Posts Tagged ‘peter’

Leather covered bible lying on a tableHow are you a part of God’s story today?

There are several things that we are required to do in a worship service in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Prayer is one – it can be spoken or sung, but we must pray. Preaching is another. It can be spoken or performed, but there must be some kind of interpretation of God’s word for God’s people. Offerings are also required, oddly enough. That’s not because of the pragmatic need to pay the light bill. The category of “offering” is much broader than just the money we give. Instead, our weekly “offering” is a reminder to offer ourselves to God continually. And, in order to worship, we must read from the Bible.

It’s important to remember why it is that we read from the Bible. We do so not because we worship the Bible. After all, God alone is worthy of worship. We read from the Bible, from Scripture, because it points us toward God. The Bible is not the only book in which we can find meaning. After all, there are valuable lessons in fairy tales and ancient mythologies. Authors from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling can teach and move us. But what we believe about the Bible is that it is, in its own unique way, God’s own word. It is not merely a historical curiosity. It is the story of God’s love for God’s creation, and as such, its wisdom is one from which we continue to draw meaning for our lives.

So: how are you a part of God’s story today?

This is the question I want to lift up this morning. And I want to do so by triangulating it with three other questions.

People come to worship for all kinds of reasons. Some come because they are full of joy and want that joy magnified. Others come because they are hopeless and want to know that God hasn’t given up on us yet. Some come because they are angry…or anxious…or afraid…or looking for direction. Others are looking for confirmation for what they already know. Some are auditioning a new church, looking for a more permanent sense of community, trying on a church to see if it fits. And others come because it’s the rhythm of their week: without worship, it isn’t Sunday.

Whatever your reason for coming, here is the first question I want you to answer:

What is it that you need to hear today?

This question is one way to enter the lesson. Do you need a word of hope? Challenge? Comfort? Wisdom? Surprise? Purpose? Reassurance? Direction? Forgiveness? Before we dive into our lesson from the Book of Acts, I invite you to take a moment right now. Anchor yourself in this place at this time and let your answer rise to the top: what is it that you need to hear today?

In our lesson today, the disciples have left the nest. They have overcome the shock of the risen and ascended Christ, regrouping and moving forward. The eleven have replaced Judas the betrayer, becoming the twelve again. Pentecost has multiplied them into the thousands. And now, they are spreading their wings and taking flight.

Peter and John are the first ones out of the gate. Going up to the Temple for daily prayer, they encounter a man begging for his livelihood. We learn that he was born with a disability, meaning that reliance on the kindness of others was his primary means of earning a living.

Peter and John, rather than turning their heads like the bulk of the crowds, or tossing a coin as some might do, stop and speak to him. Peter comes right out and tells him: we are broke. We can’t give you any money. But what we can give you is far more powerful: healing. The man leaps to his feat. As he heads into the Temple, his very presence usurps the sacrifices and prayers of the altar. He is the surest sign of God’s power in evidence that day.

Who do you identify with? Is it Peter and John, the disciples who represent the early church? Is it the beggar, the one who is tolerated but not embraced? Or is it the crowds, spectators to it all?

This, too, is a good way to enter the lesson. My hunch is that if you are feeling empowered, you are more likely to see yourself in Peter or John. If you are feeling beaten down, you might look to the one who is miraculously healed. And if you are unsure of what this lesson might teach, you could see yourself in the unnamed crowds, sitting back and watching it all take place, unsure where to jump in and take part.

So let’s introduce a second question alongside our first:

Who are you in this story?

Take another moment. Which character resonates with you? Inhabit that character. Hold that character alongside your first answer, reminding yourself what you have come here needing to hear this morning.

Peter is the compulsive one, the disciple who rushes into the water to walk alongside Jesus, only to sink beneath the waves. He’s the one who identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, but then tries to turn Jesus away from the cross. He defends Jesus’ life in the Garden, but then denies ever having known him a few hours later. Peter is the rock. And after Jesus’ ascension, Peter takes over the reigns of leadership, doing so with a great deal more maturity than he had exhibited up to that point.

John is also known as the “beloved disciple”. He’s the one in whom Jesus confides. Along with Peter and James, John is part of Jesus’ inner circle. From the cross, Jesus urges John to take Mary into his home as though she were his own mother. John never utters a word in our story – and yet, his presence is important and powerful. In modern terms, John is the introvert to Peter’s extrovert.

Then there’s the man who is healed. Unnamed, he serves as a living parable of God’s mercy. He is a fixture, the man who begs daily by the Beautiful Gate. He has known nothing but brokenness his whole life. This brokenness, while it makes him vulnerable, also makes him virtually invisible. Ignored. In his healing, he takes center stage, a witness to Jesus, himself an embodiment of the power of resurrection.

And let’s not forget the crowds, the Bible’s version of the Greek chorus. The nameless, faceless crowds are the ones who pursue Jesus throughout the Galilee. They parade him into Jerusalem, pronouncing him the Messiah, the Son of David; and within a week, they proclaim their allegiance to Caesar, calling for Jesus’ death. They are the same ones who swarm the streets on Pentecost, their lives changed at a moment’s notice. And here they are again, marveling at the transformation that has taken place. Of course, it is not long before they are back to their old ways, part of the movement to oppress the early church.

Who are you in the story? And how does that connect with what it is you need to hear?

And before we get too far down the road, let’s add our third question:

What is it that God needs you to hear today?

We come here with our hopes and desires. And God always, always meets us where we are. And yet, that doesn’t mean that we stay there. No one in our lesson today leaves it the way they entered it. Each one experiences transformation – each one in just the way they needed it, too.

The man who receives healing is the clearest example of this transforming power of God. As the story begins, it is just another day for him. He has made it to his usual spot, along the roadside, waiting for the Temple pilgrims to come by so that he might survive from their gleanings. As Peter and John arrive, he looks to them for alms. And when they respond, he expects they will come through in some small way.

And when Peter first begins to speak, we can imagine the man’s disappointment: “I have no silver or gold.”

I can almost imagine him thinking, “Unless your next words are going to be, ‘but here’s a sandwich’, then just keep on moving.” Instead, Peter offers him the one thing he has truly been seeking his entire life: wholeness.

Think about that: this man’s whole life has been one of waiting, of a routine marked by helplessness and vulnerability. And now, in the blink of an eye, he receives not only the ability to walk for the first time. He is given the gift of an unknown future, full of possibility and imaginings!

