Posts Tagged ‘ordination’

3107459732_dc14f72b60Even if a tent is not our home, it should still provide shelter.

The first time Elizabeth and I went camping together, we brought with us a little rinky-dink tent. If I remember correctly, it was a metallic silver color, because, it turns out, you can judge a book by its cover some times.

It was about 3:00am when the rains started, and that was when we realized that the tent failed at what was really its only job: keeping us dry. We leapt out of the tent, picked it and everything inside of it up, and threw it into the back of our fancy Dodge Cargo Van, where we spent the rest of the night.

I learned an important lesson that night: even if a tent is not our home, it should still provide shelter.

In our lesson this morning, as Paul continues his second letter to the Church at Corinth, he sends them a word of encouragement about the challenges they are facing. And as he does, he focuses on the glory that awaits them one day. Bodies may break down, but spirits are strengthened. What we see is temporary, but what is unseen is permanent. The earthly tents we live in can be destroyed, but our true home is an eternal, heavenly home.

Yes! And, what happens to us now still matters. What happens to the body matters. What happens to the temporary matters. What happens to the tent matters.

There is a temptation to read Paul and declare that the “here and now” is irrelevant, that all that matters is what happens in heaven. If that were the case, we would have to ignore everything else Paul wrote or did. Remember that Paul had an existential crisis that turned him from persecutor to Christians to promoter of Christ. Remember that this conversion sent him to Jerusalem to argue for the inclusion of Gentiles in the fledging Church. And remember that Paul spent the rest of his life traveling, preaching, and teaching the crucified and risen Christ.

If none of this mattered, then Paul could have rested on his laurels after his conversion, waiting for his earthly tent to be destroyed so he could take up his permanent, heavenly residence. Instead, Paul earned his living as a maker of literal tents and spent his days and nights as a maker and mender of spiritual tents, earthly churches, bodily communities that followed Jesus.

So rather than seeing our lesson this morning as a call to disregard the “here and now”, the invitation is to keep the “here and now” in healthy perspective.

If that space-age monstrosity that advertised itself as a tent had been our only earthly shelter, it would have been insufficient to say, “We seem to be getting wet! Oh, well. Good thing we’ll be eternally dry in the sweet by and by!” That’s not faith; that’s delusion. Then again, if we had reacted to all of this by abandoning the tent for some kind of indestructible bomb shelter, declaring, “We’ll never ever be wet,” then we’ve missed the point once more. That’s not faith, either; that’s paranoia.

The call of faith is to live, somehow, with the in-between. It means holding these gifts God has given us, but with a loosened grip, recognizing that they are not ours to begin with.

One of the things that I have always appreciated about Oglethorpe Presbyterian is the ability to keep these kinds of things within a healthy, faithful perspective. If we were to give into the cultural perversion of bigger, better, faster, stronger, then our building isn’t even a mere shadow of what it should be. That said, neither should we neglect it.

And while there is no shortage of projects around this place, in the past few years we have checked a number off the list. We have new roofs! We installed new, secure doors at the back parking lot! We have updated our antiquated HVAC system! We even have a bathroom for grown ups on the Sanctuary level! We have just, thanks to your generosity, finished phase one of replacing asbestos-backed floor tile. And as we speak, we are finalizing drawings to convert the basement of the Chapel into Kindergarten space and the lower courtyard into an outdoor classroom.

This may never be the most elegant building in Brookhaven, nor do I think it should be. After all, at its very best, it is still our temporary home. And yet, the care we give it while it is in our hands should reflect how we value what it is that God has entrusted to us. We are situated in the midst of perhaps unprecedented growth with a piece of property that is vacant more often than it is occupied. To put it a bit more crassly, we are holding onto empty real estate in a place where land is at a premium. What an opportunity God has given us, God has given you, to be stewards of this place in a way that reflects the character of God we see in Jesus.

And that’s the point after all, isn’t it? If Paul knew anything at all, it was the gift of Jesus as God incarnate, as God embodied. If the world we live in doesn’t matter, the crucifixion doesn’t matter. We know that’s not the case. The fact that the body of Jesus was tortured and suffered is of vital importance. And one of the many ways it matters is that it calls us to minister so that others never have to live with that kind of suffering.

It’s one thing to mend our own tents, whether literal or metaphorical. It’s another thing altogether to look after the tents of others.

