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20101108-082626.jpgIn the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.

I have told the story before of my friend Fr. Thomas, the Greek Orthodox priest. We got to know him when we moved in as his neighbors during our time in Palestine. If you were going to craft a caricature of a Greek Orthodox priest you wouldn’t end up with someone as magnificent as Fr. Thomas. Everywhere he went, he wore his black robe and black hat. His grayish white beard flowed down onto his chest, and his long hair in back was tied up in a ponytail.

Fr. Thomas was never quite sure what to do with us Presbyterians. We weren’t Catholics, which was a plus in his book, but we were Protestants, which had historically had little to do with the Orthodox church. Over time, he learned to trust us. One Friday, I rode with him down to Tubas, a little village to the south of the one in which we lived. The 50 or so Christians there lived among 17,000 Muslims.

As we stood by the side of the road waiting for a car, Fr. Thomas turned toward me: “You Protestants.” I waited for the accusation that came next. “Why don’t you cross yourselves?” I paused, thinking about how Protestants had distanced themselves from Rome, probably throwing out some practices because of guilt by association, and I decided I had more to learn by listening than talking.

“Don’t you see?” he said. “These three fingers represent the unity of God in Trinity! And these two are the humanity and divinity of Christ, born from the womb of the Virgin Mary! He is True God from True God, descended to be one of us. He rose again, sits on the right hand, and will come again.”

“Oh, that! We’ve got that. Here’s the church, here’s the steeple…”

We are better in community than we are on our own.

Today we mark Trinity Sunday. In 2016, the Trinity can come across as one of those archaic philosophies that might have made sense back in 325 but not anymore. We are monotheists, but believe that God is in three persons? Jesus is God, and also God’s Son? Let’s just skip all the complications and boil it down to “try and be nice to others.”

Let’s be honest. Christian faith comes with a series of challenges. First, we claim to find eternal meaning in a collection of books written almost 2000 years ago, intended for a Middle Eastern sheep-herding, olive harvesting people. Second, we are guided by doctrines like incarnation and the Trinity that grew out of ancient Greek philosophical notions about life, the universe, and everything. And third, we live in a culture that runs counter to our faith – especially among those whom we would consider our fellow adherents, treating Christianity as a national tribe of self-defense rather than a sacrificial way of selflessness to a world in need. Why bother?

Because we are better in community than we are on our own.

Look. The Trinity, as a doctrine, might seem like impenetrable philosophical gymnastics. God is Father, God is Son, God is Spirit. Father is, and isn’t, Son; Son is, and isn’t, Spirit. Spirit is, and isn’t, Father. Three, and One. It’s like steam, water, and ice. Or like idea, word, and breath. Or like one finger with three segments. Does any of this help? And if it does, does it help us to understand something about God, or what it means to have faith in that God?

If nothing else, here’s what I hope the Trinity suggests to us today: the essence of God is community. God is one. There is no god but God. And that same God, the source of all that was, is, and will be, is expressed in the community of Trinity. The Father needs the Son. The Son needs the Spirit. The Spirit needs the Father. They all need each other for their holiness to be made real.

And what that means for us, those of us who want to reflect the character of God that we know and love, is that we are meant to be in community; because we are better in community than we are on our own.

When Paul and Timothy write to the church in Corinth in our lesson this morning, it is the sense of being knit together as people of faith that emerges in their writing. Paul and Timothy know that the Corinthians are suffering, a suffering that Paul and Timothy empathize with and even share in. In that suffering, they write, they are connected to the suffering of Jesus himself.

One summer, I worked as a chaplain at a Catholic hospital outside of Chicago. I visited one day with a young woman who had come in because of a nasty infection, only to get another one at the hospital. In abject pain and sleepless nights, she looked up on the wall and saw what was on every room in the hospital: Jesus on the cross. It was as though, she told me, Jesus was saying to her, “I know your pain. Your pain is my pain.” And being joined with Jesus’ suffering, she said, gave her great comfort and strength to endure.

As Paul and Timothy tell the Corinthians, it is the prayers of the Corinthians that give Paul and Timothy hope and perseverance. We are better in community than we are on our own.

