Archive for December, 2011

December 27, 2011

I Love and Support My Muslim Friends

Yesterday, I got this email from the ADAMS Center (All Dulles Area Mulism Society) in Sterling, Virginia of which Washington Plaza Baptist is a friend. As you might remember last January, Kevin and I traveled to Israel in support and friendship of Imam Magid of ADAMS.

What troubles me most about this email is that the state of religion in our world in general is that this email needed to be sent at all. We assume that every Muslim is the same, that every Jew is the is same, and that every Christian is the same. And, thus, when one Jew, Christian or Muslim acts up, all people of that religion are to blame.  I am proud to have friends in these faiths and others and support all well-meaning religious devotees . And, I want to add my name to the list of those who love and support my Muslim friends.

Washington Plaza Baptist along with Oakbrook Church and Northern Hebrew Congregation will be hosting an Interfaith meeting, talking about the book, The Faith Club, on January 18th at 7 pm. Our friends at ADAMS have agreed to host. It will be a great chance to continue to grow in friendship and peace so that more of these emails don’t need to be sent in the future!

In the Name of God, The Compassionate, The Merciful

The All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) condemns the terrorist crimes against humanity in the Christmas Day attacks on  Christians Churches in Madalla, Jos, Kano, Damaturu and Gadaka in Nigeria.  Our hearts, thoughts and profound sympathies are with all the victims of these horrific acts, and with their families.   We urge the Nigerian government to take all measures to prosecute all those responsible for these heinous crimes, swiftly and to the fullest measure.   We pray for peace between the Muslim and Christian Community in Nigeria, and must work together to help bring about that peace, and an end to terrorism, extremism and conflict.

We are especially troubled by these events since ADAMS had in October hosted an Interfaith event featuring two Nigerian interfaith icons, Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, two former Nigerian militia leaders turned peace-makers who have spent several years trying to bring an end to such warfare and conflicts in their home country (

 “It is a sad day for all people when a simple act of worship or community celebration is marked by violence and innocent deaths”, said Imam Magid, ADAMS’ Executive Director.  “We therefore ask all Muslim community members and organizations in Nigeria to lend support to the families who lost loved ones during these attacks, and we urge American Muslims to join them in praying that God may ease the suffering of all those affected by this terrible tragedy.”

 As Islam holds the human soul in high esteem, we consider any attack against innocent human beings to be a grave sin.  ADAMS has consistently and clearly stated that those who commit acts of terror, murder and cruelty in the name of Islam are not only destroying innocent lives, but are also betraying the values of the faith they claim to represent.  No injustice done to Muslims can ever justify the massacre of innocent people, and no act of terror will ever serve the cause of Islam.  ADAMS and all its members therefore repudiate and dissociate ourselves from any Muslim group or individual who commits such brutal and un-Islamic acts.  We refuse to allow our faith to be held hostage by the criminal actions of a tiny minority acting outside the teachings of both the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him.
Rizwan Jaka
Board Member & Interfaith/Government/Media Committee Co-Chair, All Dulles Area Muslim Society(ADAMS)

December 25, 2011

The Light Has Come! Christmas is Here!

Let the Light Come: Christmas Eve 2011

Isaiah 9: 2-7

What are we celebrating tonight? (Christmas? Anyone excited about Santa? And still some of you might say it is Jesus’ Birthday?)

Jesus’ birthday is the answer I learned as a child growing up in Sunday School. Christmas was all about Jesus’ birthday.

Tonight is not Jesus’ real birthday (hate to burst your bubble on that one) because no one really knows for sure. However, tonight was chosen as the occasion for the Eve of celebration because of its correspondence on the calendar year with the season of darkness, at least in Northern hemisphere. In the year 350,  December 25th became the official Christmas day by a decree from Pope Julius on to correspond with Winter Solstice– the longest and thus darkest night of the year.

And though the words “presents” “joy” “mistletoe” or even “baby” sit as the centerpiece of what we think about this time of year, especially tonight– we’d be completely off track on this holy night, if we didn’t start our conversation together about scripture with the word: darkness.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.”

I don’t know the last time that you found yourself in complete darkness– where you literally could not see what was right in front of your face, where you were putting one step in front of the other hoping that you would not fall or run into a wall. It’s a rarity in our days of electric everything in the city in which we dwell and emergency readiness kits and flashlights at our bedside. City lights and guiding light posts are nearly everywhere, even in the most remote parts of our land.

Professor Karoline Lewis tells a story of being with her family in the Black Hills of South Dakota on a tour of Jewel Cave– a place where she experienced darkness in a dramatic fashion. 

After travelling down roughly forty flights of steps deep into the cave, the lights guiding the tour are extinguished, plunging those walking into total darkness.  “Of course,” Lewis writes, “this is not just to show you how dark it is. We all know that. Rather, it is a reminder of that oft-forgotten fact that without light, even the smallest speck of light, our eyes will never adjust to the darkness. We could be down in that cave five minutes, five hours, five years and still never see our hands in front of our faces. This is what darkness does to you.” (Thanks Abby Thornton for sharing this great story with me!).

And, such was the situation described in our Isaiah text before us this evening. Though not literally in physical darkness, everything metaphorically around the original hearers of the text was dark.

Corrupt leadership was in power. Terrorist driven enemies were at the nation’s doorstep. Spiritual leaders were no longer valued for insight they could provide. Mothers worried about their children’s futures. Fathers worried about seeing their children grow up in a free and fair land. And, the rich were getting rich and the poor were getting poorer.

Virtues like hope, peace, joy and love that we’ve been talking about all Advent season– were not on the main stage of community life and interactions with one another as the prophet Isaiah spoke these words of the Lord.

Sound familiar at all to life in 2012?

