unknown-2Money doesn’t grow on trees. Prepare for retirement. Have your nest egg for security.  Always get the most bang for your buck.

Such life management principles are what many of us adhere as if they were Bible verses. And, it’s common sense, right?  Life is short after all. We need to make good choices with our money as well as our time. We do things that are good for us and those we love in the end. If not, then why do we bother? Why make stupid decisions?

This past Sunday I preached on the lectionary text of Jeremiah 32 in which was a direct contradiction to our best investment wisdom anyone could offer us.

God tells Jeremiah to continue to follow Jewish customs (of keeping property in a family) and buy a field from his cousin. But, there was one big catch. It was a horrible time! War would soon begin. Exile was on its way. And the people of Judah would be forced out of their town.

The Suzie Ormons of the Jeremiah's day would be shouting, “This is NOT a time to invest in real estate”

YET, God says to Jeremiah (who happens to be in prison at the time): buy the field in your town. This time of hardship will continue, yes. Exile will happen, yes. But one day you'll return to this country and to this land. Keep the faith. Have hope!

I have to say it's one of my most favorite passages in all of the prophetic books.  Why? It has a lot to teach us about WHO God is.

Our God makes unimaginable investments! 

The object lesson of this passage can be summed up by the Message’s paraphrase Jeremiah 32:15 which says, “The God of Israel says, ‘Life is going to return to normal. Homes and field and vineyards are again going to be bought in this country.’”

See buying this land was a spiritual gift to the community. It was a symbol of hope!  For the future of their country, the future of their families and most importantly the future of their relationship with God had nothing to do with what they saw exactly at that moment. A BIGGER story was at play.

Through the hard places of life, God was doing a beautiful work! (They just didn't see it yet). 

Yet, if you are like me, such an audacious hope is hard to believe in!  It’s hard to realize that God loves us so much to show us hope like this.

It’s hard to believe that such love and faithfulness poured out for us not just on our finest days, but on our darkest, especially our darkest too.

It’s hard to imagine that when all our accolades are stripped away God would still love us the same.

Maybe then, this is why we need symbols of hope so badly.

__________

At the end of the service, I told the congregation about the meaning behind one of my favorite spices in our household: rosemary.

Native to the Mediterranean region, rosemary is a small perennial scrub known from the mint family. Yet, beyond this, it’s an herb that known as a symbol of remembrance.

fresh-rosemary-in-basketDid you know that in ancient times it was known to strengthen memory? Muses in Greek Mythology often appear with rosemary in their hands. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia says: "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance, pray, love, remember."  And in modern times, researchers of “brain foods” often have rosemary atop their list of ingredients you can add to a dish if you are having memory problems.

I brought a basket of rosemary and as we sung the hymn, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" I went one by one to the folks in the pews and gave them a piece of rosemary. I told them to take it and place it somewhere in their homes where they would see it often and remember. I told them at it could be a symbol for their spiritual memory that:

There’s nothing they could do to separate them from God’s love.

No situation is ever too hopeless to be redeemed by God’s beautiful new story.

Even while we were all sinners, Christ loved so much to die for the human story to have new life.

And,  just as Julia of Norwich once said as a statement of trust in God’s investment in her, “All will be well, all matter of things shall be well.”

For God is always investing in us . . .even if we can't see it. Even if we don't understand it or believe it. Let us remember this when the hard patches of life hit us this week and in the weeks to come. If you need to remember, go find yourself some rosemary too.

 A sermon preached at North Chevy Chase Christian Church on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

636027750250817557-2142916596_god-doubt_Let me just start by saying, In fact, some of my pastor friends just can’t believe I’d be brave (or stupid enough) to pick it for my focus scripture this morning.  (Did you read this text? Click on the link above before you move on).

But hang on. Let's see what we can uncover . . .

It has often been said by many sociologists that our view of the Divine as an adult has a lot to do with our experiences of childhood.

Was our father or mother kind, loving and merciful when mistakes were mad? Then, we probably have room in our heart to view God in this way too.

Was our father or mother absent, inattentive, or making promises they could never keep? Then, we probably have little vision to see God in any other way.

Was our father or mother cruel, abusive and manipulative? Then, we probably get stuck in this place often—not realizing God could be something different.

Our parents, for good or for bad, shape us, mold us into grown up beings with distinct ideas about how loved we are, how valued we are, and how all this changes (or not) when we mess up.

And with all of this true-- especially if we grew up in angry or unstable households--- passages like this one from Jeremiah 4 can be hard to swallow. For they can perpetuate our hunches about God as someone we can’t trust or be in relationship with.

Verse 11 begins like this: “At that time, it will be said to my people and to Jerusalem: a hot wind from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my people . . . Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.”

(I know these are some less than positive words to hear, but hang with me for a minute). 

Commentators help us see that Jeremiah 4 is situated within a part of the book that speaks of the nation of Judah’s sins. And these are the sins:

And not only this, but going back earlier in the chapter helps us see that Judah will soon be taken over by the Babylon—another country that did not fear the Lord either. An all out rebellious situation.

So from God’s perspective--- it’s as if everywhere God looks in the world—God can’t find a righteous community God can’t find groups of people who are seeking out the Holy. God does not see anyone using their lives to bring about love, justice or peace in the land.

 

Verse 22 says: “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled at doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”   Well, now.  Alright. Let’s just pause for a minute right here.

Harsh words, wouldn’t you say? But very clear ones too. Judah was actin’ a fool. There was just no other way to describe it.

So by time we get to verse 28 we hear the punishment: “Because of this earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.”

As I read this passage this week, I couldn’t help but have visions of an event that happened 15 years ago today running through my head.snf11spden-682_984439a

Visions of the day when a city turned into black rubble, smoke and ash. Visions of the great destruction that feel so unexpectedly on our land—a day we will remember by asking one another “Where were you when the planes hit the towers?”

And while reading this passage with visions of that 9/11 day, I couldn’t help but think of all the commentary some offered as to why this horrific event occurred.

Do you remember the story that hit the airwaves less than a week after 9/11/2001 happened?

The Rev Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson asserted on US television interview that an angry God had allowed the terrorists to succeed in their deadly mission because the United States had become a nation of abortion, homosexuality, secular schools and courts, and the American civil liberties union.

These two leaders said America was getting the punished we deserved for not following God’s will on these social issues.

Their words, as you might remember were not readily accepted by Christians or even the general public. But they stuck by them anyway while many other pastors, including those of our denomination scratched their heads and said, “We don’t believe in a God who punishes like that.”

And I can imagine that few if any of you would agree with what Falwell and Robertson said about that day.

So how then do we situate ourselves with this picture of God in Jeremiah 4?

What’s most interesting to me about the choice of language of the passage are the kinds of pronouns used. Did you hear how God referred to the people in verse 22? “For MY people are foolish.”

The word “my” is a pronoun of belonging. We use it when we speak of things or people important to us, don’t we? My house. My car. friends. My child. And even more so, to say that someone is “my people” is a term of endearment, isn’t it? If I were to stop here a list for you this morning those who I consider among “my people” then I would be telling you about my very best friends, wouldn’t you?

I think it’s important to note because it shows us that God is not treating the rebellious nation of Judah with an arm's-length relationship.

No, God is saying, speaking in the lovingly yet firm tone a father might speak to his teenaged son who stayed out till 2 am when they were to be home at 11 for the 5th time:

“My boy, I’m tempted to take your butt to where the sun doesn’t shine.”  (or fill in your favorite expression here).

And I think in the same way as father who with a teenaged boy who has kept making bad choices—God speaks to Judah.

Jeremiah 4 is a loving reprimand. It’s a prophetic word not about wanting to be “that mean man upstairs” or the source of evil happening the world, but rather the restorer of the relationship, longing for the relationship to be made right again above all with human kind.

And, things get even clearer as we take a step back from the passage and notice how many times in the text the word “Looked” (or in my Bible the word “see”) is used within the passage. Professor Portier-Young offers us this gem: it’s the same Hebrew word used in Genesis chapter 1 when God looks upon creation and says, the God “sees that it was good.”

The connection between the two texts helps us SEE this intention of the Lord: re-creation.starting-over

Judah has messed up. Babylon has messed up. Later readers of the text like you and me have messed up.

The only solution is to start over!

