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Posts Tagged ‘john’

Leather covered bible lying on a tableHow are you a part of God’s story today?

There are several things that we are required to do in a worship service in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Prayer is one – it can be spoken or sung, but we must pray. Preaching is another. It can be spoken or performed, but there must be some kind of interpretation of God’s word for God’s people. Offerings are also required, oddly enough. That’s not because of the pragmatic need to pay the light bill. The category of “offering” is much broader than just the money we give. Instead, our weekly “offering” is a reminder to offer ourselves to God continually. And, in order to worship, we must read from the Bible.

It’s important to remember why it is that we read from the Bible. We do so not because we worship the Bible. After all, God alone is worthy of worship. We read from the Bible, from Scripture, because it points us toward God. The Bible is not the only book in which we can find meaning. After all, there are valuable lessons in fairy tales and ancient mythologies. Authors from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling can teach and move us. But what we believe about the Bible is that it is, in its own unique way, God’s own word. It is not merely a historical curiosity. It is the story of God’s love for God’s creation, and as such, its wisdom is one from which we continue to draw meaning for our lives.

So: how are you a part of God’s story today?

This is the question I want to lift up this morning. And I want to do so by triangulating it with three other questions.

People come to worship for all kinds of reasons. Some come because they are full of joy and want that joy magnified. Others come because they are hopeless and want to know that God hasn’t given up on us yet. Some come because they are angry…or anxious…or afraid…or looking for direction. Others are looking for confirmation for what they already know. Some are auditioning a new church, looking for a more permanent sense of community, trying on a church to see if it fits. And others come because it’s the rhythm of their week: without worship, it isn’t Sunday.

Whatever your reason for coming, here is the first question I want you to answer:

What is it that you need to hear today?

This question is one way to enter the lesson. Do you need a word of hope? Challenge? Comfort? Wisdom? Surprise? Purpose? Reassurance? Direction? Forgiveness? Before we dive into our lesson from the Book of Acts, I invite you to take a moment right now. Anchor yourself in this place at this time and let your answer rise to the top: what is it that you need to hear today?

In our lesson today, the disciples have left the nest. They have overcome the shock of the risen and ascended Christ, regrouping and moving forward. The eleven have replaced Judas the betrayer, becoming the twelve again. Pentecost has multiplied them into the thousands. And now, they are spreading their wings and taking flight.

Peter and John are the first ones out of the gate. Going up to the Temple for daily prayer, they encounter a man begging for his livelihood. We learn that he was born with a disability, meaning that reliance on the kindness of others was his primary means of earning a living.

Peter and John, rather than turning their heads like the bulk of the crowds, or tossing a coin as some might do, stop and speak to him. Peter comes right out and tells him: we are broke. We can’t give you any money. But what we can give you is far more powerful: healing. The man leaps to his feat. As he heads into the Temple, his very presence usurps the sacrifices and prayers of the altar. He is the surest sign of God’s power in evidence that day.

Who do you identify with? Is it Peter and John, the disciples who represent the early church? Is it the beggar, the one who is tolerated but not embraced? Or is it the crowds, spectators to it all?

This, too, is a good way to enter the lesson. My hunch is that if you are feeling empowered, you are more likely to see yourself in Peter or John. If you are feeling beaten down, you might look to the one who is miraculously healed. And if you are unsure of what this lesson might teach, you could see yourself in the unnamed crowds, sitting back and watching it all take place, unsure where to jump in and take part.

So let’s introduce a second question alongside our first:

Who are you in this story?

Take another moment. Which character resonates with you? Inhabit that character. Hold that character alongside your first answer, reminding yourself what you have come here needing to hear this morning.

Peter is the compulsive one, the disciple who rushes into the water to walk alongside Jesus, only to sink beneath the waves. He’s the one who identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, but then tries to turn Jesus away from the cross. He defends Jesus’ life in the Garden, but then denies ever having known him a few hours later. Peter is the rock. And after Jesus’ ascension, Peter takes over the reigns of leadership, doing so with a great deal more maturity than he had exhibited up to that point.

John is also known as the “beloved disciple”. He’s the one in whom Jesus confides. Along with Peter and James, John is part of Jesus’ inner circle. From the cross, Jesus urges John to take Mary into his home as though she were his own mother. John never utters a word in our story – and yet, his presence is important and powerful. In modern terms, John is the introvert to Peter’s extrovert.

Then there’s the man who is healed. Unnamed, he serves as a living parable of God’s mercy. He is a fixture, the man who begs daily by the Beautiful Gate. He has known nothing but brokenness his whole life. This brokenness, while it makes him vulnerable, also makes him virtually invisible. Ignored. In his healing, he takes center stage, a witness to Jesus, himself an embodiment of the power of resurrection.

And let’s not forget the crowds, the Bible’s version of the Greek chorus. The nameless, faceless crowds are the ones who pursue Jesus throughout the Galilee. They parade him into Jerusalem, pronouncing him the Messiah, the Son of David; and within a week, they proclaim their allegiance to Caesar, calling for Jesus’ death. They are the same ones who swarm the streets on Pentecost, their lives changed at a moment’s notice. And here they are again, marveling at the transformation that has taken place. Of course, it is not long before they are back to their old ways, part of the movement to oppress the early church.

Who are you in the story? And how does that connect with what it is you need to hear?

And before we get too far down the road, let’s add our third question:

What is it that God needs you to hear today?

We come here with our hopes and desires. And God always, always meets us where we are. And yet, that doesn’t mean that we stay there. No one in our lesson today leaves it the way they entered it. Each one experiences transformation – each one in just the way they needed it, too.

The man who receives healing is the clearest example of this transforming power of God. As the story begins, it is just another day for him. He has made it to his usual spot, along the roadside, waiting for the Temple pilgrims to come by so that he might survive from their gleanings. As Peter and John arrive, he looks to them for alms. And when they respond, he expects they will come through in some small way.

And when Peter first begins to speak, we can imagine the man’s disappointment: “I have no silver or gold.”

I can almost imagine him thinking, “Unless your next words are going to be, ‘but here’s a sandwich’, then just keep on moving.” Instead, Peter offers him the one thing he has truly been seeking his entire life: wholeness.

Think about that: this man’s whole life has been one of waiting, of a routine marked by helplessness and vulnerability. And now, in the blink of an eye, he receives not only the ability to walk for the first time. He is given the gift of an unknown future, full of possibility and imaginings!

So what about you? How are you a part of God’s story today?

Are you among the crowds – watching from the sidelines, eager to react, but not to jump in? If so, will you take that chance today? Will you not just keep on watching, but to join Peter and John and the other disciples, living in the footsteps of Christ?

Are you Peter, holding onto some precious gift that, if you were bold enough to release it, would change someone’s life forever? If so, will you do it? Will you open your hands and your heart in order that the world might look just a little bit more like the way God desires it to be?