Our latest ministry is a perfect example of that, as we embark on becoming partners in New American Pathways in refugee resettlement. Sometime over the next year, Oglethorpe Presbyterian and Emory Presbyterian will work together to furnish a home for a family of refugees. It is possible that they may very well come from living in a literal tent. And your welcome of them not only follows Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger and the exile; it shows that what happens to them matters not just to you, but to the same God who created and loves and yearns for them.

It is my hope that, in all of this, all of us will call to mind what it means to live faithfully in the earthly tent that God has provided for us. We know it is temporary. And yet, if it leaks, we know we deserve better. And the same is true for all of God’s precious children and the tents in which they live. God has given us the ability and the means to make and mend tents the world over so that they, too, would reflect God’s promises of love and hope.

The table is the perfect image for what we are saying here today. The bread and cup we share are not enough to feed the hungry or satisfy the thirsty. They do remind us of the eternal feast that awaits us in God’s perfect presence. And at the same time, they stand as a challenge to our conscience that we should do what we can to make sure that none of God’s children ever hunger or thirst.

After all, even if a tent is not our home, it should still provide shelter.



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What needs to die so that Christ can live in you?

In the 16th century, a Spanish nobleman named Ignatius changed Christianity forever. He left comfort behind to join the priesthood, establishing the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests.

One of Ignatius’ legacies is the spiritual practice known as Examen. Examen is a daily discipline of reflection designed to develop attention to where God is at work in one’s life. There are many variations on the practice. The one that has come to mean the most to me is one which focuses on two questions at day’s end: What gave you life today? And what drained life from you? The hope in doing so is that, over time, you are drawn closer to those things that are life-giving; and in doing so, you draw closer to God.

It is a practice that parallels with our text from Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome this morning. In it, Paul uses the image of baptism, of descending into the water and coming out again, as an image of death and resurrection. Not just an image, though, but an act that binds the follower of Jesus with Jesus. Going under the water, we die to sin. Coming out, we rise, renewed and refreshed, to live in faith and hope.

And for most of us, the journey of faith is not “one and done”; rather, it is one of multiple spiritual baptisms, of deaths and births – some large and some small – that happen time and time again. None of us rise out of the waters of baptism to live lives of perfection. If we do, then we certainly don’t need any of this, since we’ve already got it all figured out.

This leads us back to this daily practice of Examen; and thus our question today: what needs to die so that Christ can live in you?

As Christians, as those who try to follow Christ’s example, we are called to serve others. We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. Let’s be clear, though: we can only love our neighbors if we love ourselves. It is easy to confuse the call to service with a personal desire for martyrdom. But we are followers of Jesus. We are not Jesus. We do not carry the sins of the world. We don’t even carry our own: that’s Jesus’ job!

We can only honor God if we are willing to honor the image of God – that goes for the image of God within others and the image of God that is on our own truest selves.

Faith requires examination. And the purpose of this examination is so that we grow in clarity about what it is that weighs us down. When we do, we also grow in awareness of what it is that the world puts on us and what it is that we pick up of our own accord. Just as there is faithfulness in saying “yes” to things that could possibly make us squirm, there is also faithfulness in saying “no” to things that drain life from us. The thing is that saying “no” is what gives us the freedom to say “yes”.

So what needs to die so that Christ can live in you? What is it that you need to say “no” to so that you can possibly say “yes” to what God is putting before you? What is it that needs to go under the waves so that you can come up renewed and restored?

That’s the essence of our topic today, this idea of weaving the big story with our stories. We have the temerity to believe that our daily lives are sewn into the grand drama of the universe, of God’s creation and redemption and salvation and hope and resurrection. In other words, that Easter morning resurrection was not just a once in an eternity experience. Instead, we should experience that resurrection each and every day. As those things that pull us away from Christ die little deaths, seeds of new life should take root and blossom.

The Sanders have been doing our own version of the daily Examen in our house for a while now. In order to span the generations, we call it “happy sad time”. Each of us shares something during the day that made us happy and something that made us sad. It has become part of our evening ritual every bit as important as brushing teeth, reading bedtime stories, and saying prayers. There are many days that boo-boo’s top the sad list. And yet, the gift that has emerged is a growing awareness of how we interact with the world on a daily basis. It has become our way of figuring out what has to die so that Christ can live within us.

There is, I believe, faithful purpose in practices like Examen. There is also, I believe, practical purpose as well. The paradox of letting things die in order for Christ to live is that, by doing less, we actually accomplish more.

