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Posts Tagged ‘mercy’

We’re not perfect.

I hope I’m not the one to break the news to you, but I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. We’re not perfect. Simply acknowledging this fact is where worship can begin.

This morning, we continue our closer look at worship – its shape, its purpose, its intentions. And as we do, we linger over this moment of preparation.

Worship begins in the gathering; and as we talked about last week, the moment that we actually gather for worship is a bit of a mystery. It happens somewhere along the way so that, by the time we physically gather in the Sanctuary for the worship service, the moment of gathering in God’s presence has already happened.

From there, our worship moves into a time of preparation. Again, it’s not a cut and dried moment, but rather a shift, a second layer to this process of gathering.

You see, for Presbyterians, the fulcrum of worship is the Word. It is the high point. We elevate the Word, because we believe God is accessible in the Word. What do we mean by “Word”? Well, for one, it’s the Word as found in Scripture. And it’s more. It’s the Word that is spoken or heard in the sermon, or sung in music. It’s the Word we touch, taste, and feel in sacraments of baptism and communion. And it’s the Word Incarnate – that is, Jesus himself.

Before we get to the Word, though, we have to be ready. Prepared. And that preparation has three movements.

The first one is our honesty. If we really want to come to God, access God, hear and experience the Word of God, then we first need to be honest with ourselves, with each other, and with God. This is why our worship always contains confession toward the beginning. And boy, it can be a tough moment to face.

We have just gotten here. For those of us who have been here for a while, we have greeted familiar faces. For those who are relatively new, Oglethorpe Presbyterian prides itself on our hospitality, so I hope you have been welcomed warmly into this place and this time. There is a sense of eager anticipation as the music begins. We quiet down as the bells ring, and listen to a couple of announcements – possibly even getting excited about upcoming events in the life of the church, or in sharing good news. We rise to sing a song of praise, one that gets us going, puts a smile on our face. And then: sit down. Tell the truth. You didn’t get everything right this week, did you?

If we are taking worship seriously, this is the moment all of the air can get sucked out of the room. I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. We’re not perfect. And it’s time to own it.

Before we pray, we are reminded why: if we say we have no sin, we are not fooling anyone but ourselves. But in the act of confession, we come before God honestly and openly. That word, “sin,” is a loaded one. And it means more than the meaning we tend to give it:

  • “Sin” includes those things we should not do that we do anyway. We vent our anger at someone who had nothing to do with what made us angry in the first place.
  • It also includes those things that we should do that we don’t. We miss an opportunity for generous compassion with someone in pain and agony.
  • And over all of this, “sin” is our general state of imperfection. We are mortal. We get sick. Our bodies betray us.

Even at our absolute best, we will always miss the mark. Just as no bowler consistently rolls a 300, just as no basketball player has 100% free throw percentage, just as no singer hits the perfect pitch every time, no matter the excellence we strive for, we might make it most of the way, but we won’t get all the way there.

I want to be clear: this focus on “sin” is not meant as an exercise in flagellation or a belittling or a shame. For some, I know that this is how it can be received. But if that is the intent, then even our act of confession is missing the point. The reason, rather, is honesty. It is self-reflection. It is an effort at transparency before God and within the congregation.

Other manifestations of Christianity focus on the private act of confession: the intimate secrets told in the sanctity of a confessional booth. While we may not have a wooden box tucked away in a corner, we, too, believe there is purpose in personal confession. It happens, more often than you might think, in the pastor’s office, or with a trusted therapist. And it happens in worship.

You see, what we do during this one hour on Sunday should shape everything we do throughout the week. It is, at the very least, a touchstone, that one moment where we are reminded of what faith calls us to do. And among those things we are meant to do, being honest with others and with ourselves is central.

In the world in which we live, in the society of which we are a part, such an act of confession is counter-cultural – downright revolutionary, in fact. The public apologies we see and hear are rife with conditions: “I am sorry if my actions offended.” They become meaningless, and we who hear them become jaded.

