They Were Overwhelmed

Sermon for December 24, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Christmas Eve. Matthew 2:1-12

Fifteen years ago, while I was serving as an associate minister at a Presbyterian church in Silver Spring, Maryland, on a Saturday morning in December, Elizabeth and I saw an online advertisement for a Christmas tree farm located an hour away from our apartment:  

7-FT FRASER FIRS, $50. 

PICK OUT THE ONE YOU LIKE

BRING YOUR OWN SAW.”

We were instantly amazed by such a great deal, considering that most Fraser firs cost two to three times that much at chain retail stores. There was even a picture of an enormous tree located on the farm.

However, we also looked at each other with skepticism and laughed: “This can’t be for real. There’s gotta be a catch. I bet they only have one really good tree that’s already been claimed and the rest are scrawny or missing limbs. Or they’re going to con us into buying extra stuff we don’t need like a stand and lights.”  But we decided to check out the farm, anyway, thinking it might be a fun adventure and a good laugh.

When we arrived at the farm, we were thrilled to find the truth as advertised: rows of 7-ft Fraser firs with the price tag of $50. We picked out the one we liked best, cut it down, tied it carefully to the top of our car and headed back to the entrance to pay for the tree.

As soon as we pulled out the check book, the owner of the farm said politely, “I’m sorry, but we don’t take checks. Only cash.” Unfortunately, we didn’t have any cash on us and worse, it was 4:30 pm on a Saturday, out in the country. We asked the owner if there were any ATMs nearby that we could quickly visit while they held the tree for us. The owner thought of one that was 10 miles away and began to give directions when he stopped and said, “You know what, it’s going to be after dark by the time you get back. Y’all just take this tree home and send me the money later.”

Now, we really were surprised and also feeling a guilty for previously believing some hick farmers were going to pull a fast one on us. The farm owner had no reason to trust that we would ever send him money for the tree, nor would he have ever been able to find us if we hadn’t. But trust us, he did. Humbled greatly by the farm owner’s generosity—feeling ashamed that we had misjudged him—we returned home and put a check in the mail for more than $100 for the tree.

We were overwhelmed that Advent and Christmas with unexpected hope, peace, joy and love of Christ in our midst. There have been other Christmases since then that we’ve felt just as moved by what occurred around us during the holidays. The outpouring of care and support from family, friends, and the church in Duluth where I was serving as an associate pastor, when my father-in-law died on Dec. 19, 2012. The abundance of kindness that came in the form of diapers, onesies with puffy-paint messages and cards that came with the arrival of our second child, Davis, on November 29, 2013. 

As parents, we are always elated to watch our children receive their yearly Christmas tree ornament that is representative of something they enjoyed doing a lot that year—a favorite TV show or extracurricular activity. We beam when Katie and Davis’ eyes and smiles grow wide, gazing at the lights in the neighborhood from the backset of the minivan. We relish their exuberance when they make cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve and then discover they’ve been eaten the following morning. And those squeals of delight upon opening presents rings in our ears throughout Christmas Day.

We are overwhelmed, and, truth be told, I’ve never not been overwhelmed at Advent and Christmas. I’m almost 45 years old and I have as much trouble sleeping now on Christmas Eve as I did when I was 5 because I’m so excited for Christmas Day. The glee that bounds from my heart at this time comes from not knowing quite what to expect.

Often what we receive is too good to be true, more than what we expected and greater than any particular material gift wrapped in shiny paper and bows.

I’m not sure exactly what those magi, the great scholars from the East, were anticipating when they set out on their camels to visit the child, Emmanuel. But Matthew’s gospel indicates that when the star stopped above a home in Bethlehem, “they were overwhelmed with joy.” And when they walked through the doorway, “they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”

The magi were overwhelmed by the holy mystery that sat innocently before them. And their magnificent encounter reminds us that God becomes incarnate as a poor, vulnerable infant during a period of great suffering and political tumult. As soon as their visit ends, the magi return to their own country by another road because they are warned in a dream to not return to King Herod who wishes harm on Jesus. Herod’s maddening fear of losing his throne, of course, causes Joseph, Mary and Jesus to flee to Egypt for refuge and prompts the king to kill all the children of Bethlehem who are 2 and under.

We too live in a world of suffering and brokenness and mad rulers. We don’t ever know precisely what to expect on any given day. It’s made many of us skeptical, cynical and fearful. When we learn of something new and potentially wonderful coming on the horizon, we can choose to scoff, be afraid or feel threatened. Or we can allow ourselves to be humbled, captivated and transformed. We can become filled with anger or we can be overwhelmed with delight.

The idea that God would enter the world as a vulnerable, defenseless child is too good to be true. There’s got to be a catch. And yet there isn’t one. The surprise of the unexpected gift that we prepare for and celebrate every year is so good, it is astoundingly true. Even though we don’t deserve it and have done absolutely nothing to earn it, Emmanuel (God-with-us) comes into each and every one of our lives, overwhelming us with the hope, peace, joy and love that we are to embody for the rest of our days.

Amen.

Let It Be

A Sermon for Sunday, December 20, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. The Fourth Sunday of Advent. Luke 1:26-38. 

“Let it Be”—the beautiful title track of The Beatles’ 12th and final studio album, released in spring 1970. It’s one of my favorite songs and for a long time, I figured, as did thousands of others, that it was about Mary the mother of Jesus. 

Actually, the inspiration for the song is Paul McCartney’s mother Mary who died when he was 14 years old. A decade or so later, Paul was having a restless, anxious night of sleep when he dreamed that his mother came to him in his time of trouble, “speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” The dream immediately brought Paul peace, and in the days that followed, he began writing the song. 

In a 2018 interview with late night host James Corden, during the Carpool Karaoke segment, Paul explained: [1]

“She was reassuring me, saying, ‘It’s going to be OK, just let it be.’ I felt so great. She gave me the positive words. I woke up and thought, ‘What was that? She said, ‘Let it Be.’ That’s good.’ So I wrote the song out of positivity.”

Let it be. While the song is not about Jesus’ mom, it is the answer that Mary gives to the angel Gabriel after being told that she will be the bearer of God in human form.

“Let it be with me, according to your word,” she says, mustering up just enough confidence to respond to this sudden Divine request. 

And as soon as Gabriel disappeared without a trace, I suspect that Mary remained perplexed by the encounter with the angel and continued to ponder what her “let it be” means. She mulled over questions about why God chose her and how and when exactly she would suddenly become pregnant. She contemplated how this pregnancy would be quite challenging for her as a poor teenage girl in ancient Palestine. 

Rev. Dr. Courtney V. Buggs, a visiting assistant professor of homiletics at Christian Theological Seminary in Indiana, invites readers to examine more carefully the context of Mary’s situation and time:[2]

“Consider the life of a young girl on the cusp of marriage4 in the small agrarian town of Nazareth. … Imagine Mary’s pregnant body, continuing with the rhythms of a fishing communitycleaning, slicing, preparing. Imagine the strain on her back as she carried water from the well. Imagine the swelling of her feet as she planted and gathered the harvest during the late stages of pregnancy. Imagine the sweat dripping from her brow as she gathered grain and kneaded it for the evening meal. Social distancing and ridicule for an unwed pregnancy aside, life for Mary would not have been easy. The communal lessons of piety, submission, hospitality, and homemaking, with the expectation of marriage would have framed her cultural narrative. Shame and self-doubt may have encroached upon her mental well-being.”

Though numerous works of art have romanticized Mary and her pregnancy, and many Christians lift up her up as this exemplar of public submission, obedience and discipleship, I’m doubtful that Mary’s journey was as ideal, glamorous and easy as it’s been made to be over the centuries. 

When we take a more realistic look at what Mary experiences, we discover that this is a remarkable and courageous young woman who endured a lot of pain and hardship to birth love into the world. Mary didn’t always feel her best or look picturesque. She was achy, bruised and exhausted from laboring all day in the fields and homemaking for the rest of the evening. She was emotionally depleted from the stares and murmurs about an out of wedlock pregnancy. And she likely had serious doubts about whether she could carry on and wondered if God should’ve picked someone else for such an enormous task.

Yet in spite of all the challenges surrounding her, Mary persisted onward, perhaps with some support from her family, Joseph and a few members of her community, but mostly with the help of God.

Gabriel comforted Mary with the assurance that God would be present with her as she fulfilled her calling:

And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Gabriel shares this previously unknown family news as a way of assuring Mary that if God is able to be with Elizabeth during her pregnancy, God is going to be with Mary through hers. 

Mary leans on the angel’s comforting words and sticks to her convictions, that encouraging and resolute reply, “Let it be with me.”

Let it be.


Let it be with me.

Let love be with me.

Musician and global activist Bono, lead singer for the Irish rock band U2, once said in an interview:[3]

The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty…I just thought: ‘Wow!’ Just the poetry…Unknowable love, unknowable power, describes itself as the most vulnerable. …Love needs to find form, intimacy needs to be whispered. To me, it makes sense. It’s actually logical. It’s pure logic. Essence has to manifest itself. It’s inevitable. Love has to become an action or something concrete. It would have to happen. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.

Let love be with me

If God was with Mary long ago, then God is also surely with us now. 

We are the body of Christ and the divine spark dwells within each human being; thus we have a sacred responsibility to manifest Christ’s love in the world in all that we say and do.

We are God-bearers and the work of God-bearing is hard. It’s grueling and complicated and messy. There are days where we’re not so sure God has chosen the right person for the job, but we keep abiding, none the less.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian theologian and martyr, once wrote: [4]

“Our living as real human beings, and loving the real people next to us is, again, grounded only in God’s becoming human, in the unfathomable love of God for us human beings. God becomes human out of love for humanity. God does not seek the most perfect human being with whom to be united but takes on human nature as it is.”

The God of the impossible creates the possible through love.

May we take great solace in that truth, and may we let the love of God in Christ shine brightly from our hearts. 

Let it be. 

Let it be.


Amen.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjvzCTqkBDQ

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-126-38-5

[3] Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas. Riverhead Books. 2005

[4] Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Augsburg Fortress. 2005

The Heart of Everyone

A Sermon for Sunday, December 13, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Third Sunday of Advent. John 1:1-9 (The Voice Bible)

Three weeks before Thanksgiving, my social media feeds filled up with posts from friends and colleagues declaring that it was time to pull out the holiday decorations and crank up the music because, in 2020, some Advent joy was due, even if it was too early to start preparing and celebrating. 

In a normal year, this season—with all its pageantry of winter magic and good cheer—is difficult for many whose heartache over the death of a loved one, loss of a job or other unforeseen challenges seems to intensify during a period in which people are expected to be merry and bright. It’s tough to find and absorb joy.

For decades, the Christian Church–recognizing that it’s ok for folks to be sad and not be in a festive spirit—have held Blue Christmas Worship Services to emphasize that the point of Christmas is not to be perfectly happy, but to remember that in the midst of the hardship, God is with us.

Emmanuel, from the beginning, has been present in creation, which the writer of John’s Gospel attests to in today’s scripture reading:

“Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking.

The Voice was and is God. This celestial Word 

remained ever present with the Creator;

His speech shaped the entire cosmos.
Immersed in the practice of creating,

all things that exist were birthed in Him.”

When we gather for a Blue Christmas service, or any worship service, we are bringing our concerns together before God as a community of God’s people. We are affirming, more in action than words, that we’re all connected in this life of achievements and failures, healings and sufferings, bad days and good ones.

It’s in unity that we receive strength from God in Christs and one another to carry on. It’s in solidarity that we discover joy when we’re reminded that we’re not alone in our anguish. There is, according to the scripture, a thriving and blazing light in the cosmos— “a living, breathing, light…the elusive mystery of Divine Light…who shines upon the heart of everyone.”

Joy as light becomes a focal point for a life of faith. Joy centers our gaze so we can move forward along the road, inch by inch. Joy holds our eyes upward so we can keep our head above the choppy waters.

For me, the joy that is keeping me focused on the light that “shines upon the heart of everyone” is my family of Elizabeth, Katie and Davis. This photo, taken during Advent 2016, is a reminder that in spite of the adversities we face or moments when we’re getting on each other’s nerves or the state of our society and nation, I find great joy in being linked to them. There is a flicker of light that makes my heart leap when they are near and when I’m missing them at a distance. 

Another joy that keeps me fixated on the light during the holidays and this turbulent year are stories of inspiration, of those who find ways to shine on those who are grappling with the gloom. Here is one that I saw a few days ago:

WSB-TV Atlanta, Channel 2 News: 

Meet the extra special people who would be overjoyed to bring you a cup of coffee: During the pandemic it has been nearly impossible for people to connect. Java Joy a nonprofit empowered by special adults with special needs are serving up more energy than the caffeine in their cups of coffee.

https://www.wsbtv.com/community/people-2-people/meet-extra-special-people-who-would-be-overjoyed-bring-you-cup-coffee/20db2255-7cd7-41c4-a921-24c87c801210/

The light of joy can be found in the most wondrous of places, the most challenging of times and the smallest acts of kindness and care, and it can and will illumine the heart of the entire world.

Amen.

Prepare the Way

Sermon for Sunday, December 6, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Second Sunday of Advent. Mark 1:1-8. 

Several years ago, I created a series on my blog about The Peace of Christ, in which I asked friends and colleagues in ministry to reflect on both the ritual we practice in worship and how they experience Christ’s peace in their lives. One particular idea about peace, expressed by musician, author and activist, David LaMotte—often comes to mind whenever I hear the word “peace”; say the “Peace of Christ be with you,” to a congregation; or consider the work of peacemaking. David wrote:[1]

“We too often confuse peace with placidity. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the product and process of doing conflict well.”

He adds:

“Conflict is not the enemy. In fact, it is a useful tool in the search for what is real and true. None of us has all of the answers, or at least all of the right answers, so our ideas necessarily conflict. That’s not a bad thing. The question is how we manage that conflict, how we listen and struggle together to seek better ways and ideas.”

During this time of year, more than any other, we are inundated by messages of peace. The phrases, “Let there be peace on earth” and “Peace on earth will come,” are shared endlessly in Christmas songs, movies, TV commercials, greeting cards, decorations and social media posts. The sentiment and desire for such a reality is rooted in the announcement of Jesus’ birth by the angel and the multitude of heavenly hosts who exuberantly say to the lowly shepherds in the fields:

“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. … Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Peace on earth. Peace on Christmas Day. Peace in the midst of conflict. Every year, we wish longingly for that peace to come and be known, and to bring an end to war and resolve all of our fighting.

But what if we don’t have to wait for peace to come? Suppose that it’s already here, having arrived more than two thousand years ago as an impoverished child. That’s what we get ready to celebrate from Dec. 24 to January 6: not the peace that is to come, but the moment in which peace came.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” John the Baptist, the wild prophetic preacher and cousin of Jesus, reminds us with a prophetic yawp. Cultivate, harvest, receive and embody the peace of Christ over the whole earth. Through the Spirit of God, be washed, renewed and clothed with a peace that is authentic, messy, holy, powerful, imaginative, and transformative.

I realize, however, that it’s easier said than done these days. Our planet is full of brokenness and pain. Our stress levels are probably the highest they’ve ever been because of the pandemic, political strife and ongoing societal issues. As someone who copes with depression and anxiety, it’s challenging to amass peace. Because I’m overly distracted by all that is happening on a personal, professional and global levels, I have difficulty centering myself in the peace of Christ that is always present and abundant.

The reality, though, is that if I don’t create moments to see and embrace peace, allowing it to dwell richly within me—by praying, meditating, studying scripture and stepping back to catch my breath–amid the conflict and chaos, then I risk burning out completely.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a great inspiration and faith mentor whom I often turn to for wisdom, suggests that we should see ourselves internally as an “oasis of peace, as a pool of serenity with ripples going out to all those around you.” He observes:[2]

You can also begin by biting off the sharp retort that was almost certainly going to hurt the other. Perhaps somebody has done something or said something and you were going to give as good as you got. Instead you turn the interaction around and shock them by being quiet, or perhaps by smiling, or if that’s too difficult, by simply walking away. Rather than intensifying the anger or the hatred, you say in your heart, ‘God bless you.’ … If more of us could serve as…oases of peace, we might just be able to turn around a great deal of the conflict, the hatred, the jealousies, and the violence. This is a way that we can take on the suffering and transform it. Let us watch our tongues. We can so easily hurt one another. Our harsh words can extinguish a weak, flickering light. It is far too easy to discourage, all too easy to criticize, to complain, to rebuke. Let us try instead to see even a small amount of good in a person and concentrate on that. Let us be quicker to praise than to find fault. Let us be quicker to thank others than to complain. Let us be gentle with God’s children.”

Desmond Tutu touches on what I believe is most vital about tending to Christ’s peace in our lives: the small things we do to care for ourselves and others matters. They eventually create a pile of good that envelops the world. Making space for peace to be a way of life is how we, in David LaMotte’s words, “manage that conflict” and “listen and struggle together to seek better ways and ideas.”

God, via the cries of John the Baptist, issues us a bold invitation to actively fashion room in our hearts, minds, bodies and souls for Christ’s peace. We prayerfully respond with those profound words of Saint Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

When we wake up and go to bed, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

When we purchase and enjoy a meal, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

When we run errands, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

When we work, volunteer and play, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

When we wear a mask or a seat belt, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

When we worship and serve others, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

When we nurture our family, Lord make me an instrument of your peace.

When we fret over covid-19, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

When we argue and fight, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

When we witness injustice, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

When we think and speak and create, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. 

The peace of Christ is here. Let us each assume our role in gathering a piece of it to manifest and share.

Amen.

[1] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/08/29/david-lamotte-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[2] God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time by Desmond Tutu, Crown Publishing Group, 2004.

We Are The Clay

A Sermon for Sunday, November 29, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. First Sunday of Advent. Isaiah 64:1-9

It’s been a hard and exhausting year. Our entire way of life has changed drastically in nine months because of a pandemic. 

In the U.S. alone, more than 12 million have been affected by covid-19, and 265 thousand have died of this disease. Nearly 800,000 are unemployed. Thousands upon thousands are hungry and poor.

Many of us are wearing masks, practicing social distancing, covering our hands in sanitizer, avoiding large gatherings, and refraining from shopping in malls, dining in restaurants and going to movie theaters, museums and other places that attract significant crowds of people. 

We’re postponing ceremonies and weddings and vacations and trips to see numerous extended family members and friends during the holidays.  We’re working and doing school from home and interacting with others through screens.  And we’re no longer physically worshipping in our church sanctuaries—which is especially challenging as we approach the season of Advent, a time where our traditional preparations for Christmas are so contingent on being together with all those whom we love and cherish.

Additionally, the injustices of society and personal struggles continue on in spite of a pandemic and are even exacerbated because of it. The nation is fractured and at odds with itself over numerous issues: response to the pandemic, racism and police brutality and the presidential election. We don’t quite know who we are or where things are going. 

This year has been hard, and we are weary. We’re ready for 2020 to be over.

However, when 2021 comes at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, all of the trouble, sadness, pain and brokenness won’t magically disappear. The new year will be hard too and we will remain fatigued.  Yet we will also continue the faith practice of lament.

PC(USA) minister, the Rev. Lynn Miller, author of the current Presbyterian Women’s Bible Study curriculum, Into the Light: Finding Hope Through Prayers of Lament, says that “lament often concerns an event in time—in the past, present, or future.” She writes further:

“Public lament announces wrongs and injustices both to God and to neighbor. Lament is directed toward the one who is believed to have the capacity to change the situation or correct the injustice. Biblical lament often includes a statement of trust that God will change the situation or right the injustice. Laments spoken to God are prayers. However, laments are not just spoken prayers. The psalms of lament were sung prayers. Prayed, sung, spoken, painted, danced, or communicated in some other way, laments bridge the space between our faith in God and the reality of living in our not-yet-redeemed world. …Prayers of lament are petitions to God that come out of real need. When we offer prayers of lament to God, we declare our trust in God and our dependence on God. We acknowledge the depths and effects of suffering on human beings and on creation.”

Today’s scripture reading, Isaiah 64:1-9, is a lament that echoes the challenges the Israelites are experiencing. Some Israelites who are returning to Jerusalem from their previous exile by Babylonian Empire are clashing with Israelites who have been living under Persian rule. Persian colonization is fueling arguments among the Israelites over social standing, political and religious authority and their identity as God’s first chosen people. The prophet’s poem petitions God to intervene and resolve the conflict:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
[
a] as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil …

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
    those who remember you in your ways.”

With our prayers of lament, we too ask God to enter the world and redeem it from suffering and heartache, again and again and again.

And God does. That is the purpose of observing Advent—the reason we actively wait to celebrate the birth of Christ, of God-with-us, Emmanuel. Every year at this time we affirm that God is present in our lives and has changed, is changing and will change everything for the better through the gift of incarnational love and grace. In the 2020 Advent Devotional Book from Mercy Community Church Atlanta, which several of you received this weekend, Pastor Chad Hyatt writes:

“The Advent Event itself shows us the way: God comes to us as a poor and homeless child who quickly becomes a refugee on the run with his parents. Is this not where we can still find God at work? I believe with everything within me it is. God is always to be found, graciously at work on the margins, close to the suffering, in the broken places. We must creatively reimagine church as a liberating, grassroots community that makes sharing our bread with our hungry neighbors as essential to true and vital worship as sharing the bread of the Eucharist with one another. A new Advent is upon us. Let us fearlessly embrace it.”

“Fearlessly embrace”

We have a lot of fear and uncertainty stirring in our minds, hearts and bodies these days, and it is understandable. While a certain amount of fear is healthy, we must be careful to not allow ourselves to be completely consumed by despair. We must hold onto hope. 

Hope is what it means to actively wait. We do what we can to share compassion and mercy to help build God’s beloved community. And the rest, which is beyond our control, we leave for God whose Spirit of imagination, transformation, justice and wholeness blows where it may to create a new reality.

One of my heroes of the faith, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who championed for decades to end the cruelty of apartheid in South Africa, once said in an interview: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.”

Hope is being able to see that while we have a role to play, we’re not solely in charge; and that when things are out of control, there is someone in control.

Hope is being able to see that when we’re not sure of who we are and where we fit, we are reminded that we’re beloved children who belong forever to God.

Hope is being able to see that in the midst of daily survival—of paying bills, completing tasks, navigating complicated relationships and getting through the drudgeries of life—there is wonder and beauty in the most unlikely of places.

Hope is being able to see that birds joyfully chirp in the branches of a leaf bare tree and that flowers grow in the cracks of a sidewalk.

Hope is being able to see that even when a 7-year-old’s cherished helium balloon is accidentally destroyed by a ceiling fan, the distraught child will be hugged and comforted by their parents.

Hope is being able to see that there are small and large triumphs for those grappling with addictions and health challenges. 

Hope is being able to see that there are medical professionals working around the clock to tend to patients and prevent the spread of a deadly virus.

Hope is being able to see that people are helping out their neighbors, showing kindness to strangers, feeding the hungry, reaching out to the marginalized and standing up for the oppressed. 

Hope is being able to see that when we’re feeling like lumps of clay, God, the potter, is forming and reforming us, the work of God’s hands, into vessels to help bear witness to the light, no matter how gloomy life seems.

Hope is being able to see that in the tumult of earthquakes, fire and rainstorms, the incarnate God, who comes to us as a child born in straw poverty, whispers a courageous message into our souls:

I am drawing near, I am with you, and I will never forsake you….

Keep going on.

I am the potter; you are the clay.

Keep going on.

Keep going on.

Amen. 

Our Money Story, Part 4: Restore

A Sermon for Sunday, November 8, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. The Fourth Sunday of EPC Stewardship Season. John 21:1-19

God, 

We cannot do the work of restoration without your Word. 

We cannot do the work of remembering, 

releasing, or reimagining without your Word. 

We need you like the earth needs rain and a sailboat needs wind. 

We come to you in prayer to ask that you breathe new life into us.

Grant us the clarity needed to hear your Word anew. 

And as you do, restore us to your breath. 

Restore us to your Word. 

Restore us to one another. 

Gratefully we pray. 

Amen.

Helen Keller, the American educator, political activist and advocate for the blind and deaf, wrote: 

Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

The quote has stuck with me ever since I saw it printed on the back of a T-shirt for a Middle School Mission Trip in Asheville that I attended several years ago with half a dozen teenagers. Keller’s words are a constant reminder to me that despite the enormous amount of suffering that exists, there is still a lot beauty and hope in the world. There are still people who refuse to give into distress and who continue to work hard for a better world. 

Life is painful and messy and God is with human beings in the muck. God meets us in our mess and loves us unconditionally, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once put it this way in a speech he gave at the National Cathedral in 2011: 

When we fallGod picks us up, dusts us off and says, ‘Try again.’”

We jump back into the work we are called by God to do, knowing that we will get bruised, battered and knocked down along the way. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to avoid suffering as Tutu reminds readers in the book, God Has A Dream: 

 “In the universe we inhabit, there will always be suffering. Suffering is often how we grow, especially how we grow emotionally, spiritually and morally. That is, when we let the suffering ennoble us and not embitter us.”

Author and pastor Rob Bell pontificates further on the effects of suffering in his book, Drops Like Stars:[1]

We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. We will become bitter or betterclosed or openmore ignorant or more aware. (We will become) more or less tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day.

Bell then shares an illustration on suffering from a recent novel he has read, in which a theologian and sculptor talk about the nature of God. The theologian offers elegant and complicated thoughts about God, suffering and life. But the sculptor provides a different and simpler perspective based on her experience of making art:[2]

No matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing. It’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of all the distortion and beauty out of all the mess—but it’s agony, agony, agony—while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world—and that’s the creative process which so few people understand…You can’t create without waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process.

Over the last four weeks, we’ve been immersed in the season of Stewardship at Emory Presbyterian Church, specifically focusing on the meaning of Our Money Story in light of God’s money story of liberation and justice or God’s economy.

Our money stories have moments of agony, and some of you have bravely shared your fears and struggles in our special Stewardship class on Sunday mornings via Zoom. I’ve had similar experiences—times when I foolishly wasted a lot of money on frivolous purchases or had to pay late fees more than once on the power bill. I’ve also incurred expenses I hadn’t planned on having due to bad life decisions. 

In mid-December 2001, when I was 25 years old, I did one of the dumbest things someone could do and that was driving home from a Saturday-evening Christmas party after imbibing several drinks.  A couple of miles from my home in Alabaster, Alabama in the Birmingham Metro Area, I swerved slightly over the median of the road while putting a CD into my car’s CD player. Flashing lights immediately appeared in my rearview mirror. I pulled over and within minutes found myself spending the night in the dungy cell of the Alabaster city jail. The next morning, I was given breakfast from McDonalds, however I chose only to drink the coffee because of a massive hang over and the misfortunate of having to hear the police officers discuss a great-tasting sushi place, which I’m pretty sure was concocted to teach me a lesson. 

I felt awful physically, but more so emotionally. I was weighted with a humongous amount of guilt and embarrassment. I could’ve harmed myself or someone else with my drunk driving, and I had caused a lot of worry and grief for my mother, brother and grandparents. I also disappointed the youth at my home church because I missed the Christmas party that they were having in their newly remodeled youth room. Furthermore, I temporarily lost my license and had to pay my family back for bail money and getting the car out of the impound, plus the cost of a fine and DUI & Defensive Driving School classes that, once completed, would reduce the DUI charge to a minor traffic violation for swerving. 

Because of this one incident and mistake, I believed I was a terrible human being who wasn’t worthy of going to seminary the following summer. Adult mentors of mine, Presbyterian ministers and Christian educators, who taught me about Jesus’ love and inspired me to hear God’s call to ministry, wouldn’t let me beat myself up for long. They reminded me that I also was deserving of second chances, worthy of grace. Their love and support—as well as that of family, friends, my home church and seminary classmates like Elizabeth—carried me through the mess. With God’s compassion, they restored me.

When we’re down and out, family and friends and the church, comes to our aid and pulls us out of the gloomy pits of despair and into the sun. 

Our scripture reading for today finds Simon-Peter in a dreary state. After hiding behind locked doors of their meeting house with the disciples, Peter decides to go fishing and the others join him. All night long, they cast their nets but come up empty. At dawn, Jesus appears on the beach and instructs them to cast the net one more time. When they do, they catch so many fish that they struggle mightily to haul it to shore. Minutes later, they are reunited with their teacher and enjoying a delicious breakfast of fish and bread. Once, Peter and the disciples were lost, but now they were being fed. Even though they had previously abandoned Jesus and denied knowing him as he faced persecution, the disciples were forgiven. They were restored.

So then, how does this miracle text relate to our present fear? That is the question Hannah Garrity of A Sanctified Art, wondered about during the beginning of the pandemic in March as she created the art that appears on today’s bulletin cover. She writes:

Right now, in the midst of COVID-19, people are dying, people are losing their livelihoods, people are isolated, people are going to run out of food, people are going to run out of money, people are going to lose their family members, people will lose their homes. This moment in our story delivers scarcity in ways that we have not seen in living memory. Our whole precious global society could unravel.  Can we be the safety net?

Three weeks into stay-at-home orders, our local food banks are being tapped more heavily than normal. Economic stimulus checks are arriving in American bank accounts. Factories are retooling to build medical equipment. The public is following the stay-at-home measures. Legislative consensus should ensure that unemployment will be enough for many to survive on. All of these miraculous actions are funded by each of us.

In the artwork, patterned fish represent the miracle that Jesus performed that morning so many years ago. This miracle convinced the disciples that they must tell the story of Jesus and act out the love Jesus modeled. This miracle continues to inspire us to contribute and act as God’s disciples in this critical time for humanity. We are the safety net.

As I worked with this text, I contemplated that money has a lot to do with saving lives. Therefore, the background of this piece is woven with a guilloche pattern, reminiscent of currency. It portrays the flow of financial resources from government support, to charities, to crowdfunding, to church missions that are the fabric of the net that will catch us all. Jesus inspires us in this text—and in this moment—to weave God’s safety net.

Weaving God’s safety net, fishing for people, feeding the sheep, caring for the hurt, the sick, the broken and the vulnerable, requires faith in God’s ability to transform…redeem…restore.

Nearly a decade ago, while serving as an associate pastor at a Presbyterian church in Duluth, a parishioner who was employed with a non-profit that provides water purification systems to villages in the Dominican Republic told me a remarkable story about restoration.

In the village of San Joaquin, less than 10 miles northeast of the capital city of Santo Domingo, Pastor Alejandro ministers to 1,200-1,500 Haitian refugees, about 200-300 families. While the community is now one of the most calm and peaceful in the country, it had suffered for many years from the existence of a bar/drug-infested prostitution den where girls as young as 12 could be seen dancing out front.

One day, Alejandro stood defiantly in front of the bar and shouted at the drug dealers who owned the business, “This land belongs to God and you must leave!”  While the chronological details of what happened next are fuzzy, the drug dealers cleared out and Alejandro eventually reclaimed the land and the building where horrific abuse, violence and oppression occurred. With a fresh coat of paint and some minor repairs, the space has been transformed into a place where children can joyfully play without fear of being harmed. The building is also used as a trade co-op for San Joaquin residents to sell clean water and manufacture their own shampoo and soap for purchase. Pastor Alejandro and the villagers of San Joaquin restored their community and they continue that restoration by weaving God’s safety net and tending to God’s sheep. 

We too are called to do the same with the gifts of our time, talents and money, no matter how often we cast into empty waters or fall down in the mud or neglect to help someone with the resources God has given. 

We keep listening to Jesus on the shore. We keep looking up to God who picks us up and dusts us off. We keep on following and weaving and feeding and loving, knowing that at any moment God will surprise us with more than enough for us to carry and share with one another.

Amen.


[1] Drops Like Stars by Rob Bell, Zondervan Publishing, 2012

[2] Ibid.

Our Money Story, Part 3: Reimagine

A Sermon for Sunday, November 1, 2020. All Saints Day and EPC’s Third Sunday of Stewardship Season, Leviticus 19:9-10 and 25:8-12

Prayer of Illumination by Rev. Sarah Are, A Sanctified Art, LLC

Holy God, 

We want to see what you see. 

We want to see what you see, 

But we stumble through roadblocks of bias and narrow perspective, 

Fear and limited information. 

We are too small to imagine the type of love and beauty you can sow. 

So in this moment, we ask that you would clear the roadblocks that keep us from you. 

Blow the dust out of our ears.

Thaw out the frozen parts of our hearts. 

Tell the logical arguments we form about what will and will not work to take a backseat. 

And as you do, 

Breathe fresh air into our lungs and fill our minds with endless possibilities. 

We want to see what you see. 

We want to reimagine this life we’re living. 

Clear away the roadblocks. 

Amen.

My fondest and most favorite experiences of Church life throughout the years are fellowship gatherings with food. The opportunity to sit at table with others to share a meal and stories and the chance to play and laugh bring an abundance of joy to my heart. 

Those events are rooted in love and imbued with generosity—people giving all that they have from God in time, talents and financial resources to build relationships and imagine anew what the beloved community can be in the world.

The last time I was with the majority of the Emory Presbyterian congregation in the church building was just before the pandemic, when we met in the fellowship hall for our “Breaking Bread Together” luncheon, where upon I shared my faith story and was presented with a lovely coconut cake to recognize my one-year anniversary as your pastor. It was a wonderful day, and I’m so grateful to have marked that special occasion and for all the meals we shared throughout my first year, which helped us get to know one another better.

Since mid-March, we haven’t been together as often, not even worship in the sanctuary. Though, I have taken great solace in the smaller gatherings for the monthly Sunday afternoon “Garden Party” in the outdoor sanctuary, especially during Labor Day weekend when we enjoyed a delicious Frogmore stew and good conversation.

Dearest to my heart are the meals that I’ve shared with the most vulnerable in places like Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala and The Dominican Republic. A few years ago during a mission trip to Guatemala with members of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church of Duluth, the group and I were treated to two extraordinary meals that humbled us to our cores. 

The first meal occurred early in the week as we took a long and restful lunch break after digging the foundation for a large rock wall that would prevent flooding on the road leading to a birthing clinic. Within minutes of setting down, the villagers brought food to the table, and it was way more than we expected and more than we needed. Stacks and stacks and stacks of home-made tortillas. Large plates of avocados, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers and chicken that kept coming and coming and coming until there was hardly a spot left on the table. And it was all for our team of 17. None of the villagers ate the food that was brought out—food that they spent a majority of their time and all of their money on to make sure we had a plentiful lunch. We initially felt guilty about eating. We wanted to return half of it so the Guatemalans had something to eat; after all it might be their only meal for the day or several days. But Emerson, our Guatemalan guide and translator, insisted that we savor the feast and that it would be insulting if we gave any of the food back. “For them, this is what they feel they can do to serve; these are their gifts that they want to share abundantly with you, just as you are sharing the gifts of work with them. It would be disrespectful to not honor and receive their gift.” 

The second meal happened on our last day in Guatemala. After working in the morning, we trekked our way through the rain and mud to a small two-room adobe that belonged to a family of five. Again, we were treated to an extravagant meal of vegetables, tortillas, soup and chicken. According to Emerson, it was the equivalent of a wedding feast—an extremely expensive endeavor that families save a lifetime for and that was now being used on Americans who were not blood relatives and whom they would never see again.  

These particular experiences are a testament to several studies conducted over the last decade that show that the poor and those with less tend to give more than those with ample resources. The reasons for such generosity seems to be that those with less are more intimately understand the needs of others, thus they tend to be more compassionate and sensitive to people’s plights for help. Those with less are also not as attached to their belongings or have an over-abundance of stuff that would make them attached. They also live in the present and strive to attain basic necessities that will get them through the day or week; they’re not focused on accumulating wealth and things for the future. 

I’ve further witnessed that those with less, like the folks I’ve met in impoverished countries and in the U.S., have a deep faith that underscores a strongly held belief that all they have belongs to God and that God calls them to give and share all they have to those with much less than them.  

Those of us who follow Christ and have basic necessities met on a daily basis, good-paying jobs, insurance and retirement savings also believe that all we’ve been given is from God and that we are to use what we have in time, talents and resources to serve others with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. Churchgoers, in general, are very generous.

However, I also think Christians who are blessed with many belongings and who are acutely invested in the global economy are more acceptable to fears and insecurities about money and having enough for now and years into the future. Christians tend to give charitably, but largely out of a legalistic computation instead of from the sense that God has entrusted us to be stewards of the assets given to us and that God invites us to joyfully give back to God so the beloved community can be strengthened and ministry to the poor, sick, lonely and oppressed can be done.

In a recent stewardship article, Robert Hay Jr., a ruling elder in the PC(USA) and a senior ministry relations officer for the Presbyterian Foundation, writes that the question he is asked most often is whether a 10 percent tithe is pre-tax or post-tax. He says:[1]

In my experience, the motivation of that question is the asker wants to know exactly the amount they have to give to get into heaven. That is not my theological understanding of how heaven works, so I typically respond that the 10% tithe is a model that can be helpful to the discipline of giving. Further, I subscribe to the belief that every church has plenty of money; it’s just still in its members pockets. So, I typically answer the pre-tax/post-tax question by saying, if everyone gave 10% post-tax then the church would have plenty of money. Because what I know is that the average percentage given is closer to 2% and the most popular gift in the church is $1,200, or $100/month. If $1,200 represents a tithe of 10% then that equates to annual income of $12,000. And whether that is pre-tax or post-tax doesn’t really compute in my Presbyterian context made up primarily of middle class and upper-middle class church members. …But what I believe is more important is understanding that everything we have was given to us by God. Tithing is one of the important ways that we give thanks to God. … It should be a joy to give, not a chore.

Tithing shouldn’t be a chore, another item to fret about on our busy to-do list. Tithing should be an act of reimagination and part of the sacred practice of rest just as it was for the Israelites during the period of the Book of Leviticus. The Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman explains in a statement on today’s bulletin art, “Jubilee”:[2]

In the Year of Jubilee, God offers rest—a break for farmers, relief for those experiencing economic injustice, and Sabbath for the land. This radical rest is counter to the rhythm of our lives; it resists valued ideologies like efficiency and productivity and has broad economic implications. Jubilee has remained a theoretical, hopeful concept tucked away in scripture. This kind of radical slowing down is difficult to imagine, however… so is a global, economy-halting pandemic.

Rest feels unnatural in a pandemic, but it’s available to us if we are willing to receive it. Rest slows our vision and illuminates gifts that normally whirl by us. While sheltering in place, I’ve searched for positivity, and during such great loss, I’ve found more—more time, space, and color. I found a patch of mint in my yard, and the scent became my soul’s balm. Rest offers recovery. The earth is thriving with a break from humanity. Scientists are seeing significant decreases in air pollution and animals are returning to previously uninhabitable waterways.

Rest offers perspective. God does not want us worn ragged, reaping the maximum extent of our harvest. God wants new eyes for us to recognize broken systems so we can enact change that sustains everyone: “You shall leave them for the poor and alien: I am the Lord your God” (v.10). God is found in the connective tissue of our relationships to our neighbor—particularly those most vulnerable.

Rest reminds us of our interconnectedness. Despite physical distancing, people are rediscovering one another while longing for and celebrating every moment of connection. Despite future insecurity, people are finding innovative ways to support one another. Rest uncovers the enoughness in our lives, and as my dear mentor used to say, “Enough is abundance.” What will we glean from this time of rest?

These sentences at the end of Lauren’s statement are key: 

“Rest offers perspective.”

“God wants new eyes for us to recognize broken systems so we can enact change that sustains everyone.”

“God is found in the connective tissue of our relationships to our neighbor—particularly those most vulnerable.”

“Rest reminds us our interconnectedness.”

“People are finding innovative ways to support one another.”

In the last eight months, we at Emory Presbyterian have gained fresh perspective due to slowing down and changing our routines and focusing on what’s most important in our lives. We’re been opening our eyes to broken systems and enacting change. We’re finding God in our connections and relationships with others, both in the congregation and the neighborhoods around the church. We’re exploring innovative ways to support one another. 

And none of it is possible without God and the gifts that God has given us. Worship, and faith-enriching gatherings for all ages on Zoom; the monthly Garden Party; the Drive-Thru Blessing of the Animals, the meals for Clifton Sanctuary Ministries, the racial justice protests; the contributions of snacks for Emory University Hospital employees and for the Precinct Chaplain Project on Election Day; and the work of the church staff and Session and core volunteers that organizes, oversees, plans, guides and ensures that the church remains vital and functional and that people grow in their relationship with the Holy. There is amazing, imaginative ministry that is occurring in these strange times. 

