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Posts Tagged ‘welcome’

Sa2GuDhYou are ambassadors for Christ.

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

You are ambassadors for Christ.

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

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

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

You are ambassadors for Christ.

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

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

You are ambassadors for Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Everything we do should flow from gratitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so, now and always.

Amen.

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A few weeks ago I had an unusual experience for a church pastor: I went to another church as a visitor. I was there by myself, because I wanted to experience its creative worship and approach. It was, in many ways, a professional visit. and yet, what I experienced gave me some unique insights into how visitors often see churches when they visit.

I arrived a few minutes late, but worship had not yet started. And yet, no one greeted me and handed me a bulletin. I grabbed my own. The pastor noticed me and made a point of welcoming me warmly.

I sat in the back, next to a small group of folks. My neighbor introduced herself and was very friendly. We then, as is the custom of worship architecture, faced forward and worshiped independently.

The passing of the peace was a ten minute “break” in the middle of worship. I shook hands and shared the peace with about a dozen folks, all of whom were friendly, and one of whom engaged me in conversation. For the next eight minutes, I stood alone. I was tempted to pull out my cellphone to pass the time, but knew that it was important to stay in the discomfort.

The pastor, who was making her way around the room, greeted me and engaged me in wonderful conversation.

At the end of worship, I was the first to leave. I shook the pastor’s hand at the door and headed out.

Let me be clear: this was not a “cold” church – not at all. The community is warm, positive, energetic, and friendly…to each other. I was not inside the community, and so, I was mostly left to my own devices. I understand why that’s the case. I get that. Before and after worship is the time for the community to say hi to their friends they don’t see all week. Because of this, though, I slipped through, largely unnoticed, alone.

Is this what visitors experience at my church? They often arrive late, sit at the back, and are the first to leave. We are a warm, welcoming community; and yet, do we get so busy loving on each other that we forget to share that love with those whom we don’t yet know, those who have come with a genuine desire for community?

I am concerned that our admirable love for one another risks becoming an obstacle to welcoming others. If the focus of our love is turned inward, we will miss those who are still outside. We do not need an overhaul; and yet, our welcome needs fine tuning so that it is more and more like the extravagant hospitality of Christ. We shouldn’t let others slip through, largely unnoticed, alone.

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Home: A Place

What we say should be reflected in what we do.

I love this story. The lesson that it’s heart is a simple one: don’t forget to ask God.

Initially, we are led to believe that King David is right on track. His idea is to build God a Temple. After all, as he says, he has this luxurious house made out of sturdy cedars. Meanwhile, the Ark of the Covenant, which has traveled with the people since the days of the wilderness of Mt. Sinai, is stuck in a tent.

It makes so much sense, in fact, that Nathan gives David the go-ahead. Nathan is David’s prophet, God’s mouthpiece to the king. He’s there to keep David on track when it comes to faithfulness. As powerful as David is, Nathan has no problem calling him to accountability, correcting him when he has strayed from the straight and narrow.

In this case, though, there doesn’t seem to be an issue. David’s construction project seems straightforward, even righteous, and Nathan tells him to go for it. God, however, has different plans. And so, when Nathan heads home that evening, God breaks into his dreams to be sure he does the right thing.

It turns out that God wants to take care of David; David doesn’t need to take care of God. The Temple? That’s for the next generation to worry about. In other words, Nathan seems to forget that prophets have two jobs:

  • Ask God what to say
  • Say what God says

In this case, he seems to be batting .500. If you’re going to put “prophet” on your resume, you should act like a prophet. What you say should be reflected in what you do.

How often do we get it right? What would our batting average be?

There is, in faith in Christ, a call to integrity. If Jesus really is the embodiment of God, then every fiber of his being is imbued with Godliness. And as part of the church, as members of Christ’s body, that same holiness ought to flow through us. What we say we believe should be reflected in what how we treat others. Even more than that, it should show forth in every aspect of our lives.

We’ve been speaking about the concept of “home” the past few weeks. First of all, home requires a plan. Most importantly, it requires a plan to open ourselves to God’s plan. Secondly, home requires people. In God’s home, there is room for all people from all walks of life.

Today, we’re talking about how home requires a place. And what that place looks like should be a reflection of what we say and what we do.

Let’s take our home here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. What does this place say about us? How do you get in the building in the first place? Are those inviting red doors where you start your journey, or do you get in by way of a secret entrance at the back of the property? What about our seeming fondness for stairs? Or the fact that a three story building has seven different elevations? Are we puzzle fans, or devotees of MC Escher?

