It's Time to Start Over . . . a sermon planned for the Palisades Community Church on January 13, 2019 but unable to be given due to snow. 

Begin by reading Mark 1:9-11

Anyone here on the second Sunday of January already in need of a new start?

You thought you’d stop eating so many cookies when January 1 rolled around, and well. . .

You thought you’d begin walking more every afternoon or at least take the steps instead of the elevator if you had the choice and well . . .

You thought you’d start the new year off in a more spiritually grounded place, meditating each morning before you got out of bed or grabbed your phone and well. . .

Well, it not going as you planned at all.

We make a lot of fuss it seems in weeks like this of being better, doing better, living better. Because we not only believe we need to, but because everybody’s doing it.

Everybody it seems is starting over. Isn’t that what early January is all about?

As we begin to explore these questions, we need not look farther than our gospel reading for this morning taken from Mark chapter 1—a section of scripture that is a do-over, re-start, new beginning in the story of God if there ever was such a point.

Mark’s gospel opens in such a different way from the others tellings of Jesus’ story. Rather than hearing a genealogy or birth narrative or even beautiful prose like, “In the beginning was the Word” Mark simply gets to the point. And the point is this: the ministry of Jesus began after John the Baptist prepared the way for him.

Particularly we read, “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

Just as hundreds of people had followed the call John made . . . to come to the wilderness, to confess their sins and seek forgiveness . . . Here shows up Jesus and asks for the same from John.

Baptism.

I can remember the time in Sunday School in the Tennessee church I grew up in, when one of my classmates raised their hands (trying to outsmart the teacher) and asked, “Why did Jesus have to be baptized? Didn’t you say last week that he was perfect? What did he need to ask forgiveness for?”

After looking puzzled for a moment my teacher looked this little guy in the eyes and said: “For Jesus, baptism wasn’t about forgiveness. It was about showing us the way.”

I’m not sure any of us fully understood in the class what we heard that day, but the older I’ve got the more I’ve realized that that Jesus’ baptism was all about his humanity.

Jesus, as Emmanuel, God with Us for whom we celebrated the birth of only a few weeks ago on Christmas Eve—embraced his full humanity as baptism.

Jesus was not asking us to do anything that he wasn’t willing to first do himself. Jesus would begin his ministry with a ritual signifying a new start, a new path, a new calling. Jesus would say with his public baptism that his time on earth belonged to God. And even in his frail, complicated and pain producing human skin, he would be faithful to what God called him to do on earth.

And what came next? Scripture tells us that “Just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart.”

Can you pause with me a second and picture what that must have looked like?

What I find so interesting about this narration is the choice of verb that Mark uses “torn apart.”

Because couldn’t he have just used the word “open?” Did he really need to be so dramatic?

Yes, in fact he did. Mark told us the heavens “tore apart” because this was a water shed moment in the life of Jesus. It was a moment of clarity, of knowing, of believing!

Jesus was not just your average guy coming up in tattered sandals and a sweaty brow asking to enter the Jordan.

Jesus would no longer be known Joseph’s son in Nazareth working in the carpentry shop.

Jesus was called out by the heavens.

The verb “torn apart” as Mark uses it here in the first chapter is used only TWICE in the entire book. Once here. And once at the end of the book when the temple curtain is “torn apart” at the moment Jesus breathes his last and provokes a confession of Jesus’ true identity made by the Roman centurion “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Which makes so much sense when we read what comes next in the post-baptism narration: “and the Spirit descended like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The heavens had to “tear apart” you see because a declaration or a naming was about to occur!

And here, too a confession was made over Jesus’ life but on this occasion by Jesus’ Father: “YOU are my Son, the Beloved; who you I am well pleased.”

Baptism, you see, became a moment for the truth about Jesus’ humanity to be spoken aloud. Not only is Jesus called Son, God’s Son. But, he’s also claimed as the Beloved one.

And then baptism came to play a central role in what it meant to share the good news of Jesus through the centuries as Jesus’ parting words to his followers were: “Go ye to into all the world and preach the gospel, baptizing them in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.”

But in our institutionalization of Christianity through the centuries and our debates over infant baptism verse adult believer’s baptism, has created a lot of rules.

One way is right. Another way is completely wrong.

I’ve even been privy to churches where a pastor will speak to a person whose considering becoming a member of their church and call this potential new church member’s baptism by another congregation invalid. (Deep sigh and know that you’ll never hear such foolishness from me).

And where this has gotten us is that we’ve forgotten the GIFT of baptism. The gift Jesus received that day in the waters of Jordan. And the gift that any of us also receive when we embrace baptism.

And that is what baptism offers us: a new start.

A couple months ago, I was asked by Max and Eliana to attend baby Max’s baptism at Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

It was an honor to be there and to represent PCC in my presence to say that Max didn’t just have one church tradition in his mother’s family’s Catholic roots, but that he had a home and a heritage with us going back generations in the Palisades.

I attended with tribulation as I do as a clergy person in a Catholic setting. As much as I’m so grateful for this church tradition and its rich history that shaped my becoming as a person of faith in the world, I also know that I’m not fully welcomed there.

I can’t take communion, even though the words of institution are words I lead you in regularly and know by heart.

And even though I am a minister called by God, women of my gender are not welcomed into the pulpit there. I tip toe in trying to guard my heart from hurt that I can know can come from this branch of the Christian church.

For these reasons, maybe it’s why I wore my clergy collar to the service. I wear it infrequently being a Baptist and all, but there’s just sometimes I’ve found when it I want to make a statement that indeed I am a pastor. It’s kind of fun to shock people.

So, sitting with Rev. Beth that day, we went through the order of the service watching several babies and toddlers like Max come forward and have the priest bless them with words and water poured over their heads.

It was a beautiful moment to witness baby Max being blessed by so many words and well-wishers.

And then came time for the service to conclude. Only some closing words of blessing were left. The chatter of the small children in the room was growing by the minute.

At this point, the priest leading the service, turned toward me saying how much he welcomed me, his colleague to this service. To my shock, he stepped aside, called me to the center of the room, handed me his gold-plated worship folder and said,

“She is going to lead our closing prayer.”

To tell you I was floored is the understatement of the year. Me, asked to pray in a Catholic church? The male priest stepping aside? Me given his holy book?

I thanked this man after the service the best I could saying, how much hope this simple act gave me for ecumenical relations with the Catholic church. I said that his allowing me to be seen as I was at that baptismal service—a minister with people to serve--- encouraged me to re-consider my bias. It encouraged me with hope to begin again when I might be tempted to judge.

I have to tell you I walked out of that church more confident with my head held high. I was seen as I was that day! And with the church I got a new start!

In the same way that this baptismal service was for me in reclaiming hope in an unexpected way, I think the same is true for any of us who might risk the experience of remembering our baptism today.

We get to remember who we really are too!

We are beloved sons and daughters of God, we’re made into a new creation in Christ.

And, we’re called good— as was the word said over us at the beginning of all creation.

We’re welcomed as we are, just as we are, with God handing us the holiest of books and saying, here read, your part of my story too.

It’s easy to stray way from the enormity of what this means, or not even to realize it in the first place.

Yet, if we believed it, if we claimed it and if we lived it, this identity would change everything about how we carry ourselves in this world.  Imagine it!

No more defeat.

No more low self-esteem.

No more woe is me, nobody loves me.

You are beloved!

Say with me: I am a beloved child of God.

In response to this word, this morning I want to give us a tangible reminder of our baptism.

Can you remember the day you were baptized? Some of us can.

But others of us might not intellectually remember ours.

It could have been done on your behalf by parents or loved ones who made the choice to raise you in the faith—a decision, Kevin and I made for Amelia over a two years ago now. And so today, you might be saying, Pastor, “How can I remember my baptism?”

You remember it by giving thanks for those who loved you and lead you to faith. And give thanks for the work of God that has been a part of life since then, leading you to this moment in your life—here in a worship space on this Sunday morning.

So, baptized church, in just a few moments, I would like to invite any of you to come forward to receive the sign of the cross from the basin of water on your forehead or on your hand to remember your baptism.

Maybe some of you are realizing today that baptism is something that you’ve never got around to YET, but something you’re interested in having a conversation with me or Pastor Beth about sometime. If that’s you, hang tight today. Let’s talk soon. May the next few moments be for you a witness of hope.

Church, we remember our baptisms today not because there’s any magic in the water or that it does something do us, but because sometimes you and I need tangible symbols of remembrance.

We’re reminding ourselves of the beloved identity that was given to us a long time ago.

We are claimed by God. We are God’s child. And with us, God is very well pleased.

AMEN

A Sermon Preached on Martin Luther King weekend at Laurel Presbyterian Church

"When Jesus Makes Us Uncomfortable" from John 2:13-25

I can remember the first-time church going to church troubled me. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving, 2002. I was set to graduate college in a few short weeks. I was open to visiting a new church with a friend. So, on that morning I drove to the church, I came in, found a pew and sat down moments before the service started. I began turning the pages of the bulletin to see what was happening the service. Then I got to the back cover. I read about the upcoming activities and my eyes glanced to the staff contact section.

And what did I see? Something that felt so appalling, so outrageous, so against my belief system that my arms crossed and my mouth dropped open in utter disbelief.

MG_8815-EditA woman’s name- Sarah was listed as the Senior Minister.

What!?!

I mumbled under my breath toward my friend in the pews: “I’m not learning anything from this woman today.”

You should laugh with me at the irony of this moment now, but you need to understand that at the time, I’d never seen a woman lead a congregation. And it was a really big deal . . .

For I’d grown up in “women can’t even be ushers, that job was left to the men,” Southern Baptist congregation in Tennessee.

In my church if women wanted to be leaders, they had only a couple of options. They could teach other women or the children or marry pastors. Maybe they could lead the mission committee but not much more.