And in order for this to happen, we too, much see what we maybe don’t want to see:

A world that is deeply broken and that has fallen short of God’s best plans.

A created world that groans with the consequences of our evil ways as a collective whole.

And a heavenly parent who allows us to experience the effects of our actions.

And in seeing the world as it really is, then, and only then, Jeremiah helps us to realize can we move forward with God in paths of righteousness once again.

Look with me again at verse 28: “For I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.”

It’s a declaration of unending relationship. It’s a way of saying, “No matter how many times you mess up, I still will be here.”

While I could never find myself in camp of Falwell and Robertson—saying that 9/11 was somehow God’s punishment for our sins —I do think that we miss the mark as Christian people when we don’t take responsibility for our actions, when we don’t ever say we’ve sinned, we don’t fall to our knees and lament.

For when we allow the news commentators to be the loudest voices on days like today—voices that will blast our American supremacy without taking an honest look at who’ve we become as an American people—we miss our prophetic witness as a church.

For isn’t it true?

We are a people who take advantage of the poorest among us by laws that favor the rich.

We are people who devalue others through our offerings of less than adequate schools, healthcare and social services for those who are have brown skin.

We are people who cast aside the untouchables among us: the elderly, the imprisoned, the foster children—allowing them to live their lives without contact and care from us.

And I could keep going and going....

Sometimes God doesn't like what we do. Sometimes we have to make peace with our consequences. And always LAMENT is the only way forward.

So before you rush off to something else-- think about this question:

Where have we as a nation fallen short of loving and caring for our neighbors as the scriptures have told us time and time again to do?

It could be racism.

It could be low wages for the most vulnerable among us.

It could be how we treat immigrants.

The thing is that we’d probably not all agree what we need to lament over as a nation. And that’s ok. It’s a part of the diversity that makes our human family so beautiful.

But, stop right now and write something down. Offer to God in prayer. 

Let us be hearers of this text by stopping to take responsibility for how WE as a collective people have missed the mark. Then and maybe then, we won't see God as one who punishes, but a God who longs for us as a people to be WHOLE.

AMEN.

 

7694535The Ten Commandments . . . It isn’t usually the type of post that you imagine me getting excited about, especially when you know I'm not a person all into "hell fire and brimstone" or tons of "thou shall nots."

However, when I read famed Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann's take on this passage in his book Journey to the Common Good, I was so excited I hardly knew what to do with myself (which is of course letting you in on my pastor dorkiness) because his framework for the meaning of the Ten Commandments shed a whole new light on this often over quoted, frequently debated and controversy driven portion of scripture.  (Kevin can attest to this fact after I sought to give him the cliff note version of this book on the way home one afternoon in the car and wouldn’t stop talking about it to which he might or might not have stop listening . . .

So, can you name all ten?

If you only found yourself able to name a couple, you are in good company. If you are like most Americans, the number of them that you know is always less than ten.

In fact a survey several years ago reported that more Americans could name seven ingredients of a McDonald's Big Mac hamburger and members of TV's "The Brady Bunch" more easily than the Bible's Ten Commandments.

Less than half of respondents -- 45 percent -- could recall the commandment "honor thy father and mother""[i] but 62 percent knew the Big Mac has a pickle and 43% knew that Bobby and Peter were Bradies.

So even as most of us don't exactly know all of the commandments, there are some of our Christian brothers and sisters sure do get fired up about them. 29_commandments2

We've all heard and followed the news of legislative battles over placement of the ten commandments in public places over recent years.

For example in September 13 of 2011, the Huffington Post reported that "The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia sued a southwest Virginia school board for posting the Ten Commandments, contending that the display violates the Constitution's guarantee of separation of church and state. This lawsuit sought to have the Ten Commandments removed from school walls and a ban on further display of the biblical documents.[ii]

The Ten Commandment and American religious culture go hand in hand as the debate in of their appropriateness in public life is likely to go on for generations . . .

So what can we learn from them?

If we go back to the text-- Exodus 20-- at their first appearance we see the context.

Prior to this moment at the base of Mount Sinai, the nation of Israel were slaves. They were owned by the nation of Egypt. They labored hard from sun up to sun down to edify and strengthen not themselves or their families but the empire.

They were asked to perform in bondage back-breaking work simply because the Pharaoh of the land was a afraid: afraid that without oppressing others that one day he'd not have enough. 

And I believe this is most important: they were a member of a society that was build not on ever having time to rest-- because if you stopped then someone else might get ahead. It was also a society not built on caring for neighbor-- because the only way to get ahead as a nation was to put others down.

Yet, as we know, everything had changed. The nation of Israel was now FREE!

Now, no longer would they be asked to bow to Pharaoh or any other god for that matter.

They’d be asked to form their life together around this truth: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me."

They’d be asked to form their life together around this truth: "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work."

They’d be asked to put neighbor above self and "honor your father and your mother," "not commit adultery" "not steal" or "bear false witness against their neighbor."

When we take a step back and look at the commandments as a unit over all (instead of reading them as so many often do in isolation) what we uncover is that God outlined for the children of Israel a NEW society

 . . . that was no longer based on scarcity, the fear of not having enough.

Instead, they would be asked live together as a people who believed as the Apostle Paul would say later on in the New Testament, "My God shall supply all of your needs."

They would be an abundant community.  

They’d be asked to become a community where no child was left behind wondering if their parents loved them because adultery broke up their parents marriage  . . .

They’d be asked to be a community where there would be no need to take another's food for everyone had their share . . .

They’d be asked to be a community where the deep breaths and moments of life reflecting silence would bring restorative healing as Sabbath, or a day from work was regularly taken. . . .

But their freedom and the abundance of provisions came with a cost. It actually was for a bigger purpose!

Remember long ago what God had said to their ancestor Abraham when he had been called by God, God said to Abraham, "all peoples of the earth will be blessed by you."2014-01-16-BelovedCommunity

Well, I believe that it is here in this moment of history that the way of life comes to be in order to make this happen.

The people of Israel are given an order to their life together so that they can use their blessing by God to bless others. Most of all this: to create a neighborhood where all would be welcomed. ALL people would be welcome.

Walter Bruggemann puts it like this, the Ten Commandments "are not rules for deep moralism. They are not commonsense rules to scold people. Rather, they are the most elemental statement of how to organize social power and social goods for the common benefit of the community."

Which is a way of saying, the Israelites were being asked to order their lives in such a way-- not just to feel shame if they broke one of the commandments, not just to feel like their God was lording over them in oppressive ways (as Pharaoh had done) but journey together toward the common good of all.

Here’s the underlining point: God gave them the 10 commandments to be intentional in their inclusion.

But the question was would they create it? Will we?

________________________________

[i]  "Americans Know Big Macs Better than Ten Commandments." http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/10/12/us-bible-commandments-idUSN1223894020071012

[ii] Virginia Ten Commandments Lawsuit: Civil-Liberties Groups Sue Southwest Virginia School Board For Posting Ten Commandments. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/virginia-ten-commandments-lawsuit_n_960447.html

A sermon preached at North Chevy Chase Christian Church on Exodus 14:10-31

What does it mean to live with intentional courage?

I was thinking this week about some of my “courage heroes” and the first one who came to mind was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.dietrich

I bet many of you have read some of his books—two of my favorite are Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.

Or I bet you’ve heard other preachers like me refer to him in sermons or in Bible Studies.

He’s a modern saint to many and if you don’t know much about him here’s the basic scoop: Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not a Lutheran pastor/scholar with a last name that is not only hard to spell, but he was a leader in the German church. In this ministry he quietly taught German students to reject Nazism until 1939. But also that time, he received a great job offer in America to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and left his home country. It was all he ever wanted for his life (or so he thought).

But, within a month, he made the decision to quit this "dream job.” He felt it in his heart that he needed to stop running away from a situation that needed a voice of justice in it. Simply put, he knew God was calling him to speak and go back home.

He wrote around that time: "I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people."

Most of all during this time, Bonhoeffer was willing to do anything, he said, to stop his country from going down a destructive path—a path where God’s love for all people could no longer shine through.

As the story goes, Bonhoeffer used family connections to gain a post in the military intelligence unit, where he operated as a double agent. There he helped arrange for a bomb to explode at the Führer's headquarters on July 20, 1944. But Hitler was only wounded, and Bonhoeffer, 38 and engaged to be married, was among the dozens arrested.

