Posts Tagged ‘grace’

When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

The memories of Saturday’s Habitat Dedication will stay with me for a while. I think I have attended eight of them over the past ten years. They are always powerful moments, seeing a diverse community come together to work side by side with future homeowners to put a roof over a family’s head. Saturday, I also took home some bodily souvenirs – specifically, three blisters. Between raking and working the sander and the sawsall, I was reminded that I don’t often do this kind of work for sustained periods of time. And even though the rough spots are extremely small, the discomfort takes up a disproportionate amount of my emotional energy today.

When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

When we read the Psalm this morning, a Psalm attributed to King David, we find the author in a much better mood than the one we read last week. It seems like things are going well for the moment, something he attributes to God, giving glory to the Lord of his salvation. I’m glad for David – I really am. I hope that all of us can read this Psalm at times when we feel at our best and give God the glory. I would also hope that this kind of praise could guide us when we know that others are suffering and in pain. If so, it can encourage us to work beside them so that they, too, could claim the words of this Psalm as their own hymn of joy.

Because when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

It’s a principle, I believe, we know well at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. When one of our members is in distress, we respond, dropping from the roof like care ninjas. We do so not only when those whom we know are affected, but when those whom we have never met are aggrieved. That’s why we build Habitat houses and deliver coffee to Mercy Community Church. That’s why we bring food and fellowship to Journey Men’s Shelter and give groceries away at the Suthers’ Center. And it is why our hearts break when we learn that bullets fly in a Charleston church.

When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

Like many of you, my thoughts this morning are tied up in the awful news reports from South Carolina just four days ago. 21 year old Dylann Roof went into a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. After an hour, he stood up, made racist statements, and opened fire, killing nine worshipers before fleeing the scene.

As has become unfortunate custom in our society, pundits immediately took to the air waves, offering their own take long before any facts were in. There have been calls for gun control, against gun control, removal of the Confederate flag from places of honor in South Carolina, statements on the gunman’s drug use and mental state, framing this as a terror attack, as an attack motivated not by racial hatred but religious enmity…

And while I do think that there is merit to some of these observations, here is what I think we need to hear this morning: when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

I am convinced that Dylann Roof’s attack was, indeed, an attack on faith. I don’t say so because I agree with the talking heads who want to shape their own narrative of religious persecution of Christians in America. Frankly, the suggestion is insulting to real examples of religious persecution taking place, where people really are dying because of what they believe.

No. What I believe is that, when intense racial hatred motivates someone to kill Christians in church, then I do think that something of faith is at stake. If these ideas drive you to murder worshipers, then they have no place in faith. You cannot be a disciple of Jesus Christ and, at the same time, claim that racial superiority is real. My refrain this morning comes from Paul: “When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.” There is no asterisk next to the statement, listing exceptions based on race, or nationality, or gender, or age, or sexuality, or denomination. Just as I cannot put my thumb aside until the blister heals, neither can I separate the body of Christ into different parts because solidarity would be inconvenient.

Two weeks ago, several members of our church shared lunch and fellowship with several members of First Congregational Church, a historic African-American congregation in downtown Atlanta. We had initially been brought together by mutual distress from shootings in Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland and Baltimore and…and…and…The #blacklivesmatter movement that has arisen has been crucial, reminding Americans that we have not eliminated racism. The harder question is, what do we do about it?

This morning, several members of Oglethorpe Presbyterian have answered that question by choosing to worship at First Congregational. Like Emanuel AME in Charleston, First Congregational is an old, historically black church in the downtown of a major Southern city.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a symbolic gesture – but it is something. Here at Oglethorpe, we can, and will, pray for the victims and the perpetrator in Charleston. We can, and will, pray for the church on Earth to look a little bit more like the kingdom of heaven. And yet, when we can still talk about black churches and majority white churches, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.

So what do we do?

There is, I think, in our culture, a desire for the quick fix. There must be something we can do immediately to make everything OK. Prayer vigils and marches and demonstrations have been taking place all over the country, a sign of our hunger for a timely response. And that is all good. And yet, the truth is that solutions to deep-seeded problems take patient diligence for the long haul. So, let’s get started.

Think about your friendships. How many of your friends are unlike you? I don’t mean the cousin that votes Republican while you vote Democrat. I mean really unlike you? Different in politics, race, religion, sexuality, age, economics, and so on? Have you, in your own life, sought to cultivate such relationships? Because in the end, that’s really the only way that we can build the kingdom of God, is if we do it together.

God’s desires are not fulfilled when we exist in our own little silos or ghettoes, segmented off in our echo chambers of self-congratulation. God’s desires come into being when the things we thought we knew about the way the world works are challenged and strengthened because we are with those unlike us who are no less or more created in the image of God.

Can you think of someone with whom you can cultivate a sustained relationship of difference? I’m not talking about one-stop cultural tourism; although, if that’s all you’ve got, it’s at least a place to begin. And if you don’t even have that, then spend some time thinking about why not.

Is there a neighbor you’ve failed to meet or welcome? Or a colleague at work you haven’t invited to lunch? What about your activities? Are they all within the circle of sameness? What would it look like to break out, to reach out, to get out of that cycle? Where are the possibilities for making that happen?

If any of this rubs you wrong or overwhelms you at the mere thought, then good. Faith is rarely about doing what comes easy to us. Instead, this kind of culture shock can be the most faithful thing we do. It can be disorienting, but that’s because it points us toward reorientation, shifting us toward God’s vision.

