Archive for ‘sermons’

January 12, 2014

A Baptism Selfie

Who You Really Are:  a Baptism Selfie

Matthew 3:13-17

Preached January 12, 2013: Watonga Indian Baptist Mission Watonga, OK

BdpyZK3CYAAPEG3[1]It has been said the word of the year of 2013 was “selfie.” Do you know what a selfie is?

It’s a picture you take of yourself when there is no one else around to take your picture and then it is usually posted right away to Facebook or other social media sites (I took the one to the right when I was writing this sermon).

One of the responsibilities I have with Feed The Children is to volunteer with their social media department so I’ve watched the headlines closely on this growing trend. Teenagers in particular love it (Checked out Instagram lately?) And so do politicians. It made the headlines of the national news on Friday, June 14th  of last year when former first lady and secretary of state, Hillary Clinton posted her first “selfie” a photo of herself with her daughter Chelsea.  And then posted the photo to Twitter. Then, religious folks are into it too. Pope Francis is known to allow students—when they met him to pose for selfies.

We are a self-obsessed culture it seems. We like taking pictures of ourselves. We like taking pictures of important people.

But let’s continue the trend here this morning. Have a phone with a camera in it? I am doing something that a lot of pastors would not ask you to do in the middle of the sermon. I want you to get out your phone and if it I has a camera function I want you to position your screen on this page. Now, what I want you to do is get in groups with folks sitting in the pews beside you and take a picture of yourself with them.

(Later if you want you can share this with your friends/ family who aren’t with us in church this morning and show them through your smiling face what they are missing out on! Or you can post it to Facebook or the like).

But, now that we’ve taken these shots, pause with me and look at the picture of yourself. Who are the people in the picture? And then who are you? What is your full name? What is your story? Where did you come from? Who are your parents? What events in your life have led you to this moment right now when you are a part of this worship service? What does this picture you just took say about you?

In our gospel reading for this morning, we meet Jesus in what one Biblical commentator calls the “Jesus selfie.”[1]

Though we read the baptism stories in the three other gospels—Mark, Luke and John, only in Matthew does the narration focus our attention solely on Jesus. In Matthew’s story, there’s no indication of the heavens ripping dramatically open as there is in Mark’s gospel. And there’s no lengthy description about the Spirit coming down and descending among the scene as there is in John’s gospel. And furthermore, there’s no emphasis on the crowd gathered like in Luke’s gospel.

Nope—in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism what we get is the straightforward story. The author’s intent is clearly to focus our attention not only the main event at this juncture in time, but on the main person we need to get to know: Jesus.

Jesus came forth from Galilee to the Jordan River where a crowd had already been gathered for quite sometime and John comes to Jesus and says (look with me at verse 14): “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

But then Jesus answered John saying, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

And in these few words, I believe that Jesus is giving us revelation into what this “selfie” moment is all about. Jesus wants us to see him as Lord. Jesus wants us to see him as the ONE that John had been preaching and teaching about when he quoted the prophet Isaiah and said, “The voice of the one crying out in the wilderness; ‘Prepare the way for the Lord.’” Jesus wants us to see him the Messiah that Israel had been waiting for all these years—the one who would bring salvation to all.

But it’s interesting isn’t it that Jesus says “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness?”

What does this mean? Often when you and I think of the word “baptism” we equate it with forgiveness of sins. Especially in the Baptist tradition where we don’t baptize infants but we wait for a person to get old enough to recognize their own faith and choose salvation found in Jesus for themselves—it is very easy to think baptism is about repentance.

And then this gets confusing when we see Jesus submitting himself to this act in the passage before us today because what did Jesus do to need forgiveness from? Wasn’t he perfect after all?

Yes. I believe he was perfect and lived a perfect life and this moment was not about making his life pure or right with God (for he WAS God). Rather Matthew is trying to show us Jesus’ moment of commissioning. It was his moment to stand before a gathered group of people and for as verse 16 tells us for the “heavens [to be] opened to him and [Jesus] to see the Spirit of God to descend like a dove aligning on him.”

This was no joke. Jesus was the real deal.

Jesus’ life would be forever changed from this moment on. He had a calling on his life. He had a life path full of places to go and people to see. He had a kingdom to bring to earth.

In baptism, this was the start of great things to come: the binding up the brokenhearted and bringing good news to the poor. It was the start of Jesus teaching, preaching and healing. It was the start of Jesus’ fulfilling the calling that he was born to fulfill.

And so it was a perfect day for a selfie.

If there was Facebook in ancient Palestine, I can only hope that this photo would have gotten lots of shares and likes if Jesus later posted it. Or at least lots of second looks—something was certainly changing by the Jordan River that day and the world would never be the same.

For those of you in this room who have been baptized, do you remember your baptism service? Who was the pastor? Do you remember who attended the service? Or even how you felt being touched by the cold water?

I was seven years old when I first touched the baptismal waters. It was in a Tennessee church. The baptismal pool was positioned in the sanctuary to the side of the pulpit—much like this one. I remember being excited about the big day. My grandparents had come for the service—both sets. I was getting a new Bible from the church with my name monogrammed on the outside cover. My father, the pastor, would be the one immersing me in the water.

I don’t recall much about the actual baptism service other than the waters being cold (it was a especially cool March morn). And being glad that it was all over. I never much like all the attention being focused all on me.

But how did I get there?  About out a month prior I’d told my parents I wanted to become a Christian. I felt sorry for the things I’d done that had made God sad. I wanted to be an official part of the congregation. In my church growing up only baptized Christians could take communion. I didn’t want to be left out of that anymore.

Looking back on my seven-year old self now, I am not sure quite I had any idea what I was getting into. And maybe I was too young to have making such a life decision but regardless it was a choice I made and waters I entered into and my life was never the same.

For me it would take a church camp experience as a 12 year old to begin to understand what happened to me when I made the choice to follow Jesus—and for me to begin to really claim Jesus for my life slowly but steadily of course with some major bumps in the road. And in those moments at camp as I tried to make sense of my life and what God wanted from me, the thing that came back to my mind was my baptism.

I remembered my baptism. And I knew that in remembering it my life’s direction was no longer just about what I wanted to do. Rather it was about connecting my life to a greater mission. And that mission was of Jesus—a Jesus who wanted to know me personally.

See because in that moment when my dad baptized me in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—calling upon the names that were present at Jesus’ baptism, my life was affirmed as not my own.

And yours, oh baptized friends of mine is not yours either. Hear me say this: baptism is not about you. I dare say it is not about feeling guilty about sin. It’s not about making sure you’re on the rolls when you get to heaven. Rather it’s about you following in the footsteps of Jesus in such a way that you allow Jesus to have ownership over your life.

Though we often celebrate in our churches baptism as happy, celebratory times (we get cakes, we threw parties afterwards or we might even give the person being baptized a gift), I believe that baptism as Matthew’s gospel shows us today is about death as much as it is about life. It’s about dying to our self—our own desires, our own plans, and our own goals and saying to Jesus, “What do YOU want from my life?”

Before performing a baptism, the pastor approached the young father and said solemnly,’ Baptism is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?’

‘I think so,’ the man replied.’ My wife has made appetizers and we have a caterer coming to provide plenty of cookies and cakes for all of our guests.’

‘I don’t mean that,’ the priest responded.’ I mean, are you prepared spiritually?’

‘Oh, sure,’ came the reply.’ I’ve got a keg of beer and a case of whiskey.’

We can laugh about it but also know that this father had missed the point altogether.

It’s about a moment of spotlight yes. It’s about a moment to take a picture. It’s about a moment to take a picture and share with others—as we do in 2014 called a selfie.

But it is also about what we DO when we get out of the waters.

In whom do our loyalties lie?

By whose life do we model our life after?

In Marcus Borg recent book: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, describes the conversion experience of baptism in this way:  it’s “more than changing religions or joining a new church. It can also mean [and should mean] ‘a process, whether sudden or gradual, whereby religious impulses and energies become central to one’s life.”[2]

Baptism, thus is not something that we do, or is done to us, or gets us into membership at the church (as many might think), but the first step in our process of formed in a completely new way of thinking and being in the world than is natural to us.

Because no longer as a baptized follower of Jesus do we get to sit on the sidelines of life and pretend like being a Christian is someone else’s job or just the preacher’s responsibility. It is all our responsibilities because it all of our stories to tell.

You may have been baptized years ago, so long ago that you barely even remember the occasion or who was there or how you felt. But it doesn’t matter. You are still a baptized believer and because of this you have a calling on your life.

Take a minute and go back again to see who you were sitting next to as you took your selfie this morning—look at the picture again. And consider it your remembering your baptism photo. That on this day when you came to church, this picture can remind you of whose family you belong to and whose you are.

You are a beloved child of God for in whom God is very well pleased.

Say it with me: “I am a beloved child of God in whom God is very well pleased.”

For some of you in this room, baptism is something that you’ve thought about or maybe even considered but you’ve never chosen for yourself. You’ve never had a pastor place you under the water. Today, on behalf of this entire community that loves you and earnestly wants to know more talk to one of us about being baptized in the near future. It’s a big choice. It’s a scary choice. But I have to say that it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

And for you it will be too. For in giving up control of our lives and allowing God to do what God can only do, we actually become who we were really meant to be in the first place: first and foremost a child of God with purpose and mission for your life today and moving forward in the future.

Thanks be to God for the gift of baptism and for this day to remember it!


[1] Nancy Rockwell:  “A Bite in the Apple”

[2] i] Quoted in Kate Huey, “Weekly Sermon Seeds: Mark 1:4-11- New Beginnings”

November 24, 2013

Preaching Christmas in November in Nairobi


With no thanksgiving holiday to wait to pass, Christmas came early this year in Nairobi among the FTC family. It was a delight to be able to share in a worship service with the entire Kenyan staff this week.

God Finding Us
Dagoretti Children’s Center, November 22, 2013
Nairobi, KENYA
Isaiah 1:2-4, Luke 2:1-20

When I was a child, staying close to adults who were in charge of carrying for me was never my forte. I was the oldest in my family so I often thought I knew how to do things all by myself—even if my caregivers directed me otherwise. I liked to wander out on my own. I was a nightmare to keep up with in a grocery store!

According to the many stories that my mom could tell you if she was here today, I loved to go by myself when we were shopping even as young as 3 years old. I very much liked to look at aisles of things that interested me. Then, I would often come back to the shopping cart with things I wanted— with little regard for how much money my mom had already told me that she had to spend. Needless to say I often got into trouble!

