Posts tagged ‘sermon’

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).

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.


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.


June 11, 2012

Disappointment with God

 Yesterday, I began a series of messages sticking close to the I Samuel lectionary texts– a series which hopes to expand the Biblical literacy of the congregation– really getting into the stories about Israel and come to understand more of the character of God.

Here’s an excerpt from yesterday’s sermon which focused on I Samuel 8:4:4-11, 16-20, the time in the life of Israel when the elders came to Samuel asking him to appoint for the nation a king. Here’s some background: 

… If we read earlier in the book of I Samuel, we realize that the nation of Israel is not in a time of complete peace and prosperity. No, their arch enemies at the time, the Philistines have been at it again.  And the Israelites face much defeat.  So in an effort to be on the winning side again, Israel’s commanders think that if they just take God, literally with them into battle that they will finally will be victorious, the ark of the covenant goes with them. But, the precious ark is stolen. Though later returned, this whole experiences leave the nation as a whole feeling unsecure and afraid. But, most of all, feeling disappointed.

God let them down.

Truly, where was this God– who was supposed to be their ultimate leader, their ultimate protector, their ultimate king– where was this God when they needed help the most?

Sure, the people of Israel were known to make mistakes from time to time, but weren’t they doing the best they couldn’t? Sure, they weren’t perfect or claiming to be, but why was God acting this way?

And, at this juncture of the story, you and I, all know this pain all too well. We have too felt disappointed by God in our lives, if we aren’t feeling that way even right now.

We’ve been disappointed at God as we’ve prayed and prayed till our knees have grown weak and weary about a real need in our family, and still seemingly nothing changed about our situation.

We’ve been disappointed by God when we thought we heard God speak to us at some point about a very specific thing that would occur and we are still waiting 10 years, 20 years, even 50 years later with nothing seeming to ever happen.

We’ve been disappointed by God as we have found ourselves in situations that have made us feel like we unfairly drew the short end of the stick in life’s lottery– we are 45 and still single without a desired life partner; we are 55 and have no savings for our retirement after experiencing lay off after lay off in our younger years; Or, we are 75 and widowed forced to plan our retirement years we once looked forward to alone.

We have been or are now disappointed with God because we’ve expected more from God than God has ever provided for us. We begin to wonder if God is not so great or good after all.

“Aren’t I a good person?” We wonder. “Don’t I deserve some of life’s greatest blessings like everyone seems to get so naturally?” We shout at the sky. “Don’t I deserve a life better this, come on God, really!” We proclaim.

 And, as usually is the case when we are disappointed with life– we do two things. We either grow bitter adopting a permanent woe is me look on our face. Or, we try to fix the problem ourselves. We move to action– asking for a completely different course of action.

In the case of the Israelites, we don’t see them rolling over to play dead in their disappointment, we see them moving to action– going to Samuel and saying in verse 4, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like the other nations.”

“We’re disappointed in God, Samuel,” they say. We’ve had a good run of things with you, but let’s face it, God is about to completely let us down, even more so than we experienced while in battle with the Philistines because your sons are corrupt. So, fix it, Samuel. Make it better. Give us a king. Give us a king so that we can be like everyone else. Give us a King so we can feel better once again.”

And while commentators of this passage often disagree on who’s right and who is off base in this passage (after all, you always have to read Old Testament narrative through the lens of yes, we are hearing God speak, but he is speaking through human voices)– was God being unfair OR were the people being completely disobedient?

But no matter what answers to these questions– it doesn’t change the experience of deep disappointment with the divine that Israel faced at this time.  After all, don’t they say in business management courses that perceptions of people are reality?

But, this is what we know as we look at the long view of Israel’s history though at this moment, the people might have felt abandoned, left alone and failed by the One person who promised never to leave them, there something else that is true. And that is that God has not left them or forgotten them.

One thing that my spiritual director says to me all the time as I am wrestling through a particular issue in my life is that while I may be fixated on one thing it doesn’t mean that something else is not simultaneously true as well.

That, yes, it is true that in many situations of our lives we might feel lost; we might feel abandoned; we might feel disappointed in God.  (And, all of these are valid emotions full of grief that it is ok to feel and to sit in for a while if we need to). But, such does not change the fact that it is also true: God has not now nor ever will  forget us. While we may feel like God is distant, God is still present among us. “God will never leave us to face our perils alone” says the theologian Thomas Merton.