I remember the first time I attended a Greek Orthodox liturgy. I was utterly lost. I had experienced a variety of Protestant and Catholic services, and knew generally what to expect. But none of them had prepared me for the culture shock of Orthodoxy. Fortunately, I had several friends who were patiently willing to explain it to me. And there was one piece in particular that moves me to my core.

As the priest prepares the chalice for communion, he takes a large loaf of bread. A stamp has been pushed into the soft dough, filling the baked bread with symbolism. The priest takes pieces of this loaf, cutting them one by one, placing them into the chalice. First come pieces representing our ancestors in faith. Then come pieces for the prophets, the angels, the saints of the church. And then come the prayers of the people: their joys and concerns, each offered up as a piece of bread, dropped into the chalice of wine, and mixed together.

It is out of this chalice that the people receive the bread and wine. It is as though their prayers, their joys and triumphs, their concerns and defeats, become one with those of the whole history of salvation, culminating in Christ himself. And right there, stamped into the same bread, is this statement of faith: Jesus Christ is victory; Jesus Christ is victory; Jesus Christ is victory. Just as Christ carries our burdens, giving us the victory over adversity we so desire, so we, too, share in one another’s burdens. After all, when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

Friends, this life of faith is not the easy path. The good news, though, is that we do not travel it alone. It is all about doing it together, with Jesus at the center of all that we do.

The table stands at the center of our worship, because it belongs to Jesus. And when we are around this table, as God’s people, looking into one another’s eyes, we begin to see glimpses of what God desires.

We haven’t said much about it today, but the word around which we gather is “communion”. It simply means together…as one. And that is what this feast is. It is a feast much larger than this table could ever hold. It is a feast that bridges all of those gaps that divide our world and our society. And in doing so, the hope, the outlandish but realistic hope, is that our glance around this table would open our eyes to all of God’s glorious children.



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Mural by Sulaiman Mansour, Christmas Lutheran Church and International Centre in Bethlehem, Palestine.

The table is prepared. Let us keep the feast.

For almost ten years, Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church has had a fluid communion schedule. Rather than holding communion once a month as some congregations do, or having it once a quarter which is the bare minimum Presbyterian congregations are charged to uphold, we have followed the church calendar, celebrating communion on particular feast days. This includes Easter and Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, among others. It has become a way for us to mark the church year by heightening these particular days with a shared feast.

This morning, we begin a new worship series that carries through the end of July. And during that time, we will celebrate communion every Sunday. While worship is at 10am in June and July, whether we are here in the Sanctuary or over in the Chapel, we will gather around this table and celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

The hope in all of this is that each of us would grow in our understanding of this feast materially and spiritually; how it feeds us materially and spiritually; and how it knits us together as God’s people, so that we would be people of the feast, wherever we go.

As we say often, the table is prepared. Let us keep the feast.

For many of us, gathering around the table reminds us of our own experiences with communion. I am aware that we come from varied backgrounds: high church, low church, no church, and everything in between. Whether it’s processing forward, or kneeling to receive the elements, or having communion served to you on trays, or gathering to sit around a shared table, or no memory or experience at all, I am sure that a wide variety of experience is reflected in our shared history.

When I was a child, the church we attended did not allow children to receive communion until we had taken a special class. And so, on those once a quarter Sundays, seated between my grandparents, I remember the plates and trays being passed over my head, with their untouchable bite-size pieces of bread and little cups of grape juice. My grandmother, never one for playing by the rules, would pass the plastic cup to me after she had finished so that I could taste the little bit of sweet juice that still swirled around the bottom.

One Sunday, a large group of us gathered in Fellowship Hall where the Senior Pastor led us through the meaning of communion. The one thing that stuck that day was his suggestion that we pray after receiving each of the elements. And after that, we were approved to receive. I remember, after eating the bread and drinking the cup, that I would clench my eyes firmly shut, because that meant I was praying hard – really, really hard. What communion meant, in theological terms, was not something I grasped in the least. And yet, it expanded on the simple meaning implied by my grandmother, passing on that taste of juice: I was included.

Since then, I have experienced communion in a variety of ways. In Episcopal churches, Methodist, congregational, Vineyard, non-denominational, high church, low church. I have even received communion in churches where I should have been forbidden from the table, always by the gracious invitation of someone who valued welcome over doctrine.

I have knelt to drink from a shared cup of wine. I have had a wafer gently placed on my tongue. I have sat around a single table, as we passed elements to one another: “This is the body of Christ; this is the blood of Christ.” I have had a mix of bread and wine spooned into my mouth. And I am pretty sure that I have had crackers smeared with grape jelly. In all of it, what I have learned is something that I never would have known as a child. While I had been raised to assume that there was only one way to do communion, I had, instead, been exposed to simply one way among many; and that it had simply connected me to this remarkable feast in all of its varied expressions.

I do not consider these practices equal, by any means – at least, not to me. And it is now the element of extravagant welcome that I cherish the most. This, much more than any debate over consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation, is what I think this feast is ultimately all about. The bottom line is that the communion table should be a reflection of the tables around which Jesus gathered in his lifetime. Christ sat with people who pushed the boundaries of acceptable first century culture: the sick, the poor, the despised, the marginalized, the hated. He even broke bread with Judas, the one who would ultimately betray him, fully knowing what was to come.

The idea that we could or should set barriers to this table, that there should be hurdles or obstacles, that it should be marked off with barricades and velvet ropes, is something I cannot reconcile with Jesus. That is why we have both juice and wine here, recognizing that there are those for whom alcohol is not a drink of celebration, but a mark of addiction. It is why we have incorporated bread without gluten, because there are those with not only allergies, but debilitating illnesses brought about by wheat. It is why we welcome infants, children, and adults alike here, because ultimately, no matter how much we think we might have learned about the meaning of communion, the most important lesson is that is Jesus who welcomes us, who chooses us to be his guest.