In fact, I got so good at wandering off (scaring my parents to death, I’m sure) that my mom had to create a signal of sorts to find me. It became her sign to me: her famous whistle. I would show you what it sounds like, but I was not blessed with the gift of whistling. Anybody out there can whistle? (From now on in the rest of my sermon, when I say the word whistle could you help me out—those of you who can whistle by whistling?)

The funny part about my mom’s whistle is that it became one of those cues in my mind that still is with me. Even today, if I’m out with my mom in a store and she wants me to find her, she whistles. Sad, though that it works, even at my age. I’m a grown up who comes when my mom whistles—kind of like when you might call a dog.

And today as we just heard a reading before the time when Jesus came—taken from the book of Isaiah, we see that the Israelites they weren’t very good at staying close to their caregiver, God, either as they waited. They were so ready for their waiting to be over that they TOO started going out on their own. They did what was right in their OWN eyes.

Though they’d heard countless prophecies about the coming of a Messiah—about a man who would save them from their sins, in their heart they’d stopped really waiting or trusting in God to take care of them.

No longer did they see the need to listen for God. No longer did it matter to stay close.

No one was doing those daily practices like praying or reading scripture. No one was telling the truth anymore. Corruption was the name of the game in the land. Did you hear how Isaiah describes them? None other than a “a brood of evil doers!” Strong language, huh?

However, in Israel’s defense, though, by time we get to the beginning of our gospel reading for today, God had been silent for 400 years. From the end of the Old Testament to the start of the New Testament was give or take about 400 years. Can you imagine how long that was? A VERY LONG time. And if you think about it, what was there really to listen to anymore?

But then, their whistle came. And, it came loud and clear. Luke 2 verse 1 begins: “In those days Ceasar Augustus issued a degree that a census should be taken of the entire world.” God used the political situation in the land to start the whistling process.

As the story goes, Mary and Joseph each in their own way got the news that Jesus would be their son. Jesus would be born. God was about to show up in the flesh.

When you think of Christmas what do you think of? (RESPONSE)

Many people, when they think of Christmas they have in their minds images of lovely manger scenes, beautiful people smiling, and lots of pretty decorations.

But, what was going on with this whistle—of God coming to earth through this baby named Jesus—was a huge redemption plan: a plan that would one day touch the lives of you, and you and you and me.

Though the peoples of the earth had made many mistakes and though the peoples of the earth were corrupt as they could be and had each turned to their own way, God was about to whistle loud and clear a message of: “I have found you!”

Have you ever stopped to think how crazy God’s plan of redemption was as it began in that very first Christmas?
I mean, really, what was God thinking hanging all of the hopes of the world on one birth? Just ONE birth.

Yes, a birth, the middle of the ancient times when medical care was not at its peak—childbirth was very risky enterprise in fact.
Yes, a birth of one child, of only one child, given from heaven to the fragility of human hands and a teenage mother at that with little training on child-birth or raising!

Yes, a birth, of one to a world where anything, yes, anything could go wrong at anytime?

Yes, a birth, in horrific conditions that could have easily caused the most willing mother and the most support father and even the most eager shepherds to give up?

What was God thinking, I mean really whistling in this way?

If you are a logical person (which I like to think I am most of the time), hanging all your hopes in life on ONE THING as God did in this case was a crazy thing to do.

When I have a plan, I always like to have a back-up plan. If I have a plan A, I would like to have a Plan B. What about you?
Life is just too fragile, just too uncertain for the hope that only one plan would actually work perfectly, right?

How many times have you in your life set out to do something and it doesn’t go as planned? How many times have you hoped for something, prayed for something only to find out that it doesn’t come out exactly the way you wanted?

If I were to make a list of times in my life where ONE plan did not work out perfectly the list would be longer than could ever be written down in this room! Pages and pages and more pages in books could be filled with disappointments of plans not working out.
But, in our gospel reading for today, all of God’s hopes for the blessing of all the world were on one womb . . . one night . . . one mother . . . one willing partner . . . one band of shepherds . . . ONE chance to get it right or it would be a fail. For, there was not a back-up plan. There was only ONE plan.

And, in this one plan, God trusted Mary and Mary’s body . . . as there was no room for error.

God trusted Joseph to be there for Mary . . . as we are told no midwife attended to the birth.

God trusted the shepherds to respond . . . as there were no other visitors right away.

God trusted the angels to sing . . . . as they were the creators of the first carols. God trusted the star not to refuse to shine . . . as without the star, the shepherds did not know where to go.

The only ONE plan was built upon God’s trust in everything happening as it should.

Recently, Kevin and I traveled to the US state of Hawaii. It is a beautiful state with lots of palm trees and beaches right next to the mountains. I was to preach at a Christian School conference and Kevin was learning about programs there that helped children and families. While we were there, we met a lot of homeless people—though we thought was strange because it was a beautiful place. But as we walked the streets to go shopping (and I stayed close to Kevin this time—I didn’t get lost), I can’t tell you how many homeless people we met.

I asked one homeless man to tell me his story. He said, “I used to be homeless in the Mainland part of the United States. However, I lived in a very cold city, so I got a job and saved all his money to buy an airline ticket to fly to Hawaii—almost 10 hours in the airplane from where I lived.”

When I asked him what he expected to do when he got to Hawaii, he told me: “I trusted it would be ok. I didn’t even think I’d get a job here. I heard about a program where people live together on the beach. I figured if I just made it there—even though I was so far from home and without a home—I’d be ok.”

I could hardly believe what I heard. No backup plan. No concern for a real home. Just plans to be ok in a place so far from what was normal or familiar.

And, so, it was the posture of God that night. God had one plan and one hope! It’s wasn’t normal to us and most certainly was not what we expected. But it was God’s plan, nonetheless.

Though no studies have been written to qualify the odds of the whole Jesus being born in a manger thing working out, the fates of this world were all stacked against this plan working out too . . . who could believe that a teenaged mother and a lowly group of animal watchers in a borrowed stable could be a part of something magnificent?

But, yet we know on that Holy Night, the greatest gift of all times would be welcomed by just these folks—folks who weren’t anything special as far as the world was concerned but CHOSEN by God. It’s was God not normal, but wonderful plan.

Though such a story can be hard to believe sometimes: that a child, who was called Christ, the Lord was born and was thriving from the first day of his day in the arms of a mother who treasured all these things in heart, this is our faith, my friends!
Our faith is about God showing up and doing only what God can do.

How often, though, our faith is questioned at this point? How can we believe something that doesn’t make perfect sense?
Yet, I am going to pause here and ask you to reflect with me, my friends, do we really want a story that makes perfect sense that is fully understandable?
Do we really want a God in our lives who is just like us?

I don’t know about you, but as this year comes to a close and I look at all that has gone wrong and all that is not right in this world, I know one thing: that is that I need my God not to be just like me that I can understand, explain away and come to life through Christmas decorations.

Life is just too messy. Life is just too painful. Life is just too busy. Life is just too unfair for it all to depend on someone with a mind like mine.

For, I want to testify today that I need a God who is faithful, even beyond my most faithful friend to bring about something beautiful in my life and in the deep corruption that seeks to destroy the GOOD that could be in this world.
I need a God who can work through the most impossible of circumstance to bring about something new, something that I cannot create on my own even when I get lost.

For, I need a God who can’t be explained through formulas or charts. I need a God who can create a new path so that in the midst of the darkness of this world, a great light is seen again.

For, I need a God to do the impossible . . . . to show up, to be present once again and to show me that life is not as it seems just as it is now.

If you are with me with any of this, then I tell you the good news today: Christmas, then, is just for you.

This is the season to rejoice with what was not yet. It is the season to imagine what we cannot see. It is the season to believe in the possibility of loving fully once again because Jesus first loved us.

As simple as the coming of Christ in the form a baby, years long ago, this is it! This gift is the gift that has the power to bring us this Christmas exactly what we are hoping for.

It’s THE gift of knowing in our darkest days we are not alone, in our most confusing journeys there is always more than we can see.
In our life situations that don’t make a bit of sense, there is big star out there, guiding us, guiding us home again.
Silent Night, Holy, Night. All is come, all is bright.

Calling all dreamers . . . calling all wonderers . . . calling all grieving friends . . . calling all those who want a life different than you see right in front of you right now.

God is whistling for you. God is signaling your NAME.

Come again this year and meet the babe Jesus the Christ, the most Holy One, the one who has never given up on us and will keep whistling for us until we follow.

Thanks be to God for this gift of Christmas.

August 12, 2013

I Want to Know Christ

I Want to Know Christ
Philippians 3:7-11
Preached: August 11, 2013, Martin Luther King Christian Church, Reston, VA

I always knew when I was younger that one day I’d want to be married. I would want to have a life partner—someone in whom I could share in all of life’s most memorable moments with and one day grow old beside.

By my teenaged years, I had expectations on how this might happen—mostly coming from the stories I’d heard from how my parents met.

From the time that I was small, when my sister and I would ask my mom about how she met my dad, she’d tell us about the day that she stood in registration line on her first day at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. As she waited her turn to sign up for her classes, her last name was Duncan and my father to-be was Evans, so naturally they found themselves in the same line—the D-E’s. And there they struck up a conversation and the beginnings of a friendship that led to a marriage began.

So, I too thought if I wanted to get married, all I’d have to do was go to college. And there on the first week would I meet the man who would make me his Mrs.

I’d arrive at college and bam! I’d walk on campus and say “Hello fine young men!” And, he’d be there.

Well— you can imagine how great this “bright” plan of mine worked out!

I was shy at the time and really didn’t like going out of my comfort zone of who invited me to tag along with them. I saturated myself in an all-girlfriend kind of community—eating, studying and going to the movies with girlfriends, not boys. I guess it kept me out of trouble, but that was about it.

Even still, I thought without any work, effort or sacrifice Mr. Right would make himself known to me: the man I most wanted to know and marry one day. In my head, I imagined he’d just knock on my door one day, introduce himself, we’d date and then we could just get on with our really happy lives.

Yes, I said I wanted to be in a relationship. But, no, I didn’t try to get to know any new young men.

Well—you know how that went. I didn’t really date anyone for the next four years.

When many of us think of our relationship with Christ, we approach it in a similar way that I did with dating in college. We say that we want to grow.

We say that we want to have a relationship with Christ that is vibrant.

But, we get stuck.

We get stuck in a version of faith that closely models what we were taught in children’s Sunday School back in 2nd grade children’s church.

We get stuck on the faith we observed in our grandparents but never truly made our own.

We get stuck when the most difficult life situations find us—throwing in all our cards and say, “Well, there must not really be a God. Because if there was a God this bad situation would not be happening to me!”

We get stuck even though most all of us understand this basic truth:

To be a Christian is to what? Follow Christ.

But we equate knowing Christ with church membership—showing up regularly on Sundays.