If we see how God continued to work in Israel’s life as a people, we know that the ups and down tales of disappointment continue, but never less, God never gets to a point when God says, “I’m just finished with you. I can’t take it anymore. I’m through with you. I’m throwing you away”

No, like a loving, patient parent, God continues to abide, surround and love this people, even when they face difficult situations where their expectations aren’t met– even when they get that king and another one after that and another one after that. And, having a king really never solves their problems. God is still there.

When God disappoints us, what then are we to do?

When in college, I sang with a gospel choir with a student director with as much enthusiasm as Whoopi in Sister Act movie. Though I don’t remember a lot about the songs I sang after all these years, I do remember one song that was a crowd favorite anywhere we went called “He’s Never Failed Me Yet.”

The climatic ending was repetitive chorus of “He’s never failed me; he’s never failed me (with a dramatic) yet.” Our choir director was always about a strong staccato ending so much so that this line has always stuck with me. Though the rest of the song contained beautiful lyrics like:

I will sing of God’s mercy,

every day, every hour, He gives me power.

I will sing and give thanks to Thee

for all the dangers, toils and snares that He has brought me out.

He is my God and I’ll serve Him

no mater what the test.

Trust and never doubt

Jesus will surely bring you out,

He never failed me yet. (x2)

It always seemed like such a strange ending to a song that was so confident, so faith filled, and then we had to go and throw on a “yet” at the end. I’ve often thought about that yet, wondering about why it was there. Seemed disrespectful or as if we were putting God to the test. As if asking the question if one day God was going to start failing us.  Wouldn’t that be against everything we believe about our Christian faith?

But since then, these words come back to me sometimes in the shower or in my car and I’ve lived more life, felt more of life’s pains and life’s deepest wounds, I’m so glad that the “yet” is included. Yes, it is good in our most disappointed moments to acknowledge that God has never failed us, but we are human after all so if we need to add the word “yet.” And I think this is just fine. Part of living the life of faith is staying with the “yet” long enough to let God be God and all that this mystery means.

In our disappointment history with our God, sometimes, I know it is hard to keep believing again and again to trust that all will be different as our story goes on.

But, this is our hope for today. This is our hope to claim. There is a long view to our life’s story. We may be disappointed with God, but we are never, never alone. Today I claim God has never failed me. He’s never failed me yet. What about you? . . .

March 27, 2012

A New Relationship

Lenten Series– Promises in the Night:  A New Relationship

Jeremiah 31:32-34 with Mark 14: 66-72

Lent is a self-reflective time when we are asked to slow down and reconsider parts of our lives that we might just rush through at other times of the year.  

So, in the spirit of the season, I’d like to ask you this morning to reflect upon a few things with me just a minute. Consider a time in your life that you wish you could forget. This could be a time when you said something hurtful to a loved one, a time that you acted out in public in an embarrassing way, or even a long stretch of time when you rebelled and turned your back on all the good things in your life. If you were standing before God at the pearly gates right now, what are the moments of your life you wish that God would forget?


When I think about my life, I wish God would forget that day I ruined my father’s car by running over a cinder block (and wasn’t honest about it) just one week after getting my driver’s license.

I wish God would forget that day early in my marriage to Kevin that I was so angry I threw a shoe at him.

I wish God would forget the countless times I failed to love the Lord with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength and to love my neighbor as myself.

I, like you, have many times that I wish just didn’t happen– that God would just forget.  

When we meet the apostle Peter, in the latest installment of Jesus’ dark night of the soul this day, we encounter him during a few moments in his life that I bet would be on his “I wish God would forget this” list too. Peter, does the unthinkable as Ken illustrated for us this morning as our worship began: he turns his back to his best friend.

And this is the scene: Jesus has just been arrested. He has been seized by the Pharisees and the chief priests and taken in for questioning. Peter follows Jesus to the courtyard of the house where the high priest held him. And though it appears that this will become his shining moment– being the only among the named 12 disciples who even follows Jesus after his arrest– such is not the case. No not at all.

When one of the maids, a young girl who served the high priest noticed Peter’s presence and remembered his face as one of the traveling companions of Jesus, she asks in verse 66: “You were with Jesus the Nazarene” weren’t you?