Bonhoeffer put everything, literally everything on the line to be used in service. Though many in his family call him stupid. There were just as many who stood in awe of his courage.

The sad part of the story is that he was hung on April 9, 1945, just days before American troops liberated Flossenbürg.

As I tell you this story I realize that few of you have been given opportunities to stop the most evil of evil plans in this world recently.

Because this is true, Bonhoeffer’s story and his witness often feel to most of us like a removed example of faith--- something that feels so far removed.

And like the story of Bonhoeffer, the Exodus story taken from chapter 14 might fall on our ears in the same way.  In hearing it read, we visualize an epic tale only fit for the makings of Hollywood and Charlton Heston. We’d call Moses and the Israelites courageous, yes, but do we relate to walking on dry ground with the waters surrounding us? Actually no, not at all.

Yet, the more I thought of it this week, the more I realized that if we went back in time and interviewed some of the charter members of the "I crossed the Red Sea" club about their courageous act, I'd imagine they'd laugh at our labeling of them.

It wasn’t as if they signed up for a journey, a moment, or even an act of courage like they found themselves in that day on the bank of the Sea. They were just following Moses . . .

Moses who had a call of God to lead the people of out of slavery in Egypt. . . .

Moses who goes to the Pharaoh of Egypt and asks that the people be allowed to go to the desert to worship . . .

Moses who doesn’t take no for an answer when Pharaoh refuses . . .

As a result in their nation, the ten plagues come, ending with the death of all of the first-born sons in the land, including Pharaoh’s.

So, Pharaoh finally says they can go.

Yet, even in what must have been a joyous exit, a celebration of freedom of worship, the Israelites were simply sticking with the plan of what they were told to do: follow Moses.

Sure, it was a choice after all to follow Moses, and they could have stayed back in Egypt, but scripture tells us that most left because why wouldn't you? God seemed to be on their side, Egyptians were giving them gifts for the journey out of fear of their God.

And, these plagues, or visible signs of God's provisions were making the whole journey look easy.

Like setting out for an adventured filled road trip with a map, the first couple of miles within the familiar context of where you've traveled before, always seem easy, right?

It was easy, I suppose until the crowd met the Red Sea.

Verse 11 of text details to us the specific cries complaints: "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us way to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us bringing us out of Egypt?  . . . For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness."

(Wouldn't you have LOVED to have been Moses in that moment? I know I wouldn't . . . )Moses-parting-the-Red-Sea

For no matter if they like liked it or not, Israel faced their moment of truth, fear or no fear. There was no turning back.

Choice 1: Go back to Egypt and angry Pharaoh

Choice 2: Trust God to lead the way across the sea.

What would be their choice?

You and I know the story, so it is hard to stay at this point for too long. For we know the Lord tells Moses to lift up his hands over the sea. And as Moses stretches his hands over the Red Sea, it parts. Dry ground appears. And, a path for walking become visible.

How scary that moment must have been!

But they were asked to do one thing: walk.

Just walk.

They were asked to walk. Walking forward equaled courage.walking-1

Courage for them meant no longer being a passive player in the deliverance that God had for them.

So hard is walking? But it was oh so courageous. It wasn’t like they had previous experience in something like this. It wasn’t like they had time to have pro/ con chart. It wasn’t like they had time to call a church council meeting and discuss how everyone felt about it. They just had to walk right then. It was their God MOMENT.

They were to step with the confidence that thought they may not know what was on the other side, and though they may not have intended to walk across a sea-- maybe never in their lifetime ever and maybe never again-- this was what was next for them.

Just walk.

One step in front of the other.

Walking toward a new future.

I want to tell you this: we don’t have to be Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany or at the edge of the Rea Sea to face such choices.

Such intentional opportunities are found in the choices in front of us every day-- in such choices that may seem too ordinary, too difficult or even too overwhelming in the big picture, but when presented with the moment to act are the tug on our heart to move.

Just saying no to a homophobic slur.

Stopping to help a distressed looking neighbor.

Visiting someone who might feel forgotten.

And our faith tradition is full of the great cloud of witnesses of those who have also acted with such intentional courage too . . . ordinary people found themselves doing unheard of things because of the love of God compelled them to act. We think of them as “big players” in a movement. But when it all boils down it was just putting one foot in front of the other.

Courage that looked like a tired woman in Alabama in 1954 boarding a bus as she did the same way ever day, but knowing one morning that she'd had enough sitting in the back with the folks who looked just like her. And she sat in the front.

Courage that looks like a young boy named Desmond who thought he’s just be a school teacher, only to find himself called to the pastorate in South Africa. Rev. Tutu who one day knew had to speak out against the un-justice even when it landed him in jail. He could simply not be silent.

Courage that looks like people organizing all over this country right now. . . people going to the streets, people standing in protest lines at City Halls, people showing up in one another’s homes to pray and get to know their neighbors better, saying with their steps it’s time for us in this country to have a conversation about race. That indeed black lives matter.

My dear ones, in times like this is easy to say, "I'm not courageous" and be so overwhelmed by what we hear reported every day on the news.

It's easy to pretend the injustices in the nation are not OUR problem.

It's easy to say: "There's always so one else who can do it better than me" and never really spend the moments and resources of our lives on things with no value.

BUT, if we truly are people who believe that "the Lord will fight for us" who wants us "to go forward" then I believe we've all got some walking to do.

Intentional Walking.

In my life, I've seen the pastor/ congregational relationship from many different angles:

In these situations, I've heard a lot of stories that begin: "Please don't be like our last pastor that . . ."

I've heard a lot of "Well, I'm not sure why ___ went into the ministry."

I've heard silence from pastors who I reached out to pastor me, pastors who didn't return my emails or remember my name during the 10th time I introduced myself to them.

Though we often say (especially in the free church tradition) that all members are ministers, who the pastor is really does matter.

Pastors shape the character of local congregations. Pastors set the tone for congregational life.  Pastors can define and easily create conflict in communities where there was none.

So, in the spirit of the good work of pastors going forth into the world, here's 4 things that I believe every congregation needs from his/her pastor. He or she must:

1. Love People

When a pastor is called to a local church, he/ or she needs to love its people (or learn to love them) quirks and all. Pastors model unconditional love to all kinds of people:  the homeless man on the steps, to the woman dying of cancer in hospice, and the loud mouthed teenager we'd really wish didn't sign up for the overnight retreat.

Of course, there are some days we won't like the people in our mix. But as in a marriage, we always end the day in love. Love that hopes. Love that protects. Love that believes the best is still yet to be.

This is what I most want to say: congregations KNOW when we don't love them. And, no amount of god-speak can cover up lack of true emotional connection. So, if we don't have a heart that wants to grow in love of people in particular place, we really don't need to find another job.

2. Practice Pastoral Care

It always amazes me when people become pastors and then are shocked to learn that visitation is part of the vocation.

"Oh, I really have to go visit shut ins? Oh, I really have to make hospitals? Oh, I really need to call regular visitors to introduce myself?"

YES YOU DO.

Pastors are care-givers of people in ordinary times, in joy and crisis.

In my experience, congregations will forgive a multitude of boring sermons and missteps in committee meetings, when they've seen us around their supper table.

3.  Show Some Preaching Effort

Sermons are holy moments, folks. We shouldn't take our opportunities to climb into the pulpit on a regular basis lightly.

Where else do a group of committed people gather in community weekly to hear a word about an ancient text? Few places other than the church! And, people don't just come to church anymore to check a box. Most people who give up sleep on Sunday mornings, want to hear something of meaning from the proclaimer.

So why do we, as pastors, think that we can serve up ill prepared homilies week after week after week with nothing more than cute stories or pre-packaged sermon fodder we found on the internet?

Sure, not every pastor's strength is the proclaiming moment. And this is ok (see point 1). But every pastor can try. We can honor calling by starting our sermons preparation earlier than the night before. Every pastor can make an effort to present something of value.

4. Live the Life, Not Just Talk the Talk

Of course, we as pastors aren't super humans. There will be times when will disappoint. Maybe even lots of times . . .  We'll forget somebody's birthday. We'll offend the church council member with the most seniority. We'll forget to make an important phone call. But, even in our imperfection, we need to be known as leaders who follow through with our commitments, more times than not. Basic curtesies like:

Answering emails.

Having conversations, even the hard ones.

Sending thank you notes.

Most of all, people need to see that we're the real deal. We love Jesus. And out of our love of Jesus, we do what we do.

What things would you add to the list?

A Side of God We Really Don’t Want to See: Exodus 33:12-23

 a sermon preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK

In all human relationships-- with our spouses, our children, our friends—there are ebbs and flows, aren’t there?

There are days when we wonder why in the world we ever got married, had kids or keep in touch with so and so from high school . . .

But, there are days when we love beyond any words we can articulate for love.

Maybe it was your wedding day. . . .

Maybe it was the morning your child was born . . .

Maybe it was that girl’s weekend when you laughed and laughed till the sun came up. . . .

If you’ve ever been there . . . if you’ve ever experienced such bliss in your life where you feel safe enough to ask your loved one for anything—then you’ll understand what is come in our Old Testament reading for this morning.

For Moses and God have quite a good thing going on too. And Moses thought he reached such a level of devotion and trust in God that he feels he could ask for the ultimate expression of intimacy with the Divine: show me all of you!

And it was true: Moses and God were pretty close. But how did this happen?

Emotional bonds to dear ones, in my experience, often grow out of conflict.

Times when either you’ve made it through what feels like the unforgivable sin, only to realize the other person is a saint enough to forgive you. Or times when everything is swirling around you and it becomes a case of you and your partner against the world.

And for Moses and God, they’d experienced both!

If we go back one chapter earlier than we read in our text for this morning, what we’ll find is the great calf incident when the conflict came.This was the scene: for many months, Moses is up on Mount Sinai having holy time with the Lord—receiving the words of the law on the tablets, written by God very own hand. Can you imagine what an amazing experience that was?

But, in Moses’ absence the people gathered at the bottom of the mountain. They talk about how lost and left out they feel. They collect all the gold they can find in the camp and create an object to worship, in the shape of a calf, creating their own object to worship like the other religious traditions of the time. They ignore the 10 commandments (which they already had), and each man and woman does what is best in their own sight.

You can imagine how well this went over when God saw what was going on and Moses came down the mountain. . . .

The divide between Moses and the people was thick in the air.

In verse 9 of chapter 32, the Lord speaks of it saying, “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”

Since there is a chapter 33, we know that the Lord’s anger does not get the final word. The people are allowed to live. But like misbehaving teenagers, God grounded them (or in Biblical terms: God sent them a plague).

You can imagine how this changed the dynamic of the relationship between God and Moses—both in God’s disappointment with the people who Moses was seeking to lead and in “you and me” against the world sort of way. Moses was truly the one human being that God could trust.

In fact, earlier than we just heard read a few moments ago, we learn that God and Moses had taken their relationship a notch or two closer together.

Moses traveled a good distance outside the camp and pitches a tent where he could be with God alone. It was the ultimate man-cave if you will. A place where Moses could revel in his beautiful relationship with the Divine without the pesky less mature human-lings able to bother them . . .

In fact, verse 9 says of the splendor of this tent: “ As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses.”

Moses and God were BFFs and everybody knew it.

All was be swell, right? But let’s recap. These were not two schoolboys. It was God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth!

But, in this cloud of closeness, Moses wants even more.

“We’re so close, God” Moses says. “And I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me.”

“Very true.” God replies.

“So, can you promise me a thing or two?”

“What do you want Moses?”

“I want you to go with me. You—just like we are in this tent.”

And as the conversation continues, God says no. You can’t have out there what we have in this special place of meeting. But you can have my presence and peace wherever you go.

(Isn’t that something that we ought to go back to more often? God says we are never alone and can always have the Lord’s presence and peace wherever we go).

But it wasn’t enough for Moses. He asks the Lord to “Show me your glory, I pray.”

But the Lord says, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”

And instead, the Lord offers up his backside. It’s not what Moses wants to see. It’s not what Moses asks for. And it is a reminder of the fact that God was not just another pal.

But, wow, as many commentators of this passage relate, what God offers is more than what most have seen of God throughout the scriptures: a visual encounter. And, Moses already had a visual encounter with the Holy at the burning bush a few years back!

Humorously, Professor John Holbert of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas asks this question about the passage: “Is it possible that God is mooning Moses?”

Maybe so.

I don’t know about you, but it’s not the sight of God I’m dreaming about seeing one day—a mooning.

And we get no indication as the story continues that Moses was thrilled about it either.

I think this is the case because we are a people who like certainty. We say to our co-workers and children, “Look me in the eyes when I am talking to you.” We say to a friend telling us a story, “Are you sure those facts are true?” We say to our partners: “Are you sure that you love me the most?”

In our closest relationships, we want to know that we know that we know!

And the same is true, I think in our relationship with the Divine. We want to know that we know that we are on good terms. We want to know that we are loved and cherished. The side of God we most want to see is what is found in the light of day where all is very CLEAR!

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her newest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark about our fascination in modern Christianity with certainty and what can be known in the light. In fact she gives it a label saying what you find in most churches in America is “full solar spirituality.”

She says you’ll know a full solar church when you find because: “Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.”

And while it works well for awhile—I mean who doesn’t like to go to one of the Disneyland of churches everyone is so happy and helpful? It can’t be sustained and remain authentic.

Things happen like: “you lose your job, your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in some attention-getting way, you pray hard for something that does not happen, you begin to doubt some of the things you have been taught about what the Bible says.”

And in cases like this, solar spirituality churches say just pray harder, just have more faith, or trust that everything happens for a reason!

Have you been told things like this from a church you attended? I know I have.

Taylor—most helpfully though, gives us another vocabulary for what our life in communion with God can be, though it is a side of God that we don’t often want to see.

She calls it “lunar spirituality”—or learning to walk with God in the dark.

And though most of us hear the word “dark” and think, oh, that must be bad. It’s not. Darkness can be a gift of clarity. Because if we think about it—even in the darkest night there’s always some light!

When is the last time you took a walk outside of the city limits at night? Do you remember what you saw?

I’m a city girl and don’t get out much into the country in the evenings. But the last time I visited my in-law at their farm in Georgia, I can remember being overcome with the light of the stars I had not seen in a very long time. It took my breath away in fact to stop and behold the glory of the night sky, of God’s creation—that I’m usually so in a hurry to get inside for that I miss.

Taylor affirms this when says, “The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no. To be a human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, failing down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.”

It’s as if our vocabulary of God has got to change if we really want to know the Lord! For the God of the dark nights, the God of the backside view, the God of the mysterious, who can feel so close to us in one moment and distant in the next: is who God is.

And though it might not be the God want to see—as Moses experienced it, if we follow the path of God’s kingdom, it is what it is going to be.

St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “Those of us who wish to draw near God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is the sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.”

And while the theology of “solar spirituality” or “God is the light” are part of our journey—it’s just NOT what we’ll experience all the time.

Like in our relationships with our spouses, our children, and friends, we aren’t going to be in total harmony 100% of our journeys together, even more so with our relationship with God. There are going to be times when we are in the dark. There will be nothing we can do about it, except to sit, to walk and to learn from God there.

We learn that God is altogether not like us.

We take comfort in the fact that God is not like us—and we can’t see all of God’s glory—because the problems of our lives, of our world need a much bigger solution than any human can even wrap their brains around!

And most of all, we are transformed by a side of God that is not like us.

As we wait in the dark we are transformed by God’s grace.

We are transformed by God’s compassion.

We are transformed by God’s sovereignty.

So that as we go through the days of our lives, we aren’t so surprised when the worse possible things happen to us and when the dark nights of the soul come.

We have the capacity to believe when God says; I will send you forth with my presence and my peace. And so we go forth into the world differently, even when the darkest nights surround us.

Though this may not sound like good news to you today, church, I am going to boldly tell you that it is.

It’s good news for all of us who have found ourselves in seasons of life that we really didn’t want and bouts of sadness that just won’t go away.

It’s good news for all of us who have ever doubted our faith or wondered if we were really a Christian.

It’s good news for all of us who like to sit out at night and gaze at the night sky feeling overwhelmed by how vast this universe really is!

Sure, there’s a side of God that none of us might ever want to see, just as Moses experienced long ago, but there’s a lovingly mystery waiting to meet us in those moments when we feel farthest away!

Thanks be to God.

AMEN

[P.S. If you'd like to read the introduction to Barbara Brown Taylor's book, check it out here. Great stuff!)

Kevin and I recently returned from a short visit to South Georgia where all of his family lives but us. One of the joys of every visit we make down to Georgia is time that we get to spend with our four young nephews. It’s always fun to spoil them and then get to leave when they start fighting . . .

I always find myself playing with of my nephews, Landon, age 9  who seems to latch onto me from the moment I walk in the door till the moment we leave. When I can get him off my IPad (where he’s proceeded to load every new video game imaginable) we play board games.

One of the games that we often play together on the floor of my in-law’s living room in Rummikub. Success at Rummikub depends on good draws of chips and insightful strategy of matching rows of numbers and colors.

But, if you draw the smiley face—you find yourself with the game-changing tile! I love watching the glee that comes across Landon’s face when he draws it. For I know in that moment he thinks he’s hot stuff!

For with the smiley face, you can play almost anything and get rid of the numbers on your tray faster.

Much like in other games, the smiley could be called the ultimate trump chip or trump card because when you have it in your line-up, the rules no longer matter anymore. You can really do whatever you want!

In the same way, Matthew 18:15-20  seems to present us the ultimate trump card when it comes to life in Christian community.

And in sum it says this: if someone in the church sins against you, go and talk to them in private. If they won’t listen to you, take 2 or 3 more people. Then if the “sinner” refuses to listen to you then, tell the church. If they don’t listen to the church then let them go on their way without blessing.

Or in other words, my Bible verse trumps you. 

You don’t have to do a very exhaustive search on the Internet to find Christian ministries who have framed their governing boards around what many of them call the “Matthew 18” principle.

Everyone from the Association of Christian Schools International to Focus on the Family to Lifeway cite Matthew 18 as the formula by which to handle conflict in the church.

But, the Bible as I come to understand it never gives us a checklist. As Jesus is teaching, it is always about a conversation into what life in the kingdom of God entails. And it is always more complicated than it seems at face value.

Consider this. A Methodist pastor friend of mine in Virginia once told me the story what happened at his church after a long tenure in a particular community. He had become particularly passionate about connecting his congregation with a church in Rwanda.

The Rwandan church was located in a community where hundreds of families were out of reach from life’s most important essentials, especially water. After several exchange trips where members of the Virginian church went to Rwanda to visit and the pastor of the Rwandan church came to America, it was decided that the Virginia church would help bring fresh water to the community.

It would be a large chunk of the church’s budge to fund such a sustainable project—literally nowhere near a major city so they pipelines would be long. But the pastor knew it was the right thing to do. And the Rwandan church couldn’t have been more grateful. Even though one church leader met with him once to explain her concerns otherwise the pastor thought overall the church leadership was behind him.

This was until the deacons from the church board appeared at his house one night. They brought their Bibles and said that they needed a word with him. After settling in into the pastor’s basement living area they read part of our scripture passage from this morning. They told him what they really thought of the Rwandan project.

“It’s our Christian duty to tell you that you’ve sinned. Building that well is a waste of our resources. You should be caring first about the community in the local area first, not the Africans.”

Furthermore (they went on) if the pastor wanted to continue at their church, all contact with the Rwandan church must stop immediately.

But I’m sure you can imagine that this pastor was devastated. Maybe he’s misjudged the pulse of the church and led with a lot of gusto but such did not warrant the “visitors in the night” intrusion as he would later call this incident.

In the end, the church did stop its ministry in Rwanda (sigh) but the pastor (I guess luckily) didn’t loose his job over it.

But what bothered him the most was how the deacons used scripture. It was as if this Matthew 18 passage was the trump card to get the pastor to do what the deacons wanted him to do.

A story like this one is not an isolated example. I know dozens of churches wrecked by conflict that goes back to the same sort of thing. It’s the stuff of the worst of church life is made of.

Our pattern becomes we take scripture. We present it from the perspective of “you’re a sinner” and “I, the real Christian” knows best. And then we use scripture to hurt people. We really hurt people.

This is not to say that discipline isn’t important or sin isn’t really or talking to those in whom we have conflict one-on-one isn’t a good idea. BUT, how we use our so-called trump card of power in numbers has to be handled oh so carefully (if at all).

But it is important to consider that the lection ends this way: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.”

To help myself get the point I wrote it out like this:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone remembering that I, Jesus, am there with you.

But then if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses, remembering that I, Jesus am there with you.

If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church . . . remember that I, Jesus am there with you

As simple as the addition is, it sounds different doesn’t it?

And this is what Holy Spirit abiding with us, and blowing through us, and giving life to the church in the first place is all about.

We are never alone. We are never abandoned. God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is with us.

And because of this WE CAN CONNECT to those most impossible people that we don’t understand or appreciate. So, we don’t have to waste so much of our time labeling particular people as "sinners." But, we let the Spirit of God do the work of joining our hearts.

Thanks be to God that the one who holds the “trump card” is not us-- but the great mystery of the Spirit, always at work.

Luke 17:11-19

Sermon Preached at Watonga Indian Baptist Mission, Watonga, OK

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

And they are_____. (Thank you).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a life, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A smile from a stranger . . . .

A devoted friend . . . .

An unexpected path to something new . . . .

Unconditional love from a family member . . . .

A touching word of encouragement . . . .

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

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

AMEN

Christ the King Sunday 2012: Matthew 16: 13-20

On a lazy Saturday afternoon, one of my favorite things to do is watch those home design shows that seem to come on endlessly on cable. I remember once being mesmerized by an episode of the show: “Flip That House.”

If you haven’t seen it, the basic concept is this: an individual or group with an interest in house design buys a place going into foreclosure or that is priced well below its market potential. Then, as fast as possible, they assemble the necessary work crew to fix up the house with the goal of selling it to make a huge profit. The concept sounds easy enough, but things never go exactly as planned . . .

On this particular episode, two first time flippers buy a two bedroom house in a Dallas, TX neighborhood with big dreams of re-doing the kitchen, installing hardwood floors in the living room and even building an additional wing for a master bedroom suite in only 8 weeks.

With dollar signs in their eyes, the two men charge forward with their flipping project without taking much time to consider a lot of basic elements about their house. To make matters worse, against the advice of the experts guiding them, they remodel the kitchen and do the repairs to the living room in record speed. They make promises to lenders that their house will be complete soon as their cockiness grew by the day. Yet, they hadn’t begun anything yet!

When construction began, the water pipes below burst and the whole backyard looked like a pond. Their land sat on a virtual wasteland! The foundation of their house was built on low land in a flood zone.

When the city contractors came to assess the situation after their flip was set back 8 weeks due to the faulty piles, they made the statement: “If you’d only thought about where the house stood in relation to the water lines, this would have never happened. Next time you buy a house you need to know more about the foundation!” If these guys had only listened to the advice of the experts, they would have saved themselves valuable time and money (and of course the embarrassment of showing all their bad decisions on national t.v.!).

Foundations are important. If we start on the wrong kind of foundation or build on the wrong kind of foundation, our house is bound to crumble no matter how good our intentions are.

Here we stand together—on one of our last Sundays as pastor and people. And I couldn’t think of any better way to do that than to end where we started. I don’t know if you remember (and several of you weren’t around then) that my very first sermon series here at WPBC was on what it mean to be a Christian and what it meant to be a Christian church. I knew back then in January of 2009 that if we didn’t begin our relationship with Jesus then our partnership would ultimately fail.

And the same is how I feel about our ending. If we don’t stick with Jesus, the work that we’ve done together will also be in vain. Because when it all boils down and all of life melts away there is only this one confession on which our faith finds it foundation: Jesus is Lord. And today, the Gospel of Matthew chapter 16 will guide us to ask ourselves the foundational question-- what is our church built upon? Is it built on the Pastor? Is it build on the people who attend weekly? Or is it built on something altogether different?

When the earliest disciples began to follow Jesus, they did so having very little idea about what following Jesus would entail. The word “Christian” wasn’t even conceived yet. When Jesus invited them to come along, they weren’t asked to recite a creed, or detail a confession about their new leader—they were just asked to follow. For, they would learn what they needed as they went.