For as much as we gather this evening in the cheer of our holiday colors and sweaters, for as much as we gather with the warm fuzzies that we get from singing the Christmas carols in community that we’ve known since childhood, for as much as our stomachs are full of Christmas cookies, special pies and holiday bread– we also understand Isaiah’s words of what it means to be a people who are living in a land of darkness.  For just as we’ve experienced the drudgery of short days for the last several weeks– going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark– which psychologists say is their busiest time of the year (the darkness seems to depress all of us more than normal it seems), many of us have also approached Christmas season this year, very well aware of the emotional and spiritual darkness that surrounds our lives.

Beloved ones will no longer be around our dinner table this year and we miss them more than words can say.

We’ve found our jobs cut our hours, pay us less and expect us to be happy about it anyway.

We’ve faced new realities about our own lives that have left us confused, disappointed and lonely.

Beloved friends and family members have endured suffering after suffering, seemingly unable to catch a break and in journeying alongside them, our hearts have broken too.

Darkness looms over us, often no matter if we want it or not, no matter if we know it or not and hides from us, all of us, the life that we were born to live, the life that we were created for by God.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.”

And it to this state of darkness, that all of us know something about, Isaiah speaks a word of prophecy saying: “Listen up, all of you who know you are in the dark, all of you who can’t see even a shimmer in front of your faces– a GREAT brightness is about to shine, a light is coming.”

Yet, as the passage goes on, what is indeed strange about this gift of a light is that it was foretold to come in the most vulnerable, most innocent, and most unassuming of package: a baby.

For Israel, the light was not going to come through a triumphant new king who would just appear on the scene and slain all those who ever said a word of harm against them as they hoped. It wasn’t going to come by anything they’d seen before and could predict logically on a spreadsheet. And, it most certainly wasn’t going to come on their timetable.

The gift was to be called as verse six tells us: Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (anyone hear Handel’s Messiah playing in the background as I read these words?)

Biblical scholars go on to burst Handel’s and our bubbles again here saying that Isaiah in fact, was not envisioning Jesus when the words were penned– many think they were prescribed about the prophet were about Azaz (the corrupt king ruling Israel at the time)’s son, Hezekiah– that he would be the spiritual leader that Israel needed next to be saved from their enemies.

But, regardless, this is what we know as we continue reading in the second testament, in the gospel narratives, that hundreds of years later, another child is born. And, this would not just be any child, not just a child who grew up to be a just leader, or a skillful teacher, or even a boy who grew into a man who would make his momma proud– though this child would be all of these things.

This child would be the one who took on the yoke of the burden of his people, who would take the bar across his people’s shoulders, who would take away the rod of their oppressors– and not just for the nation of Israel, but for the whole world. And, such would be because this child would be not just any light, but THE light.

 This child would be the GREAT light that forever broke the bonds of life-crippling darkness, whose life would say to future generations: “No more let sins and sorrows grow nor thorns infest the ground: I come to make God’s blessings flow far as the curse of darkness is found.”

And the world would forever be different, why? Because the light came. The light shone. The light brought hope that there was more to this life than the darkness all around. 

And, this would be the hope: for all of us, past present and future who have found our lives walking in darkness, that in Jesus, we can be in the light too.

As many of you know that in January, Kevin and I had the opportunity to travel to Israel with several leaders of other faiths from the Reston area. And, one of the highlights for me of the trip was to spent a couple of hours one day in Bethlehem, the city we are told in gospel reading for tonight is the place where Jesus was born.  While visiting the Church of the Nativity, I was awestruck there unlike any other place of among the Christian sites we visited of the holiness of the location said to be the birthplace of Christ. Though again, no one could prove without a doubt that this was the exact place of this historical event, but I didn’t quite care. 

After descending the stairs into a small chapel named for Mary and placing my hand on a spot designated as the spot of the birth– I felt the light. Maybe it just was by sheer connection to the thousands of Christ seekers and skeptics alike who had placed their hand on the same spot too. Maybe it had something to the do with the spiritually charged trip I was already having. Maybe it was because I had already visited countless Jewish and Muslim sites already and I was thrilled to final be in a place that was important to my faith. Yet, regardless, I tell you the light was there. It was a powerful moment of faith for me.  Call me a CathoBaptist, but I was ready to walk the aisle of faith all over again in the middle of this Catholic church. For there just is something powerful in thinking about the light… the very face of God come to earth.

He’s the light that can make the most sarcastic of us this Christmas open our heart to believe again.

He’s the light that can break through the coldest of hearts, the most horrid of circumstances– stuck right in the middle of what the carol calls the bleak mid-winter.

He’s the light that can give us all hope that what we see or can’t see right in front of us is not all there is.

He’s the light that says to our overwhelming and oppressing of circumstances– rejoice for a new joy is here.

Calling all dreamers . . . calling all wonderers . . . calling all grieving friends . . . calling all those who want a life different from you see right in front of you right now. Come, to the table this night. Come and receive the very life and blood of our Savior and Lord. Come, and receive what you are most longing for this Christmas: a light has come. Darkness will be over soon. And, hope is born anew!


December 24, 2011

What Did You Get Me for Christmas?

 Do you open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning?  It’s the question of the day!

No matter your traditions (if you are a cultural American or religious Christian alike), the next couple of days are those consumed in the practice of gift giving and recieving. Depending on expectations on both ends, it can often be a stressful time of hoping the other likes what you get and/or being satisfied (or not) with what you received.

But, have any of you gotten a gift this season from someone that you didn’t expect already? It happens to me every year and is quiet a quandary.

Consider this story from Will Willimon (former dean of Duke Chapel of that wonderful basketball school where I received my seminary education).

The following could really preach (oh you preachers looking for last minute sermon ideas, read closely), but as I am going a different homiletical direction this year, I thought I’d share it on this blog in hopes that all of us who have a second to take a breath this Christmas Eve will consider the marvel of God’s grace given to us in Jesus. It’s the gift we could never reciprocate, ever.

