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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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,
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 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.
Where do you belong? To whom to you belong? I've been thinking about this a lot this week realizing that . . .
Most of our definitions of what it means to belong comes with constraints like rules and regulations.
If you want to belong to a gym, you’ve got to pay a monthly fee and sign a contract with terms of service.
If you want to belong to a neighborhood association, you’ve got to sign up and pay your dues (and not be late when you pay them!)
If you want to belong to an alumni group of the college you attended, you’ve got to show your alma mater some love from your check book.
Just this week, in fact, I attended a women’s organization meeting in my neighborhood—with the intend of possibly joining the group only to hear after: “Well, you seem nice, but here are 3 more things you need to do before you can consider belonging to us.” (Sigh).
The rules get in the way! Because what we miss is the feeling that we’re seen. We’re heard. And we’re loved. JUST AS WE ARE.
This past Sunday I preached on Jeremiah 31:31-34, a piece of scripture that has a lot to say about belonging. Such was true because the nation of Israel was trying to find its way in post-exile living. They belonged nowhere!
Can you imagine the grief and loss? Their homes were gone. Their livestock was gone. Any authorities present to help them re-build were no longer in charge. It was the definition of living in an "out of sorts" way.
And says this: “I will put my law within them, and I will l write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, and say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me.”
It was a total 180 degrees shift for this God who'd previously based relationship with his people on laws written in Stone, like the 10 commandments.
God says their relationship would no longer be something they had to figure out. Study well enough. Or honored in a particular way. Nope!
They’d know the LORD because it would be a part of their DNA. The LORD would be closer to them than they were to themselves, even. The Lord would be a key part of their identity.
I couldn't help but draw from the work of Brene Brown at this point in my thinking about belonging.
One of my favorite quotes from her latest book, Braving the Wilderness says this about belonging.
"True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are. True belonging is not something you negotiate externally, it’s what you carry in your heart"
Such is exactly what God was trying to communicate to the children of Israel that day through the prophet Jeremiah.
Though their life was in upheaval . . .
Though they have made less than best choices for themselves . . .
Though they may not even know how to find their way back . . .
For though we might wake up on so many days and look around our world and not recognition anything around us that feels familiar, we can be in relationship with a God is about the work of making things new.
We can be in relationship with a God who tells us we don’t have fret so much about acceptance from this authority person in our lives or this organization with prestige.
Because we ALREADY belong.
We can carry ourselves with this knowing. We can always come back to this centering point. God says you belong. You are enough. You are so loved.
It's my hope for you today that you believe what your Creator believes about you.
It’s Time to Wake Up . . my first sermon preached at The Palisades Community Church on
There’s something about the pace of the summer that gives us all an excuse to slow down.
We disappear at our favorite vacation spot for as long as our budge allows.
We don’t answer emails right away. Nor do we get as panicked when others follow suit.
We don’t expect as much out of our colleagues at work. We give ourselves permission to give attention to projects that we really want to accomplish. Or maybe clean out that closet.
But of course, come the Tuesday after Labor Day—all the relaxed vibes of summer come to a crashing halt for so many of us.
Traffic, especially in a city like DC, gets ten times worse, as if out of nowhere.
Neighborhoods that felt dead in terms of activity just weeks ago are bustling with life, like our street was this week as the preschool was back in session.
We have to start thinking more strategically about our routes home around 3 pm as school buses full of kids are stopping at every block.
I don’t know about you, but even though I know fall is coming, the week after Labor Day always feels harsh. As exciting as it to look forward to bonfires, pumpkin spice lattes, and Halloween costumes, there’s always a desire in me to savor the slowness of summer . . . to make one last trip to the pool even if the water is freezing cold, as I did on Monday.
Post Labor Day weeks signal one huge wake-up call to us all.
And for us, specifically, change is certainly right here at our doorstep. For today, it’s not only Rally Day—the tradition a part of the Palisades Community where we celebrate the start of a new church year and invite the kids back to Sunday School but on this particular Sunday, you and I begin our ministry with one another for whatever season God gives us to be together.
And with all of this true, our New Testament lectionary reading has a lot to offer us about how this day is not just a seasonal wake-up call, but a spiritual one as well.
As we open our Bibles again to Romans chapter 13 what we find is that Paul is on the homestretch of his action-packed letter to the church at Rome. It’s time to get serious about how he wants the church to receive his message. And he’s ready to be very direct and very clear about his thoughts.
Who’s first receiving these words?
Well, we know this: the church at Rome finds itself in a city where power, status and discrimination was had everything to do with who was in and who was out. But is a place where being a Christian simply wasn’t the “thing to do.”
Remember this was long before the days of Constantine declaring the Roman world to be under the directives of Christian teachings. Signing up for a Christian journey in Rome meant a life of ridicule, second-class citizenship and exile from family members. It was a very brave choice.
And for the many who had clearly made this choice, they’d been walking with a life led by the teachings of Jesus for a while now. Paul knows of the regularity of their worship and gathering together. But Paul fears many of them are going through the motions of worship. He fears they no longer have their eyes or ears open to the power of what God can continue to do in the midst. He fears they’ve lost their spiritual excitement.
So, in response, Paul has one clear message to share with them. It was time to wake-up.
It was time to wake-up.
Look with me at verse 11. “Besides this [CHURCH, he says] you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
Commentators help us understand that it’s not a literal sleep but a spiritual sleep he’s referring to. Paul is speaking against the type of spiritual slumber that hangs the word “Christian” on the front door of your house or even your Facebook page but then proceeds in the world forgetting how life is different because Jesus is a part of it.
I can just imagine Paul penning these words with all the strength and conviction he could muster--- thinking about how the church at Rome had everything they needed to be the people of God their neighbors in Rome needed: they’d previously been baptized, they knew the teachings of Jesus and they had the Holy Spirit to be their constant guide. But they had no urgency. They lacked courage. They lacked bravery. They’d forgotten how to articulate why they were doing what they were doing in the first place.
And it was as if Paul was looking them directly in the face and saying, “Church: See! Believe and Do! The time is now."
. . Be who I’ve called you to be! Feed the hungry. Take care of the sick. Do good to those who hate you. Always make room at your tables for one more, even if they’re here one week and gone the next.”
This waking up business was something that Paul deeply longed for them to do.
What I find most fascinating for what comes next is how Paul seeks to motivate the church. It would have been so easy to use guilt in effort to stir them from their sleep. Any parent or teacher, knows that guilt is a powerful motivator (no matter if we want to admit to it or not).
I’ll be so disappointed in you if you don’t make it home by your curfew at 9.
I’ll ask only the girls with gold stars by their name to line up to go to recess.
I’ll cry myself to sleep every night if you don’t plan to come visit me over the holidays.
But Paul does none of this. Rather they’re positive words about the gift that awaits the church if they DO wake up. He writes that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”
The race wasn’t finished. They were almost there. New life was waiting to crack out of every seam! This great gift, he called it salvation.
Salvation, you see, wasn’t a one and done experience it was lifetime work!
In fact, all of this “waking up” business came with instructions for how to prepare.
So, by time we get to verse 14, we read specific instructions for this kind of preparation. The church was told to “put on the Lord Jesus.” The Greek verb used here is the same one that would be inserted into a conversation about putting on clothes. Which helps us to consider this: when you and I select what type of clothes we are going to wear each day, we’re essentially making a choice about what our public image of ourselves to the world will be. Questions like:
Is it a I really need to impress my 2 o’clock meeting kind of Wednesday suit day?
