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yihivStay awake.

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

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

Stay awake.

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

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

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

And yet, it was not to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsBefore you point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own.

For several months now, our Biblical lessons have been following the slow, downward spiral of the Israelites. Their kings have failed them. They have ignored the pleas and threats of prophets. They have followed after and sacrificed to almost every single god except their own. Babylon has already come to town, leveled the Temple to the ground, and dragged huge portions of the people off into exile. There, they have withered away, pining for their homeland.

Then along came Cyrus.

Cyrus is my second favorite Biblical person, after Jesus. Ruling over the sprawling Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Now Babylon’s spoils of war were his, including the Israelites. And Cyrus issues a decree throughout his empire permitting the Israelites to return to their ancient kingdom and rebuild their Temple. Not only that, their current neighbors are to give them the supplies they need.

The people return, begin rebuilding the Temple, and though it causes some to mourn for the nostalgia of the way things used to be, it is a day of celebration.

All of this is very much in line with what we know of the Cyrus from history, the documentary 300 notwithstanding. The Persian religion was Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic faith that is one of the oldest in the world. At the time of Cyrus’ death, the Persian Empire extended from Turkey in the West all the way to Afghanistan in the East. What set Cyrus apart, however, was his approach to the conquered peoples under his rule.

As far as empires go, Cyrus’ was quite enlightened. You can get a glimpse of this even in the ruins of the ancient capital Persepolis. Carved into bas relief on the rock are images of the various nations bringing their tributes to the emperor. Great care was taken in these carvings to show the distinctive dress and valuables of the different regions. Cyrus ruled his vast holdings under the assumption that stamping out their individuality was unwise. Rather, he gave them limited autonomy to practice their religions and customs and traditions, which turned out to be in the best interest of the Empire.

Such is the esteem with which Cyrus was held that the Greek word for Lord, Kyrios, is adapted from the name Cyrus. And in the Bible, Cyrus is the only foreigner to bear the title “Messiah” – that is, anointed by God.

Up to this point, the Biblical story of God and God’s people has been a pretty tribal. Sure: there are the notable foreign heroes, like Ruth and Uriah and Nathan and Rahab. But it’s not until Cyrus comes along that there is this explicit notion that God uses instruments beyond the covenanted people.

Before you point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own.

That does seem to be the common thread between the lesson of Cyrus and the Christmas season we await: God chooses the unlikeliest characters to anoint with the spirit. Whether it’s a foreign king who worships a different concept of god or a helpless baby born into a struggling family on the run, those who tend to make God’s desires real are usually not the ones we would choose.

If nothing else, the God we know in Christ is a God of consistent surprise. Jesus’ disciples were a ragtag bunch of misfits and outcasts. Even so, they would often take Jesus to task for hanging out with all of the wrong kinds of people: lepers, Gentiles, women! Even those who knew Jesus best still missed the point. That is why he consistently called them to account, especially when it came to self-righteousness. His parables and wisdom sayings returned to the theme of humility again and again.

Jesus asked the crowds, “How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ when you do not see the log in your own?” In other words, before you go around criticizing someone else’s hypocrisy and shortcomings, take care of yours.

Do we do this? Are we honest about our selves and our values, even when they are hidden from the light of day? Or do we speak about God on the one hand, and behave as though it were all up to us?

Friends, I’m convinced we are at a moment of spiritual crisis in our nation. And that crisis is one of personal and collective self-righteousness we ignore at our own peril. This past week, everybody’s favorite hated narcissistic presidential candidate issued another outrageous statement about a religious litmus test for immigration. At that moment, it became clear that a line had finally been crossed. We vented our collective moral outrage. Politicians across the spectrum came forward with public denouncements. Everyone from Barack Obama to Paul Ryan to Bernie Sanders to Dick Cheney spoke out, each saying some version of, “This is not who we are. America is better than this.”

And this is what we always do at times like this. We distance ourselves from the whackos and the lunatics. We call them things like “whacko” and “lunatic” so that we can dismiss them more easily. We treat them as though they don’t belong, that the rest of society is just fine and decent and just and kind.

But the truth is that we are too busy picking at the speck and ignoring the log.

I don’t think our current national obsession is an aberration – not by a long shot. In 1968, George Wallace was a viable third party candidate, getting almost 15% of the popular vote while running on a platform of segregation. In 1944, nearly two years after we had rounded up more than 60,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry into internment camps, polls showed that 13% of Americans favored utter extermination of the Japanese.