So what about you? How are you a part of God’s story today?

Are you among the crowds – watching from the sidelines, eager to react, but not to jump in? If so, will you take that chance today? Will you not just keep on watching, but to join Peter and John and the other disciples, living in the footsteps of Christ?

Are you Peter, holding onto some precious gift that, if you were bold enough to release it, would change someone’s life forever? If so, will you do it? Will you open your hands and your heart in order that the world might look just a little bit more like the way God desires it to be?

Are you John, not taking the lead necessarily, but being that steady, loving, quiet presence that nonetheless communicates volumes about the healing and encouraging power of God? If so, will you lend your strength? Will you give that gift of reassurance and encouragement to someone who truly needs it?

Are you the broken man made whole, coming here out of habit or routine, not expecting much to change, and yet open to the possibility that, once you leave here, life will never be the same? If so, will you embody that resurrection? Will you leave here today not just a little more whole than when you arrived, but dancing in your heart for all the world to see?

How are you part of God’s story – not just today, but from now on?

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

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

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

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

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change is faithful…and yet, change is difficult.

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

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

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

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

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


Read Full Post »

Our faith should be as sure as the ground we walk on.

Our lesson this morning jumps ahead in the Book of Acts quite a distance. In the last two weeks, we went from the empty tomb on Easter to the disciples’ reunion with Jesus in the Galilee. Now, we have fast-forwarded past Christ’s ascension to heaven, the beautiful chaos of Pentecost, the organizing of the early church in structure and finances, the martyrdom of Stephen at the command of Saul, and the scattering and regrouping of the Christian movement to avoid further persecution.

And now today, we read the account of the first Gentile convert to the fledgling faith. We need to remember that, at this point in the story, Christianity was not its own separate faith or ideology. Instead, it had become a mystical Jewish sect, following the teachings and miracles of their rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus had some key interactions with non-Jews in his three years of public ministry that helped lay the groundwork for how the church would approach the conversation. But this moment is a pivotal one, the first step in a complete transformation of Christianity.

God ends up orchestrating the whole encounter, like some kind of divine matchmaker. Cornelius, though a soldier of the occupying Roman forces, had already become a worshiper of the Jewish God and had brought his whole household – family, servants, and all – into the fringe of the foreign faith. And then, in the middle of the afternoon, he has an encounter with an angel.

The angel uses this as an opportunity to connect him with Peter. The impulsive figurehead of the disciples had relocated to Joppa, along the Mediterranean Coast, to find some shelter and safety. So as Cornelius’ messengers are making their way to Peter, God is preparing Peter to receive them with a mystical vision. Up on the roof, he sees an image that pulls apart the very foundations of ritual practice. The distinction between Kosher and non-Kosher no longer applies. When the messengers arrive, Peter connects the dots. Our lesson today skips over Peter’s trip to Caesarea to meet Cornelius face to face, but it does end with his new insight that “God shows no partiality.”

And Christians never discriminated against anyone ever again.

That last part is not true, of course; but the heart of this story today is so earth-shaking for early Christianity that its core message has radiated throughout the church’s history, even up until today. As Presbyterians, we have codified this idea of God changing hearts and minds with the phrase, “The Reformed Church, always being reformed.” In other words, we hold things lightly, because there is always the possibility that we might not have it right; that we, too, might have a vision on a roof or a mid-afternoon encounter with God that will change us in unexpected ways.

One of many such moments was the birth of the Confessing Church movement in Germany in response to the rise of National Socialism. The so-called “German Church” endorsed Hitler’s policies and philosophy, a kind of theological baptizing of a racist ideology. And yet, there were Christians who were deeply disturbed at what was happening and wanted to make clear that not only did they object to these trends, but they did so because they were convinced that Jesus commanded them to be bold in the face of injustice and horror.

Martin Niemoeller was a pastor in this resistance movement. You may not know his name, but you surely know his famous quote, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. They they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak.”

Another was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was vocal enough in his opposition that he was sent to prison and then was martyred in a concentration camp. A third was Karl Barth, who in 1934 drafted the Barmen Declaration, the foundational document of the Confessing Church. He eventually fled to the United States, and became an influential theologian. This Barmen Declaration is part of our Presbyterian constitution, one document among many that Presbyterians see as important moments of the Church speaking to particular moments in history. Many of these moments owe their origin to Peter’s transformation.

What his vision reveals is a theme that we seem to touch on regularly here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian: God’s tribe is always bigger than ours. And there continue to be crucial moments in our history where we recognize this so that our vision of community might look more and more like the kingdom of God. Progress can be long and slow; and yet, it is progress. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Our lesson today gives witness to that progress. Just a few verses beyond where our readings end, Peter baptizes Cornelius’ household. And as he does, Peter’s Jewish cohort sees Gentiles having a charismatic experience that paralleled theirs in Jerusalem on Pentecost: speaking in tongues, understanding languages they’ve never learned…And the story continues to expand. Peter and Paul meet in Jerusalem, wrestling over what Gentile converts to Christianity might mean, eventually agreeing that they do not need to be circumcised or keep Kosher laws in order to be part of the body of Christ. Even in its earliest days, Christianity was marked by its desire to grow and change, to be an incarnate faith that may look and behave in different ways at different times. And yet, no matter what, it should be as sure as the ground we walk on.

A few months ago, I started taking yoga classes. Once a week, I make my way over to the Y to take my place between the folks who are limber in ways that I’m pretty sure God never intended and the so-called duffers who inspire me with their persistence. I started because I needed the stretching regimen. Periodically, our teacher veers into the spirituality of yoga which, I will say, is not my cup of tea. But eventually, we end up in my favorite position, Shavasana, which is lying on the floor on your back, with your eyes closed. It’s heavenly!

This past Friday, as we lay there and I snuck in a quick nap, our instructor said, “You don’t need to do anything now. The floor has you fully supported.” What I first heard as a rather obvious statement (“Of course the floor has me supported! Isn’t that the definition of ‘floor’”?), quickly struck me as the perfect metaphor for faith. It’s there, supporting you, reliable, because that’s what it’s there for. You might have to watch your step, careful to navigate the twists and turns beneath your feet. But ultimately, it’s there whether you look down or not; in fact, it’s there whether or not you even believe it’s there.

