The Voice

A Sermon for Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, Sunday, January 13, 2019, Guest Preaching on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

This is an exciting time in the life of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church as the congregation anticipates the February arrival of Mike and Melody Watson’s first child. And there couldn’t be a more perfect occasion to throw them a baby shower, following the worship service, than on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday. On this day we recognize Jesus’ baptism and remember our own baptism with Christ—of how God showers us with grace and calls us beloved, just as you will shower Mike and Melody with that same love and affection.

The event of Jesus’ baptism, recounted in the scripture lesson from The Gospel of Luke, inaugurates his public ministry of ushering in God’s kingdom on earth. Although it doesn’t have quite the flourish of Christmas, Jesus’ baptism is just as significant, if not more so, than his birth.

“John the Baptist” by Jen Norton

It is such a big deal that Jesus’ cousin—that camel-hair coat wearing, locust and honey eating wilderness preacher John the Baptist—loudly proclaims that the people need to prepare for this sacred moment by repenting and receiving baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, John shouts to the crowd gathered at the Jordan River:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

The people immediately ask the preacher: What do we need to do differently? How can we repent?” John replies: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Next, the tax collectors approach John and ask the same questions. He tells them: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

Finally, Roman soldiers come to him and also inquire about their behavior. John says: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

The people, according to this morning’s gospel passage, are filled with anticipation and wondering if John is the messiah. John reminds them:

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

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After John finishes baptizing everyone, he baptizes Jesus who somehow snuck into the crowd earlier without being detected by anyone else. As Jesus is praying, the skies open up and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, accompanied by a booming voice from heaven that says:“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism is quite a spectacular scene—a hundred times better than the climatic images of any blockbuster super hero-sci-fi-fantasy movie. It is so awesome that it may seem initially challenging to determine it’s meaning for our own lives.

When we ponder stories of baptism, they seem on the surface to be dull in comparison to what happens to Jesus. Church steeples didn’t rip apart for a dove to dive bomb our heads. Nor did a thunderous voice speak to us from above the clouds like Darth Vader in a Star Wars movie: “I am your father.”

Despite the lack of such a grand display, however, our baptisms (and reminders of them) are just as powerful, poignant, and full of surprises when we take time to contemplate them.

In the last week, I’ve thought a lot about baptisms. Baptisms I’ve been a part of, as well as the holy experiences of water in unexpected moments…

Five years ago this coming March, my wife Elizabeth and I had our son Davis baptized at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church where I was serving as an associate pastor. It was a wonderful day. Extended family and close friends drove many miles to witness the baptism of a plump, bald, chipmunk cheek 4-month-old. The sacrament went fairly smoothly. Davis was alert but calm as the senior pastor placed water atop the child’s head. Even Davis’ precocious big sister Katie, who was 5 years old at the time, stood quietly next to Elizabeth, a large smile radiating from her face.

That is, until I stepped forward to give the closing prayer. As I wrapped up the prayer, I glanced down to see Katie walk up next to me, mouth the word, “Amen” and then take a dramatic bow as if she had just performed the lead role in a play. She was, apparently, expressing how “well pleased” she was with her brother’s baptism.

Then there was the time before my senior year of high school, when my family was living in Birmingham, Alabama and my parents went through an ugly divorce that rendered me despondent. I spent several days sitting in a recliner watching TV. One afternoon, the doorbell rang. I went to answer it and two of my good friends from youth group, Kathy and Stacey were standing on the front stoop, smiling.  Before I could say hello, they said excitedly, “It’s a beautiful day and we’re going to the lake at Oak Mountain State Park and you’re coming with us. Grab your towel and bathing suit!”

A half hour later, we were swimming and laughing and splashing around as the warm sun sparkled across the water. Never once did we bring up the mess at home. Words weren’t necessary. Their love and care for me was evident by their actions and the hours we spent together in the cool, clear water of the lake.

And lastly, in the summer of 2013 I took a group of middle school youth to North Carolina to participate in a week of service at Asheville Youth Mission. We closed out the trip with a morning spirituality walk through the city of Asheville. Led by AYM’s co-founder, the late Rev. Aimee Wallis Buchanan, we paused at various spots to read and discuss stories about Jesus’ ministry to the sick and the poor. It was one of the most meaningful experiences of the week, due in large part to the love of God that flowed from Aimee as she greeted her brothers and sisters who were living on the streets.

Toward the end of the walk, we stopped for a few minutes to look at a fountain located in Pack Square Park. The fountain is beautifully constructed fountain with a large bronze-ring surrounding a mound of quarried stone. Water covers the entire ring, creating a reflecting pool, and then flows slowly over the edge onto the ground to form a circle around the fountain’s base.

It was here that Aimee reminded us of who we are and to whom we belong. She spoke about how baptism is a sign of God’s love for us and how baptismal waters clean, refresh, and sustain us on our journeys. And then, as a way of joyfully remembering our baptisms and the life we have been given, Aimee encouraged us to splash one another with the water from the fountain. With a spark of mischief in her eye, she hinted that the youth might want to make sure they did a good job reminding me of how the waters feel. Needless to say, I was instantly soaked from head to toe.

Some tension had arisen among the group that week between a few of the 6th grade girls and me (the typical “you’re being an over-bearing jerk with the rules” v. “you’re not listening and acting immature” battle). Aimee knew instinctively that frustrations and anger and tiredness and stress had dried us up and that we needed to play in the refreshing waters of life.