What else can we reimagine for our church and city, for children, youth and adults, through the cheerful giving of our time, talent and financial resources? What else can we reimagine if a few more people pledged at least 10 percent of their income toward God’s vision for the church’s building of the beloved community? What else can we reimagine if a few more people were invited to participate in the church’s ministry? What else can we reimagine if we commit again and again to being stewards of God’s gifts so that the marginalized can be cared for and loved? 

What might happen if we reimagine and harmonize what seems dissonant between the definitions of our current economy and God’s economy? What might happen if we consume more trust and mercy? What might happen if we profit more through transactions of unconditional love? What might happen if we invest more in being selfless, humble and empathetic? What might happen if we receive power from sharing and creating with others? 

Well, we just might reimagine and have… a jubilee!

Thanks be to God,

Amen


[1] https://www.presbyterianfoundation.org/calculating-your-tithe/

[2] Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman, “Our Money Story” Stewardship curriculum, A Sanctified Art, LLC, sanctifiedart.org. 

Our Money Story, Part 2: Release

A Sermon for Sunday, October 25, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. The Second Sunday of Stewardship Season. Matthew 19:16-22.

Please join me in prayer as I pray the words written by the Rev. Sarah Are, from A Sanctified Art’s Our Money Story Stewardship materials:

Gracious God, 

We release our hearts to you. 

First, we remove the pressure, 

For release requires the freedom to be moved.

Then we allow our hearts to return to their original resting position— 

In sync with you, with the rhythm of summer cicadas, and this whole wild creation.

Then, we pray that you will find our hearts available— 

Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. 

So like the mockingbird releases her song, 

We release our hearts to you. 

Move in them. 

Stir us awake. 

Speak to us now. 

We are waiting. 

Amen.

In 2009, I attended the annual Festival of Homiletics—a week-long preaching and worship conference—when it came to Atlanta. Sitting in a room at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, I listened to a lecture by pastor, author and activist, Brian McLaren on the intersection with faith and economics. Toward the end of his presentation, McLaren offered a nuanced interpretation of the story of the rich young ruler that I hadn’t previously considered. He said:[1]

A rich young ruler comes to Jesus. The only way you can become a ruler is by working with the Romans. And the only way you can become rich is by figuring out how to work the Roman system to your advantage, especially to become rich at a young age. So this is a guy who is deeply embedded with everything that is wrong with the economy of Jesus’ day. … What if what Jesus is saying to the guy is this:

 “Listen. You’ve already made it. You’ve got a lot of wealth. Your part of a corrupt system and it’s worked for you. (If) you really want to be part of life of the ages, you understand that obeying the Ten Commandments, which focus on personal morality, that’s not enough. You’ve got to go beyond personal morality and you’ve got to be concerned about social morality. Because the kingdom of God doesn’t just focus you on worrying about your own moral score card. It actually invests you in caring about your neighbor. So, stop working for the kingdom of Caesar that is all about climbing to the top and achieving riches, and instead join me in the kingdom of God, join me in working for the poor. Join me in leveraging your obvious intelligence and gifts and moral rectitude. Invest that with me for the sake of the kingdom of God for the people who are most in need. Switch sides.”

For the longest time, I’ve always thought the takeaway message in this encounter between the rich young ruler and Jesus was that anyone with wealth, possessions or means was supposed to give away everything to the poor less they be considered too selfish, greedy and imperfect to follow Jesus. Thus I have avoided preaching, up until now, sermons on this story because it seemed awkward and guilt inducing—a mismatch with our reformed Presbyterian beliefs about God and God’s call of us. God doesn’t view the possession of money or things purchased with our finances a sin. Nor does God consider us to be unworthy if we don’t give away all of our possessions, or even ask us to do such a thing to be a disciple. Remember that Joseph of Arimathea, who helped bury Jesus, was both a rich man and a disciple.

What God asks of us is that we have right relationships with God and other human beings. Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Loving our neighbor (whether they live next door or in another neighborhood, state or country) means we are to love and care about others as much as we care for our own welfare and as much as God loves and cares for them, especially the poor and vulnerable. This is what it means to be a disciple, a Jesus follower, a Christian. As Christians, our identity is not defined by our socio-economic status or the things we possess but by how we love in the name of the One who calls us beloved and loves us unconditionally—something that the rich young ruler is having difficulty grasping.

The late biblical scholar and seminary professor, Douglas R.A. Hare observes that the rich young ruler wasn’t concerned about giving more of his wealth to the poor. He writes:[2]

“What he minded was giving up all that wealth means: privilege, status, and economic power. He was not ready to surrender his comfortable and secure world for the unknown, frightening world into which Jesus was calling him. He was identified by his wealth; he did not want to find a new identity. He knew what we was ‘worth’ in this world, and by those standards Jesus and his disciples were ‘worth’ nothing.”

This story is a cautionary tale about how, if we’re not careful, we can become wrapped up in the wealth and possessions we have obtained and lose sight of who we are and who God calls us to be with the gifts we’ve been given.

It’s no secret that we inhabit a consumeristic society that centers on having the most and the best. The mobs of people that descend upon stores on Black Friday, resulting in brawls and sometimes death over the latest “must-have” toy, smart device or flat screen TV; and the hordes of people buying up all the toilet paper at the outstart of the pandemic are just two examples of the economic behavior that is baked into civilization. Those whose basic necessities (food, clothing and shelter) are regularly met often waste an inordinate amount of energy, time and resources acquiring too many things—things that only get used once if ever at all.  

How many pieces of clothing or shoes do you have in your closet that haven’t been worn more than one time since you bought them two, three or seven years ago? How many appliances do you own that have never been plugged in? How many books do you have on your shelves that you’ve never read? How many coffee mugs do you have in your cabinets that hold little to no sentimental value? How many superfluous, “this looks really neat” or “I’ve got a coupon for this!” type items are laying around in junk drawers or your garage? How many items have you upgraded like a car, TV, computer, or furniture because you saw the same product at your brother-in-law or friend’s house? How many barely used purchases were made during a moment when you felt sad and needed to do retail therapy? 

I raise these questions rhetorically because if we’re being honest with ourselves, many of us—at one point in our lives—have had (and still do) the tendency to want and consume more than what we need because we believe it will make us happier, increase our self-worth or give us better standing. 

Granted, there seems to be a shift in the past 10 years toward ridding ourselves of the stuff we accumulate and adhering to the philosophy of tidiness expert Marie Kondo who says, “keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy.” And I suspect numerous people are committed to this practice, which is wonderful. 

But as we discard the things that don’t bring us joy and that we haven’t used in a while, are we also reducing the number of things that we purchase and don’t need in the first place? Are we simultaneously putting time, energy and resources toward assisting neighbors or giving to churches and non-profits who seek to do ministry for those on the margins and share love, hope, and peace in our community? 

Living as disciples requires that we constantly work toward claiming our identity as God’s beloved over society and culture’s demand that we be defined by our wealth and possessions. We have to release ourselves from those notions and expectations that solely obtaining money and possessions leads to happiness, and alternatively embrace the reality that sharing what we have with others is what brings true bliss.

The Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman, artist and member of A Sanctified Art, focuses on this idea of release in the “Our Money Story” Stewardship resources that various churches, like Emory Presbyterian, are using this Fall. In an entry regarding her painting of the rich young ruler entitled “Finding Release,” Pittman reflects:[3]

As I write this in the midst of a global pandemic, we are collectively grieving countless losses and desperately seeking answers to quell our fears of what’s to come. The economy is nosediving and many face grave illness or even death. Some can’t see past the fog of new living restrictions and are calling to reopen the economy because they believe it will save us. Others are choosing to stay home, risking economic fallout, to protect the lives of the vulnerable.

When afraid, we turn inward. I see fear and loneliness in the rich man. He’s focused on an individual path, leading to his personal salvation, while missing the full picture. The man’s wealth may cause him comfort, but it does not exist in a vacuum. His wealth affects the lives of others—particularly those at the margins of society.

Jesus offers the rich man spiritual grounding that completely threatens his financial stability, but it’s good news just the same. Jesus reveals to the rich man the truth that we are all connected. Jesus chooses to name commandments concerning interpersonal relationships and community. Jesus offers the rich man freedom from his entanglement with wealth, and gifts him belonging and a way forward. The rich man feels the weight of this truth. To “enter this life” he must recognize his responsibility for his neighbor, because our lives are interwoven.

Instead of grasping to Jesus’ lifeline, the rich man turns away because he cannot fathom losing everything. His grief feels palpable in this time of upheaval. I meditated on his grief, layering dusty purples, muted greens, and chalky blacks. I imagine the rich man isn’t turning away from Jesus altogether. Perhaps he’s taking space to feel his grief, processing all he will lose so he can truly find release.

Jesus invites us to enter into a life of generosity and gratitude, recognizing how we are designed to care for and love our neighbors to whom we are connected. Jesus reminds us that we are not identified by how we consume but by how we too release.

            Amen.


[1] Festival of Homiletics 2009, Atlanta, Georgia. Lecture by Brian McLaren—”Preaching and the New World Reality: The Seismic Economic and Social Shift Happening Now” 

[2] Interpretation Series: The Gospel of Matthew by Douglas R.A. Hare, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009

[3] Artist’s Statement on “Finding Release” based on Matthew 19:16-22. “Our Money Story” Stewardship Curriculum by A Sanctified Art, LLC. sanctifiedart.org

Our Money Story, Part 1: Remember

A Sermon for October 18, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Children’s Sabbath in the PC(USA) and First Sunday of Stewardship at EPC. Exodus 16:1-18

Please join with me in prayer as I share words written by the Rev. Sarah Are of A Sanctified Art LLC, a worship & arts consortium who has created the Our Money Story themed materials that we are using for this year’s Stewardship Season at Emory Presbyterian Church:

Holy God, 

There is something about scripture that stirs us awake. 

For when we hear of a deep love that made room for everyone at the table, We remember that we are hungry. 

And when we hear of manna raining down in the desert, 

We remember that we are lost. 

There is something about scripture that stirs us awake, 

And it feels like hunger and it looks like hope. 

So stir us awake, oh God. 

Remind us that this story starts with love and ends with love. 

We are hungry, which is to say, we are listening. 

Amen.

It’s Fall. The temperatures are cooler. The leaves are turning orange and brown. The smell of pumpkin baked goodies are wafting from the oven and filling the entire house. Football is in full swing (more or less). Halloween is a couple of weeks away and soon we’ll be turning our clocks back for Daylight Savings Time. 

And for many churches in the PC(USA) it’s Stewardship Season—a time when we make our annual promise or covenant to be good stewards of the resources we’ve been given to use for the work of God’s kindom—ministry that affirms and recognizes what God is doing through God’s people to help the Church and the community grow in faith through worship, education, mission, pastoral care and fellowship; ministry that offers love, liberation, nourishment, healing and support to those who are hurting and in need. Ministry grounded and nurtured in the practice of gratitude for God’s gifts; and selfless, loving acts of giving to others in need.

That ministry we do shapes our relationship with God and the world; it shapes our story as God’s people, as followers of Christ. Woven into that large story is Our Money Story—a theme we will explore together over the next four Sundays of Stewardship. A Sanctified Art says the impetus for the theme is this:

We all have a money story, whether we recognize it or not. Perhaps we are living from a story of fear or shame. Or a story that the church is dying and no longer relevant. Or a story that our actions won’t have an impact. Or a story that we don’t have enough. Where might God be speaking a new narrative into the limited ones we have told ourselves? 

This theme invites us to discover and tell our money stories in light of God’s money story of liberation and justice. This series encourages us to transform our stewardship practices into more full expressions of who we are and what we believe. 

This theme is intentionally direct—it invites us to name exactly what we’re talking about and not skirt around it. To speak of money is to invite tension into the room. We so quickly want to avoid it. But it’s time we reframe this. Money and possessions are one of the most common topics in scripture, and Jesus talked about money more than faith and prayer. Our money story, therefore, is a spiritual story. Thinking about God’s money story should be liberating, inviting, and transformative. This stewardship season, we invite you to remember,release, reimagineand restore your money stories so that we can write the one God is begging us to live into.

So, this week, we begin with Remember. The Our Money Story Stewardship Study Journal asks participants to recall their first memory of money as a child and their first memory of money in the Church. Here are the stories I remember…

Growing up, I remember playing the board game Monopoly with my father when I was in upper elementary school. I got the coveted role of “banker” —the one who presides over the money that is doled out or taken away as players move shiny game pieces around the board in an effort to buy, trade and develop properties. I thought it would be a fun and exciting role to assume at first, until I realized how over-competitive and obnoxious my dad was when it came to board games. He was quite boisterous about the process of conquering his opponent, much to the dismay and hurt of a 9-year-old.

Worse, he would become easily irritated if I as the Monopoly banker didn’t give the right amount of paper dollars for property purchases, taxes and rent. He attempted to teach and reinforce the math skills I had been learning in school, but it didn’t make sense to me. I got jittery when he would ask me to do large subtractions and percentages…without a calculator or pencil and paper. And his criticism of my inability to understand and do the math correctly caused more distressed, to the point that I quit playing the game with him. From then on, whenever I played Monopoly with family and friends, I declined to be the banker. The role was filled with too much pressure and pain. Furthermore, the experience became the source of the anxiety and fear I’ve had about math and money and check books and bank statements and budgets for decades.

At Shades Valley Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where I was raised in the faith, I remember as a 4th grader, the small ceramic globe-shaped money banks that adorned the tables during Wednesday evening fellowship suppers. I loved the sound the coins made when dropped into the tiny slit at the top of the globe—plink, clink, plink. The best part, however, was when an adult gave you loose change to put in by yourself. It filled me with joy knowing the pennies and nickels and dimes that went into those globes would be used to feed hungry people in another part of the world who didn’t have enough food to eat or means with which to purchase food.

Around that same time, I recall learning, from Shades Valley’s Director of Christian Education, about Heifer International—an organization that provides animals and agriculture training so farmers in impoverished countries can be self-sustainable for their families and communities. It was always a treat to choose animals from the Heifer Christmas Catalog to send as a gift to a farmer and their family: goats for people in India, llamas for folks in Peru, and cows for neighbors in Kenya. 

Experiences with how money was viewed at Shades Valley—the lessons I learned early on about generosity and the impact of giving and sharing resources with others—instilled in me an understanding of how God’s economy works. Every Presbyterian church I’ve attended and served since then has deepened and enriched my view of God’s money story of liberation and justice through various acts of service, from working in soup kitchens and food co-ops to assisting with home-building projects in Honduras.

Today’s reading from Exodus is evidence of God’s money story. The Israelites were part of Egypt’s slave economy, brick makers for an Empire who were treated less than human. God, with Moses as spokesperson, liberates the people from this oppression and sends them into the wilderness. The Israelites complain about their new situation, convincing themselves into believing that though they were brutalized by their Egyptian task masters, they could at least hang out by the food pots and get their fill of bread. But despite their whining, God gave them manna and quail, enough for each person for several days. And the Israelites didn’t have to do anything extraordinary to deserve this gift. They didn’t have to work for it nor did they have to be on their best behavior which clearly, they weren’t. 

Erin Weber-Johnson, a consultant and co-collaborator on the Our Money Story curriculum, keenly observes:

The theme of God supplying enough found here in this text is a recurring theme throughout the bible. … Here we see a people enslaved for generations moving from an economy of fear and deprivation to one of provision in the wilderness. Strikingly, God provides a concept for what “enough” looks like and guides the faith community into claiming a day of Sabbath, a practice that simultaneously provides rest and guards against hoarding.

I remember 15 years ago, while studying at Columbia Theological Seminary, when a group of classmates and I volunteered at Central Presbyterian’s Night Shelter downtown, where we served a meal, helped guests get settled in and also stayed overnight in case there was an emergency. Following dinner, I was tasked with overseeing the shower procedure, which meant I stood near the door of the shower area and handed out towels and hotel bars of soap as several men came through to wash off in one of the shower stalls. After they finished bathing and got dressed, they would grab some free dollar-store shaving razors and travel-size shaving cream and deodorant on their way out. One middle-aged guy with thick stubble and thinning black hair, who owned nothing but the clothes he was wearing (a T-shirt, jeans and socks and sneakers) turned to me and said, “You always leave with more than what you came in with.”

For someone, who lived a life of scarcity and fear and deprivation on the streets of Atlanta to suddenly be given a towel, soap, a shower and some toiletries, it was enough.

God always provides enough. We must simply remember our money stories of scarcity and bountifulness and the moments when God surprised us with manna in the wilderness. We must remember again and again to share the ample amounts of what God has given without anxiety, fear, criticism, judgment and complaining, but instead with an abundance of love and grace. 

For with God, it will be enough. Amen.

Keep on Doing

A Sermon for Sunday, October 11, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Philippians 4:4-9.

Raise your hand if you’re tired. 

Now, nod if you’re feeling tired of being tired.

Adjusting to life in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed more than 213 thousand people; heightened calls for racial justice; weather disasters that have destroyed communities, a contentious presidential election and growing distrust in our nation’s leaders is wearisome.

We’re all weary and some more than others. If you’re a health professional or scientist or a schoolteacher or a student or a firefighter or in law enforcement or someone with a job in the financial sector or you’re caring for someone who is ill or facing health challenges, or if you’re elderly and not able to go out much or you’ve lost a home, a job or a loved one, you are likely exhausted.

If you’re one of the half-a-million of our most vulnerable citizens living on the streets or you’re marginalized because of your gender, sexual orientation, race, culture or religion you are probably feeling worn down and just plain fed up.

Our nation and world is filled with fatigue and pain, which is not exactly new given the course of history. However, right now it feels especially overwhelming and too much to bear. 

Every day seems to come with the possibility that if there is one more piece of bad news, one more disaster, one more occasion when we can’t gather and hold one another, one more Zoom meeting, one more video to watch, one more technological mishap, one more cancelled in-person event, we might explode. 

Or we might shrink further into our shells—burrow deep beneath the bed covers and the recesses of our minds to be forever consumed by anxiety, doubt, fear and terror.

God knows, I’ve felt like receding more than once since March. I’ve tried to convince myself on several occasions that it’s all such a mess I might as well stay in the murky confines of my room with the blanket over my head, the door shut and the windows closed. 

While that initially sounds safe and cozy, it turns out that it’s nothing more than a tomb—a self-made place for death instead of life. And it’s something I and others have mentally created when it’s impractical to physically retreat into the shadows of our home. Many of us, and more so even now, feel like we’re walking through the gloom, expecting at any minute that the vile Dementors from Harry Potter will suck our souls clean.

Valarie Kaur, renown Sikh activist, filmmaker and civil rights lawyer, suggests that we consider a different view. In speaking engagements over the last four years and in her recent book, Kaur says: [1]

The future is dark. Bu what if—what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind us now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ear, ‘You are brave?’ What if this is our nations’ greatest transition? …

What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push. Because if we don’t push, we will die. If we don’t push our nation will die.

Kaur says further in her memoir, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, that the only way we will endure the brokenness of the world is if each of us shows up to the labor. Revolutionary love, she emphasizes, is how “we stay in the fire.” Kaur writes:[2]

‘Love’ is more than a feeling. Love is a form of sweet labor: fierce, bloody, imperfect, and life-giving—a choice we make over and over again. If love is sweet labor, love can be taught, modeled, and practiced. This labor engages all our emotions. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love. ‘Revolutionary love’ is the choice to enter into wonder and labor for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves in order to transform the world around us.

Revolutionary love is what the apostle Paul urges followers of Jesus to hold onto in the midst of occupation and persecution from the Roman Empire. In Chapter 4:4-9 of his letter to the Philippians, today’s scripture reading, Paul declares:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.  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. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

To give some context, the church in Philippi to whom Paul is writing was the first Jesus community that Paul founded in eastern Europe. A Roman colony in ancient Macedonia, Philippi was full of retired soldiers and known for its patriotic nationalism. 

Paul encountered resistance from the Romans when he proclaimed Jesus as king and ruler of the world because it was in direct opposition to the authority of the Roman Emperor.  After Paul left Philippi to do ministry elsewhere, those who chose to follow Jesus continued to suffer resistance and persecution. Yet they also remained a vibrant community who remained faithful to Jesus’ teachings.

Paul is writing the letter from jail, imprisoned in another part of the globe for affirming that God in Christ was greater than Caesar. The letter consists of a series of short essays or vignettes, which all center around the “poem” in Chapter 2 which retells the story of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the essays, Paul draws upon key words and ideas from that poem to show how “living as a Christian means seeing your own story as a lived expression of Jesus’ story.”[3]

In Chapter 4, Paul challenges the community to continue living out the story of Jesus. Paul encourages the Philippians to not give into their worry and fear, to not be consumed by terror. Instead, he advises that they express all of their concerns, vent all of their worries and fears, to God, who will give the gift of peace. A peace that centers our minds, hearts, and bodies on “whatever is just, pure, pleasing, commendable.”

Put another way by a video resource on Philippians: “There’s always something you can complain about, but a follower of Jesus knows that all of life is a gift and can choose to see beauty and grace in life’s circumstances.”[4]

There is a lot of truth to that statement. We can complain endlessly about wearing masks and practicing social distancing and not being able to see the latest block buster at the movie theater or attend a rock concert, etc. Or we can do what we have to do to lessen the spread of the virus and lovingly protect our neighbors while simultaneously looking for instances of beauty and grace. 

I realize, though, they are not easy to find when we’re surrounded by so much hurt and animosity. And I’m certainly not suggesting that we go through these days with rose-colored glasses, acting as if everything is hunky-dory and we just need to channel the powers of positive thinking to make it all disappear.

The pain and misery isn’t going away anytime soon. The virus is not going to suddenly vanish. A miraculous vaccine is not going to come into the market and be distributed to millions of Americans within a couple of months. Racism is not going to be completely eradicated. Weather disasters are not going to cease. Our nation will not suddenly be healed of raunch divisiveness after the election. There is a lot of work to do.

Labor is messy. Love is messy. Being vulnerable is messy. Acknowledging that difficulties exist is messy. Perseverance is messy. Creating something wondrous and good is messy. Following Jesus and embodying God’s peace is messy. It’s draining and it will require us to make time for Sabbath and to keep returning to God’s well to be filled up again and again. It’s depleting to keep on keeping on, and it’s wonderous and holy too. 

Even in the midst of the messiness and difficulty, there are breath-taking moments to embrace as we keep living and doing the work God calls us to do as human beings and people of faith. I’ve been reminded of this often during our protests for racial justice on the church’s front lawn that have been occurring twice a week since June. 

I find myself getting distracted by all the negativity in the news and I wonder sometimes if we’re making much of a difference by holding up signs for two hours as cars whizz by on North Decatur Road and folks in the neighborhood stroll along on the sidewalk. And then a white red-haired child holds a sign out of the window of their backseat that reads: “Black lives matter too!” or African American women who walk up to us and share how moved they are to see white people and churches taking a stand. Or an African American bus driver gets out of his seat and says to a church member, “You’re changing the world…one person at a time.”

Last Monday, it was all I could do to not say something rude to a white couple who, while sitting at the traffic light, incessantly said negative things to our group regarding our signs. I nearly let my anxiety and frustration about the couple prevent me from missing the second driver—a white woman, who pulled up in front of me, rolled down her window and said, “Thank you for what you’re doing.” 

Beauty, grace, goodness, kindness and mercy are all around. And, as you are quite aware, it’s not solely in efforts to dismantle racism. Beauty and grace is visible in a variety of places:

–Engaging in 10 minutes of uninterrupted play and laughter with a child in between their virtual classroom assignments.

–Tending the garden in your backyard, taking walks in the neighborhood and listening to music on your couch.

–Preparing and sharing a meal with your family, talking to a friend on the phone and participating in church fellowship gatherings that are safe and also good for the soul. 

–Providing food and resources to people in need, driving someone to chemo treatments, sending a card to someone who is lonely, advocating for other’s rights, and ringing bells on a Sunday afternoon to remember the people who’ve died of the coronavirus.

Whatever it is you are doing in the midst of all the chaos to show goodness, kindness, mercy and revolutionary love, keep on doing it.

Keep on doing what you are doing. 

“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, says Paul, “and the God of peace will be with you.”

Amen.


[1] See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, Valarie Kaur, One World/Random House. 2020. Breathe-Push Speech by Valerie Kaur: https://valariekaur.com/2017/01/watch-night-speech-breathe-push/

[2] See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, Valarie Kaur, One World/Random House. 2020.

[3] https://bibleproject.com/videos/philippians/

[4] https://bibleproject.com/videos/philippians/