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RNS-HOLIDAYS-INTERFAITH bThe grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Our lesson this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah. As has been foreshadowed for some time, the nations of Israel and Judah are doomed. The prophets have warned about this, that the people’s unfaithfulness to their covenant with God will be their undoing. Isaiah has joined his voice into the chorus of doom. But now, Isaiah preaches comfort.

God will not abandon you, Isaiah tells them. You will face national humiliation. The Temple will be destroyed. You will be torn from home and into exile. But God is still God. And you, despite evidence to the contrary, will be God’s people.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

We often end up reading Isaiah during the season of Advent, as we await the Christmas celebration and the birth of the Word made flesh. We see Isaiah’s teaching about a “voice crying in the wilderness” as speaking of John the Baptist. We hear his preaching about the suffering servant as pointing to Jesus himself.

And Isaiah’s message of both uncomfortable truth and truthful comfort is reflected in Jesus’ own ministry, where he challenged the unjust status quo and embraced those who have been cast to the side by “decent society”. Jesus, too, prophesied the destruction of the Temple while encouraging those who might listen to repent, return to God, and be faithful. Much like the Rabbinic legend of Isaiah’s being sawn in two by the order of the King of Judah, Jesus is crucified as Herod looks down from his throne. And in both cases, God’s truth cannot be stopped by death.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Every day, it seems, we are brought the news of this or that terrifying trend in our world. Gun violence, terrorism, racism – all of these seem to us to be immediate threats to our way of life and proof that we need to barricade ourselves in order to maintain the status quo. Nothing can dissuade us from this opinion, not even the overwhelming evidence that we are safer now than at any other point in human history. Don’t get me wrong: injustice and violence are very real. There are awful trends that are on the rise. And yet, even accounting for all of this, as a whole, we are living longer and safer lives than we ever have. What is also different, unfortunately, is that we are living in a world of 24-hour news and social media where any knucklehead with a smart phone can broadcast his ignorance to the world, and where every threat seems like it’s next door. We hear about things we never would have known about before. Add to this the fact that fear sells, and business is booming.

And it is in this context that our calling as a church finds its voice.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

There is, I believe, a line of continuity from Isaiah through Jesus and into the Church. We are the ones who call Jesus both Lord and Savior. We try to follow in his footsteps while keeping healthy doses of mercy, recognizing that we will never do it perfectly. And we are those who find continued purpose, meaning, and direction in the word of our God.

In other words: we should be able to distinguish between those things that are temporary and those that are permanent and place our value accordingly.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Friends, none of this is permanent. Church buildings may last a long time, but they don’t stand forever. Music may be remembered fondly, sermons may be quoted, but they are still relatively fleeting in the grand scheme of things. We may have live lives, but we are not immortal. Neither borders nor nations are fixed. Languages may grow, shift, change, and adapt, but they also die. There is one thing, and one thing only, that is eternal: the word of God. And in this season of Advent, it is really the only thing for which we should faithfully wait. Christmas Eve can be lovely. Candlelit hymns achieve beauty. Christmas mornings can bring joy. But none of them are really, truly, in that ultimate sense, worth waiting for.

What would it look like if we lived as though the word of God was the only thing that mattered? How would our lives be different if we put everything in service of God so that whatever else we did was filtered through its unique lens and seen through its focus? What would it mean if our faithfulness and obedience were to Christ, and Christ alone?

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

This past Wednesday night, as reports came across of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, I did something I regret: I followed the news on Twitter. I’m not a big fan of Twitter, but I have come to learn that it has value in getting breaking and local news. It also, it turns out, is where the world goes to vent its hateful spleen.

There was little information, but a great deal of conjecture, about what happened. It felt like everyone was gleefully cheering for the “right” kind of shooter. Many were trumpeting that the attack had all the hallmarks of a right-wing extremist. Others were sure that it was Islamic terrorism. And still others were convinced this was a workplace dispute turned deadly by lax gun laws. As I watched this “conversation” taking place, I was appalled by what I saw. And I was convinced that we were going to end the evening in an all-out American Uncivil War.

