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screen-shot-2015-09-24-at-2-31-17-pm“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

These are, really, the clearest words we have from Jesus about how to be a faithful citizen. They came as his clever response to those who were trying to trap him. The Pharisees and supporters of Herod thought they had asked him the perfect question: does the Law of Moses allow observant Jews to pay tax to the Romans? A simple “yes” would render him a traitor in the eyes of his own people, and a simple “no” would make him a threat to the Roman authority. Jesus manages to dodge all of this complexity by saying, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

Unfortunately for us, Jesus did not leave us with a handy little Christian voter guide to know the “correct” stance on political issues so that we would know to vote for the candidate that lines up most closely with Christian values. And as we are already fully aware, there are plenty of politicians who would use the label “Christian” to their own political advantage with no regard to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” We are told, in the lesson, that Jesus’ reply leaves his questioners speechless. Boy, what a gift that must be! It would be wonderful to know how we might be able to do that with our current crop of candidates: leave them speechless. A boy can dream…

Here’s the one thing I want to leave with you today: no matter which candidate you vote for, no matter whom you think will be the best person for the job, know this: no matter who wins, God will still be God. Nothing we do can change that. And no matter which party triumphs come November, this nation will still fall far short of the glory of God. No vote will ever correct that outcome.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

Our world couldn’t be more different from the world of Jesus. Ancient Israel had long been subjugated to other nations. The Romans were simply the latest manifestation of foreign control of local land. Beyond that, Caesar wasn’t just a ruler. He claimed to be divine, a god, demanding worship from his subjects. When it came to the coin, it belonged to Caesar, because it bore his image and likeness. But everything else in all of creation bears the likeness of God – and, therefore, belongs to God.

Give these differences, what is it that the church could learn from Jesus’ simple saying? Or is it, rather, that we should look back to the parable he told just before this challenge?

Jesus speaks of a landlord who builds a beautiful vineyard. All it needs are caretakers. The tenant farmers come in and till the land. But when the landlord wants the fruit of his harvest, they brutalize his messengers – even killing some of them. The landlord goes so far as to send his own son, whom the tenants seize and murder – because, they reason, if they kill the heir, the inheritance will be theirs.

What are they thinking? If we kill the heir, then we get the inheritance? I know that the laws governing property were probably different back then, but would it really have been possible to kill the son and inherit the property? I doubt it seriously. Instead, the lesson shows how warped their thinking has become in the absence of the landlord. They have forgotten whose vineyard it is, assuming that it is all theirs because they are the ones who have been working it, forgetting that the landlord set it up to be a functioning vineyard in the first place.

The implications of Jesus’ parable would have been crystal clear to those who would have heard it at the time: God set up Israel for God’s people. And when God sent prophets and messengers, the people either ignored or killed them. It is, in a few words, a hearty condemnation of the Pharisees and rulers who would claim to be the current tenant farmers and, therefore, the rightful heirs to the vineyard.

And as much fun as it would be to point our fingers at the Pharisees and laugh at their hypocrisy, the truth is that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree in our case, either. When we look at the work of our hands, how quick are we to take credit for it – or demand recognition for it? Have we already forgotten who it is that gave us the gifts in the first place? Whether it be the mind or the talents or simply just a leg up in society, nothing we achieve is the fruit of our own labors alone. We could never accomplish what we have done if it weren’t for God at work in our lives.

Our response ought to be to live as though this were the case.

The same is true within the church. It would be one thing to take God’s free gift of grace and claim ownership of it, to treat the church more like a “club” where membership has its privileges to be shared, but only if and when we feel like it. But to do so would stray far from where Jesus desires us to be, sharing the grace we have received as freely as it has been given.

What would that look like? What would it look like to live as though everything in all of creation bore God’s imprint and likeness? What would it mean if we were to see this in everything, even when it comes to the citizenship we have been granted? What would it mean to hold it, yes, but loosely enough to trust it to God, the author of all that is good and kind and just?

I don’t know about you, but every four years during presidential election season, I begin to feel as though the whole world is at stake. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of politics and its sway in our lives and in the lives of others. That said, there is nothing that can happen during this election season that will prevent God’s desires from bearing fruit. Caesar is Caesar, and God is still God. Thanks be to God!

I’m reminded of the movie Men in Black, in which Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones play government agents who are responsible for protecting planet earth from alien invasion. On Smith’s first assignment, he causes havoc in a New York City block trying to prevent an alien from escaping. Jones reprimands him for it, which stuns Smith. After all, the world is at stake! Jones’ rebuffs him, saying, “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet!”

Maybe that quote doesn’t exactly make the point I wanted it to; but I hope you catch my intention. The point is that, no matter how up in the air life might feel, God is still God and that God is still in control of God’s desires and the world that bears God’s imprint. That is the hope in which we live – today and tomorrow and election day and every day beyond that.

At our very best, our calling is to reflect God’s character to the world we encounter in all that we do. And as we do, we know we will not get it perfect, but will still trust what we do to God’s perfecting mercy and grace.

When we look at the parable: do you notice how patient the landlord is? He sends messenger after messenger to get what is rightly his from the tenant farmers. And each time, they beat, kill, taunt, abuse them, one by one. The landlord is tested at every step of the way, but does not give in to rage until much further along in the story. The landlord, of course, is the story’s stand-in for God. And because of that, we learn of God’s long-suffering patience.

God is willing to put up with all kinds of betrayal, and to show mercy in return – again and again and again and again. And God’s willingness to show that mercy extends even to incarnation – that is, the sending of the Son for the sake of the world, even knowing that this gift, too, is likely to be betrayed. And let’s be clear: judgment is not lost in the parable; and yet, it is made abundantly clear to whom this judgment belongs: God, and God alone.

Amen.

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4062867719_9f5c6b581f_oChange is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

If you travel from Galilee up into the Golan Heights, you will notice a natural spring alongside the road. Tradition holds that this spring was the site where Jesus and the disciples retreated from the crowds in Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asked them the question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus focused his ministry on the villages around the Sea of Galilee before he led the disciples south toward Jerusalem.