When we deprive ourselves of sleep, we may think we are getting more done. But if we are honest without ourselves, we know that what we do, we do with diminished capacity. We do it poorly. We do it under duress. And we do it with less attention than it demands. If we take seriously our call to self-stewardship, including so-called frivolities like play and sleep, we are actually fine-tuning ourselves toward faithfulness, toward that daily baptism of newness and renewal.

Here’s the hones truth, some good news and bad news. The bad news is that there are only 24 hours in a day. That “to do” list that currently haunts you? It will continue to do so. Whatever it is you have to accomplish, you will always only be able to do so within the confines of the amount of time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis.

But there’s good news, too. Are you ready? There are only 24 hours in a day.

Whatever anyone else expects you to do with that time, including your own expectations, what God expects of you is to spend that time as stewards of what God has given you! That includes work and obligation, yes. It also includes sleep and rest. It includes joy and fun. It is, in short, an effort to allow our lives to be transformed so that we spend more and more of our time doing those things that give us life.

This past week, my college alumni magazine came in the mail. The first section I always turn to is the alumni news, where I get to see all of the amazing things that I am not doing with my life. Do you know what I’m talking about? How often do we spend time comparing ourselves with others? How often do we marvel at those who have gone on to greatness, and sowing some seeds of disappointment within ourselves in the process?

How much more faithful would it be to focus on what it is that God expects of us? Friends, success is a fraud. It is a false idol. So is happiness, but that’s a topic for another day. As people of faith, we are never called to be successful. We are always called to faithfulness. After all, it is faithfulness, not success, which gives context to our failures.

We are not asked to defy the laws of physics. We are not called to do physical harm to our bodies and psyches in order to please the gods of others’ expectations. What God expects of us is to spend our time faithfully and wisely in order to give glory to God! For us old school Presbyterians, the archaic language of the Westminster Catechism put it this way:

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: To glory God and enjoy him forever.

Our whole created purpose in God’s eyes is this two-fold expression of enjoyment and glory! If we can begin to see our lives through this lens, then the invitation to let things die in order that Christ might live in us might finally grab hold.

Today, we are ordaining and installing elders. In the Presbyterian Church, elders are those we entrust with leadership, wisdom, and discernment. I am very aware that many of our elders and deacons have busy lives. And what we say is that, through the voice of this congregation, God is calling them to these ministries of leadership and service.

I want us to be just as clear about what ordination is not about. We do not ordain elders and deacons so that they can be busier. We do not ordain them to add one more thing to their “to do” lists. If ordination and installation – if leadership and service – are things that drain life rather than give it, then they are not of God. They are not what God desires of us. They are not what God has created us for.

My hope, instead, is that we will live into this vision of letting things die in order for Christ to live within us. So as we absorb the absurd promise that death actually gives way to life, that is when this grand story of God’s purpose really weaves itself into the fabric of our day-to-day lives. Resurrection becomes the moment that smashes our false idols and makes room for Jesus. And when we allow this to happen within ourselves, as we demonstrate that love of self God desires us to know, that is when we can begin to do the same for others, for our neighbors, for those whom God calls us to love and serve.

You see, this grand story, this sweep of God’s history, is not just tied into the lives of those of us here. The bricks and mortar of church buildings cannot limit God’s tapestry. God’s weaving is meant for all created in God’s image. The disaster is that there are so many of God’s children who either think that God doesn’t care for them at all or who believe that God expects more of them than they can ever reasonably accomplish. Our role is to let them know otherwise, and that there are communities of faith that practice realistic, faithful expectations so that the world can look more and more like the one God desires.

So here is my invitation to you today. I invite you to adopt some version of that daily examination, the Examen, in your own lives. I invite you to spend a few minutes at the end of the day reflecting back on the day’s events, taking note of those things that gave you life and those things that drained life from you. I trust that as you do so, you will grow in awareness of those things that ought to die so that Christ can live in you.

I also trust that, as we grow in our awareness of Christ’s presence, we will be able to nurture that awareness in others, to invite them into the astonishing journey that promises life out of death.


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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.


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We are connected.

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

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

We are connected.

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

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

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

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

We are connected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are connected.

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

Because we are…connected.

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d0aa37ec02b511e3921e22000aa81fd0_7You anoint my head with oil…

When Elizabeth and I were dating in college, we alternated going to Presbyterian and Episcopalian worship services. As a lifelong Episcopalian, Elizabeth was jarred by how often the Presbyterians would mention things happening in the world around them. It wasn’t that they talked about politics, but they would mention specific events in the world and lifted them up as ways to pray and be involved. They never did that at her home church, so it took some getting used to.