And what about our Sanctuary, with its row upon row of straight-back pews, all facing forward? Or how about our worship service, for that matter, a largely traditional practice with contemporary moments here and there?

In short, what we say should be reflected in what we do. And what we do should be reflected in the places we find ourselves.

This all came home for me last year when I sat down to lunch with a group of Oglethorpe University students. Over the course of a year, we probably have twenty of them worship with us – and almost never on the same Sunday. Last Spring, I invited them to lunch to talk about faith, college, church, and how the three might come together. I told them I was surprised to learn how many Oglethorpe University students ended up worshiping at places like Buckhead Church. After all, the college prides itself on being a forward-thinking, open and welcoming place. Didn’t they know that Buckhead Church was an outgrowth of the Southern Baptists?

Their response came as a jolt: Buckhead looks and sounds contemporary, so they assumed that their outlook mirrored that look. Meanwhile, Oglethorpe Presbyterian looks and sounds traditional, with robes and organ and the like, so it must be populated with people who are just as traditional.

Is what we say about ourselves reflected in what we do, in how we act, in where we live, in who we are?

This past summer, you all gave me the gift of time away in Chicago. Among the many things I did was to visit a different church each Sunday. My experience was probably very similar to that of someone church shopping. I was new every week, automatically disoriented by entering the building. I didn’t know the traditions or expectations. I didn’t even know how I was expected to dress. My sense of welcome was all over the map: some churches struck that perfect balance between greeting me without pouncing. Other churches ignored me altogether.

There was one church in particular that really drew me in. During announcements, the pastor struck all the right notes of welcome. After worship, he let us know he was going to have lunch nearby. “If you’re a first time visitor,” he said, “I would like to buy you lunch.” If I’m honest, I was probably more excited about the free lunch than getting to know more about the church, but I thought to myself, “This is a church that gets it right.” I made a mental note that I would be having lunch with the pastor that day.

As the service drew to a close, the pastor gave the benediction and headed to the back of the sanctuary. I rose with everyone else and walked toward the lobby, right out the door, and onto the street. No one said a word to me. And off I went, to have lunch by myself.

I know it wasn’t intentional. They were so busy loving on each other, saying hi and catching up, that they didn’t even notice me. And that was the problem: from what I experienced, what they said was not reflected in what they did.

Look: I’m very much aware that we at Oglethorpe Presbyterian live with a disconnect between how we act and what this home of ours looks like. And I am also aware that we know this, too. If you can find the right door, you are almost certain to be greeted warmly and welcomed here. If you don’t know where you’re going, there’s a high probability that someone will escort you there, because we know that our building is a baffling labyrinth of hallways and half-levels. And I know that we are doing what we can to transform this place into a building that more honestly reflects our personality.

That said, we are not there yet. And there are some significant hurdles, which I’m confident we will address the coming years. But in the meantime, we need to be creative about how it is that we build that integrity into who we are.

So here’s my invitation, my challenge, to each you. And I really want you to take this seriously.

Some time in the next month, I want you to invite one person to have lunch or coffee with you. It could be a co-worker or a neighbor, someone outside your church family, someone that you have interacted with that you thought, “I would really like to get to know this person better.” And that’s exactly what I want you to do: get to know them better. Find out more about their life story, what makes them tick, what’s important to them. Ask them questions about faith, about God, about church – not because you have some kind of secret agenda, because that would betray any sense of integrity; but because those are things that matter to you and you want to know what matters to them.

And if you’re so inclined, I would love to hear what happens. I would be interested to know what that experience is like for you. I plan to do it, too, and I would love to tell you how it goes.

Why should you do this? Because it is an act that demonstrates who you are. And in the echoes of today’s text about David and Nathan and Solomon and the Temple, it is an obvious way to move beyond this place where we find God and to go out to meet God in the tent.

Friends, is what we say reflected in what we do? Can we commit ourselves to pulling those pieces closer and closer together?

Amen.

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Does God take swimming lessons?

Between my experiences of parenting and interacting with our Preschoolers, these are the kind of deep philosophical questions I find myself facing recently. This particular one came about in a way that bears repeating.

I was coming back to the church from a late lunch when I spied one of our Preschool parents leaving the playground with her daughter. When the little girl saw me, she pointed at me and said, “Look, Mom! There’s God!” A few days later, I figured out what had led to this distressing confusion. As her class prepared to enter the sanctuary for chapel, her teacher said, “OK, boys and girls. We are about to go into God’s house, so we need to be quiet.” So they entered “God’s house” to see…me. Wearing a guitar. Logical conclusion, right?