So, with all this true about my experience, you can just imagine the discomfort that exuded from every part of my body that day . . . the twitching, the rocking back and forth in the pews, the despairing looks that I came in the direction of my friend who brought me to this place! What was she thinking and the service hadn’t even started yet!

But somehow I stayed put and listened to Pastor Sarah’s wonderful sermon. A miracle!

In retrospect, I’m SO glad that church made me uncomfortable that day. It was the beginning of a beautiful new journey.

And likewise, in the John 2:13-25, we read a story that for generations has made readers uncomfortable too.

For it presents us with a view of Jesus that is not the warm and fuzzy. Jesus isn’t comforting some who’s lost a loved one. Or healing the sick. Or even holding children.

Nope, we find Jesus at the temple before Passover begins, making a whip out of cords, driving out the animals, pouring the coins out of the money changers bags and overturning their tables. He’s causing a major scene, challenging everything that was normal about how worship happened in his time.

And we find ourselves uncomfortable because it’s not the kind of behavior we teach to our children.

Jesus isn’t following any of the “you are in public” or “politically correct” rules. And shouldn’t he at least try . . .

But Jesus doesn’t.

And maybe just maybe that was exactly the point.

Here’s what we need to understand: this same story also appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but in each of these gospels we find it placed in the context of Jesus’ last week. And it’s an event portrayed as a catalyst leading to Jesus’ death.

Yet, in John’s telling of the Jesus story here we are in chapter 2 reading it already. And commentators help us understand that this is for a very particular reason.

For, John’s gospel is all about making a case for Jesus as the Word made flesh. Jesus is God. And most of all, Jesus is an authority to be taken seriously.

And not just an authority but the authority.

When I was growing up in that church in Tennessee that one where women couldn’t even serve as ushers, this passage was often brought up as an example of why I couldn’t sell wrapping paper for my school drive or Girl Scout cookies after church on Sundays. As much as I wanted to hit up all the church folks we knew, it was often quoted to me by someone Jesus' words in verse 16 of this passage:

“Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

But looking back on it now, I think this common interpretation and the debate in some churches about whether kids or adults can sell things to their church friends misses the point. In fact, I don’t think Jesus was upset, in John’s gospel about the buying and selling of sacrificial animals so that worshippers could fulfill the law. Nope.

He was upset about the hearts of the people. God was in their midst and they didn’t see!static1.squarespace

Commentator Karoline Lewis makes it plain:  Jesus “calls for a complete dismantling of the entire system.”

Worship was in fact, being done all wrong because they’d lost sight of who they were worshipping.

Such was a lot to claim, you know and to be serious about.

And Jesus even takes the conversation one step further when the crowd asked him for a sign (which is another way of saying prove yourself, Jesus).

Jesus replies: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

It was a metaphor of course, a way to talk about the fact that one he, Jesus, God in the flesh would be killed on a cross. But on the third day would rise again. The living temple of God with Us in his body would not be held down by human actions.

The crowd gathered around Jesus replied saying “This temple has been under construction for 46 years, and will you raise it up in 3 days?”

Folks didn’t get it. And the discomfort level rose because:

No one had seen a teacher make such claims to be the Son of the Father before.

No one had seen a teacher make such bold declarations about the temple before.

No one had dared to question the human institution where God’s people gathered to worship.

But it was the embodiment of WHO Jesus WAS. And the work he came to do. To show us a new way to live even if it made us all uncomfortable.

So, this morning, I tell you with 100% clarity: the way of Jesus is the way of discomfort.  

For the picture of Jesus, we get in texts like this repeatedly is always a vision of man who shows us a new way to live that challenges us, pushes our buttons. It’s a vision of leaving behind the way that things have always been done. It’s a vision of taking up our cross and following, though the way may be difficult.

In the days since Jesus left the earth, even though we have the Holy Spirit as our guide we can easily get off track. When we do, God often sends us prophets to re-direct our course.

One of those prophets in modern times in America is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was a man who did not set out to be great, to be someone who was remembered with parks and streets and parades named after him. He was just a simple preacher. A married man with children. A trained theologian.

But a man who said yes when the Montgomery Bus Boycott needed a leader, needed someone to speak at its nightly meetings to inspire the protesters to remain strong.

And more and more opportunities came to lead and to serve and to stand up to institutionalized racism through non-violent protests, he listened and went to work.

As Dr. King preached, he pushed the church to be the church.

He pushed the church to live out the Great Commandment to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor as yourself—meaning all of the neighbors not just the white ones.

He didn’t take no for an answer when it came to injustice in school systems, transportation systems, voting systems, or any systems really. He made a lot of people uncomfortable with the way he talked about Jesus. Especially the white church.

And Dr. King found himself in jail more times than he could have ever imagined.

On one such occasion, a night in Birmingham, AL we know he wrote a letter from prison. In this letter on April 16, 1963, he specifically addressed white clergy—fellow preachers claiming to be bearers of the good news, saying the good news they preached was only for people who looked like them. Dr. King told them it time was now to act, no more excuses.

He spoke the truth with these words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Though this popular quote is all over the internet this weekend, and its words are so easy to repeat and make us feel good as we say them, I believe the heart of Dr. King’s message was this: a call to action.

And it wasn’t just for Dr. King’s lifetime. It’s our Jesus calling too.

Is there injustice in this world, church? If the answer is yes, then we’ve got work to do.

For my wellbeing is tied to your wellbeing. And your wellbeing is tied to mine.

The authority of Jesus, just as it was presented that day at the temple, leads us on to wake up the sleeping, lift up the silent, champion the forgotten.

The authority of Jesus leads us to speak truth to the powerful, not valuing one person over another because of the position they hold.

The authority of Jesus leads us to call our racism. Call our sexism. Call our homophobia. And discrimination of any kind the basis of creed, religion or ability.

The authority of Jesus asks us stir up discomfort.

Why? Because it is the GOOD NEWS for all of us!

So, are we going to get to work church—not just this weekend, but in all the days ahead? May prayer for all of us is that will be bearers of this good news, relinquishing comfort and allow Christ to be our teacher as we go.

AMEN

Excerpts from a sermon preached at Broadneck Baptist Church, Annapolis, MD from  Luke 2:41-52

I don’t know if you’ve participated in the social media craze called, #TBT (Throw Back Thursday) when folks post pictures of themselves from years ago on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

Though some simply post pictures from last Christmas or a fun vacation a few years ago, my favorite #TBT are those that go back to childhood.

Over Christmas week, while Kevin and I were visiting with my extended family in Georgia—something happened that hadn’t happened in a long time. We had a whole 30 min of Kevin and Elizabeth Hagan #TBT on the TV.

For, my nephew, Landon got out our wedding video. And before our eyes flashed toddler and elementary school pictures of both Kevin and me while sappy music played in the background. Though there were points that both Kevin and I wanted to look away—I mean who really needs to see a picture of herself as a 6-month old self in a kitchen sink taking a bath?

I have to say the joy that it brought the younger kids in our family to watch it was palpable.

For to see “Uncle Kevin” and “Aunt Elizabeth” without clothes and smiling surrounded by bath was the very best thing in the world, it seemed. In their eyes, these photos made us more like them! I've included one of them-- me, aged 8 and my sister, aged 2 playing in a pool in my grandmother's backyard.

And it’s true, to be given access to memories or photos or stories about an adult’s childhood is not only sacred ground, but it’s humanizing.

For these reasons and many more, I believe this is why we get a rare glimpse of boy Jesus in Luke’s narration of the gospel story.

Luke wants to show us a boy with parents named Mary and Joseph. Luke wants to show us a boy with a strong Jewish heritage. Luke wants to show us a boy who make a yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.

We don’t learn anything about the event itself, only that when the festivities are over something huge is about to occur.

This is the main event: Jesus’ family and friends are on their way home to Nazareth—seemingly in a large group. Safety in numbers, right? For it would be a 3-4 day walking journey depending on how fast their caravan traveled. No small trip!

And for a day everything went swell. I can imagine the mood was light, full of the inspiration they’d just received from the biggest religious holiday of the year.

But, what came next was the ancient Galilee version of “Home Alone.” As it played out in Luke’s account, instead the boy Kevin being left at child in home or on the streets of New York City while the rest of his family went on vacation elsewhere, boy Jesus is in Jerusalem. He’s in Jerusalem alone.

It’s one of those “worst case scenerios” of parenting!

second-temple-preaching-jesusAnd what horror must have come over Mary and Joseph once they realized that Jesus was not with them. I know this, because although I am not a parent who has lost a child, I am a pastor who once lost a junior high boy at King’s Dominion . . . what was worse is that he’d just arrived in the US from Liberia and spoke little English . . . (I know not one of my shinning moments!)

But in Mary and Joseph’s case I can imagine they shouted-- “JESUS!” as they re-traced their steps toward the place they last saw him. “Where in the world are you??” though scripture leaves out any emotions like these.

Eventually they do locate him and the conversation begins in what a former professor of mine, Peter Story calls the “censored” version.

They find the boy among the teachers in the temple and Mary says to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

And Jesus answers, I can imagine with a look of complete innocence on his face, “Why were you searching for me . . . Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s House?”

Or in other words, “Don’t you have a clue? Mom and Dad?”

And the answer is they don’t.

For scripture tells us that “they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

The boy Jesus tries to speak truth to his beloved caregivers and they just don’t get it.

But after this exchange we learn that Jesus goes with Mary and Joseph back home and was obedient to them from this point on.

So enter drama into the narrative right here.

Professor Peter Storey helps us out again here: “If we struggle with Jesus’ being ‘fully human and fully God,’ it should not be surprising if the Jesus child wrestled with his identity too.”

Can you imagine how frustrating it must have been for Jesus? Can you imagine how much tension he felt in his little body? Can you imagine how hard it was for Jesus to play the part (or not) that his parents expected him to play as THEIR first-born and also be THE son of God?

My friends, the struggle was real. The struggle was painful.

