Posts Tagged ‘paul’

Sa2GuDhYou are ambassadors for Christ.

It has been my privilege to be your pastor for these past ten plus years. Today, as my family and I bid you all farewell, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on that time, as I have been doing over the past few weeks. There are many precious moments I will treasure from our brief time together. Speaking personally, I will always remember how you rejoiced with us in the birth of our two children. You are the community that, when they were baptized, made promises on their behalf. Elizabeth and I have passed milestones in our marriage and in our ages – well, at least I have. I have also celebrated milestones in my ordination. You have prayed with us as we have worried about our family. As Elizabeth’s mother’s health has deteriorated, you have cared for her. As my father died too young and my grandmother died at a blessed 99 years, you have wept with us in grief, a critical part of our healing.

You are ambassadors for Christ.

All of this mirrors the love and welcome you show the world around you. When a young Oglethorpe University student died suddenly over a winter break, you opened up this space for the community to grieve. You did the same as a young man at Chamblee High School tragically took his own life. None of them were members of the congregation, but that wasn’t what was important. What mattered was that they hurt and you ached with them.

You have done as Christ taught, welcoming the stranger, providing sanctuary and worship space for Spanish-speaking immigrants, giving them the opportunity to grow in their witness and move into their own space with expanded ministries.

You have followed Jesus’ teaching, giving home to the homeless. You have built more than a dozen Habitat homes. You have provided meals and fellowship and hope at Journey Men’s Shelter. You have given coffee to Mercy Community Church for their daily stret ministry. You have shared support with Thornwell Home for Children. You are embarking on co-sponsorship of a refugee resettlement program with New American Pathways.

You are ambassadors for Christ.

You have also done as Christ commanded in welcoming the little children. You have nurtured hundreds of children in our Preschool program, even when they sang “This Little Light of Mine” for the umpteenth time. You have welcomed children into this space, so that their voices can also cry out in praise. This is how they learn what it means to worship God as part of a community of love and warmth.

You have made space in worship for different styles of music, remembering that we are not the audience – God is. I still remember the first time we had drums in the Sanctuary, finishing the worship service with “When the Saints Go Marching In”, and Ralston Woods hobbling up to me at the end of the service, saying with a touch of menace in his voice, “There was only one thing wrong with that last song.” After a pregnant pause, he continued, “It wasn’t long enough! We need more of that!”

You are ambassadors for Christ.

A couple of days ago, Elizabeth, the boys, and I walked up and down the hallways, nooks, and crannies of this place. We shared memories and told stories: moments of celebration, times of grief, hard conversations, illuminating conversations, places where our children were cared for, where we were cared for.

I remembered greeting children as they arrived for Preschool, counseling with families in my office in times of distress, celebrating communion around the table and even around the sanctuary. The boys remembered playing in Preschool classrooms and on the playground, Sunday School classes and children’s choir. Elizabeth remembered Worship on the Lawn and Screen on the Green and painting walls and hanging pictures. Each and every room had its own special memory. Some of these, I know, will fade with time. Some will grow stronger. And some, as is the nature of memory, will change. Regardless, the core of these remembrances will remain the same: you are ambassadors for Christ.

We ended our tour in the Memorial Garden, where the ashes of at least forty one of the saints of the Church are interred. There are rocks scattered as well, names written on them from our All Saints’ Services where we remember those for whom we have prayed and loved.

This was a fitting place for the family to end our extended walk, as it gave me pause to look back not just over ten years, but over the more than sixty-five years that Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church has ministered, witnessed, and worshiped. There have been many times that I have found myself aimlessly wandering the grounds, lost in thought and dicernment, only to arrive back at the Memorial Garden. It is there that I would sit in prayer. I would invite the saints to pray with me. And in that prayer, I sought communion with them. Together, we prayed for wisdom for the faith, hope, and love of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church.

If you had asked me what the result of those prayers would have been, I would have been wrong. I assumed that, in this place that memorializes the past, I would sense a call to tradition, an obligation toward preserving what was and has been. Instead, I have experienced freedom. It is a freedom that is rooted in that past, yes, in the legacy of this congregation and in the Christ we serve. And in that history, I have been reminded of how this community has stepped out on faith time and time and time again. Oglethorpe Presbyterian was on the forefront of support for civil rights and in electing and entrusting women to leadership as deacons, elders, and ministers. Through it all, the saints of Oglethorpe Presbyterian have been a reminder for me that what is of utmost importance is doing those things that are faithful.

It is not about doing what is popular, or what keeps the peace or even what is expedient at a given time. Rather, it is about doing what is faithful to the God we know in Christ. And it is about doing these things not just when it is feasible, but when it is just and right. Not in human time, in other words, but in God’s time.

This central principle is in your DNA. It is imprinted on you as the precious image of God. It has served you well, and I know that it will for all of the years to come.

In the words of our lesson this morning, it is not the superficial things that drive you. It is not human standards by which you measure things. It is rather through the lens of reconciliation that you see the world. You are, in Paul’s words, ambassadors for Christ, messengers of grace, envoys of love and mercy.

And as I take my leave of this place, I go out to be an ambassador for Christ, too, carrying the hope and joy and faith of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, of the God we serve in Jesus Christ.

You may have noticed that this ministry is no less important in 2016 than it was in 1949. People are being targeted for death because of their sexuality; and we are called to embrace all of God’s beloved. The stranger and the exile are blamed for every problem under the sun; we are those whom Christ commands to welcome the foreigner in our midst. Those who view God differently than we do are treated with abject suspicion; we are ambassadors for the one who sought out the despised, risking that he himself might be despised.

This is the hope you all carry within you. You are the body of Christ, the community of faith, the saints of Christ’s Church. No matter what else you do, if you keep welcoming those who are unlike you, if you continue to reach out beyond those idolatrous boundaries that we are told are there keep us safe, if you remain faithful to the God who constantly stretches and reaches and loves the world, even at its most unlovable, then you will be what you have always been: ambassadors for Christ.

I thank you for an amazing ten years. And above all, I give thanks to God for you and your witness. As I go, I will pray for you, holding you, God’s people, in my heart.


Read Full Post »

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.