We equate knowing Christ with having hope of eternal life—resting on the fact that we know where we’ll go one day when we die.

We equate knowing Christ with doing unto others as we would have it done unto us—being a good person because that is how Jesus showed us to live when he was on earth.

And, while all of this is well and good and there’s noting wrong with any of these things, faith of that depends only on these sort of things becomes a sideline only type of faith. Yes, we say with our lips that we are a Christian but there’s no movement in our lives toward the direction of who Jesus actually was.

We say we are following Jesus but our life looks nothing like His did.

The apostle Paul has a few words to share with us about this found in his letter to the Philippian church. It’s a book of Paul clearly laying his feelings about how much this congregation meant to him and what he wanted Christ to be in his life.

It’s a book that Paul wrote from jail—during what was most likely the end of his life, a time when we was saying the things that he most wanted to say.

In fact, scholars feel that the book of Philippians is in fact that the book the one they are most sure that Paul wrote by hand. Put simply, Philippians is Paul’s heart put to paper.

And within this context we hear the Apostle Paul say, “But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” And then he goes on to say in verse 10: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering, becoming like him in his death.”

These are familiar words. If we’ve been around church awhile, we’ve heard them a lot. We may just gloss over them with our ears thinking we understand already what they mean. Following Jesus is about death and resurrection . . . Ok, preacher, I’ve got that.

But pause with me for a moment.

Paul is elevating the supremacy of Christ by saying “whatever was to his profit (as we know from his life story that he used to be a very righteous law-abiding Jew), he now considers loss for the sake of Christ.”

But not only this, Paul says that he wants to know Christ in two particular ways.

The first is that he wants to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. And the second, is that Paul wants the fellowship of sharing in his suffering.

(Have congregation REPEAT).

Do you hear what we just said?

Paul says to know Christ is not what most of us think knowing Christ is about.

I heard nothing about joining a church. I heard nothing about having correct theology. I heard nothing about reading the Bible and praying so many hours a week. Or any sort of easy or straight forward task that any of us could just snap our fingers and achieve.

Paul says, “I want to know the power of Christ’s resurrection” and “ I want the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings.”

I’ve been struck by the simplicity and the profound nature of these two qualifiers over the past couple of weeks.

Paul tells us it is only about two things: resurrection and suffering. But, these aren’t small things . . .

Let’s start with resurrection. Resurrection is the word that most of us associate with the Easter season, isn’t it?

On Easter Sunday morning we sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “Up from the Grave He Arose” and we talk about how almost and amazing it is that Christ defeated the powers of sin and death and so we too can live forever more. It’s a happy day isn’t it? Full of bright flower dresses and new hats and lots of joy . . .

So following Jesus about resurrection—that might sound easy enough, right? We just have to show up in our Sunday best! Huh? Wrong!

Do we not remember all the stories that followed that bright Easter morning?

The stories of the men afraid in their scandals hiding in the upper room not believing the news that the women brought them about the empty tomb.

The stories of women like Mary finding Jesus in the garden outside the tomb holding so tightly on to Jesus that Jesus had to reprimand her saying: “Don’t cling to me.”

The stories of the disciples like Peter, filled with shame and grief having to have a conversation over and over again with Jesus about what he needed to do going forward at the seashore.

Resurrection is not about instant beauty or perfect circumstances. Resurrection is a process. Resurrection is a slow transformative process.

And while yes, resurrection is about new life and hope; its birth is not an easy process. Resurrection rattles of the foundations of what is normal, what is comfortable and most certainly what we might have expected before it comes.

It’s the power that dismantles every other power in our life that controls us, keeps us in bondage, or has any pull at all over our lives.

To want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection is much like a story that author Annie Dillard tells.

When speaking of the resurrection power of our Lord, she gives this advice:

“It is madness [for} ladies’ [to wear] straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. [Instead of passing out bulletins,] Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
To say that you want to know Christ is to be ready for resurrection power to shake your life upside down.

And in the same way, Paul also says that he wants to share in the fellowship of his Christ’s sufferings. To know Christ is to know Christ’s sufferings.

Sufferings . . . if you are like me, it’s never good when a sentence starts with this word is it? I hate suffering, what about you?

Suffering involves change not only in the way that resurrection is about change, but it is about pain and how pain changes us. Blood, sweat and tears as the saying goes. . . .

To know Christ, Paul says, we have to be ready to suffer.

To follow Christ is not to sign up for a ticket to life happiness (as some tv preachers—you know who they are might tell you) but it is to accept that in life, no matter how good we think we are, difficult situations are going to find us.

And in fact, the particular the MORE we begin to align our lives in the direction of Christ’s teachings, then the more we are going to get push back from the world.

It is as if Paul is saying, start following Christ and then get ready, because pain is going to come!

It’s going to be pain you or I didn’t ask for, didn’t make happen, or even is not the fault of our poor choices.

May I just take liberty to say that following Jesus sometimes means somebody is going to tell lies about us, somebody whom we love might leave us, or maybe even one day we are going to wake up and realize that our life has to take a completely different life path with some really hard choices.

And it’s going to hurt!

Even more so, people might just steal our clothes, spit on us, speak all kinds of ill against us, and our stands for Jesus might even cost us our very lives. If it happened to Jesus, then why do we think it won’t happen to us?

Suffering is just part of the commitment.

I ask you church, do you still want to know Christ?

I began my sermon with this morning telling you that as a child I dreamed of getting married one day.

Well when I was in seminary, God answer such a prayer and brought into my life an amazing life partner named Kevin Hagan who would be God’s instrument of love, challenge and encouragement to me for all that lied ahead.

And all was well and great and all—you know things were going fine. A year and a half ago, Kevin was working on the leadership team of a non-profit in Alexandria and I was happy over there at Washington Plaza—until Kevin got a call one day that would lead to another call and then a visit and then another visit where he would be named the President of Feed The Children that just so happened to be in Oklahoma.

And you can imagine as excited as I was for this opportunity for Kevin, how I felt about that—Oklahoma.

I told Kevin, “They don’t like my kind of outspoken female pastor-ness out there.” His optimist self said, “Give it a try.”

And now after I’ve been out there part-time for 6 months I can say indeed my assumptions were right. They don’t like my kind. And Oklahoma is a 22 hour drive away from here. It can feel very lonely. And there have been many tears in our household as much as there have been celebratory moments of all the new experiences.

We have to be careful what we pray for.

Sometimes God’s biggest blessings to us can also come with pain. Sometimes God’s biggest blessings can involve resurrection that forces our world-view upside down.

And it is a process.

Notice with me that Paul said, “I want to know Christ.”

NOT, “I know Christ” or “I know Christ already.”

Paul is exhorting us by example to A PROCESS of knowing the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings.

Even for Paul it was never something he achieved or arrived at, it was about a relationship of wanting to know Christ more every day.

The last time I did a class preparing persons for baptism. I started the session by asking them if they were ready to die? “Have you lost your mind, Pastor?” their eyes said back to me in response.

And no, it wasn’t some sort of “hell fire and brimstone” are you sure you are saved sort of line of questioning. And no I had not lost my mind. I was serious. Were they ready to die?

Because as baptized believers who are desiring to know Christ, what we believe being immersed under the water and then coming back up symbolize the fact that we are dying to ourselves and being raised to a new kind of life.

The Christian life—at least as the Apostle Paul saw it was about death to our normal human experience. It was about the power of resurrection and sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.

So I ask you church today, do you want to know Christ?

Do you want to walk in Jesus’ footsteps?

If you answer is yes, then I say, hold on for the ride of your life—for it will be a journey filled with the power of the resurrection AND the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings.

For those who commit afresh today to this way of dying to self and living for Christ, let the church say (AMEN).

July 8, 2013

I Will Bless You to Bless Others

I Will Bless You To Bless Others
Genesis 12:1-9
Watonga Baptist Indian Mission, Watonga, OK
July 7, 2013

When is the last time that you said to someone “Bless you?”

Usually the most frequent time we say this is when someone sneezes. “Ahhchooo!” And you say, “Bless you.”

Or maybe when we’re getting ready to say goodbye to a friend or someone special. We say, “Bless you or God bless you.”

Or maybe even some of us have had a time in our life when someone has blessed us. For example, a loved one has sent us a special card on Mother’s or Father’s day or our birthday, simply to say: “I’m so glad you’re in my life” or “I’m so glad you were born.”

I can remember a special event in my life completely centered around the idea of others blessing me. On November 4, 2006, after finishing all the necessary coursework and ordination interviews, I was ordained to the gospel ministry. It was a cold fall day in Washington, DC when my friends and family gathered at Calvary Baptist Church to pray and lay hands of blessing on me. (Actual picture to the right of the service).

While it was a wonderful service of music, scripture reading and prayer and even a really nice reception that my mother-in-law and father-in-law to be put together for the occasion—what I really remember the most about the day is not these things. Rather, it is the blessing I received.

I don’t know if you’ve been to ordination service recently or even ever. But there comes a time in every service of this nature that the congregation lays hands on the person(s) being ordained (or called out) to ministry of some kind. It’s a time when those attending the service offer words of blessing in the ear of the man or woman being commissioned for service.

On this day, family and friends said so many encouraging things to me and I remember several of the blessing prayers word for word (even still to this day), but there’s one blessing in particular that I want to share with you today.

A dear friend’s husband came up to me, “I bless your feet. I bless your hands. I bless your head. I bless your ears. I bless you so that you can bless others.”

I was a bit taken back by these words in the telling as this friend’s husband who I barely knew at the time was actually touching my feet, my heads, and my ears as he spoke.

Yet, even with these memorable mannerisms, the heart of what he was saying was: “I want to bless you, Elizabeth so that you can bless other people in your ministry.” And what an awesome act of commissioning it was! Nearly seven years later I still remember this moment vividly! These were words spoken into my life (though I didn’t fully understand them at the time) that would become beacons of encouragement, moving me in the right direction especially on days when I wondered why in the world would I be called to serve as I am.

In our Old Testament lesson for this morning, we encounter a radical act of blessing that too would continue to unfold over time. It’s the first time in the entire narrative of scripture that we read of a particular blessing to a particular person. And this particular person is called Abram. We may know him more widely as Abraham (it’s the same guy, just before his relationship with God would later change his name).

I want to turn back one chapter from the scripture we just read to Genesis 11 so that we can get the full story of what was going on in the story between Creator God and God’s creation prior to Abram encountering the Lord in Genesis 12.

As you might recall, some of the earliest stories of scripture are about God reaching out in relationship to all of human kind . . . stories like Adam and Eve in the garden and Noah building an ark. Yet, things didn’t go so well from the start. As much as God tried to be in relationship with all human kind, humanity kept rejecting God’s ways of how relationship would form. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden. The whole world besides Noah and his family were destroyed in a flood.