And though Peter should have said and could have said a simple “Yes. Yes, I was with him. Yes, I knew him.” , fear paralyzes Peter. He denies any connection to this man who had inevitably changed his life saying: “I neither know nor understand what you mean.”

What Peter? Are you serious Peter?  Yes, he was. He denied any knowledge of knowing Jesus.  It was going to cost him too much. Maybe they’d soon be arresting him as well. He couldn’t bear the thought of that.

So, as the young girl with a good memory– she just knows she recognizes  Peter as having been a friend of Jesus– asks the same question and again, again and again we get the same answer. He even goes as far to swear. “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”

And at that very moment, the cock crows for the second time to fulfill the prediction that Jesus had made of this “I wish I could forget it” moment of Peter’s life.  Peterremembers that the Lord had told him: “before the cock crows two times, you will deny me three times.”

It might have seemed at this juncture that all was lost for Peter and his relationship with Jesus. It might have seemed that Peter royally screwed up so bad that from that moment all would be lost. It might have seemed that Jesus would never speak to him again.  It might have seen that all of those years Peter prepared for this moment where all eyes were on him to make a confession were a complete waste.

In the same way, when we read the prophetic book of Jeremiah, we could easily be completely depressed too. Jeremiah affectionately known in modern times as the prophet who should have been on Prozac but wasn’t.  Scholars often called Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet”.

But, why? Commentator, Wil Gafney writes of the context of Jeremiah saying, “Jeremiah lived through the demise of his civilization when the Babylonians invaded Judah, assaulted Jerusalem, and reduced the temple to rubble, exiling, or killing the royal family, priests, prophets, and majority of the population.”[i] The nation of Israel turned their back on God’s plans for their nation. And thus, God allowed his beloved to experience the consequences of their own actions.  The nation was in exile. The temple was in ruins. Family members had died during the siege. There was certainly a lot to be sad and cry about.  It was a dark, dark night in the chapter of Israel’s history. It was a chapter, too, that I bet they’d wish that God would forget.

In particular when we read earlier in the book of Jeremiah, such as in chapter 5, we hear how bad things had gotten. Jeremiah was asked by God to tell the Israelites: “Announce this to the house of Jacob and proclaim it in Judah; Hear this you senseless people… [you] have stubborn and rebellious hearts…” Not exactly the warm fuzzies anyone would want to hear.

The nation of Israel, like Peter, rightfully shared guilt. They’d messed up. They could have assumed that the relationship and the shared history was over.

But,  the tune of verse 31 of Jeremiah chapter 31 tells a different story. “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and the people of Judah.”

I don’t know if you are like me, but when I mess up (and I know it!) there’s nothing more I want to do than bury my head in the couch for a while. Most certainly, I don’t want to hear of some new hopeful plan. Licking our wounds feels good for a while, doesn’t it? But, the Lord would have none of it.

Sure, Israel had messed up. Sure, they’d fallen short. Sure, they’d broken all of the covenants they made with God up Mount Sinai. They’d worshipped other gods. They’d had affairs. They’d not kept the Sabbath. They’d not welcomed the foreigner or blessed the stranger. It was grounds for divorce.

And so, because Israel had broken the covenant, God had EVERY reason to set them aside.  Israel had certainly checked all the boxes that were grounds for divorce. God kept God’s end of the deal, but Israel had not. God could walk away knowing God did all that could be done.  Certainly, God could try again with this “my chosen people” business with another group.

But, instead, a re-marriage ceremony is offered. God says to Israel verse 33:”This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time . . I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”

Stacy Simpson writes of this God we encounter in Jeremiah saying, ” In the evangelical tradition in which I grew up, we spoke of “letting Jesus into our hearts.” He stood there patiently and knocked, waiting as long as it took, and when we were ready, we swung the door open and invited him in. But, the God of Jeremiah will have none of that. This God has grown weary of people’s inability to keep his law. No more will the covenant be written in stone, a covenant which was external and could be broken. Instead . .. God says “I will write it on their heart.” The heart of the entire people will bear the covenant.”[ii]

God takes an active role in restoring the broken relationship. Which is another way of God going to marriage counseling with Israel saying, “Let’s start over. Because I want to make a new relationship with you.”