Banyas, which is the name of the spring, is to the northeast. It’s not a place they would have just happened upon. They would have to decide to go there.

So it must have been in our lesson today. Jesus and the disciples frequently tried to get away from the crowds, but were often pursued in their efforts to rest. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, allowing them to have a moment to themselves, a retreat of sorts. It is, in short, an opportunity to have an open and frank conversation about where they are, what they are doing, and what is coming next.

The crowds have been speculating on Jesus’ identity. Much like Herod and his advisers, the folks that have been coming out to see him think he might be a prophet in the mold of the ancients; or perhaps John the Baptist, head miraculously re-attached to his body. Or maybe, they think, he’s Elijah. To understand why this idea would matter, let’s take a step back into history.

In the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah was second only to Moses. The great Moses, of course, was the one who led the people out of their Egyptian slavery. They crossed the Red Sea on dry ground, spending forty years in the wilderness. In the early days of their sojourn, Moses encounters God at the top of the mountain. But before they could enter the Land of Promise together, Moses dies and his buried in an unknown location.

Elijah encountered God at the top of the mountain, too. He spent extended periods of time in the wilderness, and crossed the River Jordan on dry ground. And his death was also surrounded in mystery, as he was whisked away into heaven by a fiery chariot.

Such was the legend that had grown up around Moses and Elijah that the tradition emerged that they would return as harbingers of the Messiah, the great savior of God’s people. And like most legends, this tradition brought its own set of expectations.

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

At the retreat by the spring of Banyas, Peter is the one who names the truth right before their eyes: Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the expected one. In other accounts of this story, this is the moment that Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter. And Jesus takes it as the opportunity to clarify what it is they have signed up for.

He tells them that the Messiah’s destiny is rejection, execution, and resurrection. The clear implication is that the same fate awaits those who follow him: “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Jesus is not speaking of a metaphor of inconvenience. He is clear that following Jesus means the very real possibility that your life will be on the line. And that, Peter says, is not why they enlisted.

The interpretation that had built up around the coming of the Messiah was that of power. The Christ would ride into battle, overthrow the hated occupiers, and take the throne for himself and his people. In this scenario, those who followed him would soon take their own seats of authority around him. As you may have noticed, this is the exact opposite of what Jesus has just informed them.

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

Churches are notoriously difficult when it comes to change. Part of that is just human nature: once an institution is founded, it is embedded with its own kind of DNA; anything that seems to run counter to it meets resistance. Part of that is the extra weight that religious institutions carry. After all, our stories stretch back into ancient times, and as such everything we do feels like it has sinews reaching back into the beginning of history itself. It’s why churches have major conflicts over things like worship music, how we serve communion, paint and carpet colors, as though Moses descended from Mount Sinai carrying those little tiny cups on golden trays, carpet samples draped over each arm.

We know that’s not true. The problem is when we live like it is. If we, as people of faith, aren’t willing to grow and change, then our faith will fail to do so as well.

I am fortunate, as your pastor, to serve a church where flexibility seems woven into our DNA. In the last ten years, we have weathered changes to our worship order, the addition of technology into the sanctuary, experiments with communion, diverse styles of music and instrumentation. There is, I have seen, a willingness to try new things, and to do so with grace, recognizing they’re not all going to work, and we can learn from those moments when they don’t.

Such an approach to church is not only vital, it is critical in a world that has already changed and continues to do so. Because change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

Let’s be honest. For all of our flexibility, we are still a traditional church. I wear a robe. Most of our music uses the organ, and many of our hymns we sing date from the 1800s. The Scripture may be read on paper, projector, or tablet, but we still consider it the Word of God, handed down and translated from ancient scrolls. Our pulpit has moved in the time I have been here – from the center, to the left, now to the right – even though I rarely use it to preach from, but we have a pulpit. We worship on Sunday mornings, and other than special occasions, we worship only on Sunday mornings.

I want to be absolutely crystal clear with you: I have no agenda here today. I am not proposing specific changes to the way we shape our lives together. Neither am I trying to lay the groundwork for specific changes that I am holding back from mentioning today. I have never done that, nor do I intend to do so. What I am saying is this: we must hold this thing, this church thing, this faith thing, loosely. And we must open it, and ourselves, to the possibility that it will be transformed right before our eyes. Because as it transforms, so do we.

Which brings us back to our lesson. Less than a week after Jesus clarifies to the disciples what discipleship means, he takes his inner core of Peter, James, and John up to the top of a mountain.

And there, the moment happens from which our day gets its name. Jesus is transfigured, more or less taking on the form of embodied light. And there, standing with him, are Moses and Elijah, the great luminaries of the Hebrew Bible. Peter was right: Jesus is the Messiah, the expected one. And Moses and Elijah have come to make that point abundantly clear.

This is the scene that puts flesh on our central point today. Jesus transfigures, transforms, changes. Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult. Peter, once again, plays the disciples’ straw man. The discomfort of it all is so palpable that Peter breaks the awkward silence with the suggestion to build monuments to it all. No one seems to take him seriously; he doesn’t get any kind of response to his statement. Instead, the incident passes, and life moves on.

Following this bizarre encounter, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem.

We cannot emphasize the significance of that decision enough. For almost three years, the disciples have been at home in the pastoral setting of the Galilee. Their ministry of teaching and healing has slowly built up a following. The Galilee is the countryside. There is room. There is nature. You can breathe.

Jerusalem is the big city. It may be the holy city, the site of the ancient Temple, but it is dirty. Crowded. Corrupt. It is everything the Galilee is not. And even more than that, Jesus knows that going to Jerusalem means the very things he told his disciples are about to happen. He will be rejected and betrayed. He will be sentenced and executed. And he will rise again. Rather than saying Jesus “sets his face” toward Jerusalem, perhaps we should say Jesus “accepts his fate” in Jerusalem.