And, as their journeys of following Christ continued to unfold, points of revelation came for all of them. As they got to know Jesus better with every miracle he performed, with every meal he blessed, with every sermon he gave, they came to crucial moments of decision. Who really was this Jesus that they followed? And what did this mean for their lives?

Several months prior to our text, a big moment of truth came to all the disciples. Much to their surprise, Jesus met them from the other side of the lake by walking on water. It was a moment of great divine revelation. It was there that all of them confessed about him: “Surely you are the Son of God!” This began in Matthew’s gospel the huge moment of illumination where Jesus’ humanity and divinity came together.

So, when we get to the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we might wonder what the big deal about asking the disciples was: “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” Hadn’t the disciples already passed this test? Hadn’t they already confessed Jesus to be God’s Son? What needed to be said again?

Well, unique to Matthew’s gospel, these statements of confession are all about something all together different from a declaration of Jesus’ identity. The teaching moment for Jesus got at the larger plan of what following him would look like in the future.

After several of the disciples replied to: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” by comparing Jesus to a line of prophets, Simon Peter jumps out on his own to answer for the group the main question: “Who do you say I am?” He replies: “You are the Messiah, Son of the living God.”

And after this exchange the rest of the dialogue begins to feel like a private conversation between Jesus and Simeon Peter.

The kind of talks you have with you parents when your siblings are not around, when they ask you to be the executor of their will. The kind of conversations you have with your favorite teacher who wanted to let you know that you had a gift in a particular subject matter and that you should definitely pursue it in college. The kind of conversations you have with your boss right before you get assigned to a new development at work. A sacred moment that you tend not to forget . . .

You see, Jesus knew something particular about Simeon Peter that no one had ever really cared about before.

Simeon was a leader. At his best, for good and for bad, he was willing to speak his thoughts aloud, courageously. And this moment, willingly, he spoke the truth about Jesus when others weren’t willing to go it alone. Simeon had the truth in his heart about Jesus that would carry the test of time—even when persecution came later on.

And because of this, Jesus spoke to him directly saying: “You are blessed, Simeon, son of Jonah.” Simeon, everything has changed for you now. I recognize that you get as much of me as you are able to understand at this point. I recognize that you love me and want to help me bring the goodness of God to those who are dying to hear a good word sometime soon.  

And while since the time of Matthew’s gospel being written there have been centuries and centuries of debate about what this passages means exactly—with many Catholics seeing this text as reasons for the succession of popes beginning with the disciple Peter and with many Protestants on the other hand saying, “No, no”, this is about a confession of Jesus as the Messiah as the central message of the church, we need not be divided. Because what this passage boils down to is the foundation that was being laid for a community that would sustain the test of time.

The foundation would begin with Jesus and seeing him as Lord of all.

The point of Peter’s confession being this: without understanding Jesus, the formation of the church would have no foundation. Peter would be one of the first leaders to help the early church get this truth. Jesus, Messiah, Son of the Living God, would be the crucial, irreplaceable beginning to this movement called God’s new covenant with man. So much so, that when some of the early church coverts were first called the name: “Christian” in the city of Antioch, which literally meant: “follower of Christ.”

Thus, to be a Christian is completely dependent on the identity of Christ—we cannot talk about what it means to call ourselves a Christian or a Christian Church if we do not begin with Jesus. Jesus is the Solid Rock on which everything we do as a community must stand. Our foundation must be as a community must be as Jesus intended for us when he began encouraging its first leader, Simeon Peter.

We all bring to this community our hang ups with what it means to be a Christian. I bring mine from the conservative evangelical home I grew up in and the overkill of Jesus-ness I received as a child. You might bring your hang-up about Jesus from another religious tradition or from no tradition at all.

And because of these things, there are times when all of us are afraid to be too Christian or even too “Jesus-y.” We don’t want to appear to be too radical on Jesus and thus non-accepting of our neighbor like the negative examples of Christianity we see on the news. We don’t want to scare people off through our words. Doesn’t everybody know about Jesus? What might be the point of continuing to talk about him, we wonder?

This whole confessing Jesus thing is something that I have really grown through and in and around during my tenure as your pastor. Being your pastor as taught me to love Jesus in new and deeper ways than I've ever grown. And likewise, you’ve grown. You’ve matured. You’ve confessed Jesus, especially some of you who said when I first came, "I'm not sure I believe in the resurrection. I'm not sure I believe in the divinity of Christ." Today you are stronger believers. And I am so proud.

But we can’t stop now. Jesus was and is the foundation of our lives if we say we Christians and Jesus has and will be the foundation of our church if we call ourselves a Christian congregation.

If we do not heed such a truth, we will find ourselves like the Texas house flippers—weeks, months and even years off course of what God has for us in our community. Or, we might find ourselves investing in projects and causes that while they may be good, may not to be the best that God has for our community. We might find ourselves wasting precious years, months, or days of our lives.

We must keep singing hymns and songs of faith in this place. We must pray in acknowledgement of the importance of Christ here. We must remember that identity of Christ is what makes us different from a spirituality group or a social gathering going on in Reston on a Sunday morning. We must keep asking Jesus in all our prayers what is his will for our moving forward.

If we call ourselves Christians, we share in the identity of Christ, bottom line. And it is in sharing in this identity that we have something lasting to share with the world—hope of new promises of new beginnings, of forgiveness as we keep trusting in him.

This is what I most hope for the future of WPBC. This is what my prayer is that you will continue to find your foundation in Jesus. That you will remember Jesus. That you won’t forget Jesus. That when you feel lost, afraid, or unsure of what is next that you’ll go back to Jesus.

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, sweetest name I know. Feels my every longing. Keeps me singing as I go. Why don't you sing with me?

AMEN

Mark 10:35-45

When is the last time you got in the car with a group of friends and somebody called, “shotgun?” Do you know what it means?

As my twelve-year-old nephew, Jayce likes to remind me every time we take him out on an outing, “Calling shotgun means you get to sit in the front seat of the car” as he promptly calls it out before his younger brother, Landon.

According to the rules of the official shotgun website (yes, there’s a website for everything these days) “the history of calling "Shotgun" goes back to the days of covered wagons and the Wild West. On a trip across the plains, the driver of a wagon would hold the reins of his horse team and concentrate on driving. This left him and the occupants of his wagon susceptible to sneak attacks from bandits and thieves. To avoid this atrocious circumstance it became necessary for one person to sit next to the driver with a shotgun and fend off the enemy.”

But these days most people I know who call “shotgun” (like my nephew) do so because they like to control the temperature or what type of music blasts from the stereo. In the case of Jayce he always picks anything by Reba McIntire or “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” (Keeps life interesting for sure!) All in all most kids and teens I know like to play the game of calling “shotgun” because if you win, it’s a position of leadership, of control and most of all one that makes you feel better than the rest of the passengers stuck in the backseat. Or, as Jayce says when he beats Landon (pictured several year ago out to the right) out by seconds, “Na, nah, nah, nah. I won. I beat you!”

There’s just something innate in what it means to be human to want to position ourselves higher than others—to know that we count, to know that we are going to get what we want out of life, to know that above all we are more special than the rest.

Over the course of the past two Sundays, we’ve been sticking close to the gospel lections from the book of Mark as well as our theme verse for the stewardship campaign this year, Micah 6:8. Asking ourselves the question of “What does the Lord require of us? But to do justice, and to love mercy”  . . . and today to arrive at the final part “and to walk humbly with our God.”

It’s also Pledge Sunday, the day we commit as a church to where we want to go in the future. Who do we want to reach out to with our building? Who do we want to support in our missions? What kind of people are we going to be in the coming year—are we going to be counted among the members of this congregation?

And with all of this true, it seems quite significant that we’ve landed this morning at the exhortation of “walking humbly with God.” For it’s a big thing to do to pledge—to make the step of faith to say—I’m going to give of myself in this way to the work of the Lord in this place in the coming year.

In fact, it’s a grown up, mature faith statement of humility. It’s a statement that says, I am not going to put my family, my needs and my friends above God. I’m not going to make any plans for my finances until I give what is God’s first. And even before 2013 starts I’m going to say in the presence of this congregation and most importantly God, I’m going to acknowledge God’s Lordship over my life, my finances included. (Not just to make my income taxes come out nicely in the end, but because I acknowledge the Lordship of Christ in all things).