And these were not momentary lapses in judgment. The Indian Removal Act, the Trail of Tears, and the near genocide of Native Americans are part of our history. As are slavery, the Middle Passage, Dred Scott, lynching, Jim Crow…

Before you point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own.

These may not be streams of our history that we want to remember. They are certainly not our finest moments. They may not even represent the core of who we are as a nation or what we value. But there is danger in pretending as though they never happened or, when they do happen, that they are not our collective sin.

I believe the same is true of every community – whether that is the community of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Americans, Chinese, Sudanese, you name it. We require an internal examination of reckoning of the collective sin that leads to brutality, injustice, and terror. And I also know that the first place I can start is at home.

Returning to our morning’s lesson: when Cyrus gives permission to the prophet Ezra to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, there is a danger – one that is right there in the story itself. Those in the crowd who are grieving as the Temple is being rebuilt, because it isn’t what it used to be, are those who are most likely to forget or misremember how it was destroyed in the first place.

The reason Cyrus is necessary in the story at all is that both Israel and Judah forgot the covenant God made with them. They forgot that they had been freed from brutal slavery. They forgot that they had been miraculously sustained in the desert. They forgot that they had inherited vineyards they did not plant, wells they did not dig, houses they did not build. They forgot – and they ignored every effort to be reminded.

Before the exile, before Babylon defeated Judah, while prophet after prophet after prophet warned of the price of unfaithfulness to the holy covenant with God, the reaction was a national, collective shrug. It is not hard to imagine people thinking to themselves, “Well, Solomon may have 700 wives and concubines, but at least the mule trains run on time.” Or, “I know I shouldn’t sacrifice here at this altar to Ba’al, but I don’t want to be rude.” Or, “We really should stick to those commandments, but we’re at war!”

But before we point out ancient specks, let’s return to modern-day logs.

Let me put a finer point on it: our candidate in question, whose name I will not utter so as not to feed the self-obsessed demagoguery, identifies himself as a Presbyterian. While he is not currently a member of any Presbyterian church, despite claims to the contrary, what is true is that he grew up in one. He is a child of Presbyterian Sunday School. Whether we like it or not, he is one of ours. And that is our reckoning.

But, preacher, before you point out the speck in your presidential candidate neighbor’s eye, take the log out of your own. Amen to that.

I know that I have my own reckoning to do. I have my own past to come to terms with, my own hidden thoughts and fears that are not of God or God’s desires. I am fortunate that my youthful indiscretions happened before social media. And because I am not what I ought to be – or even what I can be – I need confession, forgiveness, and mercy. And yet, in spite of all this evidence to the contrary, God still thinks I am worthy to be an instrument of God’s grace.

That is true for each one of us here. Yes: we have to come to terms with our past. Yes: we have things in our life – past and present – of which we are truly embarrassed, ashamed, mortified. Yes: we are imperfect. Yes: we can be more, so much more. And even though all of this is true, God still thinks us worthy to be called God’s children, worthy of God’s love, worthy of God’s purposes.

That’s what waiting for the light is all about. It’s not that light is better than dark; it’s that God’s light that comes in Christ shines into the shadows where we think we can hide. It’s not to shame us or embarrass us – we do that well enough ourselves. It’s to warm us, to guide us, to let us see how truly beautiful we are not in our own eyes, filled with their forests of logs, but in God’s eyes, the ones that truly matter.

After all, despite the logs in our eyes, God is the one who does the heavy lifting. Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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horse-race-2“Worship begins as the people gather.”

This is what our constitution, as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), says about worship: worship begins as the people gather. This morning, we pick up on our worship series on worship. Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at the rhythms and movements of worship; why our worship tends to be in a certain order; the purpose of it. And so, this seems a fitting place to pick up: where and when worship begins.

It would be logical to consider that worship starts with some kind of formal piece of liturgy. Until it has been announced that we are worshiping, it feels more like social interaction. Worship should be formal. Quiet. Respectful. So perhaps it’s the call to worship…or the first hymn…or, at the very least, please say it’s after the announcements are over! Right?

Nope. Worship begins as the people gather.

OK – so, when we gather in the Sanctuary, right? This is the official worship room, after all. What we do in the Narthex doesn’t count, does it? Or in the lobby, or the hallways?

Worship begins as the people gather.