Probably most of us have had the experience of receiving, right out of the blue, a gift from someone we really don’t know all that well. And, perhaps, to our consternation, the gift turns out to be nice, something that we didn’t know we wanted and certainly didn’t ask for, but there it is, a good gift from someone who is not really a good friend.

Now, what is the first thing we do in response?

Right. We try to come up with a gift to give in return — not out of gratitude (after all, we didn’t ask for it) or out of friendship (after all, we hardly even know this person) , but because we don’t want to feel guilty.

We don’t want to be indebted. The gift seems to lay a claim upon us, especially since it has come from someone we barely know. This is uncomfortable; it’s hard to look the person in the face until we have reciprocated. By giving us a gift, this person has power over us.

It may well be, as Jesus says, more blessed to give than to receive. But it is more difficult to receive. Watch how people blush when given a compliment. Watch what you do when your teen-aged son comes home with a very expensive Christmas present from a girl he has dated only twice. “Now you take that expensive sweater right back and tell her that your parents won’t allow you to accept it. Every gift comes with a claim and you’re not ready for her claim upon you.” In a society that makes strangers of us all, it is interesting what we do when a stranger gives us a gift.

And consider what we do at Christmas, the so-called season of giving. We enjoy thinking of ourselves as basically generous, benevolent, giving people. That’s one reason why everyone, even the nominally religious, loves Christmas. Christmas is a season to celebrate our alleged generosity. The newspaper keeps us posted on how many needy families we have adopted. The Salvation Army kettles enable us to be generous while buying groceries (for ourselves) or gifts (for our families). People we work with who usually balk at the collection to pay for the morning coffee fall over themselves soliciting funds “to make Christmas” for some family.

We love Christmas because, as we say, Christmas brings out the best in us. Everyone gives on Christmas, even the stingiest among us, even the Ebenezer Scrooges. Charles Dickens’s story of Scrooge’s transformation has probably done more to form our notions of Christmas than St. Luke’s story of the manger. Whereas Luke tells of God’s gift to us, Dickens tells us how we can give to others. A Christmas Carol is more congenial to our favorite images of ourselves. Dickens suggests that down deep, even the worst of us can become generous, giving people.

Yet I suggest that we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people but because we are proud, arrogant people. The Christmas story — the one according to Luke not Dickens — is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.

We prefer to think of ourselves as givers — powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are. Luke and Matthew go to great lengths to demonstrate that we — with our power, generosity, competence and capabilities — had little to do with God’s work in Jesus. God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins and stars in the sky to get it done. We didn’t think of it, understand it or approve it. All we could do, at Bethlehem, was receive it. A gift from a God we hardly even knew.

December 21, 2011

As We Wait

With four more days of Advent in the Christmas countdown, it’s that time of the year when we all get a little crazy, even the most well-meaning, joyful, and kindhearted among us.

Those of us who hate the mall and all things shopping related find ourselves in overcrowded stores with poorly trained temporary workers checking us out, causing scenes of complete chaos when sales prices are not debited to our bank cards. 

Those of us who wait to do everything last-minute are finding it hard to get the sleep we need to keep going as lists and lists of holiday related chores call our names: parties to attend, presents to wrap, and cookies to bake (even though we’ve already eaten way too many).

Those of us who must prepare to travel to be with loved ones wonder when the laundry is going to be done as the Christmas activities are all-consuming.

For me, yesterday, I thought I might be assaulted in search of a parking space at the Post Office. Then, it appeared that the woman behind me in line might have a temper tantum when she saw how long the line in front of her was!

Yes, it is a time of peace on earth and goodwill toward all, but such is not often felt if you are the mall, if you are in a house full kids needing stocking stuffers, or if you go 100 feet of a Post Office anytime between now and tomorrow (the last day to ensure your Express Mail packages arrive on time).

For these reasons and many more, I was delighted to have stumbled on this great resource of Advent prayers— self-reflective prayers for almost any December related situation. The author provides a resource to slow us down and be able to see God even in the fury of pre-Christmas activity.  I just felt calmer when I read this prayer:

My brother, Jesus. It happens every year. I think that this will be the year that I have a reflective Advent.

I look forward to Sunday and this new season, Jesus. But all around me are the signs rushing me to Christmas and some kind of celebration that equates spending with love.

I need your help. I want to slow my world down. This year, more than ever, I need Advent, these weeks of reflection and longing for hope in the darkness.

Jesus, this year, help me to have that longing. Help me to feel it in my heart and be aware of the hunger and thirst in my own soul. Deep down, I know there is something missing in my life, but I can’t quite reach for it. I can’t get what is missing.

I know it is about you, Jesus. You are not missing from my life, but I might be missing the awareness of all of the places you are present there.

Be with me, my dear friend. Guide me in these weeks to what you want to show me this Advent. Help me to be vulnerable enough to ask you to lead me to the place of my own weakness, the very place where I will find you the most deeply embedded in my heart, loving me without limits.

Remember in the craziness of whatever you find yourself in on this December 21st that we are all still waiting. And, sometime BIG is about to come– if only we wait long enough to see it. And the “something” won’t be found under any Christmas tree, no matter how much we shop or bake . . . .

December 18, 2011

Reconsidering Joseph: the Forgotten One

Love That Binds Us Together: Matthew 1:18-25

This week I was putting up Christmas decorations around our home and time came for my favorite part: arranging the nativity.  Though some preachers I know take Advent to the extreme (I know you think I’m one of them, but trust me, I am not) and refuse to have Mary, baby Jesus or even the Wise Men placed in the manager scene before Christmas begins, I find it perfectly acceptable put them all out before the occasion.

 Kevin and I got a nice set of individual pieces from an aunt and uncle of mine as a wedding gift, but I have to say, that it wasn’t until this, my fourth time of putting them out did I notice something was missing. 

There was baby Jesus. There was Mary. There was a shepherd (though sadly only one). There was an angel. And there were even three Wise Men.

But, no Joseph. So, I asked Kevin, “Are we missing Joseph? Did something happen to him two moves ago? Did we leave him in Maryland?” “Nope, “he said, “I don’t think we’ve ever had a Joseph.”

“No, Joseph? What is going on??”  My nativity just didn’t seem right.

Recently, a dear friend of mine who recently had a baby was asked by a local congregation in the city that she lives to be a part of the drive-thru living nativity.

With her daughter less than 2 months old, and the church without enough newborns on its membership roles to cover the multi-evening event,  the baby girl was desperately needed to staff an important role: Baby Jesus to ensure the play’s success. 

When I asked about details, I inquired what my friend would be up do during the hour play. Would she watch nearby? Of course, she said, she would not leave her baby alone on the hay so the director made arrangement for her to be staffed as Mary. She would be on site in case baby girl (aka Jesus) cried and needed to be nursed or needed a diaper changed.  Mary and baby’s relationship was crucial to the show going on.

 But what about her husband? “What was he going to be doing during the afternoon?” I asked. Though any man would have worked just fine, her husband was told he could tag along in costume as well, playing Joseph, but only if he really wanted. If not, other fill-ins would be easy to find. 

I don’t think dear ole Dad was feeling the love of the event with a part that was so replaceable.

Of all characters to be left out if one had to go in our Christmas plays and pageants, Joseph, I guess is the one we could most easily do without.

In Luke’s account of the naivety that we all almost know by heart, Joseph doesn’t have any lines. If Joseph was looking for a script from the Biblical text, he’d have trouble knowing what to say or do. For all we know is that he is called to census in his hometown of Bethlehem which is how Mary ended up giving birth to Jesus in this small town. He’s not wrapping the baby up in those nonexistent clothes. He’s not coming to worship or bringing gifts. He’s not treasuring all of these things in his heart. He makes no grand gestures or tries to upstage anyone. He’s just simply there. This is all.

However, if we read the less popular, but still important version of the birth story from Matthew’s gospel, we find just the opposite,  Joseph playing a leading role: crucial to the operation Son of God comes to earth mission going on without a glitch. Though not given a huge speaking part, what we learn is the how Joseph’s response to both Mary’s pregnancy and the birth illuminates how It is love that binds us together in Jesus Christ: yes, all of us, even the strangest of us all.

When Mary is found to be “great with child” according to Jewish law, Joseph had every obligation to divorce with his fiancée if he knew the child was not his.  Sure, he could have scoffed off the Jewish law if he wanted and pretended without cause, but the Matthew writer who is always concerned with the Jewish point of view, tells us that Joseph was not your high holidays kind of Jew, he was a righteous man. And being a righteous man, a man who didn’t want to bring this young girl and her family any more hardship than she would already experience with a divorce to their name, he came up with the plan to divorce her without any bells and whistles. And to ensure that Mary and her unborn child were not killed out of it– as the law says that stoning her was an option.

And in his “seeking to the right thing” ways of life this “quiet divorce” plan seemed like a good plan. It was his lovingly way of both following what he thought God wanted (the law) and what was in the best interest of Mary (the law).  For God and the law were one in the same at the time.

But, then everything changed one night when he went to sleep.

I don’t know how many of you have dreams on a regular basis that you remember.  While this is something I personally struggle with (actually remembering), I know that it is a spiritual practice of many of you and is in line with the Biblical narrative of how God works in this world to deliver deep truths to us, often truths that are deeper than we are able to consciously understand in the daytime.

Such was true for the life of Joseph. Though we are not told by Matthew if hearing from God was something that Joseph regularly paid attention to or ever experienced before or after this event, there was something I can imagine that was quite powerful about this dream that Joseph not only heard in the quietness of his own heart but felt so strongly about it that he later widely shared this encounter (so we could read it for ourselves today).

So, while Joseph had made up his mind of what he was going to do, of what righteous looked like to him. God had other plans. Actually much bigger plans.

Upon hearing God’s plans, he was not to be concerned, but to believe Mary– to take to heart the message that had been told to her from the angel Gabriel. 

Indeed the child that was growing within her, was not his, but was the Lord’s doing. And, because this baby was of the Lord, Joseph needed to embrace the babe as such, welcoming him into his life, into his family, into his history, as Joseph would do with any other child of his that might come in the future.

(I am not male pastor as you can tell. And the following which I am about to say seemingly would come better from a male voice, but in this case today, I’ll just have to do).

 While amazing, life-change and awe-inspiring news this was in a dream, I can only imagine how hard it was for Joseph to accept it. And, with Mary soon delivering a baby who was not technical “his,” I can imagine the ego of Joseph deflated just a little. Especially in a culture where family heritage was everything, especially with identity attached to any offspring that is a part of what it means to be a “man,” learning that “Yes, the baby in Mary is not your child, but love him anyway” was tough as I believe it would be for any man today. 

How hard it was to stand by his self-descriptor of “righteous man”  or “godly man” when God as the sperm donor came along!  For it wasn’t like he had anyone to talk to about such an experience among his hometown friends– this God and this Emmanuel was too weird for any sort of reasonable explanation.  No one had heard this before.

But, in obedience to the word of the Lord that he knew in his gut that he had heard, he decides to keep Mary as his wife and “adopt” Jesus as his son.

He stays to be the one Mary needed  to lean on as she soon will undergo the pains of childbirth.

He stays to fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah would be coming from his family line.

He stays because he cares for Mary, even if they were having the craziest spiritual experience they’d ever heard of, and with both of them on the same page, the needed to find encouragement from one another to stick with it.

He stays because by his sheer presence– even if he doesn’t say a thing– he provides the protection Jesus will need to grow up, mature and fulfill the reason his was born in the first place.