And by the time we get to Genesis 11, we learn that everyone gathered in one place, and decided to build a tower to the heavens in an effort to reach God Himself. (God and humanity still did not understand each other!)

But what does the Lord do? Scripture tells us that the Lord comes down and confuses their tongues. And all the tribes and peoples of the world scatter—each group going their own way, speaking their own language.

God’s plans of being in relationship with humanity seem lost. It seems like one big fail. Scatter is the key word.

But if there is anything we know about God, God keeps trying. God keeps pursuing. A new plan will have to emerge. God created human kind after all for: relationship with the Lord

And we read about this Plan B in Genesis 12. A God who was once scattering is now gathering AND speaking a particular word to a particular person named Abram saying, “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go the land I will show you.”

God gives Abram something very specific—to leave his home, to leave the familiar and to go to the place where God would show him.

When we think of calls of God coming to people—particular assignments—in our country, we often think of calls coming to people who are usually middle-aged. You know, old enough not to be young . . . yet, educated and full of natural energy to get the job done. Or as I like to say it, men in their 40s with 2.5 kids and a beautiful wife: what everyone seems to want in their leader.

But did you notice when I read in verse 4 how old Abram was? 75 years old! He was not in his “young” and “prime” years. But God didn’t care about any of those conventional things.

Can you imagine the call of God coming to you at the ripe age of 75 years old? Can you imagine leaving your home place, your family, your tribe at this age simply because God told you to move?

But let’s take a closer look and discover why Abram had to leave and what exactly this mission was. Verse 2 gives us particular reasons. God says to Abram:

“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Abram was asked by God, you see, to leave all he knew and follow the leading of the Lord for one huge reason: to bless others.

It wasn’t going to be a mission about some special seat of privilege for him.

It wasn’t even going to be about Abram’s immediate family being honored in some special way.

It was going to be about every living human being from this point on in history somehow being connected to the family that Abram was going to be the father of . . . Father Abraham would have many sons as the children’s song goes.

God wanted to draw all people again to himself, and this time the plan would be to work through a particular person with a particular mission. And the mission was all about blessing.

But what exactly does this mean? What does it is mean to bless others?

I think it is more than saying, “Bless you” when a person sneezes or even more than the times when we lay hands on someone becoming a minister during the course of a special service . . . rather in this first case of blessing, God’s call came to Abram that day as a promise. It was about his being a keeper of a promise. And this would be the blessing.

You see, if we skip ahead and read more of what happened to Abram as his story unfolded, we realize that ultimately Abram never saw “all people of the earth” being “blessed through him.” In fact, so much of his story is about struggling to know the path to add that desired son to his family—as childbearing didn’t come natural to his wife.

And so as much as God told Abram that he was to be the father of a great nation, when he looked around his life, he was the biological father of no one at the time. He had no offspring.

But to this the LORD says to Abram in chapter 12, verse 7, “To your offspring I will give this land.”

It was quite a bold blessing. Don’t you think so? To tell a man who has no kids and whose wife is past childbearing act that to your offspring, I will give this land? Some folks might even call a God like this crazy.

Sure in a few years a child would finally come into Abram’s life: Isaac, but never would Abram get to snap his fingers and see the full picture of what God’s blessing “for all people” was about. Abraham would go on to die a death without ever seeing the promised land.

But this is exactly the point that I believe our text wants us to see today.

God calls us to blessing so that we can hold on to a promise that we may never see with our own eyes fulfilled, but that we get to set in motion.

“I will bless you to bless others.”

In the late 1970s a revolution began in the Latin American country of El Salvador. An oppressive regime ruled and took this once peaceful land into a state of chaos. The poor of the nation became even more oppressed than they previously felt. Church leaders feared what the government leaders would do if they didn’t side with them. Most church leaders went so far as to sign pacts, ignoring the cries of the poor and the needy in their midst.

Yet there were some pastors and priests who stuck close to the message of Jesus and God’s love for all people and refused to do as the government leadership wanted from them. The priest Oscar Romero was one of them. All his life he had been just a normal priest—going about the daily work of caring for his parish, later being promoted, though to the position of Archbishop. Yet, there came a day when he could not allow injustice to continue. By 1979, Oscar Romero was fully committed to being a voice for the poor—even going as far to criticize the United States government for giving aid to the El Salvadorian government.

He sermons and speeches became a powerful voice of God’s love for all . . . even if it wasn’t the most popular thing to say. The following is his famous prayer about how he understood what it meant to be blessed so that others could be blessed through him—seeing the big picture. He prayed:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,
which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. . . .

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders;
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own. Amen.

And in the end, such was indeed true with Oscar Romero’s life . . . as it also was true of Abram’s life as well. Just as Abram never would be the one that would lead a multitude of people into the promise land, so Oscar Romero would not see the fruit of his calls to justice either.

In fact while celebrating mass in his church on March 24, 1980, he was assassinated while holding up the communion cup in front of the altar. Romero died while in the act of holding on to the promise that God wanted all people of El Salvador to be blessed equally.

Yet, today the memory of Romero lives on, inspiring the justice work of priests throughout El Salvador. Even though the first democratic government was elected four years ago, danger, unrest and lack of concern for the poor of the land lives on. Romero’s death encourages a new generation of leaders who believe as he did that Jesus calls us to care for the needs of all people.

“I will bless you to bless others.”

It’s hard to be ok with this kind of blessing. It goes against every instant gratification bone in our body. It might even seem like a waste of time to believe that God wants to use us—just as God used Abram and Oscar Romero—to hold on to promises that are to be fulfilled in what is to come and not in our lifetime.

But as Romero prayed, “We are prophets in a future that is not our own.”

How will you allow God to bless you?

How will you allow God to bless others then through you?

How will you wait with the promise of blessing with what you can not see or touch or feel right now, but is to come?

How will you follow in the steps of Father Abraham claiming a good, good future but is not your own, but of the Lord?

Let us seek the Lord together as we ask for God’s blessing this day as we seek to answer these questions in community.


June 17, 2013

Considering the Tale of Jonah: I Don’t Want to Go!

I Don’t Want to Go!
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Preached June 16, 2013
Watonga Baptist Indian Mission

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience in your life when you felt like God really wanted you to do something and you absolutely did not want to do what you thought He’d asked you to do.

I know I have.

Over a year ago, Kevin got a call from a recruiter. They wanted to talk to him about a job. It was with a big organization called Feed The Children.

On the way home from work, the day that the recruiter called Kevin, he phoned me to ask me what I thought.

“Oh that’s really exciting, honey” is what I am sure first came out of my mouth. It sounded like an exciting opportunity to do good with his job that I knew Kevin couldn’t pass up. But then there was a catch—that would be his next sentence.

“You should know,” Kevin said, “Feed The Children’s headquarters is located in Oklahoma City, OK.”

“What??” was my first word in response to that. “Why would we want to move to Oklahoma?”

The thing was is that we had a nice life and jobs for ourselves in the Washington DC area. Kevin actually liked his current job. I was the pastor of an American Baptist church like this one that I adored. We liked where we lived. Why would we want to move? After all, most of our friends and family lived on the East Coast. We counted the hours—it would be a 22-hour drive from Washington DC to OKC: at least a two day trip to get back home if we wanted to.

Soon, I was not in favor. Not in favor at all. Kevin can tell you, that there were some less than appropriate preacher like words that came out of my mouth in response.

But the more Kevin talked to the recruiter and then the organization’s leaders, it became clear that it was God’s calling for us not to stay but to go.

We were to move at least part of our lives to Oklahoma for a season. We were to join in God’s mission to feed children in need around the world. Even if it means leaving the familiar for something unknown to both of us . . .

I still wasn’t happy about it. But, during the time when we were discerning what to do next, I heard a sermon preached on the scripture passage before us today. I knew that I did not want to be called Jonah.

While Jonah is often referred to as “Jonah and the whale” as a story meant for kids, I propose today that it is not a story for only for the kids, but an adult tale meant to grow our understanding of God and God’s plans for us in the salvation stories of our lives. It’s a story that invites each of us to take a second look at our feelings about the bounds of God’s love for all people and all parts of the world—even the parts that are unfamiliar to us.

And this is the summary of what God asked Jonah to do: go preach God’s word to the Nineveties.

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

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

Furthermore, Assyria was more than an enemy. This nation was THE enemy to end all enemies to the nation of Israel that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel (10 of the 12 tribes) and held the two remaining tribes of Israel, Judah and Benjamin in fear for over 100 years!

Years and years of history included brutal treatment, occupation, and taking from Israel their human rights and their land.
But then, a new message came on the scene illuminating a compassionate God. A God who loved even the Assyrians—the bad guys in the story. God said, “Yes, there was a time for judgment but there was also a time for love of all the nations, included the much despised.”

We find very few details of Jonah’s life or his previous prophetic activity. He just appears out of nowhere.

In Jonah chapter 1, we get down to the main event quickly: the Lord saying to Jonah in verse two: “Get up and go to that great city of Nineveh! Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are!”

So not only is Jonah going to be asked to go to a faraway place, but to the dreaded enemy!

And, Jonah is told when he gets there to give a message of repentance. He doesn’t even get to say something tame. . .

It would be like a solider crossing enemy lines not with the white flag of surrender, but saying to those on the other side: “God wants you to repent for you’ve done really bad things.”

(Not exactly the words that would lead to kind hospitality from Assyria, wouldn’t you agree?)

So, of course with all of this true, Jonah was afraid.

Of course, Jonah doubted if this prophetic word was really the Lord who was speaking to him.

Of course, Jonah thought it was time to change careers, take a vacation and find his way to the other side of the known world.

Because if his previous vocation required speaking for God– a God who would now send him to Nineveh, then it was time to get a new religion or no religion at all for that matter.

We sympathize rightfully so with Jonah at this juncture, don’t we?

And so Jonah ran. We’d run away too, wouldn’t we if God sent us to a place in the world that we hated as much as Nineveh with news bad enough to get us killed?

Jonah ran away as far as he could, 750 miles away in fact. He jumped the first boat for the other side of the world. And this was until a huge storm descended upon the waters. His shipmates through lots to see who’s fault it was—a part of ancient custom. And the lots landed on Jonah. Soon Jonah was overboard and found himself swallowed up by a fish.
There was once a Sunday School teacher who taught a lesson about the story of Jonah. When she had finished, she asked her class, “Okay everybody, what did we learn today from the story of Jonah and the big fish?”

Some of the kids talked about Jonah having to preach to the bad people. Some of the kids talked about Jonah really, really not wanting to go.

And a bright little eight-year old girl thought for a moment and said, “Always travel by air.”
Smart girl, huh? Makes me want to fly next time too, right?

So what happens if a call of God emerges in our life that no matter what we do to try to run from it, avoid it or pretend we never heart it– what happens if it doesn’t go away?

What happens if we are called to be with “those” people and God just won’t let us forget?

What happens if we find ourselves in the shoes of Jonah?

Today is Father’s Day—the day that our country has set aside since the early 1900s to recognize the father’s in our midst just as we do with the mothers only a few weeks ago.

Though Hallmark and television commercials want to make this day into a sappy holiday with all sorts of grandeur expressions of love and appreciation—for many of us, some of the men in our lives aren’t all that. Sure, we respect them as elders, we respect them as those who gave us life or gave our children life, but they don’t seem to be the kind of people in whom we can overtly appreciate on a day like today.

But what if God calls us to those people?

Roberta Bondi, a Christian teacher at a university in Atlanta, Georgia, writes about one such experience in her life in her book, Memories of God.

Having grown up with a father she didn’t like very much, a father in whom she’d isolated herself from especially as her parents divorced and she lived in different states from her father in her high school years. She was always mad at her dad for leaving her mom, her and her sibling behind. Then she writes about a change that happened in her heart over time as she began to study the scriptures and consider what God most wanted from her:

Eleven years ago, my father’s sister, whom I had not seen since childhood, moved to my hometown and we began to spend wonderful time together. . . . . My aunt began suggesting that I go and visit my father, whom I had not seen for a number of years. I knew that he was remarried, that he was ill with emphysema, and that he was retired [He possibly could die soon]. I was terrified by the idea of a visit. I took a trip to Connecticut [where he father was living at the time]. It was not an easy trip, since I was still so afraid of him. . . . . And now, amazingly, being able to see him for the first time through adult eyes, I began to see not my childhood image of my powerful, mythical father, but rather my actual flesh and blood, real human father. In that trip, I began to learn that my father had changed over the years. He still had a good mind but from somewhere against all expectations he himself had learned a lot of gentleness. Just as surprising, considering his previous history, he had become a Christian man to the core.

Roberta goes on to write: “It still seems to me to be an astonishing gift of God’s grace that in the last years of his life I was able to stand with him as his friend who was his adult child.”

It was Roberta’s Jonah moment of decision come to live with wonderful effects.
Maybe for you in your life—your call of “go” is not to another job or city, like it was for Kevin and I. Maybe it is not to praying about and working toward a renewed relationship with an family member or friend, like Roberta Bondi.

But, I do know this: that the Jonah tale was not just a one-time deal. It’s not just a story or a metaphor as some would like to call it that doesn’t relate to us anymore.

Sure, we might not actually get swallowed up in the belly of a fish like Jonah did.

But, what I know of our God is that we are continually asked to do what is UNCOMFORTABLE to us. And, if we say no, there are consequences to our actions, we don’t get to have the fullness of blessings that can be ours in this life when we say no to God.

I believe God longs to show us—not punish us—the beauty of what can come from the most broken situations of our lives.
If we look back at our scripture passage—Jonah chapter 3, verse 5, we read that God used Jonah in the most amazing way. For, “the Ninevites believed God” as Jonah brought the message. Jonah was not harmed (as he thought he might) through being in this unfavorable situation and place. Rather, Jonah received the blessing of being God’s instrument of peace and love to an entirely new community of believers.

I am sure that you like me have your fill in the blank when it comes to who “those” people are in your life.
You have someone at work, someone in your neighborhood, or even someone in this community that really just pushes all of your buttons and you feel like if this person or persons simply opens their mouth, you’d explode.

Whoever is on your list of “those people” I invite you to reconsider the journey of Jonah. To come and get to know this God you have chosen to follow all over again and realize that yes, those people are included in God’s family too. And yes, you and I have a lot to learn from even them . . .

It’s a hard edge to sit with this morning. But, today God calls you. God calls you to all people. Let us get to loving in word and deed to those, especially those in whom we may not really want to move towards. And I know this, as we do, God will bless our steps.


May 13, 2013

Don’t Stop Dreaming

God’s Dreams for Us
Genesis 28: 10-19, Ephesians 2:14-21
Watonga Indian Baptist Church
Watonga, OK

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you were confused, without direction or without prospects on the horizon for a better future?

Maybe such was a time in your life when you lost a job, fell into a conflict with a family member, or even didn’t know where your next meal came from?

Maybe it was a time when a beloved family member died? Or when one of your children was terribly sick?

Or maybe even when someone sought to speak authoritatively to you without any concern for your best interest?

I bet we could all say yes to this question—that sometime in our life, if not right now we’ve reached moments when all we wanted to do was sit in the floor and cry or just run away from everything familiar to us or even drown our sorrows in too much sleep or alcohol—because life has just felt that bad.

God, it has seemed has not been present in our lives in a way that speaks to our heart. We feel alone, abandoned, and are wandering aimlessly through our days.

So with all of this true, I tell you, you’ll like the main character in our Old Testament story today: Jacob. Jacob as we meet him in Genesis 28, is not the exalted son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, the great patriarchs of the people of Israel. He’s not in a place of greatness simply because of who his family is or because he got a huge inheritance of wealth.

No, rather, we find Jacob down and out. We find that he’s was forced to leave his land, his home, his family and we find him as verse 11 tells us in “no particular place.”

We find that Jacob is no the run without real plans for the future, alone, and without any creature comfort for protection.

In fact, if we read earlier in the story, we know that Jacob is on the hit list of his brother Esau. After Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, tricked her husband into giving Jacob, her younger son the blessing usually reserved for the oldest son, Jacob’s brother Esau is angry.

Esau says he wants Jacob dead. Rebekah, being the smart woman that she is (I know like so many of the women in this room this morning) creates a plan whereby Jacob’s father thinks it is in the best interest of Jacob to send him away for a while. (The excuse being that he needed to find a wife in the region of the country where Rebekah’s people are from).

So, with father Isaac on board with the “go find a wife in another region” plan, Jacob is sent away. No one asked Jacob if he wanted to go. He was told to go.

But, while some young adults might have loved this plan, we don’t get the idea from Jacob that he’s too excited about it. For, we know he’s never been away from home before. He’s never been on a route to the destination of Hebron before. This journey out into the great unknown was full of a lot of firsts.

But, even though from the outside this just seems like a secular story about a family drama—God is still present.

God had not forgotten the promise He’d made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham.

God had not forgotten about Jacob.

God had not forgotten his love for Jacob.

So, as Jacob takes shelter for the night in what I can imagine was an open field (not much shelter really at all) laying his head on a rock for a pillow, scripture tells us that God speaks to him.

Not as God had done before through a voice or through the presence of messengers, but through a dream.

And in this dream, scripture tells us that Jacob sees a stairway resting on the earth with its top reaching toward heaven.

As an aside it’s this juncture in scripture is where the song, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” comes from. Anyone ever sang or heard of this song before? I had to look up the words—all I knew was the first line. But if you look them us too, beware: it really has nothing to do with this story.

But it wasn’t really a ladder Jacob sees. More like a ramp. For a popular part of the religious culture of Jacob’s time was the idea of ziggurats—artificial mountains built as shrines, shrines that connected things of on the earth to higher things of heaven.

We aren’t told that Jacob gets access to heaven on this ramp. Instead it serves as a sign that God comes to dwell with Jacob—to be with him where he was. Right there in the middle of nowhere.

It was an image of God saying to Jacob—“Look, you are not alone. I am with you, even here in this remote place.”

But even more than this, I believe, God is inviting Jacob to see the world as God views it, to dream alongside God.

In verse 13, my Bible reads—“there above it (meaning the ladder) stood the Lord” but many translations of this verse actually read, “There beside him.” I really want to lean into the second interpretation—that as God begins to speak directly to Jacob he is not standing over him, but standing beside him—coming close to his heart.

And saying these words: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out like the west and the east, to the north and to the south. All people on earth will be blessed.”

What powerful words! Not only was God saying to Jacob in his moment of crisis: “I see you!” but God was also making unconditional promises to him about the future of his people.

“I’m going to bless you,” God says, “No matter what. No matter how much you screw up. No matter how far you stray from me. No matter how people treat you. Or how lost you feel. I’m going to bless you.”

It was an invitation for Jacob to come and see the world as God already saw it—full of possibility, full of promise, full of hope, even when the circumstances of Jacob’s life seemed like nothing good could possibility come from them.

This past week, Kevin, my husband and I spent several days meeting with, assisting with feeding programs and shoe distributions for children in Guatemala. All of this was part of Kevin’s work for an organization based out of Oklahoma City called Feed The Children and I was just along for the ride.

One of my favorite communities we visited was in the region of Guatemala known as San Antonio Polopa among a traditional Mayan culture. Though the community struggles with having enough provisions of food and clean water and proper supplies for their children to go to school with and had every reason to shun us as “outsiders” Kevin and I, along with the rest of the team from Feed The Children were overwhelmed by the kind welcome we received. I even got a Mayan makeover while I was there, with traditional dress given to me and put on me (I can show you pictures after the service if you are interested).

But, as Kevin spoke to this group before we all ate together, as he had done many times before with different groups, he said something that struck me (especially as I had this passage of scripture on my mind). Kevin told the group of mothers and children gathered around us: “We are here today to stand in solidarity with you. Though we come from a different country, a different culture and from a different background, there is one thing we hold in common. And that is all parents want the same thing for their children. All parents want a better life for their children than they had themselves.”

And the Mayan mothers seemed to agree, as maybe the mothers in this room here in Watonga agree too. It’s only natural as Parents to dream big for your children.

You want your children to grow up and succeed at whatever they do—having better days than you ever experienced, making more money than you ever did, and living in a more comfortable living space than you. It’s part of what makes us human, to have this desire.

But, what about God, have you ever thought about what God dreams for you?

If we say that God is our Heavenly Father or Heavenly Mother . . . if we believe that God in heaven is the great Parent of us all, then what are God’s dreams for us? When God thinks about our future, what comes to God’s mind?

Taking our cues from Jacob this morning, we see that there are no limits to what God has planned for our future.

Consider again with me the language of verse 14 of Genesis chapter 28.

The LORD said to Jacob, “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.”

Being called “dust” doesn’t sound too bad does it? Dust is everywhere. Dust is a part of all places. Dust is the very essence of life.

But, there’s more. One Biblical commentator on this passage calls our attention to the fact that the original Hebrew word for dust was not just an generic word for dust, rather it was more like the English word “topsoil.”