For Presbyterians, our governance requires that a person be baptized before receiving communion. We do not specify the kind or denomination or age, but simply that there have been a baptism. Maybe I’ve got too much of my grandmother in me, but I’m not sure even that requirement holds up to theological or Biblical scrutiny. It is not the Presbyterian Church, or Oglethorpe, or the Pastor that welcomes us to the table. It is Jesus. And I am hard-pressed to remember a meal where Jesus waited to pass the bread until he had verified the baptismal status of all in attendance.

The kind of welcome that Jesus embodies, the radical inclusion of Christ’s table, is at work in the Psalm we read this morning. It is God alone who is seated on high, looking down on heaven and earth alike. It is God who lifts up the poor from the dust, the needy from the refuse, and seats them with the rulers of God’s people. It would be one thing to read this as beautiful poetry, as elegant verse pointing to a heavenly perfection of equality before God. It’s another thing to live this out, to practice this in time and space.

As a child of the Scriptures, Jesus took the meaning of this Psalm to heart. In it, and throughout Scripture, he learned that there was no division among God’s children, that there should be no hierarchy at God’s table. Instead, Jesus took these words seriously to make space for all. And this hospitality threatened the powers that be, those who had a stake in the religious status quo of the day.

With all of the meanings we might bring to this table, I think this is what it is meant to be: a place where we meet on equal footing, where the dusty and refused are made clean and welcome, where the rulers sit, stand, and kneel next to the ruled, where none is considered greater than another in the eyes and economy of God.

If that is how we come to the table, we lay claim to the world as God desires it – not as we would have it be. If we do this, we might become a challenge – even a threat – to the status quo. And I don’t care what your politics are: none of us accepts that the world is perfect the way it is. We may disagree about how it is that we got here in the first place or how we get out of it in the end. What unites us, though, should be our desire to forge this space to welcome the breadth and depth of God’s beloved children. This should a table of righteousness, a table of justice, a table of peace, a table of grace. When that happens, we become people of the feast. And so fed, we feed others wherever we go, extending Christ’s table to the ends of the earth.

My prayer for us, for our summer practice, is that we will reflect on our own memories of the table. And in doing so, that we will be both enriched and stretched as we encounter faithful ways of knowing God and God’s mercy.


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“It’s not so much what we have in this life that matters. It’s what we do with what we have. The alphabet is fine, but it’s what we do with it that matters the most: making words like ‘friend’ and ‘love’. That’s what really matters.”

The words of that great Presbyterian theologian Mr. Rogers: it’s not what we have, but what we do with what we have.

Many of you are aware that Mr. Rogers was, in fact, the Rev. Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister. And his particular ministry was his television program, his gift to the world, teaching young children that they are special “just the way they are”, which may be the best definition of unconditional love that ever existed.

These words about sharing follow in the echoes of many Biblical stories and texts, including our lesson this morning.

This story of Elisha and Naaman illustrates God’s expansive and ever-expanding love. Grace and healing cannot be confined by national boundaries or military front lines, by tribal barriers or religious practices. Instead, God’s surprise is one of outrageous, generous mercy.

In our lesson, the nation of Aram is a mighty one. They roughly cover the same territory as the area around modern-day Damascus. One of their great generals, Naaman, is afflicted with some terrible skin condition. It may or may not be leprosy as our translation related, but the point is that it is both unsightly and painful. Aram is at war with ancient Israel, and one of their raiding parties ends up capturing a young girl who then becomes a servant to the general’s wife.

However, there are times when God transforms something intended for ill into something gracious. Through the young Israelite girl, Naaman learns about a powerful prophet acrtoss the border who might hold the key to his healing.

Surprisingly, the Aramean king sends a diplomatic letter to the Israelite king asking for Naaman to meet with Elisha.

The Israelite king suspects trickery at work – a kind of Trojan Leper. But Elisha welcomes the general, the enemy of his people, as an opportunity to reveal God’s glory.

As Naaman approaches Elisha’s home, the whole story almost comes off the rails as Elisha sends out a servant rather than welcoming the general personally. Naaman is outraged, and his own national pride kicks in. That pitiful little Jordan River is nothing compared to our rivers back in Aram!

Then Naaman’s servants prevail on him to give it a shot. “Why not?” they reason. “He’s not asking a lot. It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?” He does, and is cleansed. To God be the final, ultimate glory!

Do we get what an unusual story this is? Much of the Hebrew Bible spends time convincing us of the rightness of the God of the Israelites. And it does so by recounting victory after victory after victory over enemy nations. And when Babylon defeats Israel and takes the people captive, the lesson still underscores the same idea: God was so fed up with Israel’s wandering ways that God decided to give Babylon the victory. God is God, ruling by might and power and victory.

Here, the story goes out of its way to illustrate God’s power not through military victory, but through sharing God’s healing power with a feared enemy.

How willing are we to share?

That’s the root message of Stewardship Season, isn’t it? That it’s not about what we have, but what we do with it? As a church, we can only exist to serve because of the fact that we, as a community, share. We pool our resources and serve the broader community through our sharing and giving and serving.

I have to admit that, though I grew up in church, it wasn’t until I was grown that this whole notion finally hit home to me. I have told the story many times before that I was of the school that would drop a few bucks in the plate when it passed. When Elizabeth and I made the decision to tithe, we did so as a mathematical formula: we added up our income, divided by ten, and gave that away.