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

Here’s the thing: we don’t change for the sake of change. That’s not change; that just makes us untrustworthy. We change when it is the faithful thing to do. And doing that involves both wisdom and courage.

Change is disruptive and even terrifying. Especially when it comes to those things that give us comfort, change is threatening. A change in home, family, job, school, even church…a change in life, where we are no longer able to do what it is that we thought gave us meaning and purpose…a change in opinion, in direction…These are the kinds of changes that can be downright scary. And yet, we know they are often right, even faithful.

Our whole tradition as Presbyterians is rooted in change. We were birthed out of the Reformation, when faithful people did crazy stuff like translate the Bible and liturgy into languages that the masses understood. The Church itself was borne out of change, as the fledgling Messianic Jewish movement left the synagogues, moved into homes, and then into churches. And even though we are centuries removed from those dramatic shifts, we must still be open to faithful change. And that is no less true, even when it means potentially putting our institutions and our lives on the line.

You see: in the end, faithful change is not actually as daunting as we think it is. We only fear it because we think that we are in charge of it. Which, as you may notice, puts us dangerously in the place reserved for the one we worship and serve.

This is the very reason we gather around this table. Every time we do, we remind ourselves of the moment that gave birth to this practice, when Jesus, facing imminent death in Jerusalem, brought his disciples together. They shared the most intimate of meals, as they shared bread and cup. What we share today is not historically accurate. For starters, our bread contains no gluten. Second, in addition to wine, we have unfermented juice. And third, we’re not lying down to share our meal. In other words, this thing we do has changed. And yet, even with that change, it is no less sacred. Because those these are simple things, grain from the field and fruit from the vine, they contain the spiritual substance of the faithful change we need.

Amen.

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Fearlessness takes three things: practice, practice, practice.

Our lesson this morning from Deuteronomy takes place two generations after Moses led the Israelites out of their Egyptian enslavement. On the plain of Moab, on the Eastern shore of the Jordan River, Moses is giving what turns out to be a series of farewell addresses. In our reading today, Moses recounts the Ten Commandments delivered at Mount Sinai and what we might call a summary statement, a few short verses that act as a call to action for remembering their covenant with God.

In some ways, the Ten Commandments act as a recipe for faithful living. Follow these and you will live faithful lives: don’t put anyone or anything in the place of God but God. Don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie, envy. Do Sabbath. All in all, it’s not a bad list. If we took care to do these things, we would do well.

But we don’t, do we? I don’t know about you, but I might break a couple just in the span of a morning commute. We can’t do it! And I’m convinced that the reason we can’t is…fear.

There is no differentiation in the list between those commandments that are more or less serious. But we do treat them that way, don’t we?

The commandments we might think of as weightier – killing, adultery, theft – are all, I believe, rooted in fear. We think far less of ourselves than God thinks of us. We are convinced that what we have is what we are – and so, fearing that we are not enough, we want more so that we will be more.

We might do well at avoiding these; but there are others that we take more as suggestions than commandments. “Remember the Sabbath. Keep it holy.” How many of us actually set aside time – serious time – each and every week for Sabbath? Do we really hold a day, or even a portion of a day, sacred for remembering God and restoring our souls? If not, why not? Is it that we think of the idea as “quaint”? Or that the stricter Sabbath observances we are aware of seem antiquated to our 21st century sensibilities – no lights on, no cooking, no driving?

I think it’s fear. If the boss asks us for seven days worth of work, we fear losing our job – and that trumps Sabbath. Maybe there’s no boss to pin it on: it’s work and family and everything in between that keep us running. Some of us have convinced ourselves that if we stop, we fear that the world will, too. We can’t not be in charge – because if we aren’t, then we fear the abject chaos the world descends into – and that not only violates Sabbath, it also puts us in the place of God.

Or maybe our unwillingness to keep Sabbath is driven by fear of what the stillness will stir up for us: those demons of self-doubt or deep-seeded anger or shame, demons we can outpace much of the time, will catch up with us if we stop to rest.

Commandment by commandment, one after the other, if we fail to keep it, I am convinced that it is because fear, not faith, has taken hold.

And that’s where Moses’ summary statement comes in. Because if the Ten Commandments are the recipe for faithfulness, then these six short verses in chapter six are the recipe for fearlessness: practice, practice, practice.

These verses are known as the “Shema” after the Hebrew word that begins them. “Shema” – listen, or hear. Hear, O Israel – Listen, O people of God: the Lord, the one who delivers and saves us, is our God – the Lord, and no one else. And you shall worship this same God with your whole being: all your heart, your soul, your strength.

How, you ask? By reciting these words over and over and over and over and over again! Teach them to your children. Pass them along as a precious inheritance to the next generation. Talk about them when you are home and when you are away – in other words, all the time. Think about them when you are awake and even when you are asleep – in other words, all of the time.

These words are so central to the Hebrew Bible, so crucial to the understanding of the Torah and God’s covenant with God’s people, that you’ve probably seen them and weren’t even aware of it. They are often contained in a small scroll, rolled up into a small, decorative case, and attached to the doorframes of Jewish homes. The letter “shin”, for “Shema”, which looks kind of like an English letter “W”, marks the outside of the case.

And if you’ve ever seen Orthodox Jews in fervent prayer, with leather straps bound around their arms, and a small black box bound to their forehead, then you have seen the Shema in action. All of this is a very literal understanding of the rest of the Shema: bind these promises as a sign on your hands. Fix them as an emblem on your foreheads. Write them on your doorposts; attach them to your gates.

In other words, keep them always, always, always with you, wherever you go.

Some history and distance has happened between Moses’ words and October 11, 2015. While the Shema still stands as a precious inheritance for us, we also have Jeremiah’s words about God’s new covenant, written on hearts and not on stone. We have Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well that worship of God is about spirit and truth, not specificity of place.