The struggle looked like obedience to parents boy Jesus knew he was smarter than, wiser than and the Creator of, in fact!

The struggle looked like Jesus’ momma hugging him tight thinking she knew what was going on but being completely clueless.

The struggle looked like Jesus going home, humbly submitting to authority and growing “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and humankind.”

The struggle of human and divine- it was boy Jesus’ path to walk.

I don’t know if you are like me but I want to file a complaint with Luke right here. I don’t mean to be greedy but I want more. I want more of Jesus. Tell me Luke what Jesus liked to eat, how he liked to play, what it was like when he got into fights with his brothers (or did he?), did Jesus like his chores or did he prefer to spend more time studying after school?

Yet we get nothing else besides these 11 verses until he was 30 years old which starts chapter 3.

So, it begs me to ask these question as the reading is over.

Why include this particular story if we only got one story? What does this scripture ask you and I to learn?

I’m sure there’s more to uncover as you and I keep studying texts like this, but for now this is what I know: as you and I follow Jesus we too, my friends will know the struggle.

The struggle of being told we’re “lost” when we’re really exactly where we need to be!

The struggle of rejection from those who say they love us the most.

The struggle of our mommas wanting something for our life and God saying, “No, I have something bigger.”

The struggle of balancing mundane tasks vs. eternal destinies.

For if boy Jesus faced these struggles seeking to grow in wisdom, why would our lives be any different?

We too will face such pain. We too will be separated from our beloveds. We too will feel so alone.

But we have hope! We have hope like boy Jesus had hope that day as he traveled back to Nazareth, to live his life with all that knowledge in his heart gained from the temple. God was with Jesus. And, God is with us too. We are never told that we must face our struggles alone.

And even better, God gives us the tools we need to face our struggles, our tensions between the tasks of earth and heaven and we learn as we go.

Anne Lamott in her book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith once wrote this about her own #TBT moment.

“It's funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools - friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty - and said 'do the best you can with these, they will have to do'. And mostly, against all odds, they do.”

My friends, if boy Jesus taught us anything this we know: we have all of the tools we need to keep going.

We have the tools we need to discern wisdom from folly. We have the tools we need to both submit and rebel. We have the tools we need to connect with our heavenly Parent!

So in this life on earth in community with God and our human brothers and sisters, we keep going. Bit by bit. Step by step. Year by year. Believing that we too will grow in wisdom and favor with God too.

If you want to listen to the full sermon, click here for an audio file

A Sermon Preached at Broadneck Baptist Church, Annapolis, MD from Mark 4: 35-41

This is how our gospel lesson opens: Jesus speaks. It’s an abrupt beginning (as most movement in Mark’s gospel is) where Jesus gives a vague description of what’s up ahead.

And this is what Jesus says to his followers:

Let’s go across to the other side.”

In these 7 words, we hear no physical description of point A (where they were) or point B (where they were going).

We hear no persuasive speech about the benefits of being on the other side like any parent would do with their grumpy children in tow. “We’re going doctor now, but when we’re done, we’ll get ice cream! Don’t you want ice cream? So you really want to go to the doctor, don’t you?”

We hear no explanation of why the other side is important. It’s set up like one of the stupidest jokes of all times, “Why did the chicken cross the road? . . . To get to the other side!”

But with this simple declarative statement, “Let’s go to the other side” Jesus and his attentive motley crew of 12 disciples and probably some women too find themselves on a boat to reach the unknown.

I can imagine this new journey began with anticipation bubbling over for those in this boat. After all, Jesus recently called them, named them “apostles” and drew crowds of hundreds of people to listen to his teaching. What could be next? It had to be amazing, right?

So why not get on the boat with Jesus? This might be their gateway to the next big thing! And the disciples, I’m sure wanted to be doing the next big thing!

My friend, Krista is one of the most well-traveled people I know. She's always on a journey to the next big thing.

10931409_10153039945814168_6366426733693166977_nWhen we catch up for dinner, she always tells me about her next trip planned (even if she just got back from one). You name it; she’ll do it—from scuba diving in the Maldives to spending a day as if she’s a village woman while in Rwanda to swimming with the dolphins in the Cayman Islands. She even came to visit me this year in Oklahoma (see our adventure at the Round Barn on Historic Route 66)! And with trips like this under your belt, I’d say my friend is winning at the adventure card!

Recently, Krista spent Christmas holidays with a group of girl friends in Tanzania with the big plan of hiking Mount Kilimanjaro—the highest mountain in Africa and the highest freestanding mountain in the world at over 19,000 feet above sea level.

When Krista told me about the beginning of the hiking trip she began by saying, “Our guide gathered us at midnight.”

I quickly asked “Why? Why would you start such a climb in the middle of the night? Don’t they know that you’d be so tired?”

“I thought the same thing,” she said, “But I went along with the instructions. And later our guide told us this, ‘Because it’s one of the world’s steepest mountains, we needed to start at night. If we began our journey in the daytime we’d see the tough terrain and would not want to take the next step. And furthermore, in the morning, the winds at the base of the mountain are so bad. It would be too scary for us to move an inch.”

And the same would be true of the disciples. If they knew what was coming ahead, they wouldn't begin the journey either!

Because soon after they go in, verse 37 of our text says this, “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat.”

I can imagine the disciples' chatter to one another, “This was not what we signed up for!”

But, regardless for their feelings, the windstorm raged on and the waves become higher. The waves got so high that the boat filled with water. They could see the storm. They could hear the storm. They could taste the storm. They could smell the storm too as the water ran over their sandals, and then up their ankles and to their knees.

In the middle of the sea, in the middle of the storm, in the middle of their boat filling up with water, the disciples reached a hard place.

Their journey with Jesus brought them a hard place.

It was a terrible moment when all logic screamed these giant red flags: great suffering up ahead! Pain! Loss! The destruction of dreams! Just prepare yourselves, disciples; this is not going to be pretty this trip in the sea.

But there was no escaping where they were at that very moment. A VERY HARD PLACE.

When I thought about the words hard place this week, my mind couldn’t help but go to that one hard place that is on all our minds this morning. I couldn’t help but speak aloud the place of Charleston, SC.

I couldn’t help but mention the fact that it was at a Wednesday night Bible study only days ago these 9 folks lost their lives simply because they showed up at church—names like Sister Sharonda, Rev. Pinckney, Sister Cynthia, Brother Tywanza, Sister Myra, Sister Ethel, Rev. Daniel, Rev. Depayne, and Sister Susie.150619065558-charleston-shooting-victims-pereira-dnt-newday-00002121-large-169

I couldn’t help but take a moment speak of this hard place we’re facing as a nation, as Christian church in America with the sin we call racism.

It’s a sin few of us want to talk about few want to name, especially people who look like me.

I couldn’t help but name the heaviness of this hard place for our African-American brothers and sisters especially this morning—those who have put on their Sunday clothes, those who have driven to their congregations, those who have gotten out of their cars and walked up the steps to their sanctuaries afraid.

Afraid for their pastors.

Afraid for their children.

Afraid for themselves.

Afraid that the color of their skin makes them a target for violence done in the name of hate.

It’s a heaviness that we who are white do not and cannot understand.

But yet if we believe we are a part of ONE body who worship ONE Lord, it’s a hard place we must acknowledge and acknowledge some more. When one of us hurts in the Body of Christ, we all do.

And in this, I can’t help but think of how churches like this one define themselves: to be a progressive Christians.

You define yourself according the welcome page on your website as “a community that honors asking questions, serving our neighbors, seeking justice, celebrating diversity, and welcoming all of God’s children. We seek to be a place where all people are embraced for their unique gifts and invited to participate fully in all areas of ministry.”

I can’t help but think about what our shared family of progressive Baptists, the Alliance of Baptists which I am glad to be a part, speaks of as their mission:

“We are Christians knit together by love for one another and God, combining progressive inquiry, contemplative prayer and prophetic action to bring about justice and healing in a changing world.”

And in all of this thinking, I began to wonder then about how our desire to stand up for justice collides with the hard place of this week?

How is God calling us to be in this hard place . . . beyond just putting out a statement condemning hate (as our friends at the Alliance already have done)?

It’s so easy. It’s so very easy to take on the name “progressive.” I would say in this part of the world it’s acceptable label. In some secular circles in DC you’re accepted when you otherwise wouldn't be when you can say you belong to a church that cares about social justice.

But what happens on weeks like this? What happens when the world cries out for justice and for gun violence in churches to not be ok?

Where do we find our progressive mission then? What do we do, church?

This week, I believe, the church in America received a wake-up call.

The violence wasn’t somewhere out there on the streets. It was in one of our buildings. It took the life of one of our pastors leading Bible Study.

And this is a very hard place.

So like those disciples in the boat with Jesus, what will we do with our hard place?

Will we stand with our fellow disciples like those at Emmanuel AME? And, as we stand, will we acknowledge our contributions to this hard place?

Or will we say things like, “It’s a shame.” Or, “What a tragedy!” And leave the work of racial reconciliation to someone else?

As we begin to answer these questions for ourselves, you problem have some concerns.

If you’re like me, with such a problem seemingly “out there” when it comes to the news and Charleston not being our city or our suburb, it’s easy to become swept away feeling overwhelmed. It's not like we can all go to Charleston today and weep alongside this grieving church.

We’re talking about a big problem. Racism is no small thing. It’s a systematic problem embedded in practices and traditions upheld for centuries that if we are white, we've benefited from!

And if you’re like me, you might just want somebody to tell you what to do. “I’d be glad to my part, pastor, if I just knew what to do."

But remember friends, where we found our scripture this morning—in a storm.

Storms are dark. Storms are murky. Storms are such especially in the middle of the sea that you can’t see 10 feet in front of you even if you wanted.

There aren’t always clear answers or clear next steps in storms are there? Where to steer? When to put up the sails? When to stop?