So what would it mean if we were to offer apologies without following them with rebuttals? What would it mean to say, “I’m sorry” and not follow it with “but you have to understand…”? Isn’t it enough to be contrite, to confess? Aren’t relationships bigger than just the one moment? Can’t it bear the rest of the conversation? Where is the harm, really, in admitting a mistake? Is it because we are afraid that others will see us as weak? Is it that we are afraid that others will smell blood in the water?

It is my conviction that we have something very different to offer the world. Our vulnerability, offered without fear, speaks volumes. It may be the most important witness we can offer society. Where Christians can be seen as self-righteous and judgmental, we can be living proof that not only is there more to the picture, but that this other image is simply unfaithful.

And that is because confession does not stand alone. It is just the first act. And without the rest, then it does become a moment to beat ourselves up for what we do or don’t do. But our confession is always – always – followed by second movement: pardon.

There is mercy; forgiveness. We are reminded that this honesty about ourselves is not done in a vacuum. You see, the counterpoint to our imperfection is God’s perfection. When we get it wrong, God makes it right.

Our lesson this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews draws particular attention to the grand sweep of the whole drama. From the very beginning, God has been whole; while we, though beloved of God and created in the image of God, are broken. Think back to the many lessons of Scripture: Adam and Eve, violating God’s one request, and eating the forbidden fruit; Noah and his family, singled out among a world of corruption to continue this grand experiment; or Abraham and his offspring, selected to live in covenant with God; the Israelites, neglecting the promises over and over again; the prophets, sent again and again to remind them of God’s faithfulness.

Time and time again, our ancestors veered off the path. And we, unfortunately, have followed proudly in their wandering footsteps. And yet, this moment of Jesus brings it all back together, giving us the wholeness we so desperately need.

You see, as much as we are unable to make up for our missteps, God pulls it all together in Jesus. Our imperfect, broken vessels are filled with healing. And the light within shines out through our cracks. Jesus became, in the words of Hebrews, “like his brother and sisters in every way. This was so he could become a merciful and faithful high priest serving God, wiping away the sins of the people through sacrifice.”

As we say, week in and week out, in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! This is what gives us the strength to rise, to sing praise to God, to prepare ourselves, truly, to hear and sense and experience and then live the Word of God. And that’s just what is meant to happen in worship. For the rest of the week, and for the rest of our lives, we are meant to carry this joy, this knowledge, this wisdom with us. And when we do, when we recognize that we ourselves are forgiven, then we might just have the strength and ability to forgive others.

We are honest. We are forgiven. And then, we are on the move.

My favorite moment in worship here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian is the passing of the peace. As one of our former student pastors once said, “It is the moment in worship when we are most ourselves.” Amen! One of you commented to me that passing the peace in many congregations is a formal, mechanical turn of 360 degrees, where you shake the hands of those next to, in front of, and behind you. For us, by contrast, it is the opening of the flood gates, the beginning of a moment of holy, almost unbridled chaos. We get up and out of our seats. We are on the move.

When you are visiting with us, I know it can be disorienting. You might be expecting a brief delay in the important business of worship. In truth, though, passing the peace is, in itself, an important part of our worship. It really is who we are, that holy image of God within. We are, at our best, a people who genuinely love and care not only for one another, but for all our brothers and sisters who bear God’s sacred imprint.

And whether we recognize it or not, it flows right out of that act of confession, of honesty and transparency. From where I stand, it is as though mercy enters our honest imperfection, and in so doing, fills us to overflowing. And this causes us to spill out of the pews, into the aisles, filling the air with greetings, laughter, and joy.

And so, in our honesty, in receiving forgiveness, and in passing that forgiveness along, we are prepared to hear the Word of God. We receive it. We rest in it. We are troubled and blessed by it. And as worship comes to a close, the hope is that we are carried by it, spilling out into the streets of God’s beloved, broken world.

May that be what we do this day and every day.

Amen.

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Feast

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

The table is prepared. Let us keep the feast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Our acts of compassion should be as natural as breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

Amen.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASometimes, the questions are clearer than the answers.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: there will be no math in today’s sermon. You all have put up with me talking fairly frankly about money a couple of times over the past few weeks, and so I will not be doing so today. Instead, as we continue moving toward Stewardship Dedication Sunday, I want to pull back to build a bigger picture of Stewardship – in other words, what it means to take care of the things and the people whom God has entrusted to us; what it means to welcome folks into our community and what it means to be a part of this particular community of faith.

