Word of the Week

We live in a growing interfaith world.

We simply do not marry or interact or learn from people who come from the same exact faith background as us.

Rarely do any us stay "one thing" our whole life without influence from another tradition. And, because of social media, have so many opportunities to know who God by route of those who might call God a different name than us.

Today I'm sharing the story of how I released the exclusive beliefs of my childhood through relationships with interfaith friends. I know the teachers of my evangelical past might say that I've lost my way, but I've chosen love and shared wisdom over judgment. Here's my surprising conversion:

The first time I heard the phrase “God is too big for any one religion” I was in seminary in North Carolina.This statement was found on a bumper sticker on my roommate’s car. I looked at it every morning when I walked out of the house to go to school. I was intrigued, but confused.

Growing up with a “Jesus is the only way to God” upbringing, I had no idea about what to think of my Baptist soon-to-be clergy friend’s bold declaration on her car.

Was she crazy being so public about her inclusive theology in the Bible Belt? I worried about her safety on the road.

Several years later I found myself pastoring full-time in the Washington DC area—the land of much cultural and ideological diversity. In my free time, I dated Kevin, also a Baptist, who lived in a shared house in the city with two other guys. I liked them a lot. They were funny, smart and accepting of my growing presence in their home. They just so happened to be Hindu and Baha’i.

Read the rest over at my friend, Rev. J. Dana Trent's blog.

"But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed." Luke 5:16

What does this practice look like in our modern context?

Last summer I spent a week of training for my spiritual director certificate at the Interfaith Institute in Berkeley, CA. Throughout the week, my cohort explored the practice of deeply listening to one another through a variety of different activities. We shared stories. We worked with images. And we even went on solitary walks. Now, eight months later, the memories of this experience are some I still treasure dearly.

And, there's one gem I gained from our Hindu instructor I've thought a lot about this Lent. She said, "If you want to listen to God, then you need to limit media you are taking in." Or in other words she offered: "If you want to be close to the Divine, ask yourself, why are you watching so much tv or listening to so much of the radio or watching movies on Netflix online?" Her words were practical and to the point.

I love media like most of you. Sometimes I think my computer is attached to my body. Sometimes I find myself sad when I don't have a day to catch up on the recorded shows on my DVR box and just veg out. Sometimes the silence of driving in the car with the radio is deafening. My generation loves noise.

But then there are moments when I truly turn it all off and I'm so glad I did.

On Sunday night, Kevin and I were cooking in our Oklahoma apartment's kitchen. The counter space is limited and we were side by side. He was chopping fruit. I was baking bread. We were preparing to host breakfast the next morning for the country directors from Feed The Children in town for the week.

We had both previously commented how excited we were about watching the Oscars. Being movie buffs, we couldn't wait to see who won what and how funny (or not) the jokes were. But then a strange thing happened. We came home from the grocery store and we didn't turn the tv on.

I don't know how, but we forgot about the Oscars.

We unloaded the car, cooked in silence for a while and then began to talk to each other-- sharing details about our weeks that we would have missed if we didn't take this time of pause. I learned more about some of Kevin's deep burdens and he learned more about mine.

I think that listening to God is like this. I think this is what Jesus was modeling for us when he went to the lonely places and prayed.

Sure, we all might have intentions about what we are "doing" this Lent to grow in our faith-- no sweets, no soda, exercising more or even drinking more water, but what good are these things if we don't allow the slower pace of life to help us listen?

Listening to what we are to do next in our daily rhythms . . .

Listening to what our primary relationships need most from us . . .

Listening to what we can only hear if we turn our tvs and computers off . . .

In reading through the gospels, it seems to me that as much as Jesus was "on" and busy, he was always looking for a retreat, quiet and silence. Thank goodness that it is this season, that reminds us every year that the most important thing we can all do is unplug and listen!

It is easy in many religious circles to push people away based on what they believe or profess.

We can't be friends anymore because you believe in evolution. I believe in creationism.

We can't be friends anymore because you believe in gay marriage. I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.

We can't be friends anymore because you believe the Bible is without errors. I believe it is full of them.

We can't be friends anymore because you believe all religious paths lead to God. I believe you must pray only one prayer to be assured of heaven at the end of it all.

Now while the exact phrase "we can't be friends" may or may not come up, the sentiment is still there. We cling to those who are like us. We tarry from those who are not. Journey into the Christian community a little bit at all and you'll find such to be true.

We love to spent our time saying who is in and who is out.

Recently while at a Barnes and Noble, I found two books in close prolixity to each other that struck me as odd. One was entitled Why the Christian Right Is Wrong and the other said Reclaiming America's Conservative Future from the Wacky Liberals. Oh how fun it is to believe we've got the correct market on God and try to make money writing about it.

But what happens when God comes close to you in someone you don't expect? What if you see the presence of God in a neighbor that your church teaches you to shun? What if you find the Spirit in a place your colleagues or family likes to label as evil?

It is when love changes things. For it is hard to cast a person or their faith aside when you begin to love them, when you begin seeing the tenderness in their soul, the deep pains of their life and the shared fears that go into making us a part of the human family.

Recently I made a new friend. We are an unlikely match. He is a fan of the seven day creation theory and likes to talk about it, a lot. I don't care one way or the other very much. He likes to go on mission trips for the sake of evangelism. I am not sure such is the best use of his resources. He is 30 years older than me too and from a part of the country that I am not particularly fond of. But we've become friends and out of this friendship I've seen his heart. I know he means well and just wants the best life can be like I do. I know he authentically wants others to experience more of God's love in his life just as he is doing. I respect him. And in my own way I wish my generosity of spirit was as deep as his.

Love changed my hardened heart about folks of "his kind" and I am making baby steps in a new direction. It's new and scary to make friends like this but wonderful too.

I can't help but think we all need to keep challenging ourselves in this way. In this week ahead of a presidential election may we all think twice before we tweet a hateful remark about "the other side." Or stop ourselves short of defriending a relative on Facebook who posts ideas we don't agree with. Or stop ourselves short of trash talking over dinner another's church with the loud worship band and projector screens when we prefer the quiet. It is the little things, we know...

May we all open room in our heart for the possibility of love changing things, finding friends on unexpected paths.


 I’m Spiritual but Not Religious: James 1:17-27

Today’s excuse in our "Excuses" series is among the most commonly cited why people don’t come to church. I’ve heard countless versions of it during my tenure as Pastor at Washington Plaza, even.

“Pastor, I don’t think I need to come to church. I’d rather commute with God by watching the birds on Sunday. This is my spirituality.”

“Pastor, I don’t think I’m coming to come to church anymore. It’s nothing against you or the church people. You all are nice and all. I just don’t need a church and it’s religion for my faith.”

“Pastor, I just don’t know how you can stand working for the institutional church. Have you read history books? Have you read the news lately? The church hurts people. I just don’t get how you could be in the ‘religion’ business.”

And, as I’m preaching to the faithful this morning, a crowd gathered here to worship God in August (yes, the traditional low attendance month in churches across the country), I know I’m preaching to the choir. I’m preaching today to a congregation of folks who apparently aren’t hung up in all of the “spiritual vs. religion” cultural debates because you are here.  You understand the importance of a communal spiritual life. And different from some of your peers, you’ve been able to reconcile the idea of your spiritual life finding a home in an institutional house of worship, in particular Washington Plaza Baptist Church.

But, today, I’m musing about this statement, “I’m spiritual but not religious” in hopes of opening up a larger conversation that I hope we can continue together later around the lunch tables in the Plaza room. It’s a conversation we need to have and keep having together.  Because most of all it’s a topic that we in the modern church must stop fighting snarky word wars over. Instead, we must commit ourselves to understanding why the “spiritual but not religious” folks are among the fastest growing group of seekers in our country.

The thing is—you can find very passionate, insightful and God-loving people on either side. Though we are quick to judge, no matter where we stand on it.

Those of us who choose to practice our faith in the context of a community called a church often do so for more than just reasons of “It’s what I’ve always done” or “It’s what my parents brought me up to believe.” Those who make church membership and attendance a priority in their lives often say that God meets them in worship, in study groups with fellow disciples, and in close-knit fellowship of community life. We aren’t necessarily without a rich inner life that those in the spiritual community boast they only found outside the church.

And in the same way, spiritual but not religious folks, are good people too. Many of them think Jesus is a pretty rad dude and frame their lives around his teaching. Their lives aren’t void of faith practice. In fact, they often are full of them! The seriously spiritual pray, read, meditate, etc. with great furor and discipline. And because of this emphasis on preparation for the divine, they often use their keen intuition to seek out God wherever they find themselves—places those of us with our heads in the church might miss. It’s not a question of laziness—but in many cases actually a choice based on hard work that puts the “religious” to shame.

But, even with this true—we in the church often feel like our spiritual but not religious friends are the distant step child that we’d just wish would get with the program, stop being so independent and critical of our structures and join our membership rolls.

We often feel tempted to criticize their faith, especially as their attitude of “My faith can survive without your unnecessary institution” seems like a big slap in the face, to what we’ve worked so hard to hold together all of these years.  We feel tempted to talk about their egos without even considering our own. And, in light of this, I could easily stop this sermon this morning and invite us to all go home and re-read the Prodigal Son story from the perspective of the older son who got mad when the son left home and the father loved him the wayward younger son the same . . . But I’ll wait for that exhortation for later.

But regardless, our culture seems operate with these assumptions—spirituality is good; religion is bad.

Spirituality equals pure faith and God’s presence. Religion equals corruption, human made flawed structures.

We find religion in churches. We find God in spirituality.

Yet, into this conversation enters our New Testament lesson for this morning, taken from the book of James, most likely written by James, the brother of Jesus.  And while it’s a book that Martin Luther was known to say is the “epistle of straw” for its practical approach to faith instead of theological—it’s ancient text wrestling what might not be truly modern problem after all.

To the community in which James wrote, a group of believers in Jesus struggled with how much this new movement called Christianity was about truth statements and how much it was about actions which spoke without words.

Though there were many who said: “We’d better get our theology in order. We need to write more doctrine.” There were others who said, “Theology is well and good, but what does it mean? What does it look like?”

And to these questions James answers by saying let me tell you more about who God is and what that means to you. It’s not that I want to throw out all the great work that Paul has done, helping us to understand the essence of faith. But, I do want to tell you something else and that is this basic wisdom: you can talk a good game for a long as you want, have all the right answers with what you think Jesus meant about this and that, but if your life doesn’t show what you believe then it’s all rubbish. Pure rubbish

Look with me at verses 26 and 27: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

James is getting to the heart of the manner which is religion for religion’s sake is worthless.  Yes, truly!  If we keep up tradition, for tradition’s sake, it’s worthless.

If we conduct church business in a particular way because it how they did it back in 1995, it’s worthless.

If we maintain our buildings for the sake of maintaining our buildings, then it’s worthless.

And it’s not that traditions are bad or religious structures like church buildings are evil. But, rather, James exhorts us, that if we do not consider why it is that we do certain things and have certain things then, we really shouldn’t call this faith. We should call it religion for all we are doing is maintaining the framework of what has led us to God in the past but is not necessarily what is going to lead us to God in the future.

And these are the kind of questions we’ve been asking ourselves as a church together over the past year. Questions like:

“Why do we always to have all of these standing committees? Why not staff the committees/ positions of church leadership where we have energy in our congregation to serve and are essential to our life together as a community?”

“Why do we always have to worship just as a single church? Maybe there might be other churches like Martin Luther King Christian who would want to worship with us from time to time?”

“Why do we always have a full meal at coffee hour? Might there be weeks when just bagels will do to provide the same kind of life-giving table fellowship?”

And I truly believe we have more “Why do we always do___?” questions to ask ourselves in the future.

But notice what I didn’t say. I didn’t say that the structures are bad. Rather, mindless choices we make in the name of religious tradition never up for reconsideration are. Because sometimes traditions and religious teaching and practice can be indeed just this—practice from human hands, flawed and in need of a fresh wind of the Spirit upon it over time.

Because the Spirit moves in our world, we believe, right? And if we believe that the spirit moves then, what God wanted from us and what we spent so much time building in 1980 might not be what God wants from us in 2012. When we hold tighter onto tradition than we do Spirit we often have religion. When we hold tight to what the traditions of our religion offer us with room for the Spirit to shake us as needed, we have spirituality.

When it all boils down to it—James begs the church of his day and the church of our day to ask ourselves—are you spinning your wheels on building up what matters or are you just spinning your wheels?

Is your religion that of caring for orphans and widows i.e. those in need of compassionate justice in this world? Is your religion of following the teachings of Jesus or just debating them or pointing out how other Christians aren’t living into them?  Is your religion that of building bigger buildings and structures that leave a mark of “we were once here?”

If so, then, James tells us to re-think our religion.

Anytime I do a funeral service, I find myself repeating a phrase of exhortation to the mourners—a phrase, I hope at least some of them might remember later because it asks them to channel the grief and loss of their loved one into well lived personal lives that bring glory to God.  I guess I should get some new material but I can’t seem to find a better way to say it.

“When you and I die, only one thing matters: not how much money we have, not how many flowers decorate the alter, not how many people attend, not how many groups or societies we belonged to—only one thing—is it well with our souls? Are our lives in harmony with God? What will profit a man or woman if he or she gains the whole world and loses their own soul?”

So, this brings me to the place where I really want to say to those people who tell them they are too spiritual for churchI understand. I hear your frustrations. And you really want to find more God in your life and it just seems like a purer search to go at it on your own. I realize the church can be a messed up place. Institutions are like this. Sometimes we make good decisions that bring us together and other times we miss the mark painfully.  And I consider myself a spiritual person too.

But, I also claim my religion as much as I claim my spirituality. I am a Christian. And with that comes the place called the church where generations of other believers before me have lived out their faith too. Is the church perfect? Has it made way more mistakes in its formation, declarations, and judgments than it has for the good of the world? Probably.

Yet, I won’t leave the church, though; it might be a lot easier in the short turn with a lot less meetings. Why? My faith is communal. It’s communal with the saints and sinners who have gone before me. It’s communal with the saints and sinners who fill the pages of my life right now. I believe the Christian journey, like that of the Jewish journey or the Muslim journey, is one at requires a lot more “we” than “I.” I need the church’s religion for my spirituality to have a home. It may not always be my only home, but it’s my home nonetheless.

So this morning, I’m asking you to consider again how much the spiritual but not religious among us are right—sometimes church we have our noses so deep in the sand that we forget the vastness of God that can only be found outside these four walls.

But our calling to be the church—to love each other, to love God and follow the teachings of Jesus together continues on, no matter who validates our togetherness or laughs at it while riding their boat  or reading the paper on Sunday morning. Yet, knowing when our faith is lived out – being doers of the word, not just hearers only, it might just might look 100% different from any church we ever expected to be.  So if you are with me on this, hang on to your seats and get ready, change is coming. It always does. It's just a part of our spiritual journey together.

May God continue to lead our church by the Spirit with courage to go wherever Jesus leads us.


One of the greatest surprises I have encountered in my almost 4 years of ministry as a lead pastor relates to the practice of leaving church. Growing up in the South, there would be times when people left the church to begin to attend other churches. In the DC area it seems especially in my setting, such is not the case. When people leave the church, they seem to leave the church for no church.

It makes me sad every time it happens especially because the reasons given for such a departure usually aren't things that can be "fixed." These aren't people storming off mad because of some controversal vote at a business meeting. They aren't citing me as a horrible pastor. These aren't people fleeing because they found some other community that meets their needs in a deeper way. They leave simply because they want to leave. And these are some of the reasons they give:

1. I am too spiritual for the church.

2. I  don't need a community to live out my faith.

3. I'd rather pray at home and do yoga.

4. I am too busy for church. I travel so much for work and fun. Considering all the time I'm gone it just doesn't seem worth it to come during the couple of times a year that I don't have anything better to do.

5. I don't like ____ person. I can't come to the same worship space as them. I've been hurt. I will not come back. Reconciliation . . . that is out of the question.

6. My life is just too hard right now. I can't be a part of a community. I need space. Lots of space.

7. This ____ project at church didn't turn out like I hoped it would. Since I didn't get my way, I can't come back. It's too embarrassing.

And the list could go on.

At this juncture, the direction of this blog post could go several ways. I could pout. I could suggest a superiority of those church going Christians who keep on keeping on even when unfavorable things happen. I could strive to make comments about the state of American religion and the dying mainline church. I could propose some grand idea about how to reform the church so that such "I quit the church" declarations decrease.

But, I won't do any of these things because I'm just not sure any of them are right or helpful.

The most helpful thing I know to say is to simply talk about my experience honestly. It is always good to start with a clear sense of where you are if you ever want to move to any other place.

People are leaving church for no church. But I don't think this makes the church any less important in society (for example, I do weddings and funerals all the time for those who are without a church who want to celebrate major life events in a holy space with a minister). Nor, do I think that folks are searching spiritually any less. They are just finding what they want outside our walls. They find God in nature. They find God in community seminars. They find God in their relationships. Which begs us to ask ourselves the larger question: what are our walls for?

There are some moments of your life that you simply waste. Minus having this blog to write, I could say this about my television viewing experience last night watching the pilot episode of the ABC drama, "GCB."

It's a satirical drama set in the city of Dallas, TX well set within themes of southern culture and religion. Fellow blogger and colleague, Alan Rudnick, wrote a great summary post about its plot and what the title GCB actually stands for. I would suggest that you check out his blog.

Of course being interested in all things religious and also a native of the South, I agreed to watch GCB via request of my husband, Kevin. Kevin loves being in the know about new television shows and movies and couldn't wait to check GCB out. I didn't think I was going to like it, but with my supportive, "I want to spend time with you" wife hat on, I took it all in.

I only made it through 30 minutes of this one hour show before I was off to do something else. Simply stated: Christians according to GCB are hypocritical, sacrilegious, back-biting and frequently do works of charity out of fear of "not looking the part" among their church friends. It reminded a lot of the feature film from several years ago, Saved (which I can only watch in small chunks).

Alan, in his post talks about how many Christians will have a problem with GCB because of the language and the behavior and the type of Christian culture it portrays (I can't imagine how much hate mail ABC executives are getting right now from right wingers). Alan takes a positive stance and suggests that the presence of a show like GCB on the air is a chance for Christians "to laugh through satire when Christians miss the mark." And, I guess if you don't laugh, you cry, so laughing might be a good exhortation here!

And while, yes I am a fan of satire and not taking one's self too seriously (appropriate uses of humor are always good, I'm with you Alan on this one), I have to say that I was saddened by GCB because I felt so much of the show IS TRUE. In my imagination, I can easily see such characters not as fictional but as real people who can be found in the upper to middle class sections of Dallas as well as other places across the Bible Belt. While the entire South is not ultra conservative, white, evangelical, and closed-minded-- many residents within seem to still live in a cultural bubble. And, their churches and their church leaders to which they cling for council seem to give them permission to isolate themselves as they wish.

The South is a place where one's religion or lack their of is tied to one's identity. A typical church gathering, in many settings can contain a person quoting scripture in one breath and lying, cheating or gossiping in the next. Consider this personal example: I attended a Baptist college in Birmingham, AL and a typical Sunday morning for most students at Samford University, in my experience, included either a) going to church or b) pretended that they went to church even if they didn't by dressing up to go to brunch at the cafeteria. Unless you wanted to be known as one of the campus heathens, you'd fix your hair, put on nice make-up and your Sunday shoes for lunch on Sunday-- no matter where you spent your morning. I called the whole thing "plastic Christianity." It was gross.

It's not that I don't believe that Christians don't miss the mark and that we shouldn't laugh at ourselves. (I miss the mark and find reasons to laugh at myself almost every day!).And I don't want to come across as a hater of the South, because I'm not. I look forward to visiting family and friends in the South and enjoying its unique charms when I can. But, what concerns me most is the land of denial that we live in as people of faith when we see shows like GCB and don't recognize the deeper problems in American society as we've unashamedly wed religion, culture and politics. And, I grieve the lack of clergy leadership among my colleagues in NOT calling our "church culture" problems into the light.

This is what I know about faith: 

Faith has always been about a real relationship with God in the day in and day out moments of our lives: not a relationship we get from just showing up on Sunday at services.

Faith has always been about actions that bring forth our inner convictions to world (read the book of James lately?) Faith without works is dead, after all.

Faith has always been about being in the world but not being of the world, so that people know we are Christians not by our hypocrisy but our love. Saying when we make mistakes, "I was wrong" but not making tv shows about how crazy we are. Why? Because we are aiming for a higher standard of discipleship.

Living out a life of faith is hard enough without filling my brain space with images of the type of Christians that irritate me the most. Chilling out by watching tv can be a relaxing way to spend an evening, but not when the show hits too close to home no matter how many good actors and actresses are in it. All I know is that GCB is not for me. (Rant over).

God Calls You: to See What Others Don't  I Samuel 3:1-10; Romans 12:1-8

Several years ago while participating in the Lewis Fellows Young Clergy Leadership program, our group of 30 pastors gathered in Atlanta, Georgia for 3 days of workshops. One afternoon, our discussion sessions suspended and we were all encouraged to walk from our downtown hotel to the historic district of the city known as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s childhood home. Because we were studying leadership, it was important, we were told to get to know the culture and surroundings which shaped the greatest American civil rights leader of all times.  Those of us who had not been to this site were eager for the opportunity to visit and absorb as much as we could.

As we began to walk around MLK's childhood home, it became apparent that one of the greatest  influencers we learned upon Martin's life was his father. Though raised in separate but not equal segregated Atlanta schools-- his Martin Sr. was known to push his son to not become complacent in his studies or in his life.

One historian wrote: "Martin Luther King, Sr., quite often referred to simply as "Daddy King," served as the first role model for young Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of the principal influences in molding his personality. . . . He assisted in the organization of voter registration drives, participated in the NAACP, and sat on the board of Morehouse College. As pastor of the local church, he embedded strong religious ideals in his son and linked him to the church. The lectures from both King's parents on the subject of racial harmony stuck with Martin and armed him against all forms of prejudice."[i]

As the national park service guide concluded the tour, he summed up our experience in the home by saying, "If it wasn't for Martin, Sr. paving the way-- calling out academic and spiritual gifts in his son, we might not be standing here today talking about this man who did so much good for our country and the racial equality of all humankind."

Similarly, today, our lection for this morning directs our attention to one of the greatest priest and prophets of all in time found in the Old Testament: Samuel, who would begin his life of service at a young age through an apprenticeship.  Samuel, who would become a spiritual leader for turbulent times of transition in Israel's life together-- guiding and anointing the first two kings in the nation's history.

But, as we know, we don't just arrive in life without being under the influence of someone who teaches us. Who was the influence behind the spiritual upbringing of Samuel, like Martin Luther King Sr. was to his son? The answer arises in our lection for this morning.

In Samuel's childhood, Eli served God in the temple as the head priest. Though not his father, Eli had been in relationship with Samuel from his toddler years. Samuel's mother, Hannah, who struggled to conceive, prayed hard for Samuel's arrival. Eli was there to give Hannah a word of encouragement that God heard her prayers and one day she'd have a child. And, when Samuel was born and once weaned, Hannah dedicated Samuel to God in the temple for a life of service. Eli became his guardian.

Yet, while this story sounds beautiful from its beginning, it is important to note that all was not perfect. There were great problems in the land.  Historically, since Moses and Joshua lead the nation of Israel to the Promise land, the people weren't very good at listening or paying attention to God's plans for their lives. The leadership system in place of judges did not receive wide-spread support from the people.  The spiritual foundation in the land became increasingly far off-center of what God's presence in their lives looked like. 

Furthermore, in a culture were religious leaders passed from generation to generation, Eli's biological sons were not up for the job. The son to son business of serving in the temple would stop with Eli. In fact, prophets had already showed up at Samuel's doorstep foretelling the consequences of the sons' corrupt behavior.  Personally, I can imagine that Eli grieved the sadness of unmet expectations on part of his family-- they were not the family he wanted them to be.

So with all of this true, it didn't exactly seem like a moment in time when God would show up . . . when God would do something new... when God would bless.  

Yet, if we know anything about our God we know that when we least expect is the very time that God does begin to move.

And, Eli emerges as the natural first choice. But, Eli, what? What was God thinking in picking him to begin this new movement in Israel's history that would begin with the call of Samuel.

This is what we know: Eli probably thought his moment in time of doing anything significant with his life had passed.  It was his time to retire-- to kick back and enjoy life a little. And, physically, his health is failing. He's going blind in fact. Look with me at verse two where we are told about Eli, "whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see."

Again, let me reiterate that seems completely unlikely that Eli would be the one to SEE anything significant. He couldn't see.

But, he does see.  In the paradigm of how God works in the world-- using the most unlikely of us for the most unlikely of tasks, God calls out Eli to use his gift of prophecy or discernment to SEE things for Samuel.

In our New Testament lesson for today, we heard the words of Paul that we've stuck close to all weekend if you've been around for our chili cook-off and special Bible study sessions this morning. We've learned that we all have spiritual gifts. And these gifts are meant not for ou r own good, but to build up the Body of Christ. And, most of all, we've learned that using our spiritual gifts is how we move in and through our corners of the world with SIGHT bigger than just what we know.  Offering our gifts to God is how we worship the Lord with our daily lives.

If our gift is service, we will see things that need to be done and do it--  we'll see when the kitchen needs to be cleaned, the paper products to be refilled in the bathroom, the food collected here to be taken over to the food bank. And, we will do.

If our gift is mercy, we will see the hearts of the hurting and broken-- offering a listening ear, a tissue, or simply being a presence.

If our gift is encouragement, we will see the bigger spiritual picture of individual and groups concerns-- offering a word of motivation, placing a meaningful book in a person's hands at just the right time, or offering to share a testimony in worship of where we see God at work in our lives.

If our gift is teaching, we will see the deeper truths in the texts of scripture and other literature that are meant to grow others in wisdom and knowledge-- enjoying the research process of preparing to teach as much as the teaching and watching the joy come to folks eyes when they get a new understanding.

If our gift is giving, we will see how our momentary resources can be used for the good if managed well-- being ok with less new things so that more funds can be directed to mission organizations, being ok with not getting credit for making donations, actually preferring it this way, and being blessed by seeing the fruits of their personal sacrifices bless the community at large.

If our gift is leadership, we will see the bigger picture of how to position just the right people in just the right places to bring transformative change in the administrative life of a community-- being the one who steps up and says a word, being the one who coaches others to claim their callings too, being the one who inspires vision in practical ways.

And, if our gift is prophecy, we will see the possibilities of what God can do that may not seem clear in the present moment-- using our voice to say yes to God's leading and helping others do the same.

And such was Eli's gift. When Samuel came to Eli twice in the middle of the night thinking that it was him who was calling his name, "Samuel, Samuel," Eli redirects him back to bed. By the third time Samuel hears a voice calling his name and still comes to Eli thinking that Eli was trying to tell him something, Eli sees the situation clearly. It was the Lord doing the calling. And because this was true, it was Eli's job to help Samuel recognize this and respond accordingly.

In verse 9, we hear Eli's prophetic word: "Therefore Eli said to Samuel, 'Go lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak Lord for your servant is listening."

Though it might be easy to be critical of Eli-- talking about his failings throughout his life and most certainly mentioning that he raised poorly behaved sons-- I believe that in this moment in time Eli fulfilled God's calling upon his life to see what others (aka Samuel) did not.

You see, with all the life-changing, spiritual game changing, Holy Spirit filled moments that Samuel would soon lead within the nation of Israel, it was Eli's six words that helped this boy who had not yet known the Lord to SEE the Lord for the first time. Using his discernment gift, Eli became the influential person who help Samuel think about the inconceivable plans that God had already prepared for his life.

It might be easy at this juncture of the sermon to think that calling to use your spiritual gifts is just for professional Christians or "those important" people (whoever those people are). But need I remind you that God places a calling to use our gifts on ALL of our lives. No one who desires to be used by God is left without a gift. No one.

Over a year ago now after a series of sermons, Sunday School lessons and discussions in Church Council, we agreed as a church to begin a deacon ministry again. And, so we asked for names from all of you of folks you thought had the gifts to do this job full of the gifts of mercy, service and encouragement. And, with my list given to me by the Congregation Care team of who your recommendations were, I began to make some calls to several of you.

While a few said "yes" eagerly right away, most of those I called were quite shy. "Who me? No, I can't be a deacon in this church?" (And you'd go to tell me the reasons why we shouldn't pick you).

But then after some time had passed, several of you came back to me and said, "Well if you believe in me and congregation see these gifts in me, I think I need to give it a try to serve."

And such an experience is not isolated to merely the deacon ministry. Countless times, I've seen the same situation played out in our community life together. Many of you have found yourself in positions of service, leadership or care that you never in a million years imagined you'd be. But, you're the ones signing up now to be being the liturgist, leading one of our ministry teams, helping out in children's Sunday School or serving in our hypothermia project because why? Someone used their gifts to encourage you to use yours.

This is the big picture my friends-- God wants God's body on earth to be blessed. God wants us to have every gift we need for the kingdom building that awaits us. And so God gave us each other. But, not just so we could bump shoulders and see someone sitting beside us in the pew. But, so that by using our calling-- seeing God through OUR particular lens of giftedness-- we help others see what they might never see if it weren't for us.

I dare say if Martin Luther King, Jr. was not taught serious study of the things of God from his father, we would not know his name today or have freedom in all the corners of our land where it exists today.  If  Eli hadn't told Samuel to go and respond to the Lord when God called, we wouldn't have known King David and all that he would teach us about praising God's name through song.

I dare say too that there are countless new stories ready to be written in our community if only we each use our gifts to help others see what they could not see without us recognizing it first. 

In 2003, I attended a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Charlotte, NC where seminary professor and social advocate, Tony Campolo spoke. It came time to give the offering for missions after the sermon. And, the gentleman guiding the program asked Tony to pray before the ushers came forward to receive the offering. Seemed like a very normal churchy thing to do.

However, to the shock of many, Tony refused to pray. "What?!?" we were all thinking in our seats. Instead he said something like this: "We don't need to pray for the offering tonight because this is what I know about God. God has already given each us in this room enough resources to meet our $15,000 offering tonight. All we need to do now is to give. So, I'll start by emptying my wallet with the cash in it and maybe some of you could do the same."

And, just like Tony said that night, we got our $15,000 plus mission offering plus some in that very room.

Rest assured I'm not asking you to empty your wallets this morning . . . . though I am sure the trustees wouldn't mind.

But, what I am saying, like Tony Campolo said about giving, is that in this church, just like other local communities of faith, God has given us every resource we need to do what we are called to accomplish.  God has given us teachers. God has given us servers. God has given us encouragers. God has given us leaders. God has given us those who can show compassion. God has given us givers. God has given us prophets.

This question then just sits on our shoulders: are we going to all God to use our gifts so that others can be blessed through us? How are you going to make God known by seeing what others don't?


[i] Gregg Blackely "Formative Influences on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Peace Magazine. http://peacemagazine.org/archive/v17n2p21.htm

God Calls You to "Those" People: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

When I was in seminary, a peer of mine, who later became a dear friend, realized one important truth the first day of Old Testament class. Brad did not know the basic stories of the Bible. He knew little to nothing about Abraham, Moses, the 12 tribes of Israel, King Saul, David and the like.  Brad was so lost in Bible class that on first pop quiz our professor gave us on the Torah-- otherwise known as the first five books the Hebrew scriptures, he got an F.

You may wonder what a guy like this was doing in seminary. We all wondered too. But then later learned that Brad's upbringing came in a open and accepting denomination like our flavor of Baptists. And, growing up in his home church, Brad said, youth group taught him how to plan service projects and how the gospel of Jesus was all about loving people, but never really learned much about the Bible.

As you can imagine, Brad desperately wanted to bring his grade average out of the failing zone. Brad informed our study group that he'd recently purchased, "Bible for Dummies." And, our group protested his use of such a book for a seminary student. We'd be glad to help, especially the lifelong Bible drill Baptists, my friend and I who probably knew more random facts than we really needed to.  

So, operation Bible 101 for Brad began. As a group we gave Brad extra reading assignments every week and sometimes even make up our own quizzes to give him to track his progress. We also found another great teaching tool for our Bible novice-- and this was the series of children's DVDs called the Veggie Tales.

I don't know if you've ever viewed a Veggie Tale movie before but the premise is simple: to make the great stories of the Bible accessible to children through slight modification of the setting. Instead of the characters being played by human characters, the animated actors are all vegetables led by Bob the tomato and Larry the cucumber.

So, Brad began to watch Veggie Tale episodes faithfully as they corresponded with the lessons. One problem arose though when he watched the Jonah movie, which features our lectionary reading for today. However, Brad walked away with the understanding that Jonah, played by a disobedient asparagus,  hated the Ninevehites because they constantly hit one another in the face with fish.  Additionally, Brad also asked us why the members of the ship sailing to Tarshish instead of Nineveh (when Jonah was running away) played the card game of "go fish" to figure out whose live was not right with God and had to get off the ship.

We had to remind our eager and sometimes gullible friend to always actually READ the text.(Because such details in the movies were added simply to keep the young viewers entertained).  

And though such details in the Veggie Tale version of Jonah's tale seem laughable, if we stick closely to the entire book of Jonah, they might as well be included. The entire narrative reads like one of Aesop's fables. We find very few details of Jonah's life or his previous prophetic activity. He just appears out of nowhere. Furthermore, as the story progresses, we are given no details about how in the world it would be possible for him to survive for three days in the mouth of a fish and miraculously be dumped on dry ground when his "punishment" is over to have a second chance at delivering the message.

While Jonah is often referred to as "Jonah and the whale" as a story meant for kids, I propose today that it is not a story for only for the kids, but an adult tale meant to grow our understanding of God and God's plans for us in the salvation stories of our lives. A story that invites each of us to take a second look at our feelings about the bounds of God's love for those we consider to be "those" people.

It is good to first consider the who and what of Nineveh and why God's message to go preach there was completely out of the question for Jonah.

 Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. It was a city with a strong military base, the seat of all things powerful in the ancient world. If you were a small nation, you feared any contact with Assyria.

Furthermore,  Assyria was more than an enemy. This nation was THE enemy to end  all enemies to the nation of Israel that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel (10 of the 12 tribes) and held the two remaining tribes of Israel, Judah and Benjamin in fear for over 100 years! Years and years of history included brutal treatment, occupation, and taking from Israel their human rights.  Previous prophets were clear about God's judgment on this land which repeatedly mistreated God's beloved people.

But then, a new message came on the scene illuminating a compassionate God. A God who loved even the Assyrians. Yes, there was a time for judgment but there was also a time for love of all the nations, included the much despised.

In Jonah chapter 1, the Lord gets right to the point saying to Jonah in verse two: "Get up and go to that great city of Nineveh! Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are!"

So not only is Jonah going to be asked to go to a faraway place, but to the dreaded enemy! And, Jonah is told when he gets there to give a message of repentance. He doesn't even get to say something nice . . .

It would be like a solider crossing enemy lines not with the white flag of surrender, but saying to those on the other side: "God wants you to repent for you've done really bad things." (Not exactly the words that usher in hospitality from Assyria, wouldn't you agree?).

One commentator defines the situation presented to Jonah as the original mission impossible.  And goes on to write about why this was such a hard thing for Jonah to do saying, "Jonah was from a strip of wilderness that the rest of the world passed through as a way station to somewhere else, kind like 1-95 running through New Jersey. Jonah had no credentials for such an act of international diplomacy. He would get less respect than Ambassador of Palau would get in [here in] Washington D.C. (You get extra credit [for listening to this sermon] if you actually know where Palau is!)." [i]

So, of course with all of this true, Jonah was afraid. Of course, Jonah doubted if this prophetic word was really the Lord who was speaking to him. Of course, Jonah thought it was time to change careers, take a vacation and find his way to the other side of the known world. Because if his previous vocation required speaking for God-- a God who would now send him to Nineveh, then it was time to get a new religion or no religion at all for that matter.

We sympathize rightfully so with Jonah at this juncture, don't we? We could see ourselves in Jonah's shoes will all of the evidence of filing a complaint against God with just cause to do so.  We'd run away too, wouldn't we if God sent us to a place in the world that we hated as much as Nineveh with news bad enough to get us killed?

But what happens if a call of God emerges in our life that no matter what we do to try to run from it, avoid it or pretend we never heart it-- what happens if it doesn't go away? What happens if we are called to be with "those" people and God just won't let us forget? What happens if we find ourselves in the shoes of Jonah?

Around this time last January, Kevin and I sat on a bus heading from West Jerusalem into East Jerusalem in the area of the country known as the "West Bank." We traveled alongside an American Imam, an American evangelical pastor, a Palestinian guide, an Israelite guide and an Jewish Rabbi-- from the United States too, but who had spent extensive time living and studying in and about Israel. 

Though every day of this 10 day Interfaith adventure held new challenges, it was the sixth day of our journey which stretched each of our understandings of Jewish/ Muslim relations within this compact geographic region the most.

Rob, the Rabbi, with us, while having spent time on numerous trips all throughout the region, even some journeys into the West Bank, had never been to the tomb of Yasser Arafat. This sight sat in the Palestinian "capital" city of Ramallah. As we walked around the plaza area and viewed the memorial, our group was asked to take a picture beside the mosque on the property with couple of the guards. I was watching my friend Rob become increasingly more and more uncomfortable.

Years and years of politics, persecution and distasteful words shared between the people of Israel and those of the Palestinian territories  and in particular by Arafat brought great caution to his presence here. It wasn't about this one man: it was about thousands of years of history.

Rob didn't want to be in the group picture with the rest of us. And, in retrospect, I understood why and respected my new friend's authenticity.

He later wrote on the group blog: "Yet somehow I must confess: as a Jew I am scared, not just of the possibility of what can happen to a Jew in Ramallah, but for what can happen inside this Jew in Ramallah. I feel a chill down my back. And I’m ready to board the bus as quickly as time will allow." Rob knew, you see, cost of either the hatred or the love-- whichever path he chose-- in this place. If this change of love sipped into him for this place, his faith he lived out in a community of other Jews like himself might have to shift. If he hated in this place, his heart might grow hard in the great cost of bitterness.

As we continued our journey in the West Bank, our schedule allowed a trip to the University of Berzit. I was still learning about all of the history, but to Rob, this stop was a place that continued to challenge him. I could see it all over his face.  "Jews just don't come to Berzit, we learned," from one of our guides. "We are told that it is a breeding ground for terrorism education." 

But Rob and our Israelite guide bravely, along with the rest of us, began our tour at the university regardless. And to all our surprise we found Muslim and Christian students eager to meet us and share experiences. Who knows what a terrorist looks like at school, but these kids looked as normal as they could be. Two of the girls we chatted with briefly on the steps of a lecture hall told us that "they'd never met a Jew before." To which Rob chimed in quickly and said, "Now you have." Rob was moved to reconsider again what he'd always thought about Berzit and the people of the West Bank.

Rabbi Rob, along with the rest of our group that day, received God's challenge to us there. Even if we think we know "those" people and centuries upon centuries of ill has been done-- God remains steadfast in love for all the nations. All people.  All people we like. All the people we don't. And because this is true, God calls us to lay down the walls of "us" and "them" which inhibit us from relationship.

Rabbi Rob went on to write about his transformative experience that day saying, "I am humbled as I admit: I am praying for peace for Israel and all nations of the world. . . . Still I pray: may the maker of peace in the heavens cause peace to descend on us, on all Israel and all who dwell on the earth, Amen."[ii]

And, like the Rabbi if we are going to take our call seriously to see all people of all nations of the world, then we too are going to find ourselves in positions as unique as being a Jewish Rabbi at the tomb of Arafat.

Consider this: our public policy and our leadership in policy as a nation, has a long way to go in support of all of our neighbors of the world. What are we going to do about it? How are we going to use OUR voice?

We, as socially conscious people of faith, have a great calling to see those hated neighbors among us, just as God sees them, in the eyes of love and to just the power of our voice to bring our nation's leaders accountable to peace making  . . .

To ask our President to think carefully about the new global policy inanities he makes and to consider all people in the nation of Israel.

To ask our Virginia governor and legislators to consider who our social service and social laws are leaving out-- and ask them to include all of God's children in key decisions when it comes to issues of marriage, healthcare, and opportunities for employment.

To ask the leadership in Fairfax County about our tax structure and why there is not more being done in one of the wealthiest counties in America, to deal with the systemic problems of homelessness and poverty.  And this is only the tip of what could be asked of us.

But, even more personal than this-- I am sure that you like me have your fill in the blank when it comes to who "those" people are in your life. You have someone at work, someone in your neighborhood, or even someone in this community that really just pushes all of your buttons and you feel like if this person or persons simply opens their mouth, you'd explode. Whoever is on your list of "those people" I invite you to reconsider the journey of Jonah. To come and get to know this God you have chosen to follow all over again and realize that yes, those people are included in God's family too. And yes, you and I have a lot to learn from even them . . .  

It's a hard edge to sit with this morning. It's a hard, hard edge that may make you and I question everything we thought we knew about what is true about justice, war, and foreign policy, but the way of relationship, the way of community building IS the way of our God.

Today God calls you. God calls you to all people. Let us get to loving in word and deed.


[i] Todd Weir. "Jonah and Mark 1:14-20 (Epiphany 3B) Give Jonah a Break" http://bloomingcactus.typepad.com/bloomingcactus/2006/01/jonah_3_mark_11.html#more

 [ii] Robert Nosanchuk http://crdcgmu.wordpress.com/projects/peace-and-understanding-between-jews-christians-and-muslims-where-does-humanity-lie/ipji-blog/rabbi-robert-nosanchuk/

Conversations about Heaven and Hell: Who Goes Where?

Matthew 25:31-46

It has been a hell of a week, hasn’t it? From the unthinkable earthquake, to the tropical storm battering our homes yesterday, to the ever-changing political situation around our globe as leaders rise and fall with no end in sight, the past few days have reminded us all the state of world as it is not what we would like it to be.

When natural disasters fall on the most vulnerable, when the elderly and sick have to be evacuated from their homes in moments of panic, when people going about the business emerge from work in the afternoon to find bricks and mortar destroying their cars, if you are like me, you crave good news. You crave to see pictures of any kind evidence of what the world should be, of what the world could be, of any hope at all for the future. Yet, in our 24 hour news cycle of doom and gloom and conflicts over everything imaginable around our world holding back the prophetic and creative gifts of artists who could help us see a different way, we are often left without the hopeful pictures that we crave to see.

Sometimes, however, pictures of hopeful realities find their way into mainstream culture. One such occurrence happened in response to the 1984- 1985 famine in Ethiopia, which claimed nearly one million lives, during one of the worst droughts the continent had seen in modern times.

Harry Belafonte, a known American entertainer and social activist at the time had a dream of gathering together some of the most influential and important musicians of the time for a joint project. Though rarely seen before that singers and entertainers of all kinds would gather together, laying aside personal projects, their own pride and schedules, somehow after signing on Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and legend producer, Quincy Jones, soon the artists came out in droves to support the project.

When I say, “We are the World” you name that song by completing the phrase, “we are the children.”

With this interracial and multi-ethnic team of gathered artists, musical history was made—not only in the details of this unlikely coming together, but of the message of the song inspiring unity, service and the human responsibility for the suffering of all. In “We are the World” a statement was made, a picture was boldly drawn —that indeed, beauty could come from tragedy, that death and starvation did not have to be the only story being told.  While the proceeds of record sales went on to support hunger relief in Africa, the lasting effects of this musical production were far greater. A picture of something different from the normal way things go on in the world was created, and once this happens, there’s never really any going back to complete ignorance of things again.

In the same way, when Jesus gathers his disciples together to give them the last what Matthew’s gospel calls the series of five discourses, he too is seeking to paint a picture of this “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” that he has been talking so much about for the entire course of his ministry. Only a vivid image would do to get the point across clearly: we know the story as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

As we begin to read it again this morning, we might find that these words are familiar to us, especially those of us who are lovers of the social gospel, seeking proof that our “help people” mentality is truly pleasing to Jesus. In fact, many churches read these verses as a spiritual litmus test for its members. Asking one another, “Did you visit the sick this week?” “Did you cloth the naked?” “Did you go to prison?” And, if one’s responses aren’t in the affirmative, telling congregants to get to work! By all means, care for somebody other than yourself if you want to get the “get out of hell” free card.