Read Full Post »

mistake-pano_13891Mistakes are natural. Not only are they natural, they are faithful.

We live in a world in which perfection is seen as a noble goal. We strive to achieve the perfect body, the perfect look. We hold our relationships and families and marriages up to models of perfection. We look for the perfect job. We putter away at the perfect house. We want our lives to be perfect.

And yet, it is mistakes, not perfection, that are natural. I would even go so far to say that they are downright faithful.

In many ways, this seems like it might be counter to the very idea of God. After all, God is perfection. If we are God’s beloved, shouldn’t we try to live perfect lives to give that same glory back to God? Each Sunday at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, our worship service begins with us confessing the wrongs we have done, the omissions we have made. Doesn’t that point to the idea of “getting it right” the next time, of moving away from imperfection toward perfection?

To a point, yes…and yet, here’s the irony: if we set perfection as the goal, we have already failed.

Perfection is, simply put, just not possible. We are, by nature, imperfect beings. And even if we achieve the highest of heights, we are dissatisfied with where we are, looking to those who stand on even higher ground, coveting their levels of success. What we don’t realize is that those models of perfection are doing the exact same thing to those who tower over them!

Those whom we perceive as perfect are often deeply aware how elusive that perfection actually is. And because of that, they are prone to self-loathing, the sense that they are frauds, fakes, on the verge of being “outed” for who and what they really are.

When perfection becomes everything we pursue, we have given ourselves over to false idols. And that’s not just problematic; it’s downright dangerous. It’s dangerous because it causes us to judge the imperfections of ourselves and of others, and thus to judge us and them as well. And that, simply put, is not our place.

Mistakes are not only natural. They are faithful.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians in our lesson today, he is well aware of their imperfection. He has done battle both in person and from afar trying to heal and mend the conflicts that seem to mark the community. But rather than this driving Paul to give up on Corinth, he instead finds a way to take it and point everything back to God.

Writing of some setbacks he and Timothy have recently faced, Paul writes that they are afflicted, but not crushed. They are persecuted, but not alone. It is though he knows that some might point to his suffering, his failings, in order to suggest that he is simply faithless. And that’s when Paul pulls it all together: “We always carry the death of Jesus within us so that the life of Jesus is seen within us.”

In other words, Jesus’ suffering gives redemptive purposes to Paul’s suffering. And it is Jesus’ resurrection that emerged from crucifixion that gives hope to mortal beings. If we are to call ourselves Christians, disciples, followers of Christ, then what we do make of the fact that Jesus’ body was tortured unto death? If we are looking for models of perfection, Jesus suddenly does not fit the bill.

Not that we are supposed to be Jesus. That’s Jesus’ job, not ours. Our job is to find purpose in his suffering so that our imperfection, our mistakes, rather than pointing away from God might actually point toward holiness.

Mistakes are not only natural. They are faithful.

Thomas Edison once said of the early attempts to make a lightbulb, “I haven’t failed; I just found a thousand ways it won’t work.”

It is critical that we give ourselves space to make mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn what doesn’t work so that we can focus on what does. If we close ourselves off to the risk of mistakes, we also close ourselves off to the possibility of growth. And whatever the case, growth must always be a part of our faith, lest we think we have it all figured out already.

One of the things that struck me almost immediately at Oglethorpe Presbyterian was our willingness to try new things – not simply because they were “new”, but because we knew that it’s where we can discover the surprises of faith.

I remember my first weekend at Oglethorpe in 2005. The day before the first Sunday of Advent, I found the Minnichs and Kellys were decorating the sanctuary.

The pulpit, at the time, was right in the middle of the chancel. That’s not at all unusual in churches. And yet, to me, a new pastor in a new position, it struck me as sending the wrong message: that the preacher is central to worship. The table of fellowship belongs at the center; the cross absolutely has centrality. The preacher? The preacher, at best, speaks into that space. I asked them if they thought it would be OK to move the pulpit to one side of the chancel or the other. They agreed, and helped me move it.

Now, I have to admit, that when I came in Sunday morning, someone had moved the pulpit back to the center. I never did find out how that happened, but in the end, the pulpit ended up staying on the piano side of the chancel for a few years. We then looked more carefully at the space and realized how imbalanced the space was, with everything crowded on one side and the other virtually empty. So the pulpit moved over here. And that’s where it has been for a few years now.

Those of you with keen eyesight may notice that I don’t spend a lot of time in that pulpit. And that, too, was a change for me – it was not one that came naturally. Rather, it grew out of conversations with members of the community. I’ll be the first to admit that there is comfort in the pulpit. It gives you something solid to hold onto. It gives you something to hide behind, too, which is part of the problem, because it becomes a barrier.

I’m not sure how long I have been preaching from the floor of the sanctuary – probably just over two years. In the context of my years in ministry, it is a new innovation, and one that I likely would not have sought out on my own. In stepping out, in trying something new, I discovered my own surprise of faith.

These kinds of changes may not seem all that significant, but they matter! And they can only come in the context of a community where it’s OK to make mistakes. I remember my first Christmas Eve service where we decided to try a new hymn. It’s a really good piece, one with an easy melody and a call and response rhythm. It tanked. And everyone knew it, too! So rather than pretend like it went well, as everyone was sitting back down, I said something like, “Well, that happened.” I could only do that in a church where it is OK to try new stuff; because trying risks failure. And where it is OK to fail, grace abounds!

That is why mistakes are the stuff of faith! That is why we start each worship service with confession and forgiveness, not to beat ourselves up, but to remind ourselves that God wants us to try, knowing that we are not going to get it right all the time! It’s as though grace is tightrope walker’s safety net. Because it’s there, we can step out boldly. God’s got this, and God’s got us!

Paul writes about it this way: “We hold this treasure in clay jars to make it clear that this is God’s extraordinary power, not ours.” In other words, we are vessels of God’s glory – not because we are perfect; in fact, not even in spite of our imperfection, but because of it! The fact that we are flawed, mistake-prone creatures is one of the most powerful witnesses we make to the world: this glory, this grace, this mercy that we share, it was never ours to begin with! It is simply something we have received that we pass along. It’s why watering cans have holes. They don’t hoard the water, but pour it out in order to share its life-giving power!