But, how could God do this? Doesn’t God remember all the pain of heartache, rejection and loss? Doesn’t God know that if he works toward reconciliation that it all might go sour again?

Such is why the final verse of promise is important. Look with me at verse 34 as the Lord says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

This new relationship was based on 100% forgiveness. To move forward and to have a chance of the coming of the new– the past needed to be forgotten. And, God makes this move.

How many times in relation to the topic of “forgiveness” have you heard the phrase, “forgive and forget?” And I think as equally number of times that this phrase is spoken aloud, thoughts of those who hear it also think, “I cannot forget. Maybe I can forgive, but forget is something I can’t do.”

For there’s something about the human brain, isn’t it that just wants to hold on to things, especially the unfavorable stuff.

In a recent conversation with a friend, we sat around a coffee table and recounted all of the negative things family members, classmates or even perfect strangers said to us at one point in our lives. And it was easy to make the list long. And if you were to make a list too, I’m sure you could without difficulty make one.

There was that time in the 4th grade that one of the well-liked, well-dressed girls told you that you were fat and your teeth were crooked. You’ve never felt the same about your body since.

There was that time in college when you rushed for a fraternity only to not make the cut because you family name didn’t have enough money associated with it. You’ve been trying to make as much money as you can with your chosen career ever since.

There was that Christmas holiday when who you thought was your favorite aunt came over and found fault with all your home’s decor. You’ve been afraid to host a family gathering since.

And there was that time you expressed interest in painting and began creating beautiful pallets of color and texture and a friend walked into your studio said, “Well maybe in 10 years you’ll find some talent.” You’ve put down the brush ever since. 

No matter what your  “there was this time” story is, I think it is safe to say that we all have them. We all have times in our lives that something has been said to us or about us that we’d wish we could forget.

So what good news this is to all of our ears– what a promise in the night God’s gift of a new relationship can be!

For just as we mess up, as the nation of Israel did time and time again, and just as Peter denied Jesus on a night when it mattered the most, we worship a God who promises us a new start.

But not just  any old new start. A new start where those chapters in our lives that we most want to forget are forgotten, but also the painful wounds imposed on us by others can also be forgiven. We are not God of course,  so we probably are never going to be able to forget the ill that has been done and said against us, especially those deeply traumatic memories. But, we take heart and remember that  God can do what we can’t. God can forget so we can live. And, as beloved children of the heavenly parent, we too have words of this covenant are written on our hearts– so no matter what, we’ll never be left alone. We have a sign of God’s relationship always with us. There is nothing we could ever do that would not keep God’s love from us. Nothing.

So in light of this, and in response to this sermon today, I want you to find a comfortable seated position where you are right now for a moment of meditation. Clear everything off your lap and place both feet on the bottom of the floor.  And, close your eyes and take your hands and place them at the center of your lap with your palms facing open.  And right now, I want you to call to mind the two things that we talked about in the sermon for this morning.

1. Something you’d done in your life that you’d wish God would forget.

2. Something someone has done to you that you wish you could forget.

And in the quietness of this moment, I want you to imagine that you are holding both of these somethings in your hands. Holding them tight by balling up your fists with them in it. One in one hand and one in another.

Now, as I re-read the passage for this morning– Jeremiah’s promise in the night, I invite you to listening closely. And, as you listen imagine these somethings being released. Of letting them go, as you are able, why? because in grace, God has already forgotten.[iii]

31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Thanks be to God who makes all things new!


[i] “Lectionary for October 17, 2010: Jeremiah 31:27-34” Working Preacher.

[ii] “Branded by God” The Christian Century

[iii] Thanks to David Lose of Working Preaching.Com for this idea.

December 18, 2011

Reconsidering Joseph: the Forgotten One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 17, 2011

Intentional Dependence

Intentional Dependence

Exodus 16:2-15

Only when you trust someone, do you begin to really get to know them.

Such was a life lesson I began to learn from all of the youth group trips my parents forced me to attend, beginning in the 7th grade.

Every fall, when the air was crisp and cool like it is beginning to feel right now, the motley crew of suburban churchy teenagers and I along with our leaders would board a bus headed for the mountains. Though many of us attended with the hopes of hanging out without our friends, usually our youth leaders would have something else in mind as a purpose of the weekend: group bonding.