The commandments have not lessened in their importance. And yet, in some ways, we treat them as though they matter less.

There is always a risk in purely outward signs of observance, that they will be nothing more than superficial shows for the rest of society. We need look no further than any of the public failings of our political or religious figures, most of whom have been championing against the very thing they fall prey to in their once-shrouded, private lives.

At the same time, there is just as much of a risk when we move from these physical manifestations of God’s commands, of holy bindings on our heads and arms, of sacred decorations on doorposts and gates. In some ways, we have privatized faith to the point that it doesn’t matter anymore.

So what would it look like to be fearless people of faith with integrity, inside and out? More importantly, what would it take to get there?

As we talked about last week, fear is not a bad thing! It’s a necessary part of our built-in, God-given survival mechanism. Fear is part of what teaches us that food is good and fire is bad. However, there are places where those survival mechanisms trip us up. Our human society has evolved faster than our biology, and our brains have not kept up. And yet, there is a kind of shortcut: practice.

Our brains are remarkable things. Even when they are damaged, they are remarkably elastic and can be retrofitted, in a sense – they can rewire, create new neural pathways. And what does it take to do this? Practice. Practice. Practice.

We practice new ways of behaving, responding, reacting; and our brains adapt, so that our natural reaction in fear and brokenness is replaced by a new natural reaction in hope and health. This is why faith is a discipline, that it takes practice.

As many of you know, we are in the midst of our Stewardship Season. In one month, on Sunday, November 15, we are asking each of you to make some kind of commitment to God’s work here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church for 2016. We will be asking you, to the best of your ability, to make a promise regarding how you will spend your time, how you will use your talents, and how you will use your money for the sake of what it is that God is doing.

In many ways, what we do is very, very private. We don’t have “levels” of giving that we publish. We don’t charge a membership fee – after all, if we believe God’s grace is a gift that is freely received, how can we turn around and charge for it? All we ask about your financial gift is that you pray about it. Be absolutely transparent with God about what it is that gives you hope and what it is that gives you fear. And…listen. Listen to what it is that God is saying to you – not anyone else, just you – about your gift.

And here’s where that recipe for fearlessness comes in: I want to suggest that each of us, each and every day between now and November 15, read these words from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 daily. Let them be a part of your daily prayer and reflection.

Just like last week, I’m passing out cards, and I encourage you to take one. Put it in your wallet, or on your mirror so that you read it each and every day. They will become, more and more, a practice that leads to fearlessness; and a fearlessness that leads to faithfulness.

May it be so, now and always.

Amen.

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This morning, we begin a new worship series that parallels our stewardship season. And as we do, we take a look at what it means to be fearless in our faith.

What does that mean, exactly? What is fearlessness? And is that really the goal? After all, it’s not as though “fear” is purely a bad thing. Fear has been essential to the survival of our species. If our ancestors hadn’t feared saber-toothed tigers, then we likely wouldn’t have been here at all.

Fear is an important part of the wiring God has given us. It lets us know instinctively when we are in danger even when we aren’t consciously aware of it. Self-defense classes teach you to trust fear – if a situation feels wrong, then it is wrong.

So in a sense, the suggestion to be fearless is not only counterintuitive; it’s counterproductive. Fear, it seems, is an essential, usually trustworthy part of life.

Usually – but not always.

Our lesson this morning, taken from the first three chapters of Exodus, bears out this complicated role that fear plays in our lives. The Egyptians fear the Israelites because they are growing in number – and so, not only are they enslaved, but their mail children are to be killed. Moses’ mother fears for his life, setting him adrift in a basket on the Nile, an act which ends up saving his life.

The adult Moses, after killing an Egyptian, flees in fear to escape his punishment. And as God tells him to go back to free the Israelites, Moses is gripped by fear again. Fear, it seems, is complicated. It can be life-saving; and it can be imprisoning. While fear may be essential to survival, it is not essential to faith.

You see, when we are afraid, we revert to our most primal selves. We protect ourselves and our tribe at all costs, because somewhere, deeply embedded in our gray matter, are these circuits that convince us that, suddenly, everything is at stake. There are times when fear serves us well. And there are times when it trips us up. The hard part is knowing the difference.

In Exodus, Moses’ mother’s fear leads her to creative ways to preserve the life of her baby; and Moses’ fear of retribution sends him into exile in the Sinai. In both cases, fear led in the right direction. But Pharaoh’s fear led him to unjust brutality; and Moses’ fear of returning led him to protest against what God had set him apart to do. In both cases, fear led them astray. What can we possibly learn about fearlessness when it comes to faith, except that it’s unreliable?

Three days ago, a young man killed ten people, including himself, and wounded nine others at an Oregon community college. Accounts describe the shooter as a white supremacist with anti-religious leanings who was obsessed with guns. Our response as a nation is all-too-predictable. We retreat to our echo chambers where we convince ourselves yet again that we are right because we have always been calling for more guns, or fewer guns, or somewhere in between. Surely, cooler heads will prevail and bring about some common sense reforms in our gun laws, right? Or is it that fear undermines our ability to think reasonably about this uniquely American plague of mass shootings?

I am more and more convinced that the primal fears we could once trust no longer serve us well. Society has developed into this complex set of relationships; our tribes of self-identification should no longer matter, but fear causes us to retreat into our groups of those who are “like us”. Our news media knows that fear is an addictive drug and feeds it to us 24-hours a day, such that we seek out only those sources that feed our fears and convince us of our own self-righteousness.

The goal, I believe, is not to eliminate fear altogether. Instead, while we should listen to fear, and expect it, we should not be ruled by it. If we, like Moses, continue to let fear be our guide at all times, we will miss the moments when God is calling us to places and ministries that make us uncomfortable. To be faithful, at times, means to be fearless. And the only way to make that happen is through discipline and practice.

We now know this about ourselves as a species. Those neural pathways aren’t as hard-wired as we used to think. Through consistent practice and readjustment, we can be rewired for the kind of fearlessness that faith can call us to.