In both our baptism and the everyday reminders of that sacrament, we re-discover what it means to be human and a citizen of God’s kingdom. We learn again that we are each a beloved child uniquely created by a loving God for the purpose of living a life of love. We realize that while it’s not in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, God does speak to us loud and clear in the ordinariness of life. The writer Debbie Thomas observes:

(Jesus is) the one who opens the barrier, and shows us the God we long for. He’s the one who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain — all so that we might hear the only Voice that can tell us who we are and whose we are…. Listen. We are God’s own. God’s children. God’s pleasure. Even in the deepest water, we are Beloved. [1] 

In baptism, we hear the voice of God who beckons us to turn away from our complicity with practices that cause brokenness in the world, and instead look toward a kingdom that offers opportunities of healing and wholeness for all of God’s beloved children.

Jesus’ baptism signaled that God was taking steps to reform this old world of earthly kingdoms and corrupt rulers by establishing a new world in which “all things live forever in love, peace, justice, mutual support, freedom and dignity.”[2] God continues to make that world even now; signs of transformation all around us:

There’s the Oklahoma mom, 54-year-old Sara Cunningham who offers to stand in as the parent for LGBTQ couples if their own parent or parents choose not to on their wedding day. [3]

And there’s 13-year-old Jerry Hatcher, Jr., who, over the last six years, has woken up before dawn on Christmas Eve, and asked his parents to drive him to Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital so he can buy breakfast for the families who have to spend the holidays with an ill child. [4]

Or there’s Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the emergency and refugee program of the PC(USA) that has provided $50,000 in grants to presbyteries in the southwest to support local churches and partner organizations that are providing food and temporary shelter for asylum seekers. [5]

And of course, there are the members of this church who faithfully serve their community on a regular basis, like last year on the MLK Day of Service when some of you made a delicious pot of chili and sandwiches to give to cold and hungry folks living on the streets of Atlanta.

The ministry Jesus did and the work we do in Jesus’ name is a manifestation of God’s vision for a world that is different from our own.

And the Holy Spirit empowers us by our baptisms with Christ to be a part of the kingdom and to invite others to heed God’s call to welcome the foreigner, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, feed the poor, free the enslaved, and make space for the marginalized to lift their voices.

This is the message that John the Baptist delivers from the wilderness to those with ears to hear.

In baptism, God dusts us off and rinses us clean of our mistakes—our failure to cherish God and to treat our neighbors with dignity, fairness and generosity. And God calls us to try again and again and again.

In baptism—where we gather together as a community to witness God’s unconditional love for humanity in Christ—God clothes us in the garments of a new social world and movement: kindness, compassion, humility, courage, hope, patience and mercy. And God calls us to share those gifts with others.

The faith-based non-profit media company known as SALT eloquently put it this way in a recent blog post regarding Jesus’ baptism:

In Jesus, God comes alongside us, even to the point of joining us in a rite of repentance and renewal.  And it’s a powerful reminder that arrogance has no place in Christian discipleship. If even Jesus gladly undergoes a rite of conversion, how much more should Christians live humble, unpretentious lives of conversion!  Indeed, following Jesus means setting out with him on this path of humility and solidarity, confession and grace, a way of love with which God is ‘well pleased.’ Jesus is baptized and calls us to follow him on a path of unassuming generosity, never looking down our noses at anyone, and always gladly embracing the Spirit’s sanctifying, restoring, empowering renewal.  For each one of us – and everyone we meet – is a beloved son or daughter of God, and Jesus’[6]

The voice of God—who in Christ has claimed us through the baptismal waters and deemed us beloved creations—has spoken and still speaks.

In response, may we—with humility and grace—continue to listen, follow and love.

            Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1232-this-place-deep-water-2

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2709

[3] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/sara-cunningham-oklahoma-free-mom-hugs-same-sex-weddings-stand-in-mother/

[4] https://www.11alive.com/article/life/heartwarming/atlanta-boy-continues-christmas-tradition-surprises-hospital-patients-families-with-paid-meal/

[5] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/a-perilous-journey-helping-todays-asylum-seekers

[6] http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/1/7/jesus-also-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-week-two

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Rejoice…The Lord is Near!

A Sermon for Sunday, December 16, 2018 (My Final Sunday at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, Duluth, GA)

The Third Sunday of Advent, Isaiah 12:2-6 and Philippians 4:4-7

This time of year comes with many rituals in our family—decorating the tree, giving Katie and Davis a new ornament, pulling out all the beloved children’s books to read at bedtime, eating lots of goodies, drinking tasty eggnog, listening to festive tunes, and watching holiday movies. The last item is my favorite activity, especially after the kids are in bed and Elizabeth and I are sitting cozily in our living room amid the glow of Christmas lights.  Of all the merry-themed films, the one I must see every season is the modern classic, Christmas Vacation.

The story revolves around the misadventures of Clark Griswold and his family as they prepare to celebrate Christmas.  Clark is a kind-hearted, naïve bumbler of a guy who attempts to make the holidays perfect for his family.  However, no matter how hard he tries to achieve his goal, everything turns into a disaster—either because he’s overdone it or due to the ineptness of some of his relatives.

For most of the film, Clark bounces happily along, determined to make the best of the situation. Then, on Christmas Eve, following an evening of blunders—dinner featuring an over-cooked turkey and JELLO-molds with cat food; the dog Snots chasing a squirrel through the house and Uncle Lewis accidentally setting the tree on fire with his cigar—a delivery man arrives at the home with an envelope containing what Clark believes is his traditional yearly bonus. Clark immediately tells everyone that the money will cover the down payment on the family’s big Christmas gift—a brand new pool. But when he opens the envelope, Clark discovers that instead of a bonus, it’s certificate for a free year’s membership to the Jelly of the Month Club.