Sounds simple enough, but the measures such leaders would take to teach us how to trust each other always seemed extreme to me. I will never forget the fear that came over me as a scrawny little 7th grader on my first fall retreat when I was introduced to the “trust fall.” Some of you may be familiar when this activity too from similar workplace retreats.

The concept of the trust fall was simple: each participant in the group would be asked to climb up on a large platform, in our case, built into a tree, and stand with their back to the group assembled below with their hands crossed like this (place hands across chest). The group standing below would lock their hands together to their corresponding partner. And, then, as the person up on the platform, you’d be asked to fall backwards “depending” that your group mates would catch you.

While the whole activity takes merely a few seconds from start to finish, the emotional toil of preparing for and processing the experience afterwards took much longer. For, as much as I wanted to be the “cool” new 7th grader, I could remember how I felt about being such in a vulnerable position of being held, carried and supported by older kids that I barely knew.

But, after (with much encouragement) submitting myself to the trust of the trust fall, feeling like I was on top of the world, like no other experience– for even though I shed a tear or two in anticipation of the actual fall, the group still accepted me. In our trust of one another through this exercise, we began as a group, the experience of really getting to know each other.(Watch out church council members… we are having a retreat this Saturday).

In our scripture passage for this morning, no matter if they liked it or not, the Israelites were also facing their own version of a “trust fall” experience as well. For since we last journeyed with them last week, when courage had been their intention in crossing the Red Sea, in no time, they faced new challenges. For as much as they thought they knew this God who had told them to walk across the sea on dry ground, they were realizing that the adventure had only just begun. Maybe they didn’t know this God as well as they thought.  . . . for life was getting just a little bit more scary than they imagined.

The land they found themselves in was somewhere around the Sinai Peninsula, a geographically barren place. Differing from the lush vegetation that the Israelites had enjoyed in Egypt next to the Nile River, the change in scenery meant that gathering basic necessities for life was all that much more difficult.

And so what we hear them doing as our passage opens in verse two is complaining– saying the grass was greener on the other side of life, literally.

But such outcries weren’t new to the story. Such was what had happened when they stood on the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army soon approaching saying, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die?” and such was also what they said when it became apparent only three days later that water was going to be hard to come by in the desert

Yet, protection from their enemies and water was not their only need. Soon the Israelites voiced concerns for food in verse 3 saying to Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

We hear these words coming out of their mouths and our first instinct is to judge and say shame on them for complaining, but the truth be told, they really did have every reason to voice their concerns. Like I felt climbing for the first time up on that platform getting ready to fall into the arms of my just as inexperienced peers, so the Israelites had never seen or done anything before
like this either.

None of them had attended Boy Scout camp and gotten their “how to survive in the wilderness when your leader doesn’t even know where you are going” badge.

None of them had gone on a pre-mission trip to plot out the locations where food and water could have been.

None of them had been given any sort of road map so that in this crisis they could at least muster up some of their own intellect to figure out what might be next.

They were where they were because they were following the deity they knew as Yahweh after all, so seems fair, doesn’t it that a lament to God was in order?

After all laments are all about giving voice, as one theologian writes, “to the human experience of abandonment, suffering, fear and danger. [To lament is to] call upon God to see arise and act.”[i]

So, in their laments, they were actually turning toward God in the hopes that in making their requests known, that God actually heard them.

But the thing is about laments, which we know from the times when we make them in our own lives too, is that the solutions we come up with are not always the most level-headed solutions or even the best scenarios at all for getting us out of our predicaments.

For the Israelites, their complaining lament focused on going back to Egypt. They wanted to go back because it was a land, even with all of its oppression was a place where they at least knew the rules.

They knew that they only had themselves to trust there. And if they put their head down, worked hard and sought to do as they were told, then hopefully their slave masters would show pity on them. And, at least at the end of the day in Egypt, no matter how hard it was, they earned food by their own hands to put in their mouths.

However, only when you depend on someone do you actually begin to get to know them.

But, this journey, as it began at the Red Sea and would continue for many years to come would not be about what life was like in Egypt. It was and always would be about God and getting to know Yahweh who had called Moses to be their leader many years ago by saying: “I AM who I AM”

You see, the time for self-sufficiency was over, working hard to earn their own keep or even having a predictable life routine. The journey in the wilderness would be about getting to know this God who was leading them with a cloud by day and a fire by night– and some surrendering was in order. To know this God, they’d have to first depend on him.

