Word of the Week

Happy Sunday, friends!

I'm wondering when is the last time you did something just because?

Can you remember the last time you had a weekend with no plans? Or you took the afternoon off just to sit outside or read a book or stare at the birds? Or can you remember the last time you canceled plans (even very good plans) because you knew you couldn't do one more thing?

To the "yes" answer to any of these questions takes us to our word of the week: human.

Human: our soul connected to our body, brain, conscience, consciousness, memory, mind, spirit, soul and subconscious on planet earth.

As we unpack this definitions we realize this: to be a human is to have limitations.

Limitations in time (we don't live on earth forever).

Limitations in reach (there are some barriers we just can't cross).

Limitations in energy (we all must sleep). And so many more!

But the way you and I act sometimes it is as if the word super is in front of "human."

With our invisible capes on, we push through long days and don't eat well. We skip doctors appointments that we should have made weeks ago. We say "Next year I'll retire." (And then we don't!) As a result, the most authentic human parts of us are lost. (Deep sigh)

Let me tell you this. Last year I started a new full-time job. It's a position I never could have imagined taking in a place I never could have imagined living, but how much I love it all! In my role as minister of First Christian Church and in this town called Athens, GA, I feel like I got an invitation: to be minister but also be human.

So these days, I feel like I'm different kind of leader than I've ever been. I don't keep my life or my family's life to myself (maybe that I would have tried to been years ago), but I'm just me. And we're just us. What joy it is be human.

Here's what I've learned: living fully human gives the world gifts that it needs the most. Not only joy, but vulnerability, authenticity and kindness!

How can you be more human this week?

Laugh. Cry. Take a nap. Go out with a friend to lunch and tell the truth. Eat a salad. Eat a cookie. Forget the time lost in a book or show. Breathe. And know that God adores you just as you are.

God loved humans in fact so much that he sent you LOVE to lead the way . . .



A sermon preached at the Antioch Christian Church, Vienna, VA from Ephesians 3:14-21

Surrender—it’s a word that’s defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as verb that means to give control or use of (something) to someone else.

And I have to tell you that it’s not one of my favorite words.

Oh, I love verbs that are the opposite of surrender. I like verbs that ask a lot less change of me. Verbs like defend, hold, keep and continue.

Because isn’t it pleasant and peaceful when things stay the same?

Isn’t it pleasant when we can take our cues from the warm and fuzzy feelings of routine? It is!

But is this the way of Jesus? Does following Jesus mean that everything stays the same?

When I was 17, I signed up for my first long-term mission trip through my church’s denomination. Once accepted into the program for high school students, I received my assignment in the mail: I’d serve in children’s ministry in Charleston, SC for six weeks.

While my first thought was: “Wow, a summer serving God and working with children in a town close to the beach—what could be better than this?”

The reality I met on the first day was much harsher.

Charleston was 7 hours away from my hometown of Chattanooga, TN. I would not be close driving distance to family and friends if I got homesick. So goodbye familiar.

Our team was big—over 50 students serving with Charleston Outreach —so we’d be crammed into 2 bedroom apartments with only one bathroom. So goodbye privacy.

The hours—we’d be working from 6:30 am in the morning till sometimes 8 pm at night sometimes without breaks in between. So goodbye sleep.

And, there was little time for the beach either.

The first weeks of the summer, I cried every day in the closet to either my mother or grandmother begging them to send care packages (sad, but true!). But I quickly learned that a re-adjustment in attitude was needed if I was going to experience God's gifts for me from the summer.

And it all started with the word surrender.

I would have to surrender to the fact that the cereal that my housemates bought was not the kind my mother bought at home and I liked.

I would have to surrender how often I could wear clean clothes— because we only got to the laundry mat every 10 days or so.

I would have to surrender to my teammate’s preferences and ideas about how we would lead our Vacation Bible Schools each morning. Sometimes, we wouldn’t sing the songs or do the crafts I wanted to do.

Telling you all about this now sounds a little bit petty now but at the time, it was a big deal. Little things are a big deal, aren’t they?

But, my team was together in common purpose after all: to share the love of Jesus to all those we met. We all believed Jesus brought us together. And like Jesus we regularly reminded ourselves: “Not my will by thy be done.”

If you’ve ever had an experience of discomfort with something you feel God has called you to do like I did that summer (and in many other situations since), then you’ll understand exactly the spirit of the epistle lesson before us this morning. The writer of the book of Ephesians offers a glimpse into his prayer life for the church in Ephesus.