There’s an odd kind of segmentation that has crept into our life of faith over time. Even if we don’t acknowledge it, we tend to believe that there are times and places where we ought to behave a certain, more worshipful, way; if we believe this, though, then we must also believe that there are times and places where God is “off duty” – or, at the very least, not as present and aware as at other times. But if we take this notion to heart, that worship begins as the people gather, then these divisions start to fade away. Worship becomes, as it should, a seamless whole.

Think about where our faith comes from historically. If we begin with the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, faith in the God of the Israelites gained a crucial geographic focus. There was a place that was holier than holy. Priests had to go through particular cleansing rituals; sacrifices were carried out here, and only here. No wonder we developed the sense of a special place where heaven and earth meet.

And yet, there was much more to it than that. Synagogues dotted the land – places where people gathered for reading, reflection, and prayer. It was not the Temple; but it was still a place – at times, very far away from Jerusalem – where people would gather around their shared devotion to God.

This was the situation that greeted Jesus. He had made the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, and his parents had provided for a sacrifice of thanksgiving because of his birth. He grew up a child of the synagogue, hearing – and eventually proclaiming – God’s word through the Law and the Prophets. And as our Scripture lesson this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, Jesus came in the echoes of all these who spoke in the name of God, but has now surpassed them all in power and word.

You see, at the risk of understatement, with Jesus, everything changed! The intersection of heaven and earth was now found within him. In Jesus, Creator and creation were knit together in new and wondrous ways. In Christ, grace trumped sin. Life defeated death. And the unbridgeable gulf between God and us was overcome!

And the moment this all happened is the moment that transformed all we know about what and where is holy. The author of the universe, of all that is and ever will be, became like one of us – knowing our pains and suffering, our joys and wonders – and in the process blessed what is material, made, known, so that it – and we – might be a blessing in return. It’s just as we pray each and every week, for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” There is, in Jesus, the possibility that our world would become more and more the way God desires it to be.

Do we really need to be reminded that the world is not yet there? We are a year on from Ferguson, Missouri, and issues of race and division and prejudice and life and death are every bit as pressing as they were twelve months ago. Presidential campaign season is just getting warmed up, but our press has already failed to remember what is important. They don’t tell us where candidates stand on issues. They don’t tell us what solutions they are offering to our racial, environmental, military, economic sickness. Instead, our airwaves are filled obscenely with who is leading in polls or what a particular candidate did or didn’t say. None of this matters. And a year from now, when the weight of it all begins to come into focus, the fourth estate will still be more concerned about the horse race rather than how we might strive for those angels of our better natures.

Friends, before we are anything else – before we are divided racially or politically or ethnically or nationally – we are made in the image of God. And before any of these other identities come into play, strongly though they might, we are the body of Christ! This is our tribe. What makes this tribe unique is that it does not exist for its own sake. Instead, it exists for the sake of everything and everyone beyond our tribe.

If we learn nothing else from the example of Jesus, let it be this: the love we know at the core of our being is one that we treasure, but one we hold lightly and let go so that others may know that they, too, are loved. We do not hoard; we share. We do not believe in scarcity; we believe in abundance. We do not live out of fear; we live out of hope and generosity and holy, creative, imagination.

This is why we gather for worship. In the speed of days, when left to our own devices or caught up in the press of the world, we forget. We forget! Just as our bodies need sleep so that they can return to activity, so our souls need to rest in the presence of God so that we can return to faithful living in this world that so desperately needs fearless, generous people.

If we don’t, then we risk being used up and useless. We become cynical. We retreat into the shells of self-imposed solitude and our camps where everyone already agrees with us. What could be righteous indignation at persistent injustice becomes, instead, self-righteous certainty.

We gather for worship because, in our heart of hearts, we know better. We know that there is more to life than running on fumes and running out of time. We know, deep down, that we have been created for more – far more – than we would ever be able to imagine on our own. And it is this knowledge that brings us here, in this holy moment, in this holy space, on this holy day, because we trust that God will be the still, small voice that calls us beyond our own limited sight and into God’s holy vision.

Worship is not, ultimately, about what the preacher does or doesn’t say. It is not, ultimately, about what the choir does or doesn’t sing. It is not, ultimately, about the things we do or do not pray for. All of these things, at their best, are vehicles. They are channels that open up the possibility that God might, yet again, bridge that unbridgeable gap between heaven and earth so that we might hear and sense and know beyond knowing what it is that God desires of us, who it is that God has created us to be.