For my part, I struggled with the “smells and bells” of high church: incense, processions with the gilded cross, the Anglican aerobics of standing, sitting, kneeling, jumping, and so on. But what really got me was the one Sunday they announced a “healing service”. The congregation was invited to stay for a service of the laying on of hands and the anointing of oil. Boy, the benediction couldn’t come soon enough for me. My head had left the building five minutes ago – I had to sprint to catch up with it.

Growing up in the South, even in Atlanta, my only frame of reference for this kind of worship was Benny Hinn: faith healers who seemed to me like charlatans, who claimed to give the gift of sight to the blind by planting a face palm on them. When the priest announced an Episcopal healing service, he might as well have broken out the snake cage and started passing the rattlers around.

Now, I am pleased to say that Elizabeth is a patient woman. She was willing to give me time to figure out what is now quite obvious to me, that there are worlds separating the charismatic practice of faith healers from the ancient liturgy of anointing. Those of you who have been here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian for some time know that our deacons lead an annual healing service each January where we practice the laying on of hands and the anointing of oil. And not once have I run screaming from the sanctuary.

You anoint my head with oil…

From where I sit, the Presbyterian church has changed a great deal from the church of my childhood. And the biggest change that I have noticed is a willingness to consider practices from other denominations. And this change has stretched me. Where I once had a knee-jerk reaction to things as being “not Presbyterian”, I have now realized the possibility that richness and depth can actually lie outside of our Scottish roots. Offering wine in communion will not shake the foundations. Holding a worship service with Taizé music or songs by U2 will not stir the wrath of God. The ceiling will not cave in if we use an instrument other than an organ. Singing praise music will not bring about Armageddon. It makes little difference to God if we say “amen” or clap or sit in awed silence: what matters is that we know that God is the source of what we celebrate.

The uniqueness I have come to recognize here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian is that we embrace a wide variety of practices and expressions of faith. And we know that not everything we do will resonate with everyone. It reminds me of the story of the pastor who was greeted at the door with the line, “I really didn’t care for that second hymn.” Without batting an eye, the pastor retorted, “Well, it’s a good thing we weren’t singing it to you!”

The health of Oglethorpe Presbyterian lies in the perspective we share that worship is ultimately not about us. And that’s the heart of all of these so-called “non-Presbyterian” practices: what is faithful is what gives God the glory. And among the many practices the church has used through the centuries, this tactile, hands on practice of anointing with oil is simply one way to remember the Lord who is the source of it all.

Our two lessons this morning stand as reminders of this ancient ritual. The psalm is a brief one, one of my favorites. It was written to be sung by worshipers as they made their way up to the Temple, rejoicing in the power of faithful fellowship. It is so wonderful to be together, the psalmist writes, as wonderful as that oil poured upon the head of Aaron, our first priest! There was so much of that precious oil, in fact, that it poured down from his head, onto his beard, and ran off onto the collar of his priestly vestments. The psalmist picks up on this idea of plenty by comparing the oil to water, coming down from on high as a trickle, building into streams and rivers by the time it waters the thirsty lands.

The priests of old, the prophets, the kings, the leaders of the faithful, were those who had been chosen by God. They were anointed with oil, a physical action that mirrored the spiritual one of being made clean, set aside for God’s ministry and service. And it was from this practice that the word “Messiah” sprang.

To be “Messiah” is literally to be anointed. The Hebrew word from which “Messiah” comes, “Mesheach”, translates into Greek as “Christos”, from which we get “Christ”. And our New Testament lesson recounts Peter’s early recognition of Jesus as Messiah, as Christ, as anointed. Jesus has gone away with the disciples into the quiet calm of the mountains of Caesarea Philippi in the north. And there, sitting next to the springs that give life to the land below, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. Is he, as some people say, John the Baptist reanimated? Or Elijah, the prophet who mysteriously disappeared, returned to lead the way of the Messiah? Or another of the prophets, come back from the dead? It is Peter who sees the truth as clear as day: Jesus is the one. He is the one that Scripture has promised, the coming Christ, the Messiah, the one to be anointed so that the kingdom of David is restored. Israel will return to her former glory, throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression.

It is from this proclamation that Peter gets his nickname. He is no longer Simon the one who hears. He is Peter the Rock – not to be confused with Dwayne Johnson or Alcatraz: Petros, the rock, is the symbol of sound faith. And on this kind of faith, the church can be founded, and remain sure-footed.