This is why we form churches and worship together and serve together and become members – to be in community, to strengthen, challenge, and grow our faith in Christ.

We are better in community than we are on our own.

The Orthodox liturgy Fr. Thomas celebrates is a complicated liturgical dance. From the intricate clothing to the detailed instruments, everything tied into Scripture and theology – perhaps nothing more than the Eucharistic bread.

The bread itself bears a stamp that is baked into it. There is the shape of the cross, with “Christ is Victory” written three times down the middle. As the priest prepared the bread for the liturgy, he takes a golden knife in the shape of a spear, piercing the bread, carefully taking out a piece, and placing it on a plate, under a tent of sorts. This represents the grotto in which the Christ child was born.

The priest then takes the piece of Christ-bread and mixed into the chalice of wine, the body and blood coming together. He then cuts pieces of bread for the patriarchs and matriarchs of faith, the prophets and angels, the disciples, apostles and saints of the church, and mixes them into the cup. Then, as members of the congregation come forward to whisper their prayer requests to him, he cuts out pieces for each of them, mixing those into the wine.

Finally, the congregation processes forward, as the priest spoon-feeds the communion mixture to each of them. Much like the prophet Isaiah’s lips were purified with the burning coal, so the members of the congregation are being purified, the spoon representing the tongs that held the coal.

In other words, in communion, Orthodox Christians are united with this whole stretch of God’s salvation history: stretching back to creation, through Noah and the flood, sweeping through Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, into the birth of Jesus, his ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection, catching up Paul and Timothy and the Corinthians, and on into the present day, with hope for what is to come. All of this is done in community: the sufferings and joys alike united in that cup, and shared by all who are there, bearing one another in grief and celebration, all of it tied back into Jesus himself, the one who lived life out of death, redemption out of suffering, hope out of despair.

And that’s what we do today at this table. In form, it looks very different from what Fr. Thomas brings to his people. There is no spear, no spoon, no grotto. What we do have is bread and cup. And as we share in these things, we do them together, because we are better in community than we are on our own.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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“Wherever you go, I will go. Your God will be my God, and your people will be my people.”

With these words, Ruth follows after her mother-in-law Naomi. She leaves behind her homeland of Moab, crosses the Jordan River, and enters Judah, settling down in Bethlehem. She meets and marries Boaz, and becomes the great-grandmother of King David, as well as part of the ancestry named in the lineage of Jesus.

“Wherever you go, I will go. Your God will be my God, and your people will be my people.”

On one level, this is a story about devotion and love. Such was the love and affection that Naomi showed her daughters-in-law that they both wrestled with whether or not to follow her to a foreign land. Orpah decides to stay; Ruth decides to go. On another level, it’s a reflection of a particular time period. All three women have become widows, a particularly vulnerable position in the ancient world. Marriage and family would have been their most reliable means of support.

Naomi knows her chances will be better if she goes back to her “tribe” back in Bethlehem. Orpah figures she will be more likely to remarry if she stays in Moab. Ruth throws her lot in with Naomi, which is quite risky: marrying across tribe is unusual, and it is quite possible that the two widows will end up having to rely on Naomi’s family, if they will take them in.

In other words, it’s a story about history – a time period very different from our own. It’s also a story about love – a love that transcends blood and tribe. And it’s a story about trust – a trust that leans into love, and ends up risking for the sake of it.

Over the past few weeks, we have been talking about fearlessness – about the fact that fear is not a bad thing; in fact, it’s a necessary component for survival. And yet, we can’t let fear rule all that we do. The instinct of fear hearkens back to a primal time in our species, when there was survival and only survival. Human society has evolved dramatically in the intervening centuries, meaning that there are times when fear is simply outdated. It’s the emotional equivalent of using stone tools in the age of the smart phone.

Fearlessness, quite simply, takes practice. And that practice can lead us to the kinds of leaps of faith that we see in Ruth’s story.