When we gather for worship, we do so as a moment to reflect this holy imagination of what we can be and do. And it begins, paradoxically, not at a specific holy time or moment, but seamlessly and almost unnoticed. Worship begins somewhere on the drive over, or in the parking lot. It starts in our Sunday School rooms, or in the hallways. It gets going in the Narthex, as we greet one another, as we take our seats.

Somewhere along the way, worship begins. And our gathering continues as the music draws our attention into this room, and as the three chimes focus us forward. It continues in announcements, as we lift up news and information, events and ministries in the life we share in this community of faith. And as we move into calls to worship spoken and sung and hymns of praise, we have somehow become, by the design of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the community of faith, the body of Christ, gathered here, in this place, for worship.

There is more to worship than this – much more, of course. And that is a topic for another day. For now, as God’s people, gathered in this place now made holy, in this moment now made holy, on this day now made holy, continue our worship.

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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The Easter journey may begin in Jerusalem; but the destination is Galilee.

Once a year, we read some version this story. The angel rolls the stone away. The women who followed Jesus are the first to arrive at the grave, the first to meet the risen Jesus, the first to preach resurrection to the rest of the disciples.

Once a year, we are reminded that the story of resurrection that is at the center of our faith. Everything that came before and follows after is just commentary on that single moment when Christ defied and defeated death.

Once a year, we are invited to consider absence more than presence. The cross that once held a lifeless man is now empty. The tomb where a hopeful Messiah had been buried now stands bare.

Once a year, even when death is anticipated, we learn to expect life.

And once a year, we gather in a packed church. Children exhaust themselves “hunting” for eggs. Choirs, bells, musicians raise our spirits in song. The smell of fresh Easter lilies fills the air. Oh, why can it be like this all year long?

I can’t tell you the number of times I have thought that very thing – actually, yes I can. I can tell you exactly how many times: ten. Ten times I have stood in our chancel, looking out on a “full house” on Easter Sunday, with people smiling and singing, and have thought to myself, “Why can’t it be like this all year long?”

But it isn’t always like this. If you come next Sunday, it won’t be the same. It’ll still be Easter – in fact, the Easter season lasts through the end of May. But we won’t be hiding any more eggs. We won’t have communion for a while. The congregation will be about half the size of what it is today. We’ll have children, enough for an active nursery and a couple of bustling Sunday School classes, but not nearly the throng that swarmed the front lawn this morning. There will be refreshments, but not quite the spread that we have today. If we’re honest, after the rush of Easter morning, the following Sunday is a bit of a letdown.

But then, that’s nothing compared to the summer time! If you want to see the opposite of Easter, come in July! School is out. Everyone seems to be traveling. That’s when we really get to spread out, find some elbow room. Man, does this place clear out when the weather gets warm! Some years we have even cancelled Sunday School because the attendance is so low! It’s actually quite depressing! Ha!

If I really think about it, in reality, there are three times a year we have a huge blowout presence: Easter Sunday, Christmas Eve, and Preschool Sunday. The rest of the year, the other 49 or 50 weeks, seem like a mere shadow of what could be. You know, if you stopped to think about it, it could really take the wind out of your sails! (sigh)

Oh well…Anyway…Where was I?

Oh, yes: the Easter journey begins in Jerusalem; but the destination is Galilee.

Galilee is where this story of Jesus first started to build momentum, three years before all the events of Easter morning happened. Galilee is where Jesus grew up. It’s his home territory.

Jesus first gathered a following in those fishing villages around the Sea there. Disciples began to accompany him from town to town. His reputation as a teacher and healer and miracle worker preceded him, and so the crowds grew larger and larger. And then, suddenly, after three years, he turned everything toward Jerusalem. It can’t have been an easy decision. Galilee is quiet – kind of boring. Jerusalem is everything Galilee isn’t. Jesus knew what awaited him there, the drama that we have just remembered over the past week. What began in Palm Sunday with adoring crowds waving branches quickly turned to calls to crucify him. Even his closest friends, those who come with him from the Galilee, soon betrayed him and hid in fear.