Topsoil, as we know from our gardening is the best kind of soil. It’s the soil that is full of the nutrients. It’s the soil that ensures the crops’ success. It’s the soil full of the rich ingredients that the plants need within them to help them grow strong and tall. And with out the topsoil our hopes of a rich harvest are ruined.

Thus, God is telling Jacob in speaking of topsoil: “I have a dream for you. My dream is not just that you’ll have a good home. Or, that you’ll have kids one day of your own. Or that happiness will find you more than sadness does. But, rather, my dream is that you’ll be a life-restoring, life-giving pillar wherever you go. That your community will be blessed because of YOU bringing MY presence to it., the riches gift of all.”

I believe this is exactly what the apostle Paul is talking about when he writes to the church at Ephesus about God’s dreams for their lives. Saying that he prays regularly for the Ephesians, “That Christ may dwell in [their] hearts through faith. And [Paul] prays that [they] being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with the saints, to grasp how wide and long, and high and deep is the love of Christ.”

Paul wants them to know that God’s dreams for the people of this world are in fact so big that we could not even wrap our minds around them if we tried. Why? Because we serve a God, as Paul writes that is “able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask for or imagine.”

Unimaginable dreams—that’s bigger than any of us know how to speak about!

I tell you today that is hard to keep dreaming like this. It’s hard to dream at all sometimes. It’s hard to dream the more that life has beaten us down, shredded our attempted contributions to pieces. It’s hard to dream when all we want to do is throw up our hands in disbelief of the suffering that has found us in this life.

But we are called to keep dreaming, nonetheless.

The poet Langston Hughes that I like very much says this about dreams: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is broken winged bird that can’t fly.”

As people of faith, as people who are in relationship with the God of all living things, we can’t give up hope. We can’t give up dreaming. We have to allow room in our hearts to received God’s unexpected surprises of dreams in our sleep, of visions in the daytime, of words of instruction from wise ones in our community.

I am so glad I serve a God who has a plan for me, along with every living creature on this earth.

I’m so glad I serve a God who wants a brighter future not only for the children but for all of us older ones as well.

I’m so glad I serve a God who helps give me vision when I feel lost, alone or without the courage to keep dreaming anew.

I’m so glad God’s dream for all of us flow out of great love– love that is wider and longer and higher and deeper than I could ever conceive on my own.

Let’s us pledge together again on this day to invite the power of the Holy to teach us to dream anew.

Let’s dream together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us dream together as children of father Jacob.

Let us on this special day of family celebration thank God that God’s dream for us our families are not over. But with God with us, the best is yet to be!


April 28, 2013

You’ve Always Got to be Open

Resurrection Unfolding: Openness
Acts 11:1-18
Preached at Broadneck Baptist Church, Annapolis, MD

I don’t know about you, but it is easy for me to think at certain points of my own story of faith that I have “arrived” at what is the right way. That I’ve finally had enough education, enough life experience, enough personal reflection to make a sound judgment on what I believe on a particular issue is right.

I’ve talked to enough people.

I’ve read enough books.

I’ve been in church long enough. My mind is made up and that’s that.

Before I entered seminary in the summer of 2003 one such moment in my life occurred. I had figured out, or so I thought at the time, the only “proper” or “theologically sound way” to talk about God.

All of this came about thanks to a new friend introducing me to a new genre of books: feminism. These new books I began reading described the world in ways I’d never heard of during my 20+ years of growing up in small, Southern Baptist centric Tennessee towns.

In my childhood church, when we prayed, we always prayed to our “Heavenly Father” called God “He” and if you really wanted to be seen as extra holy, you’d be sure to capitalize in writing any pronoun reference for God.

But after reading and discussing texts new to me like Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissent Daughter, I believed I’d arrived at an epiphany. I’d been taught all wrong. No, no. Never again would I pray to God in male dominate language. Never again would I use the word “He” to refer to God. God wasn’t a man or a woman after all—I believed so why did we refer to God as such?

As part of my new personal practice of referencing God without a gender association, I simultaneously started looking down on those who weren’t as “enlightened” as me. I don’t believe such was intentional. Or even such thoughts often left the confines of my brain.

But, because I’d made up my mind on this—openness to others was out of the realm of possibilities.

In fact, one time, I dared to correct my husband’s dinnertime prayer, in which addressed God as, “Heavenly Father.” Later, I reminded him in my serious preacher tone of voice: “If he was going to say father than he needed to say mother too.” You can imagine how well that went over and I’ve barely since lived such down (the prayer criticizing incident as we now refer to it as)—not one of the shinning star days of our married life for sure …

But is this what growing in our faith is really supposed to look like? Illumination that puffs us up with self-righteousness and isolates others who may think or have a different experience of God than we do? Is this what resurrection unfolding in our lives becomes?

I know that for these past four weeks, Pastor Abby has been helping you stick closely to the idea of resurrection as a season, of resurrection as something that is not a one-time experience, but something that unfolds and finds resonance in surprising ways over time. And such is certainly the case with our resurrection story for today.

In Acts 11, we find a story that asked Peter and asks us, as readers, today to reconsider how open we are to the fresh wind of the Spirit moving among us. Especially as the Spirit’s wind moves through our most cherished set of religious, spiritual, Biblical, or whatever you want to call them beliefs—and says:

Why are you excluding those who believe differently from you?

And, what might you learn about God if you include them?

What I find most interesting about Acts 11 is that it is not the first time we’ve heard the details of the interaction between Peter and Cornelius. Probably the tale you’ve most heard read of this story (if you’ve heard it before) comes from the Acts 10.

In Acts 10 we learn that Peter—the disciple of Jesus, Peter—has a vision while he is on the roof praying. In this vision he see the heavens being opened and a something like a large sheet coming down from heaven full of all kinds of animals. And Peter, hears a voice saying, a voice he believes to be the Lord: “Get up, Peter. Kill and Eat.”

Such a directive did not seem to Peter to be of the Lord. For this word of “eat whatever kind of meat you’d like” went against everything he’d believed to be true about purity.

And not just the kind of purity for purity sake, but prescribed words from the Torah, words that told generations of Jews what relationship with God entailed. There was just no way that the Lord would ask him to associate with people like that!

But after asking the Lord again, Peter receives confirmation that he’d indeed heard correctly. And before Peter could over think his way out of his vision, several men from the household of Cornelius, a non-Jew (who also just had a vision from the Lord about making contact with Peter) showed up. These Gentile men asked Peter and his friends to journey with them to Caesarea.

Peter goes, shares the gospel with this non-Jewish crowd at the home of Cornelius, and as a result the Holy Spirit comes upon all those who gathered. And, then, Peter could not deign that God loved these kinds of people with whom he had previously kept at arm’s length. Peter saw new life coming to this family before his eyes! Soon a baptismal service was in order to make it all official.

In this life altering moment, Peter proclaimed: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

But by time we get to the re-telling of the story in Acts 11 (where Cornelius’ name is not even mentioned specially by the way), we find Peter giving testimony to how this experience opened him up.

For word was getting back to Jerusalem and the established religious guard were upset: Jews eating with Gentiles? No way! If the purity laws were out, in the way of Christ, what was next? As is true of most conversations like this, fear paralyzed.

Yet, in the midst of it, what was Peter going to say for himself?

What follows is not an argumentative debate or even a lecture in proof texting the Torah, rather it is Peter, in a very pastoral way, in a very loving and patient way telling his story of what the movement of resurrection had looked like in his life.

He brings the conversation back to Jesus—how Jesus taught his followers that after he left the earth, the Holy Spirit would be given, the Spirit that would lead this followers in all things.

Peter gives personal witness to the fact that his heart and mind changed. Saying, in the way of resurrection there’s one sign that emerges as guide and that is: the Holy Spirit.

Peter speaks boldly in verse 17 when he says, “If then God gave them (referring to the Gentile believers) the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

Or, in other words, “Listen fellas, if the Spirit is a work, you can’t discrimmate. You have to accept. You have to be open to what resurrection looks like even if it is nothing like you’ve ever considered before.”

The believers at Cornelius’ house certainly had the Spirit, and for this, Peter explained to the Jerusalem leaders that openness was unavoidable.

The first time I ever preached a sermon on the Peter and Cornelius story, I was a new full-time pastor as an associate. I had to wait my turn to preach and it when it was finally my turn to speak, I wanted it to be good—piercing, really hitting a home run. When I found out that Acts 10 was the lectionary on that day, I was thrilled. I was thrilled because I knew this text would give me the opportunity to call out the congregation on all the ways I felt their actions did not show openness to the gospel. It was a home-run in the making: for I had so much to say!

But, looking back on it now, I think the particularities of what I defined as “openness” mostly missed the point. For, when I re-read this sermon again this week, I realized that I preached a message that was in line with beliefs that held true for me at that time—acceptance of people I accepted, theology of people I believed in, and acknowledgment of doubts I had already explored in my own life. I hoped the sermon would encourage the congregation to be more like me.

But is this really what openness to the Spirit is all about? Converting people to believe exactly as you do?

Anne Lamott has become famous for saying: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

And it’s true, isn’t it? While it is easy to create an agenda that you think is the “proper way” or the “right way” or the most “theologically astute way,” it’s not always the God way.

The Spirit really cares little for all our nonsensical categories.

The Spirit really cares little for who we think was made more beautifully in God’s image.

The Spirit really has no time to waste on those who can be approved by church councils and denominational boards for who has the most pristine theological pedigree.

The Spirit lives and moves and breathes in all kinds of people . . . even people, from our perspective, that we find very little common ground with actually often it is the Spirit moves in people we don’t agree with very much.

Professor Roberta Bondi of Emory University Divinity School says in her volume, To Pray and to Love this about being open to the Spirit in one another: “the goal of life . . . if you want to live by love is not to live by principles . . . rather relationship.”

Of course this doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when living as God people in a particular community as you are doing here that you won’t need to be prescriptive or prophetic. Or that principles of faith don’t matter. Or that there won’t be times when the church will discern together on something and not every one will come along 100% and relationships will suffer.

But, it does mean that as we are open to the Spirit, our theology will shift as we grow and the people in whom we converse with about our faith to might just shift too. And, our church has to reflect this kind of growth.

Rather than sticking with labels people place on our faith or our communities like, “progressive” or “conservative” or “justice centric” or “evangelistic” we’ve got to be ready to move with the Spirit, even if there isn’t a label for what exactly it means.

I don’t know what kind of people in your life you have trouble seeing the Spirit of God in or welcoming in your community—

-people who strongly support a political party you don’t belong to

-people who make poorer driving decisions in the car than you do

-people who live in neighborhoods you don’t feel comfortable in

-people who live in regions of this world you don’t like too much

-people who worship with louder or softer voices than you prefer

But, regardless, we are all called out on our exclusive behavior of one kind or another and asked us to be open to the new.