As we continue to read this passage, we see that the provisions of God, came from the heavens– and no matter if you believe this part of the story was an actual miracle or just some circumstances of chance– the message is still the same: the ways of God were different from life was in Egypt. And now, out of Egypt, what the people were most to learn was all about this God. And as the Israelites
got to know this God, they too might have to say to one another, “What is it?” because it was going to be nothing like they’d ever seen done before.

I love verse 15 for this very reason, for when the bread came and the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” for they didn’t know what it was. And the actual translation of “what is it?” is the word manna which we know the bread as in our Bibles today.

In every morning that the people gathered the bread and in every evening that gathered the meat, promised by God as their provisions, they were practicing faith. They were relinquishing control. They were being intentionally dependant
on God.

I can imagine that countless of the people had never been that dependant ever before in their lives. They’d never seen anyone they could depend on other than themselves before. They’d never really seen the point before.  And, I can imagine as this challenge was placed before them, that they didn’t like it very much either. But, it was their calling regardless: to trust God.

I shared with all of you last week that on September 30th a dear friend and mentor of mine, Joseph Smith, who had preached here once before and with whom I had served at a previous congregation, had died.

Joe, for those who knew he was a man who worked hard his entire life serving in various ministry position through the DC Baptist Convention that Washington Plaza Baptist is a part of. He worked almost too hard sometimes. His wife Margaret of over 50 years was always encouraging at him to take a break, slow down, stop. But, that was not how Joe rolled.

He regularly spent hours of his time in his study organizing his preparations for anything he was in charge of and always thinking of ways that he could be most helpful to those in the sphere of influence in his life, even when he was said to be “retired.”

However, out of nowhere, most unfairly, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, though not a smoker, over a year and a half ago. Recently, after chemo and a series of blood conditions developed as a side effect of his treatment, Dr. Smith was weak and fragile only taking baby steps around his house with a walker. The man who had gone and did some more (more than anyone ever asked him to do) was now utterly dependant on family and friends who could look after him.

In one of our last correspondences with each other he wrote me about how hard it was to be the one in need of the visit instead of  being the pastor making the house calls. He told me how much it ached him when he no longer had the energy to be the first one to reach out or contribute to the care of others. He hoped people would not forget him in his time of need. Though such a sentiment came to me through a comment he posted on my blog, the feelings he shared were a modern version of a lament of how hard this dependant
stuff is for all of us.

I don’t want to be one of those preachers who stands here before you this morning and says that God sends onto this planet drought, famine, life-shattering illnesses like cancer in order to teach us how to be dependent creatures.  Sounds too much like a sick plan of an abusive Father, rather than a loving God to me. Because I don’t believe in a God that willing places us in harm’s way just to teach us a lesson.  I don’t believe in a God who is that evil like that.

But, what I do know is that God desperately wants us to know who God is. And, sometimes the trajectory of our lives, in this broken world of ours will take a turn into the wilderness, unavoidable to us: a place where all seems lost.

And it is in the wilderness, like no other time in our lives, that we can learn about who God really is. A God who says to us, I hear you, I see, you and even if the provisions I provide look like manna (“what is it?”) still you will be nourished. Still you will be full.

So, today, I ask you, where you do you want to go to church?

Where you want to make your house? Do you want to live in Egypt? Or do you want to be on the journey to the promise land?

If you want to go back to Egypt and what has worked for you in the past, then know there is no freedom there. There is no leader here who knows your name. There is no hope here that life will be better tomorrow; just more of the same.

But if you want to go to the Promised Land, if you want to abide in the presence of the One who knew you before you even knew yourself if you want to know the One who says I am the beginning and the end, then, dependence is a word that has got to come into all of our vocabularies.

For our calling is to get out on the ledge a little more and to fall into the arms of a God who can be trusted is in fact not as a bad as we thought it might be– for when we make our laments, when we tell God what is really on our minds, some “what is it?” might just be falling to us on the horizon.

Let us stand still and in whatever state we find our lives in today: receive.  Singing together, “Here I Am Lord.”


[i]Elna K. Solvang “Lectionary for August 2, 2009: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15.”

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