This unexpected news causes Clark to snap and go on a tirade that prompts the rest of his family to grab their coats and head for the door. But a crazed Clark is not about to give up as he delivers one of the all-time greatest holiday rants (which I’ve slightly edited):

Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny flipping Kaye. And when Santa squeezes down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of jerks this side of the nuthouse!

The holidays are not so jolly and joy-filled in Clark Griswold’s home, no matter how much Clark tries to enforce it upon everyone. If we’re being honest, the holidays aren’t completely full of joy in real life either.

“Joy” is, of course, a primary theme of the Advent and Christmas seasons. We see that three-letter word on cards and decorations and hear it through the music streaming on our smart phones. Yet experience teaches us that “joy” is often allusive, especially in December.

Many people encounter inflated expectations, family tensions, loneliness, depression, grief, and sudden crises during a time in which society expects folks to constantly be cheery and bright. It’s not acceptable to be a Scrooge or get on Santa’s naughty list, we’re told repeatedly through nauseating Hallmark ads and cheesy Christmas specials. To all of this, I say, “bah humbug!”

Feeling blue and lacking merriment is completely understandable and ok right now. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

And even if you’re not dealing with one of the life challenges I just mentioned, simply processing the news about the brokenness of our world is enough to make you sad and joyless.

“Joy,” often seems to be beyond our grasp. And yet the mystery of “joy,” according to the Rev. Holly Hearon, is an invitation to further explore it’s meaning. She writes:

The allusiveness of joy invites us to pause and reflect on what it is we are seeking when we speak of joy. Is it an emotional high? A state of perpetual happiness? An absence of conflict? Or does “joy” represent hopes that have become little more than a seasonal habit

It appears that during this period in which we prepare for Christ’s birth, we’ve somehow confused joy for sentimental pleasantness. We’ve managed to convince ourselves that having “joy,” or being joyful, means everything is wonderful and grand, and our worries and fears quickly melt away. We’ve mistaken the tidings of comfort and joy from the angels hovering over the shepherds’ fields to mean that we shouldn’t feel sad during the holidays.

That’s not exactly what the angels or God or Jesus or the biblical writers had in mind when they spoke of “joy.” Today’s passage from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians explores “joy” in relation to the life of faith. As Hearon notes:

To “rejoice in the Lord always” points to a “joy” that is not only enduring but that sustains us even when we are worn down by life challenges. This requires something more than seasonal cheerfulness. It is a “joy” rooted in an ongoing relationship, built on trust, that is able to negotiate the moments of joylessness in ways that ultimately work for good. Critical, here is relationship: our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but also our relationship in community.

Hearon points out that Paul isn’t implying that everyone always agrees or gets along: “Rather, he is reminding us that each of us has a role to play in creating the supportive relationships that are the foundation of “joy” and a cause for “rejoicing.” Paul encourages readers in 4:5 to:

let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

The Greek word for gentleness is “epieikes” (epy-a-case) which is defined as tolerance— “not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom.” Thus, demonstrating “epieikes” is to “recognize we have a choice in how we behave toward others,” says Hearon. “It is not just about being nice or kind; it is about the exercise of power. … To choose not to exercise power, or to exercise it differently, requires self-awareness and humility. This is the power of Christ. It is in this way that Paul says we are to engage everyone.”

Joy. Being joyful. Rejoicing—none are just about being nice or kind or happy or pain-free.

Two of the world’s most influential religious leaders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, remind us of such through their abiding friendship and incredible outlook on life, which is chronicled in their collaborative work, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureates who have endured the hardships of exile and violent oppression, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama understand the true nature of joy.

In their book, both men insist that joy and sorrow are inevitably fastened together.  They describe a kind of joy that is defined by self-understanding, meaning, growth and acceptance, including suffering, sadness and grief.  Archbishop Tutu says:

We are fragile creatures, and it is from this weakness, not despite it, that we discover the possibility of true joy. Life is filled with challenges and adversity.  …Discovering more joy does not save us from… hardship and heartbreak. … Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.

Joy is not the absence of suffering. Joy is the thing we find which helps us to live with and get through our hardships and heartbreaks. Joy is all about those ordinary moments of life that help us know there is something beyond ourselves, a glimmer of hope amid the gloom:

The man who steered his partner, seated in a wheelchair, toward the communion table.

The men and women who sang praises to God last Sunday morning.

The wife who forgave her husband with a kiss on the head after he’d been a grump over the weekend.

The parents who held each other close as they watch their young daughter respond well to the treatments she’s received in the hospital.

The teenager who wrote a beautiful reflection on social media about how she misses her deceased father but is happy for every moment she was able to spend with him.

The people who will gather in the sanctuary this afternoon for a Blue Christmas service to honor the tension between joy and grief and afterwards, break bread together at a local restaurant.

Joy is deep appreciation for the extraordinary hidden in the ordinary. The prophet Isaiah imparts this message to the people of Israel after the Babylonian Empire banished them to the wilderness. Using a song of praise and old language reminiscent of Israel’s experience with the God of the Exodus, the prophet proclaims the Almighty’s good works is ever present in their moment of distress. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation,” the prophet declares. “Sing praises to the Lord for the Lord has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy!”

Joy is in the community of Israelites who hold close to each other and God’s promises of salvation, pressing onward despite their exile. And joy is in all communities where dependence on others is highly valued. As the Dalai Lama said during his conversation with Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

Taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life. …We are social animals. Even for kings or queens or spiritual leaders, their survival depends on the rest of the community. So therefore, if you want a happy life and fewer problems, you have to develop a serious concern for the well being of others.