You see, God is reliable. God has us supported. As strange as it might sound, whether we believe in God or not, God believes in us. And that knowledge is what gives us the trust, the awareness, the truth on which we can stand firm and act in faithful ways to see God’s tribe as much bigger than we would ever imagine. What it takes…are the quiet moments on the rooftop. Just as Peter paused in prayer and his vision came into focus, there is a need for us to carve out space into which we can invite the Holy Spirit to inspire, move, and transform us.

It might take different shapes for each us: whether it’s lying down in Shavasana, sitting up on the roof or in the back yard in quiet meditation, or what the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard referred to as walking “myself into my best thoughts”, our openness to God’s invitation is best served by our willingness to pause, to quiet, to still the rush and the noise.

The point is simply this: we all set foot on the same ground of faith! It’s there, beneath us, whether we look down or not! God’s got us! We can rest assured, trusting in the same Jesus who sends angels to Gentiles and visions to Jews and, yes, even elders to Presbyterians!

It is this knowledge that allows us know that there is progress, even when we cannot see the bend of the arc beyond the horizon. It encourages us to speak boldly but hold things lightly so that we might both be instruments of God’s grace and recognize that gift in others. And it unifies us, bringing us together as God’s people in ways that will surprise, awe, comfort, and challenge us.

Because sometimes, all it takes is a moment on the roof.


Read Full Post »

In forgiveness, there is freedom.

In our lesson this morning from the gospel of Matthew, we get to listen in on three different conversations around the topic of forgiveness. First, Jesus offers up a kind of “how to” primer on dealing with conflict.

On the heels of hearing that advice, Peter and Jesus trade numbers on forgiveness: three? Seven? Seventy-seven? 490?

Jesus then finishes off our lesson with a parable in which a servant is forgiven an extraordinary debt only to lord a small debt over a fellow servant’s head. The master is swift in punishment for the man’s hypocrisy; as will God be, Jesus says, for our own hypocritical approach to forgiveness.

At first glance, it’s not clear whether the three stories are related or not. They all touch on forgiveness, but in no single coherent form. And maybe that’s the point here. There may not be a “one size fits all” approach to forgiveness. What Jesus makes abundantly clear, though, is that forgiveness is not optional for those who want to follow him. Forgiveness, it turns out, is expected.

But what is forgiveness? It’s one of those words where we know exactly what it means until it comes time to define it. Does forgiveness mean that we live as though the wrong in question never happened? Is it something meant to be ignored briefly but stored up for a later date when we can throw it back in their face? Is forgiveness a generous gift of the powerful, or is it an unwelcome imposition on the weak? In our culture, we often lump “forgive” with “forget” – but should we?

This morning, I want to touch on forgiveness from three different sides, using the three separate lessons in our Matthew reading:

  1. Forgiveness has accountability
  2. Forgiveness is abundant
  3. Forgiveness starts and ends with God

Let’s start with accountability. In the first part of our reading, Jesus outlines this beautiful process for dealing with conflict. The first step, he says, is to deal with it directly. If someone wrongs you, you try to work it out with them first. If they recognize their fault, the relationship is restored and all is well.

If they don’t, you move onto step two: bringing witnesses. The hope, of course, is that these third parties will be able to achieve the restoration that didn’t happen in the first step. And though it’s unstated, there is also the possibility that these witnesses will hear the story and recognize that you, in fact, are the one who should be held accountable; in which case, the obligation to repent is yours.

And if step two fails, there’s a step three: bringing it to the church, involving the wider community. Much like in the second step, the hope is that they will be able to bring restoration and that the relationship is healed.

Of course, there is the possibility that step three will fail. If so, Jesus says, the church ought to treat the one who has done wrong like a Gentile or a tax collector. At first glance, it sounds like that means they’re kicked out; and yet, if we know the story of the early church well, it included both Gentiles and tax collectors. And so, though they have failed to admit their wrong, they are not beyond the hope of redemption.

Notice what happens throughout, though: the wrong in question is not ignored. There is no proverbial “elephant in the room.” Instead, it seems like it’s the only topic to be discussed. Forgiving does not mean forgetting that we have been hurt. Forgiving means doing what we can to heal the wounds; which means that forgiveness recognizes our vulnerability, our brokenness, our imperfection. The injury may heal; but depending on how deep the cut, there will always be a scar.

Forgiveness knows that there should be accountability.

Second, forgiveness is abundant; and extravagantly so.

After Jesus outlines his conflict resolution strategy, Peter steps up to offer his take, as he often does. He knows that the prevailing religious wisdom of the day regarding forgiveness is that the generous soul has three servings in supply. And so Peter, ever the show off, pushes it up to seven. Others may only have three; but Peter has extra in reserve and is willing to share.

Until Jesus blows Peter out of the water: seven isn’t even close. It’s more like seventy times seven. Jesus tells Peter that those who follow him have to forgive almost 500 wrongs before the supply runs out. Some of you may want to take this on as a spiritual discipline. You can keep a running tally of how many times various people have wronged you; and when one of those people hits 490, you can safely say, “I’m done.” Of course, that may be the most dangerous diary you could ever possibly keep!

The point, rather, is that forgiveness is meant to be abundant. No matter how gracious we think we are, we can never truly be gracious enough.

And that leads to the third point: forgiveness starts and ends with God.

We know this. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm this fact: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Our ability to forgive others is intimately connected to the fact that God forgives us.

The word “forgiveness” in Greek gives us some picture of this. Forgiveness means to send away, to dismiss, to pass over, to leave behind. If God, therefore, is willing to send our sins away, then we are called to do the same with those who sin against us.

The parable Jesus tells lays it out in stark detail. We have the master, representing God in this allegory, willing to forgive one servant a massive debt: somewhere on the order fifteen years worth of wages. That same servant, just having received incredible financial release, holds a fellow servant to a much smaller debt, worth about 100 days of labor. And because of his hypocrisy, the servant is punished.

The meaning is crystal clear: God forgives us. How in the world can we not turn around and forgive?

You heard the news, no doubt, last Sunday, ISIS released a video of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. The men had gone to Libya looking for work to support their rural families back home. They were captured and killed for what ISIS called “carrying the illusion of the cross.” Egyptians tattoo small crosses on their wrists, carrying the mark of Christ with them wherever they go. And this led to their death.