And as we do that, let’s jump right in to the lesson we just read from the prophet Micah.

We don’t know much about Micah. Even his name is a question. It translates to, “Who is like the Lord?” and is about the clearest thing we know about the prophet.

We know that he came from humble origins, called from life as a shepherd, into the prophecy game. We also know roughly the time that he preached, largely during the reign of King Hezekiah. And we know what he preached about, which is where we find our way into the text.

Micah comes into his new profession as an outsider. He comes from a small town outside of Jerusalem, not Jerusalem itself. He has spent little, if any, time mingling with those who hold religious authority. He finds the idea that you would put ritual and religious observance above faithfulness and commitment to fairness both new and repellent. And he has seen what the building up of religious authority has done to those outside of its sway.

This hopefully gives some context to the words we read today, that it is not from the seat of power that God’s ruler will come, but rather from quiet little Bethlehem. And it is not with bigger and better burnt offerings that God is pleased, but with concepts like justice, mercy, humility.

Micah is within a strand of the Hebrew Bible that helps prepare the fertile soil in which Jesus’ message will take root. Born in backwater Bethlehem, preaching and teaching among society’s despised and rejected, Jesus seems to be just the kind of leader that Micah anticipated. For those who are steeped in the stories and lessons of the New Testament, the prophetic tradition rings extremely familiar. The authors of the gospels returned to the preaching of Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, among others, to highlight the connection between their Christ and the faith out of which he sprang.

For a moment, though, let’s step back into Micah’s time: his preaching claims that God is more intimate with those on the margins of culture than with those in the halls of power. In a time when political rulers and theological scholars were entwined, this is quite the threatening notion. The very status quo is at stake. And that’s what is so striking: the same ones whose job was the maintenance of religious tradition are the same ones who saw fit to preserve the prophet’s words, ones which seem to cut to the very heart of their own authority.

In other words, within the community of faith, the true community of faith, there is always a healthy dose of honesty and self-awareness. The tradition has its place. No doubt about it. And so do those who question that tradition for the sake of faithfulness. The goal in all of this is truth. And that truth is beyond ours – a truth that, in fullness, can only belong to God.

That’s the challenge, isn’t it, the ever-elusive notion of truth? I’m sure that has always been the case, but in a world of sound bytes and spin the 24-hour news cycle, truth with a capital “T” seems always just beyond our grasp. And if we move beyond the current moment and reflect back on our lives, what each of us has known as true has changed and evolved with life experiences as we are exposed to new ideas, events, people.

This is not only true for us as individuals, but for us as a congregation. One of the things that I have come to appreciate about Presbyterians is our continual desire to ask questions and look beyond the face value of things. When we elect leaders within the congregation, we give them support and trust while also holding them accountable. When our denomination makes decisions, we do so through a deliberate process that always acknowledges we might be wrong – or, at the very least, we know we are not completely right. The way we often talk about it as being a “reformed church, always reforming.” We are not, by any stretch, perfect; and so we hope that our movement is a forward one, ever closer to God’s glory.

For years, the Presbyterian Church believed that women should not be in leadership. Then provision was made for women to serve as deacons; later, the office of elder was opened to women; and finally, a little over 50 years ago, women were ordained as pastors. The capital “T” truth as I see it is that, for many years, we neglected the gifts of ministry that women brought to the table. And the church was poorer for that. It is not that we are now dwelling in full richness, but we have made important strides.

There are many denominations, even Presbyterian ones, who do not agree. In a time when women are CEOs and heads of state, I admit that I don’t understand churches who continue to be led by men only. My hope is that they, too, will see they have kept God’s gifts from fully serving the Church.

But before we wrench our arms from their sockets patting ourselves on the back, let’s keep ourselves honest here: we don’t have it all figured out. We most likely won’t ever have it all figured out – at least, not in this lifetime. And if we are ever convinced of purity of our rightness, well…that’s the moment to beware of.

This, I believe, is a healthy tension. The knowledge that we won’t get it completely right should keep us properly humble. And yet, it should not paralyze us into inaction. Instead, we act, trusting God to make it right when we get it wrong.