And it also begins with the concept of surrender.

Beginning in Ephesians 3 verse 14 what we hear is a break from the theological teaching found earlier in the book. And instead we hear a corporate prayer offered on behalf of the congregation.

It’s a prayer much like the pastoral prayer we heard offered this congregation every Sunday.

It’s a prayer of that speaks to the identity of why the congregation exists.

It begins with this visual: “I bow my knees before the Father.”

And what an extraordinary beginning this was to the prayer.

Though it sounds normal to us—when we think prayer, we think kneeling-- such wasn’t to the congregation who first heard it.

For the first century readers the custom of prayer as a physical bowed act was not normal. For example, if we go back to Jesus’ encounters with the religious folks in the gospels, we will notice that men and women in Jesus’ time all prayed standing up.

So begin with these words, “I bow my knees before the Father” was a huge teachable moment.

Though God is not concerned with the outward appearance, the Ephesian writer was saying how we carry ourselves outwardly has a lot to do with what we expect on the inside.

So he says boldly, “I bow my knees before the Father.”

Or in other words: start here—God is God and you are not.

And the prayer begins with beautiful words about the real heart of the journey of faith.

Or, more specifically what you and I are asked to do on this journey.

It’s hard to get through the rest of this prayer—as it reads like one long run-on sentence depending on the translation you are using, but let me boil it down for you.

Surrender your life to Jesus. It's simple but oh so profound!

And the writer gives us this description of what the surrender will look like when it occurs.

First, Christ will strengthen and dwell in hearts. And second, the Christ will root and ground the congregation in love.

For to know Christ is to know love, to be love and to share love.

Love, love, love. As simple as it is, it all goes back to love in this text.

But I tell you, it’s not the kind of love that we somehow will up or make ourselves have. No, it’s the literal living and abiding presence of Jesus in us that this text says the Christian life is all about.

For none of us can have our hearts rooted and ground in love if it does not come from Jesus first.

God asks us to surrender our will, our desires for our life, and our best laid plans to the work that Jesus longs to do in us. It's not just churchy talk, it's the truth!

I’m sure you’ll notice throughout the text the frequency of the word “you” and “your.” We know from grammar class, that these are singular words. But when we go back to the original Greek, what we realize is that “you” comes from the plural. It’s more like in English “we.”

Or for any southerners you could just insert “y’all” or for notherners “you guys.” And you’ll be at the right spot.

“I pray that according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that [we] may be strengthened.”

Or in other words—this is exhortation in prayer for the entire gathered community. No one is off the hook.

One of my favorite heroes of the Christian faith that I’ve loved since childhood is Corrie Ten Boom.

ten-Boom_CorrieIf you are unfamiliar with Corrie’s story—she’s a woman from Holland who reached young adulthood during the Second World War. Corrie, along with her father and sister Bestie hid Jews in their home to keep them from arrest and death at the hands of the Nazis. They did so out of a strong sense of a faith calling.

Corrie knew that to be a follower of Jesus meant always to stand up for those mistreated or in danger. Always.

All went well until the day when it was discovered what Corrie and her family were doing. The German solders stormed Corrie, Bestie and their father’s house arrested them, and sent them to a concentration camp. Though Mr. ten Boom did not survive in the camps. Corrie and Bestie braved the test well until an illness took Bestie’s life only days before Corrie was released.

There was no dearer person in Corrie’s life than her sister Bestie and you can imagine how devastating the loss was to her. But as Corrie emerged from prison she knew that God gave her a story to tell and share with any who would listen.

In 1947, in Munich, Germany Corrie found herself in a church sharing a testimony that God forgives and that she’d forgiven those that had brought harm on her and her sister’s life.

It was here that she met face to face with Jesus’ calling of surrender—to a person rooted and grounded in love.

She was standing at the door shaking hands with people as they left the church when she saw him. She saw the man who was one of the guards who supervised and tortured her and Bestie at the camps.

And before she even had time to escape her horrid memories, the former guard spoke to her: “Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein [you gave tonight]! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

Corrie knew she’d just preached on forgiveness and that this man was a beloved child of God as much as she was, deserving of love. What on earth would she say next?

But before she could muster a word, the guard went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ [putting his hand out]—’will you forgive me?’

Corrie knew that if she truly believed that her life belonged to Jesus, there would be only one reply she could give—

Corrie said this is what happened to her next: “And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”

This, my friends is what surrendering to Jesus’ presence in our lives is all about. Loving the unlovable. Forgiving the unforgiveable. Abiding in grace with those who persecute us.