Is it a dress down Friday meaning flip-flops are ok?
Or it is a I don’t get out of my sweatpants Saturday?
And likewise, Paul was asking the church to spiritually wake-up to the public witness they were putting forth with their actions. They needed to put on the Lord Jesus because
Did anyone know they were a person of faith?
Did they live their lives with hope for the future?
Did they use the moments of their days to bring more of God’s love to their neighbors?
Waking up, you see had everything to do with their next steps forward into the future. A future that was bright and came with freedom, with joy with relief from all the temporary pleasures of this life.
Because in the end, Paul was hoping for the church to see that they only way they could truly “love their neighbor has themselves” was if they woke up to the reality of God being WITH them. God was with them. And so, they had good news. I mean, really good news to share with others.
A couple of times a week, I make it to a Zumba class at a gym near my house. I enjoy the group exercise experience because it’s one hour of peer pressure to not abandon ship if the routines get too hard or I don’t feel like it.
There’s a couple that always attends the 10 am class. I imagine that they are a husband and wife or at least life partners because they always stand together and are wearing matching jump suits. It’s really cute, I might add. And though I haven’t asked, it’s very clear that the woman of the couple is dragging the man there. While the woman gleefully gets into some of the salsa routines with the rest of us, the man does not.
Some days I wonder why he’s even there for as we’re raising our hands as high as we can get them, he simply keeps his very close to his chest. Often the peer pressure does not even keep him in the room for the whole hour. I walk out the door when class is over and see him with a coffee cup in his hand reading the newspaper.
Nothing about the salsa beats seem to wake him up.
During Friday’s class as the man was doing his small movements and rest of us were doing our larger ones yet again, I couldn’t help but think this is how so many of us approach our spiritual lives.
We show up. We wear church clothes when we’re at church. We might even write the church a check or two. But when it comes to being awake spirituality, weren’t not. We’re simply going through the motions.
There’s a popular slang term these days that you’ll find all over social media or often used in communities of color and it’s “stay woke.”
The urban dictionary defines stay woke as a call to action, or living with intentional mindfulness of issues that are important.
And I can think of no better guiding statement on this day of new beginnings. Stay woke, church. Stay woke.
We, my new friends at Palisades Community Church, are also living in times where we can’t afford being asleep at the wheel when it comes to our faith or our public witness.
We can’t just keep what we’re doing for the sake of doing it.
We can’t burn our energy out on traditions that no longer shine the hope of our good news as Christian people into those around us that need it the most.
We must wake-up.
We must wake up to the powerful good news of the gospel that God loves us. I mean really loves us. Because I believe if we believe this, then it truly changes everything.
We must wake up to the wonder that is authentic community—given enough of ourselves to our church so that we can be known and cared for when we need it the most and lend a hand to others in this same way.
We must wake up to the amazing calling that God calling that God gave this church over 94 years ago to be a place where all people were welcomed in this neighborhood. Though we’ve been worshipping here for so long the need for the calling to be the church remains the same.
We must wake up.
Good things are in store for us, church good things as people on a journey to be woke.
A sermon preached on Acts 15:36-41 at University Christian Church, Hyattsville, MD
We love reading, watching or singing along to love stories, don’t we?
Maybe this is this why our reality show line up is full of finding love elements of their programing...
Big Brother, 90 Day Fiancé, Married by Mom and Dad, Say Yes to the Dress, anyone?
And let us not forget the show running now for 15 years, The Bachelor.
The Bachelor has proven to the be a franchise built upon viewers being sucked into to following an unrealistic 6-week journey across the world by a bachelor or bachelorette to “find love” but also to follow the journey of those who go home in defeat. When a contestant does not receive a rose “and is sent home” a limo or a back SUV appears and whisks him or her off to the airport. But this is not before a camera crew gets in the car with the sullen contestant.
And what follows? Viewers at home see all the emotions including pure sadness.
(Grown men bawling and young women with their mascara dripping down their face and their eye lashes falling off. And we all wonder do they realize millions are watching?)
And the Nielsen Ratings say about The Bachelor/ The Bachelorette that the more dramatic the break-up the more we are watching.
Bottom line: if this reality show has any mirror to reflect back what we find worth giving our time and energy toward, it is a good break-up story.
And so, then, listen closely church. What we have before us this morning is a good, a very good break-up story. A pair that may thought were a ministry match made in heaven has a falling out.
Our lesson from this morning is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. We know that after Jesus ascended into heaven, charging the disciples (and all those to come) with the great commission:
“Go ye therefore into all the world and preach the gospel. . .” and they had work to do!
And as the days of the lives of the apostles go, by time we reach chapter 9, we encounter a huge shift in the narration.
Saul, a known persecutor of followers of Christ and member of the Pharisee religious order, meets Jesus literally on the road to Damascus. What follows is one of the most dramatic conversions—Saul, the person you’d least expect to find himself on team Jesus—goes there, all there. Saul commits his life to service in telling others about Jesus.
But as you might imagine, so many have a hard time accepting him in the Christian way. I mean, Saul (who changes his name to Paul) says he’s a changed man? No way.
But not Barnabas.
Barnabas, a leader in the early Christian movement in Jerusalem, a leader whose name meant literally “Son of Encouragement” believed in Paul.
He trusted the testimony of Paul.
He blessed the change in Paul.
And he stood up for Paul when Paul sought out support from the gathering of believers in Jerusalem.
As the men go their separate ways, Paul back to this hometown of Tarsus and Barnabas as a leader in the church in Antioch, the two can’t be kept from one another for very long. In Acts 11, we read of Barnabas calling for Paul asking him to come with him to Antioch. The church needs a strong preacher and Barnabas thinks that Paul would be just the person for the job. Together, Paul and Barnabas did ministry together in Antioch for one year, scripture tells us.
And a couple of chapters over, we read of that the good times continue to roll.
The church in Antioch commissions Paul and Barnabas to take the first major missionary journey.
When I traveled to the Middle East on an interfaith delegation of clergy several years ago, our guide told us something about traveling companions that I have never forgotten.
Aziz said us that you never truly know someone until you travel with them.
Any maybe if you’ve taken any road trips with friends or family this summer you’d agree. For there’s nothing like being trapped in a car (even with headphones) with the same people for hours on end or sharing a one room hotel room to make you feel like you're ready for your own bed again.
I have to think the same was true for Paul and Barnabas. Trapped together in a boat, in side-by-side tents, and walking side-by-side for weeks, they knew one another. They preached together. They taught together. They organized together.
As a preacher/ teacher/ organizer who has also worked throughout my ministry with those who also preach/ teach/ organize, I have to tell you that this kind of work when done together, when done together with the blessing of the Spirit, can be a heart-knitting, a soul-binding season of life like none other. When you do this kind of work with people, you can’t imagine ever-growing a part.
BUT, Acts 15, verse 36 tells us of the conflict brewing below the service of this partnership made in heaven between Paul and Barnabas.
Paul is ready for round 2 telling Barnabas that he wants to “return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they were doing”
But Paul says no. Barnabas wants to take John Mark. Paul doesn't believe John Mark is a good choice.
The two simply do not see eye to eye.
The great break-up is underway.
Whether it was over personal differences (about John Mark’s readiness for service) as Acts narrates it. Or if it is over theological differences as Paul highlights in his own voice in the letter to the church of Galatians—we aren’t fully sure.
The point is that the two had a “sharp disagreement” a phrase that in the original Greek signifies a passionate or even bitter exchange.
And if you’ve had a sharp disagreement anytime in your life (and I’m sure you have) you know that you just don’t move forward too easily after having one.
Paul and Barnabas were no different. They don’t get back together. Never in scripture do they get back together.
When I first chose to study and preach on this passage this Sunday several weeks ago, I thought about the great mystery of relationships in this crazy world of ours. How someone can walk in our lives as a friend and become a dear one, even a “best” and then one day, say “see ya” with all the complications that follow.
I thought of all of the broken partnerships in our world. Long term dating relationships that end with rivers of tears. Marriages of 5, 10, 15 or 35 years that find their conclusion in the word divorce with blame slung around with never-ending speed. No one gets back together.
I thought of how in the Christian church we so tightly hold on to words like “reconciliation” and “unity” and “peace-making.” But here in this portion of scripture we get none of that. No reconciliation. No unity. No peace.
I believe there’s so much wisdom this text offers us WHEN splits happen in our friendships, our partnerships or even our churches.
For like Paul and Barnabas—when we find ourselves in a “sharp disagreement” with another person, institution or group sometimes the healthiest, most life-giving and fruit-bearing ministry we can do going forward is to SEPARATE from those who do not understand why we do what we do.
But on a morning like this. On a weekend like this. When Charlottesville happened . . . this sermon has to go a different direction than I might have planned to end it.
When hate filled the streets of a city in a state right next door to us . . .
When flags of regimes, we long thought were dead were raised in supremacy of a race killing at least 3 and injuring dozens more . . .
When marchers, many who will fill the pews this morning at churches with the same word “Christian” on the door as is on ours, rallied to say that brown lives and black lives did not matter . . .
When the highest leader in our land did not call out racism for the evil that it is . . .
It seems right to say this morning to have a family meeting. Come close church. It's important to remind one another that there comes a point when we cannot be silent.
For as Christian people, we believe with all our hearts, don’t we that we are ALL God’s children. No matter where we were born. No matter what the color of our skin is. No matter who we choose to love. We are ALL CHILDREN OF GOD. And with this true, there’s no room in our faith tradition, or in this community, or in our country for hate for anyone. There just isn’t.
Those people marching with Nazi t-shirts on aren’t our people.
I know, friends, we don’t like rocking the boat, especially when it comes to our closest friends and family whom we respect and have long-standing relationships with. We don’t like being seen as partisan or even judgmental.
I know friends, we believe in the prayer of Jesus in John 17 when Jesus prayed with all his might that “all of us may be one” . . .
BUT in the spirit of our text this morning (knowing that breaking-up can be one of the most spiritual things we do—even with members of our own tribe), we must break-up from hate.
We must break-up from any voices that don’t call acts like this weekend what they are: sin.
We must not idolize false unity, just for the sake of unity.
We must stand firm—knowing that our calling to strengthen others might just be to strengthen ourselves for the days that lie ahead . . . days when Charlottesville is not just somewhere out there. But here. Right here. In Washington DC. In Hyattsville. In our own backyard.
Elie Wisel, survivor of the Holocaust said this about silence (or another word for what I like to call the refusal to break-up):
“I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
So, what will we do?
Will we be a part of an institutional break-up from hate, from racism, from anything that keeps the message of belovedness away from ANY person?
Will we have that courage to be ok to separate, as now the time that time has for sure come?
Or will we be silent?
I hope not. Pray not this day.
Let us boldly break-up.
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.
A woman’s name- Sarah was listed as the Senior Minister.
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!
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.
There are two words that are never going out of style in the English language.
But we aren’t a culture that is really very good at thank you's are we?
How often are feelings hurt because someone forgot to say it,
One of my favorite gospel stories on the topic of saying "Thank you" comes from Luke 17:11-19.
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. They were all lepers-- a contagious skin disease that caused massive deformity.
Though pale by comparison to many other instances, a couple of years ago we had experience in our household that gave me greater sympathy for who have dealt with skin deforming or long-term contagious diseases.
Kevin contracted the shingles.
During the two weeks that followed and Kevin while was contagious our whole household routine was altered.
I have to confess I went a little crazy trying to make sure I didn’t get it too.
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. . . .
In a similar way, these lepers felt isolated.
Their family members kept their distance. Even worse there was little hope that they’d ever get “well” because known medicine at the time had few solutions.
Only solution: shout “Unclean! Unclean!”
Yet, on this occasion scripture tells us, they risked everything and approached Jesus.
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 read 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. The lepers were cured after all and life would be forever different! They needed to celebrate.
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” throughout the passage.
Hang with me for just one minute.
First, there is Jesus, who “saw” the lepers for the human beings that they were as they cried, “Unclean! Unclean!” It was where the miracle began.
Then, there was the one leper who after being cured “saw” himself as a new person and turned back to go to see Jesus once again.
Jesus and this one leper paid attention.
And this is the powerful part of the story in this one man’s coming back to say thank you, he was more than cured from his disease he was healed.
For there’s a difference between being cured of something and being healed, isn't there?
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.
This was the HEALING-
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.
Few of us crave this kind of healing, do we? We often pray for CURES when we hear someone has cancer or is struggling with addiction or depression.
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, get me OUT of the hospital."
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, 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?
This is what I most know: only leper who was healed was the one engaged in gratitude.
I have no idea, I know, my friends what is burdening you today, but what I do know is that gratitude is an invitation to the healing God wants to give us all. All of us.
Be the one who says thank you!
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.
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!
And 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?”
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?
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.
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.
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.
“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 The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK on Isaiah 6:1-8
It’s strange to put the words “good” and “death” in the same phrase as I’m doing with the sermon title isn’t it?
Because when we think death, we think grief, sadness, loss, and weeping.
And if we’re from the church, when I say death, you might think casseroles and church ladies.
(Oh, I love some good funeral food, don’t you?)
But good AND death? Nope.
Those aren’t words we’d pair together at all. For, death is a word that speaks to a separation, a pain that for most of us is just too much to bear. Death speaks of lose of a hope that we’ve channeled in a particular direction. Death is the end. And by death, I don’t just mean when a particular person dies but the death of a job, death of a friendship, or death of a dream that we’d planned on our life upon. Lots of things can die in our life all the time.
None of these “ending” experiences are good, are they? In fact, they are very, very bad.
But can any good come from death? Any good at all?
By this, I don’t mean adding expressions like “Everything happens for a reason” or “God makes everything beautiful in His time” that are empathy busters for the pain we feel during times of grief, but rather I’m wondering can death bring about any good?
Such is a question I want to explore this morning with our Isaiah text set before us.
I posed this question to Kevin this week, “Honey, can you think of any story in modern times when the death of a famous person brought about something good, when something better happened that could have happened because of a death?”
(You see, I was fishing for a good sermon illustration).
He told me I asked too many hard questions. Then, he said, “How about Hitler?”
“Oh” I said, “I can’t talk about Hitler. That’s so intense and a little clique.”
So since I can’t offer you a great example of what it means to have a good death (other than Hitler), I thought at this point, we’d just dive into Isaiah.