About a week later, I ran into the same family as I was leaving the Y. The mother later told me that, after I left, her daughter had run to the door. “What are you doing?” mom asked.

“I’m looking for God,” she replied, and then added thoughtfully, “Do you think he takes swimming lessons?”

Most ministers have a story like this; I guess I just didn’t expect to encounter this for another ten or fifteen years. My own image of God is shaped by childhood pastors. Harry Fifield baptized me, and he seemed so old to me that he must’ve born the same year as God. Paul Eckl confirmed me, and even though he was much younger than Harry, he had that mellifluous preacher baritone that sang with divine resonance. But I never would’ve envisioned God as a red-headed forty-something with a guitar.

How do you see God? What is it that shapes that image of God in your mind? Is there a Biblical story that gives you insight into God’s character and paints a picture for you? Is it the parable of the prodigal son, where God becomes the father who runs to welcome the wayward child home? Is it the story of the lost coin, where God is the woman who sweeps the house frantically looking for the precious item she has lost? Is it the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God is portrayed as vengeful, judgmental, even brutal? Or is it the image of a dying Jesus on the cross, a God willing to die for the sake of a world that somehow never saw fit to return that love? How do you see God?

Today is the one day a year that we set aside as Trinity Sunday. The whole idea of the Trinity, of a single God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is one that arose in the earliest centuries of the church as Christians struggled to make sense of confusing Biblical imagery. Our two texts this morning touch on some of that confusion. The Creator God is divine; but so is Jesus, who is somehow both God and God’s son at the same time. And the Spirit is thrown in the mix, too, as the divine breath in Creation, the descending dove in Jesus’ baptism, and as the advocate whom the Father sends after Jesus’ resurrection. So God is three, and yet, God is one. We come up with ways to wrap our minds around this concept, like ice, water, and steam, in which one chemical compound can take three very different forms.

At the end of the day, though, I think the essence of the Trinity is this: the God we worship is a God whom we can never perfectly grasp – at least, not in the here and now. And yet, there is this paradox that God breaks into the world, giving us glimpses of perfection, moments where we begin to get a sense of what God might be up to. Each of us experiences this differently. For me, the moment almost always comes in the form of surprise, when I see something I thought I knew well and discovering that there was something lingering under the surface the whole time, an unexpected grace that jumps out and grabs me. For all I know, it could be that God does take swimming lessons, and that walking on water was just a convenient way to work around a subpar backstroke.

You see, that’s the astonishment for me in the exchanges with that Preschooler: I know myself well. I know my strengths and I know my faults. How in the world could someone ever think that I am Godly? And yet, that’s just it: the glimpses of God we get rarely come in the form of a Monty Pythonesque, sky-opening, British-accented proclamation. Instead, they come through the most mundane of interactions with the most imperfect of people. Each of us bears God’s imprint. That’s what it means to be created in the image of God. And when the light hits us just right, we reflect that image onto a world – and often when we least expect that this is what we are doing.

Have you ever had a friend thank you for advice you offered years ago as part of a conversation that you don’t remember at all? Or has someone ever marveled at you for doing something so ordinary that you’re shocked that it merited any kind of notice? Or has a colleague looked at you in wonder, saying, “How did you do that?” in a way that reminded you of your unique gifts? Each of these, in some way, is a reminder of how God works through us, and how we are rarely aware that such a miracle is even possible.

We Christians can be some pretty nervy folk. We have the temerity to suggest that God can work through us, and that the church can be a vessel for God’s actions in the world. But when we’re doing it right, we know that it’s not the individual who ought to be touted; we know that it’s not the institution’s accomplishments that we should celebrate. Instead, we know that it’s God working through, and usually in spite of, us.

Friends, I think this is what Trinity Sunday has to offer us: God does not exist in a vacuum. God is not alone. Whether it’s the presence of Jesus giving us a thorough example of God’s desires, or a Spirit sent to uphold, encourage, and challenge us, the God that we Christians worship and serve is a God who must exist in community. In isolation, God makes no sense – because the essence of God is a being that is not for its own sake, but for the sake of others. And when the church reflects that image on the world, that is when we become most fully engaged with God’s activities.

We love and serve the poor not because it makes us feel good, or because we think it will help us earn our way into heaven. And we love and serve the poor not only because Jesus tells us to, but because it is so ingrained in our beings that if we didn’t do so, we would be cutting off an authentic part of our own selves. We extend the hand of invitation to others no matter what they are like not because we see every visitor as a potential donor who can help us with our budgetary challenges, but because we ourselves have experienced that welcome and know what a gift it is. And we give of ourselves in our time and talents and treasure not because we fear the death of our beloved institution, but because we don’t understand why you would want to hoard these things in the first place. We share because it has been etched on our souls to do so!

What does God look like to you? Does it need to be stretched beyond the bounds of understanding? Do you need to be moved from your place of comfort to get a glimpse of something new, challenging, exciting, and life-giving? My prayer today, for each of us, is that it would be so.

Amen.

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Welcomed and loved…

Bob was a member at a church in Chicago where a friend of mine was pastor. Bob was a child of the church, born and raised there. But because of his mental faculties, he had never become a member, because when it was time for confirmation, he wasn’t capable of “understanding” the classes. And some forty years later, this had all been forgotten. Upon learning of this, my friend made sure to include Bob in the next new members’ class. Because the truth is: how many of us really “understand” faith? Bob knew that this church was a community where he was welcomed and loved, when there were so many places where he was left out. And because of that, on many levels, he actually understood faith better than most of us ever might.

Welcomed and loved…

When we look at the narrative sweep of the Bible, some times it seems like those two concepts are sorely absent. There’s a familiar predictability in the Hebrew Bible, the narrowing of the community of God. By the second generation of humanity, there’s already sibling rivalry and murder. At the flood, God has decided that only one couple of each species was worth preserving – including out own. By the time we get to Abraham and Sarah, God has promised an eternal inheritance to this one couple and they’re offspring. On and on the story goes: Isaac is in, Ishmael is out; Jacob is in, Esau is out; David is in, Saul is out. Even after ancient Israel is established as a kingdom unto itself, things get so bad that the prophet Jeremiah proclaims that only a “righteous remnant” would remain faithful to God. The whole narrative seems designed to figure out who God’s people are, and who they are not.

By the time the New Testament rolls around, it comes as no surprise that the Pharisees are in charge. They are the guardians of the boundaries that determine who is in and who is out based on what they do – or don’t – do. What can you eat? Who can you hang out with? If you behave, you’re in; if not, well, you’re out.

And right into the middle of this mix drops Jesus. He comes across as a wandering rabbi, and yet he is immediately clashing against the Pharisees’ standards. He heals people on the Sabbath. He touches those who are supposed to be unclean. He eats with prostitutes and tax collectors. He just doesn’t behave. But it’s not just petty crimes that mark his behavior; it’s capital offenses. He forgives sins! He claims divinity! He takes on the Pharisees’ notions of what is good, moral behavior. And yet, he should be considered an outsider, revealed by his own lack of moral fortitude. But instead, he seems to be getting more and more supporters as he goes, and from people who ought to know better!

And what’s most shocking of all is that he is breaking open the boundaries of who is in and who is out – not reversing them, mind you, which would be easy enough to confront.  It would be one thing if he were replacing Pharisees with lepers. But it’s another thing altogether to say that Pharisees and lepers ought to hang out together. No wonder he was perceived as a threat.

Jesus was challenging the very basic assumption about the Biblical narrative and its narrowing purpose. He wasn’t making the community smaller; he was expanding its circles ever wider. He was reversing course. In Jesus’ mind, who was “in” and who was “out” was up for re-examination. And, worst of all, he claimed that he was doing all of this in the name of God!

By the time we get to Acts, the religious authorities are convinced they’ve set everything back in order. This pesky Jesus has been eliminated. His followers still seem to be hanging on, but no movement survives long without its leader, right? And yet, they seem to keep growing. And growing. And growing.

Up to a certain point, that growth is all within the “people of God” as understood at that time: the Jews, the descendants of Abraham’s righteous offspring. Even Jesus seemed to keep things “in the family” for the most part. But things are about to change.

Peter has gone off to the coastal city of Joppa. And while in prayer, he has a vision that changes his, and the church’s, mission forever. A sheet lowers from heaven. And in the sheet are animals of all varieties, including those that were forbidden for human consumption. But in the vision, he is told that what God makes clean is clean. And not only are dietary boundaries burst open, but the very boundaries of God’s community disintegrate. Peter is convinced that “God shows no partiality” but that “in every nation” anyone who fears and and does what God thinks is right is acceptable to God.