And what’s the result when we do surrender?

We only need to keep reading in our text a little bit longer to know.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine, to him to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

Do you hear this?

For when you and I surrender to God—as this prayer hopes we will—then we are going to live into a life that is beyond what we can imagine.

I’ll tell you that I never imagined when I was 17 on my first mission trip that one day God would call me to pastor and opportunities to travel the world and preach the gospel—but Jesus did.

I’ll tell you that I bet Corrie ten Boom never imagined that God’s love would call her to hid persecuted persons in her home, go to prison for her decisions and then share a powerful word of forgiveness with the world through books and speaking—but Jesus did.

And, I’ll tell you that when God led your founders to birth a congregation called Antioch Christian Church many years ago that they would have never imagined the ministry of love that God would be calling it to in just a time as this in 2015—but Jesus did.

When we surrender our lives, to Jesus, my friends and Christ truly abides in our hearts, we’re always on the move.

Our lives are always going to be led to places where Christ can strength us and challenge us to BE the GOOD NEWS to those who need to hear it.

So may we start this morning with one word: surrender.


A sermon preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK: Genesis 3:11-21

Do you remember the last time someone put clothes on you that you didn’t buy yourself?

clothing_transWhen we are little, it’s our parents who do all the shopping for us, don’t they? Our closets are full or not because someone provided the clothes to us. And usually for as long as our children will allow it, most parents want to dress their kids in the morning or at least supervise with tight control as to what goes on a child before they walk out the door on the way to school. Then the teen years come when the fights on about what our kids wear begin.

Then, we become adults. Part of what it means to be a grown up is to be able to provide the own shirt on our backs and wear whatever we want (within reason) whenever we want to, isn’t it? And our parents no longer give us clothes. We work hard in order to have the choice to wear the kind of clothes we like.

It a rarity as adults that anyone picks out clothes for us to wear.

But, several Christmases ago when Kevin and I had only been married a little while, we made plans to celebrate Christmas together on Christmas Eve morning before it was time to trek off to services at the church and then catching a late night flight home.

When I opened the big box with a big red bow with my name on it while sitting on the floor of our living room around the Christmas tree, I was shocked as to what I found inside. It was a complete outfit (jewelry included) to wear to church that night. My Kevin said, “It’s your Christmas dress. Don’t you like it?”

I did like it. The dress was beautiful. It was the kind of dress I’d never pick out on my own, but was something that fit me just right. And as I got ready for church that night and put the dress on was just in shock because 1) I didn’t know that Kevin actually knew what my size was or how to find his way around the women’s section of the department store 2) I couldn’t remember the last time that someone bought me a complete outfit to wear. It was a special moment in our marriage.

And maybe it’s just me, but to be given clothes or to be given someone else’s clothes is a really endearing moment.

Anyone have items in your closet from a deceased family member that you loved? I know I do. And even though the clothes I have in my closet that once belonged to my beloved grandmother don’t fit me like they used to, I love the idea that my skin could be touching same pieces of fabric that touched the skin of her and that she made sure upon her death that I got them.

And though while some may call clothes to be frivolous (and maybe only a female pastor would preach a sermon about clothes) the earliest chapters of the book of Genesis, have a lot to say about the first family’s relationship to the clothes they put on their bodies. So it’s important for all of us to pay attention too. For, God even is portrayed as the first great tailor!

Our take away from last Sunday was that when Adam and Eve knew that they had eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil--- something they were asked by God not to do—they hid. They find a brush in the wilderness. They find a tree and they try to escape the presence of God coming to meet them in the cool of the day.

But, God found them. And would not let them be out of relationship. They needed to face the consequences of their poor choices. These consequences included the snake being an animal forced to crawl in its belly for the rest of its days, grief in childbearing for the woman and soil for that man that would be harder to plow.

And then after the verdict on all these things was spoken God does something very particular in verse 21—Look with me in your Bibles at this verse.

“And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and his wife, and clothed them.”

We aren’t told how. We aren’t told with what. This gives us many questions—was an animal killed? If so how? What did the skins look like? But regardless we are told that God makes coverings for Adam and Eve. God became their tailor.

The clothing was important to them because we remember from earlier in chapter 3 that after Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree, both their eyes opened and they realized that they were naked.