Isaiah 6 within this historical context: “In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord.”
It seems like a phrase that could have easily been left out, couldn’t it? We didn’t really need to know this, did we? Isn’t the spiritual stuff that follows more important?
If you are like me you might be thinking, “Who in the world is King Uzziah?” You might even say, “I’ve been in church so many years and never heard of him!”
Good question. And today is our day to learn.
King Uzziah was the 11th king to rule after King David in the house of Judah. If you had to make a list of good kings in Israel’s history and the bad kings, Uzziah would most certainly be on the good king list.
We learn a lot about him in II Chronicles 26 as it tells us that Uzziah took the throne when he was only 16 years old and ruled the nation for 52 years in Jerusalem.
His accomplishments were many. He led Israel in battle against their archenemies the Philistines and won! Uzziah’s army was bar none with all the best gear.
He engineered a building project in Jerusalem, constructing towers at the gates of the city.
He “got folks to work” as modern Presidential campaigns often promise to do, through his plentiful agricultural projects.
And best of all scripture tells us that he loved God and sought to put God first in his life. When prophets such as Zechariah came to declare the word of the Lord to him, scripture says, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.”
I tell you all of this because I believe it’s important for understand that King Uzziah was a larger than life figure in history at this time.
He was the JFK of the 1950s.
He was the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the 1960s.
He was the twin towers in New York of the 2000s.
King Uzziah was everything good that the nation of Judah built their hopes upon. And I can’t help but think that Isaiah looked up to him. He admired him. He saw how God was with him as he led and might have even wanted to be exactly like him. For 52 years he sat on the throne.
Uzziah however made one really huge mistake. He overstepped his bounds and began doing some of the priest’s work in the temple. God would not stand for such disobedience in the holiest of holy place. A sickness came upon him and he suddenly died.
News spread throughout the land that Uzziah died.
Can you imagine the shock? The horror? The fear? And for generations, remembering the exact place where they were when they learned the horrible news.
Isaiah’s hero was no more. He lost a giant figure in his life. And the nation was in mourning too. Everything about their future seemed uncertain.
But scripture reads, in the year, King Uzziah died, [Isaiah] saw the Lord.
What do we make of the connection between such? Why does this sentence read exactly as it does?
I believe because of the connection between the word good and death.
Consider situations and things in your own life that didn’t seem good in the moment but then later all became clear.
Things like- the terrible tasting cough syrup that your momma made you take when you were sick, but made you better sooner than if you’d hadn’t taken it.
Or things like the books your teachers made you read in the summers that kept your mind strong all year round, though you’d rather played outside with your friends and not read at all.
Or like the advice you took from your daddy to not buy your first car—though you really wanted one-- till you could afford the insurance and the gas money.
And for Isaiah’s story, I believe that we get this one detail “in the year that King Uzziah died” because it says everything about his posture that day, to receive that the Lord had in store for him.
Because isn’t the message of our faith—when death comes then resurrection can follow?
And in the case of Isaiah, this is what we can assume: his larger than life figure, this idol even had to die so that the new things of God could come. Death needed to come so that he could have EYES to see the glorious thing that was about to happen to him.
For Isaiah was about to have an opportunity to SEE something that few of living human beings ever get to see— “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty.” He was going to taste the heavenly glory as he saw seraphs attending about the Lord crying to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of host; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
It was the definition of an awesome experience if there was ever one. And Isaiah got it.
And in this awesome experience, Isaiah was about to get a calling to be prophet to a nation in crisis and be asked to respond. The Lord would ask him, “Who shall I send and who will go for us?”
Isaiah would then find the words to say, “Here am I: send me!”
The thing is that so many of us say with our lips that we “want to see God” or “we want to have more of God in our lives” or even that “we want fresh life in our church.” But we don’t really know what we’re asking for when we make such declarations.
For if we really want to see God, then, my friends, the news I have for all of us today is that death has got to come first.
It’s Trinity Sunday and my favorite time of year to pull out my favorite quote from Annie Dillard’s book Teaching a Stone to Talk who says this about the presence of God:
“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Our holy, holy, holy God full of power and might and just does not reveal Him or Herself to anybody. We have to be ready for it.
Something got to give. And it’s not going to be from God. It’s got to come from us.
We’ve got to be cleared of distractions.
We’ve got to let go of what exalted images of ourselves.
We’ve got to relinquish our sacred cows of the way things have always been.
And then the new calls, new experiences of God will come.
Recently, I read a book called, He Leadeth Me that tells the story of Walter Ciszek, an American priest who follow himself living and working in Russia at the time of the second World War.
It was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time because it gets at the heart of what relationship with God is about—surrender.
After begin taking captive in Russia and spending several years in solitary confinement waiting on his sentence for crimes he did not commit, he begins to realize that the only way he was going to survive was to let go of his own expectations of his life. Even though he’d lost so much, it just seemed like new deaths were coming all the time as his freedom was slowly taken away bit by bit.
Though he could have viewed what happened to him as unfair or unjust, he came to this conclusion: “For each of us, the trials will come in different ways and at different times--- for some, self may be easier to overcome than others—but we were created to do God’s will and not our own, to make our own wills conform to [God’s] and not visa versa.”
Or simply stated—Walter learned he needed to embrace death, loss and grief in his life so that God’s radical grace could take hold in his being more powerfully, so that even in prison he could more fully live!
So this is the truth I have to offer you today: if we want to see God, then death of what we want has got to come first.
You and I aren’t not the authors of our own lives—as much as we try to be, or want to be, or hope to be.
This doesn’t sound too much like good news this morning, does it?
But remember the title of the sermon again—a good death.
You might imagine when I was poking Kevin to help me with a sermon illustration I would not settle for his answer of Hitler. “Come on Kevin,” I said. “You’re smart, help me think of another good death.”
To which he looked me in the eyes and said, “Jesus.”
I smiled and thought to myself, “Duh. Of course Jesus.” (Why did I not think of that?)
For this is our faith we proclaim today my friends, that though death came to Jesus it was not the whole story. He arose! So, as we follow our resurrected Lord, our lives can have good deaths too. The lose of the best job we ever had doesn’t have to undo us. The lose of the dearest friend we’d ever known doesn’t have to undo us. The lose of the closeness of relationship with a child of ours doesn’t have to undo us.
No because we can believe that resurrection is on its way. Nothing is out of the realm of God’s redemption, my friend. Nothing. All things can be made new.
Death just has to come first. Though sorrow may last for the night, joy comes in the morning. And for this we can say thanks to God with hope.
Today, I have one question: God, really what were you thinking hanging all of the hopes of the world on one birth and one night?
If you and I have any logical sense, hanging all ours hopes in life on everything aligning correctly as God did at Christmas Eve was a pretty stupid thing to do. We’ve all come to know that life is too fragile and too uncertain for only one plan of ours working out perfectly, haven't we?
Especially for the overachievers, we are the people of a back-up plan.
When we or our children are applying to college or graduate school, we want to know: “what is your fail proof school?”
When we are applying for our “dream” job, it is often asked of us, “what is your back-up offer?”
And, during late night sessions with best friends, we often ask: “If I am not with someone by this age or if my spouse dies early, can we be each other’s back-up plan?”
For we are a people who like to know that the odds of our decisions are working in our favor—and that if plan A doesn’t work, there is an equally good plan B around the corner.
But in the Christmas story as Luke 2 tells it, all of God’s hopes for the blessing of all the world were on one womb . . . one night . . . one mother . . . one willing partner . . . one band of shepherds . . . ONE chance to get it right or it would be a fail. For, there was not a back-up plan.
There was only ONE plan.
And God trusted human beings to carry it out!
And, in this one plan, God trusted Mary and Mary’s body . . . as there was no room for error.
God trusted Joseph to be there for Mary . . . as we are told no midwife attended to the birth.
God trusted the shepherds to respond . . . as there were no other visitors right away.
God trusted the angels to sing . . . . as they were the creators of the first carols.
God trusted the star not to refuse to shine . . . as without the star, the shepherds did not know where to go.
The only ONE plan was built upon the audacity of God’s trust in everything happening as it should.
I was thinking this week if there was anything as audacious as this in our modern senses so to compare this to and I thought of a family facing foreclosure on their house and buying the most expensive lottery ticket. And, as they bought it, saying to themselves: “This ticket is going to save our lives.”
Never mind you, that it is commonly known from statistics that one’s chances of winning the lottery on a single ticket are highly unlikely with all of the probability variables. Even if you play a single state lottery (you best case scenario), the chances of one’s winning with a single ticket are 18 million to one. But, even still, this family buys the ticket, holds on to it and believes it is their one plan out of destitution.
And, so, it was the posture of God that night. Though no studies have been written to qualify the odds of the whole Jesus being born in a manger thing working out, we know the fates of this world were all stacked against this plan working out too.
Really, who could believe that a teenaged mother and a lowly group of animal watchers in a borrowed stable could be a part of something magnificent? What a motley crew!
But, yet we know on that Holy Night, the greatest lottery of all times came to be won as Jesus came forth and became called, Emmanuel, God with Us—welcomed by just these folks.
Though such a story can be hard to believe sometimes, especially for the most skeptical and analytic among us.
But our faith asks us to believe in the most bizarre of circumstances that God hit the jackpot that night and a child, who was called Christ.
And here is the real question: do we really want a story that makes perfect sense that is fully understandable? Do we really want a God in our lives who is just like us?
I don’t know about you, but as this year comes to a close and I look at all that has gone wrong and all that is not right in this world (oh the lists we could make!), I know one thing: that I don’t want my God to be just like me.
I don’t want my God to give me exactly what I deserve.
I don’t want my God to be one in whom I understand, explain away and make into a pretty scene sitting on my coffee table.
No, because life is just too messy. Life is just too painful. Life is just too busy. Life is just too unfair to hang my hopes tonight on a story I am in control of!
For, I need a God who is faithful, even beyond my most faithful friend to bring about something beautiful in my life.
I need a God who can work through the most impossible of circumstance to bring about something new, something that I cannot create on my own.
For, I need a God who can’t be explained through apologetics or formulas or charts.
I need a God who can align the paths and people and places of this world so that in the midst of darkness a great light is seen again.
For, I need a God who is beyond all comprehension as my ability to fathom mystery is to rational for the conception of something as wonderful as Savior born unto me again this evening.
For, I need a God to do the impossible . . . . to show up, to be present once again and to show me that life is not as it seems just as it is now.
If you are with me with any of this, then I tell you the good news this evening: Christmas, then, is just for you.
For just as we have been on this Advent journey all month, waiting for something, hoping for something, rejoicing with what was not yet, and imagining the possibility of loving fully once again: on Christmas Day, such blessing IS here.
The incarnation—this impossible thing— is a sign to us that no matter what happens in your life and mine or in this crazy world of ours, the impossible is always possible. And, we are not alone!
God came to earth and took a body. A body in all its messiness! God became one of us. If this is not humility and love, I don’t know what is!
What a gift! What a night! What a baby we have to celebrate!
God Sent Me Before You: Genesis 45:1-15
Sermon Preached at Idlywood Presbyterian Church, Falls Church, VA
It is so easy look out on the world with a lens of two categories in which to place people: heroes and villains. Maybe this is indeed why the movies with the highest gross sales this summer (or anytime of the year usually) are those films about superheroes using their powers to defeat the evil characters. We can’t get enough of depictions of do-gooders vs. villains it seems. Batman vs. the Joker. Spiderman vs. the Green Goblin. And of course, Superman vs. Doomsday. It’s an expression of this to:
And in doing so, our depiction of what it means to be human in this world becomes quite flat, doesn’t it? All the complexity, all the compassion, all the grace simply isn’t present.
Even if we call ourselves opened minded or even progressive Christians, we have to admit we all like to play this game of assigning parts both to ourselves and those we encounter in our daily lives . . . And of course, you and I always play the role of “good guys.”
This morning I am going to propose that when we read scripture, we do the exact same thing. We read Biblical stories assuming we’d find alignment with only the best of the best. And if not this, then we’d find ourselves in the group of the characters that emerge in the end as heroes. Right?
We’d be like Jonah preaching to Ninevah. We’d be like Stephen, preaching the gospel until our death. We’d be like Paul going on his 3rd missionary journey bringing hundreds to the faith. But, wow.
What a distorted image we have of what doing good in this world is all about! And of God's word too.
So this morning, I’m inviting you to take a deep breath. To take a 15 minute and counting holy pause and open our eyes anew. And in this time, see again the limitation of what is our human lens but what is the vastness of our God.
In our Old Testament reading for this morning we encounter Joseph, several chapters into this story as outlined with careful detail in the book of Genesis. This is what we know—and probably what many of you might know well from Sunday School or a certain Broadway play called Joseph and the Amazing TechniColored DreamCoat.
Joseph was one of the younger sons of the great patriarch of the Hebrew story, Jacob. Joseph was born to Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife along with the youngest Benjamin. And for this reason and others that only Jacob knows—Joseph was a highly favored child. And everyone knew it, including his 11 other brothers. In his favored status, Joseph became the kind of guy that all of us might just want to slap around for his “know it all” attitude.
So you can imagine how well this went over with his brothers . . .
One day Joseph came and spoke to them about a dream he had (that one day they would bow down to him) ALL while wearing the special coat that father gave to him and only him. In response, Joseph had to die, one brother said! And the prank that should have just been a boyish prank went one step too far.
Joseph was thrown into a pit. And he was left there. In an effort to get rid of him, a brother sold him into slavery to a band of travelers that just so happened to be heading toward Egypt.
That night Joseph’s father, Jacob was told that his beloved son was dead.
Joseph goes on to Egypt in chains. He makes the best of it though, becoming a house slave for prominent Egyptian citizen. But his good luck didn’t last for long. Soon he was accused of adultery (that we clearly see he didn’t commit) and thrown into Pharaoh’s prison.
It’s at this point of the story that we start to feel sorry for Joseph. Poor guy was not loved by his brothers. Poor guy was thrown into a pit. Poor guy was sold as a slave. Poor guy found himself in prison. Joseph, clearly is the good guy, then, right? Poor Joseph.
And while I’m all for compassion to those who have suffered--- after a week like what we’ve had this week, we know our world is in need of more compassion and kindness, isn’t it?
But, let us stop ourselves from making this story into good guy moralism tale—as if Joseph had no responsibility (even a little) for what happened to him that day his brothers threw him into a pit.
