Word of the Week

Excerpts from a sermon preached at Springfield Christian Church, Springfield, Va on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Failure-as-learning-opportunityHere's a great unifier of the what it means to be human: we’ve ALL failed at something If not at a lot of somethings. (And maybe even a lot of somethings today!) And when we fail, we don’t like to talk it!

However, in the past couple of years I've noticed, there’s a new willingness among many of us to embrace failure as a part of our lives. "Vulnerability" is on the rise, google says, as a topic we discuss with friends. And in response, there’s a growing group of social commentators and bloggers joining in the conversation about failure.

One of these is over at More magazine, Kathy Caprino. Recently she embarked on a series of posts called: “The 52 Worst Mistakes I’ve Made.”

Here are some of them on her list:

#4 Spending too much money on her business before learning how to earn

#13 Staying too long in a job she hated, not realizing it will, eventually, hate her back

#33 Letting people walk all over her because she felt badly for them

#45 Spending more time complaining about her situation than changing it

Identify with any of these?

And if we know anything about failure, we’re in good company with the book of Zephaniah.

It's a book of the Bible that has a lot to say about failure.

For if we were to read the book of Zephaniah from cover to cover, what we’d realize is that 85% of it could fall in the category of “the day of wrath says the Lord” Or, in simpler terms: people of God “you’ve failed big time.”

As the word of the Lord came to Zephaniah son of Cushi in chapter 1, we learn that many in Zephaniah's time worshipped other gods like Baal, Molech, and the starry hosts. They’d not kept up their spiritual practices. They'd lived selfishly to the core. They’d also failed to be a light to the nations. They’d forgotten their responsibility to bless other people as was a part of God’s covenant with their ancestor Abraham.

So, Zephaniah spoke against Philistia, against Moab and Ammon, against Cush, against Assyria, and then begins chapter 3 with a word of judgment against Jerusalem.

Zephaniah speaks most harshly to Jerusalem at the end saying in chapter 3 verse 1: “Woe to the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled! She obeys no one, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the LORD, she does not draw near to her God.”

So if the layers of failure weren’t described on enough, Zephaniah’s book paints a picture of a God who likes to punish.

In the church, we often avoid scriptures like this.

Besides not liking to read about our own failures, texts like these force us to look at the realities of life with God. God seems to be all about doom and gloom. Or as one of my nephews asked me after hearing a Sunday School lesson once on the tales of the prophets, “Is God always angry like a monster with a couple of heads?”

But looking at the full picture is important because of where the full story is going. By time we arrive at Zephaniah 3:14, the

tone has changed.

We are greeted with words, like, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion, O Israel! Rejoice.”

It’s a complete change of tune! It’s a word of hope for Zephaniah says it’s time to be happy! It’s time to sing loud. It’s time to shout. It’s time to rejoice and exult the Lord with all your heart! For verse 17 tells us that “The Lord, your God, is in your midst” and God “will rejoice over you with gladness.”

Here we might be confused. I know I was as I dug into this book this week. But besides thinking that the prophet Zephaniah is bi-polar and can’t make up his might for what his message might be, is there an alternative?

Might this scripture help us know more what it’s like when God comes? I think it does.

Look with me at verse 20: “At that time I will bring you home, at that time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth.”

Consider this modern day example.

I have a friend who’s first born son left home at 18 years old.

He hated the rules and the restrictions placed upon him by his mom and dad so he couldn’t wait to get out when he was of legal age to leave. At first, the boy did ok. He lived with some friends. He got a job at the local grocery store, working the night shift to make extra cash. But of course, soon he learned the harsh realities of life. He needed his family. He needed more education. Or some combination of both if he wanted to live the kind of life he grew up with at home.

So when the calls invitations came and kept coming to consider joining the brotherhood of a local gang, they got harder and harder to refuse. The young man was promised money and life in a community. And, one day he joined. Five years passed. This boy’s parents did not hear from them again.

They heard from the grapevine of neighbors that their son was in and out of jail. They heard that sometimes he slept on the streets. They tried hard to reach out to him, but they never heard a word.

You can imagine the pain, the agony, the sleepless nights this brought on my friends.

They loved their son. They wanted to be in relationship with him. They wanted him to make better choices for his life.

But then one day, they got a phone call. It was about around this time of year. It was their son. “Could I come to Christmas dinner?” he asked straightway. “I’m sorry, mom,” he said. “I know I’ve disappointed you big time, but I want be with family at Christmas.”

Of course these parents could have said no out of bitterness. But how could they? This was the moment they’d dreamed about for ages!

Can you imagine the celebration that occurred in preparation for an on the day of the Christmas dinner?

Only the best music would do.

Only the best turkey would be baked.

Only the brightest bows of presents under the Christmas tree would be added.

Then after supper there would be dancing. Lots of it. And so much laughter!

In those moments, who cared about the failures of the past? A turn had been made of relationship! These parents forgave their child. They just wanted to look at him. Hug him. And adore how handsome he was!

Can you picture the look of love from the mother to her son on that joyous Christmas meal?

I have to imagine that this look is exactly the way God was trying to communicate to the people in Zephaniah’s time. The look of total love. That’s what God wanted the people to most see!

For yes, there had been failure.

For yes, there had been anger on God’s part.

For yes, there had been broken ties of relationship.

But SUCH WOULD NOT last forever. For God loved Judah. God was just waiting on Judah to hear the word and come home.

And God’s deepest desire through it all was to say, WELCOME HOME! Come sit around the fire. Eat some amazing food. And know that I love you. I’ve always loved you. I’m not angry anymore.