And then…the unprecedented happens. Jesus rose again that Easter morning. And as our lesson begins to unfurl today, we get to see this news as it dawns on those who loved and cherished him. The one they had pinned their hopes on, the one they had willingly followed from the boring countryside into the bustling capital city, the one they had grieved beyond grief: he was alive! We can almost imagine their thoughts:

Time to seize the moment! What pageantry will surely follow! Another grand parade, but in this one, Jesus, you’ll take the throne of Herod and re-establish the great and storied lineage of David! Jerusalem has finally met its match! Those who have been cast aside will now take center stage! Trumpets will blare, throngs will gather, the ancient glory of Israel will be restored, the crowning jewel of God’s glo –

Wait, what’s that, Jesus? Oh…we’re not staying in Jerusalem, you say? Back to Galilee, is it? OK, then. We’ll go tell the others. Should we carpool? No? You’ll meet us there? OK. Um, all right…Welcome back! Good to see you! Happy, uh, Happy Life Day? Easter? That’s what we’re calling it? OK. Sure. Happy Easter.

All of that build up! For three full Galilee years, Jesus gathered disciples, taught and healed, performed miracles, and revealed prophecies, all leading to this resurrection moment! So, now where’s the payoff? Where’s the sustain, the hook? We’ve seen the comeback. Where’s the big follow-up?

But that’s not what we get. We are told to go back to Galilee. And there, we will spend time with the risen Jesus. In the few weeks ahead, he will ready his followers for the road ahead. It’s time for the message and the movement to pass on from him to us. More preaching, more teaching, more traveling, more healing…along with our persecution and suffering, glory and wonder.

The Easter journey may have begun in Jerusalem, but the destination is Galilee.

Jerusalem has this mystery, this allure. It feels like the prize, the goal. The truth, however, is that the normalcy of Galilee has been the point all along. That’s what God had in store from the beginning. Jerusalem has it’s place, but it’s only the fulcrum, the tipping point, the grand moment of drama that puts everything else in perspective. You can’t stay in Jerusalem; you have to go back to Galilee.

Isn’t that true about life in general, though? Is there anything we do that stays in elegant drama? Graduation is a celebration of hard work paid off. The moment itself is full of pageantry, but hard work also waits on the other side. Vacation is a treasured respite, but their days are fleeting. The Road Race comes after a lot of training; but the feeling of satisfaction that follows its completion fades quickly. The wedding is quite the joyful moment. The honeymoon follows. But the marriage itself has little in common with either one.

Most things in life have their Jerusalems, their peak moments. But there’s whole lot of Galilee, of trudge, of normal, on either side. If that’s the case, why would our approach to faith be any different?

I don’t know what might have brought you to church today. Some of you are there week in and week out. Others of you are there once or twice a year, coming in and out just for those Jerusalem moments – maybe trying to revisit your own ancient memories of the pageantry. Some of you might be looking for a place to call your Galilee, your spiritual home. There are those of you there because you might be wondering all the fuss is about anyhow. And I’m sure there are those of you who have a church home already but went to Oglethorpe today because it’s easier to find a parking place and get a seat.

Whatever the case is for you, if you take nothing away from today’s service, I hope it is this: Easter is not the destination. It’s not the end all and be all of loving God and being loved by God. It is a crucial, pivotal, tangible moment – but it is just that: a moment; because after today, it’s time to go to Galilee. After all, Jesus is waiting to meet us there.

This is important: Jesus is waiting to meet us there. The life of faith isn’t about you alone and Jesus, off by yourselves. It’s about ya’ll and Jesus together. Life in the everyday of Galilee is life lived in community. We strengthen one another. We challenge one another. We lift up one another when we fall; we pull each other back to earth when we get too lofty. In the life of faith, being in community is what makes us better. It’s how we grow, how we are stretched, how we train for the great race.

Friends, going from Jerusalem moment to Jerusalem moment is easy, but it’s unsustainable. It’s the in-between, the life lived in Galilee, that makes all the difference in the world. Those are the stretches where we learn how to be people of faith. Those are the periods where we learn what it means to be love God and be loved by God, to be living witnesses to Christ and Christ’s love. Those are the seasons where we learn that faithfulness is embodied the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.

After all, the Easter journey may begin in Jerusalem; but the destination is, and always has been, Galilee. Are you ready to go and meet Jesus there? If so, I’ll see you next Sunday.

Amen.