 In response to His Holinesses’ wisdom, Tutu added:

“Joy is the reward, really, of seeking to give joy to others. When you show compassion, when you show caring, when you show love to others. … You have a deep joy that you can get in no other way. …You suddenly feel a warm glow in your heart, because you have, in fact, wiped the tears from the eyes of another.

God comes into this messed up world as a bundle of joy—a small, poor vulnerable baby who giggles and coos and screams and poops like all other babies. God draws near with “joy” so that we can witness “joy” up close and personal together, and so that we can go out and share joy—share compassion and love with others.

Seeking to give joy is our calling as Christians, as God’s creations, as God’s servant leaders. It is my calling as an ordained minister and it has been my calling as one of your pastors at Pleasant Hill for the last 10 + years.

We have shared so many moments of joy that to name everyone would have us here till this time next Sunday. So, I will attempt to mention some of them—the extraordinary experiences hidden in the ordinary work of ministry, a joyful compilation of the greatest hits:

Mixing cement and swinging hammers on adult mission trips; playing with children in third world countries; and clumsily knocking over the wall of a latrine that the mason had just built in the Honduran village we visited in October.

Wrecking the side of the old church bus at The Varsity on my first youth group trip downtown while the vehicle was full of middle schoolers; attending numerous faith-shaping, messy and wonderous Montreat youth and college conferences, and youth mission trips.

Youth Sunday. Mental Health Awareness Workshops. The Blessing of the Animals. The Lil Pantry. The Family Promise Host Weeks and Bed Races.

Worship. Church school. Bible studies. Weddings. Funerals. Sharing meaningful conversations, laughter and tears. Having my children baptized and seeing them raised and nurtured in their faith. Working alongside some of the finest pastors and staff that I know.

My time here and with each one of you, even on the hardest of days, has been filled with immense joy because of the love and care you give to people within and outside these walls, including me and my family.

Friends, may you continue to let your gentleness be known to everyone you meet, regardless of the hardships and the heartbreaks.

And may you rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, Rejoice!

The Lord draws near with “joy.” Be ready to receive it and pass it on.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not From This World

A Sermon for November 25, 2018, Christ The King Sunday

As the editor and writer of Marvel Comics from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Stan Lee published a monthly column entitled “Stan’s Soapbox” which appeared on the last page of the company’s various superhero titles.

Upon his death at the age of 95 on November 12, one of the columns that the legendary creator wrote 50 years ago immediately resurfaced on social media. Published in December 1968, the essay addressed racism in America in the wake of the horrific assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy that occurred earlier that year. The co-creator of iconic characters such as Spider-man, The Black Panther and The Avengers, wrote the following:

Stan Lee with actor Chadwick Boseman who plays T’Challa/Black Panther at the movie’s premiere in January, 2018

Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun.

The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. …He hates people he’s never seen—people he’s never known—with equal intensity—with equal venom. Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another.

But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God–a God who calls us ALL—His children.

Peace and Justice,

Stan

Stan Lee’s words remain relevant today and are reflected in the moral and spiritual messages he weaved into the realistic fantasy superhero universe he helped create at Marvel Comics. Lee also adhered to the principals of love and tolerance in his own life, which is partly what made him such a beloved pop icon.

Despite being agnostic and non-religious, Lee had a great appreciation for the Golden Rule and the power of sacrificial love. As such, he imbued his super heroes with a sense of humility and compassion, and he exposed them to real life issues that would challenge their humanity. The previously mentioned characters and many more, like Iron Man and the Hulk, are flawed super heroes. For decades they’ve struggled with the challenges of everyday life just like the average person: job stress, addiction, depression, fear, prejudice, poverty, war, religious discrimination, illness and death, disabilities, and family relationships. And their powers don’t always save them from their troubles.

But Lee also believed that regardless of one’s flaws, human beings could do extraordinary things to help fashion a better world, which was evident in his super hero stories but also explicitly stated in another Soapbox column from 1968:

“We (at Marvel) believe that (humans) have a divine destiny, and an awesome responsibility—the responsibility of treating all who share this wondrous world of ours with tolerance and respect…We’ll never rest until it becomes a fact rather than just a cherished dream.”

Considering all of this, the case could be made that Stan Lee likely comprehended (more than many Christians) the theological concept that Christ or God’s kingdom is not from this world, and humanity is called to be a part of this alternative reality.

A certain amount of imagination and faith is needed to conceive a world that is unlike the one we inhabit. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Empire’s governor of Judea, doesn’t have that imagination and faith, which is why he remains stuck in a rudimentary understanding of kings and kingships. Pilate is unable to grasp the idea of a kingdom and world apart from the one he knows. And he is incapable of seeing Jesus as one who belongs to an entity more sovereign than Rome.

Pilate suspects, as does King Herod and the religious authorities, that Jesus is a threat to the power and prestige each of them hold. Pilate is trying to determine if Jesus is claiming to be the king of Israel, the Jewish nation and therefore challenging the authority of Roman Emperor. Pilate views Jesus’ action as a potential global security threat to the Empire.

Jesus’ kingdom, though, is not defined in earthly terms nor is it some heavenly, abstract concept. According to the scriptures and the culture of the time, the kingdom of God is considered an authentic world that is within and beyond our own:  a kingdom that has already arrived; a kingdom that is fully in the present, and a kingdom that will one day bring forth a new heaven and earth.  And it is a kingdom where all belong and are invited to be part of the community of an unconditionally loving God, whose reign transcends any one person or group of people.