And what good news this is for our Advent, for our lonely hearts, for our longing hearts, for our broken hearts!  God will not stay angry at forever. God is a loving parent who wants to draw us close!  God wants to just sing over us, rejoice over us and say thanks be over us!

So it is with great joy I give you this invitation-- come on home. God wants to welcome you! Christ will soon be born. a-big-welcome-home

It has been a while since I've expressed my love in a space like this for the congregation where I serve-- something I know that few pastors can actually do honestly about their parishes. But, I can and I really want to do this today.

Why? Again, recently, I was attending (sigh) a denominational meeting (I know I tend to rant about these a lot) and when I do, I always walk away from such gatherings with a newly empowering awareness of how lucky I am to be pastoring my particular congregation. Who would want to pastor the same old, same old kind of church? Not me. Though the challenges can seem overwhelming at times as we draw a population of members who often are in transition in many aspects of our lives, I feel that together we are paving a new way doing church.

Washington Plaza is not perfect. And, of course, there is a long road of growth needed ahead of us, but there is a depth of character and authenticity here that naturally flows out of how cool these people are. And, I just get to come alongside them for the ride. . .

So, why do I love my church?

1. They love me. They are so kind to me. They treat me fairly. There isn't a week that goes by when I'm not hugged and loved on by a different person. I know they do thoughtful things for me not because I just got here and they are pretending still  (because this would have long ago worn off), but because I believe this congregation and I understand each other and genuinely like each other. They treat me the way they would want to be treated. It is a good thing, a very good thing.

2. Some of the saints of God attend here. We have members who go out of their way on a weekly basis to serve in outreach ministries for the sheer sake of calling. They teach English as a second language classes. They give high school kids rides to work after morning worship, even when it means going out of their way. They collect can goods and take them to Reston Interfaith's emergency food pantry even when they are in their 80s and shouldn't be lifting things. They sit with our terminally ill members in the hospital. They give money to missions and bring food to share with our weekly community meals, even when they don't have it in their pockets to give.

3. There isn't a conversation, it seems, that they are scared of having. On this Sunday morning for example, we participated in a call to prayer for violence against transgendered persons in the DC metro area. Did anyone looked shocked? No, just nods on their faces of support saying back at me without these words, "Of course, we'll pray."

4. They are willing to try new things. Even when I have crazy idea like "let's have church in the Plaza room" as we did this past July, everyone said, "Ok, we'll try it." Not all new ideas stand the test of time, of course, but I think any reasonable idea is worth trying at least once. I see an attitude of flexibility embedded in the spirit of the people, and it makes my job so much easier.

5. They accept anybody. Really, they do, especially those who stick around and want to commit themselves to the life of the community. I never have to worry about bringing friends and folks not being nice to them. Sometimes I stand at the door on Sunday and stand alone for long periods of time because everyone is so busy talking to each other. It's so good to see that I don't mind being there alone.

I am proud to be the pastor of Washington Plaza Baptist Church for these reasons and many more-- such is my decree this Monday morning.

We talk a good talk in the church about the Christian virtue of hospitality. It has become in many circles a practice that you just can't say you aren't interested in. Sure, I welcome my neighbors in, we say. Sure, I have an extra bed at my house. Sure, you can come over for dinner. Saying these things rolls off our tongue as easily as "Jesus loves you." Yet, in our there's a Wal-Mart around the corner neighborhoods, just walk to 7-11 if you need something existence, do we really get to know our friend called hospitality? Do we really understand how to make ourselves vulnerable to one another in our giving and receiving?

If I am on an out-of-town trip to visit a friend and have a need of an item or I want a special snack, what do I do? I either leave before or during the visit to purchase from the nearest variety story what my heart desires. Or, if I don't have a car, I keep the same plan but find a ride. In both instances, it's a mostly independent activity.

This week, the pastoral life has taken me to the campus of St. John's College in Collegeville, Minnesota. It's a place housing a Benedictine monastery, a school for women and men, the famous St. John's Bible, acres and acres of well-preserved and kept land. I'm a guest at the Collegeville institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research-- an outreach program of the monetary. I'm here learning how to become a better communicator of the written word.

When I arrived yesterday after a 90 mile van ride from the Minneapolis airport, my first impression of this state new to me alongside with 11 other pastors along with a scholar in residence, Richard Lischer and a writing tutor, Sari Fordham, was: "This place is in the middle of nowhere!"

And, I didn't have a car. I felt trapped.  There would be no runs to CVS for left at home essentials or late night snacks of my choice. A whole week in the middle of the land of thousand lakes? Where was the nearest Target?

But, to the staff of Collegeville Institute hospitality is no joke.  If you know anything about the Benedictine order of brothers, you know they take the virtue of welcome very seriously.

Before I had too much time to worry about my non-existent toothpaste, we were informed during Monday night orientation of the commissary open to us free of charge. Everything we might need by way of personal products could be found. If we didn't see what we needed, we were instructed to let the staff know so that they could find it for us. Then, we were told about the kitchen, fully stocked with every kind of juice, soda, cereal, snack that you could even imagine. And, if there was a particular food that would make us particularly happy, we'd find a tablet on the refrigerator to make our request. They promised to have it to us within 24 hours.

Sometimes I think, we city folk, busy folk, "I'll take care of me" folk, aren't able to allow the wells of hospitality's waters to seep in bless our days because we think we have no need of such. Modern life's love of self-sufficiency have put us all in auto pilot.

I'm glad to be spending a week in here where every morning when I can drink the Almond Milk I requested for my cereal then brush my teeth with the toothpaste I did not buy, so to remember God's gift of welcome. It's a gift I can't buy or earn. Being at Collegeville is teaching me how to recieve.