And yet, no sooner has this happened than Peter is put in his place. As Jesus begins to explain to the disciples what it means to be Messiah, Christ, Peter is deeply disturbed. Instead of talking about the reinvigoration of the great Israelite nation, Jesus tells them about suffering, betrayal, death, resurrection. Peter is so sure that Jesus has gotten it wrong that he takes it upon himself to correct Jesus, which Jesus takes about as poorly as one can. Simon the Hearer become Peter the Rock is now Satan the Adversary. Peter is rebuked, told to set things right: “Get your mind off the things that other people want. Start focusing on what God wants.”

How often do we do that? How often do we focus on God’s desires rather than our own? Or worse, how often is it that we think about God’s favor instead of popular favor? How often is our action guided by the question, “Does this please God?” And how often are we more worried about what the neighbors will think?

Friends, this summer we have been looking at the 23rd Psalm, phrase by phrase. And while each section has something to say to us about faithful living, I believe it is today that we get to the heart of who we say that Jesus is, and who we say that we are. If we call ourselves Christians, if we are followers of this one we call Christ, Messiah, then we ourselves are anointed! We are set aside. We are called to faithfulness and to particular roles in the building up of God’s kingdom. God anoints our heads with oil: and while the outward sign is an important one, it is the inward action that truly changes us for good. Just as in baptism or communion or anything else we do where we invoke God’s blessings on the material, we know that God is at work in ways that are far beyond our ability to summon or create!

So the question for us today is simply this: what is it that we have been anointed for? For what purpose has God set you aside, called you? There is a quote from the great Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner, with which some of you are probably familiar. He says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Where is that place? Where is the world hungering for that thing that gives you joy? What does it mean for you to put away the thoughts of people and focus on the things of God?

After worship today, we gathered around the table of fellowship. And just as those ancient worshipers celebrated being together, our time today was a blessing, like that precious oil running down the beard of Aaron the priest. Today, we particularly wanted to say thank you to those who make ministry possible here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, and there are so many of you to thank. You support this church’s work with your time, with your hands, with your money, your voice, your presence, your love and prayer and care. And as we say thanks today, we know that we are ultimately saying thanks to the Lord who is the source of it all.

I also know that some of you are looking to be involved, to be a part of God’s amazing work, not only here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, but way on out into God’s wild world. Or maybe it is that are already actively engaged; but what you are doing no longer feels like a calling. Instead, it has become a burden. You are looking for something new, something that doesn’t drain your life, but gives you life.

If this describes you, I hope you will take this moment as an invitation, a reminder of your own spiritual anointing. God has gifted you! The question now is, what will you do with that gift – or rather, what is it that God wants you to do with that gift? Will you keep it to yourself? Or will you allow God’s blessings to flow through you, like a gentle trickle from on high that can build into a river of living water, quenching a thirsty world?

If this resonates with you today, then I invite you to one simple thing. Write your prayer as a comment below. And be sure to write your name. If you do, don’t be surprised to hear from me later in the week. More importantly, though, don’t be surprised if you hear from God, pointing you in new ways, opening new doors for you.

Friends, God anoints your head with oil! May it be so, not just today, but always.


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The community of faith goes on…

What we do here this morning requires a little bit of explanation, this “ritual” known as confirmation. In the Presbyterian church, it is our usual custom to baptize infants. And that’s the case with both Carter and Trent. The reason for this is simple: we know that God is at work in our lives long before we become aware of it. And so the parent – in fact, the whole community – makes the promise that we will do everything we can to encourage the child in the faith that we have inherited, surrounding them with signs and reminders of God at work in their lives.

What happens today in confirmation is that we ask these two young men if they will confirm the promises that their parents made for them at baptism.

There is a potential risk to all of this, however, as a story might illustrate best.

Maybe you’ve heard about the three rural churches plagued by pigeons that roosted in the rafters of their sanctuaries. The three pastors commiserated on their mixed success with pest control. The Lutheran pastor said, “Well, we had some success with this spray we got at the Ace Hardware. That kept them away for a week or so, but they’re back.”

The Baptist pastor was pleased that they had fared a little better: “We used our massive sound system from our contemporary service and played a series of sonic booms. That drove them away for about a month, but they’re back, too.”

The Presbyterian, however, was downright triumphant: “Well, my friends, we’ve solved our problem. The pigeons are gone.” His colleagues were stunned: “How did you do it?”