Her story is a remarkable one. Think of it as two streams. On one side is her future as a Moabite. If she bids farewell to Naomi and goes back to her childhood home, she may or may not remarry. But she will be taken care of for the rest of her life. On the other side is her future as a foreigner in Bethlehem. As far as she would have been able to predict, nothing is certain. Once Naomi is gone, would her family feel obliged to care for Ruth? She is likely resigning herself to a life of poverty.

Think of it this way: to follow Naomi, Ruth not only pledges her loyalty to her; she obliges herself to a foreign nation and a foreign god! If you’re on the side of Judah, she’s a hero. But if you’re on the side of Moab, she’s nothing short of a traitor.

That’s the level of risk she takes. And what ends up happening is she ends up being part of this Judean stream of history that becomes a crucial part of the grander story of salvation, of God’s love for humanity. Through Joseph’s ancestry, Ruth is thirty generations removed from the birth of Jesus. In the long patriarchal list in Matthew, Ruth is one of only five women named. Moving from one stream to the other moved her story from being one of security and safety in Moab to one of history and destiny in Judah.

And all of it began with a commitment borne out of love.

What would it be like to have that kind of love? What would we experience if we had that kind of devotion to God and God’s story? Where would that kind of fearless loving lead us?

Elizabeth and I lived in Chicago when we were in graduate school. This was way back in the last century, BC (before children). And while we were there, a new call began to grow with a sense of urgency to it: to support the Christian church in the land of its birth. By the time 2000 rolled around, things were falling into place. And in September of that year, we moved to the Northern West Bank, where we spent three and a half wonderful, heartbreaking, joyful years living in a Palestinian village, teaching school and working with clergy and lay leaders there.

Before we left, we had a going away party. Everything in our home was tagged. There was the stuff we were planning to take, the stuff we were planning to put into storage, and everything else. Everything in that latter category we gave away. If people wanted to donate toward our ministry, that would be fine. More important to us, though, was that our “stuff” would find a home: furniture, books, clothes, music, you name it.

I’m not sure I can imagine doing something like that now. But here’s the thing: what sticks with me until this day is how freeing a time it was! We both knew, instinctively, that this is what we were supposed to do. Most of the stuff we had was stuff others had given to us anyway; who were we to charge for it? And letting go of all that stuff was just so…liberating! And all of it – all of it – was wrapped up in a wonderful certainty of this amazing thing that God was calling us into.

What would it look like for us to live with that kind of liberating abandon? What would it look like for you to let go of your “stuff”, however you want to define that, in love and fearlessness? Could we, indeed, follow in the footsteps of Ruth, calling out to God, “Wherever you go, I will go; your people will be my people”?

A word of caution, my friends: if we say this – we really say this and believe it – we will experience not only great freedom. Our hearts will be forever sewn together with those whom God loves. Speaking for myself, my days of living in Palestine are in the past. I have been able to reconnect with so many of those beloved friends by way of Facebook. And these past few weeks, the images they share of violence in the streets of Jerusalem and beyond are heartbreaking. These are people – Palestinians and Israelis; Muslims, Jews, and Christians – created in the image of God. Whatever “side” you feel drawn to in a conflict, whether based on tribe of politics or confessional status or nation, faithfulness requires love. And love requires love not only of those with whom we side – at least, not if we claim to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who said, in no uncertain terms, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

For Ruth, love meant risk – risking the safety and security of home because of the deep bonds of affection that her relationship with Naomi had brought. And that risk brought her great reward.

As noble as all of that is, it is a mere shadow of the love that God calls us to in Christ. We love people not because they are lovable. As wonderful as reciprocated love is, it’s the easy kind. We love because we are loved! You see: God knows what we are really like. And God loves us anyway! If that’s true of us, no matter how “moral” or “noble” or “good” we are at our best, we all know that we are never perfectly lovable. But that doesn’t matter to God! God knows what we are capable of and still calls us to the better angels of our nature.

Fearless loving is the embodiment of Christ’s love. It loves friends, yes, but also enemies. It prays for those precious to us, yes, and those whom we cannot stand. It is not easy; it takes practice, and it involves risk. And yet, it brings us into God’s stream of faithful living, of that amazing history of salvation that God continues to promise to humanity!