Joseph stays because though easily left out of nativity scenes or Christmas plays or even forgotten by us regular church goers, his love for God, his love for Mary and his love for Jesus is what binds this story together. Without his love, there would be glory of Christmas morn that we will celebrate next Sunday. Though not cast in a traditional role, though not cast in a role he had originally wanted or planned for, the story could not go on without Joseph’s realization of God’s love shinning upon all of them in the days leading up to the birth of Christ.

Recently, Carolyn Reith was helping out the Outreach committee in gathering pictures for the new design of our church website which will be live early in January (yay!).  You might have noticed her drawing groups of you all to the side, taking your snapshot– even if you wanted your picture taken or not.

Several weeks ago, when viewing the pictures that Carolyn sent over the church office of all of you, I couldn’t help but feel struck by our diversity as a congregation. At first glance, each of the individual shots of you all didn’t seem like you all would fit in an organization together, much less a church family. We are all so different!

Yet, when talking about how much I liked these pictures and showing them to a friend, I realized what the reason is for our community working here– why after years of trials and changes to the Plaza and so on, we’ve stuck together. And the reason is love.

We’ve been bound together by our love for God and for one another. And even when someone new has come into the mix as we hope happens regularly, we like Joseph, seem to be the kind of people who see the bigger picture of humanity in it all– treasuring the sight of God even in the strangest of situations that present themselves here.

But, if I were to end my story here, I would be remiss, because as good as we are at loving, church, we have a growing edge with the last part of the sermon title for this morning “that binds us together.” For yes, as a community, when I look back over the past year, I see countless, numerous, overwhelming examples of how we’ve loved each other, but what I don’t always see in our midst are examples of how we’ve been bound together in our love.

For if we are going to follow the example of Joseph this day and make room in this the 4th Sunday of Advent for more love in our lives, we’ve got to think more closely about sticking closer together.  And this is what I mean:

Like Joseph, when times get tough, when life gets rocky, our first response needs to be of sharing, clinging, staying put instead of running away.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a seminary classmate of mine from Duke, writes in his book the Wisdom of Stability, how easy it is in a culture such as our to be lured away by the promise of a better offer. We think things are always better somewhere else, with someones else. Yet, he talks about how what the gospel witness needs more of comes in packages of permanency, unconditional presence and not hitting the road, leaving a church or a community when people get on your nerves (for inevitability they will!).  

Not only do we need to stay put more often, but as we stay put, we need to ground ourselves in community life making giving and receiving here a priority. 

I’d be remised if I didn’t say to the Christmas only crowd this morning, how much we’d love to see you in January. 

I’d also be remised if I didn’t say to the regulars around here that sticking together means that we’ve got to spend more time together. Sure, we are all busy. Sure, this town where we live runs like nobody sleeps and thus we often  we don’t really either. But if we are going to be a community that makes room for the Christ child, just as Joseph did, then we have to start investing in one another outside of Sunday mornings.

This is what real, love, my friends is all about in the first place. Love is not short-tempered. Love does not keep record of wrongs. Love does not leave when feelings are hurt. Love stays. Love protects. Love, God’s love, is what binds us together.

When I think about all that we’ve been preparing for this Advent season. Our “What’s coming?” preparations of hope, peace, joy and now today, love, it’s love that I know our community need the most to have a bright future for the new year.  Didn’t the Apostle Paul once say about love, “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Thank goodness then, as we prepare to welcome on Saturday night, Christmas Eve, the babe called Emmanuel, God with us, born for us, we welcome the one who taught what love truly meant for Jesus was love incarnate. And, by following him, we can learn to love one another.


December 17, 2011

Religious Litmus Test Part Two

If there ever was a week to write the blog I posted on Tuesday, it was this week. For more supporting documents to my argument have hit the news circuit on the Associated Baptist Press this Wednesday, read this post written about Al MolherAl Molher, a Southern Baptist fundamentalist says that Christians aren’t Christians unless they believe in the virgin birth, a point he’s stuck by since first posting a blog about this in 2006.

It’s not the content of this article that worries me;  for Al and I don’t exactly run in the same circles or share much in common . . .

But, that Al’s latest version of a religious litmus test is even news!

That anyone is listening to a guy like this after all the hateful things he has said over the years about people like me who are simply following the call of God to serve the church is truly disheartening.

I am proud to be the pastor of a congregation that doesn’t “out” those who are still working out their faith. I am proud to be a pastor of a congregation that supports those who are still trying to reconcile the virgin birth in their theological foundations. I am proud to be the pastor of congregants who both believe and don’t believe in the virgin birth. For, I don’t stand at the door of the church on Sunday morning and ask for a confession of belief on certain topics and if acceptable answers are not given, turn people away. Washington Plaza Baptist is a church were all are welcome.  

I am not a priest after all. (And, Al Molher is not the Baptist pope). I am a Baptist pastor who believes in the priesthood of all believers (which I’m thinking that Al doesn’t seem to care about anymore).

When are we going to stop this madness, especially in the Baptist church were each of us are a part of autonomous local congregations? I can respect if Al wants to tell his church that they aren’t Christians if they don’t believe in the virgin birth (and of course it is their choice to believe it), but please don’t try to speak a word to mine.

We’ve got bigger problems after all. Children going to bed hungry. Uprisings in the Middle East. Families without jobs.  Let’s put the religious litmus tests aside and focus on what can truly make a difference in people’s lives this Christmas, the love of the child who was born to guide us all, Al and me both.

December 13, 2011

Religious Litmus Test

American Christianity deeply troubles me.

It’s not because average attendance in mainline denominations is dwindling more and more by the year.

It’s not because more and more folks are self-describing themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

It’s not because some sociologists are saying that the influence and prominence of religion in American public life is also declining.

(Not that these things aren’t worrisome and in need of smart, creative voices of hope to guide us, like this one to what is next).