“Well,” he said, “We baptized and confirmed them, and we haven’t seen them since!”

Now – that’s not the track record of OPC. But I want to be clear about it: if we treat Confirmation like a graduation, then there is a temptation to act as though what we do here is mark an ending. The truth is that confirmation, or membership in the church at any age for that matter, is the beginning of the journey, not the end. It’s the raising of the curtain at the start of the play, as we learn our roles and try out our parts. Take note, all of you: if we ever think we can graduate from faith, then what we are saying is that we can reach a point where we know all there is to know about God.

The community of faith goes on, because knowledge of God is everlasting…

That continuity is what we touch on in the lesson from Acts this morning. The disciples have numbered twelve for some time. But once Judas betrays Jesus and takes himself out of the picture, they need to find a replacement. The lot falls to Matthias, the number is twelve again, and the disciples move out into the world as apostles and evangelists.

The community of faith goes on…and we, some two thousand years removed from that moment, are inheritors to that ongoing tradition.

What we do today is something that tangibly reaches back to that moment when Matthias steps into the spotlight. When we get to the actual moment of confirmation, we will invite forward all of you who have been ordained as ministers or elders to come forward and lay hands on them as we pray for them. It is something we do from time to time in our lives together; and for me, it’s one of the most visceral moments, a reminder of that community of faith stretching back. As we stand up here in ever widening circles, some of us can remember when others stood around us – at confirmation, at ordination – and the invisible hands of those saints who are no longer with us rest on our shoulders as real as memory allows. It’s as though those circles continue to widen further and further, going back into our shared history, until we arrive in that upper room where Matthias kneels with eleven hands laid upon him.

Of course, the church looks very different now from the way it looked then. It’s a theme we return to again and again here: the fact that we are part of an ever-changing church in an ever-changing world. And that’s the remarkable thing: while so many things have come and gone, the community of the faith goes on…

Some of you helped with one of the confirmation projects, which was a survey about faith and church. The last question was an open-ended one: “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” My favorite answer was, “May I have ten more questions?” But all of the answers showed with powerful clarity one thing in particular: the life of faith is marked, most of all, by struggles and doubts. We, all of us, have questions about our ultimate purpose, about why suffering exists both near and far, about whether there really is anything beyond the life we know. Faith is not a panacea. It is not the easy answer to all of life’s questions. It is the very essence of the challenges that life gives us.

And that’s the hope for what we take away from being together today. The faith community goes on, not in spite of our questions, but because of them. We are here, together, because we believe that we are better because of it. It’s like an ember in the dying flame: outside of the fire, it can burn for a while; but it will burn longer when it’s amidst other embers. The church is called to be a community that struggles together. When one member rejoices, we rejoice with them. And when one member suffers, all suffer with them. Because we’re not the only ones in the mix: we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who stretch back into the centuries and remind us that the God whom we serve is eternal.

In a few moments, we are going to affirm our faith. And when we do, we will use words adapted from Carter and Trent’s faith statements. What I think they reveal to us is that, though the questions may change and the world may be different, we are stronger as a community of faith when we are together.

Friends, the world may be a different place than it was when the church was first born in ancient Jerusalem. And the church may look different as a result. But the Holy Spirit who gave us birth is eternal. The God of creation has been and always will be. And the Christ whom we serve calls us into a relationship with the divine now and forever.

And so, the community of faith goes on…Amen.

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I just got back from the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC, where I spent the weekend with three colleagues. Each of us had our own art we learned – two in quilting, one in blacksmithing, and me in printmaking. I took some of my favorite photos through the years and transferred them to solarplates for printing, and I loved the results. I’ll try and post those soon.

Last year we received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to form a group rooted in service, study, and sabbath. The crux of our project is to look at the creative arts – whether that be musical, visual, or written – and to spend time together for refreshment and exploration. This weekend was part of that. In a way, it’s our desire to connect more deeply with the God of creation and the Spirit who continually re-creates us, shapes us, and calls us to serve the church with imagination and creativity. In some ways, there is something in this act of creating which moves us a breath closer to that divine, creating character.

One of our group noted that the artistic process has three movements: inspiration, creation, and exhibition. We have the idea and we give it form. But the piece doesn’t really exist until someone else sees it and interacts with it. Could the same be true for God’s work of creation? Is that part of the reason we need community with one another, that we creatures need to see and know one another to become fully created beings?

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