Are you John, not taking the lead necessarily, but being that steady, loving, quiet presence that nonetheless communicates volumes about the healing and encouraging power of God? If so, will you lend your strength? Will you give that gift of reassurance and encouragement to someone who truly needs it?

Are you the broken man made whole, coming here out of habit or routine, not expecting much to change, and yet open to the possibility that, once you leave here, life will never be the same? If so, will you embody that resurrection? Will you leave here today not just a little more whole than when you arrived, but dancing in your heart for all the world to see?

How are you part of God’s story – not just today, but from now on?

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Power On - textureVision over power.

In our lesson this morning, Jesus and his disciples have finished up their ministry in the bucolic Galilee and are making their way toward urban Jerusalem. Jesus tells the disciples what exactly all of this Messiah stuff entails: betrayal, abuse, torture, and death. This makes such an impression on them that James and John ask if they can call dibs on the seats of power next to him.

You can almost imagine Jesus saying, “Have you been listening to a word I’m saying?!? You still think this is all about the earthly kingdom of Israel, don’t you?” After he sets them back a notch, the rest of the disciples get in on the act, angry at James and John for sneaking around on them. Apparently, they weren’t listening, either.

It’s at this point that they go through Jericho. Jericho, sitting just west of the Jordan River, is an oasis for travelers. For Jesus and the disciples, they would have left the verdant hills of the Galilee, heading along the Jordan down toward the Dead Sea, the vegetation disappearing and the temperature increasing along the way. At Jericho, they would have turned westward, finding the winding road that leads up to Jerusalem. Jericho sits at this crossroads, with numerous springs that have made it a welcome habitation for thousands of years.

And there, almost lost among the pressing crowds, is the blind beggar Bartimaeus, calling out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

A number of things happen simultaneously in this moment. First, we are told that Bartimaeus means “son of Timaeus”. In other words, though he was a blind beggar, shuffled off to the margins of polite society (and impolite society, for that matter), he had a family that – at least at some point – cared for and loved him.

Second, the crowd gives us some insight into the human condition. At first, because they don’t want to be associated with the likes of him, they try to hide him from Jesus. “Don’t you know who this is? It’s Jesus! Leave him alone! Don’t bother him. He’s got more important things to do!” As soon as Jesus singles him out and calls him forward, the they immediately changes their tune, perhaps hoping to benefit from their connection with Bartimaeus: “Come on! Good news! He wants to see you! Let’s go!” The crowd is fickle; willing to go along with what is popular rather than what is right.

Third, Jesus responds to Bartimaeus plea the same way he had responded to James and John, with the exact same question he had asked them: “What do you want me to do for you?” Though the disciples were his friends and Bartimaeus was a complete stranger, he treated them with equity.

Fourth, Bartimaeus request is simply granted. Unlike James and John’s desire for power, Bartimaeus is given the gift of vision.

And finally, though Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go on his way, he immediately begins following Jesus. His response is gratitude. And that thankfulness leads him into discipleship, into Jesus’ baptism and cup.

For me, the chorus that rings through all of this is “vision over power.”

Power plays a significant role in Jesus’ entire ministry. And today’s lesson is no exception. It is the possibility of power that fools the disciples, filling their ears with false hopes so that they cannot hear what true discipleship costs. The crowd tries to surf the changing perceptions of power – first by silencing Bartimaeus and then by elevating him. And it is powerless Bartimaeus who takes center stage in the lesson as the one that Jesus hears, invites, and heals.

This fits well within Jesus’ overall message, which takes power and flips it on its head. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The King is crowned with thorns; his royal robes are stripped away to reveal his nakedness; his throne is a cross, with a title over his head to mock and scorn him. Whoever wants the seat of glory must become a servant.

The truth is that power is seductive, and very, very complicated. What makes it most disturbing is that the ways in which we hold power are the ways we are least likely to know that it is ours. Power is at work in all of society. It plays a role in gender; in age; in sexuality; in ability and disability; in education; in race; in language; in economics; in politics and influence; in religion; in employment; in office and stature.

Every single one of us, without exception, inhabits power roles in our lives. Mostly by virtue of things that are completely out of our control, we have been handed an advantage in this life. The thing is, if we never bother to stop and take stock of that fact, we will never know it. Instead, we are far more likely to focus on the power we don’t have that others do. In other words, power is not something to be ashamed of; it is, at the same time, something to be absolutely aware of.

And that’s because power is tempting. It may be the most desirable temptation there is, And yet Jesus, who had all the power in the world, gave it away in order to bring freedom to any and all who need it. Rather than make power the most important thing, Jesus put healing and wholeness first – in the case of Bartimaeus, Jesus gave him the vision he so desired.

Vision over power.

Like James and John, we may yearn for the power we do not have; but Jesus wants us to be more like Bartimaeus. The truth is that we are blind – maybe not completely, but our vision is far from perfect. We all have blind spots. Acknowledging that fact is the first step, and it’s a crucial one. Our spiritual vision will never be 20/20; and yet, if we invite Jesus to work on our vision, we are more likely to see the things that God desires we see.

For example, the way we typically talk about vision is misleading. We tend to think of those who have “vision” as those who can predict the future, see things that are not there, read the tealeaves. But vision is, simply, the ability to see clearly – to see what is, and what is not, there. And one aspect of that vision is recognizing power: where it is, where it is absent, how it is at work in our lives and the lives of others, and how it is at work throughout the world.

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this – really struggle with it. It feels like there is inherent hypocrisy in a straight, white, male, able-bodied, educated pastor to talk about who does – and does not – have power. This is one of those moments where those temptations to power can make you come across as preachy. Fair enough. I can come down from the pulpit, but I’ve still got robes that confer some sense of authority. I can remove those, but I’m still the one with the microphone. Even without that, I’ve got title and position, and the privilege that those give me, as well as ten-plus years of history with this particular congregation. And even if those were all to evaporate in an instant, our pews are all pointed in the same direction and bolted in place that way.

So my prayer today, just as it is each and every Sunday, is for the words I speak and the thoughts we all carry to point to God – in other words, that our eyes be filled with what it is that God envisions for us.

And in that vision, the call to follow Jesus is intimately tied up in how we deal with the nature of power. In the kingdom of God, power is transformed into justice – God’s justice. Those who have power are invited to lay it down for the sake of those who do not. And those who do not have it are the ones Jesus is most likely to call to lead.

Are we willing to follow? Would we ever be so bold as to take a chance on the power we hold? Could we loosen our fists, even if that means risking that this power might fall through our fingers, slip through our grasp?

Let’s put it this way: could we ever imagine putting ourselves in the role not of the crowds, nor of the disciples, but to empty ourselves of the power we inhabit and live into the place of a blind beggar named Bartimaeus? Would we be willing, even just for a moment, to admit how helpless, how in need of mercy, we really are? Or are we more likely to pretend that we are in control of our own destinies, that we don’t need or depend on anyone else? Or do we live with the fantasy that this power is realistically within our grasp, if we could just get hold of those elusive advantages that we do not currently have?

Friends, the truth of it all is simply this: we are blind. And Jesus is here, ready to give us vision and send us on our way. The faithful response is to follow him, even if that means going all the way up to Jerusalem. Are we ready to follow?

Amen.

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Make New

For you, little one, the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation, and the Lord God made covenants with the people. It was for you that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. For you, Jesus Christ suffered death crying out at the end, ‘It is finished!’ For you Christ triumphed over death, rose in newness of life, and ascended to rule over all. All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. So we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own. And so the promise of the gospel is fulfilled: ‘We love because God first loved us.’

These are the words of the liturgy that I typically use when we baptize children. I have no claim on authorship –preachers and theologians have adapted them through the years, but they originated with the French Protestant church. And though I wish I could say this was intentional, it was not my thought to choose this text in a week when the French people have been reeling from their national tragedies. It is a moment like this when I am reminded how the Spirit intervenes and binds us, all of us, regardless of nation or creed, together.

What is so compelling about this prayer to me is how it is, at the same time, both intimate and universal. God brought everything into being – for you! God came as Christ – for you! Christ ministered, died, and rose – for you! You, whom I can fold and hold within my arms, have captured the imagination of our limitless God. “For you, little one…” You!

This comes in the echoes of our lesson this morning, where John baptizes his cousin Jesus in the wilderness, down in the murky waters of the Jordan River. John has been preaching about Jesus, building him up. He knows the crowds have been coming out to see him; he must be aware what a wild figure he strikes, too, that he has grabbed their attention, and that they will listen closely to whatever it is he has to say. Jesus, he says, “is far more powerful than I! I’m not even worthy enough to bend down and touch his filthy, dusty sandals. You think water is powerful? Wait until you see what his holy fire can do.”

So when Jesus comes to John, it is understandable that he would demur. The way he has talked about Jesus, it’s not right that he should baptize him; it should be the other way around. Jesus should be baptizing him into righteousness. Jesus simply says, “Do this. It’s the right thing to do.” And as the hands of the wild prophet release Jesus from under the waters and back to the safety of the open air, the skies ring out: “My Beloved!” as the entirety of holiness joins in to celebrate the moment.

“For you, little one…”

Can we even begin to get a handle on this concept? Do we believe that baptism really represents God’s undying pleasure in us, and that this pleasure has very little to do with whether we had a say in the matter ourselves? Not only is baptism both intimate and vast at the same time; it is also a moment where we admit how little we really know about God’s love. The French liturgy puts it this way: “All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. But we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own.”

God’s love for us does not depend on our love for God. Christ’s death and resurrection did not wait for us to say that we were on board. In the language and metaphors that dominate our household right now, God loves both superheroes and supervillains alike. God may not love what they do, but God still loves them. In other words, baptism is our collective act of faith that God will continue to act in our lives in ways we can only begin to glimpse.

“For you, little one…”

While in seminary, I got to know Ben, who attended the church where I worshiped. He was in his sixties, and had some kind of cognitive issue that meant he was more like a child than an adult. He was a huge movie fan. He gave every film he saw the same review: “Very good.” He had grown up in the church, and had been baptized as a child. Somehow, though, he had never been confirmed. The reason, it turned out, was that he had never been considered “adult” enough to articulate his faith. The more the Session contemplated it, though, one thing stood out clearly: Ben knew that church meant a place where he was included. And in his life, there weren’t many places like that. In many ways, Ben understood God’s love far better than most of us ever will; he joined the church the next Sunday.

Being a Christian is more than being able to understand or explain the faith. Being a Christian is grasping that, far beyond anything we could ever do, the skies are willing to split open for us and name us as God’s beloved! And so, as God’s people, we continue to tell the stories of our faith – of faith both intimate and vast – to others, so that they might receive the gift of making stories of their own. We work alongside God to create a community where people know, more than anything else, that they are included, welcomed, and beloved, too.

“For you, little one…”

As we continue into this new year, and on this day as we consider what baptism meant for Christ and what it means for us, I want to ask you this: what needs to be made new for you? Where is it that you need to know renewal? Where in your life has the dust of the trail built up to the point that you need it to be washed away? Where is your soul parched and in need of refreshment?

Maybe it’s in a relationship – with a loved one, a spouse, a sibling, a colleague, a friend. What once was precious and clear has become murky and worn. Or perhaps it’s in a career; an area of study; a passionate hobby or commitment: what once gave you joy is now a burden. Or maybe it’s in your spirit, your life of faith and commitment to that intimate, vast God. What once was active and crisp has turned passive and soft.

Whatever it might be for you, let’s be clear about this: renewal isn’t about returning to what was. That’s nostalgia, not faith. Renewal is a paradox, such as heading into the desert to find water. When we descend into the depths, the hope is not that we would go back to “the way things used to be”. Instead, the hope is that we would hand over those things to God so that they would return to us transformed and more beautiful than we ever could have expected!

I know of many churches – and I am pleased to say that Oglethorpe Presbyterian is not one of them – that lament the loss of bygone eras. Many pastors of struggling churches have members who recount the multiple, massive Easter services of the 1950s and 1960s and wonder why they can’t recapture those glories. The truth is simply this: being faithful does not mean going back; being faithful means an incarnate living in 2015. And since nothing else looks like it did fifty years ago, why would the Church be any different? It’s not that we seek to merely mirror culture, but rather that we give all that we do over to God so our efforts would be redeemed toward the future that God has in store for us!

The purpose in all of this, the goal, is that we would continue to draw closer to God who is already nearer than breath, who loved us before we even knew how to love, who embodies the vast intimacy we so dearly crave.

“All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. So we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own.”

May it be so. Amen.

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We are connected.

One of the words that is often used to describe Presbyterians is “connectional”. It’s a helpful way of explaining our system of churches. Each congregation, like Oglethorpe Presbyterian, is independent enough to allow for creativity and flexibility. Most of the decisions we make as a church are done by those whom we elect into leadership. We call them elders. At the same time, we are also in partnership with other Presbyterian churches – by last count, about 100 in the Atlanta area and about 10,000 nationwide. And it is these connections which are crucial to my mind: they provide systems of both support and accountability.

When we struggle, we do not struggle alone. Instead, we have access to resources locally and nationally that can provide guidance, prayer, and support. And we are also nested in a system of checks and balances that makes sure we don’t go off the rails. In 2014, I don’t need to tell you how important that is. Too many churches and pastors, left to their own devices, have betrayed the sacred trust of the gospel.

We are connected.

That’s the message that lies at the heart of Jesus’ conversation with his disciples that we read in our lesson from John. That text is part of a long conversation that takes place during the Last Supper. Jesus speaks somewhat cryptically, talking about how he is in the Father and the Father is in him, which points to this idea of connection, that Jesus and God are intimately related. That’s hard enough to get our minds around. But Jesus goes on: “Whoever believes in me will do greater works than mine.”