That’s the community of faith, I believe, into which we are baptized. And when we welcome Hattie Pierce in baptism later on in our service, we do just that: we welcome her into this imperfect, grace-noted, hope-striving community. When she is here, we remind her that we are always made new, over and over again, in the presence of Christ. Baptism is a once in a lifetime event. And yet, every time we celebrate the sacrament, each of us is called to that renewal within our lives and relationships.

Last month, I invited us to reach out to those whom we know some but want to know more. The invitation was to go beyond our church community and to extend the possibility of friendship with someone we don’t know well, to find out what makes them tick. Several of you have shared your experiences with me about that, and I hope that more of you will do so.

Here’s what I learned: one time is not nearly enough to go deep. Learning what makes someone tick is unlikely to happen in one conversation. And yet, we are also more likely to grow in empathy when we meet someone face to face and hear their story, what shapes them, what moves them, what motivates and inspires them.

And that’s the point that Micah stirs up for me: tradition has its place. It is important. But by itself, it is insufficient. If the church ends up being an echo chamber for those who agree with us, then it has become like Jerusalem: interested in the status quo, maintaining its power and influence, even when its circles are ever-shrinking. If the church and its members are more like Micah, if we grow into prophets of the marketplace, engaged with a multitude of voices and experiences, then tradition is held in tension with faithfulness and the dynamic of an ever-changing world. God does not change. Instead, we grow in our understanding of God.

So my invitation to you is to continue those conversations. Nurture and grow those relationships. Always, always, break down the walls of your own private and public echo chambers. Open them up so that we collectively hear the voices of those who come from the outskirts, the villages, the margins. Keep it flowing so that our identities themselves become wrapped up in questions about God and God’s desires. After all, sometimes the questions are clearer than the answers.

We began today by talking about this mysterious figure named Micah: what we knew about him, what we could guess, and what we could learn. And since the prophet’s name translates as a question, there is no better way than to let his own question ring out: What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God? What else, indeed, is there?

Justice. Mercy. Humility. Let these be our watchwords today and always.

Amen.

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We are never above God’s judgment; and we are never beneath God’s grace.

For the past few weeks, we have spent a lot of time with Moses. He was the great leader of the Hebrew people; and yet we are constantly reminded of his imperfections. We may be tempted to idolize Moses, but time and time again, he makes it clear that his feet are made of clay.

But today we don’t get one of those stories; today, Moses gets to play the hero. The Israelites have groaned against their slavery inEgypt. God has sent the reluctant, excuse-making Moses to confront Pharaoh. Plagues have descended, and now the Israelites are on the run, with the Egyptians close in pursuit.

The Red Sea parts. The Israelites cross on dry ground. And as the Egyptians attempt to do the same, the water comes crashing down on them, and they drown. This really is cinematic stuff. I’m surprised no one has made a movie of this!

These are the stories we long for, where the line between good and evil is clearly marked, where the good triumph, and the evil perish. The good guys get away, and the bad guys are punished. And there is no doubt in our minds that it should be any other way.

How often does life end up being this cut-and-dried?

If we’re not careful, we might chalk this up to a distinction between fact and fantasy: life is tough, full of challenges; the Bible, on the other hand, sure is a nice idea…But when we see things this way, it means we have forgotten the rest of this story: the 400 years of enslavement that came before, and the 40 years of desert wandering that follows.

It’s this last piece which is the focus of our sermon series which begins today, this time in the wilderness. For the Israelites, it was almost like an experiential sorbet of sorts. The slavery of Egypt eventually became a thing of the past, and the land of promise lay just out of reach.

Forty years was enough time for two generations to pass away and two more to come along, meaning that the number of those who experienced both slavery and promise were few, if any. Not even the age-defying Moses got that pleasure, dying on a mountain overlooking where the people were headed.

But what does this Exodus story teach us? As a community of faith, as individuals struggling with what it means to be faithful, how can we connect? We may not be on a physical journey; but is there something that we can learn from this lesson about our own spiritual path and where we find ourselves on it?