The story goes on that Joseph rises up from a prison inmate to become Pharaoh’s advisor, again by relying again on his dream interpretation ability. He tells Pharaoh that he sees that a famine is coming to the land. In the days of plenty, Egypt needed to prepare for the lean times that would be up ahead.
The Pharaoh trusts the counsel of Joseph’s dreams so that when the famine does come—just as Joseph said it would be—Egypt has already positioned itself as a nation of great influence. Everybody who needs grains has to make a journey to Egypt to purchase some.
And as the story goes, the sons of Jacob are hungry—they are running out of food and Jacob sends them to Egypt to purchase some food. But, Rachel’s other son, Benjamin cannot come. He must stay at home with his father in case anything happens to the band of brothers along the way.
So the brothers come to Egypt. They make their case. They tell their story. Joseph knows right away who these men are, but the brothers do not know Joseph. It is at this point of the story where most would say that Joseph had every right to take revenge, to make his brothers pay for how his life was ruined as we’ve heard shouts of “somebody’s going to pay for this” all week on the news.
And this is what we know, Joseph doesn’t cause them harm. But he doesn’t openly embrace them either. Instead Joseph plays a game.
Anyone watch the popular reality TV show called, “Undercover Boss?” It’s found its way to cable television now though it used to be shown weekly on CBS. The basic premise is that a prominent CEO goes undercover in various positions throughout the company for a week. In doing so, the CEO usually puts on a wig or special costume, tells no one whom he or she is with hopes of finding out the real story of what is going on with the morale of the lower level employees.
It can be funny at times as a person used to wearing a business suit every day is ordered by their trainers to wash dishes or hang power lines or even collect trash—all while no one knows that the "trainee" is really the ultimate boss. The show usually climaxes in a reveal moment—where everyone knows the truth about the big boss. Those who have done a good job while in the presence of the CEO unaware are rewarded and those who have misbehaved are disciplined.
When we arrive at Genesis 44, what we find is Joseph acting a lot like the CEO of “Undercover Boss”—he gives his brothers a series of tests to see how they will respond. He places a large amount of money in several of their bags—as a test of honesty.
He throws his brothers into prison until they can come back with his youngest brother and then later his father.
As I was sitting with these verses this week, trying to come to the conclusion that most commentators do at this point: “Oh, Joseph was just trying to be sure his brothers could be trusted…. Of course he’d put them to the test.” I just couldn’t go there, because what I saw Joseph doing was playing tricks on his brothers, torturing them with his games.
Why? Because he was doing what those who have been abused often do to others—abusing them in return.
Joseph helped his brothers feel some of the pain he’d known for all those years. And sure, while it would have been nice if Joseph’s brothers had enough awareness to recognize him in the first place . . .
And sure while it would have been nice for his brothers on first sighting of Joseph, bow down in tears of repentance . . .
They didn’t. But, such did not give Joseph a free pass at playing hurtful games on his brothers.
To be abused does not give a person the right to be an abuser. Ever.
Eventually, much like the ending of one of the Undercover Boss shows—Joseph could not control himself anymore. Upon sight of his full-blood brother, Benjamin he weeps then collects himself again then declares to all: “I am Joseph.”
And Joseph makes this statement in chapter 45, verse 5: “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
It is at this moment, church that we want to bless Joseph as the good guy, the one who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, the hero of providence that used the circumstances handed to him for good—and all of this true. Joseph is a good man as much as any of us are good. Joseph did seek to do well with the difficult life challenges he was given. And he certainly was a guy who could be labeled with the virtue of “perseverance.”
BUT, is this a story about Joseph and what it means to be on the good guys team? Many Biblical commentators might say yes, as they often want to turn this chapter into a role-play about “how to make friends with your enemies.”
But consider Joseph’s statement again—“For God sent me before you. . . .” I believe that one sentence is the best thing Joseph ever said or did. Joseph may have gotten a lot wrong and he might not be a perfect model on reconciliation, BUT he stopped to acknowledge the Lord. And by saying, “God sent me before you,”
Joseph gives a short sermon summing up what could be the entire message of scripture.
Let me explain: you see, in the end, the story wasn’t really about Joseph. It wasn’t about his brothers or his father. It wasn’t even about the continuation of the tribe of Jacob and their sticky relationship to come with the nation of Egypt.
No, Joseph’s life is a story about God. It’s story was and is about how God includes us, uses us and cares for us as we live into the good news of life’s grey in between.
It’s a story about how nothing of our humanness can hinder the movement of God’s presence in the world—not our pride, not our deceit, not our trickery, nor our famines or war.
It’s a story about how God is such a mystery beyond all our comprehension—even on the darkest of nights, most confusing of landing points, we can still believe in God who goes ahead of us to forge a way. It’s a story of God being very much present. When I look at our world and all the big things that have happened in the past week or two-
(And more than I can name)
I have to think that all of us need some more good news of a God who goes before us, a God who never leaves us (though we might feel the absence), and a God who uses even the greatest evil plots of human hands for the good.
Later on in chapter 50 Joseph says this to his brothers, “You meant [what you did] for harm, but God meant it for good.” Why the horror of corruption, of evil, of injustice go on in this world, I do not know.
Why God does not intervene sooner than we would like, I do not know.
But what I do know is this: good always wins in the end.
And, God’s vision for our lives, for this world, for the human race is always bigger than we could ever imagine. So we need not go back to our search for a superhero, or our camps of “He’s good and she’s not.”
No, let us find another way to be together that begins in love.
And though weeping may come for the night, joy will come in the morning. Would you join me in singing this song of hope as our reminder of God’s presence with us?
He´s got the whole world in His hands, He´s got the whole world in His hands, He´s got the whole world in His hands.
He´s got the the tiny little baby in His hands, He´s got the the tiny little baby in His hands, He´s got the whole world in His hands.
He's got ev'rybody here in His hands. He's got ev'rybody here in His hands. He's got the whole world in His hands.
Besides the common saying that “there are two things that you can be certain of ” (Do you know what they are?) DEATH and TAXES, I would add two more things. You can be certain that human beings will do stupid things from time to time and also not want to admit that they’ve done so.
(Not you or me of course . . . )
When all goes wrong, one choice we have is to lie.
A lawyer friend of Kevin’s and mine, Bhavik who works in Northern Virginia, recently told me about a case that came to his attention at his firm.
Two friends were going out for drinks one Friday night and went a little overboard. Instead of calling a cab or another friend to take them home, the two friends got in the car and decided to find their way home. When they began to swerve all over the place and soon found those flashing blue lights behind them, the two men made their choice. They played fruit basket turn over in the car with the passenger coming to the backseat and the driver coming to the passenger side. They curled themselves into a ball like children and pretended to be asleep.
When the officers came to ask who was driving the car, both gentlemen had blank looks on their faces as if aliens had driven them to the side of the road. Neither of them would admit they drove or knew who drove the car, even when they were handcuffed and taken to the station for questioning.
It seemed that lying was just easier than telling the truth.
Or, when all goes wrong, we also have the choice to blame other people or influences.
A famous poet once said: “You can smile when all goes wrong when you have someone else to blame.”
I don’t know when is the last time you’ve been in a room with children, but when you are, you’ll probably notice children are more sophisticated than you think at the blame game.
When you get a group of them together and ask, “Who make a mess of the toys? Or, who spit on the floor? Or, who bit the girl sitting in the corner crying?” You probably won’t get a straight answer right away.