Yet, as we know from how the children in our lives, walking humbly before God is much more difficult than it first may seem, especially if we are talking about money and all the attributes that go into making our money like power, position and achievement.  We, as adults, are not known to give up our control on such too easily.

In Mark 10, we find a story of two disciples who also were learning that “walking humbly with God” was going to be they weren’t really the ones calling the shots in the first place.

This is the scene: Jesus and his disciples were on the road heading toward Jerusalem, for the Passover celebration. It would be Jesus’ last journey there. I can imagine his nerves. But, to the clueless disciples—their mind was on something altogether different—who was the greatest.

When I first began studying this passage in preparation for today, the first word I wrote on the sheet of paper where I took notes was, “boldness” in all caps. For, I give them credit for gutsy right away in verse 35. For, I don’t know if I could approach Jesus as they did when they said: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. And [Jesus] said to them, ‘What is it that you want me to do for you?’ And they said, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’”

Basically, James and John wanted to play a game of grown-up calling shotgun “when we get to heaven” style.

“Hey Jesus, we’re calling it first. When we get up there in all your majesty when all is said and done, we want to be next to you in the best seats.”

And of course, since they were the first ones to ask out of the twelve AND Jesus had already said that he’d entertain whatever they wanted from him, I can imagine that James and John thought they were automatically in for making the “who’s who of heaven A team.” They were going to get to sit on the right and on the left.

It’s the way things in the world, work right? You go chase your ambitions. You ask for whatever you want. And in the end, hard work pays off to those who don’t give up! “If you want something, go out and MAKE it happen” is what all of the self-help experts say.  It’s the modern American dream in fact. We know this story full well.  Maybe some of us are living this story right now.

Well, Jesus would have nothing of it.

Why? Because the kingdom in which Jesus was seeking to usher into this world was not about who was on top and who was not, but ultimately about the walk with God, a journey both of high peaks but also of suffering too.

Get this: it’s almost as if James and John were sleeping through the previous conversations the disciples and Jesus had shared about who Jesus was and what was to become of his future. For Jesus had JUST told them that the Son of Man would soon suffer and face death.  Jesus’ hardest days were ahead of him with every step he took closer to Jerusalem. So, in fact, if James and John HAD really been listening maybe they would not have called shotgun so quickly on this one—

Hear Jesus speaking this to them in verse 38: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

Well, nope would be a proper answer because as we know from the rest of the story, they can’t stick with Jesus through the long night of his arrest, trial and day of crucifixion.

But at this time, bold little James and John think they can. And in saying, “We are able” to Jesus’ proposition, proceed to make the rest of the crew jealous and break out into quarreling.

No one want to be the disciple sitting in the last chair at the end of the table, do they?

But, as Jesus uses this moment for teachable purposes we learn that Jesus doesn’t really care at all about rank or promises made to him. No, not at all; rather, he says, following me boils down to this:

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For, the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many.”

We could get easily side tracked here with the insertion of the word “ransom” into this theological statement about what Jesus would soon be doing for us on the cross and all the atonement theories that have followed through the centuries of the Christian church. But, we’ll save that conversation for another day and simply point out this: following Jesus means putting the ranking games we play with one another away.

St. Augustine told a wise and wonderful story to a man who confronted him about the logic of heaven. “Why doesn’t God make me a rich man? I’ve prayed for money again and again and God doesn’t answer my prayers.” St. Augustine asked him what he would do if he became a rich man. The man replied, “I would have land and I would have people work for me for a change. I would be in charge.”

“And what’s your life like as a poor man?” asked St. Augustine.

“I have my family. I have my friends. We all work hard together. But we’re all poor.”

“Well, I can see why God has answered your prayers with such profound wisdom,” said St. Augustine.

“God hasn’t answered my prayers at all. I’m still a poor man.”

“Not at all. You’re a very rich man. God has simply not given you gold. But by denying you gold, he has prevented you from becoming greedy, abusive, and arrogant. Why would God give you something that would help you to harm the people you love? By withholding gold – and only gold – God has allowed you to be rich of spirit. You are kind, generous, loving and loved.”

The man stared at St. Augustine, then collapsed in tears.

And in the same way, we too might need to re-consider our ideas about power and control of our lives. For you and I can play the games as long as we like, trying to use our resources to get ahead of our brothers and sisters, to stand out, to be noticed for having more, being more, and excelling more for being the bold ones who go out there and actually achieve our dreams. BUT, Jesus says to each and every one of us, the only way we’re ever going to find the fulfillment that we are all seeking is if we walk humbly with the Lord.

Humility is a word that can mess so many of us up, though. For, there are so many ways that our culture can distort this word. Telling us that humility is about putting ourselves down. Telling us that humility is not taking praise. Telling us that humility is seeing ourselves as lower than a particular type of person or gender.

But, I don’t think this was what Jesus was telling us at all as he encouraged servanthood.  As one Biblical commentator says, “being a servant and a slave [as Jesus talks about in this context] is not about subservience to Jesus, but about joining him.”

The invitation, you see, to walk humbly before God, is one where we get to come learn of our Lord’s business, a trusted companion for the journey. So, James and John had one thing right—there would be an invitation to come and sit beside Jesus for the rest of their days and the eternal life to come. But the difference would be that everyone else would be there right beside them.

This too is our invitation today as we prepare to bring our pledges for the next year to God. We pledge because we too understand that walking humbly with God is about doing our part, no more, no less so that others may join us in this experience of church. We pledge because we believe in giving to God at this church is an act of justice, is a way we love mercy and is how we humbly walk with our Creator.

So, this morning, I challenge you to do what you can do. And in just a few moments as we bring our pledges forward to do so in a spirit of humility. Not with your head bowed.  Not with fear or anxiety. But with confidence that can only come from following in the next step of your discipleship journey—here in this place.

Let us give to the Lord this, walking humbly together.

AMEN

In my weekly schedule Friday is usually set aside as sermon writing day. It doesn't always happen (you know, there's always Saturday), but I try to honor the discipline of time it takes to write a thoughtful sermon by putting it as my only "do to" on Fridays. It is also a day I work from home.

With this being the case, you'd think I'd have it done by noon so I'd could have the rest of the day for leisure or one of those church administrative tasks that just has to be done before Sunday. But I don't. I almost never get my sermon written before 5 or 6 pm on Friday afternoon. And that is, if I am lucky.

Such a fact drives my husband crazy because he knows my mind is never at peace until at least something is drafted. He also knows that I won't be ready to go out to date night (what we do on Fridays when we're both in town) until it's finished.

But the thing is-- I can't help myself.  As much as I wish a sermon would flow like an English term paper I used to write in college, it doesn't. And, I don't think it ever will.

Sermons to me are sacred acts. Sermon writing is a conversation between God and me and whatever text I happen to have before me in a given week.

And because this is true, I can't just "Sit down and write a sermon" the way some do. No, it really does take me the whole day to write. And I'm not just saying this because my head is buried in commentaries all day.

Rather, sermon writing for me is active. I have to do something to find meaning, to collect my words and to be in a mental space to allow it all to flow together.

So when "I'm not writing my sermon" what you might find me doing is:

- baking bread

-folding the laundry

-making myself a sandwich for lunch

-straightening up the living room

-filing the mail

- serving the web

Though many might call this procrastination, the longer I've been a regular preacher the more I've come to give myself the grace that "this is my process." Mind you, all of these activities I do alone. This may be the key to it all: solitude (what we in our culture have so little of these days).

Getting my house in order, or baking bread for Saturday morning breakfast or even catching up with the latest news on Facebook can indeed be just what gets the holy juices flowing. Sure, there comes a point when I have to do as my fellow writing Rev friend, Ruth says, "put butt in chair and write" but until the time comes, it's good to do other things. (I will always be thankful for the wisdom in particular of Kathleen Norris' book, The Qutoritian Mysteries that helped me down this track back in seminary).  These others things may indeed be my work.

For after all, aren't I preaching about a God who first said I'll met you every time you break bread? I'll keep baking it and cleaning my house as I keep learning how to preach week after week after week.

When In Doubt: Befriend Jesus

John 15:9-17

Have you ever thought of yourself as a friend of God?

And what an unusual piece of scripture we have before us this morning. If you are like me, you think of friend as a more casual word, not a word meant for the one called the King of Kings and Lord of Lords that we know as Jesus

In our gospel lesson for the day, we are told this earth shattering, game changing fact-- for those of us who are on the journey of getting to know Jesus-- we are called Jesus' friend.

Look with me at verse 15: "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."

As we consider today the idea of being in friendship with Jesus, such could have a multitude of different meanings based on your life experiences-- what having friends in your life has meant to you.

For some of us, our friends become like our family, those in whom we claim among our dearest of the dear. For others of us, having and maintaining friendships has become one of the most frustrating types of relationships in our lives because they haven't come easy to us. For, as fast as some of us seem to make friends, we lose them.

For it is true that friends can be some of life's greatest blessings or some of life's greatest headaches, right?

A friend to you might be someone who we know and love and share some of life's best and worst times alongside, but sometimes friends are those people who abandon us when hard times come. Sometimes when supposed friends smell trouble in the waters that surround our life they jump out faster than we have time to blink.

A friend might be someone who we trust with everything, share our secrets and our deepest thoughts,  but sometimes such friends are those who break our hearts worst than known enemies. Sometimes friends are those who share what we never wanted any other ears to hear-- stabbing our hearts deeper than we ever could have imagined.

A friend to you might be someone in whom you can call to visit if you need to borrow something or who can tag along with you to an activity you both enjoy, but sometimes friends are people who are people who don't really know us at all. We may spent time we them, but never do our conversations flow into the deep waters of what makes life, life (drama of course). We can be easily surrounded by "friends" and feel like we have no friends at all.

So when Jesus, in his final discourse to the disciples in John's gospel calls us friends, we might find ourselves confused, unimpressed or altogether unsure of what being identified as Jesus' friend might mean for us.

Friendship-- how we identify who is our friend, how we relate to our friends, and ultimately what it means to have friends in our lives has been something that philosophers and theologians have been writing about for centuries. In the 5th century B.C.E. philosopher Pythagorus famously said, "Friends have all things in common." Aristotle is remembered for saying, "Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies."  Great theologian Thomas Aquians said, "There is nothing on this earth to be more prized than friendship."

Because even though we all struggle with the question of who are our friends and what it means to give and receive love from them -- at the end of the day, we all, in one way or another want to know that somebody is our friend. Helen Keller once said: "Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light." And, I 100% agree.

I recently attending a conference where a well known pastor was quizzed by eager clergy about her experiences in the church. One of the first questions asked of the speaker was, "What did you say in your first conversation to the church leadership when you began at the church?" We all sat on the edge of our seats, expecting her to say something about growth strategy, finance or something that could be transcribed into a leadership book. But, no, the pastor speaker conveyed, "I asked each member of the church leadership team if they would be my friend. I had just moved to the area," she went on, "And I really hoped that someone would want to hang out with me. I was really afraid that I wouldn't have any friends."

And, like this pastor, we'll do almost anything to understand it, create more networks for them to flourish within, and attend to throughout our lives-- even if it means joining a social network for friends like Facebook or Twitter, even if we don't like the computer. We'll make an exception with social sites  to keep up with and reconnect with our friends over the chasm of time and distance.

And, I believe that Jesus gets this about our humanity.  As we talked about last Sunday, from even the moment of creation when light came from darkness, we came about relationally. Like our Triune Creator, Jesus knows, we too are made for relationships. And,  Jesus walked in our human skin too, didn't he?

And, Jesus calls all of us FRIENDS.

Earlier in John 15, the gospel writer gave us one of the greatest metaphors in all of the stories of Jesus. We are told by the Lord that "I am the vine and you are the branches."  In such a descriptor of a plant-- something we all can all understand, we are told of how we are not just lowly human beings like puppets being manipulated by a divine on a string. No, we are told that we are part of the main event, with our proper place of course: we are the branches and Jesus is the vine but a part of the stalk of the plant nonetheless. We  our were made to be interconnected with the work of our vine-- Jesus.

Jesus says, "I do not call you servants any longer . . . I have called you friends. For a servant does not know their master's business" but in friendship, we are given a relational way to live among God. Not as lower class citizens.  But, as partners. . . . as we abide in God, we know and can do what it is God is already doing. As friends, we are included in the community of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

But what does this mean? If we befriend Jesus, what might our lives begin to look like?

Look with me at verse 13: "Greater love have no man than this, than a man lay down his life for his friends."

Such is a verse I was asked to memorize in Sunday School as a child, and because I've had the words stuck in my head this long, I've often pondered what they mean.  And usually I've been confused. I mean when in an average day are any of us asked to give our lives for our friends-- in a literal way?. To be a friend means I have to be ready to give my life for another person? Heavy stuff, right?

Professor Dave Lose from Luther Seminary puts it like this:

Love does indeed call at times for sacrifice, but sacrificing for another and being less of a person isn't the same thing. At its best, sacrificial love invites us to live more fully into the kind of person we are called to be.

 I think that's what Jesus means when he says "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (15:12-13).

Jesus isn't less of who he is called to be by laying down his life, but more.

Lose goes on to write: I know this is complicated, and again open to abuse -- not all sacrifices are holy -- but when I look at some of the loving sacrifices people have made for me (my parents, my wife) or that I have made for others, we were never disgraced or devalued by making those sacrifices but actually lived more fully into who we were called to be.[i]

And this is what it all boils down to. When we befriend Jesus and walk in the way of loving others, as he taught us to love, we will be asked to sacrifice. But sacrifice of our lives not to become less, but to become more.

This is what friendship is ultimately all about.

When I think about all the examples of strong mothers, sisters, and aunts that we celebrate on a day like this, I can't help but think that the strong women many of us will choose to revere, are those who have become less as they've given to others, not more.

Several years ago I was introduced to a woman, Mrs. Sims, through visits in her home who attended a church I was serving. I was eager to visit her on the first time I drove up to her house because of all of the wonderful things I 'd heard about her from other members of the congregation.

"Mrs. Sims," others all told me, "is one of the most godly women in our church. There seems like there is nothing she won't do. She teaches the children. She maintains our church kitchen. And did you know that she and her husband adopted 5 special needs children from foster care system? She's so amazing." With such flattering praise before I even met her, my hopes were high. I couldn't wait to learn from her! BUT I was soon deflated when I knocked on her door for our first meeting.

Mrs. Sims' hair looked like she had not experienced a proper shower in days. Food from her children's lunchtime was all over the floor and on the walls. As much as I tried to ask her questions, she looked so exhausted that she barely could keep her head up. As I looked into her eyes, it seemed that any sort of light from soul-fulfilling work was not there. She later told me she felt like a do-gooding robot and that she just couldn't ever say no out of guilt.

I left her home on this occasion and several others quite concerned not only about the mental and emotional well-being of Mrs. Sims, but on the state of the church that would exalt the "godly" service of a woman like this who clearly was of course helping people, but helping them at the cost of her own soul.

When you and I are on a path of following Jesus-- who has called us friends-- we are asked to live a different way than  most of have come to understand friendship in our past experiences.

Being friends with Jesus is not about a one-sided relationship-- the kind where one person does all the talking, all the giving, all the serving and the other does nothing in return.

Being friends with Jesus is not about having the life sucked out of us-- the kind of friendship where we leave the presence of a friend and feel so exhausted that we wish we'd never spent time with them before.

Being friends with Jesus is not about constantly talking to know what our friend is thinking or going years on end without saying a word-- because real friends simply can't reside in one another's lives like this. Real friends don't have to talk all the time to close nor can they go years without speaking and still have a strong connection either.

Rather, being friends with Jesus, as John 15 teaches us, is about abiding. Verse 9 lays it clearly out for us, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love."

Our series this resurrection season has begun each week with the statement . . . when in doubt. And as we end today this series, I can't think of any better way than to go back to this aspect of our lives which we all can understand: friendship.

When we find ourselves lost on this resurrection path from time to time and doubts will floods our gaze, but  we always have an invitation back to the center: Jesus calls us friend. And we are asked to befriend Jesus back.

It's a relationship that is never static but always changing, always inviting, always calling, always asking us to come and grow as branches on that great vine.  It's a relationship we've all been chosen for and asked to participate in not as servants, but as beloved.

Because I believe that as we come to friend Jesus, and take in the love that He has for us, we are able to love one another in the ways in which he loves too. Ultimately, it's the love of Jesus that brings us all together in a place like this.

AMEN.


[i] Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=585