Did you catch that? Philip demands to see God as proof of all of this talk, and Jesus replies by telling him that seeing what Jesus has done is all the evidence he needs. His teaching, his healing, that whole “water into wine” thing, that was all God at work in Jesus. But apparently, that was all peanuts compared to what those who believe in Jesus will be capable of, because Jesus will be at work in them.

Those who believe in Jesus will do things that eclipse Jesus himself? I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty hard to swallow…

It all seems to go back to this connection thing. God is at work in Jesus, Jesus will be at work in the disciples, and one down through the generations. And that brings us up to today.

We are connected.

Today, we do one of my absolute favorite Presbyterian things, and that is ordination and installation of elders and deacons. “Elders” is the title we give to those whom we elect into leadership. They include the pastor and members of the church. “Deacons” is the title we give to those whom we elect into ministries of care and compassion. And when we ordain folks and install them to these offices, we are living out an example of correction.

I remember the day of my ordination to ministry, which happened 14 years ago in Chicago. As I kneeled, the elders of First Presbyterian Church of Wilmette stood around me and placed their hands on my shoulders. My mother was in that elder “scrum” too. When my mother knelt for ordination at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, elders stood around her and placed hands on her shoulders. And they had once done the same.

So when we ordain and install elders and deacons today, it is as though our circle is surrounded by ever-widening circles that go further back in time, connecting us to that ragtag bunch of disciples, sitting in an Upper Room, listening to Jesus, and being promised gifts beyond imagining. And so, what we do here today is much more than just an odd little remnant of an ancient ritual. We are resting on the belief that this same power of Jesus echoes down through the ages, from touch to touch, from shoulder to shoulder, giving us the faith and ability to speak and act and pray as though Jesus is working through us!

And here’s one more Presbyterian spin on things: we are skeptical of individuals acting on their own, claiming to speak for God. We prefer to trust the wisdom of groups. When the elders meet together as a session, we discuss thoroughly. And when the group decides, even if I don’t agree with the decision (and that does happen from time to time), I am called to trust that we have done the best we can to discern God’s desires for the moment. And that should mean a great deal to us right now.

Next Sunday will be my last Sunday with you for three months. I cannot express my gratitude to you enough for this summer Sabbatical for my family and me, for the rest and refreshment it will provide us. And I also have to say that I am grateful to the Lilly Endowment for footing the bill for us as a church! I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to leaving. The truth is, I’m pretty excited. And yet, I will miss you all. I may not miss you all right away, but I will miss you. And I will look forward to returning in September so we can share stories with each other.

But the reason that I go in confidence is because of everything we have just talked about. The pastor is one of the elders in the congregation, and in influential one at that. But I am just one of the elders. There are nine other phenomenal leaders who prayerfully deliberate the direction of our congregation month in and month out.

By now, many of you have read about our Summer Minister, L’Anni Hill. If you haven’t, please pick up a copy of the newsletter in the lobby or check it out on our website. And be sure to welcome her on Sunday, June 1. She will be preaching, teaching, caring, and leading our congregation during my absence, all of which fills me with energy and excitement for Oglethorpe Presbyterian.

God is looking out for us. Of course, if you know our staff, you know that already. What can I say about our staff? Tim, who does everything in our music program, short of juggling, but I hear we might add that to his job description, too; Cheryl, who wears, at last count, 482 hats as our Office Manager and Christian Educator (on top of which she is both an ordained elder and deacon); Francisco, who I like to call “MacGyver” for his ability to use the most unusual of materials to hold our vintage building together; the unparalleled Linda Hawthorne, my tremendously gifted pastoral care partner in crime; our Preschool team, our amazing Preschool team, where I have been blessed to be both pastor and parent…

In short, I hope you hear how well supported we are as a congregation – make that, well-connected, because undergirding all of this is not just a human connection, but a godly one.

We are connected.

One more example of connection. As we bid Bethany farewell today as our Student Pastor, I am reminded of the many seminary students who have come through our doors over the years. Think of the many congregations and ministries they are now serving and the many, many people whose lives have been touched by them. They are leading congregations, teaching in seminaries, working in hospitals…Oglethorpe Presbyterian is a living, breathing example of this connectional DNA!

Because we are…connected.

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God is speaking. Can you hear it?

When I was 13, I got my first walkman. For those of you too young to know what I’m talking about, it was essentially a giant ipod that could store up to one whole album at a time. The album that was on constant rotation at the time was 90125 by prog rockers Yes. I had to be careful not to turn the music up too loud, lest I miss the dulcet tones of my parents calling me. The first few times I listened to the opening song, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, there was this sound that came right before the vocals kicked in. It was a kind of a squeal. The problem was that it sounded exactly like my mother’s call, “woohoo!”

I knew the sound of my mother’s voice – probably better than any other sound in the world. But here was this random sound scrap from an 80’s rock song that imitated what I thought I knew.

What about the voice of God? Friends, God is speaking. Can you hear it?

If God is really God, then surely there are times when God’s voice splits the clouds, sets a bush on fire, brings light into being. And yet, most of the time, God’s voice comes through others. In a world of cacophony and chaos, that’s not easy to do. And there are far too many who claim that they speak in God’s name when all they really do is use God’s name. So how do we develop that capacity to tell the difference? How can we cut through the noise to know when it really is God speaking to us?

There’s an app that I have learned to love. It’s called SoundHound, and it’s a song recognition program. If a tune comes on the radio or in the restaurant that I don’t know, all I do is touch a button and, within seconds, it gives me an answer. The way it works is that it has access to a massive database of songs. It essentially takes a fingerprint of the song sample you give it, and then matches it up with its massive database. The problem comes when there is too much other noise – either the song is too quiet, or the crowd is too loud. As precise as this technology might be, it doesn’t know how to focus on what’s important.

We do have that advantage over programming, that we can filter out what is unimportant. The trick is learning what it is that is necessary and what is frivolous. In our Scripture lessons today, we have these images of the shepherd and sheep. We have the shepherd of Psalm 23, who calls the sheep by name so that they follow him faithfully into the greenest pastures and the stillest waters. In the gospel of John, Jesus uses a similar image to talk about the faithful as sheep who recognize the sound of the guard who leads them out. When they hear a stranger’s voice, he says, they will know to flee. In other words, the sheep know without a doubt whose voice they can trust.

Now: putting aside for a moment the indignity of being compared to sheep, how does this sit with us? How confident are we that we can recognize God’s voice when it calls us out to feast and be satisfied?

I love playing trivia, because I apparently don’t know how to focus on what’s important. We had a trivia team that played together regularly, and each one of us had our areas of expertise. One of mine was song recognition. I could pick out the song, artist, and year within moments almost every single time. But there was one spectacular fail I still remember. The first few notes started, a guitar distorted with a waa-waa pedal, followed by a cymbal crash. That was it. No vocals, nothing. I was stumped, so I gave it my best guess: the theme song to “Three’s Company.” The answer? Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On.” So close!

I had probably heard the song before, but not enough to recognize it. If we compare the brain to something like SoundHound, I simply didn’t have the database in place. The more often we have heard a song, the more often we are likely to recognize it. Even if it’s a song we don’t know by an artist we love, we are better suited to hear it correctly.

So how do we measure up when looking at God’s back catalog? Have we heard enough of what God has already done so that we can recognize it when God’s voice rings through again?

The goal here is competency. If we think of it like a language, whether that’s a foreign language or the insider language of a particular industry, you might eventually get to fluency; but long before that point, you’ll get to where you’re comfortable, even competent. And that’s the point here: we should be aiming for that place where we are confident, but not overconfident, in our ability to recognize God at work in our lives.

There are three phrases I want to suggest to help us filter through the noise. I am lifting these wholesale from Richard Hays, New Testament scholar at Duke University. And they are: community, cross, and new creation.

  • Community: God does not call us to gated lives, but to live in the world. We care about the fate of others. This is why we are horrified by the kidnapping of Nigerian girls. We are enriched by our interactions with others, even (and especially) if they don’t agree with us about everything. We can recognize God’s voice because it speaks to us of God’s desire for us to live connected to others, not to live in isolation. Community.
  • Cross: God’s relationship with humanity becomes most visible in the form of the cross. It was and is the embodiment of selfless love. There are those who will try to emphasize God’s judgment or wrath over God’s grace and mercy, and the cross is the clearest indicator that it is compassion and sacrificial love that reign supreme. Cross.
  • New Creation: Being in relationship with God means that we are changed. Our lives are visibly different because of our encounters with the risen Christ, transformed more and more into God’s likeness and wonder. New Creation.

These three – community, cross, and new creation – are a great way to think about how it is that we recognize God’s voice in the middle of the noisy chaos that envelops us. And the way we build our database, our vocabulary of God-speak? If you’ve been with us some this year, you know what I’m about to say: prayer.

You see, here’s the thing: what Jesus tells us in the lesson from John is something that ought to give us great courage. And that is that Jesus is not the guard in the story, but the gate. Jesus is the very thing that gives us the protection we desire. What I hope this means is that we can have the courage to take a chance, to learn this new language, to step out into this new adventure, confident in the fact that Christ will keep us safe from what it is that truly harms us.

God is already speaking, calling out to us. Can we hear it?

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He saw and believed…but he did not yet understand.

Let’s be honest: this is an odd story. Granted, it’s pretty central to our whole enterprise here. Without this resurrection thing, there’s not much reason for us to be here today – or any day, for that matter. What grabs me today, though, is this little nugget about John, the beloved yet unnamed disciple in the story. When he enters the tomb, he sees that it is empty, and so, we are told, he believes. But he did not yet understand.

John believed…but didn’t understand. Believed what? Understood what? Is it saying that he believed that the tomb was empty, but didn’t understand that Jesus was alive? Possibly…but I think if that were the case, he would be as despondent as Mary and join in the hunt for the body.

No…as strange as it may sound, I think it’s more likely that John believed in the resurrection before he understood it.

That’s not too much of a stretch, really, is it? We have gut feelings, those initial reactions where we just know something is wrong – or right – long before we can put words to those feelings. And there are probably a lot of us here who feel like John when it comes to faith. We believe that resurrection is possible – even believe that Jesus rose from the dead – but remain clueless about the mechanics of it.

At the same time, there are probably a lot of us here – and way more out there – who can’t believe in something so absurd as resurrection until we first understand it. Is it really too much to ask to see proof before we agree? No one expects us to sign a contract if we don’t get to read it first. Why should the resurrection be any different?

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. We think things through. That’s what separates us from the rest of the animals, isn’t it, the ability to reason? Without that, we would be no more than hairless apes, giving in to every whim and urge.

It’s kind of adorable that we think so highly of ourselves. The truth is that we are a bundle of logic and feeling. And there are times when we need to let feeling take the lead.

Some of you might know the story of the Getty Kouros, an ancient Greek statue that the Getty Museum bought for nine million dollars in 1985. Before making the purchase, they put it through rigorous scientific testing to gauge its authenticity. The problems came after they paid for it. Several times, the Getty invited art experts to come at marvel at their purchase. And it happened repeatedly: the expert would walk in and immediately get a feeling that the piece was a fake. And the more the statue was studied, the more that initial feeling seemed to be true. Now, the statue bears a label saying, “Greek, about 530BC, or modern forgery.”

The experts who spotted the fake right away had spent years practicing their craft. Starting in internships and working their way up, they logged thousands of hours looking at archaeological finds to the point that their gut would know a fraud from the real deal long before they could explain it. Believing before understanding? It’s what we’re wired for. And the more we practice, the more we can be like John, where a mere glimpse of an empty tomb tells us everything we need to know to believe.

Remember: John and the other disciples had followed Jesus day in and day out for at least three years. We don’t know how much they knew of the faith prior to Jesus calling them. But by the time Easter came around, they had logged enough hours to recognize a miracle long before they could understand it.

Do we? Or have we even put in the time? If the goal is to build up muscle memory for faith, then we need to log the hours. And when we do, we will not only know the truth in our guts. We will know enough to trust that feeling, the glimpse that tells us all we need to believe. Understanding will follow…sometimes we just need to give it the time it needs.

So if that’s our destination, having enough practice under our belts to recognize miracles, then what’s the path? How do we get there?

I’d like to meet the person who invented the pedometer. What a brilliantly simple concept: an inconspicuous device that clips onto your waist and counts your paces. 10,000 steps a day is the goal, a distance that is an indicator that we are doing what we need to in order to keep fit. In essence, we have taken this complex idea of physical fitness and have managed to boil it down to a simple, achievable goal.

I would love find the faith pedometer. Faith is complex. Is there something that would help us boil it down to something simple so we can log those faith hours?

If you have been reading this blog at all this year, you probably have a hunch of what I’m about to say. As a community and as individuals, we have been growing toward a daily practice of five minutes of prayer. And as I’ve said before, what I have found so rewarding about doing so is how it seems to tune me into God’s wavelength, heightening my awareness to the extraordinary shining through the ordinary. I still think that’s a worthy goal to strive toward.

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote our individual commitments to prayer down. Those commitments now hang in the Narthex.

I’m also aware that, for many of you, Easter is one of the few times you’ll darken the door of a church over the course of the year. I know you don’t come to hear a guilt trip from the pulpit, and that’s not what I want to do. What I do want to do is encourage you to consider is that church could be a key part of building up that muscle memory, of logging those hours, of refining those feelings so that a mere glance at an empty tomb tells us everything you need to know.

I was fortunate enough to be raised in a healthy church environment. I sat between Grandmommy and Granddaddy each and every Sunday. I followed along in the hymns and the Bible readings. I knew the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by heart. That was all fine and good. But when my first real adult crisis came along, when a loved one faced an illness that threatened to take them away, that’s when all those hours bore fruit. The muscle memory kicked in. When words eluded me, the Lord’s Prayer bubbled up and took their place. The years of practice took over and gave me the faith I didn’t have so that I could hold on until logic and understanding finally caught up.

Look: there are so many things we are willing to stretch ourselves to the point of discomfort. We get up earlier than we would like because of what time they want us at work. We wage the battle to make sure the kids go to school, even if they don’t want to, because we know it will matter down the road. We stay up late to crunch for that exam. We get up early to get to the gym. We watch our diets and our wallets as a matter of discipline.

So here’s my question: how does faith fit?Or does it? If the job goes, if the education fizzles, if we are dangerously ill, if the loved one is no longer with us, when life hits that crisis, will we have the faith to hold on until understanding can catch up?

A couple of months ago, post-it notes started popping up around the church. Some of you probably noticed them today. There are little positive messages on them like, “You are not a burden” or “You are loved” or my favorite, “If I weren’t a post-it, I’d give you a hug.” I’ll admit that I had a role in getting those started, but pretty soon, they started showing up in handwriting that wasn’t mine. It became viral, a kind of Guerrilla Grace.

But there’s a problem with these notes: they’re in the wrong place. Let me rephrase that: these are the kinds of messages we need to hear and see in church. And there are too many churches where, unfortunately, people are exposed to the exact opposite. It’s just that…these are the kinds of messages we need everywhere. Imagine: what would it be like if that dysfunctional graffiti on the bathroom walls was replaced with encouragement; or even if there was one shining light, a simple note in the midst of the dreck that says, “God loves you”?

You see, what I believe, what I know in my gut but don’t yet understand is that we can change the culture! But it means we have to get outside this building. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a good thing to come here, to see the empty tomb and recognize the miracle that it is. What is crucial is what we do with that belief. If we keep it to ourselves, that’s just selfish hoarding. But if we, like Mary Magdalene, run to tell the others, that’s how God will use us to transform the world!

So I’ve got an assignment for you today. Take your own post-it notes (which, by the way, were invented by a Presbyterian). Spend some time writing messages on them, notes of affirmation, of love, of Guerrilla Grace. Keep them close by. And when the moment strikes you, put it up wherever you go. At home, at work, at school, be a part of this amazing movement that lets the world know how much it is loved. Share it. Repeat it. Spread it! Believe it, even if you don’t yet understand it.

The truth is that one of these notes may be just the glimpse someone needs so they can believe the tomb is empty.

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!

Alleluia, Alleluia!

 

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RisenGratitude for what is.
Gratitude for what was.
Gratitude for what will be.

Our lesson this morning from John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. It is a story about prayer. It is a story that reminds us that prayer comes in many shapes and sizes, many forms and practices. And what lies at the heart of it all, regardless of what it might look like, is our theme for the day: gratitude.

We have been talking a lot about prayer this year. And, I hope, we have been praying a lot, too. I have been challenging each of you to take on a daily practice of prayer. And as you have heard from me and from others in our community, more than anything else, I hope you have seen that prayer is a very individual practice. What works for me might not work for you. Maybe it’s sitting still that calms you enough to enter into prayerfulness. Or perhaps it’s being on the move that helps you keep pace with God’s activity in the world.

Have you figured out what works for you? Are you at least on your way? Maybe you don’t have it all pinned down, but have you at least gained some insight into what kinds of prayer might be best for you. How many of you feel like you are at least pointed in the right direction? Whether you feel like you can say yes or no to that, today is all about encouraging you to keep at it.

Gratitude takes many forms. So let’s start with gratitude for what is. In many ways, this is the one that ought to be clearest. We see what we have, the blessings around us, and we are grateful. We recognize how blessed we are, and we give thanks to God, the giver of every good and perfect gift.

That seems to be what’s at work behind our lesson from John today. Mary and Martha call out to Jesus not only because they know what Jesus is capable of, but because they don’t want to lose what they have – namely, their brother, Lazarus. They may not be able to name it in that moment, but for them, there is gratitude for what is in this sibling relationship – so much so that they want to hold onto it.

That gratitude is also there in the disciples’ decision to go to visit Lazarus with Jesus. Word reaches them about Lazarus when they are across the Jordan River. Bethany is just outside Jerusalem. And knowing what they know about Jerusalem, about Jesus’ escalating conflict with the powers that be based in that city, they have a sense that going to Bethany means going toward certain death. And yet, they go. Led by Thomas, the one who later doubts, they go.

Again, I’m not sure the disciples would name that decision as one of gratitude, but they know and appreciate what they have in being with Jesus. They have seen his power. They have learned from his wisdom. They don’t want to lose that, but they know that traveling with him to the bitter end might mean having access to it just a little bit longer.

There’s a funny thing about this kind of gratitude, though – the gratitude for the present, the most tangible form of gratitude. It’s the one we are most likely to take for granted. There is something about us that seems to be uncomfortable with comfort. The moments where we should be most content are usually the ones in which we are most likely to be discontent. We are more likely to desire what we don’t have than what we do.

My encouragement to you is to spend some time taking stock of those things for which you ought to be grateful. Don’t get drawn in by jealousy, by looking at what someone else has and getting suckered into desire for what they have and you don’t. There are blessings right beneath our nose that we often miss because we won’t sit still long enough to notice them.

Gratitude for what is; gratitude for what was.

When Elizabeth and I were living in Louisville, one of the strongest draws back to Atlanta for us was family. We knew we were about to start our own, and we wanted our little family to be connected with that larger network here in Atlanta: cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents.

My grandmother was ninety-five years old when we moved back. She lived just down the street from here. And every Friday, we would go and have lunch with her. She lived to be ninety-nine. I cherished her, and there are many dear memories that will live on. In some ways, it feels foolish to weep over a life that lasted just shy of a century. And yet, I did; because we miss what we love.

Every loss contains at least an element of sadness. I realize that for some Christians, that idea comes close to blasphemy. The thinking goes that we are a people of hope, trusting in the promise of life beyond life. Therefore, shouldn’t death be an occasion for rejoicing? My response is simply this: Jesus wept. If it’s good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for us.

Jesus not only knows this promise of eternal life more than any of us, he inhabits it; embodies it. He tells the disciples that the death of Lazarus is an opportunity to show the power of God. And yet, when he sees the mourners crying, he is moved. When he makes his way to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he weeps. He doesn’t, for a moment, doubt God’s power in what is about to happen. And yet, he grieves. I don’t think this is just compassion – though I’m sure compassion is part of what moves him so deeply. Jesus is, quite simply, sad. When the reality of Lazarus’ death hits him in the face, he cries.

And what lies just beneath the surface of sadness, I believe, is gratitude. If we lose something or someone we don’t particularly care about, then we don’t tend to shed any tears. But when we cherish someone or something we lose, we are heartbroken. That heartbreak is shaped by many things: sadness for what will never be, emptiness for what is lost. And yet, right there in the midst, I believe, is gratitude. We may not be able to see it right away, but it is there, and it will come.

Gratitude for what is; gratitude for what was; gratitude for what will be.

This is the gratitude of hope, the gratitude of possibilities. It is an intangible gratitude, because it is the gratitude of the unknown. It’s the gratitude of a stone rolled away, of a dead man walking out of a tomb, of a community surrounding him and finishing the work of resurrection.

And that’s where today’s conversation, hopefully, moves us forward in the months to come. While we will not be talking about prayer as much as we have been, we will continue to grow as a praying congregation. My vision is that every single one of us is praying daily. Some of you are already there. Some of you are on your way. Some of you probably think I’m way off base here. All I can tell you is that my own life is better, and markedly so, because of daily prayer. How can I not want that for each you?

You see, the more we are in prayer, the more we are in tune with God. And the more we are in tune with God, the more we know the character of Jesus that is at the heart of God. If what will be is in God’s hands, then hope is the surest thing of all, because hope is at the heart of God. What will be may not look like what we expect. And yet, what will be is as outrageous as a dead man living, because what will be belongs to God.

Today, I want you to do is to make a commitment to what your prayer life will look like from here. It could be a word, a phrase, a doodle, a drawing, whatever it is that makes the most sense to you.

For me, the word is consistency. The more I practice prayer, the more consistent I am with my daily habit; and yet, I still feel like I am too easily thrown off track. So my commitment from this day forward is consistency.

Maybe that’s true for you; or maybe it’s about getting started – really giving this prayer thing a try. Or perhaps it’s about figuring out what it is that works for you. Are you distracted too easily? Do you need the focus of a candle, a song, a Biblical text as your centering mantra? Or is it that you want to be more mindful of how it is that you pray? Maybe it’s about spending that daily time journaling, writing or drawing your way with God. I don’t know what it is that calls to you, challenges you, comforts you. Prayer is as individual as you are.

Maybe it’s the commitment of accountability that you’re looking for. If so, then I would suggest a prayer partner.

A prayer partner can be someone you pray with regularly, or someone who prays for you regularly, or someone who checks on your prayer life regularly, or any combination of these.

My hope is that gratitude will permeate all of your prayers: gratitude for what is; gratitude for what was; gratitude for what will be.

Amen.

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cover_688992009“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Love is the mark of the church. Love, if we take Jesus at his word, is what sets Easter people apart from the crowds.

This lesson from John’s gospel takes place during the Last Supper. In addition to introducing the practices of communion and foot washing, John records Jesus’ words as a kind of lengthy farewell address. And these few verses lie at its heart: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

It is also from these verses that our Holy Week celebration of Maundy Thursday gets its name. “Maundy” is an Old English word that means, quite simply, “commandment”. We might call it Commandment Thursday, which sounds kind of off-putting, frankly…except that the command, in this case, is to love one another.

Love is what marks Easter people.

We have been using this season of Easter, the seven weeks between Easter Sunday and Pentecost, to explore what it means to be Easter people. To follow Jesus means to live beyond the good news of Easter, to know that Maundy Thursday is not where the story ends, commandment or not. It’s why ancient Christians chose Sunday as the day of worship: the seventh day was for resting, but the first day was a reminder that life begins again at Easter. It’s why the font has eight sides, as those who are baptized are ushered into this new, Easter life.

New life, and the love that marks it, is what shapes Easter people.

Is the church known as a place of love?

This past week, I attended my cousin’s funeral. He lived well into his 90’s, and so it was an opportunity for celebration. He was a devout Catholic, and so, as was fitting, his church held a memorial mass. They were very kind about the fact that communion was not offered to all, but it was still made clear that non-Catholics were not welcome to receive. Though I am not a Catholic, I appreciate the reasons for this practice. And yet, as the priest consecrated the elements, it was Jesus’ words of invitation, not the politely worded doctrine in the bulletin, which rang in my ears: “Take, eat, all of you…”

The disconnect between promise and execution seemed so obvious. And yet, it’s easy game to find fault with others when we look from outside. Where, I wondered, do we cause those same kinds of disconnects? Is there language we use, our own Presby-speak code, which leaves others wanting a church in-ear translator? When we say, “greet the session in the Narthex after the benediction,” greet the who in the which after the what now?

And what about our communion practices? Back in Reformation days, if you wanted to receive, you needed a chip as proof that you had done adequate preparation. It was a kind of a confession-lite. When I was a child, we were required to take a communion readiness class so that we would know what all the fuss was about. Today, the requirement is that you must be baptized – it doesn’t matter what kind of baptism, but baptism nonetheless – in order to receive communion. And even that is up-for-grabs, and I think rightly so.

After all, how many of us can explain in detail what it is that communion means? A show of hands from all who can explain Calvin’s understanding of the “real, spiritual presence.” Or is it enough to know that, by participating, you belong to something bigger than yourself?

My wife Elizabeth tells the story of growing up Episcopalian. As a child, before she was deemed ready to receive, she would go up for communion with her mother. When she got the priest’s blessing instead of the bread and cup, she would scream her head off…because whatever she may or may not have grasped of any kind of doctrine, she knew she was being left out of something special. And, isn’t that its own disconnect between preaching and practice?

And speaking of disconnects, how about a lengthy explanation of communion practices on a Sunday on which we are not going to have communion?

But I digress…the point in all of this is Jesus’ command to love: a love that spreads the table wider than we can even imagine. After all, when Jesus broke bread in that Upper Room, he even served it to the one who went out to betray him. There is no greater love than a love that includes those who would do us in. Who among us is willing to love that broadly?

What does that love look like in our lives? Not just any love, mind you, but a love that reflects the love of Jesus himself, a love that is willing to go to any length, even to the cross, to open wide the gates of the kingdom?

Last Sunday, as the people of Boston were still reeling from the marathon bombings and high-stakes police chase, I came across an article written by Boston native Michael Rogers, who is about to be ordained as a Jesuit priest. Writing an open letter to suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, he penned words that, to me, demonstrated the kind of love of which Jesus speaks:

I am glad that you are going to prison, and I hope that you will have many long years there…I hope that no one I love will ever be threatened by you again, but I can’t hate you. I can’t hate you because whatever you brought into Boston was enough hate for a good long while. I won’t and can’t hate any more. I can’t hate you because I remember being nineteen. I thought many things were a good idea which weren’t. I never would have went where you were with that, but I was certainly not an adult…I can’t hate you because, even though you did unspeakable things…somehow you are still my brother and your death can never be my gain…I don’t and can’t hate you. I will love and pray for you, because somehow your sin was turned for good, and my community and the people I love will only be stronger in the end.

What does it look like to love with the love of Jesus here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian? Where is it that we are being commanded to love beyond the barriers we may have constructed? Where is it that you are being commanded to love without limits? Is there a neighbor or a friend who needs to know how loved they are? Is there someone in your life whom you know is aching in loneliness, who needs to know that they, too, belong at the table? Is there a kindness you can offer to rebuke spite and the ill it intends?

Love, the love of Jesus, is what marks us as the church. It is what sets us apart as Easter people. It is what ushers in the new heaven and the new earth. Are we a people of love?

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Welcomed and loved…

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

Welcomed and loved…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcomed and loved…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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There’s something about us that makes us root for the underdog. It’s the way we tend to view our own origins as a nation, the under-funded and poorly-trained Minutemen up against the massive firepower of the British Empire. It is also how we tend to describe national triumphs over injustice: ending slavery, burying Jim Crow, championing equality for those who were once excluded.

The underdog stories, whether in real life or in fiction, are the ones we turn to again and again as evidence of the world we want to believe in, where anything is possible: Jeremy Lin leading the Knicks on a surprise winning streak, Luke Skywalker saving the galaxy from the Empire, William Wallace holding the British at bay, Frodo Baggins destroying the ring and sparing Middle Earth, the US Hockey Team taking the gold from the Soviets.

We may know that such stories are the exception, not the rule, but they seem to serve as a way to give us hope in a world that can often seem so unfair, where injustice seems to have the last word all too often. We want to believe that the worst team can beat the best team on any given Sunday. And while it’s theoretically true, the odds tend to be pretty stacked.

What’s most distressing is that there are losses that are about more than just team rivalries, losses with real life consequences.

On Good Friday, two men drove around northern Tulsa with intent to kill. Details are still emerging as the two suspects have been located and arrested, but this much is true: three people are dead because of their rampage. One of the victims was 49 year-old Donna Fields. Fields had battled some fierce demons in her own lifetime, including addiction to drugs and alcohol. But she had turned her life around, getting involved in her church and reaching out to help those who had fallen prey to the same problems.

What had seemed like a victory for the underdog, a broken life transformed into one of healing, turned quickly back to sadly predictable defeat. And rather than this being a loss in an otherwise winning season, such moments feel much more like part of humanity’s long-standing losing streak.

And yet, here we are, people of faith, walking in the footsteps of those who insist on telling us that hope has the final word, that life beats death, that the tomb is empty and the Lord is not here but risen.

Those messages of victory are the ones that we see again and again in Scripture. In the book of Acts, the plucky little band of Jesus’ followers picks up where the Messiah left off. Defying the odds, not to mention the strong hand of the religious leaders, they go on to spread the gospel and build the church in the most trying of circumstances. In the lesson we just read, we see the bigger drama in miniature. Peter and John are arrested. They have healed a man who lay at the gate of the temple, and have been teaching about Jesus and resurrection. In the midst of their defense, they cite the ultimate underdog text from the Psalms: the stone the builders tossed aside has now been used as the very foundation upon which everything rests. Despite the overwhelming opposition, they are freed with nothing more than a warning. The little guy wins. The favorite sulks away in defeat. And the drama goes on.

It begins to feel like disconnect, doesn’t it, between faithful hope and real life experiences? As Christians, we are asked to believe in the borderline absurd. On our best days, we might actually get close. And yet, much of the time, we tend to live as though such stories are just that: stories, myths, stuff that would be nice to believe if we could just suspend logic and reason and critical thought, not to mention experience. Either that, or we manage to survive with a kind of cognitive dissonance, putting our mental and spiritual trust in Jesus, but living life as though it all depends on us. Our faith tends more towards word and speech, not truth and action. What happens in Tulsa doesn’t just stay in Tulsa; it re-affirms our suspicions that the odds are stacked against us.

But maybe that’s the problem: we are so steeped in our culture of either/or, of win/lose, that we don’t even know that we’ve started out with the wrong question to begin with. If our options are polarized, if we can end up with either victory or defeat, with success or failure, then we will do everything in our power to be sure that we win. Because the alternative, well, it’s for losers, isn’t it?

But how is it that we define winning? What does success look like? Did Jesus succeed? By the standards of our society, absolutely not. He was born poor and remained poor; he was supremely gifted, but used those gifts not to amass wealth or power, but a small, committed band of followers. And when the going got tough, those followers fell away, one by one, until he was all alone. And that’s when he died: broken, humiliated, friendless.

Of course, we know the rest of the story: Jesus rises from the dead, goes on to encourage the disciples, ascends into heaven, et cetera; but that’s not success in the way we view it. It’s too ethereal, other worldly, metaphysical. It’s not nearly material enough. And so we end up crafting our visions of Jesus’ return to make sure that it conforms with how we view success: the master warrior, destroying his enemies, reigning as king forever and ever. Amen.

It feels like a visit to the eye doctor: better or worse? Number one, or number two? Maybe the problem starts because we’ve got on the wrong lenses to begin with.

Back to Tulsa. As Donna Fields’ pastor reflected on her life, one that had been ravaged by addictions but had become marked by hope and joy, he spoke of her this way:

“She stood for justice. She understood the streets…She has been an inspiration to us rather than us to her…to see what God can do with anybody.”

Do you notice the turn? Do you see how the script gets flipped? This isn’t a lesson of how the church saved her, or even of how good Christians ministered to her. As her pastor said, it’s about how she, the ex-junkie, ministered to them. It’s about what God, not the church, did to and through her; and how that stands as proof of what God can do with anybody.

The impact of Donna Fields’ change life becomes clearer the more we hear about the aftermath. Her brother is anxious to see justice for his sister. But when he was asked about the death penalty as a form of justice, his answer is clear:

“I don’t hate them. That’s not what God put us down here for, to hate.”

The principle that ought to underline all that we do is not winning or losing, not betting on the underdog or rooting for the favorite. The point is to recognize how God is at work, and to find out how we can get in on that action!

In our Acts’ lesson, our win-lose lenses show us a temporary victory by Peter and John. But the bigger story is that God used them for healing: the physical healing of the man at the gates of the temple, spiritual healing of the people who hear them speak and see them not backing down. And even though they know they have the true power, the power of God, the power of the risen Christ on their team, they don’t Lord it over their opponents. Instead, they give witness to the one who gave them that power in the first place. And once again, the script is flipped: the stone the builders rejected not only became useful, but became the cornerstone of the whole structure.

And in the lesson from John’s letter, the clearest sign of Christ’s presence within us is not victory or success. It’s love; the love we demonstrate with our words and with our actions, the way we put our money and our time and our talents where our mouths and our hearts and our faith reside. After all, as the lesson of Tulsa reminds us, God didn’t put us here to hate anybody.

Can we re-evaluate the rules of the game? Can we move beyond winning or losing into healing and loving? Is it even possible in an election year where campaigns are just barely getting warmed up?

Friends, God wants to work through us. Christ wants to live within us, and to let the world know who it is that motivates our love, our compassion, or desire to keep on, even when it feels like the odds are stacked against us.

Let the games begin!

Amen.

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