I also want to plug our Thursday evening Connect series, beginning a week from Tuesday, which will be asking many of the same questions, but with the leisure to explore them in depth and in conversation with each other.

Today, I simply want to talk about the wilderness as a place framed by two simple truths: we are never above God’s judgment; and we are never beneath God’s grace.

In other words, we can never think of ourselves as so righteous that we are beyond divine accountability. But neither can we think of ourselves as so rotten that we are unworthy of God’s love.

These extremes represent the potential danger of these cut-and-dried passages of Scripture. We tend to self-identify with either the Israelites or the Egyptians so strongly that we cannot imagine anything other than total victory or total defeat.

And that may be the temptation that faces us on days like today. So many in our nation are looking back and remembering the events of September 11, 2001. Much of the conversation we have heard the past few weeks is the same sensationalist drivel that marks so much of our news these days. And much of the thoughtful commentary focused, rightly so, on our economic and military policies over the past ten years.

What has been absent has been theological discussion. Sure, there has been anger vented about the lack of prayer at today’s Ground Zero remembrances. But there has been very little conversation about where God was and is and will be, or where people of faith were and are and ought to be. And what conversation there has been is so over-simplified as to be unhelpful:

For some, 9/11 was a day that clarified our call as the most righteous of nations; for others, it was evidence that we are accursed and have strayed from God’s desires. The truth, unfortunately, is not so simple.

I do not believe that God caused or allowed the terrorist attacks, as some would claim. Nor do I believe that God gave us a righteous, holy mission as a result, either, as others would try to convince us. My faith convinces me that God’s mission that day was as God of courageous rescue and as God of the broken heart. And my faith also convinces me that, ten years on, God’s mission for us is still one of courage and compassion.

We all have our own memories. Elizabeth and I were living in a Palestinian village in the northern West Bank. But though we were a world away, we became aware of the attacks probably like many of you did. My mother-in-law called and told us to turn on CNN to see what was happening.

We watched in horror, worried about friends and family living in New York, working in the financial sector. We heard about the attack on the Pentagon and that there were several planes that were unaccounted for, one crashing in a Pennsylvania field. I remember an overwhelming feeling of dread, convinced that there was much more to come, and yet unable to pull away from the lure of the screen.

What was unique about our situation was location, location, location. In the simplified worldview that quickly developed in some corners, we found ourselves on the “wrong side”, and in “enemy territory”. We were Western American Christians living in an Arab Palestinian Muslim majority. But here’s the thing: we never once felt unsafe.

Friends and co-workers, Muslim and Christian alike, came by to offer their condolences. They, too, were concerned that we might have had family at Ground Zero. And they worried that we might begin to see all Arabs, all Muslims, all non-Westerners in a harsh light.

I’m convinced, regardless of location, that we can all learn something from the story of Red Sea partings. This is one of those clear cases where God has chosen sides, favoring the Israelites and disdaining the Egyptians. And yet, notice what the Israelites don’t do, at least not right away: they don’t celebrate. Their reaction to what has happened is not self-righteousness, but, as various translations put it, “awe”; “fear”. It is as though they have seen the mighty power of God and stand before it with mouths agape. They recognize that they have just been the beneficiaries of God’s direct intervention; but they also seem to recognize that this fearsome power could be turned against them.

We are never above God’s judgment.

And what about the Egyptians? Getting to the rest of their story is a bit more complex, since much of the stories of the Hebrew Bible are written with a nationalist lens, with warring between ancient Israel and ancient Egypt. But the most consistent Biblical image of Egypt is not that of slavery and Pharaoh; it is as a place of refuge. Both Abraham and Joseph’s brothers had fled there, seeking – and finding – respite. And as the infant Jesus was threatened with King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, his parents wisely fled to Egypt where they found safety until Herod was dead and gone.

We are never beneath God’s grace.

Our other two texts today, from Matthew’s gospel and Paul’s letter to Rome, underscore this point.

In Romans, Paul cautions the church against passing judgment – “each of us,” he says, “will be accountable to God.”

And in Jesus’ parable, the point to be made is simply this: we all have access to God’s forgiveness, no matter what. And knowing this binds us to the obligation to pay that mercy forward. We forgive because we are forgiven; or, as we pray to God each Sunday, “Forgive us our debts”, what we owe to you, “as we forgive our debtors”, those who owe us.

We are never above God’s judgment; and we are never beneath God’s grace.

Let it be these two realities that frame our journey through the wilderness. As we follow in the footsteps of the Israelites, let us remember that God thought that they were worth saving. And as that journey continues, let us remember how they grumbled and complained and hoarded resources and built false idols; and as they did, God thought enough of them to hold them accountable.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, whether through the cloud by day or the fire by night, God traveled with them every step of the way. Can we know that the same is true for each one of us? Will we live as though it is?

Amen.

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The service didn’t get recorded this week. sorry. But here’s a little special bonus message:

Some choices are clear: like, never stand under a tree in a thunderstorm.

I have no idea where I first heard this, but I’m sure that it was as a small child. It’s one of those safety lessons we learn when we’re young with the hopes that we might make it: don’t stand under a tree when there is lightning. Don’t touch the stove. Don’t put jellybeans in your ears. You know, the basics.

I don’t know how many of you have ever had the opportunity to put these things into practice, but they’re not always as easy as they might seem when you’re in a real world situation.

When I was in high school, a good friend of mine lived on a farm in Norcross. The land itself was a family heritage, but farming had faded into the family lore. Every year they had a huge July 4th celebration, and what had once probably been a cow pasture was no set aside for the softball field, the grandstand, the picnic area, and the fireworks show.

I would often end up there early in the morning to help with set up. One year, I remember, it was raining; and raining hard. We decided to wait it out in this one guy’s car. I don’t remember his name or anything else; except that he was a racist. Now, it’s one thing to talk to someone who harbors prejudices out of ignorance – there’s always hope that you can enlighten them. It’s another thing altogether when someone claims to have studied the issues and feels that their prejudices are well-grounded. This guy was one of the latter.

So, we had a choice. We could stay in the car with the Grand Wizard, or we could stand out in the open and get soaked. We made some excuse that it looked like the rain was getting lighter and piled out of the car. I honestly don’t remember if it was lightning then or not, but we chose to stand under a nearby grove of trees. Within two minutes, there was a flash, a crack, and a tree no more than five feet from us split in two. Now we had three imperfect choices:

  1. Stay under the trees, despite what mom always taught us
  2. Move out into the open, where we would be the tallest thing around
  3. Go back into the Mel Gibson-mobile

Have you ever found yourself in a no-win situation? Do you feel like you’re in one now? There are those choices that are obvious ones. But there as so many more that remain unclear. Perhaps you’ve even taken the time to make up a list of pros on one side and cons on the other, there still doesn’t seem to be an obvious choice. It could be deciding between a job opportunity and a place that feels like home…or between providing for children or making headway on debt…or between physical health and emotional health…or between styles of worship and music and preaching and church. What are we supposed to do when there’s no “right” answer?

I suppose one place to look is our Genesis reading, a good ol’ Biblical sibling rivalry. The twins battle it out for family favor, and their struggle divides the whole family in allegiances. In the excerpt we read this morning, the crafty Jacob convinces the short-tempered Esau to trade in his rights as the first born for a simple meal of bread and lentils. From where we sit, the lesson seems somewhat easy, and perhaps it is – the short-term gain is not worth the long-term loss. Esau’s mistake is a failure in critical thinking.

And yet, are we sure we would have made a different decision? Maybe…but we’re not Esau, are we? And we all know on some level how desires and cravings can short-circuit our ability to make the right decision. The most extreme example of that is addiction, a reality that touches many of our lives directly or indirectly. But there are choices we make every day where we engage in cognitive dissonance, knowing what we ought to do but doing the other thing because it just “feels” right or because the fleeting takes precedence over the eternal.

There is an inherent challenge in the choices we make because of the freedom we have. I’m not talking so much about our political freedoms, although I’m not not talking about them, either. To mention one, it often seems that freedom of the press has not led to a more just society or a more transparent government, but rather to a sensationalized fascination with the titillating details of public figures who have done nothing to deserve our attention.