We did this when we were graduate students living off of loans and working a series of part-time jobs. We did this when we were DINKs (that’s double income, no kids). We did it when we were missionaries overseas. We did it when we returned and became a one-income family with small children. We do it now with two full-time jobs and two school age children. And we try to instill the same practice in them.

While the percentage has remained roughly the same, the amount has fluctuated wildly through the years. The only thing that has remained constant is the intention and practice.

Look: I know it’s dicey business when the pastor starts talking about money. Whenever I do, I can always count on a few of you to let me know. It can be especially odd when the pastor starts talking about his own money. I’ll be honest with you: I’m OK with making us squirm from time to time. That’s part of what I’m supposed to do. And if we truly believe that God is in charge of all of this, that also means God is in charge of our money.

Above all, though, I mainly want to encourage each of you to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider what it is that you give. And if I only get one thing across to you today, let it be this: I want you to consider these two questions:

What do you give? What are you willing to share? And how is it that you go about making that decision?

If you can already answer these questions, that’s great. If not, then I would suggest you consider doing this before Stewardship Dedication Sunday on November 16. Calculate your income; calculate your charitable giving; and then figure out what percentage you are currently giving away.

We are together in our sharing.

When Elisha decides to share God’s healing power with Naaman, he does so despite his King’s assumption of treachery. It is not Elisha’s own glory he’s interested in; he doesn’t even leave the house. Nor is it the glory of Israel. No doubt he knows how the Jordan River compares to Aram’s own rivers. He invites Naaman into this healing because he knows that God’s power will be revealed.

But when Naaman is met not by the prophet but by one of his servants, he is furious. He has made this incredible effort to come all this way. He has stooped to cross into enemy territory. He deserves to be met by this Man of God. Instead, Elisha passes a note. “Do you want to be healed? Check one: yes; no.” Shouldn’t a man as great as Naaman be received with all of the greatness his status and standing require?

Friends: we share what we share not for our own sake. We don’t even share what we share for Oglethorpe Presbyterian’s sake. We share what we share for God’s sake. We know that God is generous. And our desire should be to become conduits of generosity, so that it flows from God, through us, and out into the world.

After all, it’s not what you have that matters, but what you do with it.

This past week I learned that several families who are members of other churches give to Oglethorpe Presbyterian financially, week in and week out. Some of them have historic connections to us; but others have a relatively tenuous relationship. And yet, they give.

I was particularly stunned when I learned that a couple of these families are members of Buckhead Church, where Andy Stanley preaches.

It turns out that, a while back, Andy had challenged his congregation to tithe – that is, to give a straight up 10% of their income away. And, he went on to say, don’t give it to Buckhead Church. Several of these families took this to heart. And knowing Oglethorpe, they decided to share that tithe through us.

I don’t want to go so far as to suggest that Buckhead is Naaman to our Elisha, or the other way around. I don’t think that’s the point here. Instead, this story underscores the message of generosity about as clearly as I can imagine: it’s not what you have that matters, but what you do with it. And it’s not as important where you give, but that you give, and do so intentionally.

Every year, we ask you to prayerfully consider your pledge. This year, I ask you to consider your pledge both prayerfully and thoughtfully.


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Did you ever wonder how to be perfect? It’s pretty straightforward, actually. All you have to do is follow all six of these rules that are laid out by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, no hotheaded words, lust, hatred, and, as the passage concludes, you will be perfect.

Now I don’t know about you, but I need to hear some good news! This passage from the fifth chapter of Matthew is known conventionally as “the Antitheses.” It was first named, best guess that we have, by an early Christian named Marcion, after whom we also named one of the earliest Christian heresies. It was Marcion’s goal to purge the Bible of all that was Jewish about it. He cut out the Old Testament right off the bat, and then he put out a revised version of what he thought was the original words of the New Testament. Obviously, his history classes weren’t very good, because he left Jesus and Paul in there. The Marcionite heresy has reared its head again and again, most horrifically in Nazi Germany, when the German church attempted to do the same thing – to purge the Bible of all that was Jewish, while the German state attempted to purge the world of all that was Jewish.

At the core of Marcion’s idea was to decide, based upon his assumptions, what the canon within the canon was, what the Bible within the Bible was. And thus the heresy. He called these the antitheses because of his version of verse seventeen. Our version reads: Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets.” Marcion’s Jewish-free version reads: “I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” And so, each of these antitheses to Marcion rendered null and void the Jewish law and replaced it with a better, purer, Christian law.

Well, I have news. These are not antitheses. Jesus is not annulling the earlier version. What we have here are six laws, some of them from the Old Testament, some from other places in Hebrew scripture, some simply accepted as widely regarded teaching, and some are from the Ten Commandments. These are the six laws after which Jesus says, “But I say to you . . .” and replaces it. But he doesn’t replace it, he takes each of these to a different, deeper level. In some ways it’s like he is raising the bar. Like the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote that the law that had been inscribed on the tablets would be inscribed on our hearts. Or the apostle Paul writing about the rule of circumcision saying that the important circumcision is not of the flesh, it is the circumcision of the heart. So Jesus gives the root, placing these very public offenses into a very private, heartfelt place. Let’s go through them one by one.

The first one is murder, as in, “thou shalt not commit.” At its root, we learn from Jesus saying, “But I say to you . . .” that murder is a denial, or a devaluation, of the other. Anyone who calls another a fool or who calls one a raca, in Greek – in English the best translation is “empty head” – is just as condemnable for their mockery and for their abuse.

Second is adultery. At its root is this lust that objectifies one and destroys many. Divorce is third. We’ll come back to divorce. Not because we should skip it, because to do so would create our own form of a Marcionite heresy. But because while the rest of these are, in some sense, very private, divorce is quite public. We need more time to digest that one.