My personal feelings upon hearing the news were a mixture of deep heartbreak and fiery anger. When I heard the next morning that the Egyptian government had retaliated by launching airstrikes on ISIS in Libya, I was pleased: Egypt’s Christians live as a struggling minority, and here was proof that the government of Egypt would not let this brutal treatment of its citizens go unpunished.

And then, I read this statement by Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church:

“While it may seem illogical or incomprehensible, we…pray for those who have carried out these horrific crimes, that the value of God’s creation and human life may become more evident to them…”

I was cut to the quick…but that soon passed. After all, I thought, this is a bishop, a religious professional, a modern-day Peter. He is supposed to say things like that. And while that might be the correct theological answer, nation-states have different values, purposes, and reasoning. I soon settled back into my own comfort, world gentle de-rocked.

And then, I came across an interview with the brother of two of the victims. Bashir Kamel, speaking with an Arabic Christian program, began by thanking ISIS – thanking ISIS – for not editing out the men’s declaration of belief in Christ, something that has strengthened his family in their loss. He went on to say that such suffering “only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.”

It sure does…

When asked about forgiveness, Bashir related what is mother said: “she would ask her son’s killer to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes.”

The word studies, the nuances, the numbers and supply of forgiveness all pale in comparison with what it means to be living witnesses of that grace. Thank God for Bashir, for the Coptic Church, for the church on the margins, because it is there that we can find the truest, noblest, most merciful and holy version of faith there is.

Friends, we are expected to forgive; because we expect to be forgiven. This is the character of God we know in Christ, a character that we should strive to exhibit to the world. This does not mean that forgiveness is easy; quite the opposite. Forgiveness bears the scars of wounds that are deep, but healed.

More than anything else, forgiveness means freedom: freedom from what we have done, freedom from what others have done to us, freedom from keeping score. And that, my friends, is a gift we can count on.


Read Full Post »

Giving up giving up…

This coming Wednesday, we begin the Season of Lent. Here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we will gather nearby with our brothers and sisters in Christ at Brookhaven Christian Church, just down the street, at 7:30pm for a joint service where we will pause to mark the beginning of these forty days of Lent. Some of you, I am sure, are thinking about what it is that you will give up for Lent. In case you are in that category and wondering about the company you keep, here are the top ten things Twitter says people plan to give up for Lent: Twitter, Chocolate, Swearing, Alcohol, Soda, Facebook, Fast Food, Sex, Sweets, and Meat.

My favorite fell just outside the top ten: Lent.

And while I’m pretty sure most of the people who said this were being funny (or at least trying), I want to suggest that we might consider trying something this year: let’s give up Lent for Lent.

What I mean by that is not that we’ll jump straight from Transfiguration to Easter. It is important to spend time in contemplation and preparation. And the rhythms of the church year are just not complete without the drama of Holy Week, from parade to grave and beyond. What I mean, instead, is that for Lent we consider giving up…giving up. If we do, we have some good company from our own Presbyterian history.

In 1536, William Farel invited John Calvin to stay with him and reform the church in Geneva. As French Protestants in exile, they were keen to rid Christianity of anything that they understood as contrary to the gospel, and they often fought bitterly with the City Council of Geneva to do so.

One of the practices they sought to eliminate was treating the year as a series of unbreakable, holy seasons. They supported spiritual disciplines, but they also thought it was more important to clarify what was Biblical and what was unbiblical. Lent and Easter fell squarely in their sites. Geneva required fasting during Lent from such extravagancies as meat, and communion was expected during Easter. Calvin and Farel both knew that fasting was an important practice, and that celebrating the resurrection was at the center of the entire faith. What they resented was the suggestion that Lent was Biblical. It may have been inspired by Scripture, but the word never appears there. And setting Easter as the first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox? This was not something the gospel writers had much interest in.

Calvin and Farel lost their battle to reform these practices; but they were apparently not above attempting passive aggressive drama. Not only did they refuse to serve communion on Easter, which caused a city-wide riot, they also held the 16th century equivalent of a barbeque in the City Square, with meat galore, on Good Friday. The City Council had had enough, and they were driven out of town.

So: sound good? Are we game?

My point is not to give up on what works for you. If Lenten fasting draws you closer to God, then by all means do it. That said, there are times when we need to get out of our spiritual ruts. And these are the moments when we might just find ourselves on those transformative mountaintops.

No matter how spiritually grounded we might be, no matter how close we might feel to the holy, there is no doubt that every single one of us has more to learn, much more to learn. And so, we ought to beware resting on our laurels.

Take the disciples as a case in point. Jesus has just implored them to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. After that, he invites the three disciples in his inner circle to go up the mountain with him. And there, they are witnesses to a most bizarre sight. There Jesus stands, as though he himself is the source of light, flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of the holiest Hebrew prophets, just talking. Peter is struck by what he thinks is inspiration: “Let’s build three shrines to preserve this moment!” In other words, Peter is convinced they have struck spiritual gold and should mine this vein for all its worth. Instead, the moment passes, and down the mountain they go.

Here’s the thing about Peter: he knows that he has experienced something holy and profound; and so, what he knows from his own tradition is that you build monuments to capture those moments. What he seems to forget is that Jesus, the very embodiment of holiness, is right there with him. It doesn’t matter if they’re on the mountaintop or down in the valley. The place where heaven touches earth can’t be confined to a shrine; it’s there in Jesus himself!

And if we’re honest, we are not that different from Peter. We hold onto our sacred moments and monuments. We work hard to recreate them. The problem is that we are not even sure what it was that made them holy to begin with. And so we end up recreating the wrong thing, missing the holiness right in front of us.

I am convinced that this is one of the challenges of what churches try to do in worship. There are so many congregations embattled over the style of music or the words of prayers, fights that probably have more to do with our sacred memories than with Jesus himself. One of the things that I appreciate about Oglethorpe Presbyterian is our willingness to experiment. There are times we have tried something new, and it has landed well. There are also those times when it just didn’t work, and we shrug it off and keep moving. When there’s no shrine, there’s no need to stay put. The important thing is to remain open to the possibility that we don’t have it all figured out.

So back to giving up “giving up” for Lent. Here is what I would like to suggest.

Beginning after Easter, Oglethorpe Presbyterian is going to launch a program called “Engage”. Engage is a congregation-wide study that would help us learn how to share our faith – or, to use a word we Presbyterians seem to have given up not just for Lent but perhaps for eternity: “evangelism”.