Rather, it is how we as Christians across the theological spectrum relate to one another.  It’s no secret that Christians are often the most unkind to one another. It is as if our community life is not framed over the love commandment and to do unto others as we would want done to us.

But, what bugs me even more than this is the unofficial practice of religious litmus testing of theology, determining whether or not we “approve” or “validate” or claim the others’ faith as real. And, if the others’ faith is not “real” according to our standards then refusing to engage them.

It comes out in the particular questions we ask one another: “What is your church like?” “Or what is your pastor’s name?” or “Are you welcoming (i.e. do you like gay people)?”

It comes out in rolling of the eyes and looks away in disgust.

It comes on whether or not you watch Fox news or MSNBS and refer to it regularly in conversations.

It comes in the application questions for scholarships, employment and funding from Christian organizations. Buzz words like “I prayed about” “I accepted Christ as Lord” or even “I feel called” are used to validate the strength of faith.

As our culture grows more and more geared toward sound bites, if something is not done about it, our religious litmus tests for one another will grow to be something we don’t even do quietly anymore but openly without shame. Consider how mainline denominations are parting more and more as we speak now on issues related to women in ministry, progressive theology and gay rights.  If a church doesn’t pass the litmus test, they are often thrown out of a local associations as this Baptist church in North Carolina recently experienced, for example.

There’s a song we sing at Washington Plaza every Sunday at the conclusion of services called Make Us One.

Make us one Lord, make us one. Holy Spirit, make us one. Let your love flow. So the world will know we are one in You.

It’s a chorus we love around here and my hope for my larger community of faith in the Christian tradition and otherwise– those who agree with me and those who think I’m a heretic for what I do in being a pastor. After all we’re just human beings, ashes to ashes and dust to dust, right? Do we really think we have that much power over the fate of one another in the end? Let’s put away the tests.

Like my grandma used to say, when all else fails, “Just be nice.”

December 12, 2011

Surprised by Joy

Luke 1: 57-66 (CEB)

57When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a boy. 58Her neighbors and relatives celebrated with her because they had heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy. 59On the eighth day, it came time to circumcise the child. They wanted to name him Zechariah because that was his father’s name. 60But his mother replied, “No, his name will be John.”

61They said to her, “None of your relatives have that name.”62Then they began gesturing to his father to see what he wanted to call him.

63After asking for a tablet, he surprised everyone by writing, “His name is John.”64At that moment, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he began praising God.

65All their neighbors were filled with awe, and everyone throughout the Judean highlands talked about what had happened. 66All who heard about this considered it carefully. They said, “What then will this child be?” Indeed, the Lord’s power was with him.

Earlier in Luke chapter one, we read that Zechariah was serving his tour of duty of a lifetime in the temple making the offering in the Holy of Holy place. And, it was in the temple that he heard the word of the Lord that was unthinkable to him: he was going to have a son.

According to Jewish tradition at the time, it was expected that the first-born son would carry on the family tradition by receiving the surname of his father.

But, this would not be; for, as unusual as the circumstances of the birth were (Elizabeth and Zechariah were well past childbearing years), the name would be just as unusual. The angel Gabriel said the baby would be named John which means “God has been gracious.” And, nine months later came this babe.

So, according to Mosaic law, on the 8th day of life, when the circumcision was to take place, this surprising name choice was made known in the neighborhood too. For when Elizabeth said the baby’s name was to be John and Zechariah affirmed the choice, the neighbors who had come to celebrate with them in this ritual practice were surprised. Probably saying something like: “What are they thinking bucking tradition in this manner?” as verse 61 (NSRV) records the response of the onlookers probably spoken in an accusatory tone to this new family of three, “None of your relatives has this name. [John].”

And not only was the actual community surprised at Elizabeth’s childbearing abilities and the name given, but the prophecy declared over this newborn child’s life.

Verse 66 says about the babe, “for the Lord’s hand was with him.” And, at this time in scripture history, you just didn’t say that about anybody.

For even more than usual,  God was in this birth as answer to prayers like none other. Baby John was called out to play a crucial role in salvation history though the details of it all would be determined over time.

So with the surprise of all of this intact, what does the story say was the response?  Seems like a silly question doesn’t it because surprises usually make people happy, make people want to go out of their houses skipping, or make one break out into song like they are living in a musical, right?

But if we consider the full context of Zechariah, this fellow had every reason not to be joyful about this surprise.

Sure, it was great that he finally held that son in his arms that he’d be hoping for. But, in his elder years, if his left brain was turned on, he knew that he probably was not going to live long enough to see his son do all the things every father hoped to experience with his child.  It might have been too old to watch John learn how to throw or chop wood or say words from the Torah by himself much less gotten married. And so Zechariah, could have said, “God if you had just brought me this blessing just a little bit sooner, THEN, I could be happy about it. But, now, I just can’t.”

Also, Zechariah could have been a poor looser about the choice of name. He finally gets the son he had dreamed about having for years and he doesn’t get to name him after himself.  John would not be “marked” as his according to culture, no one would have automatically known he was Zechariah’s child. And, so Zechariah could have barked at God saying: “Ok God, don’t expect me to happy about it.”

And, furthermore, Zechariah, like any proud dad, could have refused celebration because his son was not THE one, God’s choose servant– the Emmanuel God with us that they had all been hoping and praying would arrive. Just like any baseball coach dad or soccer mom, whose son is good but not that good to play on the all-stars team, Zechariah could have complained: “I am glad John is here, but I am not going to thank you for him because, you could have given me more. If you were going to all the trouble to bring about this one miraculously, why could not have my boy been the Messiah?”

But instead of being so uptight and self-seeking in exactly what kind of blessing that God needed to bring him, Zechariah took the path not so widely traveled called joy.

He accepted what he has been given as good. He didn’t cling so much to the lost dreams of the past so that he couldn’t take in this blessing. And, ultimately he allowed God to bless him so that there was nothing left to do but to sing for joy.