And in the same way, like those first disciples, to reach the other side of this hard place in our country, we, the white church,  need to say, “Please help me understand” a lot and "I want to listen" a lot. Knowing that we’ll make mistakes and we never will have the perfect words.

But, we’re following Jesus after all, aren’t we? And like my friend, Krista's journey, we don't get to see what the whole climb up the mountain will be either.

Yet, our job is to actively participate in Jesus’ salvation plan for all people, us included. You and I will be changed on a journey like this—and it’s exactly the point!

And while yes, this whole calling of putting feet to our feet is going to be scary; our fear doesn’t have to immobilize us.

For Jesus comes to us and says like he did to those first disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Commentator Bruce Writer says this about being a disciple: "Jesus didn’t expect [the disciples] to stand steely-jawed and silent in the face of the storm. He simply expected them to manage their fear by knowing that he was there, and that he was able, and that he would act." And so we too “Are not called to be fearless. We are called to face our fears by knowing that someone greater than our fears is present, and that Someone cares and can act.”

So though today, we all might find ourselves in the middle of a journey we didn’t sign up for, wouldn’t have started if we saw where it was headed, or even want to see to the other side—this doesn’t change the fact: we’re at a hard place.

We’re given a moment I believe on a week like this to confess, to see and to name racism for what it is: sin.

It’s the only place we, church, can faithfully be.

The good news is that we're never alone. Because remember- it's Jesus in the boat with us!

So then: what then will the American church do next? What will our progressive family of faith do next? What will the Broadneck Church do next? What will you do next?

We're in a hard place.

A Sermon Preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK on Luke 24:13-33

There’s a country song by Miranda Lambert that I became familiar with several years ago. I loved when it first came on the radio because it reminded me so much of the small town in Georgia where Kevin grew up and we were married. Maybe the words of, “Famous in a Small Town” might remind you of what it’s like to live in Weatherford.

I dreamed of going to Nashville
Put my money down and placed my bet
But I just got the first buck of the season
I made the front page of the Turner "Town Gazette"

Tyler and Casey broke up
It ended pretty quietly
We heard he was caught red-handed with her mama
That's just what they let us all believe

Every last one, route one, rural heart's got a story to tell
Every grandma, in law, ex girlfriend
Maybe knows you just a little too well
Whether you're late for church or you're stuck in jail
Hey words gonna get around
Everybody dies famous in a small town.

And if any of these words call to mind experiences you’ve had, then you’re right on track for understanding the mood of our gospel lesson for this morning. For in a small town outside of Jerusalem, word had gotten around town and somebody named Jesus just died famous.

And so, on Easter evening, it was all the talk at the local gathering places. It was all the talk at the village market. It was all the talk as the kids began to stir again after they’ve were cooped up by their parents during the Passover festival for days.

It was all the talk as two men, one who we know as Cleopas and the other without a name travel on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Jesus had just died and there was so much gossip to sort through!

But, as is with any good gossip, you don’t know exactly what to do with what you hear.Whose word do you believe the most?

And it all got all the murkier when another traveler started walking beside them. He overhears their conversation and approaches them with the question, “What are you discussing with each other while you were walking along?”

The travelers having no idea that Jesus—the man who had supposedly died—is among them. So Cleopas answers him saying, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

Or in other words, “Have you not been on Jerusalem’s Facebook page? Didn’t you see the nightly news? Have you not read the newspaper? EVERYONE knows what happened to Jesus . . .” the man who was mighty in deed and word before God and all people, the man that we hoped would be the one who would redeem Israel” but is no longer with us.

Oh, kind sir, do you live under a rock??

It’s a great sketch for a comedy show, isn’t it?

But Jesus plays along, listening carefully until it was his turn to speak. He’s got a lot to say, though not what you might think. Jesus does not tell the men who is. But, rather, he begins his teaching session.

I can imagine that these two disciples were pretty smart guys. The traditions of ancient scripture meant something to them. They’d heard these stories before. And they were all ears!

He walks these two through all the prophecies of old beginning with Moses. He carefully outlines for them how the prophecies foretold the coming a Messiah who would endure suffering and death but would rise again. He enlivens their hopes with the joyous possibilities that Jesus could be alive!

Just like some of us might feel going to a convention or a conference in our chosen profession, surrounded by thousands of people who think and engage the world like us, so these disciples were “geeking out” on Jesus. They could not get enough of what he was saying! Being with such a wise teacher with such a commanding presence was just so sweet! They wanted to learn as much as they could. So that when they finally reached their destination, they didn’t want their night with Jesus to end.

I know the feeling don’t you? Being engulfed in a conversation that you wish could go on forever or at least late into the night.

As for the disciples, they try to come up with whatever they can to keep things going longer! Verse 29 tells us that “they urged [Jesus] strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us’” And so Jesus did.

He stays for supper and joins them for a meal because what resurrection brought was conversation.

Conversation that was beyond the superficial stuff we normally fill the airwaves with the most—

“I am making chicken for dinner with a new recipe I just saw online” and “I bought a really nice pair of shoes today on sale.”

Conservation that was beyond the stuff we talk about when we think we’re talking about something more important—

“My son is was offered a new job last week that will give his family more financial security” and “Retirement really does suit me; I like not having to get up early in the mornings.”

Conversation that was beyond even the stuff we talk about in religious circles—

“We need to pray for so and so who is sick” and “I really liked that Bible study. Can we do something like that again?”

No, the conversation between the two disciples and Jesus that day was a heart to heart. It was conversation that touched tender points of discouragement, dreams and fears within their souls. It was a conversation that they needed answers on and needed answers now. For their beloved teacher had died and nothing would ever feel the same without him.

So, what really did all of this news around town mean?Jesus gave answers that were profound and like none they’d ever heard. And it was a lot to take in—so much so that they were in the dark about the LIGHT walking alongside of them for most of the talk until . . .

POOF! They all sat down together at the table, broke bread (which has a lot of unspoken allusions to our communion meal) and verse 31 tells us that “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”

Jesus vanishes—for his conversation task was over.

And we see the significance of what just occurred as the disciples respond to what has just happened to them.

They say: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

I resonate so deeply with this verse of scripture because I feel so much it’s what my work as pastor/ preacher is all about. If I am going to be a leader who helps a congregation have an experience with Jesus then I’ll know that I’ve done my job if they reflect back to me a version of your “hearts burning within you” story while I’ve been teaching.

I also resonate with me because I feel my own faith journey is rooted in conversation. I am who I am because of the countless folks I’ve encountered in my life who felt enough conviction about their faith to talk to me about it.

And in everyday life, when you and I break bread together or enjoy a cup of coffee and I can share my stories with you and be heard with empathy and you can share your stories with me and be heard with compassion—then to me this is a Road to Emmaus experience. We both learn something new for the journey. Why? Because Jesus is present! And what’s better than that?

But as much as I share my excitement for conversation with you this morning, I also know that for some of you it’s not your style.

You speak when spoken to. You share your deepest thoughts to someone maybe once a year. And a room full of people having conversation about a book or a faith experience makes you want to run for the hills and not come back till the room is cleared out. (And I affirm you though I might not understand you as much as I do the sharers).

But, if we are going to be Easter people, if we are going to be people—all of us who are following Jesus and experiencing Jesus’ resurrection power along the way, then the question is who are we going to talk to about it?

Because my friends, when resurrection comes to your life and mine, and I mean, mind boggling, I can’t believe this is happening, I never thought this was possible kind of new life resurrection, then you can’t NOT talk about it. It’s just too good news to share!

Jesus was alive and he couldn’t not converse with these disciples about the good news!

The disciples loved Jesus and they couldn’t not converse with one another about all that Jesus had meant in their lives!

And for all of us who’ve had a resurrection experience, we can’t not talk about it with each other.

When I was in Christian History class in seminary, one particular saint story caught my attention and it came from the life of Teresa of Avila.

Teresa, if you don’t know about her was a nun within the 15th century. Her writings like “The Inner Castle” make famous her mystical experiences of God in prayer. Teresa is a “straight from the hip” kind of saint especially on matters of prayer and what being in the presence of God feels like. In her time, people thought she was crazy sometimes because she endured great bouts of depression and sadness. But regardless of what others said about her “resurrection experiences” she was authentic voice during a difficult time in the church. She eventually became known as a great church reformer, though not given any recognition for such during her lifetime.

And this is one of her famous prayers: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Isn’t it just beautiful?

Though we might be afraid to talk about what God is doing in our lives, Christ has no body now in this place and time than yours.

Though we might not want to be perceived as the “overly religious one” in a group as the one who stops to pray when something good happens, Christ has no hands on earth but yours.

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Though we might not want to offend someone by bringing up the good news of what is happening in our church to someone who hasn’t been here in a while, Christ has no feet on earth but yours.

And I say all of this with an understanding of the context where I am preaching. This is Oklahoma. Christianity is everywhere. People pray before meals at restaurants all the time. People talk about this and that event with their church all the time. People quote Bible verses in places of secular business all the time.

I’m not talking about any of that.

I’m talking about the stuff of our lives that is deep and profound. The stuff that keeps you and me up at night. The worries that trouble our souls and make us want to weep—all the stuff that the disciples had at the forefront of their minds on the road to Emmaus that day.

When that stuff bubbles up and when God does a work in you or you’re desperate for God to change something in you, then you’ve got to talk about it.

Resurrection is not a silent way of life. It’s a vocal one.

It’s a way of life that comes not only in words but gestures of the heart, gestures like invitations to dinner. Gestures like long meals unrushed toward what comes next. Gestures like speaking truth when it wells up in our throats, “Were not our hearts burning within us while we talked?”

So, my friends, Christ has no body on earth but yours—so if we want our message of God’s love and acceptance for all to spread, then let’s start talking!

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed! We've got a great story to tell as it unfolds in you and me!