I love the point that J. Ellsworth Kalas makes about the realization of nakedness at this juncture in the story from his book, Grace in a Tree Stump, “Adam and Eve’s new sense of nakedness was not so much an embarrassment at being seen by the other [as so many of think] as it was the uneasiness at seeing themselves. Adam wants to hide from Adam. [And Eve wants to hide from Eve.]” (9).

By not trusting God to be the Creator and the Sustainer of all of life, Adam and Eve now faced the harsh reality of what it meant to be in charge of their own lives. And they were ashamed. They couldn’t stand the sight of who they were. I can imagine that their self-esteem was deeply low. And Genesis 3:7 tells us that in response, Adam and Eve “sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths from themselves.”

They made their own clothes.

They were resourceful in find a material readily available to them leaves.

They were clever to figure out a way to sew fig leaves together.

For, fig leaves were good enough to hide the parts of themselves that they wanted to cover up. The fig leaves were good enough to make them feel safe. The fig leaves were another way of hiding from the reality of themselves that they didn’t really want to confront.

All of this was well and good. But the problem was that these clothes would not last.

It would only take a good rainfall, or long day out working the field or the change in temperature for these fig leaf outfits to crumble to worthlessness.

They could get by in the short term, sure. But long term, Adam and Eve’s configuration of clothing would not stand the test.

And isn’t this the human condition?

We know when we’ve made a mistake. And we know we need to fix it somehow. When faced with a crossroad of what to do, we go for the short-term solutions. We try to fix our lives by what we can create on our own and execute on our own.

Then, nobody needs to really know we’ve screwed up, right?

But we have screwed up and God wants to show us another way—the way of grace.

Let’s read verse 21 again, “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and his wife, and clothed them.”

The LORD GOD made garments of skin and clothed them. Do you get, church, how huge this act was?

Adam and Eve tried to fix their shame, fix their embarrassment all on their own, but God intervenes and says, “No. This is a problem too big for you to fix yourselves. Let me make you some clothes. And then here they are. Put them on.”

Do you see how lovingly tender this act of compassion was? Better than any new Christmas dress bought by a husband for his wife—God goes and picks out the best…. Better than Adam and Eve could have ever imagined or created on their own …. And clothes them with these skins.

These new clothes say to Adam and to Eve that God loves them with a deep and abiding love.

Rev. Kalas writes, “Once we get around our own defensiveness we are surprised to learn that God’s estimate of us is eternally better than our self-estimate.” (11).

It’s so true! And in community with God, we learn there is no problem or mistake we make too big for us to solve together with the Lord.

And just as we have been loved by God—we are to love one another. We become the church of God as we lavishly love and cloth one another.

Woods Chapel United Methodist Church in Lee’s Summitt, Kansas recently held it’s Prom boutique for the 10th straight year.

The church, you see, felt called to live out this good news by clothing under privileged teens in its community, so that no high school girl would go to the prom without a dress who wanted one.

Though many called this ministry frivolous or unnecessary—church leaders supported the idea because they knew how a new outfit could help a girl feel accepted.

"It's not like we're feeding the homeless or anything like that," said coordinator Fern Stuart. "We're not collecting food, but if you were ever a teenage girl, you know how important prom is. And it's just heartbreaking if you can't afford that dress."

One participant named Hannah said after receiving her new dress said, “It was amazing and made me so happy.” Church leaders talked about the light in her eyes as she left the church that day with her dress.

Another church, First Baptist Church of Oakland, Florida held last year the Saturday before Easter what it called, “Operation Dress-up.” Knowing that the Easter season is the time according to cultural tradition that many parents wish to buy their children new clothes but simply can’t afford it (and often stay away from church because of it), they wanted to do something to help.

The church took a collection and the ladies of the congregation went shopping. They filled the church’s social hall with rows and rows of NEW children’s outfits (not just the stuff you can get from Good Will) all new ranging in sizes from 4T to high school aged. They want to restore the dignity back to a population in their community who had lost it.

Rev. Parker, the organizing pastor said this about this clothing ministry, “To have something new just brings a self confidence, a self awareness to children and to people as a whole, and it's just a way we can reach out, help the children," he said.

And what beautiful colors of Sunday best filled the overflowing pews that next Easter Sunday morning at this Florida congregation.

Yet, it’s easy to say that what we wear doesn’t matter. It’s easy to say that faith in God is about what is in our heads, not on our backs. But, if anything the witnesses of these churches teach us that it does.

We all need the tactile experience of God’s grace.

Adam and Eve needed it.

We need it.

And there are hundreds in our community right now who are longing for it too.