As I read and re-read the words of this Psalm known formally as the Benedictus which follows, what I couldn’t help but notice is that the description was not about Zechariah. It wasn’t about his son, funny name or not.

And it wasn’t about the neighbors who came to coo and woo at the baby. This song of proclamation of a birth was not about any of the typical things you’d expect a first time dad to shout about.

Rather, the joy that Zechariah just had to proclaim was about God.

It was about how God had remembered a people who long thought they were forgotten.

It was about how faith in God could connect the past to the present.

It was about being so full of thanksgiving for God’s presence that he just couldn’t be held back.

How easy it is this time of year to think that joy comes in packages, that joy comes in the perfect holiday parties or the perfect family memories, but what if we allowed ourselves like Zechariah to be surprised for how the ways of joy led us too?

No matter what we see on the surface of our lives, joy can find us. It can find us if our Christmas tree is big and beautiful or if it looks like Charlie Brown’s.

Joy can find us if we bake cookies or we eat store-bought ones.

Joy can find us if we watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the 20th time or boycott tv altogether.

Joy is not about this season and all its gifts, joy ultimately is about God: the One who gives us hope that our life is greater than just what we see or can even understand right now.

So where are the corners of joy in your life that need to be uncovered? No matter what is going on in your life. No matter how difficult some circumstances are. No matter how out of hope you feel, I know deep down somewhere there is joy to be let loose for God is with us. And so, surprise, joy can find even you!

December 10, 2011

Who We Are

I was getting to know a new colleague on Twitter yesterday, Elaine who did some reading on our church website. She uncovered a sermon of mine that I preached in the first month of being pastor of Washington Plaza called, “Why this Church?” I had forgotten about it, but read it again last night and was surprised at how true these words still are about the congregation I’d hoped I’d love at the time and now know I do.

I know this is a time of the year that folks who might not otherwise be interested in church or things of faith get intrigued and start searching. So if such is your situation– looking for a place to gather at Christmas in the Northern Virginia area– I thought I’d post this sermon just for you. It tells the story of why churches like Washington Plaza exist and are positioned to thrive in the years to come. We are what many are looking for but just don’t know is out there!

Why This Church?

Acts 10:34-43

Last week, we discussed together about why it is that the church itself is important for Christian faith—being a place where in community building and our community doing, we show the world an entirely different way of being through the name of Christ. We talked about how at its best, the church is the place where God’s kingdom comes on earth and our hands and feet are used for God’s good purposes in the world. And, we talked about the hope for the Church universal as people of faith contribute their gifts to its being.

Yet, I said very little about the particulars of this congregation, how we as the people of faith gathered here each Sunday morning at 1615 Washington Plaza fit into this story.

What is it that we have to offer as a local church to the larger Body of Christ? Why are we important?

Why should we keep working diligently at the sometimes difficult task of being a church that leaves a legacy of faith for future generations?

Speaking to these specific questions is the entire purpose of my sermon today—a sermon that I hope will encourage the goodness of God that shines so brightly here as well as challenge us about the seriousness of the journey in our future.

In our New Testament lesson this morning, we have the opportunity to peak in at a huge moment on the faith journey of Peter once again. A moment that I believe (if we look at closely) will help us know how God might be encouraging us as a church that we are doing some good things.

As we have been talking about all month, Peter’s path of faith was righteous early on. He was among the first of the disciples to publicly define how you could remain a good Jew and still follow Christ. Yet, his preaching and teaching had one primary audience: the Jews. Peter insisted that following Jesus meant still following the Jewish law—including eating foods according to the Law of Moses and worshipping in the temple.

However, the story in Acts 10 emerges as a turning point for Pete.  As he was going about his devout practice of praying on the rooftop, he fell asleep. God tells Peter three times to get up and eat what Peter knew contraband foods in the Jewish law. Of course he objects, saying, “By no means Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Yet, the Lord tells him to eat for the foods are now clean. And just as Peter is in the process of scratching his head wondering what just happened, a delegation of men arrives to see him from the house of Cornelius. The men invite Peter to go Cornelius’ home in Caesarea, a thoroughly Gentile city.

So, what happened in a matter of minutes was weird. Jews just didn’t go to social events with non-Jews out of fear of the “uncleanness” of the Gentile’s home. The risk of religious impurity was at stake, so it just wasn’t done.

But, Peter was on his way. God’s Spirit told him it was going to be alright. It was a calling of the Divine’s doing. Yet, I know as Peter made this long journey; thoughts must have been going through his head like:

“What I am thinking hanging out with these Gentiles?”

“I’m sure I’m going to be the laughing-stock of the disciples and my friends from the temple when I get back!”

“I know everyone is going to think that I’ve lost my mind going all this way to see this Gentile man I’ve never met: Cornelius!”

This is probably why we hear Peter telling Cornelius and his loved ones upon first meeting them that: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.” Peter sets some boundaries in the beginning, so that Cornelius’ family knew what kind of devout person they were dealing with in talking to him.

However, it is important to note here that Cornelius wasn’t your average non-Jew. He is cited in Acts 10:2 as “a devout man who feared God with his entire household, who gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” Cornelius loved God!

And, as Cornelius begins to share about his faith—Peter had quite a moment of epiphany. This is where we find our text for this morning picking up in verse 34 as Peter addresses the crowd saying: as one modern translation puts it: “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right.”

Let me stop and read that again. “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right.” Do you hear how powerful Peter’s statement truly was?

And in that moment of declaration, I believe a whole new way of seeing the world came about for Peter. Peter knew his theology had to change. He saw that the gospel was not only for those who spoke, acted, or lived as he did. He gained a friend from a different tradition than his own. And, he received from Cornelius, who was previously the kind of person he would not associate with in a religious sense, a greater understanding of what having a relationship with God meant: “God shows no favoritism.” God’s invitation of relationship was for all people, it wasn’t about the code of law anymore.