Fourth. Bearing false witness. Again, as in “thou shalt not.” At the heart of bearing false witness, we see from Jesus, that swearing by things in God’s creation aren’t ours to swear by. You do not swear by the heavens for it is God’s throne; you do not swear by the earth for it is God’s foot stool. It isn’t ours to promise. The only thing that is ours to promise is a simple yes or a simple no.

Fifth is retaliation. Eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Now we need to understand what came before this ancient Jewish law was this understanding in the Ancient Near East and the culture that surrounded Israel that it was a brother for my eye, and a village for my tooth. It was all out and out destruction. And so this Jewish law, brings it to a new level of restraint. Jesus takes it one step further. Because he reveals its heart by letting us know that the turning of cheeks is a witness first and foremost to the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” except we are to do unto others after they have already done to us.

And so the same goes for the sixth: loving enemies. Take the upper hand. Establish a new law; the one that is written on your heart, with the one who despises you.

Now we go back to divorce. We take a little more time with it not because it’s worse, but because we are tempted to skip right over it. First of all, it is a public event. I am aware that in this community we have members who serve this church faithfully and well, who are divorced. That being said, I am also aware that we have members who fall short somewhere between five and five of the other five. An afternoon commute on the Downtown Connector will take care of four right there. Divorce, at its root, is the breaking of a public vow. It happens, and it will continue to happen, as long as we remain a broken, imperfect people.

I share a story with permission from a friend of mine, who’s a pastor that I went to divinity school with. He was talking about his recent divorce. We talked about it in the context of this Sermon on the Mount. He said, “You know, I know that the divorce was the right thing. Marriage is a human institution, not a sacrament, and at best, it’s imperfect and we enter into for all kinds of the wrong reasons. But at the same time, I also knew that I had made a promise in front of all of those people, and I said ‘until death do we part.’ And to break that vow showed my weakness. It showed my imperfection and it reminded me that I, too, need God’s grace.” And so it goes for the other five. Divorce is no better or worse than refusing to give up all your clothing to someone who asks you for your coat.

It is our failure to comply, our inability to follow through with these steps towards achieving perfection – and I’m pretty confident that none of us have complied with all of these rules – that demonstrates our own imperfection. We are imperfect. As we read the last verse of that passage where Jesus says, “You will be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” it takes us in two directions.

The first is the first half of that – “you will be perfect” – because it leaves us in that wonderfully Protestant place, knowing that we have done everything in our power to achieve perfection on our own, and we have failed, leaving us broken, repentant. This is the good news that Marcion and his heresy so desperately wanted to change. Jesus says, in the passage that precedes these verses, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And so these six steps to perfection have been fulfilled by the very one who outlined them in the first place. And so the good news is that we have failed. We are not God. Praise God! That’s one point.

But there’s another point at work here. Because there’s something in us that wants to respond to this anyway. There’s something in us that calls to us with this desire to live better lives. To try and stitch together an ethic out of all of this that hears that law written on our hearts and responds with our lives. At different times and in different places, we can think of examples of Christians who have done this. Turning the other cheek became a way of life for Martin Luther King and others who preached non-violence; it also became a way of death.

I remember an interview on a panel, where the topic was: what do you do when someone asks you for money on the streets. There were a variety of responses from a variety of folks – pastors, economists, ethicists. The one response I remember came from former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who just passed away this week.

The interviewer asked him, “What would you do if someone came up to you and asked you for money?”

He said, “I’d give it to them if I had it.”


He said, “Yes, everyone, because I’m commanded to do so by my faith.”

Now there are certain groups within the Christian tradition who owe their roots to the Anabaptist tradition, who refuse to swear in court, because their yes and their no should be good enough. I remember my grandfather, who remembered very little of the Bible, but he could quote verse 22 from Matthew 5, by heart. That was the worst sin of all in his mind, to call another person a “fool,” and I remember being pulled aside and corrected.

There’s something in this that calls us to a higher standard, something that is placed on our hearts. There’s something that we are responding to. It seems that at the root of all of this, is the value that is emphasized in section number six. Love. Unconditional, agape, love. It is this love that is meant to replace anger and heated words. It is unconditional love that should stand where lust, erotic love, stands. Broken promises and falsehood should give way to this love. As should violence, greed, and hatred. We are called to be creatures of love, because we are called to be in relationship with one another in a particular way. Each of these six rules are about relationships. We are, before we are anything – husband and wife, neighbor, enemy, member, elder, deacon, pastor, friend – before all of these relationships, we are brothers and sisters. Because, first and foremost, we are children of God.

And that, too, is good news, because when we look at the second half of that final verse, the one that calls us to perfection and leads us to a place where we know that we fall short, the second half reminds us that we have a perfect heavenly parent. Ours is a god who is perfect, who created us, by virtue of our very being, by carving the law on our very hearts, by calling us salt and light – created us for good works. We are called to good works, rooted in that love, that unconditional love, that strives to undergird everything that we do. But above all, we have a perfect heavenly parent whose grace, despite our every failing and stumbling, surrounds us with good news. We have a perfect heavenly parent whose love, despite our every imperfection, is perfectly unconditional.

How can we be perfect? We can’t. And that’s good news. Because then we have no choice but to trust that God is guiding us, strengthening us, gracing us, surrounding us, loving us, forgiving us. And that’s as close to perfect as it gets.


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Are you thirsty?