When I think back about things that used to terrify me but no longer do, public speaking comes to mind. I did not emerge from the womb ready to preach. I still remember my first church job out of seminary. There were days when the mere thought of preaching would make me physically ill. And while I would be lying if I said I have eliminated the nervousness altogether, it does not control me anymore. It’s not that I have eliminated it or learned to ignore it, either. Instead, I now use it as a helpful reminder that the very act of preaching is a presumptuous one. My most fervent prayer, each and every time I preach, is that the words of my mouth would be acceptable in God’s sight. I never want to be in the position where I assume I no longer need God’s wisdom to be a preacher. At the same time, I never want to be in the position where fear controls me and convinces me that I have nothing to say.

Friends, there are times when faithfulness calls us to acts of bravery we might not think we are capable of. And yet, if it is truly faithful, God will give us what we need to step out in risk. It takes practice, and there are ample opportunities to do just that.

Today, as we begin our stewardship campaign, I want you to consider what it might mean for you to live your faith fearlessly. Fear convinces us that we live in a culture of scarcity; if I don’t grab it, someone else will. If I give it away, then I am vulnerable. Faith calls us to trust: trust in the God of abundance and provision. We give it away as an act of faith in itself – not because we are fearless, necessarily, but because we have an opportunity to practice faithful bravery even while we remain somewhat skittish.

We have cards with our logo for our stewardship campaign on them. I want you to take one for yourself, and to keep it with you for the duration of the campaign – in your wallet, on your bathroom mirror, wherever it is that you will be reminded of our call to fearlessness.

What I want to be absolutely crystal clear about is this: what you give is ultimately up to you and God. So whatever you do, I want you to do it prayerfully. After all, it is what God desires of you, not what the church or the pastor asks of you, that is faithful. Trust God to lead you in faithfulness.

I simply want to encourage you to practice a lifestyle of giving that grows in fearlessness. What do you give currently? What percentage is it of your income? Is it 2%? 3? Can you increase that giving by an additional 1%? How much time do you give away? Is it four hours a week? Five? Can you add an additional hour?

All of this comes with the careful caveat that faithful living is a larger concept of which the church is a mere part. To be what God has created me to be, I am called to be a faithful husband, father, son, brother, child of God. And I am also called to be a pastor – in this case, pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. But being a pastor is not the entirety of my calling.

Similarly, God calls you to be a member of Christ’s church. But that membership is not the entirety of God’s calling. Perhaps you are a parent, or a spouse; above all, you are God’s beloved, called to faithfulness that takes fear into account but is not ruled by it.

The point in all of this is that we are called to fearless giving, and are capable of far more than we think we are. Let us, in our giving, strive for the model of Moses’ mother. The life of her precious son was threatened. She did what she did motivated out of fear, yes, but also out of love and out of faith. Much like the contemporary Syrian mothers with the same set of motivations, she set her son adrift on the water in a vessel that was not seaworthy. She gave her son to the elements, trusting that God would provide. And in that act of trust, a people were given the hope of freedom, following this same helpless infant pulled from his basket of reeds and given a second chance to live and lead.

With this image in mind, is it any surprise that God would call us, too, to acts of faithful giving? As Christians, as disciples of Christ, as followers of Jesus, we surely know that the fullest act of faithfulness was Christ’s own self-giving on the cross. He did it for our sake, not for his own. How can we not respond by our own selfless, fearless giving of what God has entrusted to us?

Many of you have heard of the hero that emerged in the Oregon shooting. When Chris Mintz heard the sound of bullets, his army training meant that he ran towards the shooting, rather than away from it. He told the shooter, “It’s my son’s birthday” before being shot seven times. He survived and is expected to make a full recovery. That act of bravery most certainly saved the lives of others, distracting and delaying the gunman and giving time for police to respond.

I have not seen any reports on whether or not Mintz is a person of faith; in many ways, that is irrelevant. The point is that he embodied fearless giving – giving of himself so that others would have a chance to live. I would hope that our lives would even be a mere reflection of this kind of fearlessness.

When we come to the table, we recognize that I’m not the one who invites us here, nor is it the congregation or leadership that sets the table, except in the most literal of ways. This table belongs to no one but Jesus. And we, fed here, we are sent to feed. Nourished at this table, we are emboldened to live lives of faithful, fearless giving – of what we have, of what we are – to a world that is desperately hungry in body, mind, and spirit.

So come – let us taste and see that the Lord is good!

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No one leaves home unless home chases you…No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land. No one burns their palms under trains, beneath carriages… No one crawls under fences. No one wants to be beaten; pitied.

I want to go home, but home…is the barrel of the gun. And no one would leave home, unless home chased you to the shore…unless home told you to quicken your legs, leave your clothes behind, crawl through the desert, wade through the oceans, drown, save, be hungry, beg, forget pride…No one leaves home until home is…saying, “Leave. Run away from me now. I don’t know what I’ve become, but I know that anywhere is safer than here.”

Excerpts from Warsan Shire’s poem Home

“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

Like many of you, I have been transfixed, horrified by the stories of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria. This past week, especially heartbreaking were the images of three year-old Aylan Kurdi washing up on shore in Turkey. We have since learned that his family in Canada had tried to facilitate his immigration, but were turned down, because the United Nations had not officially recognized them as refugees. This reality, along with the massacre of Kurds at the hands of the so-called Islamic State, sent them on their treacherous, deadly journey by boat.

His death has become a kind of vivid image that has shed necessary light on a world in crisis. In the days that followed, there have been some glimmers of goodness in the larger story: Hungarian civilians swarming the Budapest train station to offer food and assistance; Austria opening the borders for transit; Germany agreeing to provide asylum to some. But for every moment of hope, it seems like there are thousands of agony. As long as war continues, people will seek safety elsewhere. As the poet Shire says, “No one leaves home unless home chases you.”

We are in the middle of our worship series on worship, where we have been looking at the various beats, moments, strands of what it is that we do here week in and week out. There is an order, a rhythm to worship – one that may not be immediately obvious until we pull back, reflect, and explore. And that’s exactly what we have been doing.

So here’s the question for today: what do people seeking refuge have to do with what we do in worship? Isn’t worship about our relationship with God? Isn’t the whole focus of worship for us to give glory and praise to God, and God alone? What do politics, current events, international issues have to do with any of this?

It’s a fair question. If we look at the map of worship, it is the hearing of the Word that is right at the center of it all. We gather together on the outskirts of town, make our way toward the main square, preparing for what we encounter there. We drop our guards, confessing our imperfection in honest transparency, and thereby opening ourselves to God’s mercy and forgiveness. We do all of this in anticipation of what we encounter in Scripture. And once we have met the Spirit within the Word, everything else we do is a response to what we have heard and known.

So what is it that we hear in Scripture today? We continue to read from the Letter to the Hebrews, this anonymous missive that has a Jewish audience in mind. It is a significant part of our own understanding of the continuity of God’s story from the Hebrew Bible into Jesus and beyond. There is a lot at work there, of course. Today’s lesson tells of the great heroes of faith: of Abel and Noah, of Enoch and Abraham and Sarah, all of them evidence of those who lived the faithful life before the birth of Jesus. And each one of them demonstrated how faith, faith in God, is rooted in hope, in what we cannot yet see.

The author then singles out one of the major threads of these biographies and weaves it into the central metaphor of faith. Noah gathered everything he held dear and put it onto a boat to ride out the storm. Abraham and Sarah followed God’s call to leave their native Ur of the Chaldees, in modern-day Iraq, and head toward the land of Canaan, now Israel and Palestine. These, and other, giants of faithfulness were strangers, aliens, migrants, refugees. They were looking for a new homeland, knowing they could not return to their own. They sought a better place, that beautiful place God had prepared for them.

That’s all fine and good. But here’s the thing: Scripture isn’t, actually, the goal. It may be at the center of our worship, but it is not the object of our worship. We read, study, learn, cherish the Bible; but we do not worship it. The purpose of Scripture is to point us to God. And in doing so, the hope is that it will transform us so that we will embody the faithfulness we encounter there.

So we turn on the news. We see fearful civilians piling everything they can carry into boats, few of them seaworthy. Others are making their way on foot, rejected by one country and hoping for welcome in another.

And then we return to our own faith story, where we see that those who fled are not unique. Flight is not an aberration. It is, in many ways, the central, shared experience. Even Mary and Joseph carried their infant Jesus into exile, finding safety in Egypt from the wrath of King Herod. In the words of the poet Shire, their own home had said to them, “Anywhere is safer than here.”

God’s desire at all times is for us to connect the dots between then and now. And there are times, such as during a refugee crisis, when that connection strikes me as very straightforward. Individually, we may not have experienced the trauma of fleeing home to find shelter in another place. But it is the central story of our faith. It begins with Noah, continues through Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, spends hundreds of years in captivity in Egypt, follows Moses for two generations toward a land brimming with promise, sets roots down for a while, finds itself cast into exile again, is on the move with John the Baptist and the disciples and an apostle named Paul, and finds its fullest embodiment in the Son of Humanity who has nowhere to lay his head.

Look: I’m not naïve. I know that national politics and international law are complex realities. They are not governed by purely religious principles – nor should they be. There are contradictory moralities at work. In the forging of national identity, there is a kind of tribalism to which we consent by necessity. There are economic realities, political battles, ideological principles that come into play. In other words, governments will make choices that are not necessarily the ones that we would make.

That all said, here is the guiding principle of faith as I see it, one that calls us to action today: the church, as the body of Christ, is called to embody what we encounter in Scripture. In this instance, we are meant to be welcome for the stranger. We are supposed to become that God-built city that the world is longing for.

I don’t know if our own nation will do anything to help out. I’m still waiting to see if we will adopt the metric system. Whatever the case may be, I don’t see how we, the church, can wait to act.

I want to point you toward a resource for that very purpose. Our own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has an arm called Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. The website is up here in case you want to visit it and find out more. PDA, as it is called, is working on two fronts on this particular crisis: one is with churches in Hungary and Europe making humanitarian aid available to the refugees; the second is with the Presbyterian Church in Syria and Lebanon who are providing comfort and aid on the ground; and the third is by helping Syrian refugees relocate here to the United States.

The fundamental principle in all of this is that we are not solitary agents in our faith. We have been led to this place and supported by, as the author of our lesson puts it, this “great cloud of witnesses”, those who have come before us, gifting us with the rich inheritance of faith in God through Christ. Who are the people in your cloud of witnesses?

There are many that come to mind for me; one that I am reminded of today is a friend who is known to many of you. The Rev. Dr. Fahed Abu-Akel, now retired, was the Founder and Director of Atlanta Ministry with International Students for many years. Oglethorpe Presbyterian was one of the founding churches, and we still support their vital ministry, with several of our members serving on their Board.

Fahed, by his own identity, is a Palestinian Arab Israeli. He was born before the establishment of the State of Israel. In 1948, during the war, he and his family fled their village while their mother stayed vigil in their home. They found shelter in a neighboring town, and were among the relative few fortunate enough to return home. Fahed came to study in the United States. His own story highlights the contrast between the hospitality that flows in his blood and the relatively isolated welcome he received here. That experience, as an international student largely left to his own devices, led him to establish this ministry, founded on the principle that hospitality is central to the Christian call.

Over the years, if you have been a part of this ministry, whether volunteering for one of their events or befriending one of the students, would you please stand for a moment? I know from many of you that the impact of these border-crossing friendships is such that they have lasted through the years, long beyond the required time commitment.

For me, Fahed was central in my call to ministry. I was a young, drifting college graduate, who found welcome in his office while I was trying to figure out what was next. After a few twists and turns, I found myself applying to several seminaries. Fahed came to Chicago on behalf of the Atlanta Presbytery when I was ordained. Fahed was here when I was installed as your pastor ten years ago. Fahed baptized my oldest child. In short, Fahed’s own ministry of welcome to this spiritual refugee has shaped me and my ministry to this day.

In short, Fahed is one of many in the cloud of witnesses that has helped shaped me and my faith. I am sure that you have your own that you remember in one way or another. And having remembered them, today we also remember that we are called to join with that great cloud. We were made to embody that faithfulness we have inherited, so that others might be recipients, as they move out in faith.

And that, in essence, is what we do in worship when we hear. We listen to the Word of God as we see and year it in Scripture. We read the stories and lessons of all of those who have gone before us. We remember the great cloud of witnesses who live within Scripture. And yet, hearing is not a passive act; not in the least. It is an act that, when we are truly open, we are changed…transformed…moved. And being so graced by God, we set work building God’s city for all of those who are looking for home in this restless world.

May it be so.

Amen.

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What does it take to build our life together?

We start our worship series journey at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses, at God’s command, has led the people out of slavery, through the plagues and the Red Sea, out into the wilderness, on their way to their promised freedom. And here, at the relative beginning of that journey, they pause at the foot of a mountain so that Moses can confer with God and receive further instructions.

When he returns, among the words he shares with the people are those in our lesson this morning, which are often referred to as the Ten Commandments. There is more to be said about these rules for living than time permits this morning, so let us keep this in mind: these commandments are meant to shape the life of a people. They are meant to guide a community learning to live together in love.

Whatever instincts they might have had toward building a society are long gone due to the ravages of slavery. And so, God takes special care to lead them by the hand into the land of promise as they build a new and promising life together.

Moments like these, these Sinai moments, are important ones in the life of faith. And over the next few weeks as we journey through this worship series, we will touch on several key ones in our Scriptures. These moments act as markers, reminders of what is at stake and what is expected of us. They act as guideposts, pointing out the path we have trod and reminding us of what it has taken to get us where we are.

At its best, our Stewardship Campaigns should act as such a moment, a time when we gather together at a crossroads, remembering what God has done for us already and envisioning what God has in store for us in the years to come.

I do not, for a moment, claim to be Moses. And while I have had profound experiences of God, I do not pretend to have had the mountaintop “written in stone” kind of experience we have heard this morning. Instead, I hope you hear my thoughts this morning as just that: thoughts from your pastor, steeped in prayer and reflection, as we celebrate our 65th Anniversary as a congregation and look forward to what God has in store.

Every year when we begin our Stewardship Campaign, I am reminded that here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we hold two important realities in tension. The first is that it takes money to do ministry. All you have to do is look around this Sanctuary to be reminded of that. We have lights, heat, a sound system. We buy paper and equipment to have bulletins every Sunday. Tim, Cheryl, and I are all on staff. You compensate us for our time and work. It takes money to do ministry. And the second reality is this: we give away everything we do. If we truly believe that grace is God’s free gift to us, how in the world could we turn around and charge for it? There are no membership dues, no entrance fees. And if there are, my conviction is that something has gone very wrong.

This is an unworkable economic model. And yet, we make it work. Or should I say, God makes it work. Every year, we ask you to make a prayerful financial commitment to the work of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. And every year, you do. And every year, it more or less works out.

There’s a lot more to the story than that, of course. We have leaders working very hard behind the scenes, keeping costs down, monitoring our books, and thinking through how we ask for your commitment. Your donations and gifts come in weekly, monthly, annually to keep us going. And we make our accounting as transparent as possible. It’s an open book, which we believe is the most faithful way to manage what God has given us.

It’s in that Spirit of openness that I want to spend a few moments looking at numbers. You will have many chances to see these over the course of the next few months, so consider this a first look. I’m hoping that some of you will find this helpful.

For 2015, Session is asking the congregation for a total of $255,000 in pledged giving. We have several sources of income, the largest other one being building usage, but congregational giving is the single largest source of income. The goal this year is to make our ask during Stewardship season only. The past two years we have done an additional mid-year ask in order to fill in the gap, and you all have responded generously. But I get the feeling that we’re all getting a little tired of doing that. So let’s put it all on the table here: $255,000 in pledge giving is what Session projects we will need in order to have enough income to pay all of our expenses in 2015.

If you want to break it down, there are a couple of different ways to do so. For example, we have 131 members on the roles. Per member, that total works out to about $1,950 for the year, or $37.50 per week. Membership is one way to look at this, but there are many who support Oglethorpe with time and energy and finances that are not officially members of the church.

If we break it down by worship attendance, we average about 90 people on a Sunday morning. That works out to $2,850 per person per year, or $55 per person per week. Of course, we have members who give but are unable to attend due to health or work.

One other way to look at it is by income. A few years ago, we surveyed the congregation and learned that our average household income is $117,452. With about seventy pledges coming in, that works out to about 3% of household income, or about $3,650 per pledging household per year, or $70 per week.

I thought he was going to preach today!

Look: the whole reason I share all of these numbers with you today is in hopes that it might be helpful to some of you. These are some of the figures that help paint the financial picture of what it takes to build our life together. None of this is prescriptive. Some of you are able to give above average, and others below. And, above all, I trust you to know what is possible in your own life. All I ask is that you make your consideration steeped in prayer.

The point in all of this is that we make our commitments not as a collection of individuals, but as a community of faith who share life together. Faith is meant to be a shared enterprise. That tends to fly in the face of what our culture teaches us about the centrality of self-reliance and independence. 77% of Americans consider themselves Christians. A third of those attend services less than twice a month. In other words, the number of Americans who self-identify as “Christian” without participating in any kind of church or faith community is staggering.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe for a moment that the Spirit is magically contained by the four walls of a church building, or that somehow Christ can only be present in the lives of those who are on the membership rolls, or that the most important thing to God is your attendance record. That said, what we know – from the stories of Scripture to the way our very bodies and brains are wired – is that the life of faith is meant to be shared together. It’s how we build our life together. It’s how we encourage one another, how we challenge one another, how we teach and learn from one another. It’s how we pool our resources, how we move out into the world, how we become Christ’s hands and feet.