So, there was nothing for Peter to do besides give testimony to who he personally knew Jesus to be: Lord of all! And if we finished reading the chapter, we would discover that amazing spiritual electricity lit up the room. The Holy Spirit came upon all who heard Peter and the entire household received the baptism in Christ’s name. Peter’s faith was changed. You could say that he had an “inclusive conversion.”

At a previous congregation, I was assigned the same text for this morning, and hardly slept at all the night before I had to preach it. I was afraid that what I knew I had to say about it might get me fired. You see, because in reading and studying this text as I have just presented it to you, it was obvious to me that the call of Christ is one of inclusion. A non-Jew in Jesus’ day was considered to be an outsider, yet Christ was calling Peter to accept. And the same message, too translates to the “outsiders” of our time: that no matter what your race is, no matter what your religious background is, no matter what your sexual orientation is, no matter what that God loves you and wants you to know about this love. Yet, this is just not the way most modern churches function including the one I served at the time.

As marvelous as the stories of healing, peace, and justice which we find in the gospels about Jesus are, what you find in many churches today is completely different.  For many faith communities the message is: come be like us, follow our interpretation of scripture, come fit in, and don’t dare to be question — because we don’t know how to deal with unanswered questions.

And while this way of  being church works for many people who want a scripted pattern of what knowing God will be like (and I respect these folks as my brothers and sisters in Christ), such kinds of churches just don’t work for everyone.

These kinds of churches don’t work for the person who has an imperfect family.

It doesn’t work for the person who has doubts about their faith from time to time.

It doesn’t work for the person who believes in the priesthood of all believers.

It doesn’t work for the person who is told he or she is evil because of their sexual orientation.

It doesn’t work for the person who believes in diversity.

So, enter into the picture, Washington Plaza Baptist Church. A community that was founded as Baptist congregation, but where all the first residents of Reston knew they were welcome.

A community that has historically stood up for justice—affirming the gifts of women in ministry, helping the homeless, celebrating beautifully great Civil Rights workers of our time like Martin Luther King, Jr. and welcoming any who come in these doors.

A community where you don’t have to have agree with everyone else to be accepted. A community unlike any other in Reston and I dare say in the Northern VA area—so much so that we have regular attendees who drive miles each week to be a part of what we are.

A community where you can come with all your questions, all your uncertainties, all your burdens and find hope that there are people here who love you and want to care for you.

My new friends, this is what being church is all about. This is the kind of church that I knew I wanted to be the pastor of. This is the kind of church that I am proud to be the pastor of. This is the kind of church that the community needs to know is here.

So, why this church? Our mission focused on service and justice, our welcoming fellowship, our hopes for being an even greater presence in the Lake Anne neighborhood is exactly what Reston needs. We are the only Baptist presence of our kind in Reston!

This is a truth I believe with all my heart: our church is exactly what so many people are looking for, yet they are sitting at home this morning thinking it doesn’t exist.

We are not a congregation that looks exactly like our neighboring churches. We are not repeating something for the 20th time that has already been done. We have great purpose in our uniqueness. We are living the dream of what so many great saints of the past wished they could see.

And though we may not be the type of congregation that grows to have thousands of members one day with our own parking deck, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t important. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t doing something very valuable and needed for those who choose to join us.

We are, my friends, in our existence, living and sharing with others, Peter’s proclamation: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

This is the message God has given us to share with the world that even as we face this New Year with all its problems, all its hurts, all its collapsed dreams— our community has the answer: love. Just as the American journalist turned social activist for the poor and homeless, Dorothy Day once said: “The only solution is love,” so this church must continue sharing this message. Our doors need to be open to provide such a hope.

How will then, people know that we exist? Why will this church have a future?

“They will know we are Christians by our love.”

No matter what we face in our future: it is our love that will continue to allow us to shine. Our love will make all the difference. Our love will bring new people to us. Our love will help us meet community needs. Our love will carry us on for years and years to come.

Thanks be to God for such a love and such a beautiful community to live out our faith.


December 7, 2011

Week of Peace

Now, two Sundays deep into Advent this year, Washington Plaza as a member of the larger Church is doing some serious thinking about peace.   Where are their places in our lives in need of peace? What can we do to bring about more peace in this world as a community?

Instead calling Advent a “Sunday only” thing, we are encouraging our members to be mindful of waiting and watching all week long (as we do a series of devotions together) and gathering in particular Wednesday nights for song, reflection and prayer. At our Advent Vesper Service tonight, we will be singing and praying for peace. I wanted to share it here with the hopes that you might be praying too:

This year as we sing Silent Night with its echoes of calm and heavenly peace, we say a prayer for all who live in homes where peace is absent. For as much as we speak of peace, we know for many it is far from their reality of life.

Sing: Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin mother and Child. Holy Infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

We pray for children who live in fear, whose homes are not a place of safety, but a place of physical and verbal beatings.

We pray for seniors and other vulnerable people whose caregivers do not care as they are neglected or degraded.

We pray for all who are emotionally abused, and who are not loved, honored and cherished as beloved children of God.

Sing: Silent Night, holy night, wonderous star, lend thy light. With the angels let us sing Alleluia to our King, Christ the Savior is born! Christ the Savior is born.

We pray for women who have had to flee their homes or are afraid to flee their homes in lands where they are mistreated simply because of gender. We pray for all who have been sexually violated, and who are haunted by fear of violation.

We pray for those in prisons, holding out hope that someone cares for them, even when all life’s dreams seem lost.

May love’s pure light this season empower us to come to the aid of your hurting people.

Sing: Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light. Radiant beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus Lord at thy birth, Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

We join together to sing Alleluia and thank you for your grace that transforms our world.

In the name of the Holy Infant,  Jesus our Savior, Amen.

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