Most of us here are probably fortunate enough not to have experienced parching thirst, that desert, no water around for miles, tongue swelling kind of thirst. I have had times when I’ve been thirsty, sure: dehydration headaches, which are always self-inflicted, and never for a lack of access to water. And I remember as a kid, coming in after running around outside, panting, trying to catch my breath while I sucked down a glass of water. But thirst? Body draining, mind numbing, soul sapping thirst? Fortunately not…

To live in a time and place of relative comfort can make it difficult to connect with the lessons of Scripture. It can be hard to get into the mindset of the original audiences of these texts. When we read Isaiah’s words of comfort, of God’s constant presence, they might have meaning for us, but probably not in the same physical way that they did to the people who first heard them. Their nation had been assaulted on all sides, ultimately defeated, and they are being taken into exile. They will be dragged across rivers and deserts, from their homes in Israel and Judah and off into foreign Babylon.

Now, let’s remember: the promises that came to Abraham and his descendants were about a homeland. When the people were in captivity, it was to that place that Moses led them. Lowly David had risen to be king, united their northern and southern kingdoms into a formidable nation, and had elevated a new capital in Jerusalem. This land was to be theirs, a sign of God’s covenant with them. And now they are being taken from it?

It does not take a leap of the imagination to understand why people might lose faith in the face of such dispossession, convinced that this is God’s judgment against them. And let’s not water it down: the prophets make it clear that their captivity is a direct result of going astray. Their relative comfort has made them soft. They have taken their blessings for granted. They don’t live in a way that befits God’s people. In short, they may have never known thirst, but they will soon be parched.

All of this is merely the backdrop for our lesson this morning from Isaiah, which was meant for those about to be taken into exile. And what is so striking about it is that Isaiah goes to pains to let them know that their defeat and exile is not evidence of God’s desertion. Instead, it is a time to be reminded of God’s abiding presence that goes far beyond any national aspirations or boundaries. Yes, they will be marched across rivers; but, “I will be with you,” God says. And yes, they will be driven across deserts, as though walking through fire; but, “you will not be burned,” God says.

Nations will rise and fall…fortunes will come and go…there will be feast, and there will be famine…but come what may, the presence of the living God will always endure.

I don’t know if any of this connects with you today. I don’t know if you’re feeling more thirsty or sated in your life these days. We are wrapping up a very successful capital campaign here at OPC, one that has generated an amazing response of your gifts, your time, and your energy. We have just come through the Christmas season as well, with its own emotional touchstones. We have turned the calendar on a new year, having defied the odds and avoided yet another predicted apocalypse. It is an exciting time, a good time, a time for celebration…and yet, I know all too well how quickly these kinds of successes can fade. Family tragedies enter the picture. National grief breaks our hearts. The future becomes unclear. There is illness, there is pain, there is disruption. Life, in short, is messy.

There are many ways in which the life of faith is told most clearly in our baptism. A few of you were old enough to remember being baptized, and I’m willing to bet that it was a spiritual high point for you. And yet, that peak eventually fades into the distance. Or maybe you were too young to remember it for yourselves, but your parents remembered it for you; it was their own height, an emotional moment frozen in time. And that, too, eventually drifts away. Life in Christ is rarely one peak after another; in fact, life itself is never that. There are valleys, there are pits, there are stray paths and there are aimless wanderings.

In short, we may not know physical thirst, but I am willing to bet that each one of us knows it spiritually. Maybe you feel this way now. There are times when we are simply going through the motions. We pass the peace because the bulletin says to. We come to Sunday School because we always have. We pledge and give because the announcements let us know that it is time to do so. We serve because our names are in the schedule. There are times we do this when doubt is stronger than faith. There are times we do this when it seems that evil has the upper hand. There are times we do this when we are worn out, wrung dry, numb…

The paradox, though, is that these moments can be gifts. They can serve as reminders not to take what we have for granted. They can connect us, even if momentarily, with those ancient exiles stuck in deserts of wandering. They can help us remember those who are constantly in need, dedicating ourselves to making the world a better place, for their sake, as well as for God’s. And they can nudge us into places of thirst, where we can choose hope over fear that our cup will, again, overflow…maybe not yet, but it will.

These are the moments, I believe, when we can gain strength from the fact that even Jesus needed such reminders. Even he needed to be baptized, for the waters to wash him clean after weeks in the desert. Even he needed the skies to split open, and for the light to shine upon him again. Even he needed for the voice to descend, to tell him that he was loved, and that God was pleased.

When we come to the table today, I invite you to come as parched souls, thirsting not simply for the water that sustains physical life, but for living water that sustains our very being. Take your time; don’t hurry. Pause as you take the bread and the cup, letting it fill you like never before.

And when you leave today, do the same when you reach the font that stands at the entrance. Touch your fingers to the water. Dip your hand in. Let it drip from your forehead and run down your arm. Feel the waters washing everything else away. And when this feeling fades, do it again, and again, and again, until your cup overflows with life-giving grace, extending from your very essence and out into a dry and weary world!


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Grace is a dangerous thing.

At first glance, these two lessons this morning seem to be polar opposites of each other. On the one hand, we have the prophet Moses, descending from Mount Sinai, setting in stone the laws of God, the famous Ten Commandments. And then, centuries later, we have the Apostle Paul not only proclaiming his freedom from these laws, but how he has come to consider them garbage, rubbish, trash, or as one translation puts it rather un-poetically, “dog dung.”

So which is it? Should we be putting these on the courthouse lawns? Or should we be tying them up in little baggies?

There is a temptation to say that one story is about the Old Testament God, and the other the New Testament God, but that feels too much like a shortcut, an easy way out.

So let’s start with Moses and the people. Remember what has just happened to them: slaves in Egypt, they cried out for deliverance. God sent Moses and Aaron, visited plagues on the Egyptians, parted the seas, destroyed their enemies, and made food and water appear out of thin air. So far, this relationship seems pretty one-sided.

And so, as they return to Mt. Sinai (or Mt. Horeb as it is also known), Moses has a confab with God and returns to deliver the news we read this morning. Are you tempted to follow other gods? Or have you been contemplating a little murder or adultery or coveting? Don’t even think about it! There are new laws on the books, a new sheriff in town.

But there’s a subtle distinction at work here, one that requires us to go back in time. This wilderness encounter is known as the Sinai Covenant. Apparently, that didn’t test well with audiences, so we remember it as the Ten Commandments. It may not seem like an important point, but it’s a crucial difference. Commandments are one-way; Covenants, two.

In short, God’s message is this: “I will continue to do these things for you, protecting you, providing in the desert, leading you on your way into the land of promise. And these are the things that you will do to keep up your end of the bargain, to show your faithfulness.”

We could call it a contract, but to our ears, contracts are “if-then” clauses: if one party doesn’t keep up their end of the bargain, the other doesn’t have to, either. The covenant of the ancient Near East was more like a treaty. The stronger nation conquers the weaker tribe. And because the weaker party will pay tribute – through money and crops and laborers – then the stronger party will be obliged to protect. In this example, God is the conqueror; the people, the defeated ones.

Feel better now? God has won, and we’ve lost. God is the Harlem Globe Trotters, and we are the Washington Generals. Thanks be to God?

This still seems contrary to the picture Paul painted. Paul talked about casting this covenant into the circular file, because it had become an obstacle to him knowing and embracing Christ. There’s no sense of being defeated at all…is there?

Gene March is the professor emeritus of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. For him, the scene from Exodus is all about awe. It’s about having a sense of the divine as “mysterious” and “somewhat threatening.”

March notes that it is particularly hard for us in our culture to connect with this image of God. He writes, “few people today…have a strong sense of what ‘holiness’ means or why being in the presence of God might be considered dangerous. The otherness of God has given way to the notions of God as a buddy or generous grandparent.”

And while some of March’s critique strikes me as though he’s bucking for Andy Rooney’s job, complaining about “kids today with their baggy jeans and comfy God”, I think there’s more than just a kernel of truth in it all. The meaning of the incarnation, the purpose of Christ’s ministry, was to make God’s presence immediate, accessible; but not domesticated.

Jesus, as a friend of mine once wisely said, isn’t Elmo. As we now imagine Jesus, we have wiped the element of danger out of the picture.

But Jesus was dangerous. He healed on the wrong days. He ate supper with the wrong kind of people. He challenged the assumed authority of the religious and political leaders of his day. In fact, he was so dangerous, they knew they had to eliminate him. And he was so dangerous that he didn’t fight; he even had the gall to forgive them as he hung there on the cross!

Grace, it turns out, is a dangerous thing.

And Paul knew this danger first-hand. We first met him as Saul the Pharisee, persecutor of the church. He oversaw the lynching of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, at the hands of an angry mob. From there, he was deputized to go to Damascus and nip this Christianity in the bud. And that’s where the powerful grace of Christ met him face to face.

On the road to Damascus, Saul, as the familiar story goes, was struck blind. The voice of Christ spoke: “Why are you persecuting me?” For three days, he was unable to eat or drink. His companions dutifully led him into the city of Damascus, to the home of a Christian named Ananias. And it is there that the scales fell from his eyes and he was healed.

He responded with zeal, becoming baptized. Saul became Paul, not only an evangelist for Christ, but the apostle to the Gentiles.

Saul, the one who had zealously guarded faith as he understood it, was now Paul, the messenger through whom the doors were blown wide open. The whole world now had access to the powerful grace of God. What Saul once held sacred and knew to be true, Paul now considered utterly worthless. And Paul wanted nothing more now than to be held in Christ’s dangerous embrace.

Moses descends from Mt. Sinai. The scales descend from Saul’s eyes. And in both moments, God’s character becomes clearer. God will be our God. Christ will be our healer. And our place in the covenant is faithful response.

What does this faithfulness mean? Does it look like the rules Moses delivered, written in stone, eternal and irrevocable? Or does it mean risking our lives, as Paul did, for the sake of the gospel?

Well, yes. It means that we have to let go of the things we hold so dear: our nostalgia for the slavery of Egypt, our comfort with a regulated faith.

We have to turn loose our assumptions, our possessions, our identities, our grudges, our loyalties, our criticisms, our hopes, our fears, our self-reliance, our utter dependence, our certainties, our doubts. Let them go. Don’t even think about them.

As in the story of the infant Moses, God invites us to set these things adrift and to trust them to the God we know in Christ. Will they come back? They will, if they’re supposed to. But if they do, they – and we – will be changed, almost unrecognizable.

Our eyes will be opened as if for the first time. We will see the power of God and the mercy of Christ in a brand new way. We will know more fully what a wonderfully dangerous thing grace can be. And we will want, more than anything, to be held in its risky embrace.

What is it that you’re holding onto? What is getting in the way of your relationship with God? What is it that you need to let go of? Are you willing to chance it?


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How much is enough?

For the next few weeks, we are following the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. And as we do, we are contemplating what this story has to teach us about what it means to live in the wilderness – both life itself, with its complicated imperfections, and our own contorted character, with its temptations and stumblings.

When we set out on an exploration like this, our culture tends to nudge us toward individualism: what does this lesson have to say to me and me alone? I don’t think that’s completely off course, however; we do have considerable agency and choice as individuals.