And that’s where we came into the lesson this morning. As Peter is preaching, Gentiles – that is, non-Jews – start acting in ways that show the Holy Spirit is at work in them in the same ways that marked the early church. The Jewish “believers” – that is, those who have become followers of Christ – cannot deny baptism to them. God must want them inside the community, too. And so, inside they come.

Welcomed and loved…

How often do we need to hear these lessons before they finally sink in? We are inheritors to a church which has alternately raised and lowered its own walls. Theological diversity in the early days of the church quickly gave way to definitions of “orthodox” and “heretic”. Churches were split off from time to time because of liturgical and theological subtleties that are lost on our current sensibilities. Eventually, West split from East (or East split from West, depending on whose version of history you read), each one claiming that the other was “out”.

Our own Protestant ancestors challenged these assumptions, breaking with the Catholic Church because of its own rigid boundaries. John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism, spoke of the “Invisible Church”, one where only God could draw the true boundaries. We soon forgot. Northern and Southern Presbyterians, Fundamentalist and Modernist, liberal and conservative, traditional and evangelical, we build up walls again and again and again only to see them fall before our eyes.

We have decided who can serve or even worship in the church based on their race or gender or orientation. And we make the table, the very thing that should unite us as Christians, the place with the highest walls of all. You have to go through a special class so that you understand what communion means. Or you have to be baptized first, because that’s the sacrament that marks who is “in” and who is “out”. But what about Bob, up there in Chicago? Doesn’t he get it more than any of us, what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be welcomed and loved…?

Friends, don’t get me wrong here. Being a community without boundaries does not mean that anything goes. And it does not mean that we open the community simply for political expediency or for the sake of openness itself. We do so rooted in the words from John’s letter that we read today. We do so because we show our love for God by our obedience to God’s desires! We find ourselves so deeply rooted in the Biblical narrative that we begin to see the world as God sees it: a very imperfect and broken imperfect place that is worthy of our disdain, but deserving of our compassionate, even sacrificial love!

Was God narrowing the community in those early days? Or was it remarkable that we even made it to the second generation after Adam and Eve’s behavior in Eden? Do we miss that Isaac and Ishmael, that Jacob and Esau are reconciled? Do we see that Jesus wasn’t actually changing the story at all, but magnifying its deeper purpose? For Jesus, and Peter after him, and even Paul after him, opening up the community was an act not of religious defiance, but of pure obedience?

Friends, you have heard me say it before: our faith calls us to be different in times that are very different. But what is sacred, what is crucial, what is needed and desired, will always remain.

We – we – are welcomed and loved. That is the eternal inheritance.

Amen.

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(the service didn’t get recorded this week. sorry. so i had a little fun with my own little recording)

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Luke 3:7-18

In the view of the Christian church, John the Baptist is the last in the line of Hebrew prophets, speaking truth to power. After him comes Jesus, ushering in this Messianic age. And so John, in our lesson today, is railing against the corruption of the day: the crowd is a “brood of vipers”; they’re not getting their inheritance; they’ve failed miserably in simple acts of mercy and kindness; and if you think what he says is bad, wait until Jesus comes along with unquenchable fire.

But here’s the funny thing: all of this is presented as “good news.” Now I don’t know about ya’ll, but being scolded to me doesn’t feel much like “good news.” And yet, it really is. The prophetic tradition is part of what we have inherited. Yes, God comforts the afflicted; but God also afflicts the comfortable. And we ought to do likewise. Do we prefer, instead, to water down the good news?

It’s that time of year again, and we’re starting to get the annual “here’s what we’ve been up to” letters. For the most part, I like these because it gives me a chance to reconnect with friends with whom I’ve lost touch. But every now and then, you get that letter that either seems to good to be true or is just out and out bragging.

Ann Landers is not a source I quote often, but when this copy of an article on Christmas letters came across my desk, I had to share it. It starts with an example of the kind of over-the-top letter that we get some times:

Dear Friends,

What a great year. Jim was named vice president of the bank. We celebrated by buying a Mercedes and flying to the Orient. In addition to Boy Scout work, Jim was co-chairman of the United Fund drive. He continues on the board of Grace Hospital and is Treasurer of Kiwanis. His first love is still conservation, and he’s heading the Committee to Fight Dutch Elm Disease.

After completing my term as Junior League president, I swore I’d take life easy, but I’m more involved than ever. I accepted the vice presidency of the Garden Club and am active in the D.A.R. I ran the bake sale for the Eastern Star, and we made $680. I also squeezed in a flower arranging class offered by a Japanese exchange student. All this with my leg in a cast. Dumb me fell off a ladder while hanging curtains at the USO.

Jim Jr. was elected class president and won his letters in football and basketball. He is on the all-state debate team and placed third in the national oratory contest. We were surprised to read in the paper that he had won a $100 prize in the American Legion Essay Contest. We never even knew he entered. Junior has been accepted by Harvard and Yale and can’t make up his mind. Linda was elected vice president of her class, homecoming queen and sweetheart of the Phi Delts and was a finalist in the regional swimming meet.

And so on. You get the idea. Then the article goes on to suggest that perhaps this might be a better letter to send this year:

Dear Friends,

We’ve had a rotten year. Bill was passed over for promotion again so he quit. He hasn’t lined up anything yet but he’s listed with the employment agencies and looks in the want ads every day. In the meantime, he is drinking like a fish.

Bill Jr. was defeated for home-room monitor. He flunked French and will have to go to summer school to graduate. College is out. Bob hasn’t had a haircut since August and had to hock his guitar to pay for repairing his Honda. (Thank God he didn’t lose his leg. We were plenty worried.) Mary is protesting something and shaved her head two weeks ago. My mother-in-law’s May visit lasted ‘til August, and I am back in therapy. As I write this, the whole family is down with the flu and I’m exhausted. We hope next year is better. It couldn’t be much worse.

Does one of those feel more “real”? Probably the second one. The truth is that there’s something compelling about honesty. And it’s that fact, that unfiltered honesty, that makes John’s sermon here good news. It is truth-telling in a pure, unvarnished sense.

As we’ve spent the past few weeks on this topic of “What Are You Waiting For,” we’ve talked a lot about how maybe it’s time to recognize that where we are is where we’re supposed to be, and that God is at work with us in the here and now. And if we’re going to jump into that here and now, a healthy dose of honesty would be helpful. Honesty to others, yes. But also honesty to ourselves. We can get so caught up in the busy-ness of life, especially this time of year, that we can easily drown out those interior voices with sheer white noise. Do you doubt? Are you angry? Do you carry shame around with you? Don’t put it aside; let it out into the bright light of mercy. God works best out in the open.

Or do you have a truth-teller? Is there someone in your life that is your John the Baptist, a trusted friend who can tell you the honest truth, even if it stings a little bit, because you know that they really have your best interests at heart?

One of the things I’ve appreciated about OPC is people’s frankness. So far, no one has called me a brood of vipers (at least not to my face). And I know this community as a good church; I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think so. I simply want to return a little bit of frankness, albeit in my own way. So I’m offering four questions for my peeps here. If you’re not part of OPC, I trust that they can apply in your life, too:

  1. Do you pray for this church? I don’t mean pray for each other – that I know you do. And I know so very personally. But do you pray for the leaders, staff, elders, deacons of this church? Do you pray for growth? (I always feel like I have to deconstruct this term “growth” when I use it. Yes, I mean numerical growth – but not exclusively. I don’t think God wants OPC to be a mega-church. But I do think there is something particular in this congregation that can mean something to people who are really aching for meaning in their lives. The reality is that our current building is an unsustainable facility with our current membership level; the leadership has a set a responsible course financially, but that’s the bald truth there. Enough sidebar). If you have trouble finding room for that kind of prayer in your life, every Sunday morning at 10:30 staff and elders gather for prayer in the parlor. All are welcome. Just come 30 minutes early.
  2. Have you ever invited anyone to church? And not just worship; I think one of the places that OPC can do the most good is for folks who have been wounded by church in the past. And for folks like that, worship is probably not the best place to start. We are always having events that have a much broader appeal: a Parents’ Christmas Break, a College Choir Concert. Do you look at our ongoing events with an eye toward whom you might include that isn’t already here?
  3. Do you say hello to people you don’t know? We are a warm community, yes. And after worship, it’s like being at a family gathering. But what about those who come here looking for community and suddenly find themselves in a room full of strangers?
  4. Do you inhale and exhale? In other words, do you both draw spiritual energy from this place and give back to this community? You’ve got to do both; otherwise, you’re not breathing.

The bottom line is that we need to truly embrace what it was that John the Baptist knew deep down: what we have here isn’t ours to begin with. We are, at our best, vessels of God’s grace. And this is the same good news John preached. We don’t seek relationships with others for our own sake. We don’t point to ourselves, but to Jesus. And like John, we should call others into close relationship with God as we call others to acts of mercy and kindness. As we raise that call, may our voices be part of a growing chorus.

Amen.

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