And then the press conference started. The San Bernardino Chief of Police and an FBI Spokesperson fielded questions with the kind of care and caution that good police work and investigation demand. They refused to speculate or jump to conclusions that weren’t sure yet. And they reiterated, again and again, that they would follow where the evidence led them. It almost restored my faith in humanity – almost.

By now, it seems certain that the attack was religiously-motivated. The couple did not appear to have had any formal connection to Daesh (that is, ISIS), but were rather inspired by them. Gauging by the reactions I have seen, this conclusion has done little to dissuade people from believing what they had already believed. Those who were anti-gun are still anti-gun. Those who were anti-Muslim are still anti-Muslim. Those who were anti-immigrant are still anti-immigrant.

I don’t know if anything I say will convince any of us to change our minds about any of this. That’s up to each of us on our own, and whether we are truly open to being transformed. But here is the question that I want to ask each and every one of us: what is it that God wants you to do? What is it that faithfulness to the eternal word of God calls us to do?

Fear is powerful. But it pales in comparison to faith in the God we know in Jesus Christ. The challenge is to ask ourselves constantly what God would require us, even – and especially – when we are afraid and terrified. It is when we stop asking for God’s wisdom that we risk putting ourselves in the service of the things that will not last.

This afternoon, a few of us will be heading over to Mercer’s Tucker campus for an interfaith gathering called “We Refuse to Be Enemies”. If you’re interested in coming along, please let me know.

I, for one, am going because I have developed friendships in the Atlanta interfaith community. I have learned a great deal through these friendships. We do not gain anything by using our differences to build barriers around our communities. Nor do we gain anything by pretending that there are no differences. Instead, what strengthens us is being honest about those differences while opening ourselves to the possibility that we might be changed for the good – me by them, and them by me.

In short, I am not going because I believe it is an easy thing to do, or a polite thing to do, but because I believe it is a faithful thing to do. The word of God calls us to cross boundaries, because God is the God of all peoples. It calls us to recognize and embrace the dignity inherent in each person, because we are all created in the eternal image of God. And it calls us to go into places of discomfort not for the sake of following our own desires, nor the desires of our tribe or nation, but the desires of God. Those are the only desires that matter in the end.

However it is that this moment in time speaks to you, the one thing I commend to you is to seek God’s desires prayerfully. That is where you will find true faithfulness. And when we bring those Godly desires together, as the church, we cannot be stopped.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

My friends, we are the Church. We are the body of Christ. We are the people of the Word. We are the ones for whom we wait.

Amen.

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Justin Bieber has 16.7 million followers on Twitter. He has tweeted almost 13,000 times. I, on the other hand, have tweeted 1800 times, and my followers number in the dozens, at just shy of 200. It’s game on, Bieber!

Twitter is, of course, just one of the multitude of social networking tools that has taken over the world of communication in the last few years. From a service that started just five years ago, it now numbers users that rival the population of the U.S. It is being credited with the overthrow of dictators in Egypt and Libya and with populist movements in places as far flung as Syria and the United States. If you can edit your thoughts down to 140 characters or fewer (that’s about 25-30 words), then Twitter might be the tool for you.

Like all technology, it’s a double-edged sword. The short length of messages seems to play into and contribute to the sound byte culture which plagues us so – and if we had forgotten that, another round of elections is here to remind us that content most certainly isn’t king. Critics attack Twitter for feeding into our unhealthy narcissism, where people feel compelled to share what they’re having for dinner and why they think “Two and a Half Men” is better with Ashton Kutcher.

And yet, at the same time, it has given people who have long been disenfranchised access to information. We need look no further than the Arab Spring for evidence of that. And for truly breaking news there is no better source than Twitter. While Fox and CNN try to fill the void of the 24-hour news cycle with vapid information and pointless commentary, if you really want to know what is going on at the moment, Twitter gives you instant access to eyewitness accounts.

What strikes me as curious about Twitter, alongside everything else, is the language choice of “follow”. Unlike Facebook, where you “friend” someone, in Twitter, you “follow” them. And they can also “follow” you – which sounds a bit like everyone is just going in circles. And that is one of the dangers of our technological boom. We are self-selecting for the information and relationships that agree with what we already think we know to be true. We are less and less likely to seek out friendships and websites and news channels that challenge our assumptions about the way the world works. We are feeding our own self-righteousness, and becoming more and more siloed from folks who aren’t like us.

And that’s where the Scripture texts today come into focus. We first heard the dramatic tale of Jonah, skipping over the introduction where Jonah tries to run away from God, gets caught in a storm, then thrown overboard, eaten by a giant fish, and spit back up onto dry ground. Now God is telling him, yet again, “Go to Nineveh and tell them to get straight.” And they do. The people of Nineveh fast and pray. And God relents from the promised destruction.

For Jonah, following God meant doing something he didn’t want to do. Nineveh was a big, bad city, and the last thing he wanted to do was to go there and tell everyone how big and bad they were, like Pee Wee Herman trying to use the phone in a biker bar.

For the people of Nineveh, following God meant doing a 180, spinning on their heels, putting a stop to their ways and starting off on a new path. For the people of God, following breaks us out of our silos and can often bring us into uncharted territory.

No one knew this fact better than the disciples. Today, we heard the familiar story of the four who simply dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Simon and Andrew were drawn by the promise of catching people in their nets instead of fish…the same with James and John, the sons of Zebedee.

We’ve talked before about this story and the weight of the decision these disciples made. Bethsaida, their home town, meant “the place of fishing.” There’s little doubt that this was work that had been handed down for a multitude of generations. This was a great deal more than a simple career change; to follow Jesus was to turn their backs on everything they had known. Fishing was practically in their DNA. And while Jesus promised they would still fish, it would be unlike anything they had experienced before.

To become a disciple means quite simply to become a student, a pupil. But there’s one key difference: the student can eventually become the teacher. The disciple remains a disciple. And for the disciples, following Jesus meant heading off into the unknown.

What about us? What does it mean to be followers of Jesus?

Like Jonah, are we being asked to do things that we don’t want to do? Are there places in our lives where we know that the faithful thing to do isn’t always the easy thing to do? It’s never as easy as saying that the right thing to do is always the hard thing to do. God expects much of us in terms of our own wisdom and discernment as we think and pray through choices in our lives. And yet, we all know of moments where we know what we ought to do, and that this obligation may have a cost that we’re not quite willing to pay. Is that where you are right now, facing a decision that may take you somewhere you’re not sure you want to go?

Or do you find yourself more in line with the people of Nineveh? Is God asking you to turn away from choices you have made which have been, time and time again, the wrong choices? The churchy word for that is repentance, which means turning to face God and owning up to mistakes. If so, then the invitation today is to take the opportunity to start over. It’s still January, and though the calendar is an admittedly arbitrary tool, it may just be the tool you need to make that 180 and begin afresh. The road may feel uncharted, but the truth is that God goes before you every step of the way.

Or is it the story of fishermen which resonates with you today? Is there something nudging you, calling you to a bold new adventure in faith? Is it a change in careers or a leadership role here at OPC? Is it downsizing your lifestyle to make more room for the things that you know are of ultimate importance?

Maybe none of this strikes a chord with you today. Maybe you’ve already heard this message before loud and clear, and so the text today is meant as an encouragement to stay the course.

In any case, to follow Jesus is to break down the walls of our silos. We are brought into relationships with those who are unlike us. Jesus is not the ultimate “yes man”. There is, always, a word of challenge at work. In our afflictions, we will be comforted; and in our comforts, we will be afflicted.

And to follow Jesus puts us very much in the here and now. We care about this world because it is God’s world. We are invested in our community because, in Christ, God’s own self became deeply invested in a world of material, fleshy reality. To be followers of the incarnate God is to be, ourselves, the incarnate body of Christ, the hands and feet of the one who calls us to drop our nets, follow, and fish in a whole new way.

Amen.

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The pace of technology is mind-boggling. From the dawn of the internet to the introduction of power-packed cellphones and tablet computing devices, the way we interact with each other has changed dramatically in the span of a generation. And like most things, this evolution is a double-edged sword.

Global Positioning Systems on our smartphones have rendered maps, directions, the yellow pages documents of a bygone era. Programs like Skype allow us to video chat for free across continents, a thought that was mere science fiction not that long ago. Platforms like Twitter have even been at work in unseating dictators in the Middle East.

But wait: there’s more!

For the iPhone alone, you can get the following apps:

  • Payphone locator! Have an iPhone? Want to know where the nearest payphone is? Love irony? Then this is the app for you!
  • How about Beer Opener? You can enjoy the experience of opening a virtual beer without the hassle of having to drink it!
  • And my personal favorite: HangTime. This app measures how high you can throw your iPhone. And it only costs 99 cents. Plus the cost of a new iPhone.

For every device that might save us time, there are tons that would love to waste it. When you embrace technology, you have to take the bad along with the good.

We might as well say the same thing about our current sermon series. The basic idea is that, as we face the dawning of a new calendar year, we might consider the ways we might like to start over. And the beautiful thing about our faith is that it constantly gives us the opportunity, no matter the season, to begin again.

Now the title, Ctrl+Alt+Del, is taken from technology. If you own a Windows computer, you have, at some point, had to use this little combination of keys to restart your device. So if you understood the title of the series without the explanation, then you are a fellow lover – and hater – of technology.

Today’s sermon pushes the technological conceit one step further. It’s a play off of the idea of Web 2.0. If you know anything about this concept, then you will know that I understand it only in part. But here goes:

The world wide web began as a one-way communication technology. Sure, you could send emails back and forth, but these were not interactive in the way that, say, a face-to-face or a telephone conversation is. And websites took this approach as well. Websites started as kind of a virtual brochure. For your company or your organization or yourself, they were places you could post information that you wanted the user to know about you: your history, location, telephone number, email address, etc.

In tech circles, this approach is now referred to as Web 1.0 – kind of a rough draft version of the internet.

We have now moved into a phase known as Web 2.0, which has added the interactive component to internet activity. Rather than a model in which the owners produce the content, the reality now is that the user has a great deal of say in how the content is received. It has introduced a level of participation to the internet.

Anyone can start a blog. For free. And anyone can respond to that blog. For free. Anyone can post a video on YouTube. Again, for free. And anyone can respond to that video. For free. If you have a website that is of the 1.0 “information only” model, people will not be interested. You have to open up your site so that people can tell you what they think of your content. And that reaction helps to shape your future content in conscious and subconscious ways.

Another aspect of Web 2.0 is syndication, or the ability to share the content you find. Through social media, like Twitter and Facebook, among a hundred others, you can let other people know what you’re reading, seeing, thinking, engaging, and let them know what you think about it. And they, too, can share that content with others. When a piece of information spreads rapidly, it is said to “go viral” – that is, it has taken on a life of its own and spreads further than the creator of the content could ever have imagined.

At the risk of stretching my metaphor well beyond its breaking point, could it be that the birth of Jesus ushered in a new era of God 2.0?

This may not sit well with some of us. The very reason that we find God to be worthy of trust is that we trust that God is unchanging; that the same God who created the universe is the same God whom we meet in Jesus Christ and is the same God whom we worship here at OPC.

I do believe that this is true. But there is something earth-shattering that happened at the birth of Christ: incarnation…the human embodiment of the divine…God in baby form. As human beings ourselves, our best possible understanding of the nature of God comes through our understanding of the nature of Christ.

In our texts today, we moved from the almost fatalistic quality of Ecclesiastes to the sublime awe of Anna and Simeon. The author of Ecclesiastes lets us know that everything good and bad has its place: birth, death, planting, sowing, crying, laughing, killing, healing, holding on, letting go. And we see all of these things in the life and ministry of Jesus himself.

What springs forth in the lesson from Luke is in the echoes of Ecclesiastes, but in an incredible way. We meet these two characters who fade from the scene as quickly as they arrive. Both have been waiting a lifetime for the promises of their faith to come true: that God would deliver the Messianic goods. Simeon seems to channel the author of Ecclesiastes, saying of Jesus that he “marks the failure and the recovery of many, a figure misunderstood and contradicted…but his rejection will force honesty.” The infant will be a double-edged sword, bringing both division and the possibility of healing to the people.

For Simeon, this is enough. He doesn’t have to see the results. It’s enough for him to know that the child has arrived, that hope is on its way. Anna, too, is stunned by what she experiences. She had been faithfully waiting in the Temple for decades. As soon as Jesus arrives on the scene, she departs – both from the Temple and from our story – to sing God’s praises for the birth of this baby.

God is the same, the alpha and omega, the first and the last. And yet, there is a newness in the form of this infant Messiah. We now have the opportunity to know God more fully than ever before. Rather than dealing with a divine abstract, we now see God as a concrete reality. This is, no question, something new. And if we choose to embrace that concreteness, we must embrace it for the double-edged sword that it is. Christ comes to comfort us in our woes. And Christ comes to heal us, in the fullest possible sense of that word. And part of that healing means the shaking of our assumptions to the core.

How was your 2011? Are you happy to see it in the rear view mirror? Are you ready to start over completely? Or was it, like most years, a year of ups and downs? Are there those moments that you’d like to have another shot at? Then this is your year.

My invitation for all of us for 2012, beginning this week, is simply this: interact with God. Reflect on those places where your faith-life still exists in a 1.0, rough-draft kind of world. God wants your engagement! God wants your participation!

Amen.

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Acoustic Christmas tends to be a more intimate service. As such, rather than a formal sermon, we watched several brief YouTube videos and had good conversation. The gist of it is this: we tend to domesticate the birth of Christ, when in reality it happened in the real world – a world that contained its fair share of animal poop. Today, we trust that this living, breathing faith is every much as real as it was then.

Merry Christmas.

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I originally wrote this in February when the events were fresh. For aome reason I decided not to post it at the time. Re-reading it the other day, I decided it was worth revisiting. Thankfully, some things have changed since then, including growing relationships within the community. And yet, so many of the divides remain. Please pray for our divided world.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution won’t name the teen who committed suicide yesterday out of respect for the family’s privacy. Meanwhile, among his peers (and his brother’s peers), privacy was a moot issue. Everybody knows, because information spreads. On Twitter and Facebook, his friends are posting their memorials, sharing his name, and keeping up with plans for remembrances. What a bizarrely divided world we live in.

There is surely a generation gap at work here. Some parents didn’t even know that any of this had happened. When they talk to their kids, they’re lucky to get a two syllable answer. Some of the teen’s friends have been carrying around the weight of conversations they had with him – wondering if they could’ve saved his life with a different word or phrase here or there. And their parents didn’t know about any of this until now. What a divided world we live in.

The schools are doing their best. Crisis teams have come in. Churches and pastors have reached out, and have largely been told, “Thank you for your concern.” The separation of church and state is so deeply ingrained that we can’t even partner on an issue of such crucial community concern that none of us, let’s be honest, is equipped to handle alone. What a divided world we live in.

And as the generation divide grows, we continue to isolate people by age: old folks in old folks homes, kids in schools and so many afterschool programs it makes your eyes bleed. Churches, instead of leading the way as a radical place of intergenerational inclusion, have followed suite, with “age appropriate” worship services. What a bizarrely divided world we live in.

We are still in the midst of this crisis. So many are grieving a life that cut itself short and a world of questions that hang in the air like the stench of raw sewage. The one thing I hope we can really lay to rest is this divided world. I hope we can find a way to bury it. Let’s move past the taboos that we, ourselves, have created. We have convinced ourselves that our children do best when they interact with “experts”, and so parents are terrified of speaking to their kids. We are certain that the only way that religion can interact with society is either through total isolation or theocracy, when there are so many of us who have never seen our faith as merely a means to convince people that our version of events is more right than theirs; how in the world can you work through suicide without touching on the divine and on questions of ultimate meaning? We are so fearful of boring our children in worship, or so concerned with it being “our time” that we end up further isolated, less able to create shared experiences, hopes, dreams; so much so that we no longer even know how to talk to our kids. And we certainly don’t understand this whole world of social media; anything that happens on a computer certainly can’t be real, so we wait for them to grow out of it, just like we grew out of touchtone phones and new-fangled answering machines.

Suicide is horrible. It is unfair to those who are left behind to clean up the mess. It is a brutal awakening to the despair that takes such deep root. My hope is in the possibility that it could awaken us from the stupor of our own creation, to begin to live as those who think both critically and inclusively, as people who take nothing for granted – not the air we breathe, the blessings we receive, nor the “wisdom” we are expected to assume as fact. Let this be a new day, a new life, a new birth.

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