Leonard Cohen, the songwriter, puts it this way “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And, I would add, that is also how the light gets out.

Friends, you have a precious gift here! It is a treasure of God’s glory, held within the fragility of a clay jar. May your mistakes, your cracks, your imperfections, become holy places where God’s grace can shine into our lives. May they also be the paths for light to shine upon a world that so desperately needs to find its way.


Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

neanderthal-national-geo_front-300x199We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

Our lesson this morning, coming from the end of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, is a curious one. The community to whom he writes is one about whom he clearly has mixed feelings. It is a church he had a strong hand in starting, having spent three years living and teaching among the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus.

His letters are a collection of responses back to them, mostly fueled by reports he hears emanating from the community. In a lot of cases, the reports are of conflict and questioning. Paul writes to them about dietary laws, schisms, baptism, and communion, among other critical issues. Our text addresses questions around, of all things, resurrection.

Since we only have the letters Paul authored and not those he received, it takes some detective work to figure out what exactly he is responding to. In this case, it seems that some are saying that there is no resurrection – in other words, that once you die, that’s it. Paul goes on to say, in quite pointed fashion, that if there is no resurrection, then Christ experienced no resurrection. And if that’s the case, then the only thing faith is good for is the life we live, which Paul says is “futile”, “in vain”, “pointless”. In other words, without resurrection, without the promise of life beyond what we know, the whole faithful enterprise collapses on its own weight.

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

When this congregation was founded in 1949, no one could have anticipated what the world would look like in 2016. Those who helped buy this property and build these buildings did so because they knew that this community at the end of the trolley line needed a Presbyterian church. What worship would look like, what leadership would look like, what ministry needs would look like, what technology would look like…none of that would have been on their radar. I don’t know this for sure, but I would guess that they did not spend a whole lot of time worrying about that, either. They were focused on being faithful to what God was calling them to be.

It was a couple of years ago that we had a worship series focused on the history of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. And the thing that kept arising, again and again, was that the key moments in our collective history were those where the church did its level best to be faithful disciples of Christ in that particular moment. As our vision and mission statement says, “Ours is a story that belongs to God.” And that is where we are expected to root ourselves.

If incarnation has any hold, if Jesus really is the embodiment of God, then that means that God is just as much at work now as God was 67 years ago, or 200 years ago, or 2000 years ago, 14 billion years ago. And if the same is true looking back, then the same is true looking forward.

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

This past Christmas, our family gift was participating in the National Geographic genographic project. The results of our DNA sample came back this week, and we’ve been spending time looking at the results. And in doing so, we were reminded of the incredible sweep of human history.

About 350,000 years ago, the ancestor to our species centered around sub-Saharan Africa, with a branch migrating northwest into West Asia and Europe. These were the Neanderthals. By about 130,000 years ago, our African ancestors were identifiable as Homo sapiens. 60,000 years ago, some of those humans moved north and on into Eurasia, encountering the Neanderthals, where they mated with them and absorbed them into humanity.

The results also go on to identify the various ethnic groups with whom we share DNA, as they also share the incredible story of human migration over time, one that has only become accelerated with the advent of technology. For me, in looking over this research, there is a deep sense of awe. It is one of the ways that I touch holiness, staring into that wonderful abyss of time, recognizing how little we understand of it all. It reminds of how we are, all of us, interconnected, no matter how different we might look, or no matter what those who try to divide us might suggest. For those of us with European or Asian ancestry, or indigenous American roots, we can trace our lineage back across thousands of years of roots in Africa and the Middle East!

That same holy sense of awe I get looking back is also there when I look forward – although, admittedly, with a touch of anxiety. Not knowing what is to come can be fearful, because we are not in control. And here is what faith says to that:

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

This is something critical for us to remember during this awful political season. God is God…no matter what! And it is particularly critical for us as people of faith, and as disciples of Jesus, as those who live within the hope of resurrection.

There are those who would try to domesticate Jesus, to box him in to fit their own agendas – political, economic, theological, national – but Jesus, as that incarnate embodiment of God, is a slippery figure. You can’t trap him or mold him into your own likeness!

This is important for us to note as we read Paul’s words today. This text, along with some others, is one that has given shape to notions of the Rapture, the Second Coming, the Apocalypse, Armageddon, Judgment Day, whatever title you want to give it. Paul writes that we will be instantly changed in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet, when the dead are raised.

Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of two people in a field, one taken and one left. And in Revelation, John writes of the seven seals and the seven angels and the seven plagues. There are other odd descriptions from the prophecy of Daniel and elsewhere. Some have used these texts to cobble together a detailed description of what the last days will be like. Such is the popularity of this practice that it even brought Kirk Cameron and Nicolas Cage together.

But here’s the thing: we do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

You see, all of this talk about the Rapture is a pretty new phenomenon. It wasn’t until American Protestantism arose, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, that this idea of people being plucked out of thin air became popularized, and it really only gaining traction with the publication of Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth in 1970. As you probably notice, there’s a whole lot of church history before then – shoot: even the Beatles predate that.

Besides which, none of that was Paul’s point. The point, instead, is that the future will not be like we expect. And that is good news – indeed, the best news of all. Because it is not in our hands! It is God who holds the future. Thanks be to God!

We live and serve as those through whom God works to bring that future into being, people of the resurrection, of the hope it promises, of the mystery and awe that it brings. Let us live as though it is true.


Read Full Post »

The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ.

Our two lessons this morning remind us of some critical shifts in the early days of Christianity. At first, Christians were primarily Jews who saw Jesus as a Messianic figure. They worshiped in the synagogues, followed Hebrew dietary laws, and celebrated the Jewish feasts. When Jews were persecuted, Christians were, too.

Then along comes Paul.

Paul first appears as Saul, a fierce persecutor of these followers of Jesus. He oversees the public lynching of Stephen, he of strong leonine faith, who is often called the first Christian martyr. When Saul is on the way to do more of the same in Damascus, he has an otherworldly conversion experience, a blinding encounter with Jesus himself. And in that moment, Saul becomes Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul’s new mission is one of preaching. He takes that same fierceness with him as he brings the message of Jesus far beyond the Jewish community. The letters attributed to him make up the bulk of the New Testament, and his writings are critical in establishing Christianity as its own faith, distinct from Judaism, one in which people of different tribes were meant to be together in community.