They’ll be saying: “She did it.” “No, she did it.” “No, he did it.” From the mouths of babes through our adult life, blaming other people is just easier than taking responsibility for our own actions.
Or, when all goes wrong, we also have the choice to simply hide, avoiding all consequences put together.
Several years ago there was a headline making the US national news: “Fake death pilot, hiding alive in remote Florida.”
This was the story: Marcus Schrenker, an Indiana businessman, married and father of three had a secret life. He’d embezzled millions from those who had trusted him as a money manager. He’d had an affair with another woman. In fact, there wasn’t much he’d told the truth about in a long while.
And Marcus couldn’t imagine owning up to his mistakes.
So, he made the choice to hide in the best way he knew how: stage his own death.
This trained pilot fell out of an airplane with get-a-way motorcycle nearby. As soon as he dusted himself off, he made his way to a pre-planned hideout: a campground, miles from anyone who might know him.
Though this plan meant saying goodbye to family, friends and everything about his life before, falling out of an airplane and pretending to be dead seemed to be a better option than telling the truth and going to jail.
(He eventually got caught anyway . . .)
In Psalms 51, we find the poetic work of the great king of Israel, David. A guy who has a lot in common with the three examples I just shared with you. David lied, blamed others, and hid when it was discovered he had messed up big time.
It’s a story that asks us to stop and think about how we respond to those moments in our lives when all goes wrong too.
To understand the reason for this confessional Psalm, we have to go back to 2 Samuel to read the larger context. David was king of Israel. He was greatly beloved. He wasn’t known to make lots of mistakes. He was the original “golden boy” of his town.
David had the world at his hands. And, even the Lord sang his praise calling him “A man after God’s own heart.”
But, when you are on top of the world, it’s easy to forget who is truly the Creator of this world.
For David, there was this beautiful woman bathing on a rooftop. (Now, you and I know about this as a sweet children’s Sunday school lesson. But if we are to read it as adults we know that the tale goes from G rated to for adults only).
Bathsheba was bathing and Bathsheba’s husband out of town, so David just could not help himself. Even though he could have had any available woman in the kingdom and already had several wives in his household, greed and lust got the best of David. He has an affair with Bathsheba.
When David got word that Bathsheba was now carrying his child, he makes a plan whereby Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah is sent from war so that the child could be thought to be his. Yet, when Uriah refuses to lie with his wife on his furlough from war, David makes sure that this little problem will be disposed of quickly and quietly.
David sends Uriah’s troops to the dangerous front lines. Soon he’s dead. Pregnant Bathsheba now moves into the palace with David and has his son.
While the cover-up seemed to work and from the outside everything seems ok, all was wrong with David life at this point.
Everything was about to catch up with him too. The man after God’s own heart had committed adultery and ordered the murder of an innocent person. He was hiding his wrongdoing.
David should have known that something was up after Nathan, the great prophet of the country, shows up at his doorstep, but he doesn’t say a word. It takes a convicting story and a truth in your face kind of accusation from Nathan: “You are the man!” before David begins to own up to what has occurred.
But, yet the beauty of this David’s response in 2 Samuel 12:3: “I have sinned against the LORD.”
He says he was wrong. He says he messed up. He stops all rounds on the blame game and he confesses not only these things but that he has sinned against the Lord.
David turns to the Lord realizing yes, he’d done things that had hurt his family, Bathsheba’s family and even his nation, but above claiming that he done wrong against God.
Psalm 51:4 says: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.”
You see, David wasn’t trying to do anything to get out of his mess other than recognizing he deserved any punishment he might receive. David acknowledged that sin was a problem concerning God and his relations with him. Not anyone else.
Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, Speaking of Sin writes about this when she says: “Sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. . . . You decide to call it sin, then you have already made a radical shift in your perception of reality. You have admitted that something is wrong, for one thing, and you have chosen that it requires something of you.” (p. 41, 42)
In admitting wrongdoing, David says his future lies in the hands of God.
And what David was asking for was not the self-deprecating type of confession “I’m such an awful person there’s no way that God can forgive me” BUT an invitation for God to come into his life and in a new way.
Verse 10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
David asks for God to bring into existence in him what was not there before. To, create in him a different outlook. We know this as he’s chosen the same Hebrew verb for "create" that was used to describe the creation of the world in Genesis 1. David desires a new creation in his very being, a re-start.
In the end, I believe this Psalm becomes more about God and God’s character than it ever was about David anyway.
Though David’s sin was forgiven (he was allowed to remain as king, and even have another child with Bathsheba after the first one dies), it important to remember that he broke at least half of the precious Ten Commandments! David was forgiven and allowed to live—which was quite amazing considering what he’d done.
God still loved David unconditionally. It's the same way God loves us.
I offer that for any of us who have royally screwed up then--
Now is the time to confess the ways we’ve fallen short of the mark of God’s best for us.
Now is the time for assurance that as we cry to God: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” that God will do just this.
If all has gone wrong in your life path this week, of if all goes wrong in your path in the months or years to come (as it in evidently will), I give you a God who lovingly desires to keep relationship with you intact, no matter what.
I give you a God today who longs to re-create a clean spirit in you.
I give you a God who is with you through the valleys of “all things going wrong” and just wants you to come home to embrace Christ’s loving arms of love.
It’s good news we all need.
“Imaging a New World” Sermon Preached at Riverdale Presbyterian Church, Hyattsville, MD
Acts 2:1-21 with Genesis 11:1-9
Can you remember the last time or anytime you were in an environment where you spoke a different language than everyone else?
It could have been on an international trip either to the US for the first time or abroad, even something as simple as getting someone to clean your house or mow your lawn who originated from another place.
What did it feel like? What did you wish for? What do you still remember about such a time?
Over the past two years that my husband, Kevin has served as the President of an international relief and development organization called Feed the Children—a non-profit working in all 50 US states and in 10 countries around the world, we’ve done a lot of traveling. I mean A LOT of traveling! We’ve visited education programs and dedicated new feeding centers and built relationships with new friends all over the world. We’ve become the outsiders in communities.
The experiences no matter where we are in the world are similar. As we approach a community in need where Feed the Children has a school or a water project or a health clinic and begin to meet with parents and kids, it is a paralyzing feeling. Most of them, English is not spoken at all. And as for me, I can’t communicate beyond the basics of “Hello” “Good Morning” or “Nice to meet you” in the language of the community (if that!).
Not only this, but later when we sit down for lunch, I don’t know what I’m ordering on a menu. I don’t know what others are saying around the table. I don’t know how to tell new friends that I’m so impressed with the strides they’re making to help all the kids have brighter futures.
I rely on smiles, handshakes and hand motions--- all geared toward making a point the best I can with my body language. I hope that this finds a way to communicate love somehow.
I do the best I can. But it is frustrating nonetheless. I wish I knew Spanish. I wish I knew Swahili. I wish I spoke French.
As we begin to study our Old Testament lesson this morning, we read an experience of completely different proportions. Those gathered on the earth at this time had never experienced such a problem. They all spoke the same language. They gathered together as one.
It was a glorious time in human history. Translators were never needed. Everyone got along so well.
But the problem came when those gathered became a little too confident in their unified powers. They believed, Genesis 11 tells us that “they could make a name for themselves” by building a tower high in the sky with bricks and mortar. They wanted to be the ones completely in control of what came next, not God.
From what we know of God, we can imagine how well this went over . . .
In response, the Lord says, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” You see, God said such hubris would not do. Their punishment became separation from their human brothers and sisters. No longer would everyone speak the same language.
Folks began migrating, scripture tells us, from this moment on in groups of those who spoke their same language. Colors and skin tones began to divide from one person from another person. “Where are you from?” became an identifier making one person different from another. The world became full of not only different languages, but also different tones of voice and accents that continue to this day.
Ever gone to Mississippi or Boston or even Detroit and have a problem understanding what they’re saying?
Two weeks ago, for Memorial Day I visited my in-laws in South Georgia and was asked at 11:30 am to come to the dinner table and had no idea what was going on. Wasn’t it the middle of the day? South Georgia translation: dinner = lunch. Even if our official language is English, there are still a thousand ways that we can be DIVIDED in speech from one another.
But was this the way that God intended for us to live? Was the Tower of Babel and all that went down there the end of the story of language and how we live together in community?
It wasn’t. And to begin to understand God’s vision for our world, even as human pride sought to destroy every good thing that God intended, we must go to Easter—that liturgical season we just ended last Sunday with the celebration of the Ascension.
For it was on Easter, the day of resurrection, that Jesus, yes, Jesus ended his journey on earth with complete hope. No longer did division have to be the final word. When the women at the tomb heard from the angel that “Jesus was risen just as he said” it was a NEW day on earth. All were now welcome into God’s family, not just those who followed the practices of the Jewish faith.
This was the earth shattering truth: Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed).
But with any MAJOR life changing revelation, it needed fleshing out. It needed time to settle into human hearts and minds. It needed a season or what we call the church, Eastertide—50 days from then until now.
And this now is our reading from Acts 2.
The day started out pretty normally other than the fact it was a festival on the Jewish calendar and everyone was gathered in Jerusalem for worship and celebration. The disciples of Jesus, in particular were all together. They were still trying to figure out what to do with their lives, what would be the next steps for them in this post Jesus world. But then, verse 2 of Acts 2 tells us that, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.”
What could it be???
I could imagine that the abruptness of this interruption was frightening.
But even more what could be named, qualified or even described, the Spirit of God was on the move and the world would never be the same.
Scripture even has a hard time describing it using vague language like, “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.”
As the people gathered tried to describe what was going on were their actual tongues? Was there really fire? Probably not, but the author of the book of Acts knew only dramatic image would do because of what came next. Verse four tells that that all of them, “began to speak in other tongues (or languages) as the Spirit enabled them.”
And though we in the church world can easily get caught up in verses like this wondering, “What is tongues?” “Does this mean we are to speak in tongues?” “Are those believers in Jesus who say they’re speaking in tongues today more holy than the rest of us?” (All of these questions are best saved for a Church History class).
What is truth is this—the Spirit came and those who received the Spirit understood one another in ways they’d never had before. Suddenly, you see, it became a world where LANGUAGE was no longer a divider.
Through the Spirit people heard one another in ways in which they NEVER had before!
About a year ago, I journeyed to Guatemala alongside the Feed the Children staff from the home office based out of Oklahoma. It was my first visit to this country and I was eager to see the beauty of the place I’d only read about in textbooks years before!
As the week came to an end, I was notably aware of the language divide. Many of the rural communities that we visited were full of residents of Mayan decent (many of whom live on less than $1 US dollar day, by the way and have not completed a grade school education). Thus, at each stop, the mothers and children spoke a different dialect of a tribal language unique to their Mayan heritage.
The Spanish-speaking Guatemalan staff did not even understand what was going on! Together we relied on the Mayan children who’d learned Spanish in school to translate their tribal language into Spanish. Then the Feed the Children staff that spoke Spanish and English translated for Kevin and I. While it was good to be among these beautiful and hospitable people, the communication was exhausting. Double translation as you might imagine took a lot of time.
But, when it came time to say goodbye at the airport to the directors of the program, Altagracia and Ricardo, non-English speakers themselves, but leaders full of kind hearts and deep love for the children of their nation, I found tears rolling down my cheeks. Though we’d never spoken directly from native language to native language, I knew these the hearts of these two. I knew they loved God and sought to serve the Lord in all they did. They loved and appreciated me and wanted me to know how happy they were to have my visit to their country. I felt the same about them.
Together we stood on holy ground.
And the frustrations of communication that we’d experienced over the last seven days seemed to pale in comparison to the hugs we exchanged and the smiles that beamed across all our faces. It has been good to be together in partnership and we all knew it. God had done a work among us—a work that was changing and is changing children’s lives in Guatemala forever!
Such was a moment of the Spirit transcending, resting upon us, and interceding for us if I’ve ever experienced one.
For while my friends did not suddenly understand English and I did not suddenly understand Spanish, something about our hearts connected in ways that could have only come from God. Something opened that had been previously closed before.
Biblical Scholar N.T. Wright has said: “Those in whom the Spirit comes to live are God's new Temple. They are, individually and corporately, places where heaven and earth meet.”
Or, as I like to think about it, on the day of Pentecost a new world comes to be. Heaven really does come to earth!
A world where the words I speak do not keep me from my neighbor, but can join us together. . . .
A world where it matters not where I came from, but only where I am willing to journey in the future . . .
A world where the color of my skin does not make me better than or less than, but merely a beautiful part of God’s brilliant mosaic . . .
They call this day in the liturgical calendar we follow, the birthday of the church. Or in some churches a good excuse to have a cake at coffee hour after worship . . .
It’s the birthday of the church because with the giving of the Spirit, all of us were given the tools we need to make our community life together possible. You see, in Jesus, we are given the purpose. Remember the message of Easter. Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed). But with the Spirit, we are given the means to share the message.
I want to ask you this: when is the last time you sat in a church committee meeting or a Bible study and thought to yourself, how in the world do I go to church with these people?
I bet all of us could relate.
Church, in our modern expression is a crazy thing. People of all kinds of backgrounds and cultures and ages and opinions and education levels and life experiences and on and on gather because we love Jesus and want to follow Him, but in actuality, living it out can be one the hardest thing that we’ve ever tried to do.
And if you’ve been around church for any length of time, you know what I mean. We naturally are going to disagree. We’re going to go through seasons when we don’t get along. We are going to even fight with our words from time to time (and hopefully not with our hands!)
We may want to walk away from church sessions and throw up our hands and say, “What’s the point?”
But, today we remember the gift of the Spirit. We remember the great tool God gave us in the Spirit. We remember that the Spirit is what enables us to come together as one, as Jesus prayed that we would be.
Lauren F. Winner, one of my professors from Duke Divinity School and author of God Meets Girl writes, “The Spirit is the reason we can build a church and have confidence that we will get it at least a little bit right.”
Because of the Spirit, you see, we can imagine a new world. We can imagine a new community. We can re-imagine this community and the next chapter that God has in store for it in all its potential.
We don’t have to let our language divide hold us back—whether that be actual spoken languages as God brings non-English speakers to our front doors. Or when God brings us folks who hail from different parts of our country with strange ways of doing things or even when the different “languages” of our hearts seek to divide us.
For today is the day of Pentecost. Today is the day of new winds of the Spirit. Today is the day of the color red—the color of the refining fire. Today is the day of imagining a world where we are all not only welcome at God’s table, but heard and understood.