For me today, if push came to shovel and you asked me how I prayed, I’d tell you I rarely use male language for God- as I have since 2003. But, I have been gently led the Spirit over the years, in particular in the last year to be more inclusive in conversation with those who do. After all, Jesus calls God His Father throughout the Gospels . . .

Not only does this make family mealtimes more nurturing and loving environment for both Kevin and me too, but it opens me up to learnings about God that I might miss if I am too stuck on the “proper way.” And, it has given me some friends back and let me to new ones too—friends that might not call God the same thing I do, but who are full of the Spirit with much to teach.

In a world of words flying across the internet and on cable tv about why this party or this type of person or this kind of church is bad for believing or doing a certain thing, what a resurrection it could be if we let the Spirit unfold in us direction.

If we let the Spirit unfold in us expanding wisdom

If we let the Spirit unfold beyond labels we place on ourselves or others

If we let the Spirit unfold in us renewed community

If we let the Spirit unfold in us most of all, love.

January 27, 2013

How to Wreck Your Life: Live in the Past . . . or in the Future

How to Wreck Your Life Series
Live in the Past . . . Or in the Future
Luke 4:14-21 with Isaiah 43:16-21
Guest Preacher at Idylwood Presbyterian Church, Falls Church, VA

When your pastor, MaryAnn asked me several weeks ago to share this time of worship with you this morning, I was delighted for the opportunity knowing that it would be the first time I was asked to preach outside of the tenure I just completed as pastor at a Baptist church very similar to Idylwood just down the road in Reston. And, as she told me more about your winter worship series, “How to Wreck Your Life”—your focused time of study about the ways in which we all contribute to our own life failures, MaryAnn asked if I’d be interested in preaching along these lines, being a part of the series.

Of course, I said. I love series preaching and did such at my former congregation regularly. And was often on the other end of things asking guest preachers I invited into join in series I’d planned too. So, it seemed right that your pastor would ask the same of me (karma of course). And so our conversation together today on the topic of “Live in the Past . . . Or in the Future” began.

past-present-future-smallsign1At first I thought, I had it easy (Thanks, MaryAnn)—I knew exactly what the direction of this particular mistake would be in this sermon. It’s simple. We all have our heads too stuck in the past and need to move on to the future! God tells us God is doing a NEW thing.

But the more I pondered it, the more I realized “Live in the Past . . . or in the Future” was much more complex than it seemed at first look. Such a way we wreck our lives is not just about the error of looking behind too much—you know, the behavior of being stuck in a rut, unwilling to move on toward the new. But, it’s ALSO about being so consumed with the future that we deign our past exist. You’ve all heard the famous George Santayana quote, “Those go cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We’ve all had times in our lives when we just don’t want to deal with our past failures seeking to hit the fast forward button in our hearts as quickly as possible.

And, so I believe these two things are true: we have trouble with being stuck in the past. We have trouble being stuck in the future.

Therefore, I think today’s theme truly speaks to our human struggle of not being able to tune our brain to the present. We go and go and do at such a pace that we’re never really in the moment. In any given week, more often than not, our spirit gets lost in never-never land while our body keeps going through the rote motions on earth.

One of my favorite spiritual teachers is Anthony De Mello though he’s been deceased since 1987. De Mello, a Jesuit priest born in India, lectured all over the world about the importance of waking up to life and seeing it just as it truly is. His most famous text, Awareness: the Perils and Opportunities of Reality is a book I’ve recently picked up and read very slowly. It’s a rich text in which he writes, “The most difficult thing in the world is to listen, to see. We don’t want to see . . . We don’t want to look.” (28).

He goes on to talk about how our lack of awareness in the here and now costs us peace and contentment, but most of all blessings that we already have and just can’t see! We wreck our life by deigning ourselves engagement with relationships, joy and hope we currently have.

In the gospel lesson for this morning, taken from Luke 4, we find Jesus in a situation full of memories from the past and foreshadowing what was to come—but ultimately a situation that asked him to stay present in the moment, fully engaged.

And this is the story: Jesus visited his hometown synagogue in Nazareth after being away in the desert for 40 days of temptation. It probably felt good for him to be “home” back in his normal routine. Clues in the text such as the phrase “as was his custom” help us know that going to temple was a commonplace activity for Jesus; he was no high holy holiday kind of Jew.

And it just so happened that on this day it was his turn to read the scripture before those gathered, just like Debbie did for us a few moments ago. And as the scroll was handed to him he read the words from the prophet Isaiah that scholars believe are a combination of two particular passages: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

These were powerful words of promise of course—words that the listeners in the congregation most certainly would have thought were a part of a Messianic prophecy—a divine deliverance of the nation of Israel, a year of jubilee, a righteous mission given by God for the people to carry out together with the chosen one.

And after Jesus finished, he could have sat down and gone about his business of thinking about what he was going to have for lunch later on (which I know none of you are thinking about as I speak right now).

Jesus could have thought about all the times he’d heard this particular lection read as a child—what he’d heard taught by former teachers on the Isaiah prophecy.

Jesus most certainly could have sat down patted his dad on the leg, looked over at his mom, been thinking about what kind of wine was going to be served at the next Sabbath meal at his place.

Most of all, Jesus could have easily allowed this to be just one more day in the life. He could have easily and speedily moved on to naming this as a lovely to above average day of spending time at home again with family and friends.

Or, he could be present. He could be aware. He could live into this moment, the practice of seeing and hearing. He could abide in this unique opportunity to live into mission for his life.

We’re on the edge of our seat with Jesus here about what will come next. We know how it feels. It takes courage to listen to that voice deep within that says, “This is my way, walk in it” that we as Christians name as the Holy Spirit. It takes a lot of bravery to abandon the could-a, should-a and woulds-a’s in our head when we get that nudge to live with freedom. It takes guts we know to live in this boldness.

We see Jesus modeling for us this brave new way as he speaks when all of the eyes of the synagogue were on him. In verse 21 he stands up (and I can just hear a gasp going through the crowd) and says this bold confession of faith, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Or in other words, “I am this Messiah. This is my mission. God has sent me to proclaim the good news.”

Whoa! For these would be the words that would ruin this perfectly tame Sabbath day, that would sent a riot through the crowd, that would run Jesus out of town (almost killing him in the process), and would forever shape the intensity of what Jesus’ future would look like.

I guess you could say by some standards of what it means to “wreck one’s life,” Jesus certainly messed up big time here!

No longer uncover as just Joseph’s boy.

No longer able to come back home without fear and hang out with his brothers and sisters like everything was alright.

No longer able to fly below the radar as if that “You are my son in whom I’m well pleased” event at the Jordan River baptism was somehow a fluke.

And most of all no longer able to deign that this ministry he was undertaking with bold confessions like this would one day get him killed one day sooner than later.

But, Jesus, you see, in awareness knew he needed to speak. He needed to teach. He needed to provide discernment to a group of people lost in the messes of their own making. He needed to be that voice that brought God’s hope to a weary worn crowd. In these 9 words, Jesus gives an inaugural address like none other. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus, I believe showed us how to not wreck our lives by living in the present. Something that staying in his head about the past or consumed with plotting the future could never do. He proclaimed good news.

This week, while preparing for this Sunday I read on your church website: “Idylwood Presbyterian Church is a welcoming Christian congregation. Thankful for God’s grace and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we aspire to demonstrate the inclusive and expansive love of Jesus Christ to neighbors near and far.”

It’s a beautifully written statement about some of the best things that church life is all about—welcome, God’s grace and the life-giving gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And though your statement doesn’t use these specific words, I know that ultimately it is the gospel message of Jesus Christ that each of you as individuals and as a congregation are trying to live out together.

(Otherwise you wouldn’t be here this morning. There are of course there are thousand lovely thing that you could be doing with your time on a Sunday morning that don’t include getting out of your house in these frigid temperatures we’ve been living through all week . . . )

And, so if it is true that gospel is at the heart as to why you are here, and why you are seeking to live in community with one another, and why you are most of all seeking to frame your life’s values as about something most assuredly greater than yourself, then, I believe the word of God before us today, the word of being present in our life is something that we all need to consider more often.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAgain, it is here that De Mello asks us all some good questions, “You want to hope for something better than you have right now, don’t you? Why not concentrate on the now instead of hoping for better times in the future? Why not understand the now instead of hoping for better times in the future? . . . . Isn’t the future just another trap?” (35).

All of us so regularly self-sabotage our lives when we choose to live in moments of our life that either do not exist anymore or are yet to exist at all. The consequence is that we don’t really see those in our direct circle of influence. We don’t see how the gospel can be good news where smack dab where we are!

And this is what I most want you to know: we can so easily miss God as we ignore the opportunities that the day-to-day encounters of our lives offer us, especially when we feel the nudge of the Holy Spirit to slow down, see, act and simply be.

Times when we run into a homeless woman asking for money outside the door of CVS even though we only have $2 in our pocket . . . .

Times when our child snuggles up to us, really wanting to have a conversation about how the school day went even though we know there’s laundry to fold. . . .

Times when a co-worker invites us into a more personal than usual conversation at the lunch table even though we really need to rush off to a meeting . . . .

Times when our body says stop and enjoy Sabbath though the rest of our life says go as it may even though we don’t think we have time to pause. . . .

Times when we just know we can no longer be silent about a justice issue making the headlines when our family member asks our opinion even though we know we might not get invited back to Christmas next year. . . .

Moments, being present in moments are truly what living and being the gospel is all about.

The Old Testament lesson today is one of my favorite verses of scripture that has always prodded me to greater levels of awareness, Isaiah exhorts the people by saying: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

God is at work in the world. God is at work in your life and in mine. Do we want our lives to go forth in ways of great worth in the kingdom of God? Do we want to see the new thing that God is springing forth today?

Then, our hope comes as we abide in God’s gift of now. Not in how our lives used to be. Not how we wished they were going to be one day. But our lives just as they are! For such is where vision is found, vision to truly see God. And, not wreck our lives, but find them abundantly blessed.


December 25, 2012

Not So Silent Night

jesus-birthLuke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve 2012

Silent night, holy, night, all is come, all is bright. Round yon virgin Mother and Child . . .

I get chills every time I sing this song, especially on this night. I don’t know about you, but it seems to be the one carol of all Christmas carols that seems to pull at the strings of all of our hearts—a song that reminds us to slow down be still and consider what the birth of this child of a babe called Jesus is all about. It’s a song sung a few hours ago in the Holy City to commemorate what happened in this very special locale. Some say it wouldn’t be Christmas in Bethlehem without it.