AMEN

A sermon preached The Federated Church: Palm Sunday texts Genesis 4: 8-16

The title is a little shocking isn’t it? But hang with me for a minute and you’ll see where we are going.

Throughout Lent I've preached on lessons from the first family.

We’ve journeyed with Adam and Eve has they came into being as beloved children of God and as God made them caretakers of the earth.

We watched them make mistakes—hiding from God in the Garden of Eden. But then we saw God clothing them as a sign of God’s great love.

Then, last week we met Adam and Eve’s first two sons- Cain and Abel. One was a farmer and the other a herder. And when time came for each to bring their offerings to God, one brother brought the best and other just brought something. We saw in their story that we’re an angry people for all the many ways our lives have not gone as planned.

So, we conclude with the last first family story—reading rest of the tail of Cain and Abel— in conjunction with this high holy day in the Christian calendar: Palm Sunday, a day of great exclamatory praise, but a day that would ultimately be the catalyst for Jesus’ death. Which leads us to the question, what is it about us as human beings that would lead us to support or participate in the taking of another human life? Why would we as human beings want to kill our own?

And the Cain and Abel saga gives us some guidance as to why.

Remember Cain was angry God liked Abel’s offering better. And even though God lovingly asks Cain to deal with his anger, he doesn’t.

Genesis 4:8 tells us this: “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field. While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.”

In a plot I am sure worthy of any of the good crime shows on TV, Cain, being the more savvy of the brothers, finds a way to get his hated brother alone to a field. There he carries out a plot to rid the earth of Abel. How: we aren’t sure other than it works.

Abel dies.

Taking into account what we know about Cain and Abel previously we can assume it was because of pride . . .

It was because of jealousy….

It was because of anger . . .

And for what? So that Cain wouldn’t have to see his brother’s face anymore? So that Abel would not be a reminder of that great day of disappointment? So that Cain’s intense feelings eating inside of him would not eat him up any longer?

I guess, in the moment, yes. It was all about the short-term gain. An act of violence was an easy way out! Abel was a problem for Cain and the best way to get rid of the problem was murder.

Because this is who we are: murderers. We all make short-term decisions that steal from one other human dignity. We all find ways take life from one another, no matter if we kill another human being or not.

It's offensive, I know. I mean, isn’t murder one of those “on the shelf” sins from the Ten Commandments that most of us will get a free pass on? We can check it off our list because it hey, murder is something few of us do!

Well if we do any sort of close examination of the Bible, we realize that our most sacred text is full of the stories of characters we label as heroes but who also carry the description of “murderer.”

Moses, murdered a man who he saw mistreating a group of Hebrew slaves in Egypt before God called him out with the burning bush.

Joshua, Moses’ replacement certainly fit the battle of Jericho as the old spiritual goes, but then goes on to lead the genocide of the entire city.

Samson, one of the great judges of Israel who we might remember for his extra long hair killed 30 men with his bear hands and then 100 with a donkey bone.

Then, there’s David. (And who doesn’t like David?) The man who was called by the name of “a man after God’s own heart” killed Goliath as we all remember from Sunday School. But, he also killed and circumcised 200 men in order to get a wife he wanted.

Can I just stop a minute and say WOW!

Though we might think of people in modern times convicted of murder as somehow “other than.” The Bible reminds us that even the best of us are capable of the worst crimes against humanity. Just think of all the countries that have experienced genocide in our lifetime—Rwanda and Bosnia to name just two. Even the best of us can change our behavior very quickly. These shifts don’t make some people “bad” but simply among the tribe of human beings.

But, here’s the kicker for us all (who still think we’re off the hook this morning): Jesus’ teaching on the subject. During his ministry, Jesus reinterpreted the law on occasions like the Sermon on the Mount. Saying:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult, a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Jesus give us this mandate: the label of “murderer” goes beyond the actual taking of someone’s life, but the intents of our hearts. No one is excluded from the label.

And furthermore, as Jesus’ life continued, living in the midst of such “murderers” was a human experience that Jesus knew full well. For he had seen people’s dispositions change very quickly during this time on earth. He’d seen the worse intentions of human hearts.

As we read our gospel lessons for this morning, we see an example of this dramatic shift by the crowds who say, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” on Palm Sunday who by the end of the week shout: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” handing Jesus over to a cruel death on a Roman cross.

For there was something intolerable about Jesus too. During his time on earth, Jesus’ message was plain: all were welcome in the kingdom of God—the women, the sick, the lame, the demon possessed, the filfy rich, the dirt poor and everyone in between. And he said: the kingdom of God was about a movement of God bigger than who held the seats of power on the earth. It was about purity of heart and spirit and loving God and neighbor with a whole heart.

The people of his day were angry about all of this. They did not like the kind of people they were being ask to be!

For Jesus was NOT the king with banners and trumpets and overthrowing the governments as they wanted.

And, he was not one to be controlled or persuaded into anything other than the one send by God to be the good news.

Jesus frustrated the masses beyond belief!

And the Jewish authorities couldn’t get Jesus out of Jesus what they wanted either, so they sent Jesus to Pilate—the Roman authority to figure him out.

It was Pilate who asked: “Are you the King of the Jews?” To which Jesus said, “You say so.”

We all know how the story ends. In the case of Jesus, it was easier for Pilate, the religious authorities and the crowds to say: “Let this man go. . . . Let us be done with him” than it was to deal with the truth of all that Jesus brought.

This is what I know for sure the story of the last week of Jesus’ life was not a freak occurrence: you and I, if we had been there could have shouted those very worst things too.

We’ve all  looked at our neighbor with contempt. We’ve not defended their dignity. We’ve let our anger fester and flourish in us about those we are called to love the most.

We’ve made God sad . . . just as I know was God’s countenance that day as the crowds shouted “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

But there’s grace—there’s always grace. God did not come down and breathe fire into Pilate’s palace and kill them all. God did not strike down the masses chanting for the release of another prisoner instead of Jesus. Nor, did God strike down Cain.

No, in grace, he marks Cain with a special symbol, we are told in Genesis 4:15 that will keep anyone from doing to him what he did to his brother. While there is punishment for his sin, it is not the end of his life. Cain remains in the land of the living.

And Jesus carries out the work of great love that he came to earth to do—despite of what others said about him and despite it that fact that he would soon breathe his last. Love’s redemptive work was done in his body as we will celebrate on Friday.

So my friends, who are we? Who are you?

Receive this truth: we are all murderers. But thanks to be to God—nothing, no nothing can keep us from God’s love—not even what we think is the worst upon worst possible sin.

AMEN

A Sermon preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Mark 1:14-20

For someone in a long-term relationship and desiring to get married—especially for us women—most of dream about that day someone special asks us the big question.

“Will you marry me?”

I have a friend who knew her day was coming and called me regularly to practice how she was going to say that one word she’d be dreaming all her life to say.

Should I say: “Yes!” Like this she’d muse.

Or maybe like this? “Yes.”

She told me she’d be secretly practicing her answer for months and months in front of the mirror. Though I secretly rolled my eyes, I knew this was serious business!

When my friend asked me my engagement story to Kevin I was no help to her practice.

For when Kevin got down on one knee and proposed to me at this parents’ cabin on Christmas Day of 2006, I could not seem to get the word, “Yes” out. Even as I tried and tried nothing came.

Instead, I stared at Kevin and stared at the shiny thing he put on my hand and after a VERY long pause spoke saying: “Does this ring have insurance?”

True story. And I haven't been able to live down my lack of "yes" and the question since . . .

No matter if we are saying yes to a marriage or any other big life decision, there’s an assumption on so many of our parts that when we get to the big moment that we’ll magically say yes with roses and confetti falling from the sky, of course.

And our Old and New Testament lessons for this morning don’t steer our attention otherwise. For what we find are people responding to the call of God with seemingly radical obedience that makes our day-to-day struggles of following Jesus look weak and without conviction.

But is this really accurate?

Let’s start with Jonah.

As we read our lection taken from Jonah chapter 3 what we find is “the word of the Lord coming to Jonah” telling him to go to Nineveh, one of the largest city in the modern world at that time and preach the a message of repentance.

And what do we see happening? Verse 3 tells us “Jonah set out and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord.”

As he preaches, verse 5 tells us that the “people of Nineveh believed in God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small put on a sackcloth.”

Seems beautifully simple doesn’t it? Jonah says yes to God. He preaches as he felt like God was telling him to do. And the crowds believed and turned their lives back to the Lord.

And then there is our gospel lesson. After Jesus returns from the wilderness of temptation, he goes into Galilee and begins to preach saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, repent believe in the good news.”

Soon after this we are told, as Jesus passed by the Sea of Galilee he finds Simon and his brother Andrew. Jesus approaches these two fishermen. Then, just as they cast their net into the sea, Jesus asks them to “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

Again it appears to be a simple story: Jesus accepts God’s call to preach. Jesus extends an invitation to these brothers. And they respond by “immediately” following him.

So is this what we are to make of what it means to pattern your life after Jesus? Is this how we are to describe the call of God going out into the world? Simple, straightforward, full of lots of non-stuttering “Yes’s?”

Well, when we dig deeper into the context from which these two lections came what we will discover is not so much.

For, the witness of Jonah or Jesus’ disciples is not one of blind obedience, or even obedience without a long dialogue.

Let’s go back to Jonah. We might have missed something in verse 1. Let me read it again, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah for the second time . . . “

For by chapter 3, this was not Jonah’s first rodeo with God’s calling.

Because we know Jonah’s name is associated with one particular thing, right? It’s a ____ (whale).

For when we go back earlier in the text, we discover that the word of the Lord came to Jonah the first time and he said no.

He ran. He got on a ship heading for the farthest place from Nineveh because he didn’t believe “such people” were worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.

But when he found himself on that ship and the waves grew and the winds howled, his fellow passengers threw down lots deciding to kick him off the boat. And Jonah ended up in the belly of what scripture calls a “big fish.”

A metaphoric tale or not, we learn that Jonah got 3 days to sit and reconsider what it was that God asked him to do in the first place. Then he said yes.

It takes a journey for Jonah to say yes to God’s call, not just a moment.

And then there were those disciples—Andrew and Simeon Peter. If you were here last week, you remember that we studied how they ended up with Jesus from the perspective of John’s gospel.

It’s was a great education for me to prepare to preach last week—to see the longevity and interconnectedness of the disciples to Jesus.

Do you remember? Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. When John refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” Andrew jumps on over to Jesus’ camp. Then soon he tells his brother Simon about it. Then together they tell Philip who is from the same Galilean town, Bethsaida, and the story goes on from there.

But none of this back story is told in Mark’s version of the story. We only see Jesus passing by and using language that makes us think he’s in a hurry. Notice with me the words in the passage. Verse 18: “Immediately they left their nets” and in verse 20, “Immediately he called them.”

What we need to understand about Mark’s storytelling bent is he’s doer without hesitation.

He believes the kingdom of God is coming. So, there’s no time to waste in telling it to us and no time to waste in responding to it.

So, with all of this considered, I believe it was a journey for the first disciples to say yes to Jesus’s call, not just a moment (we just don’t see the full picture from Mark’s perspective).

But all of this goes against our popular notions of what responding to God’s call looks like, doesn’t it?

I mean, isn’t following Jesus about saying yes during a “Just as I Am?” invitation hymn on the 6th verse right as the preacher is about to close the response time?

Isn’t saying yes to Jesus something we do around the camp fire at youth camp on the last night?

Isn’t saying yes to Jesus something we do when a missionary comes and gives a dramatic speech about how bad things are “over there?”

Maybe not.

One of the great saints of the church who we hear mentioned more often these days because of the current pope is St. Francis.

Though many of us might know about St. Francis that he loved the dramatic and blessed animals and trees, do we know where his story all started?

Francis, one of seven children, was born in 1181 to an well-to-do family.

Francis grew up with everything he could have possibly wanted and more: the best clothes, the best food and drink and a high-class education.

And with this mentality, Francis’ father, Pietro, a respected cloth merchant, believed his son would follow his footsteps or even do something more honorable than him, I guess as most parents believe about their children.

And Francis has ambition and gumption too. He wanted to be well-known and accomplished.

When he was 20 years old, scholars believe that Francis left home and joined the army. Francis coveted the knighthood and sought to be brave in battle.

However, while fighting in Perugia Francis was captured. He is believed to have spent the next year of his life in prison. There began his process of listening and discerning the call of God on his life.

When released, Francis felt like he heard the words from God, “Repair my church.” He felt overwhelmed one day while visiting Portiuncula, a church in disarray.

Francis began to do just this. He used the resources he had, which was his father’s fine cloth, sold them and used the money to repair the church.

You can imagine how well this went over. His father felt disgraced, for this way not the way that his inheritance was to be spent! Francis could not bear to face his father and according to tradition, hid in the woods for one month before returning home to face him.

Francis soon stopped attending family events, going about business as usual and talked to the bishop about joining the ranks of the clergy.

Soon thereafter, Francis gave back the money he had made on the cloth. Then before the bishop of Assisi, he tore of his clothes and gave everything he had back to his dad.

Francis’ call to follow Jesus would be one of complete surrender—giving us his family ties, his money, his power and even his dignity to say yes to Jesus.

Later, he would take a vow of poverty and go about the work of “repairing the church” as he’d heard the calling long before—not as he’d first thought (in repairing the physical structures of church buildings) but in the work of reconnecting souls to the heart of the gospel.

But again, just like in the case of Jonah and Jesus’ disciples this call for Francis to say yes to God was about a process, not a moment.

And I love each of these three stories in all of their uniqueness because of how they tell us something about saying “Yes!” to God.

So many of us crave that moment when the light bulbs go off when we figure out exactly what we are supposed to do with our lives. Or we crave that dramatic conversion experience. Or even we crave the perfect moment when we use just the right infection of our voice—which we’ve been practicing for weeks of course in preparation.

But if we want to follow God and God’s call in our lives through the life and death of Jesus Christ, then, we don’t have to feel so anxious toward having a perfect moment.

No, because I believe God knows what it is going to take for each of us to say yes to the calls in our lives. And God gives us grace for the journey.

I don’t know about you, but from all of my years of growing up in church, I think it was easy for me to get the idea that God was somehow like a man standing over me with big stick. And that the nudgings of the Holy Spirit were somehow to be received like daggers in my back . . . when I felt like God wanted me to do something I needed to do it right then or else!

But, my friends, I don’t think this is how our God of grace works. God gave us our lifetime to walk with Jesus and learn.

We’ve all got our own process that will be completely different from our neighbor’s. And we’ve all got a loving heavenly parent who is by our side (if we allow it) encouraging us step by step toward the path that is our way.

So it is ok if it takes us a while to say yes. And it’s ok if we ask: “Does this come with insurance?” Questions, concerns and emotional ups and downs are welcome in God’s kingdom. None of us are ever asked to be faith robots.

God doesn’t want our forced conversions that we are going to wake up the next morning and regret like a bad hangover. No.

God wants us to journey our life through toward that which heals us, that which makes us whole.

Of course it might be easier to say yes to God the first time God calls—I mean, if we don’t want to be like Jonah and in the belly of the fish and all—but still God’s plans for us remain the same.

And as long as we are breathing on this earth, there’s time to say yes.

So I ask today, will you say YES to the journey?

AMEN

(If you are interested in learning more about the life and calling of St. Francis, I just read this lovely book. And while fictional it offers some great insights, in an approachable way about his life).

There are a lot of people with big ideas about growing church these days.

They write best selling books. They teach at sold out conferences. We look to them for all the answers, thinking that Jesus gives their ideas two thumbs up.

For example, I regularly get emails from a pastor friend at large mega church on his "secrets" of church growth which could be summed up in getting new folks busy volunteering as soon as they walk in the doors.

One popular church strategist once told me the key to getting visitors to come back is baking fresh and warm chocolate chip cookies and delivering them personally to visitors after Sunday morning worship. (I liked this plan but then believed I’d be the pastor who ended up eating more cookies than I delivered!)

Then, there are those experts who go back to this rule: if the church isn't growing, then blame the pastor.

I heard one famous speaker at a young leader’s meetings say that the secret of the growth lied in the work ethic of the pastor. “If you aren’t willing to put 60-80 hours in a week—even if you are paid for less, then your church will not grow.”

But is this really the gospel? Is this really Jesus' evangelism plan?

When I was a college student and in my more holy days than now (yes, really), I joined a local church’s outreach ministry and they felt like it was THE way.

To graduate the program we had to write our testimony of how Jesus had changed our lives in less than 300 words and read it to the class. (I totally failed because I wanted to write more than 300 words-- surprise, surprise).

Then, we’d work with partners to go to neighborhoods, knock on doors and ask who ever answered: “If you died tonight, where would you go?” Then strike up a conversation about how they could get saved from hell. (I'm so embarrassed to say this now). 

I don’t remember any encounters where we “achieved” our goal but boy, we tried. When we got discouraged, the church’s pastor would give us a pep talk us by our denomination’s mission: “Witness, Win and Baptize 1 million by 2004.”

And with such a harsh and authoritarian mission—you can imagine how this story all ended.

The denomination did not witness, win and baptize 1 million by 2004.

I soon became disillusioned to all faith plans that came with a formula.

But what about Jesus— are any of these ideas in line to how Jesus invited others into relationship?

When begin to read the call stories in the gospels of Jesus inviting his first disciples to come along, we realize this: Jesus' evangelism plan (if he actually had such a thing) always began in context of a relationship.

And in John's gospel it can be summed up by his three words: come and see.  Beginning in chapter 1, this is how Andrew, Peter, and Philip said responded to Jesus. They wanted to come to see. Then comes along Nathanael.

But Nathanael, like so many of us, needed more. He needed more than just Philip, his buddy's words on the matter. He needed to come and see himself.

When he meets Jesus for the first time, Jesus puts him at ease right away saying, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

What a complement this was (and true!)

But, Nathanael is confused asking, “Where did you get to know me?”

And Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

It was more than a statement about his geographic location. Jesus notices him. Jesus speaks truth to him. Jesus’ presence helps him to know that it is going to be ok, even with this big unknown ahead.

And I have to believe that at that moment everything changed.

For, seeing is powerful. It's about a soul to soul connection.

Can you remember times in your life when you were rightly seen by someone else?

I'm so grateful for the countless people in my life who have "seen me" into being.  And maybe the same has happened to you?

You wouldn’t be in the jobs you’ve found yourself in if someone didn’t name your gifts and encouraged you.

You wouldn’t be in the marriages or friendships you are in, if somebody hadn’t said maybe, I see that you would be great with so and so over there.

And most of all you probably wouldn’t have been a faith seeker if someone had not said, “come and see” and taught you in the ways of faith.

So what we accepted Jesus' "come and see" approach as our own?

Start with: opening our eyes.

Then: really see somebody.

And start there.

When I was growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, I learned the Christian life was about these things:

I don't think my faith is could be measured by any of these acts anymore, but it doesn't mean I've thrown scripture out.

Paul had some words to share on the manner to the church in Philippi. As his parting gift to this congregation that had meant to so much to him as a missionary and preacher—he too wrestles with the question of what does it mean to live a Christian life.

The book of Philippians is the known as one of the happiest books in the Bible. It’s one of those books that you just feel inspired and convicted by all at the same time. It’s a book often cited by many Christians as their favorite book of the Bible. And I have to say it tops the favorite list for me.

But there's one catch about this book: Paul is writing while in prison. He’s been put in chains in Rome on behalf of his faith that the governmental leaders at the time didn’t like too much. His death might be near.

It’s almost like Philippians becomes his last word and testament: everything Paul has always wanted to say (or say again) and hasn’t had a chance yet.

And by time we reach chapter 3, we’ve gotten to know Paul at deeper level when he boldly proclaims that “everything was a loss in comparison of the gift of knowing Jesus” and that most of all Paul wants “to know the power of his resurrection and share in the fellowship of his sufferings.”

So, when we reach chapter 4, I can imagine that some of the readers of this letter were bursting, were overflowing, were saying, “Stop, stop, Paul. You’ve given us so much to take in. We can’t take any more.”

But what Paul does is give them more. Every good speech needs a strong concluding hook, right? Every great race needs a victory lap right? Every want-a-be graduate of the ways of Jesus needs “This is now how you live,” right?

And so we arrive at: “Advice for the Christian Life by Paul.”

Several years ago, Katie Couric, popular news anchor and journalist—was asked to give the commencement address at a university in Cleveland, OH. Quickly, she found herself in a quandary as to what to say. She wanted to do a good job, and thought of the idea of crowd sourcing many of her famous friends, asking as many the question: “What was some the best advice you’ve ever gotten?”

Katie was overwhelmed by the response and the generosity of time and thought of many that she began piecing all of the responses together—not just for this one commencement address but for a book published in 2011 called, The Best Advice I’ve Ever Gotten.

One such entry in Katie’s book came from, Joyce Carol Oats, award-winning author, poet and playwright. She offered advice to any young people seeking to walk in her footsteps with these words:

Don’t be discouraged!

Don’t be envious of others!

Read widely—what you want to read, and not what someone suggests you should read.

Forget “should.”

Don’t expect to be treated justly by the world, though you might try to treat others justly.

Don’t too quickly cut yourself off from the possibilities of experience.

Don’t give up. What is to say, don’t be discouraged!

Take all advice with the proverbial grain of salt.

And even if we are not aspiring to be writers or artists—Joyce Carol Oats gives us some pretty wise offerings, don’t you think, in all her direct, staccato like statements?

Paul’s edition of “The Best Advice I have to give you” comes to us in a similar fashion. It’s clearly to the point that you can almost feel him in the room beside as he’s saying these words:

“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but by prayer and supplications present your requests to God. And the peace of God that passes all understanding will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.”

What’s most interesting to me about this text is how much Paul changes gears from chapter 3 to chapter 4. In chapter 3, we almost feel out of breath with him in the running the race metaphors and fighting the good fight.

But Paul's “best advice ever given” starts with: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters . . . stand firm in the Lord.”

Stand firm is a very different from pressing on the race isn’t it?

Trying to reconciling these images is complicated! But one of my professors from seminary; Susan Eastman offers some suggestions saying that the answer lies in the prepositional cause “in the Lord.”

Eastman writes, “In the Lord, our forward movement [in the spiritual life] is like our constant movement on the surface of the earth; we are held fast by gravity at the center . . . constantly in motion but also constantly at rest.”

She goes on to say that we can’t just be in motion, doing, doing, and doing all the time in our spiritual lives without rest because: “Without this center of gravity, this grounding in the settled presence of Christ . . . the life of faith as a race quickly become frenetic and destructive.”

Or in other words—Paul is saying the Christian life is not just about what we do but it is about how we’re standing and who’s holding us. And that’s Jesus.

Yes, we strive for the spiritual disciplines to know Him and we run the best race we can. But, at the same time we remain planted in Lord. We wait upon the Lord. We are still. We allow the Lord to do what only the Lord can—which is of course a great mystery to us.

We do so because the kingdom of Jesus abides in a whole other reality—a reality that is not based on what we see, what we can rationally prove, or even how we feel about our lives on any given day. And this reality is what Paul exhorts us to stand firm in. Just as David wrote about in the great Psalm of the church: “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. He leads me by still waters . . . “

For the Christian life, my friends, is not just about what we do. The kingdom of Jesus is about something much deeper and embodied. So in the end, this passage which at first glance may appear to be a laundry list of instructions for living—becomes words that point back to Jesus. The One who simply asks us to stand firm.

So, how do you live the Christian life? When in doubt, stand firm. Jesus will take care of the rest! No evangelical checklist needed.

I’ve heard it said countless times that everything you need to know about workplace or a school comes when you see who sits with whom at what lunch table.

And it’s true. When you think about it, whom we dine with or choose not to dine with—is often one of the biggest indicators of our values, our likes and what matters to us the most.

There’s one thing I know for sure: in some way, we all know what it feels like to be welcomed at a table or not.

In the gospel lection from Sunday, we found a parable told by Jesus about a group of people who were trying to find their place at the table too.

It’s a story with an intense name: “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” (A great text to preach on near Halloween, wouldn’t you say?)

It’s a story that has created a lot of confusion over the centuries because of the anti-Semitism found in popular interpretations of its meaning.

But, it’s a story I believe that has a lot to teach us about the kingdom of God and who is sitting among us as when we come to the Lord’s Table.

The audience gathered around Matthew when we reach chapter 21 of his gospel are the high-class religious leaders of the day, those with the most influence in society. They’d recently seen Jesus turning over the money changing tables in the temple courts. They’d heard Jesus say with clear authority: “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”

For Jesus, there was no time to waste on this Jesus’ last week of life.

Again, he needed to teach. So Jesus told another convicting parable. Saying:

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, and dug a wine press it in. He left the country, and told the tenants of the land that they were in charge. When the harvest time came, the landowner sent his salves back to collect his produce.

But then things got real. It was like a mob take-over of the vineyard! There was no way the landowner was going to get his property back.

For when the slaves arrive to collect the harvest, they’re first are beaten, stoned and one is even killed.

In response, the landowner then sends another delegation of slaves to collect his produce and again, the representatives of the master are beaten, stoned and some killed.

When none of this worked, the landowner sent his son. (Crazy choice don’t you think?)

But again, Jesus says the tenants are angry. They show no respect for the son either. They take matters into their own hands to protect what they think is theirs. The landowner’s son is soon killed too.

And it is at this point that the parable abruptly ends. The text transitions our attention back to the crowd gathered around Jesus.

In verse 40, Jesus asks them, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do those tenants?”

This question is Jesus’ way of saying, ok, let’s slow down and think a minute.

The religious pompous, though, were quick to answer, saying in verse 41 about the landowner: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Or in other words—those crazy tenants, Jesus—please tell us that that they are going to get what they deserve! Please tell us that they’re going to die too.

What comes next is Jesus not affirming or even acknowledging what they say—rather drawing attention back to the scriptures and the using metaphors describing the kingdom of God.

And while some preachers and teachers might then proceed with the rest of the sermon giving you a lecture on Matthew’s take on Jewish/ Christian relations and what came of the Christian movement after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 AD—and how possibly Jesus was telling this parable to condemn the religious leaders of the day for what was to come after his death . . . .

I am not going to go there.

Instead, in light of the commentary of Professor David Lose, I want to help you think of the parable in this way:

What if we lay aside what the landlord might do in this parable and instead focus on what the landlord actually did?

Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. And I agree with David Lose when he says that this is one such occasion.

It’s the question, I believe, that leads us I believe to gospel. So what did the landlord do?

Though we could easily get caught up in the use of the word “slaves” and the willing sacrifice of life (such as why did the landlord willing hand over his slaves and his sons for torture and slaughter?), if we read this passage allegorically, gems of the landlord’s character begin to shine through.

Gems like determination, persistence and unconditional love.

For, there was nothing that the landlord would not sacrifice on behalf of staying in relationship with the tenants on his land.

Nothing. He gave it all.

Even his own beloved son!

And the same was true of Jesus is what He was trying to convey.

In modern terms Jesus’ message would go something like this:

Listen, crowds, I am about to give my life, own very life so that you can live abundantly too. I am about to show you how determined I am in my mission. Nothing, no nothing is going to separate me from you if you only open yourself up to receive me.

And in giving my life, I’m creating a new kind of kingdom.

A kingdom where it doesn’t matter who deserved what: rich or poor!

A kingdom where it doesn’t matter what your position is: slave or free!

A kingdom where it doesn’t matter where your faith story began: Jew or Gentile!

This is all you need to know about my kingdom. I’m going to be the cornerstone on which it is all built.

It is as if this parable is leading us to SEE what God's table might look like.

For there’s room at God’s table for brothers and sisters who have been eating at the table their whole life who are superstars of Sunday School. And there’s room for those who have not.

There is room at God’s table for those who follow scriptures to the degree of the law and have their daily devotions every day. And there’s room for those who are not.

There is room at the table of God for those who are from the United States with citizenship. And there’s for those who do not.

The question in becomes when is the last time our churches, our communion suppers and our dinner tables were full of people that lived into Jesus' words about what God's table is all about?

Luke 17:11-19

Sermon Preached at Watonga Indian Baptist Mission, Watonga, OK

There are two words that are never going out of style in the English language.

And they are_____. (Thank you).

We all love to be appreciated. We all love to have our good deeds noticed. We all love to know that our good works have meant something to someone we care about.

But we aren’t a culture that is really very good at thank you's are we?

(When is the last time you wrote a real thank you note?)

While many parents’ number one goal in raising their children is to teach them to say “please and thank you” frequently such doesn’t happen. I have a friend who teaches Kindergarten at a local school and she once spoke about her greatest social challenge with her students, getting them to say thank-you when their classmates shared something.

And it is not just the young ones that have trouble with thank you. I have also have spent a good time in retirement communities where you walk the halls and say hello no one says anything in return, even if they are wide awake.

I don’t know how you feel about the importance of the words “thank you” in your home, but if you’ve ever been frustrated with the lack of “thank you” in the world today, then you will find good company with Jesus this morning. Because what we find is a story of Jesus healing a group of people and Jesus not getting much back in return.

And this is the scene: Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. While passing the border between Samaria and Galilee, he and his disciples hit a rest stop known as a local village.  And in this village, Jesus and his disciples were greeted by a group of ten men. Though it was not usual at this point for crowds to approach Jesus, this encounter was different. For, the group that spoke to him was made up entirely of lepers-- a contagious skin disease that caused massive deformity.

These lepers “kept their distance” from Jesus and his friends as was prescribed in the Jewish law as recorded in the book of Leviticus.  The decree about leprosy was this, “This person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair but unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!” As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45-46)

What a life, right?

I can only imagine that as they approached Jesus that day, how the years of pain and isolation must have weighed on them. Crying out “unclean, unclean!” day in and day out.

Though pale by comparison to many other instances, we recently had an experience in our house that gave me greater sympathy for who have dealt with skin deforming or long-term contagious diseases. Kevin got the shingles.

During the two weeks that followed and Kevin while was contagious our whole household routine was altered.

I have to confess that in response I went a little crazy trying to make sure I didn’t get it too. I just couldn’t help myself in figuring out ways to separate our lives so I would not get sick.

I made these rules: we would not sit on the same pieces of furniture. We would wash all of the sheets and towels immediately in hot water after Kevin finished with them.  We would wash our hands frequently and we would clean the bathroom a lot.

A week or so in to the ordeal, I think what was worse was not just the physical pain Kevin had but the social isolation. He told me how much he missed human contact. He missed being able to come home and sit wherever he wanted on the couch.

Probably such was much the same for the group that approached Jesus that day.  Their only community came from those with disease like themselves. They were regularly mocked, ignored and disregarded for having anything of value to add to society. Their family members kept their distance. There was little hope that they’d ever get “well” because known medicine at the time had few solutions. They had learned to follow the rules and they knew how to call out “Unclean! Unclean!”

Yet, they risked approaching Jesus because they hoped something was different about him.  He was not just a mere man. They believed Jesus could be God’s son. Thus, we hear these words of greeting in our text: the lepers called out to him, “Jesus, Master.”

And, Jesus’ response was, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

We might think this that this is a strange request—why did they need to go to the priests? Could have Jesus just healed them on the spot?

Much like a person today wrongly accused and placed on the sex-offender registry, to be a leper was a sentence of societal isolation until the religious powers that be changed the degree about the person.

A leper needed to be first verified by the priests BEFORE the person could re-enter the world and be treated like everyone else.

So, in Jesus telling them to go to the priest, he was saying to them, in your faith in me, go get what you need to have your cure from leprosy. Go to the priest and you will be clean.

What happened next? Verse 14 tells us that without hesitation all 10 go as Jesus tells them, and “as they went, they were made clean.” It was a miracle! They were given the cure that each of them had been dreaming about for years! What a day! What an amazing day it was.

Yet this is what I want you to pay attention to: we hear no record that 9 of 10 lepers ever saw or talked to Jesus again. 9 of them said nothing more to Jesus. There would be no thank you from their lips.

It would be easy at this point to begin to speak negatively of them. Why did they NOT say thank you? Wouldn’t have that been the polite thing to do? Yet, we never hear harsh criticism by Jesus of them.

Jesus knew they had celebrating to do. For enjoying the experience of freedom, especially when it hasn’t been enjoyed for a long time is all-consuming and important. I can imagine for these nine guys there were relatives to visit, there were children to hug, there was partying to do. The lepers were cured after all and life would be forever different!

What about that one, though? The one who we read about in verse 15 who “saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God in a loud voice.” What was different about his experience? What did he come back and say thank you?

I think distinction comes as we follow the word “see” through the passage.

First, there is Jesus, who in the beginning of the encounter “saw” the lepers for the human beings that they were as they cried, “Unclean! Unclean!”

And, then there is this one who after being cured on his way to see the priest, “saw” himself as a new person and turned back to go to see Jesus once again.

This ONE came back because he saw his life differently. He took the time to realize the things that God had done for him. And we could call this gratitude.

Merriam Webster defines gratitude as a state of being thankful of the benefits received. And, though this word was not used directly in the text (for it wasn’t a word believe to be coined until 1523 AD) it’s a wonderful example of what gratitude is all about.

And this is the powerful part of the story, I think: in this one man’s coming back to say thank you, he was more than cured from his disease he was healed.

There’s a difference between being cured of something and being healed.

Being cured of a disease is all about having the physical symptoms going away. But healing is about something much deeper—healing is about emotional peace and spiritual peace and being able to walk in this world differently.

And this one who came back to say thank you got both a cure and healing too.

How? Jesus tells him that “his faith had made him well.” I want to stick with the word, “well” for just a minute because I believe it has a lot to teach us about what transpired.  The phrase, “made you well” comes from the Greek word sozo which is commonly translated “to save.” A soter is a “savior, deliverer.” Thus, in being “made well” the Samaritan finds salvation, but not salvation in the way that many of us might think of in terms of the typical “get saved” terminology. No, rather, by coming back in praise of God, the former leper acknowledged his dependence on something greater than himself.

And, in doing this, the years of anger, the years of bitterness, “Why me, God?” the years of emotional and spiritual pain were no longer chains that bound him up on the inside, as much as his disease isolated him from others on the outside.  He finds rest for his soul, rest that was more than just having been cured from leprosy could have given him.

Healing as the ultimate virtue is not often the way our minds work though.

There are countless situations that you and I have on our hearts, have mentioned today in the prayer request time, and have shared with our loved ones this week that are in need of a cure.

We all know people who are struggling with cancer, depression, and addiction that can’t seem to go away . . .  We keep lifting up these situations in prayer and often as we pray, we pray for a “cure” to whatever is going wrong.  Right?

We say things like: “Dear Lord, please make my mom better.”

“Dear God, please help my son not make so many bad decisions.”

“Dear Lord, help me not kill my boss. Give me into a new job.”

Sometimes we feel our prayers are answered. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we want to lash out at God and say, “Why is he still sick? This is all YOUR fault.”

But, this morning, I want to suggest in moments like this, we might in fact be focusing on the wrong things . . .

What if we, left the possibility of the “cures” to the mystery of life, and instead, remembered that all of life is gift? None of us are ever promised tomorrow. So we can be grateful for today.

What if didn’t associate gratitude just with the season of Thanksgiving—rather every day of the year?

What if our prayers to God were about healing, not just cures?

What if we said to God "Make me well" and let go of the control of what it looked like?

This is what I most know: only leper who was healed was the one engaged in gratitude.

He was not afraid to be vulnerable and come back and share his joy with the Lord.

He was not afraid to speak of what was most important in his life.

He was willing to humble himself and say, “Thank you.”

It’s a discipline, alright, because really there are moments when the practice of being grateful is truly the last thing that you and I want to do, especially for the parents in this room-- the group gathered here this morning who have pledged to dedicate their children in this church. I know that you love and appreciate your children, but when is the last time they drove you crazy? Was it yesterday? I bet it wasn’t easy to be grateful for them then!

But gratitude for this day and for our life is so very important to what it means to know Jesus. For in gratitude, we are able to open up our eyes and see the world in new ways. We can see:

A smile from a stranger . . . .

A devoted friend . . . .

An unexpected path to something new . . . .

Unconditional love from a family member . . . .

A touching word of encouragement . . . .

I have no idea, I know, my friends, what the dark places of brokenness are in your life today, but what I do know is that gratitude is an invitation to all of us to light shining through. Gratitude is an invitation to healing. Gratitude is where God’s love can shine forth in our lives and bring us peace.

Let us with thanksgiving, pray together today as a community as we sing, that we may have the sight to see God’s good work around our lives even as we speak.

AMEN

13947_10151460966534168_1047107490_nFor many of you who follow me online you might know that I made a big deal out of my birthday last year. I was turning 33. I called it my Jesus year for I'd reached the age in which Jesus was when he died. Big accomplishment for my geeky religious soul. Right? My sister even got me this t-shirt to mark the occasion.

Birthdays, in my opinion really aren't that exciting after 30. You start to realize that you aren't that young anymore (like you were at 23) and there's so much you want to do (or haven't done with your life) and time is ticking. Is there really anything good about turning a year older when you don't get something cool out of it like renting a car for less or getting to drink?

So for me, naming my birthday last year was my way of trying to make it more fun.I didn't go as far as to make a project out of it like this person did, but still it was something I thought about through 2013. It was bound to be a good year I thought or at least a real transformative one. Wasn't that the case for Jesus? I joked with my friends that my year wouldn't end in death.

But now it is over. I'm still alive. I made it to 34 last Friday.

So what I do I think about it all now? Was 33 really all that special?

Last year, I found myself jobless (at least in the traditional sense) for the first time in my adult life. I found myself spending time in a state where my husband and I had no friends. I found myself having to re-sort everything I thought I knew about life as entered what felt like an intense spiritual wilderness experience. I found myself with a large mass causing infection to my entire abdominal region requiring emergency surgery. I found myself on my back, forced to rest and heal for 2 months. Then, later I found myself re-emerging from these and other intense experiences with greater clarity and drive than I've had in years.  I got glimmers of light in the darkness.

If I were to pick a theme text for 33 it would be this one from Philippians: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and share in the fellowship of his sufferings."  This is what a Jesus year is all about. It's about pushing through. It's about slowing down. It's about seeing what in life matters. It's about feeling your own pain and that of others too. It's about walking through fire and coming out on the other side as something new. It's about gifts that only suffering can bring.

And so this is all true: I've made new friends in unlikely places. I've been forced to open up myself up to new ways of seeing the world. I've found a centering place in the mystery of God. I've not crumbled completely pieces when I got the worst possible news as I was carried by love and hope.

What will 34 hold? I got several birthday cards this weekend wishing me the best year ever. Will it be such? Who really knows. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift; that’'s why they call it the present."

All I know for sure is that I am grateful to have another year to learn and breathe and be in good health and to walk alongside companions on this journey who love me as much as I love them. 34: bring it on!  (I always liked even numbers better anyway!)