The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ.

Paul’s mission pointed back to Jesus’ own ministry, calling attention to the fact that his own message was quite broad. In Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, as he reads Isaiah’s words about God’s liberating power, the two stories of the Hebrew Bible he uses to illustrate his point are both ones in which prophets are sent to Gentiles, not Israelites. And Jesus regularly violated strict Sabbath observance in order to make a larger point about God’s limitless power.

With God’s urging, Paul took these moments and ran with them. The gospel, with Paul as its instrument, was not meant to divide, but to unite – to heal, to reconcile, to reach far beyond boundaries.

The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ.

Our lesson this morning finds Paul on the road again, heading from Athens and arriving in Corinth, about fifty miles to the west. The Romans had rebuilt Corinth as a major trading hub where Romans, Jews, and Greeks all mixed together. After he arrives, Paul connects with Aquila and Priscilla, Jews who had been kicked out of Rome. The three find common ground over their shared trade of tent-making. And Paul gets a place to stay while he puts his powers of persuasion to work in the synagogue, bringing the message of Christ.

Paul’s efforts there are critical in establishing the Church in Corinth. Though Paul eventually left to continue his ministry elsewhere, his authority loomed large enough in the community that they still regularly sought his wisdom. And he thinks of enough of them to reply in depth to the questions and struggles of faith that they have.

Much of Paul’s letters to the Corinth address the divisions that mark them – and there were plenty, apparently. There were conflicts over whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. There were conflicts over what role the Lord’s Supper was to have in their gatherings. There were conflicts that arose because of the cultural stew that the city of Corinth reflected, and Paul tackles them head on, over and over again.

The second part of our lesson highlights one of these divisive moments. Chloe, a leader in the Corinthian church, has sent word to Paul that factions are forming. Paul blasts them for these arguments. It is not, he says, about whether you “belong to Paul” or “Cephas” or “Apollos”. Christ, he says, is not divided. And if Christ is not divided, Christ’s church should not be, either. Paul reminds them that it is Christ who was crucified, not Paul. It was in the name of Christ that they were baptized.

He has this stumbling little tangent, too, which I love – a reminder that Paul didn’t really have the time or the resources for editing. He writes: “I only baptized Crispus and Gaius. And no one else. Except for Stephanas. And his household. Actually, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else. We did do the nose. And the hat. But that’s not the point! You were baptized into Christ, and into the message of the cross and its power. That should be what unites you!”

And Paul’s message was so effective that the church was never divided again.

If anything, the church seems to be marked by division: division between Orthodox and Catholic, division between Catholic and Protestant, division between Presbyterian and Lutheran, division between evangelical and traditional, division between conservative and progressive…So let us be absolutely crystal clear about this: the church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ!

This is the message that ought to ring home for us today – not just today, but especially today. Later on in the service, we will baptize little Norah, and we will welcome her parents, Adam and Victoria, into membership, as we also officially welcome the Kim family into the life of Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Each and every time we baptize and welcome members, we should be reminded of this fact: the church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ. And it is in Christ that we should find our life, our meaning, our purpose.

Even the word “church” ought to remind us of this focus. “Church” is an old, old English word that comes from Greek by way of German. And in Greek, it owes its root to the word Kyrios – that is the Lord, or Christ himself.

The problem comes when we confuse life in a church with life in the church, with life in Christ. We can easily get caught up in institutional survival, or denominational division, or even political disagreement, such that we fail to recognize what our calling actually is.

This is the challenge that confronts us every time we talk about church membership. If we fail to make it clear, we can be led to believe that membership means some kind of exclusive access to God that sets us apart from the world. And this is what leads into division, reinforcing the very separation and conflict that Paul was trying to discourage.

What membership should mean is this: it is a public commitment to be part of a community that is in an ongoing relationship with Jesus. And in that relationship, we try to reflect that the character of Jesus we meet out into the world.

I am not saying that there is nothing at stake in church membership. Quite the opposite: church membership is one clear way to demonstrate that we believe in something larger than ourselves, and that we are willing to be part of a shared vision, one we shape just as it shapes us.

And yet, joining Oglethorpe Presbyterian does not mean cutting yourself off from the world. We do not have some kind of inner road to truth that other congregations or denominations or religions lack. We are, simply put, a community of people doing our best to be part of what it is that God desires in this little corner of God’s amazing world. And this work does not end when we leave the property; in fact, it is just beginning, spreading out through all space and time!

Wherever we go, our goal should be to create little glimpses of grace – moments that point not to ourselves, or to Brookhaven, or to Oglethorpe, or to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or to Paul or Cephas or Apollos. They should, instead, be windows onto to the God whom we are coming to know more in Jesus each and every day!

Immediately following worship today, our Mission leadership is going to be hosting a Town Hall forum on some of the opportunities we believe God has led us to prioritize, ways of being this church that belongs to Jesus far beyond the walls of our buildings and the lines of our property. Some of these ministries have a long history here, and some are brand new. And each of them, we believe, are visible reminders of God at work in this broken and beloved world.

This is the church into which we are baptized – a church that does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the gospel and its healing, reconciling power, with its words of compassion, words of peace for us, and for all. May we have the wisdom and the faith to embrace its claim upon us!


Read Full Post »

Everything we do should flow from gratitude.

There is a simple principle that undergirds everything that we, as Presbyterians, should do: it all begins with God, and it all ends with God. Everything else streams forth from that. And it all starts with our lesson this morning from Genesis, the story of Creation.

Actually, this is the second of two Creation stories in Genesis. The first recounts the days, or periods, of Creation – from the light and darkness to the earth and the seas to the birds and animals and people through to the day of rest, that first Sabbath. This second story zeroes in on humanity: those first people formed in the image of God, man and woman, Adam and Eve.

It is an odd story to read, admittedly. From all of the wisdom we have gained from scientific knowledge down through the centuries, it can be jarring to revisit our own origin story in Scripture. And there can be a temptation to pit the two against each other, faith and science, in a kind of cage match where only one can come out alive. Either Genesis or Darwin is right. Pick your side.

Those of you who know me well know that this isn’t the way I approach these things at all. And that’s not just because I’m married to a scientist who holds the two in healthy tension in her own life. I think the key to it is right there in the Genesis story itself.

You see, there are a couple of moments in the story that give me pause. The first is when woman is created from man, from his rib, because he needs a helper. As soon as I read this, I remember that throughout the rest of Scripture, despite the culture and time in which it is written, there is an overall ethic of equality. From the first story of Creation where God creates man and woman in the image of the divine all the way to Paul’s proclamation in the New Testament that in Christ men and women meet on equal footing, there is a clear rejection of the idea that somehow man is superior to woman. Not only that, the first woman shares the title “helper” with God’s very self, bringing a depth of power and holiness to it all.

This intimate connection between God and humanity, however, is countered by the presence of this forbidden fruit in the middle of the Garden of Eden. God gives them access to everything, absolutely everything, except for this tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why? Why in the world would God not allow these precious folks to know what good and evil are? Why would that be forbidden to them? And how do we hold onto this while simultaneously proclaiming that the pursuit of knowledge is a noble and even faithful objective?

It’s a puzzling question, certainly. And then, when we look at it through the lens of our current political and cultural climate, the whole thing gets particularly sticky. Especially during Primary Season, there is such obnoxious, pandering overconfidence about who or what is good and who or what is evil; and it tends to reinforce the same within us, taking us back to that ancient tree in the Garden of Eden.

There has always been an element of this lesson about forbidden fruit where we humans are supposed to just learn our place. We are not God. We are not meant to be God. And that temptation to harvest from this one tree is about our problematic desire to replace God with ourselves. It is, I believe, a lesson more about idolatry than disobedience. Only God is meant to know good and evil perfectly. And we are supposed to trust God in that knowledge. The single bite from the fruit did not turn us into gods; nor did it give us the full, divine wisdom of right and wrong. Instead, it only allowed us to fool ourselves into believing that we are wise.

And that, I think, is where faith and science meet, whether they know it or not. Faith is not better than the search for answers. And science is not the cause for certainty. In true faith, there is always this desire to know more about God and about God’s creation so that we might mirror that divine character to the world around us. And in true science, there is never proof – only evidence that leads to other tests and more evidence. In other words, the forbidden tree represents the false certainties that people of faith and science think we know. They both require, in their search for wisdom, a healthy dose of awe and mystery. And this, this “almost but not quite” nature of faithful wisdom, is what moves us into this posture of thanksgiving, where everything we do flows from gratitude.

We have spent the better part of a month and half looking at the skeleton of worship: this thing we do week in and week out for about an hour on Sunday mornings. We have talked about how it is that everything hinges on the Word – Scripture, sermon, sacraments, even Christ himself – and that everything that leads up to the Word is preparation – the gathering of the people, the preparing and confessing and transparent honesty…And yet, that doesn’t mean that once we finish the sermon we are done. There is much more to do.

You see, the rest of the worship service itself, everything that follows the Word, is meant to be a response to that Word. When we sing, when we pray, when we affirm our faith, when we ordain elders and deacons, when we commission teachers, when we commit and re-commit ourselves to God’s work and God’s desires in the world: all of this comes in reaction to our direct experience of God through the Word made song, the Word made Scripture, the Word made teaching, the Word made visible, the Word made flesh. And this is where our gratitude comes into play.

Think about it: we, for all of our 21st century sophistication, are no less likely to pursue that illicit tree than our storied ancestors. We still think we can be gods, or at least God-like. We still think we can find absolute, 100% certainty. We still think that we know who is good and who is evil. And, not surprisingly, those who disagree with us happen to fall into that latter category. But that’s what happens when we get that one, single bite. We are tempted to think that, by virtue of our faith, or our church membership, we have been ushered into some kind of exclusive club. We may want others to come on the inside, but only so they can be part of that special elite, too. And none of that is what this is all about.

For those first people, there were consequences for their disobedience. They experienced shame. They knew the struggles of labor. It was only a few more years before bloodshed and exile and division entered the picture. If this was all about being in the special club, then our ancestors should have had their membership revoked centuries ago! But that’s not how God reacts. God responds with firm judgment, and with loving mercy. They are still the stewards, caretakers of what God has made. And time after time after time, when we have demonstrated how unsuitable we are for this Godly society, God has welcomed us back in, again and again and again and again!

And when we know that, when we feel it in our bones, that being a person of faith has nothing to do with any kind of earned worthiness, that’s when our true worth comes into focus: God’s beloved, redeemed by Christ, gifted and guided by the Spirit if we only ask. How can we do anything else but respond in gratitude?

We have set aside today as a day to say “thank you”, because we recognize how many people it takes to make ministry possible here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. And I hope you have made plans to stick around for lunch today – if you haven’t, I hope you will change your plans. Our deacons, our co-hosts for today’s lunch, are those who have responded to God’s call by being ministers of care in our midst. And they know, more than anyone else, how many others it takes to provide care for our community. Our Stewardship Committee, chaired by Cindy Alexander, our other co-hosts, they are the ones who remind us that our giving, our serving, our generosity is not something that comes as an obligation, but as an outpouring of gratitude and thanks for this comfort of God’s mercy and forgiveness and healing.

And as we commission our Sunday School teachers today, those who facilitate classes for our adults and children and everyone in between, we are reminded of all of the other ministries that we share. My hope is that what we do in ministry is borne not out of obligation, but of joy. Our faithful response to God’s goodness, to God’s welcome, is not sense of burdensome duty, but rather a grateful celebration.

So here is an exercise I would like to suggest to you: what is one thing you are doing out of obligation, rather than gratitude? And if there is such a thing, what can you do to change that? Can you allow room for gratitude to nudge obligation aside? Or is it, rather, that this thing, whatever it is, needs to go – or at the very least, be held lightly, trusting in the possibility that it is not what God desires from you?

Actually, let me step back from that for a moment to ask the question writ large: what is the one thing you do out of gratitude? If it’s there already, praise be to God! You’ve got the special sauce, and I hope you’ll share the recipe. If it’s not there, what could it be? Maybe, as I suggested earlier, it’s the thing you do out of obligation that needs to be reframed. Or perhaps it’s the burdened duty from which you need to loosen your grasp so that you have space to take hold of the joy and gratitude that is already there, calling you to something new.

If you are looking for a place for that gratitude to bear fruit, we certainly have plenty of opportunities here: from service to others through our mission and caring to ministries of hospitality on Sunday morning, shaping this more and more into God’s community of welcome. If you are looking for ways to plug in, please just let me know.

At the same time, don’t think for a moment that God’s ministry is contained within the four walls of our building. After all, this isn’t a select club we belong to. It is, instead, a community grounded in the knowledge that everything starts with God; that our response is rooted in gratitude; and that this gratitude flows right back to God for the sake of all of God’s Creation.

May it be so, now and always.


Read Full Post »

Water. Mayim, in Hebrew: the waters of creation when the Spirit breathed on the face of the deep. For forty days and forty nights, water fell from the skies, flooding the whole earth. The infant Moses found safety floating on the waters of the Nile. And when he led the people out of Egypt, it was the waters of the Red Sea that parted. In the wilderness, it miraculously sprang from rocks. The Psalmist spoke of the deer longing for water as the soul longs for God. And in captivity in Babylon, the people sat by the waters and wept tears of grief.

Water. Hydor in Greek: the baptismal waters of the Jordan River. As Christ began his ministry, at Cana, he changed the water into wine. On the Sea of Galilee, Christ found his first disciples. He calmed the storm and walked on the face of the water. On the night he was betrayed, he washed the disciples’ feet. And when he was crucified, as the soldier pierced his side, blood and water flowed to the ground together.

Water. So simple: a mere two Hs and an O. So necessary: without it, we cannot live. And yet, so fearsomely powerful: the destructions of floods and tsunamis. In our Scriptures, it is a sign of judgment and sadness, a cause of suffering and fear. It is also a symbol of plenty and purity, a reminder of sustenance and salvation, a source of blessing and celebration.

In the sacrament of baptism, in the waters that flow, we find the Word made visible. The Word is the focal point of Presbyterian worship. It is the Word that follows our gathering and preparation, and lays the groundwork for what follows. For Christians who track a significant portion of our roots back to the Reformation, it’s no surprise that we give emphasis to the Word. The Reformation was when churches were changed by understandings of authority and access. The printing press was the innovation that sparked the translating and sharing of Scripture, such that it became an important mark of Protestantism.

And yet, there is more – much more – to “the Word” than Scripture. Sermons are meant to be expositions of Scripture. Our time with the children, too, is when we share the Word. The Word can be offered in song, in dance, in drama…all of these things can be reflections of the Word of God. And of course, there is Christ himself, in whom the Word became flesh.

It is the Word that gathers us here, for which we prepare. It is the Word to which we respond, that sends us out into the world. And the Word is made visible in sacrament. This is an old idea, that the sacraments of baptism and communion are the Word made visible. We can trace their trajectory back to the Reformation and John Calvin, and through him, back to Augustine in North Africa in the late 4th century. In other words, for Presbyterians, communion and baptism are the Word of God just as much as, if not more than, the sermon.

Like many Protestants, we Presbyterians have two sacraments: baptism and communion. For us, they are practices that Jesus himself commanded us to do – and yet, they are not the only things he commanded us to do. They involve the tangible: water; bread; cup – and yet, they are not the only tangible reminders of faith. They are community moments, too, taking place when the congregation gathers for worship – and yet, they are not the only things we do together. And they remind us of our connection to that great cloud of witnesses, to the whole sweep of salvation history – and yet, they are not the only moments that do.

If you were to draw a Venn Diagram of these things, though, they would likely pinpoint on these two moments: communion and baptism. And more than that, they are rituals where what happens on the outside is just a mere shadow of what is happening on the inside. In other words, there is nothing magical about the water or the bread or what is in the cup. And yet, as we share in them, we recognize what it is that God has been, is, and will be doing with and through us: calling us to newness of life, feeding us so that we might feed, setting us free to love and serve.

We can see this connection being made in our scripture lesson this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews. Twice in our reading, Jesus is referred to as a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Digging a little deeper, we can find connections that go back through the Psalms to Genesis.

Melchizedek first appears in the story meeting the patriarch Abram. He is identified as king of Salem (later Jerusalem). He is also the first to be called a “priest” – in his case, the god El Elyon, which may or may not be identified as Yahweh. In any case, he was not an Israelite. And yet, the point is that someone of Melchizedek’s stature and devotion easily saw that Abram was a righteous man – and through him, he recognized that the God Abram served and loved was worthy of pure devotion.

The Psalms, linking the dual roles of priest and king, saw Melchizedek a Messianic figure, linking him with King David. And now, the Letter to the Hebrews connects the dots from the God of Abram to the person of Jesus, with Melchizedek as an important key, helping to identify Jesus, too, as priest and king.

King is an archaic term to us, but it would have been one that his contemporaries recognized as a sign of God’s blessings and a rejection of King Herod and his ilk. As a priest, just as the priests of the Temple sought to reconcile the people to God through animal sacrifice, so Jesus himself was the reconciler. At the same time, he is himself the lamb, the sacrifice. It is in his death and resurrection that he is the bridge through which God draws close to us, even when we turn away.

It is with this same sweep of Biblical history that the sacraments carry us today and beyond. Whenever we celebrate them, we recount the story of salvation all the way from the first moments of Creation to Easter’s empty tomb and beyond. And we do so in order to remind us that we, too, are part of this holy stream that connects it all.

It’s almost absurd to say that we believe these things. And that is where we can lean into what the word “sacrament” means in its purest form: mystery. The sacraments are mysteries, holy mysteries that we will never fuller understand in this life time, where God is the one who closes the gap, who accomplishes through us what we could never accomplish on our own, who heals and holds and forgives and nourishes and sends and challenges and encourages and embraces us, even when we fail to recognize it ourselves.

Friends, what the sacraments are meant to do is to remind us of the transforming power of the Word of God. We are called to be not only those who hear, but do: we are called here and sent away to be God’s ambassadors of reconciliation to a broken world. In a sense, we ourselves become sacramental, the Word made visible, tangible, real.

As we baptize today, may these waters of baptism remind us of what it is that God calls us to be and do.


Read Full Post »

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

Our lesson this morning comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome. He has been busy traveling and preaching, spreading the gospel as he goes. This particular church, though, is one he did not start. He is coming to visit them, and wants to establish some kind of connection before his arrival. What he doesn’t yet know is that Rome is the city in which he will die.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

It is also important that we remember where Paul came from. He was a Pharisee who went by the name of Saul and, in the early days of the Christian movement, he was one of its fiercest opponents. He oversaw the martyrdom of Stephen at the hands of a murderous crowd. His dramatic conversion came while he was traveling up to Damascus to continue this cruel work.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

All of this, of course, comes in the shadow of the cross. Jesus, the hope of the world, had been betrayed by those closest to him. He was tried, tortured, sentenced, and executed. And on the cross, he breathed his last before being buried in the tomb.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

The early days of Christianity seem to be most pronounced by their suffering, a reality that continues to shape so much of Christian theology. There are places where this is still true. One need only speak with the families of Ethiopian and Egyptian Christians viciously beheaded by ISIS militants to know that this is true.

At the same time, our situation as 21st century American Christians is about as far removed from these kinds of contexts as possible. Our day-to-day existence is relatively carefree. We may be living in a society that is less and less “churched”, but the truth is that this is something we have to face as a minor inconvenience, not a life-threatening situation. Even so, this history continues to shape how we see the world.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

There are many reasons why I am focused on this question of suffering today. The headlines are part of it – while the world is, in many ways, a far less volatile place to be, the 24-hour news cycle has turned up the temperature to the point that anything – anything – is worth spending hours analyzing. Things are happening halfway around the world feel like they are happening to us. If that drove us to compassion, that would be a good thing; instead, it tends to stoke the flames of our fears.

That’s part of it. But the bulk of it is that I have been spending a lot of time lately with families who are going through their own sufferings. Well-meaning people, in their efforts to provide comfort, offer up their own explanations, things that they would be better off keeping to themselves. And it all seems to swirl around suffering, around this idea that God must have meant for their suffering to happen in order for some greater purpose to bloom and flower.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t settle well with me. It bothers me when people say, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” It’s not that I don’t believe it; it’s just that I most often hear it when ascribing horrific things to God.

In my estimation, no one has ever put it better than William Sloane Coffin. For ten years, Coffin served as Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. In 1983, his son Alex was killed in a car accident. Ten days later, Coffin delivered the eulogy. In it, he delivered these words that have rung in my ears ever since I first heard them:

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with…fingers on triggers…fists around knives…hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I’ve been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions…The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

You see, here is the thing about suffering. I do not believe that God causes suffering. If that were the case, I would have a hard time standing up here with a straight face, suggesting that worship is a worthwhile activity. Instead, I believe that God is more powerful than suffering, and can take suffering, broken heart and all, to transform it for the sake of the good that God desires.

There is an Old Testament story that illustrates this best, I believe, that of Joseph and his brothers. They are jealous of the attention that their father, Jacob, showers on Joseph. Not only that, they are bugged by the fact that Joseph seems to lord it over them. They plan to kill him, but change their mind at the last moment and merely sell him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph, somehow, manages to rise through the ranks to become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. When famine strikes the land of Canaan, his brothers come to Egypt seeking sustenance and, as luck would have it, Joseph is the one who provides for their well-being. “What you intended for ill,” Joseph says, “God intended for good.” In other words, while is brothers were seeking to punish Joseph for his arrogance, God took what could have been misery and was ultimately able to bring good out of it.

That, I believe, is what is at work in what Paul writes to the Church at Rome. He knows that, as a minority community, they suffer. And while God did not intend nor create that suffering, God is able to take that suffering through a process and transform it into something that is ultimately good. In suffering, we learn how to endure. In that endurance, we cultivate character – a character that is, in the end, steeped in hope. And hope, we believe, has the final word.

The suffering of Christ was transformed into resurrection. The suffering of the early church was transformed into Paul’s conversion. And the suffering of Paul was transformed into the growth of the church. This is our hopeful inheritance! This is what the church exists for! This is the church into which we baptize: a community that lives to make hope alive and real in the world.

Friends, there are many out there who have rarely, or even never, set foot inside a church. To be brutally honest, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. There are many churches that have gotten convoluted in their purpose. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it, “The kingdom of God isn’t there for the sake of the church. The church is there for the sake of the kingdom.” In other words, we are not the perfection God desires. Instead, the church is meant to be the vehicle through which the kingdom is built. Sometimes that building is quite literal, as Habitat homes go up. Sometimes, it is built in the subtlest of ways, in prayers that come in moments of desperation. Whatever the case, we are called to be those builders!

There are many out there who need and deserve to hear this word of hope. In the absence of it, we are fumbling in the dark, creating God in our own image and finding meaning in all the wrong places. Without it, we are vulnerable to bad theologies and empty platitudes that may be offered with the best of intentions, but often do more harm than good.

Instead, when we recognize that God has not given up on us yet, and when we share that gift with others, we begin to sketch the outlines of God’s desires for us in a world where suffering still exists. But rather than seeing as suffering existing for its own sake, can we begin to see it as something we might have a hand in transforming?

After all, suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

Above all, though, let us remember this important point: we are not just the church when we are inside this building. If we are, then we have confused the kingdom with the church. As the children’s song puts it, “I am the church; you are the church; we are the church together.” It is not when we enter this place, but when we leave it that we truly become church, called out and into a world that suffers, a world that hungers and thirsts for hope.

And that hope? It does not disappoint; because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

May it be so, now and always.


Read Full Post »

There may be missteps in the journey of grace; but the destination is still a good one.