I realize this may sound like a Utopian fantasy—a fanciful, pie-in-the sky dreaming that is more suitable for kids who read comic books or watch movies about wizards. Yet it is the foundation of our faith and why we as Presbyterians join Christians around the globe in recognizing today as Christ the King Sunday. As it is stated on the website of the Presbyterian Church (USA):

“The festival of Christ the King…moves us to the threshold of Advent, the season of hope for Christ’s coming into our lives. … In Christ all things began, and in Christ all things will be fulfilled. … As sovereign ruler, Christ calls us to a loyalty that transcends every earthly claim on the human heart. To Christ alone belongs the supreme allegiance in our lives.”

Jesus never has and never will fit into humanity’s centuries old traditions, experiences, ideas and images of royalty, leadership, power and prestige. Jesus wasn’t a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time, and Jesus is not like any crowned figurehead, dictator or elected leader that has existed in the modern era.

Google Images

Pilate mistakenly identifies him as a meddlesome king, even going so far as to asking Jesus, “What is truth?” when the truth of who Jesus is stands plainly before him. Pilate simply can’t comprehend much less handle the truth, which is that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our lives now and forever.

Jesus is the ruler of a kingdom where God’s love, peace, justice, healing and restoration are experienced. Jesus—this God-in-the-flesh who faces interrogation by a representative of a dominating system of violence and power—is the ruler who enters our world as a small, defenseless child instead of a power-hungry deity seeking to wipe out sinners and rule with an iron fist.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus says to an ignorant Pilate.

The truth—that is God’s kingdom of love and grace—is not always easy or comforting to hear. It can be difficult because it means we’re acknowledging that we haven’t quite lived into the reality of God’s kingdom and have remained tethered to an earthly realm (a broken society and culture) that fosters greed, resentment, prejudice and hate. It means that sometimes we’ve become stuck in our own self-serving agendas and rejected Christ’s verbal invitation to be a part of God’s beloved community.

One of my all-time favorite television shows, M*A*S*H, about the 4077th mobile surgical hospital unit stationed near the frontlines of the Korean War, helped me better appreciate the truth of Jesus’ kingship in an episode entitled, Quo Vadis, (Where Are You Going), Captain Chandler?

The episode begins with batch of soldiers being brought into the camp to be treated for the injuries they sustained in battle. Among them is Captain Arnold Chandler, a sheep rancher from Idaho, who believes he is Jesus Christ.

Some at the 4077th think Captain Chandler’s claim is blasphemous and that he is faking battle fatigue to earn a medical discharge. Others are concerned about the man’s mental well-being, and contact the psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, for a consultation.

It turns out that Chandler, a decorated pilot who had flown 57 missions before being shot down, has lost his memories even though his head wound is superficial. Despite best efforts to help him remember, Chandler insists he is Christ. After a long visit with his patient, Sidney shares a diagnosis with camp personnel. He tells them:

“He’s not Christ. But he’s not Chandler either. The man is a victim. Chandler lost himself. He’s not playing a game. He spent two years dropping bombs on people who never did anything to him until finally something inside this kid from Idaho said, ‘Enough! You’re Christ, you’re not a killer. The next bomb you drop, you drop on yourself.’”

M*A*S*H, Season 4, Episode 10: “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?” (1975)

Sidney then recommends that the pilot be admitted to a hospital in Tokyo where he can receive treatment that will turn him back to his former self but “never into a fighting machine.” A few moments later, in the episode’s final scene, Captain Arnold Chandler is walking out of the medical tent to board a bus to the airport when Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reiley, the young, naïve company clerk approaches him. Radar timidly says to Captain Chandler:

“Sir, my name is Radar O’Reiley. … Um, sir are you really who they say, I mean are you really Him?”

Chandler replies: “Yes, I am.”

Radar breathes a sigh of relief and then asks: “I know you’re busy and all but could you bless this?”

Radar then reaches into a satchel and draws out a ragged old teddy bear that he’s loved since childhood. “I know he’s not real, but we’re very close.”

Captain Chandler blesses Radar’s teddy bear

Chandler places his hands on the stuffed animal, his right hand covering the teddy’s bear’s missing eye, and says: “Bless you.”

Then he looks up at Radar and says, “Bless you, Radar.” 

Moved and humbled by the gesture, Radar says proudly, “I’m Walter.”

Chandler replies: “Bless you, Walter.” And then as he boards the bus, he looks at everyone in the camp and says, “Bless all of you.”

I first shared this illustration in a sermon I preached at a Presbyterian Church in Maryland on Christ the King Sunday, 2006. While preparing that sermon, I tracked down the episode’s writer, Bert Prelutsky, and sent him an email asking for more insight on the story of Captain Arnold Chandler. Bert emailed me back the next day, saying:

“I think the message was fairly simple and straightforward. We all share a common humanity, whatever our religion is… Chandler, of course, represented the Christ, the spark of the divine, that resides in most of us.”

There is, of course, a lot about God and God’s kingdom that is mysterious and astonishing. But maybe it’s not so strange to consider that we’ve each been blessed with a spark of the Divine, the captivating love of God

Maybe it’s not too far fetched to concede that when we are tuned into Christ’s voice enough so that we might follow and embrace God’s vision, which is both within and beyond our reach, we encounter a glimpse of the holy…

Mission trips to Honduras and Blue Ridge, Georgia; Bible Study and fellowship at the Duluth Co-Op; Laundry Love; Operation Turkey Sandwich, Clifton Men’s Shelter; Rainbow Village, Blood Drives; Mental Health Awareness Workshops for Parents and High School Youth, Free Clinical Exams for Uninsured Mammogram Patients. Vacation Bible School. Montreat, etc., etc.,

Operation Turkey Sandwich

When we come together to love others as Christ loves, we participate in a kingdom that is not from this world.

That is and will always be the truth.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Elevation

It called loudly to me with its bold title splayed over an alluring cosmic fireworks display, and the renown author’s name printed in large organ letters below: ELEVATION…STEPHEN KING.

A book by King is usually enough to grab my attention but typically I check them out at the library instead of buying them these days. I was so disappointed in his 2014 novel “Revival” from a few years ago that I have picked up and browse every book written since with a bit of skepticism. But this one, Elevation, made my heart leap and sparked curiosity and wonder. Right away I knew the story wasn’t centered around horror, but of that deeper magic found in King’s Green Mile, The Dragon’s Eye, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption, and The Body (Stand By Me). I scanned the description in the book jacket and was instantly convinced that this was a piece of literature to devour.

At less than 150 pages, it took just over a day to read. I finished it a few evenings ago, but I may re-read it before the end of next weekend. It is that marvelous of a tale.

The protagonist, Scott Carey, a 6’4 foot guy who weighs 240 pounds, suddenly discovered that he is losing weight, without his appearance ever changing. More curious is that the scale registers the same with our without clothes and even if he is carrying heavy objects like 2 pounds of quarters in his pockets or 5 pound dumbbells. As Scott continues to lose 2 pounds per day, he finds that he has more energy and literally more bounce as he defies gravity by leaping from his driveway to the stop step of his front porch, among other feats.

In brilliant fashion, King has given us a parable on what it means to let go of the things in life (the worries, the burdens and hardships) that weigh us down and allow friends, and even complete strangers, to lift you up.

The story stirred within me the following questions:

What do I need to let go of so I can have more energy and bounce…so I can be ELEVATED, so I can rise?

How can I stretch and grow?

How can I reach beyond myself and cling to the mystery of God and the love and grace that is all around?

This past week at the PC(USA) CREDO conference has led me to some answers.

More to come…

 

Pastoral Prayers for Sept. 30 and Oct. 14

Pastoral Prayer for Sunday, October 14, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church

Like the ancient people of the book, we too are on a journey—

searching for your voice,

yearning to be in your presence,

seeking your love, O Lord of the heavens and earth.

 

A whirlwind of other voices whip around us and try to suck us into chaos and disarray— Advertisements telling us if we buy this or that, we will have

better looks and better things,

along with more power, prestige and wealth.

Texts and Tweets and Timeline statuses telling us we have to

choose this side

take this stand

like, love, be sad or be angry

share and copy and paste a thousand times if we truly believe

Bullying rants and ugly rhetoric telling us in various platforms that we

            are less than

            are unworthy

            are inhuman

             because of gender, sexuality, race, creed, culture and age

 

But you, O Lord, are not in the wind.

Nor are you in the earthquakes of life

that shake the ground beneath our feet

Nor are you in the fire that seeks to consume us and reduce us to ash

 

You are instead in the silence. The eerie, deafening silence.

The silence that comes when we tune out the noise

and search within our hearts for a moments peace

In the silence, we hear you speak

And we strain to listen so that we don’t miss a single word

We carefully try to make meaning of your message

We want to follow it exactly; we want to do what is pleasing and right in your sight.

 

But like the man who runs up and kneels before Jesus,

we desperately want to always hear you praising us for doing good deeds.

we want that pat on the back and that “A+” so badly.

we want to know that we’ve followed well:

checked all the boxes on the to-do list,

and kept the commandments perfectly.

 

But it’s not about adhering to the rules and living perfectly

to gain reward in heaven, is it?

 

No, you calmly tell us that it doesn’t work that way. You say that if we want

to follow you,

hear your voice,

be in your presence,

understand your love,

We must be selfless rather than selfish

We must be generous rather than greedy

We must be compassionate rather than cruel.

 

If we attempt the latter instead of the former,

you remind us that we will be unable to help build the kingdom,

the beloved community where all are welcomed.

For it is in the act of being selfless, generous and compassionate

that we truly are able to join you in the transforming of this world.

 

Even when the voices and noises and whirlwind

attempt to distract us from your call,

Even when they’ve pulled us into the depths of pain and suffering

to prevent us from moving forward with you

 

Your voice, your way, your light, illumines our lives and path

In the writings of the apostle, you assure us over and over and over again that

Neither death, nor life,

Nor angels, nor rulers,

Nor things present, nor things to come,

Nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

Nor anything else in all creation,

Can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

In the silence, let us hear and remember that truth.

And let us proclaim once again that God’s love forever reigns

            as we say the words Christ Jesus taught his disciples to pray,

Together saying… “Our Father, who art in heaven…”


Pastoral Prayer for Sunday, September 30, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church

Whose side are you on, O Lord?

Surely, you are on their side, are you?

        Don’t you hear what they’re saying?

        Don’t you see what they’re doing?

You are on our side, aren’t you Holy One?

         We are the ones who say all the right things.

          We are the ones who are doing it all well.

Surely, you aren’t on their side, Lord.

Whose suffering will you relieve first?

Surely, you aren’t help them, are you?

           Don’t you hear their insincerity?

           Don’t you see their carelessness?

You are going to help us before them, aren’t you Holy One?

           We are the ones who’ve cried out the longest?

            We are the ones who’ve been the most faithful.

Surely, you aren’t helping them, Lord.

 

Maybe the better questions for us to ask are…

When will be tear down the walls that divide us into sides?

When we will rid ourselves of haughtiness and righteous indignation?

When will we recognize and relieve all suffering with compassion?

Perhaps it is when we open our hearts to see that you are,

With. all. of. us.

All sides.

All around.

Within and beyond.

A love that is close to our hearts.

A mystery that is beyond anything our minds can imagine.

 

You are the goodness and wisdom we long to embody and seek for our minds.

You are the peace and comfort we seek for our souls.

You are the love and humility we seek for our hearts.

You are the light that illumines our lives.

 

Transform us over and over by your grace so that we may work side by side with you to care for one another (friends, enemies and strangers) and to build the beloved community and kindom…

Where all of our burdens are sustained.

Where all of our suffering is tended.

Where all of your mercy abounds.

In the name of Christ who taught his disciples to pray together, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

A Pastoral Prayer for 6/17/18

An acrylic painting on wood illustrating the bible verse in Mark 4 describing the kingdom of God like a mustard seed. Jesus is seated with a child under the yellow-leafed branches of a tree showing her a tiny mustard seed.

Pastoral Prayer, 10 am worship at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, June 17, 2018. “Sometimes It Just Seems To Be Too Much,” written by Ted Loder, author of Guerillas of Grace. 1981. Text in red are my additions.

Sometimes, Lord, it just seems to be too much: too much violence, too much fear; too much of demands and problems; too much of broken dreams and broken families and broken lives; too much of war and slums and dying and people being torn apart from loved ones; too much of greed and squishy fatness and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much stale routine and quarrels, unpaid bills and dead ends; too much of words lobbed in to explode and leaving shredded hearts and lacerated souls; too much of turned-away backs and yellow silence, red rage and the bitter tastes of ashes in our mouths.

Sometimes the very air seems scorched by threats and rejection and decay until there is nothing but to inhale pain and exhale confusion. Too much darkness, Lord, too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference…Too much, Lord, too much, too blood, bruising, brain-washing much.

Or is it too little, too little of compassion, too little of courage, of daring, of persistence, or sacrifice; too little of music and laughter and celebration?

O God, make of us some nourishment for these starved times, some food for our brothers and sisters who are hungry for gladness and hope, that being bread for them, we may also be fed and be full.

O God, make of us joyful children like those in Vacation Bible School last week who gave you praise and lived out grace through music, play, art, mission, story and the sharing of scripture.

O God, make us of us mustard seed and scatter us across the earth so that we may sprout and grow, putting forth large branches of love and mercy where your people, especially the poor, the oppressed, the stranger and the foreigner can find protection, solace and comfort.

We ask all these things in the name of Christ Jesus who taught his disciples to pray together saying: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

 

For God So Loved

A Sermon for Sunday, May 27, 2018, Trinity Sunday, John 3:1-17

A week from today, a group of high school teens and adults will travel to North Carolina for the annual Montreat Youth Conference. One of the highlights will be gathering as a youth group each evening in our lodging space to reflect on everything we’ve experienced that day.

We’ll ask questions, share insights, and try to find meaning out of what we’re learning about life, faith and God.  It will undoubtedly be a powerful and sacred time just as it is every summer.

Many of you have probably had similar late night chats with family and friends in your home or on a retreat or mission trip—those deep and baffling, blow-your-mind talks that can illicit a variety of responses: jaw drops, puzzled looks, deep sighs, astonishment, uncontrollable laughter and teary eyes.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, the religious leader Nicodemus is quite astounded by the midnight convo he is having with Jesus. It’s a peculiar exchange to be sure, and Nicodemus can’t seem to wrap his head around Jesus’ talk about “being born from above.”

Nicodemus knows intuitively, as any human being should, that it is physically impossible for someone to grow old and re-enter his or her mother’s womb and be born a second time. Thus, Jesus’ suggestion that someone can be born is mind-boggling to him.  With all the wisdom he has gained as a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus simply doesn’t understand what Jesus is telling him. Emmanuel Lartey, a former seminary professor of mine writes:

“So often our misunderstandings and disputes arise because (those in dialogue) are not speaking the same language. Jesus is using symbolic, spiritual, analogical language; Nicodemus is looking at the plain, literal meanings. Nicodemus sees birth as ‘of the flesh;’ Jesus speaks of spiritual realities… Rebirth is a spiritual experience available to all, but perhaps most needed by religious people who might think they do not need it. Religion often becomes a matter of the correct observance of particular practices. When these practices become routine, they may actually serve to hinder spiritual sensitivity.”[1]

Put another way, Nicodemus is much like an old school Presbyterian Methodist or Episcopalian who feels comfortable wearing the well-worn “frozen chosen” label—Christians who are reserved, scholarly, and extremely organized; have a thought-out, orthodox system of beliefs; and keep strict adherence to religious doctrines. They follow the rules, check the lists, memorize the scriptures, attend church every Sunday and say their prayers every night. They’ve got faith locked down so they conclude there’s no need for spirituality.

The freewheeling Spirit, they reason, is for the doubters and unbelievers who are lost and need Jesus. The irony, though, is that the ones who seem to have it all figured out are precisely the people who need a spiritual transformation in their lives. Lartey explains further:

“To be in tune with God’s reign and presence we all need a transformative overhaul of our traditional ways of seeing and being. We need a transformation of our whole way of knowing and experiencing the world. When this happens, it is as if we have begun life all over again. Nicodemus’ confusion deepens because he is unable to leave the realm of literal thinking to join Jesus on an imaginative, spiritual level.”[2]

In other words, the triune God can’t be stuffed in a box or put in the corner. God can’t be coerced into carrying out our selfish agendas or comply to our ideological views of humanity and the world. The triune God cannot be controlled or tamed—forced to be in tune with us.

Yet for centuries, it is what Christians have tried to do in an effort to understand their relationship with God. Despite best intentions to organize religion, which resulted in the establishment of communities of faith like churches and denominations; sacred practices like baptism and communion; and the structuring of ministries like Christian Education, youth, pastoral care and mission, there have also been unintended consequences.

In the book The Great Spiritual Migration, which a group of Pleasant Hill members and I recently explored, author and pastor Brian McLaren points out that the ancient tradition of Christian institutions protecting a timeless, correct set of beliefs has caused much calamity:  colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, physical and sexual abuse, power grabs, financial scams and environmental destruction.

Over the last few decades, Christianity and the Church have become hypocritical, judgmental, manipulative and irrelevant in the eyes of many across the globe. And the numerical declines that are occurring throughout every area of Christianity in the West, particularly among younger generations, bear the reality. McLaren writes:

“The pattern is predictable. Founders are typically generous, visionary, bold, and creative, but the religions that ostensibly carry on their work often become the opposite: constricted, change-averse, nostalgic, fearful, obsessed with boundary maintenance, turf battles, and money. Instead of greeting the world with open arms as their founders did, their successors stand guard with clenched fists. Instead of empowering others as their founders did, they hoard power. Instead of defying tradition and unleashing moral imagination as their founders did, they impose tradition and refuse to think outside the lines. …No wonder so many religious folks today wear down, burn out, and opt out.”[3]

Now, I will be the first to say that I am grateful to be serving in a church that is not constricted, change-averse, over-nostalgic, and fearful, etc. Pleasant Hill Presbyterian creates and imagines outside the lines; greets the world with open arms and generous hearts; and empowers people to do ministry.

But if we were to be honest in those late evening conversations we have with others and even ourselves, we’d have to admit that things are not the same here as they were 10 years ago or 30 years ago. Like many churches, Pleasant Hill’s pews get emptier and emptier and it has a little less energy than it used to have. I don’t know exactly why. It just is.

Maybe it’s a reflection of some of the emptiness and lack of energy many Christians feel in the world these days—a world that seems to have become meaner and more hateful and destructive. The mistreatment of our neighbors, the brokenness of lives, the horrors of violence and the heaviness of death is draining, especially when we are glued to our screens 24-7.

Christianity has sadly become too settled in its ways, too comfortable, too tired and apathetic. Christianity needs spiritual transformation and inspiration. It begins when Christians and churches let go of long-held systems of belief and arguments over sexual orientation, salvation, worship styles, money and carpet colors. And allow instead for the Spirit to carry them out of their comfort zones and in the way of love.

Christianity’s purpose is to be in constant motion. Our relationship with God can only thrive if we are moving, growing and changing. Our call to serve can only be fruitful if we are stretching ourselves to love our neighbors (including strangers and enemies). Our ability to see the kingdom of God will only materialize if we are willing to go and teach others how to love.

For God so loved that the Spirit sent a perfect loving Messiah into the world because of the Creator’s love for humanity. For God so loved that the Spirit transforms us through the love of Christ and sends us out to live our whole lives in love. For God so loved that the Spirit opens our hearts to love others as God loves us.

As the late Presbyterian minister and beloved children’s TV icon, Mr. Rogers, once said:  “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”[4]

 

Rogers also had this gem:  “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.”[5]

Love is powerful. Love changed the world and can continue to change the world. We heard that reminder last weekend from Bishop Michael Bruce Curry at the royal wedding in Britain. In his sermon, Curry asked everyone to imagine a world where love is the way:

Imagine our homes and families where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where love is the way. Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way—unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive. …

 When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. …When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.[6]

If you’re doubtful some days that the Spirit is unable to move people toward the way of Christ’s love, consider this story from my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama about a 4-year-old boy named Austin Perine:[7]

Donning a bright red cape and a bold blue shirt emblazoned with the message “#SHOW LOVE,” and assistance from his incredible side-kick dad TJ, the heroic Austin hands out meals to the city’s homeless on a weekly basis.  Austin says his superhero motto is “show love,” because “it means you care about someone no matter what they look like.” One homeless man told Austin: “It’s because of you that I want to be a better person.”

Austin’s mission started when his dad took him to a city shelter to learn about homelessness. TJ said that his son immediately asked if they could feed the people at the shelter. “I didn’t expect to feed homeless people that day. But when a 4-year-old boy asks you, what can you say?” They immediately went to Burger King, bought chicken sandwiches’ and took them back to the shelter. Word quickly spread and Austin became a local celebrity overnight, appearing on TV, news articles and social media posts. Burger King gave him a $1,000 monthly allowance for a year so he could continue his mission.

This is what love looks like when we let the Spirit take hold of us. The Spirit blows through our lives where it chooses and we hear the sound of it, but we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So let us be open and ready to go wherever it takes us to show love to others.

For God so loved.

For God so loved.

Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3 (2008)

[2] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3 (2008)

[3] The Great Spiritual Migratio: How The World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking A Better Way to Be Christian by Brian McLaren, (2016)

[4] http://www.newsweek.com/fred-rogers-birthday-quotes-wont-you-be-my-neighbor-movie-854013

[5] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/518360-i-believe-that-appreciation-is-a-holy-thing–that-when-we

[6] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/20/612798691/bishop-michael-currys-royal-wedding-sermon-full-text-of-the-power-of-love

[7] https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/21/us/iyw-boy-helps-homeless-trnd/index.html