Posts Tagged ‘incarnation’

neanderthal-national-geo_front-300x199We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

Our lesson this morning, coming from the end of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, is a curious one. The community to whom he writes is one about whom he clearly has mixed feelings. It is a church he had a strong hand in starting, having spent three years living and teaching among the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus.

His letters are a collection of responses back to them, mostly fueled by reports he hears emanating from the community. In a lot of cases, the reports are of conflict and questioning. Paul writes to them about dietary laws, schisms, baptism, and communion, among other critical issues. Our text addresses questions around, of all things, resurrection.

Since we only have the letters Paul authored and not those he received, it takes some detective work to figure out what exactly he is responding to. In this case, it seems that some are saying that there is no resurrection – in other words, that once you die, that’s it. Paul goes on to say, in quite pointed fashion, that if there is no resurrection, then Christ experienced no resurrection. And if that’s the case, then the only thing faith is good for is the life we live, which Paul says is “futile”, “in vain”, “pointless”. In other words, without resurrection, without the promise of life beyond what we know, the whole faithful enterprise collapses on its own weight.

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

When this congregation was founded in 1949, no one could have anticipated what the world would look like in 2016. Those who helped buy this property and build these buildings did so because they knew that this community at the end of the trolley line needed a Presbyterian church. What worship would look like, what leadership would look like, what ministry needs would look like, what technology would look like…none of that would have been on their radar. I don’t know this for sure, but I would guess that they did not spend a whole lot of time worrying about that, either. They were focused on being faithful to what God was calling them to be.

It was a couple of years ago that we had a worship series focused on the history of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. And the thing that kept arising, again and again, was that the key moments in our collective history were those where the church did its level best to be faithful disciples of Christ in that particular moment. As our vision and mission statement says, “Ours is a story that belongs to God.” And that is where we are expected to root ourselves.

If incarnation has any hold, if Jesus really is the embodiment of God, then that means that God is just as much at work now as God was 67 years ago, or 200 years ago, or 2000 years ago, 14 billion years ago. And if the same is true looking back, then the same is true looking forward.

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

This past Christmas, our family gift was participating in the National Geographic genographic project. The results of our DNA sample came back this week, and we’ve been spending time looking at the results. And in doing so, we were reminded of the incredible sweep of human history.

About 350,000 years ago, the ancestor to our species centered around sub-Saharan Africa, with a branch migrating northwest into West Asia and Europe. These were the Neanderthals. By about 130,000 years ago, our African ancestors were identifiable as Homo sapiens. 60,000 years ago, some of those humans moved north and on into Eurasia, encountering the Neanderthals, where they mated with them and absorbed them into humanity.

The results also go on to identify the various ethnic groups with whom we share DNA, as they also share the incredible story of human migration over time, one that has only become accelerated with the advent of technology. For me, in looking over this research, there is a deep sense of awe. It is one of the ways that I touch holiness, staring into that wonderful abyss of time, recognizing how little we understand of it all. It reminds of how we are, all of us, interconnected, no matter how different we might look, or no matter what those who try to divide us might suggest. For those of us with European or Asian ancestry, or indigenous American roots, we can trace our lineage back across thousands of years of roots in Africa and the Middle East!

That same holy sense of awe I get looking back is also there when I look forward – although, admittedly, with a touch of anxiety. Not knowing what is to come can be fearful, because we are not in control. And here is what faith says to that:

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

This is something critical for us to remember during this awful political season. God is God…no matter what! And it is particularly critical for us as people of faith, and as disciples of Jesus, as those who live within the hope of resurrection.

There are those who would try to domesticate Jesus, to box him in to fit their own agendas – political, economic, theological, national – but Jesus, as that incarnate embodiment of God, is a slippery figure. You can’t trap him or mold him into your own likeness!

This is important for us to note as we read Paul’s words today. This text, along with some others, is one that has given shape to notions of the Rapture, the Second Coming, the Apocalypse, Armageddon, Judgment Day, whatever title you want to give it. Paul writes that we will be instantly changed in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet, when the dead are raised.

Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of two people in a field, one taken and one left. And in Revelation, John writes of the seven seals and the seven angels and the seven plagues. There are other odd descriptions from the prophecy of Daniel and elsewhere. Some have used these texts to cobble together a detailed description of what the last days will be like. Such is the popularity of this practice that it even brought Kirk Cameron and Nicolas Cage together.

But here’s the thing: we do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

You see, all of this talk about the Rapture is a pretty new phenomenon. It wasn’t until American Protestantism arose, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, that this idea of people being plucked out of thin air became popularized, and it really only gaining traction with the publication of Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth in 1970. As you probably notice, there’s a whole lot of church history before then – shoot: even the Beatles predate that.

Besides which, none of that was Paul’s point. The point, instead, is that the future will not be like we expect. And that is good news – indeed, the best news of all. Because it is not in our hands! It is God who holds the future. Thanks be to God!

We live and serve as those through whom God works to bring that future into being, people of the resurrection, of the hope it promises, of the mystery and awe that it brings. Let us live as though it is true.



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How fluent are you in the language of faith?

In today’s lesson, Joshua finds himself at the head of a people who have been through a great deal. In the course of forty years, they have gone from their enslavement in Egypt to victorious warriors about to inhabit land and begin the job of building a stable society. On the one hand, Joshua is leading a people who are marked by PTSD more than anything else. On the other hand, very few of the people Joshua leads are the ones who started the journey with Moses two generations before.

So as he gathers the people at Schechem, the northern city that will become the capital of Samaria, he relates the story of God’s amazing presence in their lives, reminding them that their whole inherited history is one of journey and wandering. He begins with Abraham, living in Ur of the Chaldeans, whom God brought through Canaan. Within a couple of generations, famine drove them into Egypt, and there they found themselves shackled. From there, Moses led them across the Red Sea and into the Transjordan desert. Joshua then reminds them of battles where God made them triumphant, until they have now crossed the Jordan River and stand in the valley between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim.

The truth is that forty years is a long time. Since few of them have lived the events Joshua describes, it’s likely that few of them have heard these stories, let alone know them. And so, Joshua lays it all out for them: in short, God has guided us along this amazing journey. We have picked up bits and pieces of other practices, rituals, gods along the way. It’s time to put them aside and focus on the God who has made all of this possible. In short, Joshua recognizes they have little fluency in the language of faith. It’s time they started to learn how to talk about God.

How fluent are we? How well do we know the language and stories of Scripture? How well are we able to describe our own personal experiences of God at work in our lives, guiding us through incredible journeys, giving us freedom and victory in the places we least expect it? Do we have the vocabulary? Or are we even open to learning in the first place?

My wife Elizabeth has family in Finland. One of their favorite jokes goes like this: What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.

Whether or not that’s literally true, what is true is that most of us, regardless of nationality, learn languages because of necessity. If we suddenly found ourselves in a situation where English was not the international tongue, I’m pretty sure sales of Rosetta Stone would skyrocket.

I remember traveling through France in my twenties knowing no French whatsoever. I knew it would be a challenge to find my way around, and that I wasn’t going to be there long enough to learn functional French. I quickly learned that there were others ways to communicate.

At a train station, I approached the ticket window looking for timetables. I asked the man if he spoke English. Nope. Spanish? No. German? No. He then looked at me with a grin and said, “A little French.” We then found our way around the language barrier, thanks to pen, paper, and miming.

At the next station, I planned to do the same thing, and received the same answers: no English, no Spanish, no German, no grin. When I pulled out my notebook and started writing, the man was clearly frustrated because he thought he would get rid of me. Flustered, he then shouted in perfect English, “The next train to Paris is at 10:00!”

The reality is that it is a risk to cross those boundaries of language, culture, nationality, you name it. It takes an openness to try and, possibly, fail. It takes the willingness to be creative, to try again and again.

What language do we speak? And what language do we need to learn?

The truth is that while language is, in some ways, the most obvious barrier to communication, speaking the same tongue is not a guarantee that we will understand each other. One friend says to another “Got the keys”, to which the other replies, “OK”. It’s not until they’re locked out with no way to get back in that they realize she was asking about the keys, not telling.

Context is everything, and that’s something churches need to understand. We have a massive language barrier in our culture that has nothing to do with Spanish or Mandarin or Arabic or English or Hindi or Swahili. It has to do with the role that faith, that the church, plays in people’s lives. When we speak of God, when we talk about what church and community means, when we lift up the name of Christ, are we even speaking the same language as our neighbors?

Let’s put it this way: if you’re an English speaker living in a place where everyone speaks Portuguese, are you going to continue to speak English because it’s in their best interest, or are you going to learn Portuguese so you can communicate with them? Or to put it into an example from Christian history, are we going to be like the church of the 1300s, speaking Latin when no one else does?

You see, Presbyterians are inheritors of those folks who decided that praying, singing, reading Scripture in languages that people spoke was an important decision to make. It tore the church apart during the Reformation, but it also meant that the life of faith and the stories of Scripture immediately became accessible to whole communities of people who had been shut out before.

And here’s the amazing thing about that moment: it illuminated what was already so unique and important about Christianity in the first place! You see, Christianity has never been about the right language. The written Greek of the New Testament was, itself, already a linguistic mongrel of Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic. It was almost immediately translated into other languages to make it understandable, which is how it ended up in Latin in the first place. And at the heart of it all was the fact that ours is an incarnational faith, one that knows God most intimately in Jesus, the very one who bridges what is inaccessible with what is accessible! If the church is going to remain faithful to that same Jesus, we need to question ourselves constantly as to whether we are putting up barriers, barriers that keep us in, barrier that keep others out.

A few weeks ago, I invited us to try an exercise. Some of you who have followed through have told me what an experience it was. I want to make that same invitation today, as a kind of exercise in openness and fluency. Some time before the end of October, I want you to invite one person to lunch or coffee or a walk, something that will give you a chance to get better acquainted, someone you know but have thought regularly, “I would love to get to know this person better.” The only caveat I would put is that it should not be someone within your church family.

What I want to encourage you to do is to get to know them better. Find out what makes them tick. Find out what matters to them, what is important to them. In short, learn the language of their values. If you’re willing, I would love to hear what you find out – about them, about yourself.

The goal, as I see it, is cultural fluency: learning the language of those who are just outside our door. Because when we do, we’ll stop speaking Latin. Instead, we’ll know, like Joshua, what it is that we need to be reminded of and what it is we have forgotten. As we stand in this place, it is a time to look back on where it is that God has brought us. It is also a time to look around us to remember where it is that we see the Spirit here and now.

And even more than all of this, it is a time to look forward. What we don’t know is what the future will bring. What we need are the tools, the language, to talk about God. And what we do know is that what is to come is known to Christ and Christ alone. And that should be the greatest news of all. After all, Christ is the one who will lead us and carry us forward into Christ’s future.

Are you ready?

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We’re continuing our sermon series today on the marks of Christianity. And we are using Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth as our guide. Last week’s conversation was about how sympathy is a Christian virtue. That was a piece of cake compared to today’s topic.

And so, I have two goals today: first, to convince you that “chameleonic” is a word; and second, to convince you that to be chameleonic is a virtue. At this point in the game, I’d say the odds are stacked against me. But at least it gives us an excuse to talk about how cool chameleons are.

The word “chameleon” is a Greek word meaning, literally, “ground lion”.  They seem to be most famous for being able to change the color of their skin. But contrary to popular belief, they don’t necessarily change colors to match their surroundings. It’s far more complex than that.

Chameleons have a transparent outer layer of skin. The layers underneath are where the pigments are contained. The situations the chameleon faces are what dictate whether or not that pigment is “expressed”, giving way to all sorts of amazing colors and patterns.

What causes them to change colors depends on the species. Many change their color according to mood. In competition over territory or a mate, they may end up with a color pattern signaling their dominant or submissive position. Some change colors in an effort to moderate temperature, staying dark to soak in the heat and turning light to reflect it and stay cool.

When it comes to their defenses, there are some that change colors to match their background and hide from predators, but none that change their color to blend in with any background. Instead, most change their colors in order to fool their predators. Most animals have sight limitations with regard to color, and so chameleons have adapted to know best to exploit these deficiencies.

In short, chameleons are able to adapt to survive. And it is this ability to adapt by which we seem to know them best.

But when it comes to people, we rarely use the word “chameleon” to describe someone in a complimentary way. The implication of someone being chameleonic is that they are fake. They are unreliable, having no true, “authentic” self. We are in the season of politics again, when panderers, flip-floppers, chameleons can actually win our votes, but rarely our respect.

The only time we might describe someone as a chameleon to flatter them is actors. The ability to disappear into a variety of characters is the kind of thing that wins awards. Otherwise, chameleons may be fascinating reptiles, but not something to which we ought to aspire.

And yet, as Paul writes to the church at Corinth, he seems to be advocating for just that sort of thing. Using the more familiar wording of other translations, Paul became a Jew to the Jews; to those under the law, he became as one under the law; to those outside the law, to the weak, and so on. “I became all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.”

Is Paul saying that to be Christian is to have no authentic self, but instead that one must pander endlessly so that anyone with whom we come in contact might be convinced that the way of Christ is the way of truth? Doesn’t that very idea expose the hypocrisy in the approach, using fakery to establish truth? If so then it must not have been that true to begin with.

Chameleonic may be on that border between word and fiction; but it’s certainly not virtuous.

Jesus certainly wasn’t given to such pandering whimsy. We find him at the beginning of the lesson from Mark in a rather mundane moment, visiting the home of one of his new disciples. Quickly the every day scene gives way to the extraordinary, as he cures Peter’s sick mother-in-law. And this miraculous moment builds toward the dramatic, as she…makes supper? Mark seems to have missed an opportunity to move the story forward.

In any case, word soon spreads because the house is filled with sick people seeking similar healings, so much so that Jesus has to get away for a little solitude. Once the disciples track him down, though, he doesn’t give in to popular sentiment and head back to the crowds, like they want him to. Instead, he is ready to chart a different course, going to other villages in the Galilee. Because, when you’re building a movement, the last thing you want to do is something that people might like. “But this is the reason I came,” he says. And it’s impossible to argue with logic like that.

And yet, that seems to be what Jesus does time and time again. He does not seem to be pursuing a strategic agenda, to the constant frustration of the disciples. Instead, he is constantly meeting people where they are: a woman drawing water from a well; a blind man begging by the side of the road; a crowd celebrating at a wedding banquet; a mother-in-law serving dinner to her guests. And in those moments, he brings the unexpected: revealing hidden secrets; healing; turning water into wine. Jesus enters the ordinary and brings about the extraordinary!

Is there a better definition of the gospel? The grand story we say we believe is that ultimate truths like God or hope have something to say about the day to day challenges we face. The incarnation itself, God in Christly human form, takes ordinary human flesh and turns it not only into something extraordinary, but into something other-worldly!

And that, I believe, is Paul was getting at. Connecting with others is absolutely vital. And that’s no less true today than it was in Paul’s day. And the essence of that connection isn’t fraud, or becoming something you’re not. Instead, it’s about awareness of that other person – what it is that drives them, what experiences have led them to this moment in their lives; and in that awareness, listening for the bonds that unite instead of the ones that divide.

We have, with one another, a shared humanity that is greater than any political ideology or national boundary or, dare I say, any theological conviction that we may hold. And it is that shared humanity, our absolute ordinariness, which brings us closest to the Godly reality that surrounds and uplifts and holds us fast. It doesn’t mean that we let go of those things that we believe make us unique. And yet it does mean that we hold them loosely enough that we might be able to recognize what their real weight is. They might not be as important as we they think they are. Because the truth is, we might not be as important as we think we are.

To connect this back to our cold-blooded friends for just a moment, the chameleon isn’t a panderer. It doesn’t change colors because it is pleasing to others. And the adaptation isn’t merely about survival. Instead, they have developed a deeply ingrained awareness about the world around them – their habitat, the temperature, the eyesight ability of other animals. It’s an awareness that runs more than just skin deep.

The truth is that Christianity is the religious equivalent of the chameleon. The habitat in which it takes root, the culture where it makes its home, adds its own color to it. But the heart of it, the bit about ordinary interactions taking on extraordinary consequences, remains the same. Christianity is not bound by denomination, or worship style, or even language. It is an incarnational faith, adapting itself to different times and places, but never losing its ultimate truths of God’s love and mercy and grace and hope.

Friends, God meets us where we are, even in the most ordinary of moments. And when we meet God, we are marked; we are changed forever. And in that process of transformation, we are sent out into the world to meet others where they are. We welcome them as they are. We befriend them unconditionally as Christ befriends us. And in that momentary connection, we give the world a glimpse of the kingdom, the way God desires things to be.

By the way, one more thing about chameleons: the Greek word for ground from which chameleons get their name is also the origin of the word “humility”. Every interaction that we have –those ordinary, chance encounters with others who may or may not be like us in ways that are ultimately superficial – should be aware enough to be marked by humility. And when we are humble, when we are aware that we ourselves are not actually at the center of creation, we open up the possibility that God will work through us. And when that happens, every exchange will be colored by the extraordinary.

May it be so. Amen.

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The pace of technology is mind-boggling. From the dawn of the internet to the introduction of power-packed cellphones and tablet computing devices, the way we interact with each other has changed dramatically in the span of a generation. And like most things, this evolution is a double-edged sword.

Global Positioning Systems on our smartphones have rendered maps, directions, the yellow pages documents of a bygone era. Programs like Skype allow us to video chat for free across continents, a thought that was mere science fiction not that long ago. Platforms like Twitter have even been at work in unseating dictators in the Middle East.

But wait: there’s more!

For the iPhone alone, you can get the following apps:

  • Payphone locator! Have an iPhone? Want to know where the nearest payphone is? Love irony? Then this is the app for you!
  • How about Beer Opener? You can enjoy the experience of opening a virtual beer without the hassle of having to drink it!
  • And my personal favorite: HangTime. This app measures how high you can throw your iPhone. And it only costs 99 cents. Plus the cost of a new iPhone.

For every device that might save us time, there are tons that would love to waste it. When you embrace technology, you have to take the bad along with the good.

We might as well say the same thing about our current sermon series. The basic idea is that, as we face the dawning of a new calendar year, we might consider the ways we might like to start over. And the beautiful thing about our faith is that it constantly gives us the opportunity, no matter the season, to begin again.

Now the title, Ctrl+Alt+Del, is taken from technology. If you own a Windows computer, you have, at some point, had to use this little combination of keys to restart your device. So if you understood the title of the series without the explanation, then you are a fellow lover – and hater – of technology.

Today’s sermon pushes the technological conceit one step further. It’s a play off of the idea of Web 2.0. If you know anything about this concept, then you will know that I understand it only in part. But here goes:

The world wide web began as a one-way communication technology. Sure, you could send emails back and forth, but these were not interactive in the way that, say, a face-to-face or a telephone conversation is. And websites took this approach as well. Websites started as kind of a virtual brochure. For your company or your organization or yourself, they were places you could post information that you wanted the user to know about you: your history, location, telephone number, email address, etc.

In tech circles, this approach is now referred to as Web 1.0 – kind of a rough draft version of the internet.

We have now moved into a phase known as Web 2.0, which has added the interactive component to internet activity. Rather than a model in which the owners produce the content, the reality now is that the user has a great deal of say in how the content is received. It has introduced a level of participation to the internet.

Anyone can start a blog. For free. And anyone can respond to that blog. For free. Anyone can post a video on YouTube. Again, for free. And anyone can respond to that video. For free. If you have a website that is of the 1.0 “information only” model, people will not be interested. You have to open up your site so that people can tell you what they think of your content. And that reaction helps to shape your future content in conscious and subconscious ways.

Another aspect of Web 2.0 is syndication, or the ability to share the content you find. Through social media, like Twitter and Facebook, among a hundred others, you can let other people know what you’re reading, seeing, thinking, engaging, and let them know what you think about it. And they, too, can share that content with others. When a piece of information spreads rapidly, it is said to “go viral” – that is, it has taken on a life of its own and spreads further than the creator of the content could ever have imagined.

At the risk of stretching my metaphor well beyond its breaking point, could it be that the birth of Jesus ushered in a new era of God 2.0?

This may not sit well with some of us. The very reason that we find God to be worthy of trust is that we trust that God is unchanging; that the same God who created the universe is the same God whom we meet in Jesus Christ and is the same God whom we worship here at OPC.

I do believe that this is true. But there is something earth-shattering that happened at the birth of Christ: incarnation…the human embodiment of the divine…God in baby form. As human beings ourselves, our best possible understanding of the nature of God comes through our understanding of the nature of Christ.

In our texts today, we moved from the almost fatalistic quality of Ecclesiastes to the sublime awe of Anna and Simeon. The author of Ecclesiastes lets us know that everything good and bad has its place: birth, death, planting, sowing, crying, laughing, killing, healing, holding on, letting go. And we see all of these things in the life and ministry of Jesus himself.

What springs forth in the lesson from Luke is in the echoes of Ecclesiastes, but in an incredible way. We meet these two characters who fade from the scene as quickly as they arrive. Both have been waiting a lifetime for the promises of their faith to come true: that God would deliver the Messianic goods. Simeon seems to channel the author of Ecclesiastes, saying of Jesus that he “marks the failure and the recovery of many, a figure misunderstood and contradicted…but his rejection will force honesty.” The infant will be a double-edged sword, bringing both division and the possibility of healing to the people.

For Simeon, this is enough. He doesn’t have to see the results. It’s enough for him to know that the child has arrived, that hope is on its way. Anna, too, is stunned by what she experiences. She had been faithfully waiting in the Temple for decades. As soon as Jesus arrives on the scene, she departs – both from the Temple and from our story – to sing God’s praises for the birth of this baby.

God is the same, the alpha and omega, the first and the last. And yet, there is a newness in the form of this infant Messiah. We now have the opportunity to know God more fully than ever before. Rather than dealing with a divine abstract, we now see God as a concrete reality. This is, no question, something new. And if we choose to embrace that concreteness, we must embrace it for the double-edged sword that it is. Christ comes to comfort us in our woes. And Christ comes to heal us, in the fullest possible sense of that word. And part of that healing means the shaking of our assumptions to the core.

How was your 2011? Are you happy to see it in the rear view mirror? Are you ready to start over completely? Or was it, like most years, a year of ups and downs? Are there those moments that you’d like to have another shot at? Then this is your year.

My invitation for all of us for 2012, beginning this week, is simply this: interact with God. Reflect on those places where your faith-life still exists in a 1.0, rough-draft kind of world. God wants your engagement! God wants your participation!


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Acoustic Christmas tends to be a more intimate service. As such, rather than a formal sermon, we watched several brief YouTube videos and had good conversation. The gist of it is this: we tend to domesticate the birth of Christ, when in reality it happened in the real world – a world that contained its fair share of animal poop. Today, we trust that this living, breathing faith is every much as real as it was then.

Merry Christmas.

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