They need to feel with their very hands and on their very shoulder and feet that the mistakes they’d made in their lives are not too great to keep them from God’s love.

This is the truth: we all have been given new spiritual clothes. We don’t have to wallow in our own. God has been a great tailor for us all. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

So, church, I ask you this morning, are you wearing the clothes God has given you? Or are you still hiding out in the mess of homemade fig leaf coverings? Are you still trying to piece together a life that you can create on your own with no help from your Creator? Or have you given God control to provide for you?

All of the most horrible things that you believe about yourself, all of those negative tapes in your head—that you aren’t worthy of any more than fig leaves coverings--- put that all to the side. Don’t wear these clothes a day longer!

You, my friends, are the sons and daughters of the most high. Only the finest of finest of gifts has God clothed you with! So put on forgiveness, in joy, in hope, in faithfulness and love! God’s great coverings for YOU!

And don’t hoard the blessing for yourself.

Be a bearer of good news, knowing that sometimes sharing this good news with others might come in the form of giving a girl a new prom dress or a boy a new pair of shoes for Easter or a million other ways that the Spirit might lead you toward. Clothe others just as God has clothed you.

Most of all know this church: you are clothed by the Most Holy One!

Thanks be to God for this great gift of grace! And the ability to wear new clothes.


Lent is already half-way over and is anyone dragging like me? The days of self-reflection and self-discipline seem like too much at junctures like today when I'm ready to throw in the towel and just say, "What's the point?"

I haven't been able to keep a Lenten discipline for several years now, but I'm hoping this year will be different. Not just for the sake of saying I've kept it, but because I know it is good for me. Really good in fact.

For the past couple Lents, I've pledged to start something new like adding more exercise into my life, and have found myself failing miserably.  While the guilt of not doing what I said seemed to nag deeply in me, nothing changed. I've not be a great example maker in the practice of being self-focused during this 40 day (or 46 day if you count the Sundays) period of preparation of Easter.

But, feeling some new gusto this year, I opted to go back to the traditional "give something up" practice for Lent again. As I thought of what I might choose to do, I tried to be more intentional than in the past. What impulsive habit could I give up? What could I withhold that might actually make me think about the larger purpose of Lent altogether?

I chose to give up Diet Coke.

Seems simple enough, of course. Almost comparable to the popular "I'm giving up chocolate" for Lent idea.  But, for me, it's not. 

Giving up Diet Coke, as a non-coffee drinker, is helping me understand how dependant I was on caffeine to get through the day. Giving up Diet Coke is helping me make more intentional choices altogether with my eating. Giving up Diet Coke, I know is making my kidneys happy with me as my water consumption has hit a life-time high since Lent began. Today I am really craving soda I'm tired of drinking water ALL the time. I really can't wait for Lent to be over. I'm ready for the "normal" patterns of life and enjoyment to return.

But for those of us on  this Lenten journey together as a people of faith, we're not to the finish line yet. Palm Sunday is still more two weeks away. Now is the time when the "joy" of the discipline really kicks in. What might this season be seekign to teach us?

Of course, living in Lent is greater than drinking or not drinking soda, giving up chocolate or fasting on Fridays-- it is about Jesus and spending this set a part time growing closer to him. I always tell my congregation who about this time start asking for "more joyful music" or "less depressing scriptures" that we must stay the course if we want the joy of Easter to be ours.

For this reason, I appreciate the wisdom of this word from the current pope-- though I may disagree with him on many social issues-- I hear such grace in this description of the season:

"Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life... Each year, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers and sisters." - Pope Benedict XVI

So, as we all keep living Lent-- even if we've already fallen off the discipline wagon and are preparing to get back on-- let seek truth with the time of Lent we have left. Truth about ourselves and ultimately truth then about God. I know it will all be worth it soon enough!

Guest blogger: Jayme Cloninger

On February 19, Washington Plaza Baptist participated in the Baptist Women in Ministry's Martha Stearns Marshall day of preaching by inviting Jayme Cloninger to preach, a recent college grad who is a friend of Pastor Elizabeth.

Jayme currently serves as a human rights advocate for the Enough Project on the Raise Hope for Congo Campaign in Washington DC. Jayme grew up as a small town girl in Denver, North Carolina, where her heart for global missions and social justice grew in her involvement with local community development work and her three trips to South Africa. After attending Samford University in Birmingham, AL (where Pastor Elizabeth also attended), Jayme followed her passion and vision for faith and human rights to help mobilize the faith community and grassroots efforts to influence US Foreign Policy towards the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jayme is thinking of going to seminary sometime in the near future.