In fact, I dare say, many of you would just not think it is really Christmas until you sing Silent Night by candlelight in community with others—just as we are going to do a in few moments. Maybe it is just tradition. Or maybe it is softness of this lullaby that evokes memories of when we were children. But, regardless as to why, Silent Night seems to be the carol for many of us that symbolizes the fact that on this night, it was not an ordinary night—it was eternally special.

It’s beautiful isn’t it the way we think of the Christmas story every year? Just like this song, we think of Christmas as peaceful, quiet, and so holy that we almost have to whisper so to honor the words . . . . Mary sleeping, all covered up in a long flowing robe with her hair perfectly combed to the side. The baby cooing, drifting off to sleep too while Joseph stands there, staff in hand, perched over the manger, with superhuman new dad strength to stay awake. The barn animals bowing at the newborn while the shepherds stand around in amazement of “the good news of great joy for all people . . . a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” It’s almost as if all the characters are glowing as we think of them, iconic in our minds just as we’ve seen them portrayed in stain glass windows cathedrals or in portraits.

We like Christmas this way. We like knowing that a hush fell over the crowd. We like proclaiming that “all is calm, all is bright.” We like pretty people doing beautiful things like giving birth. We like singing joyful songs about “good tidings to all people” believing we’re doing just as the angels did long ago.

It’s almost as if Christmas is the one time of year when we get to take a time out from all that is wrong in our world and believe again that peace on earth is actually real or at least has hope of coming to us at a time in the near future. Christmas provides so many of us the beauty that we crave in our oh, so messy world. Maybe that is why you came to church tonight—to find something anything that is better than what you were dealing with before you walked in these doors a few moments ago.

I hate to burst your bubble tonight and question some of this sentimentality of this moment. But, I think it would only be fair to the passage before us tonight we examined it more closely.

Though yes, Mary may or may not have been fully covered in long flowing robes, fit for the mother of the Son of God and her hair may or may not have been perfectly combed (probably not), remember this is a story about giving birth.

Giving birth, as many of you have experienced it is indeed labor. It’s full of sweat, tears, anguish, screams of “Get this baby out of me now!” It’s a messy enterprise, especially when you are going at it alone with no one to help you know what to do. (For Luke does not tell us that a midwife assisted with the birth). The main event of this night was about a long period of physical pain, agony, and maybe even some four letter words (or at least thought of them) coming to the forefront of Mary’s mind— what was God really thinking sending her far from home to have a baby in a stable? All was not silent, all was not bright.

And while yes, Joseph, may or may not have been staying awake, doing his good manly diligence of making sure his wife and newborn baby were indeed ok at all times, remember this is a story about an adoptive father.

Accepting a child as a man who you know is not your own can be more difficult than it might seem on paper. In this babe as Joseph stared into the manger, he did not see his eye color in the babe. He did not see his same thin lips or curly brown hair. Even more so, feelings of insecurity ran through Joseph’s bones as they would anyone forced from the resources of home now with a new baby in tow, a baby he was going to need to learn to love and care for as his own. I can imagine thousand thoughts of “what if?” ran through his head, even as relief settled into him that the baby was born and Mary seemed to be doing alright. What was God really thinking putting him up close and personal of this crazy plan? All was not silent, all was not bright.

And while yes, the barn animals and the shepherds may or may not have been looking lovingly into Jesus’ eyes well-mannered and glowing with excitement of finding the one “wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger,” remember this is a story about characters who aren’t used to getting much attention.

They’re field animals and workers who aren’t known for their being in close quarters with others. They don’t know where to sit. They don’t know what to say. When Joseph’s nose starts leaning over toward them the begin to realize they smell and aren’t really fit to be good company. Soon their social anxiety seems to want to get the best of them. They wonder why they came in the first place. Sure, those angels sang and it was quite a sight, but after awhile they could easily begin to second guess all of this in the first place. What was God really thinking dragging them to out to see this? In their troubled minds, all was not silent, all was not bright.

I almost feel sacrilegious in saying anything against the beauty or the time-stopping wonder of that first Christmas Eve. But, I really think as wonderful and as life changing and as powerful that wondrous night of the birth of Christ was—or Emmanuel, God with us came to earth—all was not silent, all was night bright.

Remember this was a human story—filled with human things we know a lot about.

Changing patterns in the night sky

Tyrant governors who declare we must pay more taxes and cause even expectant mothers and fathers to make out of the way trips

Women who give birth without medical professionals to help

First time parents wondering what in the world they’ve gotten themselves into

The awkward dance of human relationships

Strangers showing up at our door who we don’t expect

And because this was a human story, as much as Christ came it didn’t make everything 100% right way. The shepherds didn’t suddenly get the respect they deserved and a fair labor. Mary didn’t suddenly have any more discomfort from birthing a baby. Joseph didn’t suddenly have all the courage he needed to keep doing the right thing as he’d done so far. No, all was not calm, all was not bright.

But, what did Jesus do—what was the point? What are we celebrating tonight then if all was not calm, all was not bright?

Well, despite the circumstances or the flavor added in by the human characters, this remains this same: on this night, we celebrate Jesus, the one who was called Savior, Christ the Lord. We are celebrating the coming of the one to earth who would give all of us an opportunity to know what God is like in the flesh. We are celebrating the One who would later show us on a cross and on an Easter morning what God ultimately wants to give us—new life. We are celebrating the coming of light—light that would begin to shine and ultimately as this Jesus grew up, show us more of God’s love. Over time, as the story unfolds, more and more of his hope would be given to all of us.

Jesus comes as the light, the light that shone in our dark, dark world. A world where all was not silent, all was not bright.

What good news this is to our weary worn eyes tonight! What good news this is for us faithful churchgoers who have heard the Christmas story over and over again and wish our lives would change and so many remains the same year after year! What good news this is for those of us who want to follow Jesus but find our own depression, anxiety, fear or hurting hearts holding us back! What good news this is for our conflict filled families who will bicker around the Christmas table tomorrow! What good news this is for a world where little girls and boys and devoted teachers get shot on Friday mornings the week before Christmas!

No matter what may be, Jesus is the light!

And, though it is true and the light has come, we, like the first participants in the Christmas story, are residents of this world. We also must face the doubts of “Why me, God?” We also must face the loneliness of being close to the light and sometimes finding few are with us there. We must also face the anger of why bad things happen to so many seemingly good people.

But this does not change the light! We, my friends cannot change the light. No matter how we whim, or moan or mess up or what folks with guns or bombs may do, we cannot change the light. The light has come!

Jesus, this babe would later grow up to say, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world!”

And to you this night I say, take heart. Even on Christmas, you still live in a world of trouble. But the light has come and the darkness, no matter what, could not overcome it.


December 24, 2012

Waiting with Joseph

1Matthew 1:18-25

How many of you have been to a living nativity sometime this year? Or even ever? They’re one of my favorite things do visit this time of the year. For someone like me who has heard the Christmas story over and over again, it’s always a cool way to see the Christmas story with fresh eyes.

Recently, a dear friend of mine with a newborn was asked by a local congregation in her hometown 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. Who cared that she was a girl . . . no one would know the difference anyway the production team said.

I asked my friend what would she be up to during the event. 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 sight 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. My friend’s 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 for the part.

I don’t think dear ole Dad was feeling the love, being told he had a part that was so replaceable.

And it is true: 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. Different from other characters, 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, Joseph teaches us what it means to wait— even when the details are murky and the way ahead is unclear.

Can you imagine what the conversation between Mary and Joseph was like that day when she had to let him in on the secret that she had hidden away in her heart? Different from any first time fathers hearing the news that their wife is expecting a baby—this was full of so much greater emotion.

“Hey, Joseph.”

“What Mary?”

“Well, I’m going to have a baby.”


“Yes, I’m going to have baby.”

“How can that be? We, we, haven’t been together?”

“Well, the angel of the Lord told me that the Holy Spirit came upon me. And I would have the baby that would save our people from their sins.”

“What???” (exit Joseph stage left)

For none of this really made a lick of sense . . . If Joseph was going to have his first born son then it needed to be his child, not someone elses.

Joseph knew this baby to be in Mary’s womb was not his. He knew he hadn’t shared a bed with Mary quite yet. Of the Holy Spirit? That just sounded like a really good made up excuse for a one night stand.

So, Joseph needed to call things quits. And the law of the land was on his side.

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. He wanted to do the RIGHT thing.

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 at the time, God and the law were one in the same.

But, then everything changed one night when he went to sleep. As Joseph waited—as Joseph wasn’t sure what was next—you know two really not so good choices—the holy came.

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 for many of you it is a spiritual practice to remember, record and think about the meaning of your dreams. For often truths that are deeper than we are able to consciously understand in the daytime come out in our dreams—and such was true of Joseph.

And this was the word: Joseph was not to be concerned about Mary’s pregnancy, 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.

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.

Most of all Joseph was being asked to wait with a plan that not even he understood much less anyone else. 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 decides to stick around and see what the Lord had in store.

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.

As Joseph waited around with active courage, he saw with his very own eyes the fullness of God coming forth.

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.

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 of Jesus in our lives, we’ve got to think more closely about waiting for God even when we don’t understand the details either. 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.

I’ve heard several of you say in the past couple of weeks as I shared my plans and the fact that my time with you as pastor would come to a close this year—that “I’m not sure I can come to church here anymore. I’m not sure our church has a future. How are we going to make it without you here?”

While I want to thank you for caring about me as you have and I want to acknowledge that it is true: transitions are filled with grief, I don’t think now is time to quit. This church or any church for that matter is not about who sits in their pastoral office. This church is not about its trustees. This church is not even about what affiliations you have with different church groups. It’s about Jesus—it is about waiting together in expectation of what only God can do for us.

I can’t tell you how disappointed I would be in you, beloved children of God after all the good we’ve done together, if you choose to give up now.

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 no matter who the leader may be, 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 that Washington Plaza would love to receive you in January as much as they loved receiving you today.

I’d also be remised if I didn’t say to the regulars around here that as you wait for God, you’ve got to spend more time together. Sure, life is busy. Sure, family and friends outside this place see to take up all your free time. Sure, this town where we live runs like nobody sleeps and thus we often we don’t really either.

But if Washington Plaza is going to be a community that makes room for the Christ child, just as Joseph did, investing in one another outside of Sunday mornings is just as important.

For it is in being together, for it is in waiting with God together that the details of “what is next” make just a little more sense each step of the way.

So in the meantime as you wait for more of Christ to come in your midst, I leave you with love. 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 is with us as we wait.

When I think about all that we’ve been preparing for this Advent season, 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 tomorrow 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, even when times are hard or the way is unclear. In following him, we can delight in knowing of our great future. There’s no question about that. Like Joseph waited with acts of obedience, we wait too.


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