But was this what Jesus meant at all? Was he telling a story to his followers to scare them? Was he really talking about eternal, forever damnation for those whose good works list was short and not sweet?

Well, to begin to uncover some of these questions, I feel we have to remind ourselves to whom and why the gospel of Matthew was written in the first place.

In contrast to other gospel authors, Matthew writes with a specific audience in mind—fellow Jewish Christians. Matthew was said to have been well versed in the language of Jewish law, the political plight of a Jewish citizen living in a Roman empire during the life and ministry of Jesus. As a result, throughout Matthew’s version of the gospel, we find him being quite concerned about how to remain Jewish and Christian in a Gentile world and what a Christian response should be to the changing political landscape.

Whereas countless Jewish Christians would cheer “revolt” seek to use the life and memory of Jesus as one who came to birth a new political kingdom, Matthew was known to be regularly re-defining life in God’s kingdom in ways that had nothing to do with the expected norms of “us vs. them” “the strongest always win” or “conquer all by force.” Rather, Matthew’s Jesus taught a lot about what life could be like in the kingdom of God, asking followers of Jesus to do everything they could to help create it.

Thus, when we get to the 25th chapter of Matthew, it is good to frame this story as one more representation of the picture of such the kingdom.

To make it explicit, the picture looks like this: there are those whose lives are full of mercy (represented by the sheep) and there are those who are not (represented by the goats). Our world is full of both types of people. And while sheep of this world may never wonder about or know the impact their overflowing compassionate acts have had (saying “Lord, Lord!), and those who are goats might wonder the same things about their lives, continuing to live as carefree as possible, Jesus has an answer for those in both. In the kingdom of God: we are all seen for who we really are.

While this all sounds well and good, when we think about it, it is quite a controversial message of Jesus, for it goes against everything that is normal about life in this world as human being.

How often are we known to lie because it is just easier? Cheat because no one will ever know? Steal because no one is watching? Or go home and watch more tv or read more books or cook more fancy dinners without considering how our neighbors are doing, or what they are having for supper or even if they can afford this night to have supper at all?

The truth be told, we think that what we earn is ours, what we live in is ours, who we birth is ours, and ours alone. We easily shun out of our kingdom those whom we or our society has not claimed as their own.

In response to this, instead, Jesus is painting an entirely different picture of life in his household where all of us are intimately connected to each other and the distinctions of what we call “heaven” and what we call “hell” have a lot to do with how we choose to deal with each other. Learning to play well with others is the main event in the classroom, not what gets you extra credit.

Consider this: a holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, "Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like." The Lord led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table.

In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew which smelled delicious and made the holy man's mouth water. Yet, the people sitting around this table were thin and sickly. They looked miserable and starving as if they were barely alive.

The holy man questioned why until he realized that these people were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms. Because of the way the spoons were placed, each found it impossible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful for they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering—to be so close to what nourish them but yet so far.

The Lord said, "You have seen Hell."

They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man's mouth water again.

The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, "I don't understand." "It is simple, this is heaven you see," said the Lord, "being here requires but one skill. You see, they have learned to feed each other.”

So, while attending our well-being, our own self-care, our own recovery is not to be thrown out the window in the kingdom of God (Jesus did say after all to love our neighbor AS OURSELVES too)—Jesus is teaching us that this is not to be our entire focus. It simply can’t be IF we want to see the kingdom come on earth—a kingdom where the spoons we do have are well-used to feed all those who are hungry.

Yet before you go ahead this morning and do some self-critical judgment of your own by saying, “I’m simply a goat, there’s no hope for me. I like myself. I like my nice clothes and shoes. I like my time to be my time. I can’t live without my gym membership or my I Pad. So, I guess you are just implying, Pastor, that I’m doomed.” To which, I say, wait a minute and let’s think about this.

Just like the holy man in the story who gets to take a tour with God of what heaven and hell might look like, what they feel like and smell like, consider your time spent today with this passage as a journey too.

Pastor Rob Bell helps us out here in his book Love Wins when he gives insight into the original Greek of the place where the goats are sent which is an aion of kolazo. Bell writes, “Aion, we know, has several meetings. One is an age or a period of time; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo is a term used for horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of the plant so it can flourish.. . . So depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then the phrase can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming’ or an intense experience of correction.”

Thus, if you are ready to say today that the deeds that you are known by and the lack of mercy of your heart are choking out the coming of the kingdom of heaven into your life, there is always grace and hope waiting for you.  Like a plant surrounded by suffocating weeds in a garden, consider your life in a time of trimming.

Consider yourself not dammed to a lake of fire, but strongly exhorted to jump over the fence more often and take note from the deeds of the sheep: deeds which display the love and mercy of our God in the most ordinary of ways day in and day out.  Deeds like
sharing what you have with those who need it more than you do, noticing those
whose physical needs are robbing them of the opportunity to pay attention to their spiritual needs, and then doing something about it.  Consider then, what needs to be “trimmed” from your plate so that more of God can be known in all you do.

I end with this personal reflection. This past Tuesday, your church hosted the monthly gathering of the Reston Interfaith Clergy Ministerium. As part of our meeting as religious leaders of all faiths from within this neighborhood, the new principals of Forest Edge and Lake Anne Elementary were invited to share more with us about their students and how we as faith leaders could support them. Besides being informative in nature—who knew there was a large and growing immigrant Russian population in Reston—I left the meeting struck by the enormity of the needs within walking distance of this church and what we are doing and not doing to be ambassadors of love in Jesus’ name.

Of course, we are a small but faithful band and we can’t do everything that we would like, you and I do need to be strategic in terms of where and when we commit our energy, remembering we can’t be all things to all people after all. But, I left this meeting with a conviction and the conviction was that I need to be a community participant at Lake Anne elementary. I need to begin having lunch there once a week with a troubled student, as the principal highly encouraged us was a great need there: for relationships of kindness to be built between adults in the community and youth who had just about all given up on someone caring about them.

So, I tell you this today because I admit to you that there needs to be ongoing trimming in my life, as much as does in yours. Not because good deeds make us feel good or look good or even because someone at church told us too. Rather, if we want to mirror the kingdom of God here, if we want the kingdom of heaven to be on earth—we each have to fill our lives with acts that matter among those who are desperate to know that they matter to anyone at all.

For I tell you today, God is longing to tell each one of us: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”