I'm proud to share her sermon here! I know you will be blessed as you keep reading. We all think Jayme has a bright future in ministry ahead!


Thank you for sharing your Sunday morning with me and for this opportunity to participate in a declaration of truth found in Isaiah 43. As Pastor Elizabeth mentioned, in honor of Martha Stearns, a pioneer for women in ministry from the second half of the eighteenth century, this month, Baptist Women in Ministry are inviting young women to preach a sermon at a local Baptist church. And so, here I am, a young female, giving my first sermon. A place I never thought I would ever be.

I grew up in a traditional home, where I was homeschooled for all 12 years, and attended a pretty conservative Southern-Baptist church. Jokingly, I often refer to myself as a recovering home school evangelical.

For my parents, homeschooling was an opportunity for them to raise their children with a “godly education.” As a result, my faith is very much interwoven with my love for academia. Education and faith were seen as two tools for breaking generational sins. Both my parents come from broken homes with alcoholic parents, sexual abuse, poverty and so much more. Higher education was not an option when the reality of life called them to care for their younger siblings. And so, when the time came for them to raise their own children, they looked to faith and education as the gateway to redeeming the generational sins that have for too long tainted our family history.

Reconciliation for a broken past and hope for a better future are two things both my parents eagerly seek after from the Lord. In telling my mom that I would be speaking from Isaiah 43, it shouldn’t have surprised me when she  immediately began to recite the verse from memory, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Following the promise recited, my mother asked, “Jayme, did you not know that Isaiah 43 is my favorite chapter in the Bible? Did you not know that I pray those words for our family everyday and have done so for thirty years?” I couldn’t hold back my tears. In that moment, chills ran down my spine, for I could truly sense the Lord’s renewing spirit in not only my life, but also in the life and story of my family.

As with each of you, my story will continually evolve, a fluid journey of past, present and future. When we look at our past circumstances, we often get caught up in over-analyzing what was, in the hope of creating a solution for the present that will allow us to avoid the same bad situation in the future. In doing so, we allow our past circumstances to define our current situation.

Now, let me pause here and ask a question: Do we really want to be a people who orient our lives according to the past? Is that the hope that we have?

This is where we find the people of Israel in Isaiah 43. A people who allow their former transgressions to determine their lack of present hope, blinding them to the faithfulness of God.  Here Yahweh calls out the promise of deliverance in saying, “I am about to do a new thing.”

The Lord declares that “now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” In the present moment of despair and exile, God reminds His people of his continual faithfulness. For the presence of God never left, it was continually in the midst of exile and despair.  

If the truth of God’s faithfulness and redemption was true for the people of Israel in their dark season of defeat and captivity under Babylon, how much truer are those words for you and I in our present season in life?

God calls on Israel to adopt a new way of life. A way of life that is not bound by their sins or their transgressions. As the Lord moves through history, from the story of Israel, we witness hope come to fruition in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. Thankfully, with the life of Christ we can actually experience the new. For as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, all things have become new.” This new creation, this new way of life is a life redeemed. A life bound no longer by death, but by a resurrection.

This morning, I would like to spend the rest of our time together discussing what it truly means to live in the new, to live a life bound by the resurrection of Christ.

Such a conversation is timely with the transition from the season of Epiphany into Lent, and for those who has participated in the sermon series God Calls, and the study on spiritual gifts. As you have walked through Epiphany, you have wrestled with its practical implications for your individual lives. This season of Epiphany has been a time for us to celebrate the revelation of the mystery of Christ.

Pastor Elizabeth has walked with you through a large discussion on how God calls each one of us to live out the gifts God has given us. I to have been on this journey with you. Reading and following Pastor Elizabeth’s blog and having numerous follow-up conversations with her and other friends. In the initial sermon on God Calls, we reflected on what it means to care for oneself, and how to glorify God with our bodies as agents of service and love.

From the story of Jonah, we learn that God Calls you and I to “those people.” God commissions you in love and deed to care for all people.

In the study of the Spiritual Gifts and the sermon on God Calls you to Listen when No One Is, we see the life of Samuel and how the Lord developed in his heart the ability to listen keenly to the Spirit and to use his spiritual gifts for the Kingdom. Here we are challenged to use our Spiritual gifts, as did Samuel, to bless others.