But what I’m really talking about here is the freedom of which Paul writes in Romans, this freedom in Christ. Paul’s basic argument goes like this: before Christ, our relationship with God was all about the law. God gave us a set of laws to follow, most famously the Ten Commandments. And our relationship with God was based on how faithfully we followed that law. If we followed it perfectly, then we were in good shape. But if we blew even one point of the law, then we were in trouble. And that’s the problem, as Paul sees it. We are most definitely going to blow it.

Prior to his radical conversion to the way of Christ, Paul was a Pharisee. He was one of those jot-and-tittle law guys, obsessing over every detail, building law upon law upon law in order to keep the people in this legally righteous relationship with God. But what that approach masked, and what the arrival of Christ blew wide open, was that the root of God’s true relationship with humanity was one of grace. Mercy. Forgiveness.

Here’s another way to put it:

There is a separation between God and humanity. And there are two ways to bridge that gap. The first is law, whereby we make our way step-by-step across the gap. But if we miss even one piece of that law, we’ll never be reconciled with God. The second way is grace. And in grace, we do nothing. Nothing! It is God, in Christ, who makes that journey for us. And that journey sets us free. We are no longer stuck in the law; we don’t have to keep trudging across the legal bridge to God.

We are free.

And that’s the challenge! We are no longer confined. There is no longer a legal framework which binds us and to which we can submit every question that faces us so that it might return a definitive legal ruling to us. But by virtue of being set free, we are, as the translation puts it, out in the open, caught between hiding under the trees and being the tallest thing around. We are now exposed to the imperfect choices of life that face us day in and day out.

And that’s the paradox of our faith. Because we are free, because we are imperfect, because we will suspend our critical thinking in favor of short-term gain, because despite our every effort to make right decisions we will make wrong ones, God’s grace in Christ pursues us relentlessly. When we are faced with life’s imperfect choices, when those roads diverge in the woods, our choice may make all the difference. But the reality is that God will be with us no matter what path we take.

There are no perfect decisions. But God’s grace in Christ can perfect them for us. Far from being in a no-win situation, we are set free in reality where we cannot lose!

So feel free, free to give this life-in-faith thing a shot. We will make mistakes. We will mess up. We will make bad choices. And, most importantly, we will be free to see the grace of God at work in our lives. May it be so.

Amen.

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I forgot one of my key discoveries on the journey. Much of what I’ve shared thus far is pretty mellow musically, which doesn’t speak to the need to rock! that infuses my soul.

Again, Paste Magazine turned me onto Derek Webb as well. I need to traverse a little sidebar here to point out that Paste is not a “Christian” magazine. They review art (music, books, film, tv, video games) across the board, and the same issue that would cover Sufjan Stevens might also have an article on the notoriously atheistic and seminal punk band Bad Religion. The difference is that aesthetics, not hipsterism, rules at Paste. So Sufjan or Over the Rhine or Derek Webb aren’t caste aside because of their spiritual-tinging.

Derek Webb is an on-again/off-again singer with a Christian contemporary band called Caedmon’s Call. His most solo recent album, The Ringing Bell, was recorded in the midst of the Iraq War. In it, I heard echoes of the growing group of evangelicals who are tired of having their theology and worldview hijacked and limited to issues of personal piety while calls for justice, mercy, and peace are ignored. Webb’s song “Love Stronger Than Our Fear” speaks pretty blunty to that:

“What would you do if someone would tell you the truth, but only if you tortured them half to death? Tell me: since when do the ends justify the means, and you build the kingdom using the devil’s tools? There’s got to be a love stronger than our fear…”

The song that closes the album, “This Too Shall Be Made Right,” is a solo acoustic piece with a fierce indictment of the horrors of life in their breadth, acknowledging genocide, hunger, war, etc. In the final verse the outward indictment turns sharply inward:

“I don’t know the suffering of people outside my front door. I join the oppressors of those I choose to ignore. I’ve traded in comfort for human life, and that’s not just murder. It’s suicide.”

And yet, each of these indictments ends with this gnawing, yearning, unfulfilled hope: “This, too, shall be made right.” Amen. Amen.

I’ve tried to find videos on youtube to embed here, but there ain’t. That being said, there a couple of other places to hear these songs (as well as other Derek Webb stuff):

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