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In Jerusalem, there are two pilgrimage sites that hold competing claims for our resurrection scene today, that empty garden tomb where Christ had been laid to rest. The first is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In Arabic, it is called the Church of the Resurrection, which is a far more appropriate name. Nested amid the winding streets of the Old City, the Church is surrounded by vendors selling religious knick-knacks and glow-in-the-dark Jesus figurines; that is, until you reach the open courtyard. There, shrouded clergy rush to and fro across large paving stones smoothed with the passage of time and millions of pilgrims’ feet. The place smells of history; candles and incense burn around the clock. Bells chime. In one corner, Ethiopian Coptic monks chant prayers in Amharic in front of large-eyed icons withered with time. In another, Italian tourists follow their priest, celebrating Mass in the newly-renovated Franciscan chapel. The place is huge. The architecture is chaotic, as the divisions of the Christian community through the centuries have been played out in this building. There are ecumenical committees formed to decide who can change lightbulbs and who is responsible for repairs. If this is the scene of vacant tombs and empty crosses, of stones rolled away and folded linens, it remains hidden in the solemn echoes of feet and the fervent whispers of prayer.

The other site rests outside the walls of the Old City, a short walk of ten minutes. Trinket salesmen have set up shop there as well, but this place, known by the less formal name of the Garden Tomb, becomes an instant place of respite from the noise and traffic of East Jerusalem. The place is serene. It is, in fact, a garden, and it was a garden roughly around the time of Christ, as the eager tour guides will tell you. Olive trees, blooming flowers, and the open sky surround. From one vantage point, you can look over the East Jerusalem bus terminal and see the Old City walls. And just off to the left is a cliff whose face is very much in the shape of a skull. Golgotha, perhaps? The tour of the Garden Tomb ends at its namesake – an ancient stone grave, which also possibly dates from the time of Christ. There is a stone trough in the ground directly in front of the door, a groove in which the massive stone would have been rolled to seal the tomb. There is no such stone now; only a simple wooden door that bears a sign, in English, that reads: “He is not here; for he is risen.”

In terms of history, there isn’t much competition at all. The Holy Sepulchre is the real place. Early Christians venerated the site long before there were any buildings there. The first Church building was erected in the fourth century. Even the Garden Tomb guides willingly admit as much when pressed. But, they also say, “Unlike the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb can give you the feel of what it must have been like at the time of Christ.” And though I doubt very much that Mary Magdalene had to walk through the giftshop on her way back to share the news with the disciples, and though the stones are a little too pristine to have that sense of the Holy Sepulchre’s history, I must agree with the guide. You can feel it there. You can see a skull shaped hill – even if it’s not the skull-shaped hill; and you can set foot inside a tomb – even if it’s not the tomb. It feels like the place where our Easter morning celebration took place, where stones are rolled away and figures in dazzling white bring the most absurd of good news: “He is not here, for he is risen.”

Is that enough, though? For a place to feel like it’s the place? Or is it more important for the place to actually be the place?

In part, the divide between the two places is an historical one. We Presbyterians are newcomers to the faith; the ancient holy sites are firmly entrenched in the control of the Eastern Orthodox branch of the family tree. So when a German Lutheran archaeologist learned of the ancient garden site in 1867, it quickly became the Protestant site of veneration. And even with the overwhelming evidence that this isn’t really the place, it remains a huge pilgrimage site because of that spiritual feel of being transported back in time.

And that fact, that the spiritual feeling holds such power in a place that really isn’t the place, may give us thought for how we approach our faith. There is a gift when we give a boost to the spiritual meaning of our story. The risk, however, is that we do so at the cost of its material truth. If so, then Christ’s ministry among those who live in abject poverty becomes a word only about spiritual poverty. It loses its original power of promises made to those who literally have nothing. And the words which we read this morning, “The Lord is risen; he is risen indeed,” some of their material muscle atrophies when we begin to speak only of a spiritual resurrection.

So which is it: the material essence of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the spiritual force of the Garden Tomb?

Whenever I have had the privilege to visit Jerusalem, I have felt torn between these competing holy sites, this spiritual and material promise of the gospel. In the Garden Tomb, there is this sense of relief and respite. It becomes an escape from the overwhelming exhaustion of a land of conflict and pain, where the dual violence of Occupation and Terrorism beat down and destroy. The Garden is escape, quiet reflection, meditation.

And yet, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre became my first Jerusalem stop. There is an exquisite path through the Old City’s crooked lanes, past excitable shopkeepers and anxious pilgrims. Entering that courtyard, the sky itself opens up for the first time. In the Church, you get lost in space and time. Every visit uncovers a new nook or cranny claimed by this ancient Christian sect or that: the Armenian stairway with its grand arch; the mud huts of the Ethiopian monastery perched on the roof; the exquisite iconography of the large Greek Orthodox sanctuary; the small Egyptian Coptic chapel at the head of Christ’s tomb. Each spot is a reminder of how little we actually about church history; and, by extension, how little we really know of the fullness of God’s power and mercy.

I still don’t want to give up that spiritual feel of the Garden Tomb, this pitiful Protestant protest. But this morning, I invite you to walk with me among the cold stones of the Holy Sepulchre, as hymns of mystery mix with the smoke of incense and candles, unfurling into the ancient domes. And as the bells ring for yet another prayer in yet another language we don’t understand, may this question ring in our ears: What if this is actually the place? And what if what we have read is actually true? Not just spiritually true, but materially true as well?

And not just literally true, either; for if we only believe in a literal story of resurrection, then all we need to say here today is that Christ was dead and buried. The tomb was sealed. The angel came, the stone was moved, the Lord was raised; and one day, we, too, shall be raised. If we move away from the spiritual meaning to the literal meaning alone, then we’re done. The Easter sermon is finished and we can all move on to the rest of our Sunday plans.

But what if the story is materially true, as real as those old paving stones in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre? What if there is something to that haphazard building amid the crowded streets of Old Jerusalem? What if the very fabric of reality was changed on that ancient Easter morning? And what if we, who seek follow the risen Christ, are materially – really – changed by that moment of resurrection? What if we were willing to believe that the stone was rolled back every single day from our tombs? What if we are transformed into people of the Resurrection, the promise of life anew, the strange hope of encounters with dazzling angels and open graves?

The message that rings from the church bells of ancient Church is for those who have ears to hear: the promise of Resurrection is really true. It can and will transform old conflicts into new promises of reconciliation. It can and will build up what has been destroyed. It can and will bring an end to war and a beginning to peace. And it can and will transform us into the body of Christ, that community of the faithful bringing spiritual and material hope to a world so desperately hurting.

Are we listening? Do we have ears to hear? Are we willing to walk those crowded streets?

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The church is not a club.

This morning, we began another round of classes for potential new members. I’m always aware of the language we use in these conversations: things like “membership” or “join”. The words we use can very easily create the impression that we are trying to draw a circle, deciding who is “in” and who is “out”.

And why shouldn’t we? We do that in every other area of our lives. In school, we either pass the test or we don’t. In sports, we’re either off the team or on it. Those dividing lines make some sense. And then it begins to infect everything else. In politics, it seems that you are allowed to be either a conservative or a liberal. You can either watch Fox or MSNBC. And once you pick your team, your friends are either on your side or they’re just wrong.

You do that kind of thing often enough, you begin to think that this is the way the world works, that everything is painted in stark colors, that “either/or” is the way it’s supposed to be. And when we’re talking about faith and religion, about powers that shape and mold the universe, we step foot into some dangerous territory. We label ourselves, and others, as either “good” or “evil”, and are then tempted to regard them accordingly.

Well, my friends, I’ve got good news – actually, I don’t know if it’s good news or bad news, so let’s just say I’ve got news: the world has always worked this way. Very little has changed. We are tribal to our core.

In fact, both of our Scripture lessons this morning touch on the inclination to circle the wagons. And in both cases, this instinct comes face to face with the way that God wants the world to be.

The prophet Jeremiah is God’s mouthpiece to an utterly beaten down people. The ancient Israelites have experienced their national humiliation at the hands of the Babylonians. First, they failed to heed Jeremiah’s warnings about their faithlessness. And now, not only has their nation been defeated, their capital ransacked, and their Temple destroyed, they have also collectively been captured and taken into exile in the land of Babylon. As they lick their wounds, they no doubt are biding their time until they are able to return and rebuild the glory of Jerusalem.

And yet, note what Jeremiah says. Even though they are no longer “home”, even though they find themselves as strangers in a strange land, the prophet tells them to make their home there. Build houses. Plant gardens. Have children. In other words, even in exile, the message is simply, “life goes on.”

And then, if that weren’t enough, Jeremiah takes the message one step further. Not only are God’s people supposed to seek their own welfare, they ought to pray for the welfare of their new homeland. That’s right: the nation that leveled God’s Temple, the one that worships the wrong kinds of gods and treats them poorly, they are deserving of God’s blessings, too – so much so that God’s people are supposed to beseech God on their behalf! Why? Because, Jeremiah says, “your welfare depends on their welfare.” Even though you are downtrodden, even though you are defeated, dejected, and angry, if Babylon thrives, you will thrive.

Can you see how insane this message must have seemed to them? This is the equivalent of a P.O.W. being told to pray on behalf of his prison guards – and not one of those “hedge your bets” prayers, hoping that they’ll turn toward God and do what’s right and let me go. No: this is a “no holds barred”, “I want them to thrive” kind of prayer. I don’t know about you, but this feels like it goes against every fiber of my default settings.

Well, not to worry…because our New Testament lesson shows that Jeremiah’s challenge didn’t make much headway in Babylon. The old rivalry of Samaritan and Jew rears its head. Its roots of it are deep, and are intimately connected to the Babylonian captivity. You see, it was the Jews – or the Judeans – of the Southern kingdom, not the Samaritans of the North, who were taken into exile. And when the captives returned, the rumor persisted that the Samaritans had intermarried, mingling their Jew-ish blood with that of the Gentiles who had infected the land. Thus the cultural disdain for Samaritans that Jesus uses as a regular reference point.

In this particular story, Jesus is headed from the far north of his native Galilee on his way to Jerusalem in the south. While passing through a village on the edge of Samaria, he encounters ten lepers whom he heals. The kicker? The only one who says “thank you” is the lone Samaritan. Once again, the message is that, no matter what we might think, it’s not all about us. Those whom we think of as “in” have a lot to learn from those who are technically “out”.

All of this brings us back to church. As much as we might not like to admit it, the harsh truth is that there is nothing about being church members that makes us better people than those who are not. And it has been my experience that Christians tend to thrive the less time we spend comparing ourselves favorably to the world around us and more time we spend in service to – and with – that world.

I say all of this with some confidence that ya’ll get this. Not only do we say that the community is our congregation, we tend to live it out. When there is need, we take care of each other. And we also, as a matter of course, reach out to take care of those who are outside these walls, who may never even set foot in this church. Why? Because we Jews in here are no better than the Samaritans out there. Why? Because when Babylon thrives, we thrive.

Our current worship series has been about looking back at our congregation’s history for hints of character and mercy that reveal something both about who we are and who God is at work within and through us. And this characteristic of our church existing not for ourselves but for the world has roots that run deep.

Several years ago, my family and I were passing through Montreat, North Carolina, and got to spend an evening at the home of Fitz and Emmy Lou Legerton. Fitz served as pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church for forty-one years, and he and I both make it a point to catch up from time to time. On this particular visit, Fitz shared some reflections on his years here and his memories from that era. There was one character of the church that he was particularly proud of, something he called “the equality of the saints.” It was a principle that was there from the earliest days.

You see, Philip Weltner, president of Oglethorpe University, and his wife Sally, were absolutely essential to the founding of this congregation. When Mrs. Weltner died, it was a tragic day early in the life of the church.

In 1959, we celebrated our tenth anniversary. As plans were being made for a celebration, the session leadership met and discussed how best to mark that historic moment. For those of you keeping score at home, all of this is noted in the minutes from the February 8, 1959, session meeting. What is recorded of that meeting says a lot about who we are. First, a motion was made to place a plaque in the Fellowship Hall in memory of Mrs. Sally Weltner. The motion did not pass. A second motion was made that a tenth anniversary plaque be made that would name all of the charter members of the church and be dedicated to the memory of Sally Weltner. That motion also failed.

It was the third motion that passed, and here, I quote: “The Session desires to affirm our belief that many people have and will continue to contribute much to the building of this church…and in this belief we consider it undesirable that any plaque be erected in the church which would single out any one individual.”

I have no doubt that this had to be a somewhat delicate stance to take. But they took it nonetheless, because the church is not a club. We become members of a church not in order to pay dues or receive benefits or see our name in lights. Instead, we do so to become members of the body of Christ! And his tribe? It’s much, much broader than we could ever imagine.

This principle is at the heart of almost everything we have done. In 1953, two families of the church approached the session about their need for a Kindergarten program for their children. Two families was not quite enough to warrant further study. However, the request was taken seriously when it was pointed out that this clearly was a need far beyond our walls. And so the seeds were planted for our Preschool program, a ministry that began not out of a desire to meet the needs of our members, but rather the needs of the community.

We can say the same about our Food Pantry, our Bargain Shop, our involvement in Habitat and Journey Night Shelter, our hosting of Pastor Carlos and his ministry to the Spanish speakers of our community.

There is a thread of selflessness that runs through what we do, one tied directly to the God we know in Christ, for whom selflessness was a way of life. As members of that community, may we always reflect this Christ in the way we love, and live, and serve.

Amen.

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