In the previous two sermons, there has been an underlying theme of renewal. As Pastor Elizabeth pointed out, with both Israel and our present lives, “because God was God-- the ruler of all, the Lord of all, the Creator of all things, even in exile, even in these undesirable circumstances--- there is a call for renewal. A call to begin to consider anew the most troubling circumstances in light of who God was and is.”

So what does it actually look like for each of us to live in the new, even in the midst of our own moments of exile?

We may be surprised by the answer.

As God parted the Red Sea and brought Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, in their second exodus, God promises to “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” The water in the wilderness is God’s faithfullness to continually redeem and make all things new. God is not bound by the previous exodus to usher in a new act of salvation. As God did for Israel, God will surprise us with his ways for redeeming our past and present.

As did Israel, we often fall victim to our own works to live out the new. Our problem solving skills not only burn us out, but as we read in Isaiah 43, we end up burdening God with our self-attempts at righteousness. We often miss the core of experiencing the new, connecting with the eternal.

As Paul Tillich put it,There is something that does not age, something that is always old and always new at the same time, because it is eternal. That which creates the new is that which is beyond old and beyond new, the Eternal.”

In The Shaking of the Foundations, Tillich continues to explain that with the life of Christ, we now have the opportunity to live a life that represents the very thing that transcends the old and the new. Love.

Through the mystery of Christ we are revealed a new kind of love, a love brought through self-expenditure. A love that took on our human nature to overcome our transgressions.

In living out this new, we have each been equipped to carry out this love for the edification of the body of Christ and the service of the Kingdom. With your study of the spiritual gifts, you may now realize that you are a perceiver, server, teacher, encourager, giver, ruler or been given the gift of mercy. May this love become the revelation of the new in our lives.

It is easy for us to talk about using our gifts as we sit in a church and have room to reflect on their meaning. But what happens when we are back in our moment of exile? Our moment of defeat?

As someone who is an advocate for justice and human rights, I daily seek solutions to broken situations within our society. I serve as a community organizer for the Enough Project, an anti-genocide and crimes against humanity organization. Specifically, I focus on the conflict in eastern Congo, a place known to be the home of worst war since World War 2, claiming over 6 million lives. It’s a conflict perpetuated by a corrupt government, struggle over natural resources, where rebel group control and battle the different mines and in attacking other local mining communities, use rape as a weapon of war.

For me, as someone who is far removed from the conflict and who works inside the beltway to make Congo a priority for US Federal Government, I daily battle with the cynicism that there is no hope for Congo.

I started this job in June of 2011, and in the first half of my time at Enough, I was overwhelmed by the history and situation of Congo. When you think you have a solution to a problem, you usually will cause another.

After about six months, I began to finally meet a lot of the Congolese diaspora community here in the United States, opening the door for new friendships to be cultivated. These relationships give me hope.

The Congolese community mobilize themselves around practical solutions for the crisis in their own country. Despite not being able to directly care for their friends and family in Congo, they are using their time here in the US to raise awareness and pressure the US Government to take stronger action on Congo. The diaspora model for us what it means to live in the new, advocating for hope and peace, in the midst of the worst trials and moments of exile.

Just as the Triune God advocated for the freedom of Israel in exile, and his deliverance through Christ, so too are we to advocate for hope and justice in the midst of our community’s darkest season in life. In our new creation, we are to model the same love Christ has lavished us with. For Paul continues to write in 1 Corinthians 5, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

As ambassadors of Christ, we have been given the tools to live out the new and to advocate for God’s continual redemption in and through the world. Adam Taylor, the director of advocacy for World Vision, writes in his book, Mobilizing Hope, “God has made us for a profound purpose. When we sit on our gifts or make a litany of excuses for why we aren’t prepared or able, we block the manifest glory of God that is within us. Trying to tackle injustice based on our limited abilities means playing small. Instead we must tap into the renewing power of faith to overcome the barriers that get in the way of transformed nonconformism.”

And so, I pray that as you transition from the season of Epiphany into Lent, that the eyes of your hearts will be opened to the power of the spirit in your life to equip you to live in the New. To live a life bound by the resurrection of Christ. For as Tillich eloquently said, “Love is the power of the new in every man and in all history. It cannot age; it removes guilt and curse. It is working even today toward new creation. It is hidden in the darkness of our souls and of our history. But it is not completely hidden to those who are grasped by its reality. "Do you not perceive it?" asks the prophet. Do we not perceive it?