But we can never lose sight of the bigger question: what does this lesson have to say to us as a community? After all, last week the entire nation of the Israelites crossed theRed Sea on dry ground. Some of them may have been the nicest people you’d ever meet; and some of them probably wouldn’t get invited to your wedding. Even so, God saved them as a community, as a people; not as a righteous and self-righteous subset.

And that’s what makes today’s text particularly galling in some ways. Last week, we read how the people have been freed from slavery, have crossed the Sea as walls of water stood on either side, watched as their pursuers were wiped out.

The interlude between last week and this week contains a little celebratory dance, three days walk in the desert, and the transformation of bitter sludge to potable water.

With all they’ve been through in this short time, how in the world can they stand there now and complain? “We had it great back inEgypt,” they say; “Sure, we were slaves, but we ate until our bellies were swollen! Now we’re in the desert for God knows how long, and your plan seems to be to wipe us all out with hunger!”

It reminds me of the story of the man standing in line at the post office when a gentleman approached him and said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but would you mind writing a letter for me? This weather is so bad that my arthritis is acting up.”

“Sure thing,” replied the other. And as the one dictated, the other dutifully transcribed it into letter form, signing the man’s name, and addressing the envelope as well. When he finished, he said, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

After a pause, the man said, “Yes, now that you mention it. Could you please add, ‘P.S. Sorry for the sloppy handwriting?’”

Does this feel familiar, perhaps uncomfortably so? Do we ever find ourselves forgetting the multitude of blessings we have received in the past, only to complain about the one that’s not in front of us at the moment? Are we at all like the ancient Israelites, complaining of hunger when two weeks ago we couldn’t have dreamed of the freedom we now take for granted?

Now let’s be fair: food is necessary. We might have an issue with their complaining, but we can’t be too upset with the fact of their hunger and the need to address it. The desert may be better than slavery in Egypt; but when you get that craving for waffle fries, it’s awfully hard to find a Chik-fil-A.

All of which brings us to the quails and the manna. In the evening, the Israelites ate meat; and in the morning, they ate the bread they baked from this miracle substance, a mysterious stuff that got its name from the question it prompted in the Israelites: “Man hu? What is this?”

Now as the story continues beyond today’s reading, we learn that on Fridays, there was twice as much, so that the people could hold some over for the Sabbath. And we also learn that some tried to hoard, but any extra they kept spoiled over night, leaving them as empty-handed as everyone else when the morning’s manna supply arrived.

Which returns us to our initial question: how much is enough?

It feels like an odd question to be asking right now. For the first time in a long time, the overall economic growth and prosperity of our nation, which has been so reliable for so long, is suddenly not so certain. And for generations, we have co-existed with a theological and financial cognitive dissonance, storing up resources for the future even when we read about manna, hear Jesus say, “Do not store up treasures on earth,” and thank God for “daily bread”.

I wasn’t sure whether I should speak of our financial situation at OPC this morning, but if Jesus gets to talk about money, then I’m gonna to do it, too.

Seriously, though, I’ll keep it brief. Your finance committee has done an excellent job of keeping you informed of our financial situation and reminding you of our “open book” policy at OPC. When it comes to money, we value transparency above all else.

If you have followed our situation closely this year, you know that at the end of August our expenses were running about $25,000 ahead of income. That’s about 11% of budget. It averages out to about $150 per member, or about $4 per week per person.

And I want to be clear that we are talking about deficit, not debt. We have no debt, and still have a significant cushion in our own storehouses, a little more than $130,000.

How do we, as a church, decide how much is enough?

The Israelites are in the desert. There is nothing there. They need the manna to survive. And the only thing they have to go on is God’s promise that it will come day after day after day. If we play out the comparison here, we’re sitting on a four year stockpile of manna. Is there anything that we can we learn from the Israelites, warts and all?

Maybe it’s that when what we know for certain is in our past, our faith grows stronger out of sheer necessity. Or perhaps we are too susceptible, trusting in what we can see rather than in the reliability of God. Or maybe it’s as simple as recognizing that God’s job is provision, and ours is the gathering.

And before the complaint comes that the story from Exodus is about bread, not money, we read Jesus’ troubling parable of the workers who all got paid a day’s wage, whether they worked from sunrise or just an hour.

We may be a people who like to speak of grace, but the truth is that the two texts this morning run head-first into our constructed meritocracy, where hard work is rewarded and sloth is punished. The truth is: in God’s economy of grace, we all get enough.

Friends, don’t get me wrong: there is no doubt that we are living in economically precarious times. But as we face these days, especially in these early days of political campaigns, I think we can resist being manipulated by fear, as we see this moment as an opportunity for a deepened faith, a chance to re-examine our values in the light of what we know of God’s character and Christ’s mercy.

In other words, when it comes to God’s grace, when we think about the blessings we have received, how much is enough?

If we really believe that God’s grace is unmerited, if we really know that the love that flows from the heart of God really is unconditional, then how can we possibly think of hoarding it for ourselves? The supply of grace can’t be depleted. Sharing it doesn’t mean there’s less of it to go around. It is limitless, boundless, endless.

And unlike most commodities, grace doesn’t come in quantities. There’s no Costco size family pack. Our images of God may be shaped by those dramatic scenes of the Hebrew Bible, parting seas and knocking down city walls; but far more often, the God we know in Jesus Christ works through the subtlest of means. The Canaanite woman desires “crumbs from the table”, which are sufficient to heal her daughter. A widow places two meager coins in the Temple offering, thereby becoming the example of generosity through the generations. A basketful of fish and bread feeds a multitude. A little mud opens a blind man’s eyes.

…mustard seeds…flickers of light…handfuls of water…

How much is enough?


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