It is, ultimately, how we become partners with God in building God’s beloved kingdom, making mercy and grace something tangible to the world around us! It is how we come together in love and share that love with one another and with the world around us.

We do not charge for God’s free gift of grace. Instead, my prayer today is that it would give us a charge, sending us forward from the foot of this mountain and on into that place of promise that awaits us.

Amen.

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Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.

Today we wrap up our worship series on Psalm 23, and we start off where we ended: with the Lord. Yahweh. By way of review, the whole psalm begins with the bold declaration that the Lord, Yahweh, is their shepherd. It is the image of God as divine shepherd, protector and provider, which sustains the start of the psalm. About halfway through, the psalmist shifts from talking about God to talking to God, and God becomes the host. Tables are spread, heads are anointed, cups run over, mercy pursues.

And now, we are told that we are no longer guest, but part of the family, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. As one hymn setting of the psalm puts it:

No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.

What does it mean to live in the house of the Lord? In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, the phrase is meant quite literally. When Moses led the people in the wilderness, they gathered around Mt. Sinai. And when Moses descended with the Ten Commandments, they were placed in the ark, which was housed in a tent. That tent became known as the house of the Lord, and was the focus of worship in the early generations of the faithful. When King Solomon built the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant was moved into the new house of the Lord. In fact, most of the places in Scripture where the phrase “house of the Lord” is used it is meant as a descriptor for the Jerusalem Temple. But…what happens when there is no Temple?

The Babylonians destroyed the first Temple, taking the Judeans into exile. After Babylon was conquered and the exiles returned, the house of the Lord was rebuilt, and it stood until Jesus’ time. Jesus was so distraught the way that his “Father’s house” was being used as a marketplace that it’s one of the few times we see him losing his temper. He even predicts the destruction of the second Temple, which the Romans leveled in the year 70.

This is why other uses of the phrase “house of the Lord” become important. In the Old Testament, it is also used to talk about the people of God. Jesus is the one that makes the shift to speaking of eternal life as the house of the Lord, telling his disciples that after his resurrection, he would go to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. Paul picks up on this idea, giving hope to those who see the flimsy, earthly tent of their bodies giving way to the heavenly, eternal house of the Lord.

So even though Scripture uses this phrase to describe variously as heaven, the Temple, and the community of believers, the meaning at the very heart of it is all the same: to be in the house of the Lord is to be in God’s presence.

All of which brings me back to the bumper sticker with which I began today: don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “house of the Lord”, my first thought is of heaven. I am sure that the fact that I have heard this psalm read over and over as a psalm of comfort in times of death and grieving plays heavily into that. I am hard-pressed to remember a funeral where I didn’t hear the text. When someone dies, we are sad; because we miss what we love. And so, the promise of living in the house of the Lord forever is not only hopeful, it is restorative. It gives us a clear focus on the promise of resurrection we know in Christ.

The idea that there is nothing to fear beyond the grave is an amazing thing. We Presbyterians don’t tend to talk about things like life and death until we absolutely have to. But when we do, we cling fiercely to that hope the there is more to this life than meets the eye. I know that each one of us struggles with doubts – some small, some great. My hope and prayer, though, is that when it comes down to it, you can trust that there is a greater reality that holds us fast.

That all said, if we are honest, we know that having faith holds the potential for temptation. And that temptation is to be so focused on heaven that we forget about living in the here and now. There’s a brilliant satirical song from 1911 that put it well:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right.
But when asked, “How ‘bout something to eat?”
They will answer in voices so sweet:
“You will eat, bye and bye,
in that glorious land above the sky.
Work and pray, live on hay:
you’ll get pie in the sky when you die!”

If our answer to every trouble of this world is, “it’ll be better in heaven,” then we have forgotten Christ’s prayer that earth would become more and more like heaven. It is not that we stop yearning for the perfection that heaven promises; instead, if we have the certainty of heaven, it ought to free us to live abundantly in the world around us. We ought to pray that God would open our eyes to recognize those places where the kingdom of heaven is already alive in the world so that we can join in! When we do this, we take that Biblical phrase, “the house of the Lord”, with all of its meanings, and pull them all together.

The house of the Lord is the Temple. It is God’s presence, God at work, right here, right now. The house of the Lord is the promise of eternal life. It is God’s presence, a gift to us that sets us free to love and serve. And the house of the Lord is the people of God. It is God’s presence, God at work within us and through us. Yes, my dear friends of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, we – you – are the house of the Lord! When we are at our best, we are the connective tissue between that which is heavenly-minded and that which is earthly good. When we are, we really are the body of Christ, the word made flesh, living in this world, loving this world, and working for the healing of this world. It is a healing that is not in our hands. The gift is that God allows us to be the vessels of divine healing!

Many of you have read of surveys over the past few years that have announced that the fastest growing religion in America is “spiritual but not religious.” These are folks who know that there is more to life than meets the eye, but they want to avoid the trappings and follies of institutionalized faith. Maybe that describes you, too. The word religious means literally to become connective tissue! Re – ligio, from the same root as ligament.

True religion, at its best, is what holds faithful living together! We read the lessons of Scripture not so that we might become convinced of how correct we are. We read them because they reveal the truest character of God in Christ Jesus. Our whole purpose is to be those who reflect that character of love and mercy and grace to the world around us.

That is why we care about people who have no home. That is why we comfort those who mourn. That is why it matters to us what is happening in places as far away Syria and Egypt and as close as Buford Highway and Clayton County. That is what it means to dwell in the house of the Lord forever!

Are you ready? Because your room is waiting…

Amen.

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