When most preachers sit with Matthew 20:1-16, as was the gospel reading for this morning, or at least as I was taught this passage as a child, it all went back to getting into heaven on practical terms. All you had to do, I learned, was to pray a salvation prayer and you were in the "I'm Christian and going to heaven club." For, even if you prayed the sinners prayer on your death-bed on the last hour or if you prayed the prayer as young child, it was all the same to God.  God was ready to receive you no matter when you came home.

And, while this is all well and good, I think such an interpretation can easily lead to shallow faith. I think the Christian life is more than a call to get saved, and so I was eager to find other gems in this text. And, the theme of "grace" kept coming back to me.

I had questions like: how might this passage want to teach us about something altogether different about life in God's kingdom? How might grace come in and in its unhurried way mess everything we've come to know about "The American Dream?" Might the idea of the "American Dream" have to die if we are to live in the kingdom of heaven?

What most caught my attention about this text is that at the end of the day, each worker is given the same wage, a denarius, which was known at the time as a fair wage for what each worker needed to live on. More than minimum wage, a denarius was a living wage.  It's a passage that calls our attention to justice: in the household of God, we can't mistreat those who are "late to the game" so that we get ahead. And we can't take more than we need if we want others to simply live.

But whether you want to apply this passage to economics (which seems appropriate to do these days as our national leaders debate cutting spending to help the poor in an effort to give the rich more) or not the message of grace is all the same.

Grace in God's eyes is giving us exactly what we need, even when we didn't work hard to get it, earn it, or deserve it and especially when we didn't work hard to get it, earn it, or deserve it.  For, the message of grace works both ways-- to those of us who began laboring in the fields in the morning and those who got to the vineyard late in the afternoon. In grace, God asks both of us to lift up our heads and receive our provisions
for each day, trusting that it will be enough.

The statements that you and I often make like: "Look at me, I'm so good: I did this today. I earned my promotion. I signed up on E-harmony and through my hard work of submitting to the process I found Mrs. Right. After studying for three years and sacrificing the needs of my family, I earned my master's degree" doesn't seem to line up at all with the gospel's idea of grace.

I don't know if you are like me, but when I think of grace, I often think of examples of the "big" stuff in life. Grace, as being in the right place at the right time to meet the right someone. Grace, as not getting hurt in a car accident when I could have been killed. Grace, as deserving to get a ticket for speeding down I-66 but the cop pulling over the guy behind me.

Grace exists then as the classic definition of unmerited favor, but often goes back to "all about me." What about those people who don't show up at the right place at the right time and meet that special someone? About those persons who have almost identical car accidents to us and are tragically  killed instead of sparred? What about the unlucky guy who get the speeding ticket?

But there is something about this passage that helps us get away from grace as what we most like to view it as-- getting saved from unfavorable results that we would not want, to understanding grace as being given ENOUGH for what we need along with everyone else.

If you think about it, there is a lot of energy you and I spend hoping we've done just the right things, hoping to have enough money for retirement, hoping that our contributions to the world are enough to be agreeable with the man upstairs when we get upstairs, but what centered more of our energy in grace? What would our church look like if grace came first? How might we as long-term members of our faith communities respond differently to newcomers who make no promises of sticking around for a long time, giving a tithe or volunteering to teach something? How might we love differently?

But the thing is about grace is that it truly frees us. It frees us from rushing to and from what is next.  It frees us from feeling guilty all the time because of our bad choices. It frees us from feeling anxious about our good choices hoping they got us enough heavenly brownie points. And, I think as a church, grace might free us to love more extravagantly just as God has loved us-- loving others expecting nothing in return other than the love to simply be received.

One pastor puts it like this, "When we are working for a reward (to get up the ladder), we are always wondering if we are good enough, looking for clues to see if God accepts us, looking for human approval and praise when we can't hear from God. We are perpetually trapped. . . . Why climb the stairway to heaven when God takes us right to the top floor in an elevator?"

As an aside, I know we, at Washington Plaza, don't have that actual elevator at the church that we are all dreaming about and might not for a while-- grace is in no hurry on this project it seems-- but I do know we serve a God who has promised and will in abundant grace give us as individuals and as a congregation ENOUGH of what we need for this day.

So, if we are willing to be on such a journey, there is one thing I know for sure, and that is, that the ladders we've constructed and seemingly need from God to feel secure are going to have to fall away. Instead, the invitation is to simply hold out our hands and receive while we stand shoulder to shoulder to those in whom we least expect are receiving just the same.

Now doesn't this sound different now: "Amazing grace, how sweet, the sound that saved a wretch like me . . .?"