today. I think it has a lot to do with the world we find ourselves in, as a church person in an increasingly non-church world. Our cultural landscape is changing dramatically, and we’re not even clear what the new landscape looks like. Some would have us believe that the separation is between those who are religious and those who are secular. That’s not the case at all, however. As a nation, we are no less “Christian” or “religious” than we have been at any time over the last sixty years. What is changing, however, is what “Christian” means.

On the one hand, churches are consolidating. Small churches are eroding as their members leave to join medium-size churches. Meanwhile, medium-size churches are breaking even as they take on these members while others fade out the back door to large churches. And large churches are facing the same reality: while people arrive from other churches, their members are departing for mega-churches. Mega-churches are growing; but almost all of them are centered around a particularly charismatic pastor (almost always the son of a pastor) so that when they retire, die, or fall in disgrace, their church disappears and the whole process starts over again.

On the other hand, the pattern of church attendance is changing rapidly. Even those who consider themselves very active in their congregations are attending less and less. Weekly attendance has become monthly; monthly has become quarterly. As weekends have more and more competition for our time, churches are on the losing end.

And on the other hand (the third hand?), those who might have had only a passing interest in church are now completely disinterested. Whereas in years past people might move to a new area and locate their bank, their grocery store, and their church, the church is being left off the list. There are the growing numbers of “de-churched”, those who have been burned by negative experiences in so-called Christian community. There are the children of the “de-churched”, who have never even set foot in the doors of a church, and whose experience of Christianity is shaped by what they see in society. And I’m sorry if I’m the one to inform you, but our co-religionists don’t always represent us well.

With all of these dynamics at work, I think our cultural reality is way more “crowd and city” than we might expect. And in that reality, we are the crowds. We surround Jesus and elevate his name with praise. The “city” might be intrigued by what we are doing, but our response is to wave palm branches and shout strange words like “Hosanna!” None of that does much to translate from our world to theirs. We might be the crowds…but should we be?

I think there’s much to be said for finding our place among the crowd in the city – and to do so with clarity and integrity. If we really believe that Jesus was the embodiment of the divine, if we really do proclaim that Jesus is the Christ, the incarnate God, holiness in fleshly human form, then the faithful church is the one that lives firmly within its culture. In other words, just as God took tangible form in first century Palestine, using the language and culture of the region, so must the church, as the so-called “body of Christ”, take tangible form in every language and culture it finds itself. And so, we must not separate ourselves into “crowds” and “cities”. We are not called to pull apart from culture. Instead, we are called to act as the bridge.

And that is both the gift and the challenge. Those of us who have been among the crowd for so long have largely forgotten what it’s like to live in the city. We have made Sunday morning worship a priority to the point that it might not even occur to us that there are other options out there. We know the insider language so well, knowing where the Narthex is and why we call it Palm Sunday and automatically bowing our heads whenever someone says, “Let’s pray” that when the city asks us “who is this” we are hard-pressed to come up with ways to translate what we believe and what we do into ways that the city might be drawn closer, let alone understand. The goal, I believe, is to be part of the crowd, living in the city, and moving between the two with clumsy grace.

How do we do this?

To be in the crowd and in the city is not easy. We like knowing who our tribe is. It helps us know whom to ignore. But living in both and in between is a much more interesting place to be! The beauty is that it is a place where we are constantly transformed – not because we want the crowd to act more like the city, but because we become the crowd that God wants us to be! You see, we know that God’s tribe is always bigger than ours. God never draws those circles as tightly as we like to. God finds pleasure in seeing us stretch – not to the point of breaking, mind you, but to the point of flexibility and growth.

Does this mean we change? Absolutely! But not the way that we might think. It’s not that we rearrange our lives in a way to accommodate a city that may not ever move beyond mere curiosity. What it does mean is that we spend more and more time with the citizens of the city in which we live.

The easy thing is to spend all of our time among the crowd. After all, they are our “people”. And yet, the faithful thing is to spend as much – if not more – time in the city square, willing to hear what it is that the city really thinks about our parades and prophets. We nurture relationships with our neighbors – not necessarily because we think they should be part of the crowd, too (though they should), but because God wants us to care about them as much as God cares about them.

Let me put it this way: it would be one thing to think of our hobbies and interests as things we can manipulate for the purpose of church growth. It would be one thing if our gym membership existed merely because we are looking for excuses to share the gospel and invite people to church. There are those for whom that works; but in this city, most of our fellow residents will simply learn to steer clear of the preachy spin class student.

It is another thing altogether to view our interests and hobbies as things that God has designed within us so that we might have relationships of integrity beyond the crowd. It is another thing altogether to sign up for an art class because we want to learn art and build authentic relationships with others who share our intrigue for creativity. If we do that, the opportunities to answer the question “who is this” will arise naturally.

The truth is that we are already there more there than we might like to admit. We are the crowds. We are here on a Sunday morning when there are an infinite number of other places we could be. We already know this Jesus. We sing his praises and give him titles like “Christ” and “Lord”. And at the same time, we are the city. Even those of us who have been in the crowds for as long as we can remember often feel like newcomers on the scene. We know there’s excitement around this Jesus, but we feel like we are just beginning to know who he is. We are intrigued, curious. We want to follow. We want to know more.

Who is this Jesus? That’s easy. In the end, he’s the one that turns the tables on us.

Amen.

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Our acts of compassion should be as natural as breath.

In our lesson this morning, Jesus speaks to his audience in a parable about righteousness. Using the image of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats, Jesus paints a picture of what it looks like when our lives reflect mercy or unkindness.

The thing about sheep and goats is that, to the untrained eye, they can be hard to distinguish. There are subtle differences in the tail, the ears, the eyes, the coat, even the smell that are helpful to tell them apart. Even then, though, it’s not foolproof. And so, the only thing that can truly separate the sheep from the goats is the seasoned eye of a professional. In the case of the parable, it’s the shepherd alone who can draw the dividing line, sending the sheep one way and the goats the other.

The story ends with the sheep in everlasting life and the goats in eternal punishment. What is particularly striking is the fact that those that are judged have no such recollection of their behavior. For the righteous, as they enter into paradise, they are told that they have served Christ himself with kindness: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the lonely and abandoned. And yet, they have no memory of this.

As for the unrighteous, even though the end of their story is quite different, their surprise matches that of the righteous. As they are told that they have greeted Christ with indifference – ignoring the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger, they claim to have no memory of this at all.

For the characters in the parable, it is as if their behavior, whether in cruelty or gentleness, has become nothing more than a reflex. It has left the realm of conscious choice and entered the land of unthinking. Their actions, for good and for ill, have become a kind of muscle memory.

It reminds me of the apocryphal story of Jim Thorpe, one of the first superstar athletes. Thorpe won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics in the decathlon and pentathlon. He then went on to play professional football, baseball, and basketball. There is a legendary story told about him that he once tried to spend a day mimicking the movements of a newborn baby. He gave up, exhausted, after only a few hours. The constant action was simply too much.

Whether or not the story actually happened, there is some truth to it. Infants have to learn how to do everything. Through a grueling process of trial and error, they figure out how to focus their eyes, control their voices, manipulate their muscles in order to move parts of their body. Things that we might take for granted, such as the simple act of waving one’s arm, are actually not that simple. It’s just that we have practiced them to the point that they we do it with no clue how we actually managed to make it happen.

And while it might be difficult for us to imagine that process of learning how to talk and walk, we actually still do this all the time. We are always taking what is learned and internalizing it to the point that it becomes automatic.

If you’ve ever had to go through some kind of physical therapy after an injury or a surgery, you know what I’m talking about. Those are the moments where you are made aware of things you take for granted. I remember breaking my thumb in a glamorous sports injury. After several months of keeping it immobile, the muscles had atrophied to the point of near uselessness. Every day I had to practice things like bending it, pushing down on it – a little at a time, until I regained that full use. After a while, it was as though the injury had never occurred in the first place. But it took work to get to that point.

Maybe you’ve never experienced such an injury. But think about something like starting up a car. When you first learn to drive, you sit down, close the door, put on your seatbelt, check your mirrors, put the key in the ignition, put your foot on the brake, turn the key…After doing this several hundred times, though, it becomes almost one smooth, unthinking motion. “When did we do all this?”

That kind of automatic reflex should be our goal. The unconscious compassion of the sheep in the parable, the righteous ones, should be the kind of unintentional beauty we create. And there is only one way for that to happen: through practice. When we emulate the shepherd, learning through seasoned experience the differences between sheep and goats, separating them eventually becomes second nature. But it doesn’t begin that way. It takes time.

Whether it’s a spiritual discipline like prayer or study or service, these are things that take patience and effort. The more we do it, the closer it comes to being effortless. And then, one day, we cross that threshold unaware that our acts of compassion have become as natural as breath.

The subject of our upcoming Engage series is evangelism. I know that “evangelism” is a word with a lot of loaded meaning, and I feel like I have spent a lot of time trying to unload it so that we can engage the subject afresh. Let me just say today that what I mean when I say “evangelism” is the ability to share your faith with the same thought, intention, and care that you share any other part of your life. It is probably more accurate to say that the goal of Engage is to learn evangelism with integrity.

You see, that’s just the thing: sharing our faith should be the kind of thing that we do automatically, naturally, reflexively – not with manipulation or confrontation, but with the same kind of smooth, natural action we have when we wave our hand, when we start up the car. “When did we share our faith with you?” We shouldn’t even be aware that it’s happening. And that’s the kind of thing that can only come with practice – the practice that our Engage series begins to offer us. I heartily encourage you to take part, so that we become like the sheep – not a mindless herd, but an amazing, lithe, fluid force for good in the world.

And lest we forget, there is always the possibility that we mind end up like the goat. Without the kind of practice that kindness requires, we risk falling back into habits of indifference, ignoring the vulnerable and weak and marginalized. The worrisome thing is that this, too, can become an unthinking reaction. If that’s the path we take, we do so at our own peril.

And that’s just it: it would be one thing if our behavior would only affect others. As a force for good, the repercussions would be incredible, taking the potential for grace within each of us and sending its waves out into the world. It’s a transformative possibility! Sadly, the same is true for our ill will. It can send out ripples far beyond what we can imagine.

And it would be another thing if our behavior would only affect ourselves, sending us to the left or the right of the glorious throne. The crucial point of the parable, though, is that our behavior affects Jesus himself!

This is both the risk and the gift of the sheep and the goats, of unconscious mercy and reflexive uncaring. When we meet others, it is as though we are meeting Christ. And therein, I believe, lies the key: Learn to expect Jesus in others. If we manage that, we are capable of incredible acts of grace and compassion!

Doing so takes practice. We might do well to have a mantra that runs through our head, especially when we meet up with those who seem particularly un-Jesus-like, something that would remind us that this person is every bit as beloved of God as we are. Whether it’s a co-worker, or a neighbor, or a family member, perhaps it would help to consciously think, “child of God; child of God; child of God…”

It is through careful discipline that this way of looking at others, looking at the world is internalized. That’s when our muscle memory will kick in, when our acts of compassion become as natural as breath, as the breath of God, within us.

This is the goal of our Engage study series, that we would practice together the subtle art of expecting Jesus in everyone we meet. I hope you will be a part of this incredible opportunity.

Friends, my prayer today is that the work God begins within us will not only move among us, but out into the worlds we inhabit and, indeed, into the world that God loves and desires and redeems.

May it be so.

Amen.

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This is a rough story, this Luke parable! First, the so-called “deserving” are invited to a banquet, only to reject the invitation out of hand. Second, when they are re-invited, it’s not enough for them to say, “We’re not coming.” They slaughter the messengers who had the temerity to offer hospitality. Suddenly, we’re cast into open warfare, with the king avenging the murders by murdering the murderers. We get a brief respite when the king turns around and invites the riff-raff. The rejected are embraced, giving us a message we’re more familiar with…until one of them bothers to show up “as is” and is thrown out. Just to be clear: Jesus uses parables as illustrations of God’s desires. So much for puppies and butterflies; this kingdom of God is rough business!

Many have tried to rein in the story through the years. The traditional interpretation of it is probably closest to its original meaning: God begins by inviting those who persistently keep the Law to the banquet, but they’re more interested in watching the rules and regulations than they are in feasting and celebration. The messengers are the prophets, who go out time and time again to return the faithful to the fold, only to be ignored, persecuted, and killed.

The second group of invitees is made up of those who represent the early church: the lepers, the poor, the Gentiles, the tax collectors, the sick, the prostitutes, the lame. If the “right” guests won’t attend, then God will be sure to redefine what “right” is. And yet, that doesn’t mean that “anything goes” – you’ve still gotta show up dressed to the party. You still need to play by the rules, even if the rules are new. Otherwise, there’s no room for you.

There is a lot I like about the traditional interpretation. It contains the wonderful surprise of Jesus, where faithfulness is not necessarily what we expect it to be. The marginalized are now the center of attention. And even though it is grace that brought them there, grace still expects a response.

At the same time, it conveniently ignores all of the gore. What are we supposed to do with that?

Then there was the interpretation I came across recently, suggesting that the parable is actually a satire of first century politics, the way that power is wielded, and all the violence that nations bring against each other. In short, it makes Jesus a kind of Jon Stewart of the ancient world. I admit I’m inclined to like this one, except for the one little nuisance that Jesus starts by saying, “The kingdom of God is like…”

Every time we read Scripture in worship, we finish by saying, “The word of the Lord.” Sometimes that’s easy for me to say; other times, well, I’ll admit that I have to swallow hard. But if I really believe that it is true, even if just a little bit, then I feel like I am left with three ways to approach tough texts. One choice is that I get to pick and choose the parts I like, which means I am now in charge. Another possibility is that I have to get on board with the parts that make me squirm, which might mean some real Cirque de Soleil style contortions. Or the third option is that I have to be comfortable with the fact that I’m going to be uncomfortable.

I am sure that each of you has your own approach, one that makes the most sense to you. I can only speak for myself. And for me, it’s the last one that seems the most faithful and vibrant: learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I don’t know; maybe it’s just the way I’m wired. When I am part of a church, when I am in a worshiping community, I absolutely need to be reminded that God loves me and meets me where I am. When I look back on any given week, I need to hear that message of grace. At the same time, I also need to hear that I don’t have it all figured out, not by a long shot.

I think we do a pretty good job of that here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Hope always has the final word. But if all we hear week in and week out is that we’re totally fine just the way we are, that we don’t need to change at all, then I don’t think that’s faith. That’s just baptizing the status quo, whether that’s within us or around us. And if we’re going to follow this Jesus guy, then we better get ready for a journey with some twists and turns.

The invitation to each of us is to take the trip. And today, I want to suggest three characteristics of the journey: God is in charge of the destination. The tickets ain’t free. And we don’t travel alone.

So let us revisit the parable with these three guideposts in mind.

First, God is in charge of the destination. In the parable, the king is outraged that his messengers are killed for merely extending an invitation. And so, he sends his troops to carry out vengeance, to punish those who have blood on their hands. In other words, justice exists. In the kingdom of God, those who do wrong get what’s coming to them. And that justice, ultimately, is in God’s hands – thanks be to God!

I am willing to bet that most of us know quite well that there is true evil at work in the world. Whether as personal as the betrayal of a friend or as global as the persecution of Iraqi and Syrian Christians, it is clear that there are very real wounds in the world in need of a more perfect healing than I would ever be capable of. It’s the kind of healing that only God can bring, that could only be entrusted to God, anyway. Is there an effective political or military response to ISIS? It could be…but for me, the justice is in knowing that those who portray God as a perpetrator of brutality will one day have to come face to face with how God truly is. And the heat of God’s limitless mercy may simply be too much to bear. In the end, it’s not up to me, or any of us. And that’s good news.

Second, there is a cost. When guests finally enter the wedding banquet, it seems that the celebration can finally begin. We can put all of the nasty business of behind us and focus on this new, glorious reality. That is, until the one attendee is called out for the wrong clothes. Unable to speak, he is kicked out.

The king, it appears, has a thing for fashion. But before we get too hung up on this, remember: this is a parable. It’s not about clothes. It’s about the wedding. Speaking of which, where is the groom? Wait…let’s look again: did the king just kick out his own son, sending him into the arms of suffering? It can’t be…or can it?

Friends, the good news of the gospel is that salvation is a gift freely given to us. That said, salvation itself is not free. After all, we’re in Lent, and that’s what the cross is all about. Injustice involves a cost, and Jesus paid it. So as we guests take part in this feast, we would do well to remember the moment the groom was kicked out of his own party. The hope, then, is that we would all come properly attired to the banquet – again, remember, this isn’t about clothes. It’s not that we are motivated by fear that we won’t get kicked out, too, but that we are reminded that the price paid shall not have been in vain.

Whether the first two points sit well with us or not, the third point brings it all back home: we are not alone. We are in this thing together.

We don’t have to read these stories in isolation – in fact, we shouldn’t. We should read them together as a community of faith. In those moments of discomfort, there are times when others have it figured out and can lend us their wisdom. And there are other times when we recognize that we have really good company with others who are still just feeling their way down the path.

This is the invitation of our upcoming Engage series that we will offer in April and May. Now just to be clear, if you don’t respond to the invitation, we’re not planning to send out the troops. Instead, the hope is that each of us would recognize what an honor it is to be invited to the banquet in the first place! It may not be an honor we expect, but the truth is that the one who invites us knows us better than we could ever know ourselves.

If you can’t decide when you can take the class today, I want to you pray about it. How is it that God is inviting you into this celebration? How is it that God wants you to be a part of this journey? Are you ready – not because you necessarily have it all figured out, but because you trust the one in whose hands the destination rests?

May it be so.

Amen.

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Giving up giving up…

This coming Wednesday, we begin the Season of Lent. Here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we will gather nearby with our brothers and sisters in Christ at Brookhaven Christian Church, just down the street, at 7:30pm for a joint service where we will pause to mark the beginning of these forty days of Lent. Some of you, I am sure, are thinking about what it is that you will give up for Lent. In case you are in that category and wondering about the company you keep, here are the top ten things Twitter says people plan to give up for Lent: Twitter, Chocolate, Swearing, Alcohol, Soda, Facebook, Fast Food, Sex, Sweets, and Meat.

My favorite fell just outside the top ten: Lent.

And while I’m pretty sure most of the people who said this were being funny (or at least trying), I want to suggest that we might consider trying something this year: let’s give up Lent for Lent.

What I mean by that is not that we’ll jump straight from Transfiguration to Easter. It is important to spend time in contemplation and preparation. And the rhythms of the church year are just not complete without the drama of Holy Week, from parade to grave and beyond. What I mean, instead, is that for Lent we consider giving up…giving up. If we do, we have some good company from our own Presbyterian history.

In 1536, William Farel invited John Calvin to stay with him and reform the church in Geneva. As French Protestants in exile, they were keen to rid Christianity of anything that they understood as contrary to the gospel, and they often fought bitterly with the City Council of Geneva to do so.

One of the practices they sought to eliminate was treating the year as a series of unbreakable, holy seasons. They supported spiritual disciplines, but they also thought it was more important to clarify what was Biblical and what was unbiblical. Lent and Easter fell squarely in their sites. Geneva required fasting during Lent from such extravagancies as meat, and communion was expected during Easter. Calvin and Farel both knew that fasting was an important practice, and that celebrating the resurrection was at the center of the entire faith. What they resented was the suggestion that Lent was Biblical. It may have been inspired by Scripture, but the word never appears there. And setting Easter as the first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox? This was not something the gospel writers had much interest in.

Calvin and Farel lost their battle to reform these practices; but they were apparently not above attempting passive aggressive drama. Not only did they refuse to serve communion on Easter, which caused a city-wide riot, they also held the 16th century equivalent of a barbeque in the City Square, with meat galore, on Good Friday. The City Council had had enough, and they were driven out of town.

So: sound good? Are we game?

My point is not to give up on what works for you. If Lenten fasting draws you closer to God, then by all means do it. That said, there are times when we need to get out of our spiritual ruts. And these are the moments when we might just find ourselves on those transformative mountaintops.

No matter how spiritually grounded we might be, no matter how close we might feel to the holy, there is no doubt that every single one of us has more to learn, much more to learn. And so, we ought to beware resting on our laurels.

Take the disciples as a case in point. Jesus has just implored them to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. After that, he invites the three disciples in his inner circle to go up the mountain with him. And there, they are witnesses to a most bizarre sight. There Jesus stands, as though he himself is the source of light, flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of the holiest Hebrew prophets, just talking. Peter is struck by what he thinks is inspiration: “Let’s build three shrines to preserve this moment!” In other words, Peter is convinced they have struck spiritual gold and should mine this vein for all its worth. Instead, the moment passes, and down the mountain they go.

Here’s the thing about Peter: he knows that he has experienced something holy and profound; and so, what he knows from his own tradition is that you build monuments to capture those moments. What he seems to forget is that Jesus, the very embodiment of holiness, is right there with him. It doesn’t matter if they’re on the mountaintop or down in the valley. The place where heaven touches earth can’t be confined to a shrine; it’s there in Jesus himself!

And if we’re honest, we are not that different from Peter. We hold onto our sacred moments and monuments. We work hard to recreate them. The problem is that we are not even sure what it was that made them holy to begin with. And so we end up recreating the wrong thing, missing the holiness right in front of us.

I am convinced that this is one of the challenges of what churches try to do in worship. There are so many congregations embattled over the style of music or the words of prayers, fights that probably have more to do with our sacred memories than with Jesus himself. One of the things that I appreciate about Oglethorpe Presbyterian is our willingness to experiment. There are times we have tried something new, and it has landed well. There are also those times when it just didn’t work, and we shrug it off and keep moving. When there’s no shrine, there’s no need to stay put. The important thing is to remain open to the possibility that we don’t have it all figured out.

So back to giving up “giving up” for Lent. Here is what I would like to suggest.

Beginning after Easter, Oglethorpe Presbyterian is going to launch a program called “Engage”. Engage is a congregation-wide study that would help us learn how to share our faith – or, to use a word we Presbyterians seem to have given up not just for Lent but perhaps for eternity: “evangelism”.

If the word “evangelism” makes you cringe, then rather than running down the mountain, I want to encourage you that this program might just be for you. First and foremost, Engage reminds us that “evangelism” is not the process of going door-to-door, forcing pamphlets into people’s hands, or manipulating every conversation into matters of faith and Jesus and salvation. That’s not evangelism. Instead, evangelism is meant to be a natural experience. It means living lives of integrity that speak for themselves. It means being comfortable enough at expressing our own faith. And it means that conversations about faith end up arising naturally. What Engage is designed to do is to lead us into genuine moments of integrity, not forced platitudes and false pieties.

In the coming weeks, you will hear much more about our plans for Engage, which will start in early April. We will be offering groups that meet at many different times during the week, so that it might match your schedule. So rather than spending Lenten time avoiding things, my invitation is to spend that energy carving out space in April and May for Engage.

Our goal is to have half of our community participating in one of the groups meeting for discussion, fellowship, and sharing. Much like that mountaintop moment, we will not be alone. We will be with each other, connecting, sharing our challenges and joys alike as people of faith who are trying to figure it out, or even just muddle through.

And as we do, we are not going to be building shrines. Instead, we will be carving out those moments, opening ourselves so that we might recognize that holiness that has been right in front of us all along!

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