If the word “evangelism” makes you cringe, then rather than running down the mountain, I want to encourage you that this program might just be for you. First and foremost, Engage reminds us that “evangelism” is not the process of going door-to-door, forcing pamphlets into people’s hands, or manipulating every conversation into matters of faith and Jesus and salvation. That’s not evangelism. Instead, evangelism is meant to be a natural experience. It means living lives of integrity that speak for themselves. It means being comfortable enough at expressing our own faith. And it means that conversations about faith end up arising naturally. What Engage is designed to do is to lead us into genuine moments of integrity, not forced platitudes and false pieties.

In the coming weeks, you will hear much more about our plans for Engage, which will start in early April. We will be offering groups that meet at many different times during the week, so that it might match your schedule. So rather than spending Lenten time avoiding things, my invitation is to spend that energy carving out space in April and May for Engage.

Our goal is to have half of our community participating in one of the groups meeting for discussion, fellowship, and sharing. Much like that mountaintop moment, we will not be alone. We will be with each other, connecting, sharing our challenges and joys alike as people of faith who are trying to figure it out, or even just muddle through.

And as we do, we are not going to be building shrines. Instead, we will be carving out those moments, opening ourselves so that we might recognize that holiness that has been right in front of us all along!

Read Full Post »

He saw and believed…but he did not yet understand.

Let’s be honest: this is an odd story. Granted, it’s pretty central to our whole enterprise here. Without this resurrection thing, there’s not much reason for us to be here today – or any day, for that matter. What grabs me today, though, is this little nugget about John, the beloved yet unnamed disciple in the story. When he enters the tomb, he sees that it is empty, and so, we are told, he believes. But he did not yet understand.

John believed…but didn’t understand. Believed what? Understood what? Is it saying that he believed that the tomb was empty, but didn’t understand that Jesus was alive? Possibly…but I think if that were the case, he would be as despondent as Mary and join in the hunt for the body.

No…as strange as it may sound, I think it’s more likely that John believed in the resurrection before he understood it.

That’s not too much of a stretch, really, is it? We have gut feelings, those initial reactions where we just know something is wrong – or right – long before we can put words to those feelings. And there are probably a lot of us here who feel like John when it comes to faith. We believe that resurrection is possible – even believe that Jesus rose from the dead – but remain clueless about the mechanics of it.

At the same time, there are probably a lot of us here – and way more out there – who can’t believe in something so absurd as resurrection until we first understand it. Is it really too much to ask to see proof before we agree? No one expects us to sign a contract if we don’t get to read it first. Why should the resurrection be any different?

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. We think things through. That’s what separates us from the rest of the animals, isn’t it, the ability to reason? Without that, we would be no more than hairless apes, giving in to every whim and urge.

It’s kind of adorable that we think so highly of ourselves. The truth is that we are a bundle of logic and feeling. And there are times when we need to let feeling take the lead.

Some of you might know the story of the Getty Kouros, an ancient Greek statue that the Getty Museum bought for nine million dollars in 1985. Before making the purchase, they put it through rigorous scientific testing to gauge its authenticity. The problems came after they paid for it. Several times, the Getty invited art experts to come at marvel at their purchase. And it happened repeatedly: the expert would walk in and immediately get a feeling that the piece was a fake. And the more the statue was studied, the more that initial feeling seemed to be true. Now, the statue bears a label saying, “Greek, about 530BC, or modern forgery.”

The experts who spotted the fake right away had spent years practicing their craft. Starting in internships and working their way up, they logged thousands of hours looking at archaeological finds to the point that their gut would know a fraud from the real deal long before they could explain it. Believing before understanding? It’s what we’re wired for. And the more we practice, the more we can be like John, where a mere glimpse of an empty tomb tells us everything we need to know to believe.

Remember: John and the other disciples had followed Jesus day in and day out for at least three years. We don’t know how much they knew of the faith prior to Jesus calling them. But by the time Easter came around, they had logged enough hours to recognize a miracle long before they could understand it.

Do we? Or have we even put in the time? If the goal is to build up muscle memory for faith, then we need to log the hours. And when we do, we will not only know the truth in our guts. We will know enough to trust that feeling, the glimpse that tells us all we need to believe. Understanding will follow…sometimes we just need to give it the time it needs.

So if that’s our destination, having enough practice under our belts to recognize miracles, then what’s the path? How do we get there?

I’d like to meet the person who invented the pedometer. What a brilliantly simple concept: an inconspicuous device that clips onto your waist and counts your paces. 10,000 steps a day is the goal, a distance that is an indicator that we are doing what we need to in order to keep fit. In essence, we have taken this complex idea of physical fitness and have managed to boil it down to a simple, achievable goal.

I would love find the faith pedometer. Faith is complex. Is there something that would help us boil it down to something simple so we can log those faith hours?

If you have been reading this blog at all this year, you probably have a hunch of what I’m about to say. As a community and as individuals, we have been growing toward a daily practice of five minutes of prayer. And as I’ve said before, what I have found so rewarding about doing so is how it seems to tune me into God’s wavelength, heightening my awareness to the extraordinary shining through the ordinary. I still think that’s a worthy goal to strive toward.

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote our individual commitments to prayer down. Those commitments now hang in the Narthex.

I’m also aware that, for many of you, Easter is one of the few times you’ll darken the door of a church over the course of the year. I know you don’t come to hear a guilt trip from the pulpit, and that’s not what I want to do. What I do want to do is encourage you to consider is that church could be a key part of building up that muscle memory, of logging those hours, of refining those feelings so that a mere glance at an empty tomb tells us everything you need to know.

I was fortunate enough to be raised in a healthy church environment. I sat between Grandmommy and Granddaddy each and every Sunday. I followed along in the hymns and the Bible readings. I knew the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by heart. That was all fine and good. But when my first real adult crisis came along, when a loved one faced an illness that threatened to take them away, that’s when all those hours bore fruit. The muscle memory kicked in. When words eluded me, the Lord’s Prayer bubbled up and took their place. The years of practice took over and gave me the faith I didn’t have so that I could hold on until logic and understanding finally caught up.

Look: there are so many things we are willing to stretch ourselves to the point of discomfort. We get up earlier than we would like because of what time they want us at work. We wage the battle to make sure the kids go to school, even if they don’t want to, because we know it will matter down the road. We stay up late to crunch for that exam. We get up early to get to the gym. We watch our diets and our wallets as a matter of discipline.

So here’s my question: how does faith fit?Or does it? If the job goes, if the education fizzles, if we are dangerously ill, if the loved one is no longer with us, when life hits that crisis, will we have the faith to hold on until understanding can catch up?

A couple of months ago, post-it notes started popping up around the church. Some of you probably noticed them today. There are little positive messages on them like, “You are not a burden” or “You are loved” or my favorite, “If I weren’t a post-it, I’d give you a hug.” I’ll admit that I had a role in getting those started, but pretty soon, they started showing up in handwriting that wasn’t mine. It became viral, a kind of Guerrilla Grace.

But there’s a problem with these notes: they’re in the wrong place. Let me rephrase that: these are the kinds of messages we need to hear and see in church. And there are too many churches where, unfortunately, people are exposed to the exact opposite. It’s just that…these are the kinds of messages we need everywhere. Imagine: what would it be like if that dysfunctional graffiti on the bathroom walls was replaced with encouragement; or even if there was one shining light, a simple note in the midst of the dreck that says, “God loves you”?

You see, what I believe, what I know in my gut but don’t yet understand is that we can change the culture! But it means we have to get outside this building. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a good thing to come here, to see the empty tomb and recognize the miracle that it is. What is crucial is what we do with that belief. If we keep it to ourselves, that’s just selfish hoarding. But if we, like Mary Magdalene, run to tell the others, that’s how God will use us to transform the world!

So I’ve got an assignment for you today. Take your own post-it notes (which, by the way, were invented by a Presbyterian). Spend some time writing messages on them, notes of affirmation, of love, of Guerrilla Grace. Keep them close by. And when the moment strikes you, put it up wherever you go. At home, at work, at school, be a part of this amazing movement that lets the world know how much it is loved. Share it. Repeat it. Spread it! Believe it, even if you don’t yet understand it.

The truth is that one of these notes may be just the glimpse someone needs so they can believe the tomb is empty.

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!

Alleluia, Alleluia!


Read Full Post »

It’s amazing what you unearth in looking through the history of a church. Here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, for example, in 1957 there was much discussion about whether or not to provide coffee refreshment after services. The discussion ended without a decision. A month later, the Session received a letter from the Atlanta Christian Council letting them know of their intention to reduce the number of grocery stores that would be open on Sundays. The community Easter Sunrise Service that year was held in the stadium of Oglethorpe University. The times have changed a bit since then in the world around us.

The Session minutes of 1959 contain two single-spaced typed pages outlining the flower placement policy for the Sanctuary. And later that same year, as we celebrated our tenth anniversary, a guest preacher brought a message entitled “The Church Looks Forward.” Maybe things haven’t changed as much as we thought…

The 1950s and 60s brought some challenging times to Oglethorpe Presbyterian, as it did for most predominantly white churches in the South. In 1957, our pastor Fitz Legerton was one of the 80 signatories of what came to be known as the “Atlanta Ministers’ Manifesto”. A copy of it is just outside the doors here. At the time, the City of Atlanta was planning to shutter its schools in protest of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and the integration that was quickly coming to schools throughout the nation. In the open letter, the ministers appealed to the moral conscience of the City, imploring leaders to trust the wisdom of the constitutional process and allow for the implementation of school integration.

The statement, by today’s standards, is pretty mild, it’s even a little embarrassing, if we’re honest. Most importantly, though, it had its intended effect, sending ripples far beyond the doors of the churches and out into the broader community.

It was not long before African-American church leaders decided to test these churches to see whether they practiced what they preached. A couple of them would come to worship at a white church to see whether or not they would be allowed to enter the sanctuary. This happened all over the Southeast, in fact.

In 1963, Sam Oni, a Ghanaian whose family had been converted to Christianity by Southern Baptist Missionaries, arrived on the campus of Mercer University in Macon as an incoming freshman. Instead of rejoicing at the fruit of their labors, however, many saw this as their worst nightmare come to pass. A divided Board of the University reluctantly supported the President in allowing the admission to take place.

The real test came when Sam Oni went to worship at the Baptist Church just off campus. Though he was their spiritual child by virtue of their missionary work, the deacons of the church prevented Oni from entering the church – not just once, but on multiple occasions.

Similar events were taking place all over the Southeast, and our congregation’s leadership met to decide what to do just in case it happened here. In 1960, the Session met and decided that they would “continue the present policy of seating anyone presenting themselves for worship.” There would be no effort to decide whether or not someone had come for worship or to test the church. And in Fitz Legerton’s own recollections, this moment established a tone of welcome and openness that remains a defining characteristic of this church.

It is one thing to make pronouncements about the way society ought to work. It is another thing altogether to live out those pronouncements. And yet, that’s exactly what our text this morning from First Peter calls us to do. This lesson, by the way, contains our verse for our stewardship campaign this year. Peter says that when we speak, we should speak as those who speak for God. When we serve, we should do so as those who serve on God’s behalf. And when we do so, Peter says, we act as good stewards of the grace of God. If God is a God that welcomes, then we should be extravagant in our welcome. If God is a God that loves, then we should love beyond limit. And if God is a God that forgives, then we should be a community of grace.

There is the story of another church that struggled with this lived faith. Recognizing their location in the urban center, they decided to begin a Sunday morning breakfast to feed the homeless. It was a wild success, with hundreds of people fed every week. They were never short of volunteers, as the members of the congregation were eager to put their faith into action. But after a while, some problems began to arise. Some of those who came to the breakfast started staying for early worship. They tended to sit in the back, but it began to distress some members of the church. They complained – of the way these folks looked, the way they smelled…what would visitors think? This was not going to make the right first impression.

The decision was made to begin an alternative worship service that would dovetail with the breakfast. It was held in the Fellowship Hall (where the breakfast took place), rather than the Sanctuary. Crisis averted. But was it really?

At the risk of playing armchair pastor here, I think there was a bigger question at stake. Yes, the hungry were being fed – both the literal food of a Sunday morning breakfast and the spiritual food of a worshiping community. And that is good and noble. And yet, there had been this momentary possibility that this church could look a little bit more like the kingdom of God with rich and poor worshiping together, all at home in the family of Christ.

That, I think, is what is at work in the parables we find in Luke today. The lost sheep is reunited with the 99 who stayed behind. The lost coin is put back with the nine that never rolled under the table. And in both instances, the finding is marked with full-on celebration. It’s the next parable, the one we didn’t read today, which brings the lesson a bit closer to home. No longer are we dealing with inanimate objects like coins or non-human animals like sheep. Instead, it’s the story of a man who has two sons. One goes off to the city, squanders his inheritance, and then comes home. Even though his father orders a feast and a celebration, the son who stayed at home is furious. “I’ve been here the whole time,” he says. “Where is my party?”

The challenge is not in the decision to welcome, though that can be a painful moment in its own right. The real challenge is when those whom we decided to welcome actually call our bluff and show up. The temptation is to say “yes, but not in my pew.”

My friends, that is where I have seen us at our best. I could lift up numerous examples of times where I have witnessed the transforming love of Christ at work through you – a hug, a handshake, a seat at the table next to you. You make complete strangers feel as though they are at home. And in a world of hopeless wanders, that is a greater grace than we can possibly imagine.

Why do we do that? Because it’s who we are! It’s in our DNA. It’s who we have always been, as I think our history demonstrates. Most importantly, though, it’s who we want to be when this table is spread before us.

You see, we’re not the sheep who never left. We are the one who wandered away. And this celebration happens because we have come home. We are welcomed here not because we are righteous, but because the one who welcomes us is. We feast at this table not because we deserve it necessarily, but because Christ himself is here, and he is the one who gets to set the guest list. And guess what? He wants to hang out with the riff-raff! The Lord Jesus himself is the one who welcomes tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, sinners of every walk of life as citizens in this kingdom.

Our call? Our call is to cultivate that kind of chaos within our pews. Being a faithful steward means that we are inheritors of the manifold grace of God, speaking and serving on behalf of God – not just here in this place, but wherever it is that we go. May it be so, now and always.


Read Full Post »

d0aa37ec02b511e3921e22000aa81fd0_7You anoint my head with oil…

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

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

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

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

You anoint my head with oil…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Read Full Post »

Sometimes we need to go back to the beginning.

Our lesson from John this morning comes at the very end of the gospel. Because of this, we tend to see it in the light of “the end” rather than “the beginning”. Thomas is there, the one who doubted and then lost that doubt when he touched Christ’s wounds. Peter is there, not only taking part in the grilled fish meal, but also getting grilled himself. After all, this follows his three-fold denial; it’s not surprising in the least that Jesus would ask him three times, “Do you love me?”

Seen this way, the story appears to be one of redemption. Thomas is given yet another chance to see and experience Jesus in the flesh. Peter, though momentarily humiliated by Jesus’ questions, ends up being elevated once again as shepherd of the flock and tender of the sheep. He is forced to face his embarrassing failings; but soon experiences the outrageous grace and mercy of the one he abandoned. We can only imagine what would happen had Judas decided to hang around…

In the end, though, I think there’s something much more going on here, a reminder that sometimes we need to go back to the beginning.

Nathanael is there. He doesn’t get to make many appearances in John’s gospel; primarily here, and at the beginning. In chapter one, Nathanael appears as Philip’s friend. And once told about Jesus, his reply is the dismissive, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He is convinced, though, once he goes and sees.

The other gospels recount the call of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who are told to leave their nets, bring their fishing prowess with them, and follow Jesus. And here they are again, back to the beginning, returning to the sea to ply their trade.

And then there’s Simon Peter. He was born Simon; but Jesus called him Peter, a new name to remind him of the solid foundation of faith that Jesus saw within him. And in John’s gospel, the renaming happens where? In the very beginning. But notice what happens in our lesson from today. The narrator calls him Simon Peter throughout. But when Jesus addresses him, he is “Simon, son of John.” Part of this, I’m sure, is to underscore how Simon’s faith faltered in the face of Jesus’ suffering and his own fears. Once again, Peter is reminded of his failings…before Jesus again embraces him and sends him off to lead in his absence. I think this name play is also a hint from Jesus that, in order to move forward, sometimes we need to go back to the beginning.

Our lives in faith should reflect this, too, going back to the beginning. We schedule our lives so that, one day a week, we worship and re-center our lives around the lessons of Scripture and their meaning in our lives. We come to this table again and again to be fed and sated, and to be reminded of what that feeding costs. And we also return to this font, as we do again today. And as we do, we will baptize two children, yes, but we also mark, remember, and even anticipate the moment each of us entered the family of faith, passing through the waters and into promise.

Sometimes we need to go back to the beginning.

I think that’s part of what we see in the gospel lesson today. The disciples are terrified. When Jesus is crucified, they head back to that Upper Room, and lock the doors. And they keep them locked. For Jesus to visit them after the resurrection, he has to appear – twice – with the locked doors trying to keep him out. And now, even having experienced the resurrected Christ, they have gone back home, to the Galilee. It could be that they’re doing it because Jesus modeled it; after all, Jesus got away from the crowds every now and then to retreat and pray. That could be what they are doing. On the other hand, it could be that, yet again, they have retreated in fear, going back to what they know how to do best. It seems that they have gone back to the beginning.

What does that mean for us? What does it mean for us to go back to the beginning? I may be wrong, but I can’t help but see that this is what we are in the midst of doing with our capital campaign. In some ways, we have hit reset on our building: new roof, new HVAC up and running, new doors on the way, and more projects to come.

I also think there is wisdom in the fact that our campaign intentionally included elements beyond bricks and mortar. The Church Assessment Tool is just the first step – and here, I’m going to make a shameless plug: if you haven’t filled out the survey yet, please do it today. It’s an important moment for us, as we move out of the momentum of our campaign and look toward what comes next: what is it? What is it that God is calling us to do, as part of this family of faith? As we sift through the results of your input, I trust that the Spirit will speak clearly of what is to come.

In other words, in order to move forward, we need to take this moment to go back to the beginning, to the basics – to touch base, to assess, to pray, and to trust.

What about you? Where is your beginning? What is your touchstone, your place, your experience, your prayer that grounds you so that you can move forward? Here’s the amazing thing about it: even if we, like the disciples head back to that place out of fear, the risen Christ meets us there. We can’t even lock him out, or set sail to escape his presence. He is there, in the midst of us. He is there, patiently waiting on the shore. He is there, ready to confront us, rename us, and call us forward into newness of life! Will we be ready? Even if we’re not, will we go anyway?