What would that kind of love look like in your life? What would like look like to practice that kind of fearless loving? For some of you, it may start with your morning commute and replacing whatever kind of colorful descriptives you might have for that person that cuts you off to call out, instead, “God love you!” For others of you, it might be seeing that co-worker who rubs you the wrong way and muttering under your breath, “child of God; child of God; child of God.” Whatever it is, it begins in prayer. After all, prayer is a two-way conversation where we not only call out to God but open ourselves to God and God’s ways.

Friends: the love that God calls us to be part of us fearless. May we live into it together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10-20-00 (M Olives 2)Heaven is not a meritocracy.

There is a reason that Jesus’ preferred teaching method is the parable. He is describing something – the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven – that defies description. How do you paint a picture of something that no one has ever seen? Jesus starts with scenes his audience would be familiar with: the pastoral images of shepherds and vineyards, the patterns and customs of the small village. The stories are often allegories, where each character is a stand-in for someone or something else. And though it begins with the familiar, there is always, always a twist, a subversion of what is expected.

Our parable this morning is a perfect example. It begins with a vineyard in need of work. If it helps to picture things into our context, imagine a landscaper pulling up to Home Depot on Windy Hill. Those who successfully scramble to get on the truck first agree to the usual daily wage. The boss apparently sees the need for more workers, because he goes back every three hours, promising to pay these new workers “whatever is right”. His last trip takes him through the parking lot with just an hour left of work; and yet, he still picks up more workers. We can all imagine who would be left at the end of the day: the weak, the aged, those who slept late…in other words, those who are not fit to work.

So far, so good. Jesus has set up the expectation that those who worked the full twelve hours will be paid more than those who worked a mere hour. And then comes the twist: the landscaper decides to pay each worker the same amount. Whether they worked twelve hours, nine hours, six hours, three hours, or one hour, they are all paid the same. And the result is a very polite labor riot.

How we react to the story depends on who we see ourselves being in the story. If we’re the full-day workers, we hate it. If we spent the whole day hanging around the parking lot, then we love it. And that makes us pretty similar to the original audience.

For that first century community listening in on Jesus’ story, the allegory is a little more pointed. The landowner is God. And the workers represent the faithful. The challenge is that those who show up first are the Pharisees, those self-righteous keepers and defenders of the orthodoxy of faith and practice. They’ve been at this faith thing long before the latecomers even bothered to try and show up and Jesus’ table: tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, Gentiles. And yet, they, too, are ushered into the kingdom.

Can you hear how radical, how subversive, how dangerous Jesus’ message is? Can we begin to understand why he was seen as such a threat to the religious (and political) status quo of his day, and why crucifixion started becoming a viable option for those who had so much at stake in the way things were? After all, not only does he try to level the religious playing field; he even flaunts it, healing on the Sabbath and forgiving sins. This is not a man to be handled gently, lest his followers get the wrong idea.

At the very root of it all is Jesus’ clear condemnation of the idea that heaven is some kind of meritocracy – that those who are most worthy, those who work the hardest, who scramble to get in the truck first will be the ones who will be ushered into God’s perfect presence. It’s hogwash. It just isn’t true. And I don’t know about you, but I find that idea kind of threatening.

If we go back to the Protestant Reformation, back to the roots of our Presbyterian branching off of the ancient Church, we find important things happening to challenge the theological and ecclesial status quo. The Reformers, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, confronted the very idea that salvation was something to be earned. The concept of indulgences was particularly offensive, where people were able to purchase their loved one’s way out of Purgatory and into Heaven. Salvation was not a financial transaction for the wealthy alone, nor was it a means to bilk the poor to enrich the enthroned. Salvation, the Reformers said, was through faith alone. In God’s economy of salvation, the leper and the Pharisee were potentially on equal footing. Only God knew the truth that lay within.

It wasn’t long before Protestants developed our own version of deserving God’s reward through a theological loophole. It wasn’t that you earned your way into heaven, but your works were the clearest demonstration of your faith. The Protestant Work Ethic became one manifestation of this: your dedication was an outward sign of your inward faith.

And if we are honest, most of us have some version of this approach to faith: it doesn’t matter what you believe; if you’re a good person and you do good things, then you’ll find your way into heaven. Even if we would never admit it in public, most of us expect some kind of eternal reward for all of our good deeds in life.

But there’s a problem with this: heaven is not a meritocracy.

You see, that’s the problem with this Jesus character. He seems to be uncomfortable with our comfort. The surprise ending of the parable is the whole point of the parable. There is no VIP section in Heaven, no reserved seating in the kingdom of God. There’s no preferred rewards club. Whether you were born into faith or came into it later in life is irrelevant. And there is no way to tell just by looking at someone or their reputation. It doesn’t matter if they are a pastor or an elder or a deacon or a member or a visitor. It doesn’t matter if you are a well-behaved child or a noisy teen. There is no seniority in God’s faculty.

I don’t know about you, but I can get to a level of comfort with this concept if we confine ourselves to talking just about heaven. I am willing to accept that there are no first class harps or exit row clouds. I can believe that heaven will be full of surprises – in fact, that there might not even be any harps or clouds. I can live with that.

But the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God does not just exist “there”, wherever “there” might be. It’s here – at least, it’s supposed to be.

Throughout his teaching ministry, Jesus goes to great pains to point out to his audiences that “heaven” is not just a theoretical concept. “Heaven” is what those who would follow him seek to create wherever they are. The parables are not just helpful teaching tools. They are meant to give us an image of what the world might really look like if people of faith followed through on what we say we believe.

So, how are we doing?

Look: I know that this isn’t what we expect. Religion is most effective – maybe not most faithful, but most effective – when there is a clear incentive to behave, when we know that our good works lead to our reward. So when you take that away, what are we left with? Or does it just bring us to the point where we just want to be left alone?

Friends, the good news that undergirds all of this is what it always is: the love of God we know in Christ is unconditional. God’s mercy has no strings attached. In Jesus’ economic model, there’s no quid pro quo. And what I hope that leads us to find is freedom – freedom to chance, freedom to risk, freedom to be faithful! There’s no need to prove ourselves. There is only the invitation to pick a few grapes and get ready for the celebration, because all the heavy lifting has already been done.

I find it hard to connect to Jesus’ pastoral parables. I am a city boy, through and through. The closest I’ve come to any of this was the time Elizabeth and I spent in the olive orchards of Palestine when we lived in a small, rural Palestinian village.

Every October, the village would shut down for the olive harvest. School is closed, and whole families head out to their ancestral lands to strip the trees of olives, taking the fruits of their labors to the press, where it is turned into miraculous oil. Elizabeth and I had no land, but were invited by several families to join them for a day among the trees.

What we learned is that the olive harvest is a time for more than just picking fruit from trees. It is a celebration. There is work to be done, but there is also fun to be had. We sang, we ate, we napped. Children grabbed the olives knocked to the ground by older siblings up high in the branches. The elderly sat on the ground, sorting through and picking out the sticks and leaves. Everyone has a role.

For my own part, I brought zero experience to the work, and did my best to follow directions. I am pretty sure my labor paled in comparison to those for whom this was a yearly exercise. And yet, when it came time for lunch, I was given my full share.

The work itself was its own celebration, but it also anticipated the times we would gather around tables with these same families, dipping fresh baked bread into the oil that was the work of our labors.

Friends, I want each of us to consider our place in the vineyard.

At Oglethorpe, we are launching a program for April and May called Engage. Engage is a short-term study on Evangelism. Now: knowing Presbyterians like I do, and how excited we get about the word “evangelism”, so I’m pretty sure the program sells itself. But just in case, let me put it this way:

Evangelism is a word that has been twisted – and not the kind of twist we might find in the parables. It has become associated with those who arrive to the vineyard early in the morning to lord it over those who are still stuck back at the Home Depot at the end of the day. What it should be, instead, is an invitation to a work that not only prepares for the celebration, but is also its own form of rejoicing.

With Engage, groups will be gathering at different times throughout the week. At the end of those two months, it is very unlikely that you will have baskets full of grapes. What is far more likely is that you will experience the joy of the fields, leading you to invite others out there with you. You may have no idea what you’re doing, but there’s nothing like a nap under the trees.

Are we ready?

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are never above God’s judgment.

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

We are never beneath God’s grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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What did Jesus look like?

When I was in Seminary, I had a full beard and long hair, which I wore in a ponytail – about halfway down my back. For the day of my Old Testament final exam, I decided to wear my hair down around my shoulders. Our professor, the brilliant scholar John Collins, walked past and commented, “I swear, Marthame; you’re looking more and more like Jesus.”

It so happened that, at the time he made this comment, there was a conference going on in Chicago about the painter, Warner Sallman. Sallman is famous for that face of Christ painting – you know the one: Jesus the Nordic shepherd, with the high forehead, the pointed nose, the beautiful flowing hair, the perfectly quaffed beard…If we’re honest, we know that this majestic, European fair-skinned Jesus bears little resemblance to the man who walked the road to Emmaus, but what did Jesus look like?

When I was in high school, I attended a workshop at an Atlanta church. The speaker was presenting his evidence that Jesus was a dark-skinned African. The tribes of Israel had been in captivity inAfrica, Jesus and his family had sought refuge there, and in Revelation, the return of Christ is depicted as a man with “feet like burnished bronze” and hair “like white wool”. Of course, it was North Africa –Egypt to be precise – that was the Biblical place of both refuge and captivity. And the description of “wool” refers to the color, not the texture, of the hair in question. This was probably no more or less accurate an historical depiction of Jesus than Warner Sallman’s Jesus the Teuton. But what did Jesus look like?

My father had his own theory. He didn’t think that Jesus looked much like a white man, or a black man. He figured that Jesus probably looked a lot like a man from the Middle East. The person he knew best that fit that description was Fahed Abu-Akel, a friend of this congregation and of mine, founder of Atlanta Ministry with International Students, former moderator of our denomination’s General Assembly. Fahed is a Palestinian Israeli-Arab from theGalilee. But rather than a head of wool or a magnificent flowing mane, Fahed – even then – had very little hair to be described poetically. Fahed looks very little like the image of Jesus we likely hold in mind; but my father’s point is well-taken. What did Jesus look like?

From our gospel lesson this morning, it seems that not even the disciples knew how to answer that question. No sooner have the women found the tomb empty than two of them set off for the village of Emmaus, a town seven miles to the West of Jerusalem. The risen Christ makes a cameo, joining them as a fellow traveler; but they don’t recognize him. They talk to him about him, and they still don’t know who he is. He then explains to them how Jesus was the Messiah, explaining the Scriptures to them. And still, after close to two hours on the road together, they have no clue who this man is – and apparently they haven’t even bothered to ask his name! Finally, they get to Emmaus, and invite Jesus in for supper. And as soon as he breaks bread, their eyes are open, and they recognize him – and he vanishes. They are so astonished that, even though it is close to evening, they immediately get up and go back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

What does Jesus look like? And what happens when we recognize him?

If this story has anything to teach us today, it is that we recognize Jesus when we share with others. That’s the thought at the heart of our communion celebrations – that when we gather around the communion table, Jesus is in our midst. But it’s not limited to the communion table – any table where we gather in fellowship with one another, Jesus is there with us. And yet, like the disciples, we can be slow on the uptake. So often our eyes are closed to the presence of Jesus.

That’s why the disciples are so wonderful. They had immediate access to Jesus for three full years. After the resurrection, they got another forty days. And even so, they still don’t get it! And yet, as our first reading reminds us, despite their many shortcomings, Jesus still puts them in charge of that early church.

It hasn’t been quite two months since the events on the road to Emmaus, and as Peter addresses the crowd on the bizarre happenings of Pentecost, he becomes the face of Jesus. After all, the church is the body of Christ, right? If that’s the case, then somebody’s gotta be the face.

And that’s no less true of us today as a church, some six thousand miles and some two thousand years removed from the events in our morning’s texts. We are the body of Christ. Where we go, we bring the presence of Jesus.

Think about the ministries we support: our commitment to the Druid Hills Night Shelter is one example, where we go to serve men who are trying to get off the street, men whom society has pretty much given up on; we are the face of Jesus, sitting at table and breaking bread with others.

Or our Food Pantry, where we live out Christ’s command to feed the hungry, but even more so, to love those whom we serve; or our Habitat for Humanity build, where we become Christ’s hands and feet, working alongside a family as they work – and work hard – to put a roof over their heads. There are so many other examples – our Bargain Shop, our Christian Education classes, our Preschool, our prayers and our acts of kindness to one another as we deliver meals and help with chores. We are the face of Jesus.

What a blessing – and what a burden – in a world that is so in need of Jesus!

As if we needed any reminder of that, this past week brought news of the killing of Osama bin Laden. I don’t feel any need to add to the exhaustive and exhausting commentary you’ve already heard. But I did find this one piece of information absolutely fascinating.

Christians make up some 2% of the population of Pakistan. The Presbyterian church’s history there goes back to 1854, more than 150 years ago. Today, the estimate is that there are some 300 Presbyterian congregations in Pakistan, with membership of more than a quarter million. I knew some of this already. But here’s what I learned: there is an Abbottabad Presbyterian Church. In the town where bin Laden had been hiding for some six years, a city of some 300,000, there is a Presbyterian church no more than two miles from the now-famous fortified compound.

What that says to me is simply this: there is nowhere that Jesus won’t go. Since 2005, the very person whom most of us consider the personification of evil was living in walking distance of three churches – one of them our very own. Titus Presler, an American Episcopal priest currently serving with the church in Pakistan, put it this way: “While our tendency is to imagine the site of such an event as bin Laden’s death on some utter edge of experience, such events occur amid living and complex communities where voices of the gospel of Jesus Christ are rarely absent.”

Friends, we are the face of Christ. We may not live in Abbottabad, but we know that there is darkness in our own community. And it, too, is often out of site, hidden behind walls. It’s the darkness of addiction, of suicide, of abuse, of cruelty, of selfishness, of indifference to suffering, of hopelessness and despair. And even though it is a void, we are the ones who bring the hope of the gospel. We do that as a church, yes, as an institution, but we also do that as individuals. Our lives come in contact with the darkness each and every day – and into that darkness, we are invited to be bearers of light. We bring the gentle touch of encouragement, the thoughtful act of kindness, the listening ear of hope, the challenging word of selflessness and the promise of purpose.

In short, there is no place that Jesus will not go, which also means that we do not go there alone. Christ is with us, walking that road, opening our eyes, feeding us.

What does Jesus look like? Does he look like a Norwegian strongman, or an African warrior, or a Palestinian Israeli-Arab? Yes.

What does Jesus look like? He looks like us.

May we have the wisdom and the faith to be the presence of Christ wherever we go.

Amen.

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Close your eyes and try to sleep now / close your eyes and try to dream / clear your mind and do your best to try and wash the palette clean / we can’t begin to know it, how much we really care / I hear your voice inside me / I see your face everywhere…

As cheesy as it is, I can’t hear this song without thinking of Rachel Corrie. And it makes me smile in spite of the ache in my chest.

Today is the eighth anniversary of Corrie’s death, crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as she stood in front of a Palestinian’s home in Rafah, Gaza Strip. I first heard about her death not long after it happened. A journalist friend of ours called me to ask if I knew her. I didn’t. But when I said her name out loud, the driver of the car I was in gasped. He had been in Rafah two weeks before. He had met Rachel Corrie. And he had stood next to her in front of the blade of an Israeli bulldozer.

The whole incident sent a chill through all of us internationals working in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip at the time. It seemed to me that the Israeli soldiers treated us more brazenly and that we were far more timid in approaching them.

I am still haunted by her death from time to time. This quote from her journal is the one that links her memory to the song and also makes me weep for what the world lost on March 16, 2003:

I’m really scared, and questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. I don’t think it’s an extremist thing to do anymore. I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics for my coworkers. But I also want this to stop.

I hope this makes Pat proud.

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