Our lesson this morning follows the leaders of the early church as they move through modern-day Turkey, bringing the gospel with them as they go. Paul (who was once known as “Saul”) and Barnabas are the evangelists to the Gentiles, taking the word and promise of Jesus beyond the Jewish sect of Christians and out into the broader world.

As they depart Antioch and enter the city of Lystra, they encounter a crippled man whom Paul, somehow, recognizes as someone who believes he can be healed. And he is. The result, however, is not what they anticipated. First, the crowds are convinced that the gods have taken human form and begin to worship and sacrifice to them. Second, Paul and Barnabas do, indeed, take the opportunity to preach about Jesus; but the crowds pretty much ignore them. Third, our lesson stops short by one verse to what I see as the real crisis: the local Jewish community overwhelms the crowd, forcing Paul into a fate he once forced on others: he is barraged with stones and left for dead. Let’s just say that this day probably did not go the way Paul had hoped.

Have you ever had days like that? Have there been times when you can see the destination at hand, but the closer you get, unforeseen obstacles rise up to block your way? If not, then please leave, because you’re making the rest of us look bad!

I am pretty sure all of us have had those moments – whether in faith or in anything else – where the journey gets tough, to say the least. We know where it is we are headed, but as we approach, we lose footing. We are beset by something unexpected. Unanticipated crises knock us off course.

There are, for certain, missteps in the journey of grace. And yet, the promise is that the destination is a good one.

This, in a nutshell, is the whole story of faith we say we believe. Sin and grace battle it out. And while sin may lurch ahead in the short run, nothing can outpace the outrageous abundance of grace that surrounds us.

It’s there in the story of creation. God makes and calls good. The snake tempts and leads astray…but God stays faithful.

Then God makes promises to God’s people. They forget and throw their weight behind other gods…but God keeps God’s word, sending prophets to encourage and cajole them back toward faithfulness.

God’s people still don’t quite live up to their end of the bargain, so God decides to show up personally. And this Jesus loves, heals, graces, forgives. This perfect mercy, however, is too threatening. Jesus is betrayed, sentenced, sentenced to death, killed, and buried. But God isn’t finished yet – not by a long shot.

The long arc of salvation seems to be marked by this push and pull, even today. God stays faithful, and we are grateful. And then we forget and wander off…but God is committed to this promise, this trust that we are far more worthy than we seem to be able to demonstrate. When we are desperate, we call on God. When things are good, though, that’s when we think we can take a break from God…until things get bleak again. And our personal cycle from faith to distrust to pleading and back again continues.

And yet, if we look closely enough, we can see the key to staying in focus right there in our own fumblings. You see, no matter what, God believes in us. Despite all evidence to the contrary at times, God still believes in us! It’s as if when all we can see is an empty shell, God sees our purest selves and calls out in that still, small voice: “I’m not done with you, yet. There is far more good to be done.” At the times when we find ourselves stranded on the margins, whether by our own doing or by the doing of others, that’s when God comes to us, healing us, restoring us, loving us more than we think we deserve.

Our calling is to take that character of God we know in Jesus and to mirror it to the world around us.

That is exactly what Paul and Barnabas were doing in Lystra. They saw this man who, in all likelihood, had simply become part of the scenery in town. It’s not a stretch to imagine that this people had stopped even seeing this crippled man, so used were they to his injuries and imperfections. And yet, Paul immediately recognized him and his suffering, saw his faith and desire, and reached out in compassion to love and to heal.

That’s what the church is supposed to do: to see those whom others have stopped recognizing. We are supposed to reach out to those on the margins, to extend a helping and healing and praying hand of comfort and courage. This is why we do Habitat builds. This is why our hearts break when we read of massive earthquakes in Nepal and terrified refugees in Syria. This is why we are so distraught when the world doesn’t go the way it should: because we have that glimpse of God within us and know the world can be a better place than it seems to end up so often. We can sense God’s desire and feel God’s heartbreak for a broken world.

This is our call, friends: to be those instruments of grace, the hands and feet of Christ in a world that sometimes literally crumbles before our eyes. There are times when we move forward. And there are times when we are knocked back, when the missteps seem take over the journey. And yet, the destination is still in God’s hands and is one of goodness.

After Paul is left for dead on the streets of Lystra, he and Barnabas leave for Derbe, where they meet with more success in sharing the good news of Christ. From Derbe, they head back to Lystra, where we are told they encourage the believers. In the end, it seems, despite all evidence to the contrary, their initial work had actually paid off. Even though it first appeared that they had been ignored, and even though their lives had been threatened, the gospel had taken root after all. How? Was it the healed man, becoming God’s messenger and proof of God’s goodness? Was it the crowds who saw Paul lynched, moved to compassion and sympathy? Was it that the evangelists’ words of caution about Zeus and Hermes rang in the people’s ears long after Paul and Barnabas had left?

Whatever the case, despite the missteps and obstacles, they journey continued on toward goodness.

You see, that’s just the thing: what matters, among everything else, is that Paul and Barnabas are crystal clear about what it is that motivates and moves them. When they are greeted as gods in human form, when even the priest of Zeus is convinced that it’s best to break out the sacrifices, Paul and Barnabas remain steadfast in their devotion to God. They do not take the glory for themselves, but seize the opportunity to let the confused crowds know that it is the power of Christ within them that brings this healing. It may not have sunk in at first, but eventually, their witness bears great fruit.

Do we do this?

We might not ever be in the position of bringing a crippled man to dancing. And yet, we might be among those who bring healing to a fractured community. We might be among those who allow a struggling family to celebrate the gift of home ownership. We might be among those who extend a hand of compassion to those who are broken down. We might be among those who reach out in grace to those around whom the world is crumbling. Whatever it is, if someone were to ask us why we do what we do, would we be able to give an accounting? Could we point toward what it is we believe about God’s story of creative purpose? Can we speak to the hope of Christ within us, even when the world seems to be pointing in the other direction?

Friends, there may be missteps in the journey of grace. And yet, no matter what, the destination is still one of goodness. That much is sure. When we draw on our own strength, it is likely we will run dry. But when we lean into each other and God’s strength that knits us together, that is when we are likely to do signs and wonders that point far beyond us and to the God whom we worship, serve, and love.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »