Take These Things

A Sermon for Sunday, March 4, 2018. John 2:13-22, Third Sunday of Lent

While I was doing some online research for today’s sermon, I discovered the following meme, which offers some sage advice:

The caption is funny precisely because many Christians forget or ignore that Jesus sometimes got mad during his life and ministry.  Nobody wants to see and talk about angry Jesus, especially that time he made his own whip out of cords and drove the merchants and money changers and livestock out of the temple before dumping coins on the floor and overturning tables.

Instead, we’d much prefer this image of Jesus clearing the temple by cartoonist and pastor Cuyler Black:

While the cartoon is a humorous interpretation and play-on-words for a 21st century culture that is familiar with extreme sports terminology, what Jesus actually does is far more risky and dangerous than a skateboarding stunt.  Therefore, it is crucial that we take a hard look at images that attempt to portray exactly what is occurring in the text as well as the story itself:

Jesus is furious and causing a scene. The inside of the temple is a mess. Dove are flying out of cages, sheep are fussing and running around in circles. Coins are spinning through the air and across the floor. People are scrambling to get out of the way. Merchants stumble over one another while others shake their fists at Jesus or grab him by the sleeve to make him stop. Jesus is livid as he swings a whip of cords in one hand and picks up tables with the other, all while shouting: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

The Gospel of John puts the event front and center, right near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The temple visit marks Jesus’ first public appearance, immediately following the calling of the disciples and the private wedding at Cana where water is turned into wine. The writer of John’s gospel wants readers to know right away that the outraged Jesus in the temple is the one he described in the first chapter as the Word who is God—the light in the darkness that shall not be overcome, the Word that became flesh and dwells with humanity, the Word that is full of grace and truth.

On the surface, it may seem as if Jesus’ outrage is not congruent with John’s description of God in Christ or what we know of Jesus from other gospel stories. The idea of Jesus being angry and causing a ruckus in the temple of all places is hard to imagine. It’s not a scene that sits comfortably next to accounts of Jesus’ healing, feeding and caring for the marginalized of society. The whip-holding, table-flipping Jesus sure doesn’t seem like the type who would want children to come and sit in his lap. But Jesus’ anger is an important part of who he is and not something that should be easily dismissed.

Over the centuries, Christians have mistakenly domesticated Jesus in their own image and have come to see him as this gentle, nice, serene person who is always smiling and giving a pat on the back. And believers have, at times, overlooked the fact that Jesus and God are connected.

Christ is God incarnate, both fully human and fully divine. Everything we know of God as the almighty creator of the universe and sovereign lord of the heavens and earth is manifested in the bodily flesh that is Jesus; unfathomable power and an incredible, mysterious force of logic and love embodied in a single person. It’s truly quite astonishing, and seems reasonable then to conclude that such an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being in human form is not going to be nice all the time. The late Christian author and theologian Mike Yaconelli once put it this way:

What characterized Jesus and His disciples was unpredictability. Jesus was always surprising the disciples by eating at the wrong houses (those of sinners), hanging around the wrong people (tax collectors, adulterers, prostitutes, lepers), and healing people on the wrong day (the Sabbath) … Jesus was a long way from dullJesus was a dangerous man—dangerous to the power structure, dangerous to the church, dangerous to the crowds of people who followed Him. …If Jesus is the Son of God, we should be terrified of what He will do when He gets his Hands on our lives.”[1]

(The triune) God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. God is our great strength and comfort. And Jesus, God-with-us, is the bread of life, the true vine, the light of the world, the Good Shepherd and the resurrection. But neither God nor God in Christ is safe or tame or nice.

The anger that erupts from Jesus upon entering the temple, though, is not irrational or petty. Jesus is not throwing a tantrum because he didn’t get his way or upset because he’s hungry and cranky. Whenever Jesus became angry, it was because he saw injustice and irreverence.

Now, the selling of animals and exchanging of money was necessary for the festivals occurring in the temple during Passover. People traveling from long distances would need sheep and doves to make burnt offerings and those who came from foreign lands would need to exchange their money for the local currency to purchase the animals.  Jesus doesn’t seem to have issue with this economic practice; otherwise he’d be ranting through the outdoor marketplaces in every town.

The problem Jesus seemed to have is that these transactions were taking place in the temple—a place intentionally set aside to worship God. What Jesus witnessed was a lack of respect and reverence for God on display. Practices that weren’t harmful in of themselves, but distracted people from giving their entire attention to God. And thus, Jesus was consumed by righteous anger.

Righteous anger is considered to be good, conscientious, moral, healthy anger and there’s always a time and place for such emotion. Alice Pau, the American suffragist, was angry that women were denied the right to vote. The civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was angry about racial segregation. And peace activist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was angry at apartheid in South Africa. In our daily lives, it is normal to feel righteous anger about bullying, abuse, poverty, racial inequality, and so much more. God has wired us to show deep compassion and care for the broken and suffering in this world; it’s only natural that we become angry when we read the news headlines and see yet another act of violence and oppression. Righteous anger is good and we are called to practice it and be an instrument of change.

With that in mind, it is very tempting to preach and read today’s story as if we’re only called, like Jesus, to deliver righteous anger by taking up a whip and overturning the tables of the injustices we most despise. However, the writer of a biblical commentary I read last week reminded me that the writer of John’s gospel has something else in mind:

“The text pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and driving us out in the name of God. Surely we can be honest enough to acknowledge that often enough we put ourselves and our institutions at the service of the powers that are decidedly less than God.”[2]

It would be naive for us to read this text and believe that Jesus is only criticizing everyone but us good Christians and our places of worship. As the biblical commentator notes further:

“For the truth is that neither the prophetic impulse nor the institutions called to embody it are well served by the quick assumption that because he is ‘our’ Savior, he is perpetually well pleased with us. It is important for us to tolerate and explore…the queasy anxiety of seeing Jesus with the whip of cords in his hands and hearing him with the righteous judgment of God on his lips—knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, but also to us and even against us.”[3]

In other words, we are not perfect followers and we don’t have this whole faith thing figured out. We make mistakes. We turn our back on God and neighbor.  It’s what we confess together every Sunday and frankly, we need Jesus to call us out when we’re wrong. We need tough love that speaks truth to our waywardness. Jesus’ righteous anger comes from a deep place of love for humanity.

So, if Jesus were to enter our sanctuaries, what might he rail against? What are the distractions and displays of disrespect and irreverence that would cause him to yell aloud with righteous anger: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house something else” What tough love speech would Jesus give?

Would Jesus be angry that worship spaces designed for the purpose of communing with God have evolved into a place where folks primarily come to socialize with and be entertained by others?

Would Jesus be angry with people who play games, text and check emails on our smart phones during any part of worship?

Would Jesus be angry with people who clap and cheer after a musician gives glory to God through a special anthem because they were thoroughly entertained, not because they are praising God for the gift of music? Or would Jesus be angry with some who allow a negative attitude about a hymn prevent them from finding joy and meaning in other parts of worship?

Would Jesus be angry with those who make grocery lists on the back of their bulletins and pretend to listen? Or with others who are so focused on every aspect of worship being flawless that they miss the chance to be surprised by the mystery of grace?

Would Jesus be angry with people who set up metaphorical tables covered with misplaced allegiances, religious presumptions and judgments, smug self-satisfaction, arrogance, envy, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, and political idols? [4]

Would Jesus be angry with those who worry more about the empty pews than being delighted by the people who have come to praise God? Or with the many who claim to be friendly and welcoming and yet never take the time after worship to know the people who sit on the other side of the room?

Would Jesus be angry with the people who pray for the well-being of others, but don’t always work to ensure their well-being?

Would Jesus be angry with pastors and leaders of the church for focusing too much attention on the maintenance of the institution—the upkeep of the building, the budget, the stewardship campaign, new equipment—instead of the practices of faith? [5]

These are the questions we must ask in this season of Lent in which each of us are called to look inward and discern how we have let certain things get in the way of our relationship with God.

I don’t know for sure what Jesus would specifically be angry about if he were to walk through the doors of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian’s sanctuary or any sanctuary. I don’t have the answers.

But I do know this: Jesus’ deep desire for a sacred space where people can worship and experience the holy is what leads to his death at the hands of the religious authorities who were greatly offended by Jesus’ outrage. As a seminary classmate and friend wrote recently on this text:

“’It is zeal for your house that will consume me’ reveals itself to be a prediction that the very ones who are most zealous for the Temple are the ones that will ultimately destroy Jesus. Those who have the greatest investment in the success of official religion will chew Jesus up and spit him out. You see, establishment religion cannot abide Jesus, who is the world-shaking intrusion of God’s free and radical love into the world.”[6]

Let us heed then the words of Christ who will flip the world over and scatter all the distractions that compete for our time and attention so we may be fully immersed in God’s presence; so that we may give our whole hearts to God.

Let us also take the things that turn us away from God and remove them from our midst. The things are not what matters in this life or the next. All that ever matters on this journey with Jesus is Christ himself, and his radical love that rises from the ruins, binding us forever to God and one another.

Amen.

[1] Dangerous Wonder by Mike Yaconelli, 2003, Navpress

[2] Feasting On The Word, Year B, Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide, 2008, Westminster Knox Press

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20060313JJ.shtml

[5] https://robertwilliamsonjr.com/overturning-established-religion-john-213-22/.

[6] Ibid.

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There is a Light

A Sermon for Sunday February 11, 2018, Transfiguration Sunday, John 1:1-5, 14 and 18; Mark 9:2-9

Whenever we consider the pairing of the words “light and darkness,” we immediately think of “good and evil,” and “hope and despair.” We associate “light” with what is positive and “darkness” with the negative.

It’s what we’ve been taught since we exited the womb. We’ve endured the “dark night of the soul” and understand intimately the notion that “it’s always the darkest just before the dawn.”  In the dark, we are seized with pain, and in the light, we are healed.

There are numerous books, movies, songs, and wise sayings that express that very message, reminding us again and again that the light shines brightly no matter how dark any particular moment seems.  Many of those artistic expressions point us back to the scriptures, which has assured us throughout the centuries that hate and darkness will never overcome light and love. 

That assurance is true and core to our beliefs.

But could it be equally true that the light might be just as scary and quite dangerous to behold and embrace—more so than we’d like to admit? The gospels seem to affirm this truth, which we don’t always notice right away.  

In this morning’s reading from Mark 9, we encounter Jesus and his disciples, Peter, James, and John, atop a mountain when an amazing event occurs. Suddenly and without warning, Jesus is transfigured before them—his clothes becoming “a dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” (And no, this wasn’t a “Tide ad.”) [1]

Matthew’s version of the story adds that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun,” which would mean that it was intensely bright and difficult to see without squinting.  While Luke’s account says the “appearance of his face” changed, most likely indicating that it became ethereal. And appearing next to Jesus in this flood of illuminating transfiguration are two revered and long-dead prophets, Elijah and Moses, striking up a conversation.

Peter responds to this incredible supernatural spectacle by anxiously suggesting they set up camp and stay awhile.  On the surface, it seems to be a tone-deaf statement that highlights the disciple’s ignorance of what is occurring before him.

However, the reality, as Mark tells us, is that Peter, (along with James and John) is terrified and doesn’t know what to say. In an effort to calm his fear and cope with the magnitude of the scene, Peter starts rambling about dwelling places even though he’s probably aware that his idea is unrealistic and makes no sense. 

The transfiguration is not the special effects blockbuster film that persuades you to sink into a large comfy chair with a bucket of buttery popcorn for a two-hour thrill ride. Nor is it an opportunity to set up a picnic and watch an half-hour fireworks show.

The transfiguration of Jesus is much more compelling in its brevity and comes with a soundtrack straight from the heavens as God’s voice booms: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”

Peter, James, and John have every reason to be struck with terror. This is not the soft pink light of a sunrise that is easy on the eyes, or the flame of a candle that can be contained from spreading and quickly put out.  This is not a light that can be harnessed and controlled with the clicking of a switch, a swipe on a smart phone, or a voice-activated command.

This is God’s light in Christ arriving with blinding power and might that cannot be tamed.  The scriptures tell us that God’s light rescues people from dark places, protects them like a suit of armor, and reveals the things that were once hidden in darkness. [2] The writer of John’s Gospel, whose poetic words we’ve also heard this morning, proclaims:  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Even the natural light that God has created for our days is too potent for us to truly handle ourselves. Sunlight is the most powerful source of energy for our planet, crucial for growth and sustaining of life; for any human being to think it can be completely mastered and managed is quite naive.

Light will do what light does just as God and God’s light does what it will. The transfiguration is a mere glimpse of how God’s righteousness and justice radiates through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

Transfiguration—this mysterious, extraordinary, transformative display of light—is a reminder that Jesus is the hope for ages, the One who comes to fulfill the law and the prophets—the embodiment of the Ten Commandments and the dreams of the prophets who proclaim God’s kingdom will overcome the corruption of earthly kingdoms. Jesus is the Divine Light-in-the-Flesh whose cruel death exposes the powers of the world and their desire for glory and dominion.  For this, Jesus has been baptized and claimed as a beloved child, in whom God is well pleased.

Transfiguration is God quickly flashing God’s hand to let us know that God has all the cards and is about to make the biggest play anyone has ever seen. Only it won’t be a royal flush of monarchs with swords who lay siege on the Empire. Instead it will be an unarmed Savior King who—through great sacrifice—peacefully conquers with unconditional love and steadfast mercy.

And while that is exhilarating to consider on one hand, it is also quite frightening as the disciple Peter can attest.  Peter, James, and John know that Chris is the light of God made manifest and still the prospect of being around and following such a force is scary.

Being a disciple of Jesus is no walk in the park. Ministry is not easy. It’s risky and challenging. Not everyone is fond of helping those who are on the margins of society—the folks who are deemed to be filthy and unworthy. You can be criticized, judged, condemned, cursed, bullied, beaten, arrested, and killed as evident in the stories from the New Testament and our history books.

Peter’s fear is quite reasonable and there are many days when I resonate with what the disciple is feeling. As an ordained minister of 13 years, I know who Jesus is in our lives and world. And yet as someone who has suffered with anxiety and depression most of my life, and who has been in counseling and taking medicine for more than a decade, I am regularly startled by the overwhelming light of Christ.

The best way I can explain what it’s like to live with the debilitations of anxiety and depression is to share a description from a meme being shared on social media:

Having anxiety and depression is like being scared and tired at the same time.

It’s the fear of failure but no urge to be productive.

It’s wanting friends but hating socializing.

It’s wanting to be alone but not wanting to be lonely.

It’s caring about everything then caring about nothing.

It’s feeling everything at once then feeling paralyzingly numb.

Following Christ, witnessing to and bearing the light, is something I feel deeply about; it is certainly my calling. However, I don’t always feel comfortable heeding my call because being a part of the Light means I have to take risks and make myself vulnerable to criticism, condemnation and rejection for showing love, practicing mercy and speaking truth to power. I also have to become vulnerable when I fail at not loving God and neighbor as I should and seek to make amends. I would much rather make a dwelling place in the darkness under the covers of my bed and never come out because it can be exhausting to swing out my feet and take a step forward.

 I suspect that many of you, regardless of whether you have anxiety and depression, would confess that you are also reluctance about fully bathing in Christ’s light like I am. Don’t we often present the best of ourselves, desiring to not be vulnerable or show weakness—to keep our flaws, heartache, struggles and pain deep within? We silently pray: Let a little light in God, but not too much, so no one judges us for a fool.

Like a lot of folks in the world, I feel a sense of inadequacy about myself.  I have great doubts about my abilities as a pastor, husband and dad. But then I recall one of my favorite quotes from the author Marianne Williamson that render this attitude absurd. She writes:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” [3]

“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us…”—it’s a lot of pressure to live into, isn’t it? It’s not surprising that I or anyone else wants to shrink and play small. The task sounds quite intimidating.

But I suppose that it’s not actually about dwelling in and embodying God’s light 24-7. It’s not about us putting pressure on ourselves to always have a glowing and sunny optimism.

Instead, it’s about coming down the mountain with a small flame in our hearts and kindling the hearts of others as we slog through the mundane, messy, demanding, dark and excruciating parts of life.

God is not asking us to be the light of Christ or immerse ourselves in the light every second of every day. God knows we experience suffering and pain and are incapable of being perfect and happy all the time.

But God does call us to listen to Christ and carry what we can of Christ’s light into a world that needs to be illuminated with love. The Rev. Maryetta Anschutz, an Episcopal priest, says there is no other way:

The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe. We also cannot escape the light that God will shed on our path…God will find us in our homes and in our work places. God will find us when your hearts are broken and when we discover joy. God will find us when we run away from God and when we are sitting in the middle of what seems like hell. So ‘get up and do not be afraid.’[4]

            Christ’s light finds us and moves us onward in spite of our anxiety, depression, fears, doubts and insecurities. Christ’s light sparks something hidden inside of us that inspires us to brighten the life of another.

Google Images/CNN

Like 15-year-old Gomez Colon, a resident of Puerto Rico who has raised more than $125,000 to help provide 1,400 solar lamps in 840 households that are without electricity due to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in November.[5]

Google Images/Yahoo Sports

Like the former NFL player-turned-Baltimore teacher Aaron Maybin who inspired his community to donate hand warmers and gloves to students when Matthew A. Henson Elementary School lost heat and electricity during the winter cold snap last month, and who has also helped raise more than $80,000 to repair the problematic heat systems that exists throughout Baltimore Public Schools.[6]

Like the church members who lovingly insert quarters in the machines at Kim’s Laundromat to provide clean clothes to those in need.

Like the volunteers who spend a couple of hours every month reading to the children of the Burmese refugee families we sponsor.

Those lights seem like tiny flickers in the midst of darkness, but their affects are everlasting and inconsumable. There is a light even though the darkness always surrounds it, and we must shine that light, however big or small, in any way that we can.

            For when you shine the light of Christ that is within your heart, you free other people to do the same, immersing all in the warmth of God’s love.

            Amen.

[1] Super Bowl 52, “Tide Ad” with actor David Habour of the cult hit Nextflix show, “Stranger Things,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doP7xKdGOKs

[2] Micah 7:7-9, Isaiah 9:1-3, Romans 13:11-13, I Corinthians 4:406

[3] Marianne Williamson, Return to Love, HarperCollins Publishing,1992

[4] “Pastoral Perspective” on Transfiguration Sunday texts by Maryetta Madeline Anschutz, Feasting on The Word, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Pentecost. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010

[5] “Teen delivers hundreds of solar lamps to Puerto Ricans without power.” http://money.cnn.com/2018/02/01/news/economy/puerto-rico-teen-solar-lamps-power/index.html

[6] “Crowdfunding helps former NFL player bring heat back to Baltimore schools” https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/crowdfunding-helps-former-nfl-player-bring-heat-back-baltimore-schools-n839951; and “NFL player turned teacher goes door to door to help students during Baltimroe cold snap” https://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/nfl-player-turned-teacher-goes-door-to-door-to-help-students-during-baltimore-cold-snap-1142238275622

 

Where You Lodge

A Sermon for Sunday, January 28, 2018; Ruth 1:12-18 and Ephesians 2:19-22

Home.

The word has many meanings:

What makes a place home?

What does it mean to leave home?
What does it mean to feel like you don’t have a home?

What does it mean to make a home or engage in God’s kingdom-building for those who don’t have a place to dwell and who cry out for justice and mercy?

More than 1,000 people, including a group of 14 from Pleasant Hill, wrestled with these questions during the 2018 Montreat College Conference held earlier this month at the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina.

Montreat itself is “home” or a “home away from home” for many Presbyterians who have attended youth and adult conferences because it’s a sacred space where people come to enrich their faith, create community and discern how they are being called to use their gifts to serve.

In the College Conference video that beautifully captures the experience of being at home with one another and God, you probably noticed a cover of the hit single Home by Phillip Phillips playing in the background. If you weren’t able to hear every word or if you’re unfamiliar with the song, here are the lyrics. Listen carefully:

Hold on, to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along

Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Greg Holden, the musician who co-wrote Home for Phillip Phillips to perform after the Georgia native won American Idol, said the song was penned for “a friend who was going through a really dark time, and I wanted to write a song that sort of let them know that someone was there for them.”(1)

Home is immensely popular because of the way it emotionally connects with listeners. It’s been used in numerous movies, commercials and sporting events. When asked in an interview about the impact of Home on listeners, Phillip said:

“I hear the most incredible stories from people about how the song helped them through something tough in their life or was part of a beautiful celebration… ‘Home’ has these arms that can stretch so wide that people can relate to it in many ways.”

Home’s powerful message is particularly relatable to the beginning of the story of Ruth and Naomi. Hear again Ruth 1:14-16:

Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.”

Ruth’s actions in this moment are as important if not more so than the words she speaks to Naomi. The text says Ruth “clung” to her.  Now, for my of my life, whenever I’ve read this story, I’ve always pictured Ruth wrapping her arms around Naomi’s waist or her legs like a child who doesn’t want their parent to leave without them.  And if you do a Google search, you’ll find numerous paintings that depict Ruth as the one who seems to be clinging to Naomi out of fear and desperation.

But that’s not what is actually happening. We ascribe a modern day definition and image to the word “cling” that implies someone is desperately holding on for dear life. However, the Hebrew word for cling—dabaq—indicates the opposite is occurring. Dabaq means to keep close, to fasten your grip, to overtake, to stick together.

As Rev. Linda H. Hollies notes in her book on Ruth and Naomi:

Naomi did not quite “get it,” but Ruth was offering to shelter her from the storms of life, to stick by her side without fail, and to be her protection from harm and starvation… (3)

Ruth also takes a risk by protecting Naomi and taking her mother-in-law back to her hometown of Bethlehem in Judah. Ruth is a Moabite who has never left her home country of Moab. She was born there and raised there. She married one of Naomi’s sons in Moab and was planning to have a family and die in Moab.

Moab, by the way, wasn’t regarded highly by the people of Israel. Moab was renown for it’s sensual, sexually immoral habits, culture and mores. The Israelites, with a high sense of moral values, had a decree that other Gentiles could be converted to Judaism within two generations. However, Moabites had to wait ten generations to convert because of Moab’s reputation.

When Ruth leaves Moab with Naomi, she fully realizes that “her kind” will not be immediately accepted when she steps foot in Judah. And yet she still clings to Naomi and promises to go with her. Ruth is confident that the God of the Israelites will take care of them and lead them home.

During a sermon at the College Conference, Rev. Jill Vandewater Isola explained how Ruth’s devotion to Naomi and her trust in God reminded her of a scene from a popular TV drama where one character, Leo, a recovering alcoholic is giving advice to another character, Josh, who is struggling with depression and has contemplated suicide. Leo tells Josh a story. He says:

This guy is walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey, you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription and throws it down in the hole and moves on. And then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole. Can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. And then a friend walks by. “Hey, Joe, it’s me! Can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. The guy says, “Are you stupid? Now, we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.” (4)

This is what “home” is about, Rev. Jill told the conferees. “Home is where you’re not alone in your doubt and struggles,” she said. “Home is where someone is in the hole with you to help find the way out.”

Naomi is in a hole. She left Israel due to a severe famine. Then, she loses her husband and a decade later, she loses both her sons, presumably from illness. Naomi is grief-stricken, feeling hopeless—resigned to spend her remaining days in loneliness till she dies. Ruth, who has lost a husband, had a hard life in Moab and is uncertain about how she will be welcomed in a new land, “jumps in the hole” with Naomi. Ruth knows the way out and it is forward with God.

One of the College Conference’s keynote speakers, Rev. Becca Stevens, shared how the organization she founded, Thistle Farms in Nashville, TN, shows the way out and forward for women who’ve fallen on hard times.

After experiencing the death of her father and subsequent child abuse when she was 5, Becca longed to open a sanctuary that offered a loving community for the survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. In 1997, five women who had lived life on the streets and in prison were welcomed home to Thistle Farms. More than 20 years later, Thistle Farms continues to welcome women by providing free lodging, medical care, therapy and education for two years. Residents and graduates earn income through one of four social enterprises within Thistle Farms, and the global arm of the organization helps employ more than 1,800 women worldwide—women who face abuse, oppression, hunger and poverty in their countries.

Three incredibly brave and courageous women, graduates and employees of Thistle Farms, came on stage with Becca Stevens to share their stories of transformation—of how Thistle Farms clung to them and sheltered them from their storms. Each woman expressed gratitude to Thistle Farms for giving them welcome, redemption, love and hope.

Becca reminded the conferees that “being in community means there will always be someone who needs help,” and that “radical hospitality is what the church needs to be about.”

Being in community by clinging to those who need comfort and protection—by jumping down in the hole to help someone who is stuck and in trouble—is our biblical heritage. It’s in our identity as people of faith, as the apostle Paul states in his letter to the early Christian communities in Ephesians 2:19-22:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Do you catch what Paul is saying in these verses? We are joined together in Christ to build a home for God.

Not a brick and mortar or wooden or steel structure, mind you. That’s fine and all, but the apostle isn’t talking about traditional materials used to construct a church building. Those things are not what make the Church; they’re merely a casing or outfit for what truly is the Church: people. Flesh and blood human beings who create room for God to reside within their very souls and who seek to grow holy temples from their hearts.

We gather together as people of faith in community inside and outside of these walls because we are citizens of God’s kingdom and members of God’s household, no longer the strangers and aliens that parts of society and the world deem many among us to be.

We go out to do the work of Christ’s ministry in neighborhoods near and far because God calls us to cling to others, to provide comfort and love to our brothers and sisters. The reason why we serve at Clifton Men’s Shelter, Laundry Love and the Duluth Co-Op or send mission teams to Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic is because we desire to be in solidarity with fellow human beings who are hurting and who clamor for God’s justice and mercy.

We welcome people all backgrounds and walks of life to discover their meaning and purpose and to seek protection from their storms. We help those who are a bit stuck and need direction so that together we can together find a way out and forward with God.

Joined together in Christ, we make a home for one another. A home where none are alone in their doubts and struggles. A home where all are loved accepted and cherished.

Regardless if you are in this sanctuary or a hospital room or an apartment or a classroom or an office or a shelter for the poor, or a city park or an impoverished village on a hillside thousands of miles away or even a hole in the street, a home will be found and made.

For where you go, we will go.

And where you lodge, we will lodge.

And so will God, who clings to all of us, now and forever.

Amen.


References:

(1) Greg Holden quote: http://www.mcall.com/entertainment/lehigh-valley-music/mc-interviewing-greg-holden-after-writing-phillip-phillips-hit-home-singer-finds-himself-chasing-the-su-20151024-column.html

(2) Phillip Phillips quote: http://www.songwriteruniverse.com/phillip-phillips-interview-2014.htm

(3) “On Their Way to Wonderful: A Journey With Ruth and Naomi” by Linda H. Hollies, p. 15. The Pilgrim Press, 2004

(4) The West Wing, Season 2, Episode 10, “Noel,” 2000. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0745664/quotes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s About Surrender

A Sermon for the 7 pm Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship Service, December 24, 2017; Luke 2: 1-20 and Matthew 2:7-12

Intro: 

This evening’s sermon is unconventional for a Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. Rather than taking the traditional approach of doing character studies on each of the key figures in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth—the angels, the shepherds, Joseph and Mary—I’ve decided to explore this extraordinary event through the lens of a short animated Christmas special—Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story That Time Forgot.

Several of you may already be thinking that a cartoon illustration is better suited for young kids and their parents during the earlier Children’s Service and not serious enough for a service in which youth and adults come to profoundly reflect on the meaning of Christmas.

However, I can assure you there is as much spiritual substance and depth to be found in this Toy Story tale as there is in the beloved Charlie Brown Christmas and Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas specials. More than 50 years later, millions of people still gather with their families in front of their TV screens to watch Charlie Brown and the Grinch because it speaks powerfully to them, even though they are long past childhood themselves.

The elation that we discover again and again through the viewing of our favorite Christmas specials and movies (along with other holiday preparations) is reflective of the Christmas story itself. At the center of Christmas is the birth of the child who will turn the world upside down. A momentous occasion that brings forth great joy to the child that dwells inside each of our hearts and reminds us all that we are called to live as children of God.

Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable to you. May our entire selves be open to your wonders like a child on Christmas morning, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer, unto whom we surrender.

Sermon

If you’ve ever seen a Disney-Pixar film in the last 10 years, you are well aware that while these movies are, on the surface, made and marketed to appeal to children, they contain timely messages intended to grab the attention of adults.

Popular offerings like Frozen, Zootopia, Moana, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, and Coco offer keen insights on life and relationships as it relates to the themes of fear, doubt, loss, hope, mercy, redemption, purpose, vocation, friendship, and love.  And Toy Story That Time Forgot, which first aired in December 2014, is no different.

It’s two days after Christmas and Trixie the blue triceratops is depressed that 6-year-old Bonnie never plays with her like a dinosaur—resigned instead to the roles of goblin fairy, ice cream customer and baby reindeer. The part of prehistoric beast is given to an adorable new Christmas tree ornament named Angel Kitty who only speaks words of Christmas-related wisdom, which sounds cryptic to the other toys.

After being referred to again as a baby reindeer, Trixie lets out a loud sigh, prompting Angel Kitty to say: “Greet the world with an open heart.” Trixie just rolls her eyes and the other toys give the kitten puzzled stares because they don’t know what to make of the newcomer’s sayings.

Later, Bonnie takes Trixie, Angel Kitty, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and Rex the anxious T-Rex to her friend Mason’s house for a play date. When they get there, Bonnie sees Mason playing a virtual reality video game. Rex, lamenting that he has such short T-Rex arms, shouts: “You’ve got to be kidding me! He got an Optimus X for Christmas! Sadly, the controls are beyond my limitations.”

Angel Kitty responds matter-of-factually: “Limitations are the shackles we bind ourselves.” Again, her companions look at her puzzled.

After Bonnie tosses her belongings into her friend’s playroom, the toys discover that Mason received the complete toy line of battling reptilian-dinosaurs for Christmas. Known as Battlesaurs, these fierce creatures are led by the brave Reptillus Maximus and the devious Cleric. Reptillus then takes Rex and Trixie to get new armor and tech, while, unbeknownst to them, the Cleric orders some other Battlesaurs to take Woody, Buzz and Angel Kitty hostage.

Soon, Trixie and Reptillus begin developing romantic feelings. Trixie is admirative of the Battlesaurs, while Reptillus is intrigued by her world. During a conversation atop Reptillus’ lair, Trixie tells the warrior: “You must have the most amazing play-times.” Reptillus, unfamiliar with the concept of play-time, asks Trixie to explain. She goes on: “You know, play. When you give yourself over to a kid.” Trixie’s words startle Reptillus who replies: “Giving is surrender! A Battlesaur would never surrender!”

Later, Trixie and Reptillus enter the “Arena of Woe”, where Trixie is horrified to see Reptillus attack Mason’s toys in a gladiatorial combat setting. Soon Woody and Buzz enter the ring. Woody warns Trixie that Mason has never played with the Battlesaurs and that they don’t even know they’re toys. Reptillus  battles both Woody and Buzz till Trixie demands he stop. The Cleric deems Trixie an enemy after seeing she has Bonnie’s name on her hand. Trixie escapes the arena to get Bonnie’s attention and the Cleric orders Reptillus to stop her. As Reptillus chases Trixie, he is shocked to discover the box he came in.

Back at the Battlesaurs play-set, Woody and Buzz realize that the Cleric is the only Battlesaur who knows they’re all toys and is determined to make sure the others don’t find out so he can be their ruler. The Cleric then forces Rex to dispose of Woody and Buzz in a ventilation fan that would shred them.

Woody and Buzz scold the Cleric for doing such a dastardly deed during Christmas time. The Cleric is unfamiliar with the concept of Christmas, which prompts Angel Kitty to explain with another nugget: “The joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you.”

Meanwhile, Trixie reaches Mason’s video game power cord, hoping to turn it off and direct Bonnie’s focus to the playroom.

I found myself moved by this entire special, much in the same way I get chill bumps when Linus tells Charlie Brown the meaning of the holiday by reciting the birth of Jesus from Luke’s gospel. Or when the Whos in Whoville sing proudly about welcoming the light of Christmas, in spite of the Grinch’s theft of all their decorations and presents.

The title, Toy Story That Time Forgot, is an obvious reference to the dinosaur theme and also a cheesy 70s show called Land of the Lost where a family is thrown back in time and trapped in the pre-historic era. But for me, this Christmas special also seems to be a subtle nod to the story that we in modern times occasionally forget amid the hustle and bustle and commercialization of the season: the story of Emmanuel, God-with-us—the Christ child born in the straw poverty of a manger.

This 22-minute animated film, particularly the focus on the theme of surrender, reminded me of the words of the 20th century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote:

If we want to be part of these events, Advent and Christmas, we cannot just sit there like a theater audience and enjoy all the lovely pictures. Instead, we ourselves will be caught up in this action, this reversal of all things; we must become actors on this stage. For this is a play in which each spectator has a part to play, and we cannot hold back.

What will our role be? Worshipful shepherds bending the knee, or kings bringing gifts? What is being enacted when Mary becomes the mother of God, when God enters the world in a lowly manger? We cannot come to this manger in the same way that we would approach the cradle of any other child. Something will happen to each of us who decides to come to Christ’s manger.Each of us will have been judged or redeemed before we go away. Each of us will either break down, or come to know that God’s mercy is turned toward us.

What does it mean to say such things about the Christ child?…It is God, the Lord and Creator of all things, who becomes so small here, comes to us in a little corner of the world, unremarkable and hidden away, who wants to meet us and be among us as a helpless, defenseless child. 

So, as we come so near to Christmas, what does it look like for each of us to open our hearts, free ourselves from the shackle of limitations that bind us, give joy to others, and be grateful for the gifts that are all around us?

What does it look like if we recognize that the world is bigger than we know and that the God, to whom we forever belong, chooses many wondrous roles for us to play in this life?

What does it look like if we let go and fall into the hands of our Divine Creator and allow ourselves to be a part of God’s amazing story, God’s glorious play and God’s unique imagination?

What does it look like if we set aside our personal agendas and desires for conquest and give our hearts to the Christ child, to Emmanuel who saves humanity from impending doom and transforms the world with unconditional love and grace?

What does it look like in this Christmas season and the coming New Year, in the silent night and the approaching light of a new day if we take a moment to pause and breathe?

What does it look like if we surrender?

Amen.


References:

Toy Story That Time Forgot, Dec. 2, 2014. Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Television Animation and Disney-ABC Domestic Television. Written and Directed by Steve Purcell and produced by Galyn Susan. Music composed by Michael Giacchino.

Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ausburg Fortress Publishers, 2005

The Sheep of God’s Pasture

Sermon for Sunday November 26, 2017, Christ The King Sunday

Ezekiel 34:11-16a and Matthew 25:31-40

Pastor’s Note: This is the recycled and updated version of a sermon I preached in April 2010 called One Flock, One Shepherd

Several years ago, my family and I attended the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park.  Along the path that winds around the park were hundreds of booths displaying the works of local and regional artists that were as splendidly colorful, refreshing, and mesmerizing as the spring day that enfolded us.

One of the artists’ booths that particularly caught our eye and prompted much smiles and laughter was entitled “Sheep Incognito.” The booth featured a large collection of whimsical, humorous and thought-provoking oil-paintings of sheep, each one with an outrageous title:

A sheep flying in a bumble bee suit: Bumble Baaaaa

A sheep in a gumball machine: Baabblegum

A sheep in a pickup, wearing a cap and smoking a cig: Billy Baab and his Truck

A sheep standing on a ladybug while holding two bales of hay in its hooves and a stalk of corn on its nose: Baalancing Act

And in a scene that is most appropriate for today’s scripture readings—A sheep, standing in a luscious green pasture near a clear blue lake, is gazing up at the magnificent sky with a sweet smile on its face. The painting is entitled Beside Still Waters, a reflection on Psalm 23. But it could easily be referred to as The Sheep of God’s Pasture, a nod to the illustration in today’s passage from Ezekiel.

The artist Conni Togel, who lives on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, says this about why she paints sheep for a living:

“They really are just sheep, even though you might recognize yourself or those you know in what you are seeing. Truth be told, sheep are messengers of insane moments around us, fun things awaiting us, and focal points of special things in life that often slip by unnoticed. What’s more, being the peacenik creatures they are, the sheep love being part of a greater cause: bringing some joy and whimsy back to a world that seems to be headed into all sorts of wrong directions…The sheep really are a vehicle for the message I hope to impart to the world around me. It is about hope, laughter, love, courage and just a smidgen of insanity—all the things in life that make life wonderful.”[1]

I love Togel’s view of sheep as symbols of hope, laughter, courage and a smidge of insanity because it’s a perspective that is not commonly shared in society. Sheep are not held in the same high regard as other animals, animals well known for their power, might, wisdom, cunning and loyalty like the eagle, the lion, the dog and the bear.  Whenever anyone asks the popular small conversation starter question, “If you could be any animal, what kind of animal would you be?” rarely do you hear a person say, “A sheep!”

The use of the word sheep carries a lot of negativity, a lot of wooly baggage.  No one wants to be described as “sheepish” because it means they are embarrassed or ashamed.  And no group of people wants to be labeled as sheep because it implies they are brainless conformists for whom passivity is a lifestyle.

To be referred to as a “sheep” is always an insult.  And if sheep knew they were misunderstood and could talk like humans, well, they might loudly proclaim that they’re getting the proverbial short end of the shepherd’s crook.

Sheep, of course, are not intelligent enough to communicate in the same degree as are other animals like the dolphin or horse. But they are a lot smarter and more interesting than they’re given credit. For instance, sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled. Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, possessing excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of approximately 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads.  Sheep do have poor depth perception; shadows and dips in the ground may cause sheep to baulk…but sheep have a tendency to move out of the dark and into well-lit areas.”[2]

 All sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, and sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members. Sheep can recognize individual human and sheep faces, and remember them for years. And despite perceptions that sheep are dumb creatures, a University of Illinois study  on sheep found them to be on par with cattle in IQ, and some sheep have even shown problem-solving abilities.[3]

There are worse things a person can be compared to than sheep like a venomous snake or a cockroach.  And of all the animals chosen to describe human beings and their relationship to God, the one most often used is…a sheep. Throughout scripture, we are told again and again that God loves us and cares for us like a shepherd cares for the sheep—like a shepherd cares for the flock.

This image of God as the sovereign shepherd and God’s people as sheep has a permanent hold on Christian imagination and… piety, especially among ordained ministers (and elders). It is all too easy and common for preachers, like me, to see ourselves as those who have been trained at the very best religious institutions to “shepherd” and “pastor” a church, a “flock.”

While Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 25, among other texts, can be wonderful theological and practical lessons for how church leaders are called to be guides and caretakers, it’s important for all of us to remember that none of us are The Shepherd. Even when we as church leaders are trying to faithfully model our shepherding after Jesus’ preaching and teaching; we are still following Christ ourselves. We (church leaders) are also sheep and fellow members of the One Flock, and God in Christ alone is our Shepherd, and that is an extremely wonderful and humbling truth to behold.

This concept has particularly significance for us as we learn how to move forward and embrace God’s new vision for Pleasant Hill in the wake of founding and senior pastor Dave Fry’s last day as the church’s shepherd of 32 years.

While Dave gave us nearly a year in advance that his retirement was coming in mid November, there has been a decent amount of curiosity and anxiety (albeit mostly healthy) in the church: What will Pleasant Hill do without Dave? Who’s the Interim going to be? When are they getting here? Who will be called to serve as the senior pastor? How long will the search take?

So far, we’re doing well, which is not to say that the church doesn’t need a senior pastor.  As associate pastors, Jody, Jennie and I are completely capable of taking over some of the head of staff’s responsibilities, and yet we will be the first to say in January, “we’re so glad the church has an Interim Senior Pastor!”  And I know all of you will be equally excited to meet that new person who will help us through a time of transition and the eventual calling of a permanent head of staff.

What Dave’s retirement and absence is teaching me (and I hope the rest of us too) is that the One Flock of sheep, the Church Universal, keeps going no matter which ministers, elders, Christian Educators or church leaders are serving in a particular congregation.  The Church Universal keeps following The Shepherd even when folks leave the fold for whatever reason.

It’s true that a church’s staff and Session who oversee or lead ministries are called to use certain gifts for leadership and decision-making among the flock. But those folks are not the only shepherds nor is any one of them The Shepherd. The designated church leaders are not even the one flock, the Church, the larger body of Christ…not without the other members of the fold.

There are many members at Pleasant Hill who don’t have seminary degrees or master’s degrees or have not been ordained in the church that are faithfully leading, teaching, preaching, comforting, and nurturing the flock with the gifts God has given them. There are people doing extraordinary things among the fold even when one of the “shepherds” or church leaders is unavailable or busy with various church tasks. Ministry happens among the One Flock with, without and despite any one of us because of The Shepherd who leads all of us—who lays down his life for us so that we may live, love and serve abundantly.

The words of Ezekiel and Jesus help the church understand its role as God’s sheep and inspire the members of the one flock to do ministry. As one biblical scholar notes: “The calling inherent in this passage (from Ezekiel) is to do as God does: to care for the least, the last, the lost, and the excluded of society, out of a deep sense of love and compassion. This is a call that goes beyond the normal assumption that this pertains only to the pastor as shepherd; this image calls all in the church to minister to others.”[4]

We, who are nurtured by God like sheep under a shepherd’s care, are to live out a life that is keenly attuned to God’s presence in our midst. With sheep-like abilities we hear God’s voice, we see God’s face and we trust God will seek us out when we are lost, injured and weak and draws us from the darkness. And in return, we answer God’s command of us to minister to the broken and excluded people in society.

The command doesn’t come from a stern, tyrant king-like deity who seeks to condemn and torture our souls, but from a benevolent God who desires to nurture, rescue and protects us.

I realize that sounds odd when considering humanity’s long-held view of how a king or world leader should be. Those images of monarchy and dynasty and absolute power and prestige are engrained in our brains.

But the scriptures and our faith remind us again and again that God and Christ defy our expectations for how a leader should function.

Jesus is not a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time nor is Jesus like any crowned figurehead, dictator, world leader or president that has existed throughout human history.

Jesus is not a king who rides in on a horse, brandishing a sword or riding atop a tank, sporting a machine-gun as some renowned Christian preachers would have you believe. Nor is Jesus a bloodthirsty revenge seeking action hero or a ruthless drug kingpin as some aspects of pop culture depict him to be.

No, Jesus is the King of love and peace because Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our world and lives.

And this all-knowing, almighty, mysterious entity arrives not as a power-hungry, oppressive god seeking to wipe out sinners and evildoers.

But as a small defenseless child born into poverty—no less than an animal trough in the poorest part of town—and is visited first by sheep and shepherds.

The Child that grows into a man, who breaks bread with outcasts, heals the sick, and gives comfort to the prisoner.

The Man who does not dress up in regal clothes but who, as Matthew’s Gospel reminds us, appears as the hungry and thirsty person needing a drink; the stranger needing to be welcomed; the naked needing clothing; the sick needing comfort; and the prisoner needing a friend.

The Savior who presides over our lives and world not through acts of coercion and violence but through the supreme act of unconditional, selfless, suffering love.

The Ruler who builds a beloved community where all are welcome and compassion and love are freely and fully given.

The Shepherd who feeds, nurtures, rescues, protects and guides the flocks; and who calls each of us to do likewise for the least of these—the last, the lost, the despised and marginalized—all sheep of God’s pasture.

And all God’s people said: Baaaa—amen!

[1] Conni Togel, Sheep Incognito, http://www.charisma-art.com/

[2] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[3] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[4] Feasting on the Word : Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4, Christ the King Sunday, Ezekiel 34:11-16, Karyn L. Wiseman

Seeing The Face of God

A Sermon for Sunday August 6, 2017; Genesis 32:22-31 and Matthew 14:13-21

Shortly after graduating from seminary in 2005, American singer-songwriter and Grammy-award winning artist Tracy Chapman released the single, “Change”, a deeply moving song about what it would take for someone to make significant change in their lives. The song opened up my world to Chapman’s music and has helped inform my ministry for 12 years and counting. Ponder with me for a moment some of the lyrics:

If you knew that you would die today
If you saw the face of God and Love
Would you change?
If you knew that love can break your heart
When you’re down so low you cannot fall
Would you change?

How bad how good does it need to get?
How many losses how much regret?
What chain reaction
What cause and effect
Makes you turn around
Makes you try to explain
Makes you forgive and forget
Makes you change

When asked to discuss the song “Change” on The Tavis Smiley Show, Chapman said:

“Well, it’s a song that’s asking a question, really, about how do we make the best use of the life that we have… and how do we make changes that we often know we need to make but… for some reason can’t get around to it? And sometimes I think it’s extraordinary circumstances that kind of encourage people to get out of their day to day routine and do the thing that they know they need to do… Sometimes it’s love; sometimes it’s some sort of spiritual experience. … Sometimes it’s having something traumatic happen that really makes you see, ‘Oh, I need to adjust here and rethink my life.’”

A traumatic experience and extraordinary circumstances is precisely what leads Jacob to be changed.

When he is a teen, Jacob steals the family blessing meant for his older brother Esau and then runs away upon learning that Esau plans to kill him. Many years pass, and Jacob (now settled down in another land with a family of his own) yearns to make amends for deceiving Esau. Jacob sends a gift of animals to his brother in the hopes that he will be granted forgiveness. Esau sends a messenger back to Jacob saying that he is coming to meet him…with 400 of his men!

Concluding that Esau is still out for blood, a frightened Jacob asks God to spare him from death before sending more animals to appease Esau. Then that night Jacob takes his family to an area on the other side of the Jabbok River, presumably for safety in the event that Esau attacks while they are sleeping. And it is while Jacob is alone in the woods that a stranger appears and immediately wrestles him.

“Jacob Wrestling God”, illustration from The Holy Motion Story Bible. Published by Sparkhouse Publishing. 2017

The wrestling match between the mysterious man and Jacob lasts until sunrise, and afterwards Jacob asks his opponent to bless him. In doing so, the man tells Jacob: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”  The man seemingly disappears and Jacob names the site of the match Penuel saying, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.”

 

A few hours later, Jacob goes out to meet Esau, bowing down many times to show respect. In response, Esau runs toward Jacob and joyfully embraces him. Following a brief exchange, they go their separate ways with Jacob forgiven and at peace.

It’s a beautiful story, a testament to how encounters with God in the midst of the daily struggles of living can lead to redemption and transformation. Jacob experienced that “long dark night of the soul” over the divine call to reconcile with Esau; saw the face of God in the struggle; and was changed.

Like Jacob, many of us have wrestled with God into the wee hours of the morning—discerning the questions, problems, decisions and emotions that stir our soul.

We have wrestled with a God who draws not only us, but all people from the darkness of night into the dawn of a new day.

We’ve wrestled till our bodies were sore and our joints were out of place—marked with the painful and exhilarating truth that we can’t escape God’s call to practice reconciliation, mercy and love regardless of how hard we fight against it.

We’ve wrestled just as the disciples of Jesus once did when they were confronted with the dilemma of ministering to more than 5,000 people at sundown in a remote area.

The disciples were tired and emotionally drained. They were grieving the news that John the Baptist had been brutally murdered by King Herod, worried for their own safety, hungry, frustrated… and more than ready for all these flippin’ people to leave so they could go home, eat and sleep.

Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” the disciples tell Jesus, thinking he might respond with a yawn and say, “Ok fellas, you’re right. Been a long day. I’m exhausted too. Let’s go home, get some grub and go to bed. These folks can fend for themselves.”

But instead, Jesus replies: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” The disciples then hand five loaves and two fish, and per Jesus’ instruction, orders the crowds to sit down on the grass. Jesus then blesses the food and gives to the disciples to feed the people. And, according to Matthew’s gospel account, which we’ve heard read, “all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”

The disciples wrestled with Christ’s call to care for others; saw the face of God in the breaking of the bread and their feeding of the people; and they were changed.

When we wrestle, we come face to face with the living God who moves us to “make changes we need to make” and “get out of the daily routine to do the thing we know we need to do.”

Leaving our comfort zones and taking risks to help our neighbors who are suffering is a struggle. Patience and fortitude is needed if we are to hang on long enough to see God and be transformed by our encounter with the holy.

The high school youth and I have found this to be true during two separate mission trips we’ve taken with the DOOR Network over the last eight years. At one of DOOR’s five locations across the U.S., church groups Discover Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection by serving in various non-profits that assist the low income, the poor, the sick and the mentally and physically challenged; learn about issues in the community; and reflect on the experiences.

The DOOR Network’s motto is: “See the face of God in the city,” and at the end of each mission trip, volunteers are asked to share about where they saw God while they were serving during the week. In 2009, during our first trip with DOOR San Antonio (Texas), we were specifically sent out in our smaller work teams look for and interact with God for a half-hour.

That was a very exciting assignment for two of the three work teams whose destination was a large local park where there were a variety of God sightings: children playing games, families having a picnic, people walking their dogs, couples sitting on benches, artists painting the trees, and the homeless camped out on the far edge of the grounds.

But for the third team, who were told to walk down to the Texaco gas station and convenience store to find God, the undertaking seemed hopeless and lame.

Not even yours truly, an ordained pastor on his first summer youth mission trip at a new church, or Erik Mjorud, a long-time youth adviser and mission tripper who serves the “least of these” like most people breathe air, could manage to find the upside in the excursion.

How in the world would we see the face of God at the gas station? Gas stations are nothing like parks. Motorists slowly pumping gas. (Oh look, God buys premium.) Customers deciding whether to purchase a red or yellow Gatorade inside the store. (Cool, God loves red.) Fairly mundane tasks. And the thought of chatting up folks who were filling up their cars or shopping inside seemed awkward…and creepy. The scenario simply didn’t conjure up an inspiring example for Erik, four youth and I to bring back and share with the rest of the group.

“Ugh, a gas station,” we muttered as we proceeded to sit for nearly 25 minutes in the 98-degree heat on the sidewalk facing the pumps and the front door of the convenience store.

We were hot, tired, bored, antsy and irritable. Erik and I kept looking at each other and rolling our eyes as if to say, “When will this grueling chore be over?” We were wrestling with frustration over not being able to see the face of God and not having a story to tell the rest of the group. We felt like failures.

Then suddenly, as we were about ready to leave, a guy with dirty marks on his face, greasy hair, a scraggly beard and torn, stained, disheveled clothes walked from behind another building and crossed in front of us to go inside the store. We all exchanged wide-eyed glances. Erik volunteered to walk in and subtly find out the homeless man’s story.

A couple minutes later, Erik comes out and says to us: “Our homeless friend asked the clerk if he could give him a sandwich and some water. The clerk politely said he couldn’t help. I told him we might be able to do something.”  We pooled what cash we had in our pockets and gave to Erik who went back inside and bought God two sandwiches and a bottle of water.

This memory came to me about a month ago while three of our high school teens and I did mission work with two other church youth groups at DOOR-Atlanta. On our first evening, after dinner at Central Presbyterian Church, we were given bags of sandwiches, chips and water to distribute to dozens of people who sleep on the sidewalk outside of the building.

As we offered the food, we looked into each face—male, female; white, brown and black; young, middle-aged and old; a couple with cigarettes dangling from their lips, a few with cuts and bruises; some with wide smiles and toothy grins, and others with quiet demeanor—and we saw, to our surprise, the face of God staring back.

God always shows up in the most unlikely of places and people. We just need to open our eyes to see. Consider, for instance, this short video by Jewish filmmaker Meir Kay called “Eating Twinkies With God”:

In a description of the video on YouTube, Kay says:

“We don’t need to look far and wide for God. He’s in every one of us and in every thing that we do. Whether you believe or not, we all can agree that …each good act that we do makes this world a brighter place”

By seeing the face of God in others, especially the most poor and vulnerable among us, our minds and bodies are stretched and are eyes and hearts are open. We are changed, and we are forever determined to be the change for others—to be the body of Christ broken and spilled, remembered and shared.

We are reminded of this every time we come to the communion table and affirm that God is present with us in here and with all those out there whom we are called to serve with compassion. Presbyterian author and pastor Frederick Buechner (in his book Beyond Words) explains it this way:

To eat this particular meal together is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need not just for food, but for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters. The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, ‘Christ died for thee.” That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee.”

Amen.

The Wonder of Wonder Woman

Warning: Some spoilers. Only scroll down if you’ve seen the new DC and Warner Brothers film Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot

I didn’t realize how much I had missed the wonder of an action-adventure  film until I saw Wonder Woman last weekend.

I’ve seen so many from the genre that have been amazing visually and had a decent plot, but not a one left me in awe and yearning to immediately see again and again and again (with a few exceptions like the original Star Wars Trilogy, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, Raiders of the Lost Ark;  Inception, The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

But after seeing Gal Gadot become the Amazon warrior princess for more than two hours, that deeply refreshing and magical sense of wonder returned after a long drought. I walked out of the theater wanting to be Wonder Woman or in the very least have the same moral fiber and abilities. My other beloved heroes like Han Solo, Aragorn, Batman and Captain Jack seem pale in comparison to Diana.

There is something about the character and Gal Gadot’s portrayal that seems more authentic than any other hero that has graced the screen. Wonder Woman is certainly larger than life and has the powers of a god/goddess. Yet she is also down to earth. She’s not bound by ego or seduced by power. Diana doesn’t use tricks or charm or beauty. Nor does she put on any pretenses. She just is who she is. And the attributes that make up Diana/Wonder Woman is the wonder we deserve…errr…need to continue to believe in everyday:

Diana has a dream and she is determined to attain it. As a girl, Diana desires nothing more than to become a great Amazon warrior and protector like her mother and aunt. She never shies away from the difficult training to become the best she can be. And she doesn’t let the doubts and worries of the other women on Themyscira distract her from achieving her dream. As an adult,   Diana also never doubts her own abilities or who she is called to be. She never has the “I can’t do this” moment and chucks her lasso and tiara like many male super heroes have thrown their costumes in the trash. Diana is also determined to get that sword and shield of hers through a revolving door.


Diana sticks to her convictions and stands up for what is right even if she is greatly opposed.

Diana challenges her mother Hippolyta often in the first half of the movie: she insists that Steve Trevor is a good man and that the women of Themyscira should help him and the Allies defeat the Germans in WWI; she further believes that the war-god Ares is the master behind “the war to end all wars,” and that it is their duty as Amazons to stop him. Later in the film Diana stands up to the Allied generals who refuse to stop Ludendorff’s plan to gas thousands of innocents. She also constantly pushes Steve and the mission team (Sameer, The Chief and Charlie) to make the time to help others and defend the defenseless. And there’s the iconic scene where Diana–tired of being told not to help the helpless on their arduous journey to Ludendorff’s base of operations–steps out of a trench and leads the charge (enduring a barrage of bullets and explosives) to overrun a hill and village occupied by German forces.

Diana is brave and courageous. 

The scene in the alleyway where Diana uses her bracelets to block the bullets meant for Steve Trevor. But more importantly…The Trench:

Steve Trevor: This is no man’s land, Diana! It means no man can cross it, alright? This battalion has been here for nearly a year and they’ve barely gained an inch. All right? Because on the other side there are a bunch of Germans pointing machine guns at every square inch of this place. This is not something you can cross. It’s not possible.

Diana Prince: So… what? So we do nothing?

Steve Trevor: No, we are doing something! We are! We just… we can’t save everyone in this war. This is not what we came here to do.

Diana Prince: No. But it is what I am going to do.

Nuff said.

Diana is confident and compassionate. 

Women often get mislabeled as being soft, particularly if they are showing compassion. Diana/Wonder Woman proves once again that women (like any human being regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation) can be both. Diana is not disarmed or rattled by the fears and worries of Sameer and Charlie and she doesn’t spiral into self-doubt about the challenges of their mission. She also never waivers once she is convinced that something must be done to help those who are in peril. And she doesn’t quit being Wonder Woman when tragedy strikes like the gassing of the village she had previously helped save. She becomes more resolute about ending the brutality of Ludendorff, Dr. Poison and Ares. For Diana, confidence and compassion go hand-in-hand.

Diana’s confidence and compassion makes her a loyal friend.

Diana shows sympathy to Charlie, who has experienced much brokenness and loss, and gives him encouragement. She reminds him of his value to their mission group. Diana also listens with an open mind and heart to the perspectives of Sameer and The Chief as they share their difficulties as men of color. Even though she is clearly the most powerful and the wisest, she doesn’t push Steve Trevor aside and take over. And at the same time, she also goes against his orders and follows her own heart, mind and convictions to do what is best for the group and the world.

Diana kicks ass… and it’s a work of art.

There’s just something breath-taking, elegant and even graceful about how Diana/Wonder Woman takes out her foes. It’s much like watching a beautiful dance instead of male heroes and villains trading punches and ramming their bodies through walls. No smack talk and bravado either. She just gets it done. Diana/Wonder Woman is #neverthelessshepersisted.

Diana shows mercy.

At a pivotal point near the film’s end, Diana has an opportunity to destroy Dr. Poison for the suffering and death she has inflicted on many lives, including those of children. Instead of seeing a monster, Diana realizes Dr. Maura is a victim of the cruel monster of war–personified by Ludendorff and Ares. Diana also decides that more destruction and death of human beings will not make a bit of difference and thus, she sets aside the giant tank aside she is about to drop on the doctor.

Diana believes in love.

It’s the moment all fans of the film have been talking about non-stop (aside from The Trench).  In response to Ares contempt for human kind and his question of Wonder Woman’s devotion to ordinary people, Diana says:

“You don’t get what you deserve. It’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.”

And then she promptly eradicates the darkness and evil of Ares with a ferocious and illuminating light.

Throughout the entire film, Diana/Wonder Woman has made a choice to believe in love and to shine light wherever she goes.

In the film’s final scene, Diana writes in an email to Bruce Wayne that she has learned the following about herself, humanity and her path ahead:

“I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves – something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know… that only love can truly save the world. So now I stay, I fight, and I give – for the world I know can be. This is my mission now, for ever.”