Read Full Post »

We are called to be a people of second chances…

This very idea undergirds all that we say as a community of faith: forgiveness, grace, and mercy are our watchwords. At our community Sunrise Service this morning, we heard about the incredible recovery ministry at Brookhaven United Methodist, whose whole purpose is give a second chance to the rawest of the raw, to those who have fallen to addiction’s alluring draw.

And yet, that very notion, that mercy and grace are gifts to all, is downright countercultural. It seems like we live in a time when the very idea of giving someone a second chance is treated as a kind of moral weakness. I’m not sure that’s a particularly unique characteristic of this moment and place in time, but it does feel as though we are more aware of the clay feet of our cultural idols than ever before.

One manifestation is our cultural obsession with scandal. And our public figures give us plenty of reason to be scandalized! In politics, we can hearken back to the moral failings of Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich. More recently, we can point to New Jersey’s Jim McGreevey and his affair with his male security adviser, or South Carolina’s Mark Sanford surprising us with the news that the Appalachian Trail goes all the way to Argentina. It seems that our public figures’ lust for attention turns out not to be the only lust in their lives. And if we’re honest, we tend to revel in hypocrisy that their private lives reveal.

And it’s not just politics where these things happen. The church, sadly, is home to its share of scandalous public secrets. Whether we go back to the very public collapses of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart, or to the more recent embarrassments of Ted Haggard out in Colorado or Eddie Long here in Atlanta, it appears as though those who pride themselves on telling everyone else how to live are the very ones with secret lives going against everything that they preach.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “There are no second acts in American lives,” a quote which has become famous for being famously wrong. Clinton and Gingrich are still political forces in our country. Mark Sanford is making a comeback in South Carolina politics. Tammy Faye had a successful secular TV career. Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, and Jimmy Swaggart are still in ministry, though less publicly. Eddie Long still pastors New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, though he remains under a shroud of suspicion. Second acts, actually, seem to be par for the course. And those second acts tend to look a lot like the first acts, leaving us to wonder if anyone ever learns anything when they fall from grace.

And yet, as our Biblical history reminds us, we are called to be a people of second chances…

Peter is, perhaps, one of the clearest examples of second chances. In the garden late Thursday night, Peter was valiantly defending his Christ. But in courtyard early Friday morning, he was already denying him. Falls from grace don’t get much more obvious than that. It may not as shocking as Judas’ betrayal, but it is spectacularly galling in its own special way. And yet, by the time we read of Peter in our lesson from Acts, he has been emboldened by his encounter with the risen Christ, and has risen to become a pillar of the early church. Even so, he still gets it wrong; and so we find him here, admitting the error of his ways. He had been zealously preaching the gospel as though it were an exclusive club, denying a place to Gentiles in favor of dietary and ritual purity. It takes a parting of the skies and the very presence of God to convert him. And our lesson this morning finds him telling the gathered crowd: “God shows no partiality.” All may take part in the promises of the gospel, regardless of parentage or tribe.

Given his personal history, it seems fitting that Peter is the bearer of this message.

Peter made a cameo appearance in the Easter story as well, as one of two disciples who sprint to the empty tomb. But it seems that neither understood the full extent of what just happened. That role, instead, is left to Mary Magdalene. She is the first witness to the risen Christ. She is another in a long line of Biblical characters who know what it means to be given a second chance.

We are called to be a people of second chances.

Here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we love to get involved in ministries that live out those second chances. In our Habitat builds, we partner with other churches and new homeowners to help them move from the challenges of poverty to economic sustainability. In our Food Pantry, we give groceries to families who are not on anyone’s radar screen, and so are most in danger of slipping through the system’s cracks. And at Journey shelter, we take an active part in the lives of men who find themselves with nowhere else to go, journeying alongside them as they move from the streets to self-sufficiency.

But here’s our Easter morning reality-check: are we really any different? We may have advantages that give us cushion from the kind of immediate needs that these ministries serve. But the truth is, deep down, each of us needs to know that second chances are possible. We may be fortunate enough not to face the kind of humiliation that public figures do; but all of us, in ways great and small, need to know that life does not end in our moments of failure.

We live with the legacy of broken relationships: parent, child, neighbor, friend, husband, wife…We let down those whom we love. We do the very thing we know we should not; and we fail to do the very thing we know we should. We speak carelessly, leaving deep wounds and vicious scars. We lust. We desire. We covet. We objectify and dehumanize. We are Peter, denying Christ. We are Mary Magdalene, living in the shadows. We are people who need second chances, sometimes more than we are willing to admit.

And here’s the thing: they exist! Second chances are there for the taking! While it seems that most of the famous stories of disgrace and scandal mean only a temporary hiatus from the public eye, there are those who take their public humiliation as an opportunity to be reborn.

Those of you keeping score at home may have noticed that I mentioned Jim McGreevey earlier, but didn’t say anything about what has happened to him. An apparently forgettable documentary about his fall from grace just came out, but the story it tells is one we ought to hear. You may remember McGreevey’s resignation as governor of New Jersey in 2004, as he came clean in a press conference about his affair with a male advisor on security matters. His marriage, not surprisingly, ended in divorce, and his political career was just as dead. After intensive counseling and therapy, McGreevey wound up in seminary. He began pursuing ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. That bid was rejected, however, as his recent personal history with titles and power gave the church a good reason to be cautious, if not suspicious. But that rejection turned out to be a gift, McGreevey readily admits. Now he runs a program for women at the Hudson County jail which, it turns out, is called “Second Chance.” And as he talks about his work, he describes it in about the most religious terms I can imagine: it’s a “sacred place, a level of awareness, to try to follow God’s will in my life day in, day out.”

Do we believe in second chances? What is yours? Where is it that you can race to find, beyond all possibility, an empty tomb? Where is it that you can encounter the Jesus who rises from the dead? Where is your garden? Where is your sacred space, your reason and need to follow God’s will in your life? You may not have faced a personal scandal, but each of us knows, deep down, that we need to hear and see and believe in the promise resurrection in our lives.

The funny thing is that it has been there all along, right before our eyes! It may look like the gardener at first, but look again. Jesus rises so that we might know that our second chance is real.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »