Summer Saints Series, Part 1: “Baseball and Mustard Seeds”

A Sermon for Sunday, June 13, 2021. Emory Presbyterian Church. 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 and Mark 4:30-32.

The late Leo “The Lip” Durocher, Major League Baseball manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 30s and 40s, allegedly once said: “Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.” All joking aside, there is something spiritual and religious about the game of baseball. 

For example, as one famous baseball movie notes, “there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches on a baseball.” The game itself is not fast paced like other sports. It is filled with long moments of silence, contemplation, and consternation—punctuated at times by loud shouts of praise and joy. Baseball is played in a serene park where the pitcher, poised atop the mound directs the flow of the game for the congregation in the stands. The elements of nature abound, firing up the senses of everyone gathered. The smell of the grass and dirt. The cracking sound of wooden bats. The buzzing of gnat flittering around your cap. The bird fluttering in the rafters of the stadium. The blue skies and soft breeze that delights the eyes and face. 

Baseball, like church, tethers us to everyday life with its hits and strikeouts; homeruns and errors; sacrifice bunts and slides at home plate; magic and miracles. Baseball is holy and sacred, inspiring us to believe that at any moment the impossible can become possible. Why else would we, as a society, hold up with reverence those sacred stories like Field of Dreams, The Natural, The Sandlot, A League of their Own and 42.

Former New York University President John Sexton shares this tidbit in his book Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game:

“The similarities between baseball and religion abound. The ballpark as cathedral; saints and sinners; the curses and blessings. But then what I’m arguing is beyond that surface level, there’s a fundamental similarity between baseball and religion which goes to the capacity of baseball to cause human beings, in a context they don’t think of as religious, to break the plane of ordinary existence into the plane of extraordinary existence.”

Since we are in the middle of baseball season, it seems only apt to kick-off this year’s Summer Saints Sermon Series with an exploration of two legendary players who broke the plane of ordinary existence and revolutionized the modern game as we know it: Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. Nearly a half century after their deaths in 1972, Robinson and Clemente continue to influence players and fans—due not only to their extraordinary existence on the field but also because of their faith and character, which allowed them break down racial barriers and change the world for the better—one hit and catch at a time.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in 1919 to a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia. He excelled in multiple sports in high school and college, and afterwards was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to a segregated calvary unit. Toward the end of his service in 1944, he was a coach for Army athletics at Camp Breckenridge in Kentucky. While there, Robinson met a former player of the Negro American League who encouraged him to try out for the Kansas City Monarchs. 

Jackie Robinson’s stellar play caught the attention of Branch Rickey, the president of The Brooklyn Dodgers who wanted to integrate Major League Baseball. A devout Methodist, Branch Rickey chose Robinson, who was a Methodist like himself, because he wanted someone who had strong faith and moral fiber that they could withstand the racist abuse that the first black man in the majors would receive. 

In a famous exchange between the two men, Branch flailed around and acted out various racist scenarios to test Robinson’s reaction, particularly considering the ball player had previous heated arguments with law enforcement over racists incidents. Initially, Robinson was aghast, questioning: “Are you looking for someone who is afraid to fight back?” to which Branch replied: “I’m looking for someone with guts enough not to fight back.” Upon obtaining a commitment from Robinson to “turn the other cheek,” Branch signed him to a contract. On April 15, 1947, second-basemen, Jackie Robinson, wearing the No. 42 on his uniform, made his major league debut at Ebbets Field before a crowd of 26,623.

Reflecting years later about his first meeting with Branch Rickey, Robinson remarked: “Could I turn the other cheek? Could I take the insults and humiliation without fighting back? I knew what he meant, and it was frightening.”[1]

Robinson faced racist vitriol from fans, opposing players and managers and at first from his own ball club. Robinson never verbally responded with equal measure or got into a physical altercation, even when he was physically targeted by the other team. During a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, a player named Enos Slaughter purposely thrashed Robinson with his cleats, giving him a 7-inch gash in his leg. 

In another game against the Philadelphia Phillies, manager Ben Chapman repeatedly called Robinson a racial epithet and told him to “go back to the cotton fields.” Robinson’s endurance of Chapman’s nastiness—powerfully portrayed in the film 42—stirred his Dodger teammates to come to his defense. According to Branch Rickey, “When (Chapman) poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and unified thirty men.”

In March 1974, a month before he would wreck Babe Ruth’s record of career home runs, the late Hank Aaron, who also endured his share of racism, wrote an article for the Christian devotional magazine Guideposts in which he shared why Jackie Robinson was his inspiration:[2]

“What fascinated me so much was that Jackie was an emotional, explosive kind of ballplayer. Yet during that crucial first year in the big leagues, he didn’t lose his temper despite a steady barrage of insults from fans and other players. …How did he keep control? I learned later that he prayed a lot for help. And he also had a sense of destiny about what he was doing so much that he felt God’s presence with him. He learned to put aside his pride and quick temper for the bigger thing that he was doing.”

By the time Jackie Robinson retired from baseball in 1956 at the age of 38, he had been a six-time MLB All-Star, a National League MVP, batting champion and two-time stolen base leader and a World Series Champion. Robinson’s play and integrity busted open the door for every person of color who came after him.

Less than a decade after Robinson ended segregation in baseball, Roberto Clemente, a 21-year-old from the barrio of San Anton, Carolina, Puerto Rico, debuted for the Pittsburgh Pirates, becoming the first Caribbean and Latino-American to ever play in the major leagues. Through the bulk of his 18 seasons as a Pirate, Clemente, a right fielder, dominated the sport. He was a 15-time All-Star, a National League MVP, four-time batting champion, a 12-time Gold Glove winner, and two-time World Series Champion. As a teammate once noted, “His body was a baseball machine.” 

The son of a sugar cane worker and the youngest of seven, Clemente practiced baseball in the cane fields with tomato cans and balls made of string or rags. He excelled at the sport and shortly after high school he was signed to the Montreal Royals, the farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers which he played with for a year before being scooped up by the Pirates. 

Clemente, who served for seven years in the US Marine Corps Reserves, often faced discrimination both for the color of his skin and his nationality and culture. He was often mocked in the press for having “broken” English and called a “Puerto Rican hot dog.” Sports reporters and baseball card companies attempted to refer to him as Bob Clemente so that his name would be more palatable to the large white fan-base.

Raised in a Catholic home, Clemente, like Jackie Robinson, clung tightly to his faith amid the turmoil. And he passionately spoke up for himself and others who experienced racism. One biography noted that:[3]

 “In every city his team visited during (the time) he played for the Pirates, Clemente spoke out: ‘I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America. So, I am going to be treated like a human being.’ In the hotels in towns he visited, Roberto would…meet children in hospitals. In the off-seasons, he went to Latin America, raising funds to help buy food, medicine, and sports equipment for children in poor neighborhoods, such as the one he had come from.”

Roberto Clemente once said, “If you have a chance to help others and fail to do so, you’re wasting your time on this earth.” He lived and breathed that philosophy till the day of his sudden and unexpected death at the age of 38. For many years, Clemente—inspired by the biblical story of the magi—delivered gifts to children on the Feast of Epiphany which is held in some countries on New Year’s Day. 

On December 23, 1972, a huge earthquake devastated Managua the capital city of Nicaragua, prompting Clemente to send aid. After learning that three flights of clothing and food supplies were intercepted by corrupt government officials, Clemente decided to personally take a shipment to ensure the items would be delivered to the victims. In the evening hours of December 31, Roberto Clemente’s plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Puerto Rico due to engine failure and other logistic mishaps. His body was never recovered. A year later, Clemente was posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the first Caribbean and Latino-American player to be enshrined.

Jackie Robinson, the first African American to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 53, more than two months before Clemente’s untimely death. In his autobiography, published four days after he died, Robinson wrote: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Jackie Robinson stayed true to his words, especially in the post-baseball years as he became more involved in the Civil Rights movement of the late 50s and 60s and delivered speeches and sermons across the nation. He didn’t hold back his views on racism and the church’s responsibility. 

While speaking to the Fourth General Synod of the United Church of Christ in Denver in July 1963, Jackie Robinson said:[4]

“It is the ministers, the church, the people of America, who can, almost overnight, cure the ills of our system which make so many of us commit the sin of acknowledging the Fatherhood of God on Sunday and rejecting the brotherhood of man on Monday.”

A few years later, at the Texas Association of Christian Churches in Austin, Robinson told the crowd:[5]

“We must have a society of conscience, not consensus…For when we as Christians, or heretics, fail to speak the truth, fail to live the truth—when we lie by the words we utter and deceive by the phrases we fail to speak—we pave the way for division, hatred and strife.”

Saint Jackie and Saint Roberto, with their words and actions, epitomized the message of today’s scripture readings from Paul’s letter to Christians in Corinth and Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed in Mark’s gospel. Both men were compelled by God’s love in Christ to keep on going despite their struggles, and to make a difference in the lives of the mistreated and downtrodden. They understood their purpose in life, that they were a new creation in Christ where everything old was fading into something new. Again, to quote author John Sexton from earlier, Saint Jackie and Saint Roberto knew they were created by God to break the plane of ordinary existence into the plane of extraordinary existence.

By their endeavors both on and off the field, Saint Jackie and Saint Roberto did the work of God’s kingdom.

Jesus says kingdom building is akin to the small mustard seed that grows into an overgrown bush with large branches, providing nests for the birds. Mustard seed bushes, like the infamous kudzu of the South, vigorously and unassumingly overtakes gardens, roads, forests, mountain sides and buildings. Jesus described the coming of the kingdom as a wily contagious plant, a piece of God’s creation that produces something new and quickly covers up the old roads that humans have paved with hostility and turmoil.

In their short lives on this earth, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente didn’t waste a moment to make a positive impact. They helped change broken systems and care for people in need, spreading mustard seeds of justice and love across the country and world. 

Though they are no longer with us, their legacy remains for us to carry onward, knowing that God will be with us in every step, every hit, every strikeout, every failure, and every success. 

Now, it is our time to step up to the plate. Amen.


[1] I Never Had it Made by Jackie Robinson, Harper Collins Publishing, 1972

[2] 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story by Ed Henry. Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2017

[3] Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes by Juan Felilpe Herrera and Raul Colon. Dial Books, 2014.

[4] 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story by Ed Henry. Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2017

[5] Ibid.

There Came A Sound

A Sermon for Sunday, May 23, 2021. Emory Presbyterian Church. Pentecost. Acts 2:1-11.

My office at Emory Presbyterian faces the heavily traveled North Decatur Road. From my window I can see and hear all kinds of vehicles, and the most striking ones are the ambulances and fire trucks that go roaring by due to Emory University Hospital being a few blocks away. Sometimes if I’m deep in thought—if I’m reading, working on a worship bulletin, or answering an email, the sirens will startle me from my chair. My sense of fight or flight is immediately triggered, and I wonder for a few fleeting seconds if we’re all in danger. And then I realize that a lone individual is experiencing a trauma and I briefly say a prayer asking God to be present in their life and the medical professionals who are caring for them.

On Monday and Wednesday afternoons for nearly a year, a group of members from this church and Druid Hills Presbyterian have stood near North Decatur Road holding signs with messages of racial equity, equality, and justice. 

In response to our belief and declaration that the lives of people of color matter, hundreds upon hundreds of motorists loudly honk their approval. And though we’ve become accustomed to the reverie, the horn blasts still surprise me every now and then, especially when they come from a MARTA bus or huge delivery truck. I’m both amazed and stunned by those horns which remind me that I’m a fully alive witness to God’s active movement in the world. It is both awe-inspiring and daunting.

Whenever storms come through the area and my smart phone beeps incessantly with tornado warnings, I tense up. Fierce storms amaze and frighten me. I get anxious about the devastation they can cause, and I worry for loved ones. It takes an incredible amount of energy for me to remain calm knowing that my kids will be rocked from their slumber, frantically shouting, “It’s Thunder! I don’t like that sound! It scared me and woke me up! Is there a storm? Are we going to be safe?”

The acute and raucous sounds in our lives resonate through our bodies and minds. They stir us awake and force us to pay attention. 

In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, the people of God encounter a sound that fundamentally changes everything. The disciples and crowds of Jewish people from multiple nations living in Jerusalem have gathered for the festival of Pentecost or Weeks—a harvest celebration held 50 days following the festival of Passover that commemorated the giving of the law by Moses at Mt. Sinai. And it’s in the middle of these festivities when something phenomenal and bizarre occurs. There came a sound.

Says the writer of Acts and the Luke’s Gospel:  

“There came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” 

I’ve always found it fascinating that all of this happens, and the disciples hardly bat an eye. Not even one is confounded or alarmed. If it had been me, I would’ve peed my pants and been running around in circles, yelling “Flames, flames, flames!” 

I suppose when you’ve witnessed the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the wild appearance of the Holy Spirit, which their rabbi had told them was arriving soon, is nothing to stress over. 

Nevertheless, the writer seems to be more interested in emphasizing the peoples’ reaction to the Spirit’s activity: 

“And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

The wonder of this story is not that the disciples, all Galilean Jews, are talking in different languages, but that the people all hear the languages being spoken in their native speech. Presbyterian pastor, scholar, and writer Donald McKim observes:[1]

“The roll call of nations and languages points to the universality of the Spirit’s work for the whole world. God’s Spirit is the divine energy that now enables an eternal life to be real for those on whom God’s Spirit is poured and in whom the Spirit dwells.”

Pontificating further, retired Presbyterian seminary professor Kristin Emery Saldine writes:[2]

“The story of Pentecost is not meant to be a benchmark of what the church should look like on any given Sunday. Rather, it seeks to communicate how important the church is and how inseparable it is from Christ. Pentecost serves as a catechetical instruction that continues to transition the church into its identity and purpose. Every year, on the Day of Pentecost, we are reminded of who we are as a church, what we proclaim, and the source of that proclamation. It is a message to the church from the church, passed down through millennia to each generation… 

The book of Acts testifies to the filling of the Holy Spirit as an ongoing gift, not just a onetime event, and the church is constantly changing, according to the Spirit’s leading. The book of Acts also reminds us that such change is rarely easy or harmonious. Pentecost challenges churches to live into the promise that Christ is present and alive in the midst of change… 

The church universal has certainly experienced an unprecedented amount of change in the last 15 months. Churches across the nation have met the challenges that come with such great change courageously and faithfully. I’ve been filled with tremendous hope seeing the creative ministry that colleagues and congregations have been doing to care for their communities, to feed the hungry, to tend to the sick, to stand with the abused and to cry out for justice.

I’ve been so proud of the faithful here at Emory and the community who have committed to loving others in new, bold, and exciting ways. And none of what churches are doing these days nor what they are being called to be in the months and years ahead would be possible without the whirlwind imagination and influence of the Holy Spirit. 

The Spirit bonds us together as the body of Christ. Without the body, the church, individuals can’t effectively cultivate their discipleship. And without one another—especially those who’ve been discouraged, disillusioned, or excluded by the church—there can be no body. Professor Saldine notes again:[3]

From the very beginning, Christ calls individuals into community as the church. Pentecost allows us to speak boldly to the church as we are and about the church Christ would have us be. The many dimensions of the church’s identity—global, local, and personal—are interrelated and essential. None can exist apart from Christ or from the others.

The truth is that we need one another, and we need those in this neighborhood and city—the folks who dwell beyond this building and lawn that we haven’t met. There is a world of people out who are hungry and thirsty for God’s love in Christ and eager to receive and share messages about God’s deeds of power in their own unique languages and ways. There is a world of cultures and communities out there that dreams and yearns for the kindom of God to be made a reality.


Pentecost affirms again and again that the Spirit is steadily pushing and empowering the church to be open to something new on the horizons for ministry that will allow for growth, transformation, and progress. Pentecost declares that the Spirit is always loud and ever persistent in its mission to guide the church into the adventure God has planned and to lead us together, with all our individual gifts, where God needs us to go. 

“There came a sound.”

Are we ready to hear, receive, embrace, and be moved in response to that sound of the Spirit rushing into our lives?

Let us find out. 

Amen. 


[1]Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.

[2] Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.

[3] Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.

“Ascension of Jesus” JESUS MAFA art

A Sermon for Sunday, May 16, 2021. Emory Presbyterian Church. Luke 24:44-53

The life of children is a life filled with spirited curiosity, discovery, and wonder about what they’re seeing and studying and creating as they grow to understand themselves and the world around them. Our kids, 12 and 7, exuberantly share what they are learning and playing with me and Elizabeth daily. Every evening at 9:30 pm, the oldest comes downstairs and shows us a new drawing of a dragon or a colorful clay sculpture of a creature she’s invented. “I made something, take a look!” she says gleefully. Often while we are working on something in another room, the youngest will run into our space and joyfully shout, “Come here and check this out!” Immediately we stop what we’re doing and follow him into the living room where he has built an impressive fort out of couch pillows.

Because we’ve recently been in quarantine due to me having a bout with the coronavirus, the youngest decided to create one of the places in Atlanta that we couldn’t visit: The Georgia Aquarium. Using a plastic fort building kit, he created a row of connected boxes or “tanks” in which he placed his stuffed animal sharks, eels, turtles, crocodiles, and frogs. “Come, see! Come, see!” he shouted. “It’s pretty cool! Do you like it?!?”

Elizabeth, her mom Anne, and I are witnesses to all these things the kids do—both the good, some of which I’ve already mentioned, and the not-so-good, such as accidental falls and innocent mistakes and temper tantrums. As witnesses, we share the stories when appropriate and in certain contexts because we’re proud of (and even amused by) their accomplishments or we want to relate the experiences to those who might help us learn from them.

In today’s scripture reading from Luke 24:44-53, Jesus shares with the disciples a summation or recap of the scripture lessons he had taught them during his earthly ministry, and then he reminds them of how he was meant to suffer, die, and rise from the dead so that humanity may receive mercy and redemption. And then he says to them, with what I imagine is great pride in his voice, “You are witnesses of these things.” He is essentially telling them: You are observers of my life, death, and resurrection. You have seen everything that I’ve done and that has happened to me. You are the bearers of my story which you know intimately.

To emphasize this point, Jesus leads them to Bethany, a village on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, the famed spot where the prophet Zechariah said the Messiah would arrive to reign over the earth and from which Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Here, in this place where Christ’s non-violent reign begins, Jesus blesses the disciples with the gift of telling the tale they know so well and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection for all of creation.

Writing for the SALT Project Lectionary Commentary, Matthew Myer Boulton observes that Jesus is handing over the keys to the kingdom. He notes:[1]

It’s as if he says, You have heard it said, ‘Wait for a Messiah who will deliver you from trouble.’ But I say to you, Take up my mantle, for you, too, have a role to play in God’s story of redemption. You! You will now take the baton, you will now descend from the Mount of Olives and enter the holy city, “beginning from Jerusalem.” You are “witnesses of these things,” you shall proclaim the good news with your words and especially with your lives, you, all of you, I hereby commission you and bless you and send you into the world for the love of the world!

More than a decade ago, while serving a church in the Washington D.C. area, I had the opportunity to hear author and theologian Brian McLaren speak on discipleship two weeks prior to Good Friday. He began by retelling the story from Luke 5 where Jesus helps Simon, and a group of fishermen haul in their biggest catch and then calls the men to leave their nets and be his disciples—to be fishers of people.

McLaren then explained that Jesus calls each of us to also drop our things and follow:

“It is our call of discipleship to be witnesses for the peace Jesus brings. A witness is a person who takes a stand to tell the truth and our call today is to be witnesses for truth and reconciliation…witnesses to a crime committed (the murder of an innocent man, Jesus, by the hands of Pontius Pilate/Roman Empire, King Herod, and the religious authorities).

McLaren said we are to be witnesses for the truth of what happened to Jesus like the witnesses who take the stand to tell the truth in a courtroom. But he cautioned that many times we as Christians don’t do a good job of witnessing to the truth. We misunderstand who Jesus was and what he came to do. We mistreat Jesus and deny that he was about non-violence, love, and mercy. 

We do this, of course, by refusing to see Jesus in the least of these—by ignoring our neighbors, especially the poor and marginalized in society.

Yet we are continually called to drop our nets full of the things that prevent us from being in relationship with God and others and to be witnesses to the grace of the Lord that has been bestowed upon us. As Rev. Phillip Martin said a few weeks ago in “A Sermon for Every Sunday” video”:

The world is in need of an authentic witness to Christ, one that takes up space in the world, one that has a backbone and bites down on things like injustice and pain.

The persisting questions for us as post-modern followers of Christ are: how do we witness who God is and what God is doing around us? How are we sharing the story of Christ and honoring those whom God created out of love and for love to be love? How can we share all the things we’ve experienced about God’s grace? How can we be a blessing to those in need of hope and healing?

While those queries may feel overwhelming or stressful to consider, recall that Jesus, though he ascended, didn’t abandon the disciples. He promised to send the Spirit to empower them in their calling to be witnesses of Christ’s love. And notice the disciple’s response when Jesus departed. The gospel writer says, “And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

Through worship and praise, we are drawn together to witness the presence of joyfully convey the story of Christ and pass God’s blessings to others, awaiting the Holy Spirit to direct and connect us in ways we can’t imagine.

Amen


[1] https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/5/17/ascension-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-ascension-sunday

God Abides

A Sermon for May 2, 2021. Emory Presbyterian Church. I John 4:7-21

In the 1998 Cohen Brothers cult classic, The Big Lebowski, actor Jeff Bridges created one of the most iconic characters to ever fill the screen: Los Angeles slacker and bowler, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski. Throughout this bizarre crime-comedy film, The Dude goes through one disaster after the next, never seeming to lose his composure or be entirely changed by numerous events that bring him within an inch of death. In the final scene, The Dude is preparing for a bowling tournament when he encounters, for a second time, actor Sam Elliott’s character, “The Stranger,” who has been narrating the entire movie: 

The Dude: Hey, man!

The Stranger: Howdy do?

The Dude: I wondered if I’d see you again.

The Stranger: I wouldn’t miss the semis. How’s it been going?

The Dude: Well, you know. Strikes and gutters. Ups and downs.

The Stranger: Sure, I gotcha.

The Dude: Well, take care, man. Gotta get back. 

The Stranger: Sure. Take it easy, Dude.

The Dude: Oh, yeah!

The Stranger: I know that you will.

The Dude: Yeah, well—the Dude abides.

The Stranger (turning to the camera & audience): 

The Dude abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.

The Dude Abides—one of the most popular pop culture slogans of the last two decades. You can find the phrase printed on stickers, T-shirts, posters, bags, coffee mugs and bar glasses. The line, character and movie has even inspired a religion, a twist on Daoism, called Dudeism.  The Dude Abides is a way of saying: “Be cool,” “Take it easy,” “Chill,” “Go with the flow,” “No worries.”

Admittedly, as a fan of The Big Lebowski, which I saw in the theater a few months before I graduated college, and someone with anxiety and depression, I find the sentiment to be quite amusing and extremely helpful. It’s often valuable to step back, take a deep breath and “abide, man.” Incidentally, my six-year-old my seven-year-old and I utilize the word “dude” in our conversations about hanging out and playing: 

“Hey, Daddy, dude.”

“Hey, Davis, dude.”

“Wanna play some video games, dude?”

“Yeah, dude.”

“Let’s do it, dude. Oh, yeah.”

When there is an opportunity to have fun together, Davis and I abide.

The Dude Abides philosophy is all about having a carefree, calm, and kind demeanor, which we all know is certainly needed in this frenetic age.  It’s important to physically slow down, rest and refuel whether it’s on the couch or a rocking chair or the beach. And it’s spiritually and emotionally beneficial to take a break so we can re-connect with ourselves, our dear ones and God. It’s good, therefore, to abide or to accept a moment of serenity.

Today’s scripture reading from the First Letter of John also talks about abiding. Written to house churches in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, the author is responding to the divisions occurring among them. Groups of people have been leaving these communities, no longer recognizing that Jesus is the messiah of Israel and the son of God. And they’re stirring up hostility among those who remain faithful to the churches. 

Evoking Jesus’ command to the disciples in the Gospel of John about abiding in Christ like branches abide in a vine, the letter writer reminds the house churches to “love one another” because God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Dr. Claudia Highbaugh, retired dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at Connecticut College, beautifully explains:[1]

In this passage the spectacular act of love is the imitation of the love that God sent to humans; it is human love. God loves with the human life of Jesus Christ; we then love one another, person to person. …

Love is such a convoluted ideal culturally. In this biblical text, love is the hoped-for common and normative response, one person to another. Love is a perfect representative of God in everyone. Love is perfected in God, and God is perfected in human love, one human being to another. This text seems to mandate the presence of the sacred and the holy in each person, not worthy of love, but loved to be made both human and holy. …

In contemporary notions of love, fear seems to be the thing that is the most divisive. Love is an act of courage. The kind of love that abides in God disallows differences, guidelines, rules, and regulations. The love that abides in God, as expressed when people love one another, is not a love that contemplates either purpose or result. It is a pure and faithful expression.

Love is not the power of the mysterious intimate connection to the unknown and invisible God. Love is possible because of God. Love is of God, and love is perfected in the act of loving sister and brother, the ones seen. The text says it is not possible to love God, who is not seen, if there is no love for the sister and brother who are seen.

That radical declaration is what makes abiding in God, who is love, so difficult. Sure, it’s easy (on average) to love family, friends, co-workers, colleagues, and folks in the church whom we know well and cherish. It’s effortless to love and admire people who say and do wonderful things whom we’ve never personally met like a movie star, a musician, an athlete, an entrepreneur, an author, an activist, a politician, or a religious leader. Loving the good and loveable is simple. 

But loving the unlikeable—the folks that annoy you, offend you, insult you, and press all your buttons—is hard. And loving the people who hate and bully the poor and the marginalized is damn near impossible. I’ll be the first to confess that I have an extremely challenging time loving people who constantly exploit and dehumanize other human beings through violent words and actions. I shake my head and think, “Really, Jesus? I have to love those people who are so toxic and vile and destructive.” No sooner after I’ve asked, my heart answers, “Yes, them too,” and I let out a great sigh because I know God is right.

Now to be clear, we don’t have to like the people who are always mean, angry, and selfish or spend any amount of time with them or necessarily have a conversation, especially if they’re abusive toward us or someone else. Nor do we have to tolerate abuse, bad behavior or injustice. And that’s ok because God didn’t ask us to like one another. God commands us to love one another.  In his sermon, Loving Your Enemies, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1957, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached:[2]

There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them, but Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does.

To abide in God, who is love, is much more than us merely accepting the power of agape that comes into our lives through Christ and then, breezily going about our day. In the epistle, the Greek word for abide, meno, means “to remain,” or “to hold onto” or to “live.” Thus, we are told to dwell deeply, firmly, and actively in the love of God who loves us eternally and without conditions.  

This instruction, though, takes a lifetime of deliberate practice. The reality is that we will never achieve perfection in our numerous attempts to abide in God. We will never perfectly demonstrate love for others. We’re going to make mistakes, and we already have, more than we can count. But we continue onward because abiding again and again in God’s perfect love casts out the fear of being judged by our imperfections in being able to love others unconditionally. God’s love provides us with the grace to keep on loving, regardless of how many times we’ve messed up previously. 

God abides. I don’t know about you, but I take hope in that. It’s good knowin’ God’s out there. Lovin all of us sinners.

Amen.


[1] Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. 2012

[2] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church

Restores My Soul

A Sermon for Sunday, April 25, 2021. Emory Presbyterian Church. Psalm 23

When I was a teenager, I attended a Presbyterian weekend youth retreat at a small camping facility in Panama City Beach, Florida that was within walking distance of the ocean. On that Saturday of the event, in between lunch and an afternoon at the beach, all the high schoolers gathered in the chapel and find a comfortable spot in the pews or on the carpeted floor to lie down and listen to soft meditative music. One of the songs the retreat leaders played was “The 23rd Psalm” by the folk and jazz vocalist, Bobby McFerrin from the 1990 album Medicine Music. Listen now to this powerful rendition of the well-known scripture passage:

During a 2012 interview, McFerrin, who grew up in the Episcopal church, explained what inspired him to put the words of the psalm to music:[1]

The 23rd Psalm is dedicated to my mother. She was the driving force in my religious and spiritual education, and I have so many memories of her singing in church. But I wrote it because I’d been reading the Bible one morning, and I was thinking about God’s unconditional love, about how we crave it but have so much trouble believing we can trust it, and how we can’t fully understand it. And then I left my reading and spent time with my wife and our children. Watching her with them, the way she loved them, I realized one of the ways we’re shown a glimpse of how God loves us is through our mothers. They cherish our spirits, they demand that we become our best selves, and they take care of us.

Lying on the floor at that high school retreat with my eyes closed, listening to “The 23rdPsalm,” I felt God’s love and peace in my heart, and I understood, on a deeper level, the meaning of the psalm that I had heard so often as a child. Instead of perceiving the text solely as this charming and beautiful scene of someone hanging out with the Divine in the tall grass by a stream, I recognized that it was more about the complex journey we take with God through the world the Lord our shepherd has created. 

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate even more this confession of commitment and trust, and I find it to be a balm during times of tragedy. Afterall, the reading of Psalm 23 is an essential part of memorial services and funerals because it assures us that amid the grief and pain that occurs throughout our lives, we are loved and cared for unconditionally by God and bolstered by the cloud of witnesses surrounding us—the living saints who walk by our side and the eternal saints who’ve forged the path ahead. And we take great consolation and encouragement knowing that God in Christ has traveled the same road we’re on with all its green pastures, still waters, darkest valleys, and presence of enemies.

Theologian and pastor Michael Lodahl, who received a PhD in religious studies from Emory University, observes:[2]

Like every other prayer we Christians pray, we pray this psalm through Jesus and in Jesus’ name. Because this psalm is true for him, and true in him, it has become true for us. We sing it in the key of his life and ministry, his death and resurrection.

Because we pray this through Jesus, we are constantly reminded that Psalm 23 does not guarantee perpetual serenity. Despite the church’s tendency historically to romanticize this image of the shepherd with the sheep in the verdant pasture, we need only recall Jesus in Gethsemane to be jarred back to a harsher assessment of life as the people of God.

Here is the one who has become our shepherd only because “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8), which means learning the hard way. It is only when we truly hear his desperate cry that we can appreciate his humble concession to the divine will; only then, indeed, can we truly say, and pray, that God “leads me in right paths for his name’s sake” (Ps. 23:3). We pray it because, in fact, God has so led the one we call Savior.

Likewise, we understand that Jesus, as he bore the cross to Golgotha, may well have breathed the psalmist’s prayer, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me” (Ps. 23:4). Jesus walked that lonesome valley. …No matter how dark it might seem to us in that valley, we are assured that we cannot descend so deeply as to plumb the depths to which Christ has already gone.

Bobbi McFerrin similarly expressed this view years ago while talking to Krista Tippet on the popular radio program and podcast, On Being. He said:[3]

My favorite book in the Bible is the Psalms. I go through the Psalms every month. I read — I read scripture constantly, but the Psalms is like the book that I go to most of the time because in it is conveyed every human emotion. And what that tells me is that God gets it. He gets us. He understands us perfectly because he, in his book, has included the emotional, roller coaster rides that all of us go through. He gets it all. He understands it all. He can take it.

God appreciates what life is about and what it means to be human. God knows intimately of love and loss and delight and suffering. God is more than aware of the brokenness of humanity and the evils that plague creation—the violence we do to another person and the destruction we wreak on the planet and its creatures, all of which go against God’s intentions.

In moments of heartache—whether it was my parents messy divorce, or the death of family members and friends, or the loss of a job or horrific tragedies in the news (i.e., terrorist attacks, natural disasters, the pandemic, mass shootings, acts of racism and bigotry) I’ve clung tightly to the words of Psalm 23. In those instances, God in Christ, through the nurture of loved ones, restored my soul and protected my heart when despair cast its shadow and threatened to swallow me whole. And God continues to restore my soul whenever I experience anguish as God renews all souls gripped by sorrow and fear, particularly in these overwhelming and precarious times.

The comforting message of Psalm 23 is that God will not abandon any of God’s people, especially those on the margins who regularly encounter hardships. And we follow a God who anoints each of us to look after our fellow human beings, regardless of their identity and location, and to carefully tend to this marvelous blue marble filled with numerous wonders that help us better comprehend our relationship with God and all living things. We answer God’s invitation to mend the fractured, support the weak, comfort the weary, make space for suppressed voices to be heard and build communities, environments and connections that helps creation flourish.

And wherever we go, the goodness and mercy of God will be with us always.  And we will abide forever in the amazing grace of the One whom we follow on the path.

Amen.


[1] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/bobby-mcferrin_b_1582043

[2] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Year B, Volume 2. Edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. 2012.

[3] https://onbeing.org/programs/bobby-mcferrin-catching-song/

Again & Again, The Sun Rises (Easter Sunday)

A Sermon for April 4, 2021. Emory Presbyterian Church. Easter Sunday. Mark 16:1-8

Over the past two months, my kids have been binge-watching the 2017-2021 remake of the Disney’s DuckTales, an animated series from the late 80s. The new version, which features an all-star voice cast, is a clever, funny and poignant reimaging of the exploits of Uncle Scrooge McDuck and his three grand nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie as well as a zany array of friends and foes. 

In the remaining minutes of the series finale, The Last Adventure, which aired recently, Scrooge and company, after defeating the villains and learning the value of family, board the McDuck’s Seaplane for home. During the flight, Launchpad, the goofy and affable pilot, makes a flying blunder that causes the McDucks and their friends to be sucked out of the cargo hold. As the credits roll, they all fall with style; some who have powers soar away with others in tow while one character uses his dashing cape as a parachute. Scrooge, the grand nephews and their best friend Webby, grasp hands to form a circle as they gleefully float downward. And then the screen fades to black.[1]

Upon seeing the show’s finale on Thursday, my 7-year-old son turned to me and said: “Agggh, I can’t believe it’s over! I want to know what happens next! … Hmmm, maybe I should make a Season 4.” His 12-year-old sister replied, “That’s a great idea, you can come up with your own stories.”

In similar fashion, the resurrection story that completes the Gospel of Mark has provoked readers throughout history to say with awe, “Agggh, the women flee the tomb and stay silent about their encounter because they’re afraid!?!? I can’t believe that’s how he finished the story!”

Mark 16:8 is distressing, the cliff-hanger of all cliff-hangers—more epic than any TV show or movie whose culmination is abrupt and vague. Mark’s original conclusion was so uncomfortable to folks centuries ago that happier shorter and longer endings were later added by scribes since, according to most scholars, these new additions were not present in the earliest manuscripts. 

Because people typically prefer stories to wrap up nicely and neatly, Mark 16:8 leaves us wanting more and bewildered as to why the gospel writer would conclude with fear and silence. While it’s possible that an extra page of Mark’s composition was lost or he got distracted and didn’t write more, it’s more likely that the ambiguous ending is an intentional and captivating invitation to discover the resurrected Jesus by meeting him in Galilee as the young man in white robes instructed.

In the book Preaching Mark in Two Voices, The Rev. Dr. Brian K. Blount writes: [2]

Mark’s Gospel begins and ends in Galilee … In Mark, Galilee awaits us. The risen Jesus goes before us. Our death walk is over. That is the glorious news of Easter. … Galilee awaits all who are open to God’s future. Galilee awaits people who have lost their bearings and whose faith flickers at best, who compromise their integrity for a buck, who sit in the pews most Sundays yet still are mostly confused about who Jesus is or how to follow him. 

The good news that Mark promises us is that the risen Lord awaits us not in an empty tomb or in some distant future or remote place; the risen Lord awaits us in Galilee—on our city streets, in the halls of our schools, in the wards of our hospitals, and behind the bars of our prisons. The Lord awaits us in the market and the gym, when we sit down to dinner and when we lie down to sleep. Want to find the risen Lord? Want to serve the risen Christ? Mark says, ‘Then go to Galilee.”

God invites us to enter this resurrection scene and to continue where the story leaves off. God summons us to go to Galilee and join Jesus in the building of the beloved community that is “already and not yet”—the kindom that is occurring and not yet fully realized. 

The dread and anxiety in following the risen Christ is understandable. Just because it’s Easter doesn’t mean that we’re all 100 percent joyful and happy or that the world is suddenly healed of its woes. This church and community knows that first-hand from the sounds of ambulances that blare up and down North Decatur Road due to the close proximity of Emory University Hospital. Even now as we celebrate God’s victory over the death-wielding powers of Empire, people are actively dying or have died across the globe. And we are, after-all, still experiencing a pandemic that has infected more than 30 million people and killed more than half a million in the U.S. alone. Feelings of bereavement and despair are natural and acceptable. Rev. Denise Anderson, one of the writers for our seasonal theme, Again & Again: A Lenten Refrain, observes:

Sunday morning was a time of profound grief for those closest to Jesus. Consider those first few days after you’ve lost someone and the liminality between their death and funeral. There’s no closure yet, and mornings are reminders that the nightmare is real. It’s hard to imagine how you’ll face the day.

Friday’s terror gives way to new terror as the women arrive to find the stone removed and a strange young man with an outlandish story. Remember that nothing about this sight is recognizable to them. This isn’t comforting. They run away terrified, unable to even speak of what they saw!

But resurrection still came, even if they weren’t yet able to receive it. Things can be scary and okay at the same time. Again and again, the sun rises on a new day, often without embrace or acknowledgment. The same is true of resurrection. Whether or not we discern what’s happening, God is literally and figuratively turning the world around!

Like the women at the tomb, there are millions of people who—in the wake of COVID and other tragedies—have been unable to touch the body of their loved one who’s died or honor their life with an in-person memorial service or hold a traditional burial ceremony. There are many who are experiencing deep heartache and shock, who are struggling to get through the storm of grief swirling around them. 

During the last year of pain and uncertainty, I’ve taken great solace in the magnificently illustrated work, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by British author Charles Mackesy.[3] The book is about the four protagonists in the title and the friendship they develop as embark on a long journey through the countryside. As a way to provide comfort and inspiration to others, Mackesy has been drawing new scenes of the story and posting them in various places around Suffolk, England, like bus stations, barn doors and the outside wall of a café, and also sharing the project on Instagram.

In one image, the companions have stopped along the path and the boy looks up and says: “The clouds are getting darker.” And the horse replies: “But do you see that they are moving? Sometime soon, they will leave.” The storm does eventually come upon them, and the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse can do nothing other than bravely push through it. 

Later, in another illustration that depicts the boy, the mole and the fox lying atop the horse who is trudging through a deep river in the quiet of night, the horse says: “We are tired, but dawn is coming … so hold on.”

The women are tired, sad and frightened as so many people are today. And yet the gospel writer is drawing us into the resurrection story to connect with that anguish and to gaze through tears to witness what is just beyond, those glimpses of light that pierces the sky and illuminates our lives. God is urging us in the gloomiest and messiest of times to hold on, for the dawn is nearing.

“The Promise” by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity, A Sanctified Art, LLC

The Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity of A Sanctified Art, a creative worship consortium that created the Lenten theme materials, says of the art that adorns the cover of our Easter bulletin (and is featured to the left):

In this painting, I imagine what the women see in the moment before they turn to flee from the tomb. Instead of the dry, cracked desert, I imagine instead that they see the story of creation happening again before them. As the horizon breaks open, I imagine light and wind sweeping over a deep sea, giving shape to what was once a formless void. I imagine the heavens blooming like an iris, giving birth to glimmers of radiance. I imagine darkness that still lingers—for in these shadows, there is sacredness too. … 

They may be overridden with fear and trembling, but their story does not end here. There is a way forward. In this liminal space, once again, God proclaims that their fear—this new, uncertain way—is still held within the promise of resurrection. For this, I believe, is the promise of this life: that the story of creation happens again and again.

Friends, Easter arrives every year with the dawn, the beginning of a new day. Easter arrives every year on a Sunday, the beginning of a new week. Easter arrives every year near the time of Passover, the beginning of the great Exodus to freedom. Easter arrives every year during Springtime—the season of new life. So with all of our fear, sorrow, joys and love, let us awaken and rise. Easter is here. Resurrection is upon us. Christ and the grand adventure of ministry await in Galilee. The work of justice, mercy and healing beckon to be done. And the world keeps turning and the sun rises, again and again. Amen.


[1] https://disney.fandom.com/wiki/The_Last_Adventure!

[2] Preaching Mark in Two Voices by Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, 2002, Westminster John Knox Press

[3] https://www.charliemackesy.com

Again & Again, We Draw On Courage (Palm Sunday)

A Sermon for Sunday, March 28, 2021. Emory Presbyterian Church. Palm Sunday. John 12:1-19.

Today is a joyous occasion for a couple of reasons. 

The first is that it’s been more than a year since I preached and worshipped in the sanctuary with people (our small group of worship leaders) sitting in the pews and other members of the congregation watching in real time on their screens at home. (Although, technically, since you’re appearing on my laptop, you’re in the sanctuary too!)

I realize that it’s not quite the same as being outside together for worship, but it’s a marked change from how we’ve had to worship separately and mostly through a pre-recorded video. With more and more people being vaccinated, we seem to be approaching the end of this long, dark pandemic tunnel and catching a glimpse of the light up ahead. Granted, there will be a transition and not an immediate shift into pre-pandemic worship and life, however we’re making progress and that is something to rejoice and give thanks.

The second reason for celebrating is that its Palm Sunday which is recognized globally by Christians as Jesus’ jubilant entry into Jerusalem, which theologian Matthew Myer Boulton describes as “essentially a piece of street dramatizing Zechariah’s ancient prophecy: the long-awaited divine monarch arrives on a humble donkey, announcing “peace to the nations” (Zech 9:9-10). Shout hosanna! The new era, the Great Jubilee, has begun![1]

Simultaneously, Christians also acknowledge that Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week in which we hear once again the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. It is a time in which we focus on Jesus’ journey to the cross and immerse ourselves in those events and characters, all while avoiding the temptation to go directly to Easter. And in chapter 12 of the Gospel of John, the writer sets the stage for what is about to occur as the Rev. Denise Anderson explains in a commentary created for our seasonal theme, Again & Again: A Lenten Refrain, which emphasizes how “again and again, we draw on courage.” She writes:

Lights. Camera. Action! We begin the high drama of Holy Week with a reading in three parts.

Lights: In John’s gospel, the role of the sometimes mysterious woman who anoints Jesus before his death belongs to Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus resurrected from death. Judas objects to the act’s expense, but Jesus points out there are still opportunities to address poverty, if that’s Judas’ desire (it’s not). The spotlight is on someone we now understand as a scoundrel and who’d later play a major role in the crucifixion plot. Everyone’s motivations are exposed and the week’s events foreshadowed.

Camera: The word “photography” comes from the Greek words for “light” and “writing.” Essentially, photography “draws the light,” and cameras are modeled after the construction of the human eye. All eyes right now are on Jesus. That’s a problem for the chief priests, who then set their eyes on Lazarus to undermine Jesus. We witness what is both secret and open.

Action: Everything is now set in motion. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a spectacle. It’s a protest, a counternarrative to the Empire’s extravagance and repression. It happens opposite the Roman governor’s own parade into Jerusalem for the Passover. It’s the people’s declaration of a different reign. The use of a donkey is Messianic imagery. This is political theater, and it would ramp up the plots against Jesus’ life. 

“Courage” derives from Latin word “cor,” which means “heart.” When we consider the full Palm Sunday picture, these are frightful times. So much is happening that is both hopeful and terrifying. Tensions and tears are plentiful. But the Word will remind us to “take heart.” Again and again, we take heart amid the drama. The script is unsettling, but we have not yet reached “The End.”

The older I get, the more I become less attached to the exuberant waving palm branches and triumphant cries of Hosanna! than I did as a kid. Particularly in this past year of extraordinary pain, I find myself drawn again and again to that solemn image of Jesus riding atop the donkey and the deep thoughts and feelings that must have permeated his mind and heart—knowing that his final days were approaching and a gruesome death awaited him. 

In the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke, on the evening he is arrested, Jesus goes to the garden to offer a prayer of lament, saying: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” And during his death on the cross, as recorded by Matthew and Mark, Jesus cries out in agony those haunting last words “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!”

Jesus experienced great anguish from being betrayed, abandoned, arrested, beaten, mocked and crucified and those emotions must’ve been stirring within him in the days preceding for he was keenly aware of his fate as soon as the donkey entered Jerusalem’s gates.

The cheering disciples, who in a week will run away and deny knowing him, and the elated crowds, who will eventually clamor for his crucifixion, don’t have a clue about how life is about to quickly change forever. But Jesus understands what’s next, and he moves the donkey forward all the same.  

Reflecting on her art for today’s bulletin cover, Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman of A Sanctified Art, says:

“Jesus plans to enter the city in a way that symbolically subverts power, taking a route opposite of the military leaders who oversee the festival celebrations. His entry would make a definitive statement, imaging an alternative kind of power, a servant leader riding a humble donkey. He knew this act would inch him closer to state-sanctioned torture and death.”

Jesus enters the city and the end of his earthly life as the full embodiment of courage. For it is his entire heart that he pours out for the world so all people throughout the ages shall know the extent of God’s love. 

One of my heroes of the faith, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, wrote several years ago that:[2]

Being courageous does not mean never being scared; it means acting as you know you must even though you are undeniably afraid. Actually, courage has no meaning unless there are things that threaten, that make you feel scared. Whether we are afraid of physical harm or social shame and embarrassment, when we face our fear instead of denying it, we are able to avoid it paralyzing us.”

Maybe I’m drawn more to the courage that Jesus exemplifies as he anticipates and then undergoes enormous torment because I’m in awe of a trait which I have trouble finding and using. Rather than exhibit courage, I hide from my fears and pretend they don’t exist. Or I avert any type of conflict that would feed into those fears of being physically harmed, shamed, embarrassed, overly criticized or hated. I often allow fear to either paralyze me into doing absolutely nothing that would cause any distress or harm. Or I let fear trap me in a vicious cycle of procrastination to avoid the prospect of being considered inept or a failure. So, a bit more courage sure would be nice for a Cowardly Lion like me…if I only had the nerve.

And yet, there are instances in my life where I have been in a deep hole of despair because of an awful and challenging circumstance that I couldn’t control or avoid no matter how much I tried, and I climbed out. Recalling those moments of survival and perseverance helps me accept an obvious truth: I’m alive, and I made it, and I’m still moving. I’m still surviving, growing and learning.  I’m listening for who God is calling me to be and where God is calling me to go because somehow, in some mysterious way, I’ve managed to summon the courage to put one foot in front of the other.  Aren’t we all?

The ministry team of A Sanctified Art says that “Courage is deep within us; drawing on courage is both internal and external. We often find it when we most need it, when everything else has been stripped away.”  

The courage that we find when we most need it and least expect it comes from the selfless and merciful Christ who, again and again and again, courageously shows us the way forward, even when heartache comes our way—simply because he’s been there before.

Amen.


[1] https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2021/3/23/palms-and-passion-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-palmpassion-sunday

[2] “God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time by Desmond Tutu, Penguin Randomhouse, 2005

Again & Again, We Are Reformed (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

Today’s reading from Jeremiah 31:31-34 is one of my favorite scripture passages. I revel in the imagery and idea that God inscribes the heart, this vessel of life in each person, with the message that humanity is God’s beloved creation. 

That God imprints God’s self into every human being, forever claiming them as holy and magnificent works who are meant to follow the law or ways of God as if it was second nature. 

That God seals a promise upon each of us that we will never be abandoned and forgotten. 

Says the prophet: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

The Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman, a member of A Sanctified Art, which conceived the worship theme “Again & Again: A Lenten Refrain” for churches to explore during the season of Lent, makes the imagery in the Jeremiah text come alive with her piece entitled “Written on Our Hearts.” Reflecting on her drawing, she writes:

The events of 2020 have made me keenly aware of the brokenness of humanity. We can’t seem to see past ourselves, neglecting our neighbor and undoing creation. We repeat past patterns, and the low moments of history keep echoing again and again. We point fingers, shrug responsibility, and we turn our back on God, widening the chasm between the world and the coming Kin-dom. God’s frustration and disappointment are palatable in the text: “a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband” (v.32) I think it’s important to sit with that for a bit. God has gifted us everything—our lives, this wonderful world—and we can be so forgetful and ungrateful. 

Rev. Pittman’s words resonate loudly with the events that occurred this past week:

On Monday, despite recent indications that the Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church were adopting a more welcoming tone toward LGBTQ communities, The Vatican reiterated to its 1.3 billion followers that priests should not bless same-sex unions which it believes to be a sin. The news was devastating for gay Catholics who were hoping for the RCC to change and for scores of LGBTQ persons who have been shunned by Christian denominations for decades.

Then, on Tuesday morning, new data from the Stop AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Hate Reporting Center, revealed that nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported in the U.S. from March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021, a significant increase believed to have been largely fueled by the racist perception that Asians were responsible for the coronavirus which originated in China—such as the rhetoric by former President Trump who repeatedly labeled COVID-19 as the “China virus” and the “kung flu.” 

And finally on Tuesday evening, the nation was shocked once again by yet another mass shooting, this time in the Atlanta area and Cherokee County. Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white male, specifically targeted Asian-American spa and massage parlors, and killed eight people, including six Asian women, because he blamed them for “providing an outlet for his sex addiction.” 

Considering that Asian-American women have been the target of sexualized racism for more than a century—typically fetishized and demonized as exotic playthings or sexual temptresses—the gunman’s choices were clearly motivated by racist ideology or racist misogyny. The perpetrator, by his actions, condemned a specific race of people for his problem, even if he is refusing to acknowledge it as such. And that is racism. 

The evil of white supremacy culture, however, often tries to convince humanity that racism, homophobia and sexism doesn’t exist while its simultaneously happening in plain sight.

Humanity must resist turning a blind eye to those patterns of the past or neglect others or point fingers, shrug responsibility and turn away from God as Rev. Pittman mentioned earlier. Humanity must continually seek to be in covenantal relationship with God and God’s ways of justice, peace, mercy and love. 

When we are living as God intends, we are able to see and care for our neighbors, especially the ones who are mistreated and marginalized and deemed to be “less than.” To all those among this church’s congregation and staff; to all those in the churches that make up the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta and Cherokee Presbytery; and to all those in our city, state and nation who identify as LGBQT, as Asian-American, as a person of color, or as a woman…please know that I see you and I love you. I lament with you the tragedies of this week, the bigotry you face and the fear and sadness you experience on a regular basis. I stand beside you as an ally committed to anti-discrimination work. 

This church, Emory Presbyterian, also sees you and loves you and laments with you and stands beside you. If you’re not familiar with Emory Pres or have been ostracized from Christian communities in the past, be assured that this is a safe place for you to be—a place filled with people who strive with all of their hearts, minds and souls to embody grace in the world. 

I recognize that, throughout history, Christianity has done a lot of harm to many people. And still today, Christians don’t always do what’s right. Christians don’t always do what they preach, me included. And precisely because Christians are prone to mess up like anyone else, followers of Christ trust in the promises of God’s grace and keep living out our faith. 

In the Presbyterian Reformed tradition, we believe that faith is not a perfect state of being but instead it is something to be practiced every day, again and again and again. Faith is an enduring search of asking questions and discovering answers, of growing and learning, falling, failing and rising and persevering, all while being transformed by God on the journey. In Presbyterian speak, God is always forming and reforming us, shaping and molding us so that together as God’s people, we can labor with God to mend what is broken in our lives and world. As Rev. Pittman so beautifully states:

Despite humanity’s constant breaking of covenants, God continues to seek reconciliation and pours out grace upon grace. Why not let this grace transform us? It is in receiving God’s grace, responding in gratitude, and offering grace to others that God forms us into who we are made to be. God saves us from ourselves, writing the way on our hearts, and gives us unlimited changes to get it right. It’s clear we can’t keep the covenant on our own, so God steps in, offering and fulfilling the covenant at once. What a gift!

In this image, I drew an anatomical heart with the words, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The heart is surrounded by covenantal imagery…It creates a beautiful kaleidoscope of stories that define our pilgrimage with God. The common thread throughout these narratives is that when we mess up, God is ready with a promise, again and again.

Amen.

Again & Again, God Loves First (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

A Sermon for Sunday, March 14, 2021. Emory Presbyterian Church. Fourth Sunday in Lent. John 3:14-21

Though you are viewing on a Sunday, this sermon is being recorded on Thursday, March 11. Exactly one year ago on this day, life changed dramatically when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic and cancellations and lock downs began to curb the spread of the disease. 

At the time, at least 31 people had died of COVID-19 in the U.S. The nation’s death toll is now at more than 530k and there have been more than 2.6 million total deaths around the globe. The pandemic has generated and continues to cause tremendous suffering:

The loss of loved ones, empty seats and beds that will never be filled again. 

The closing of businesses, skyrocketing unemployment and severe economic hardship. 

The inability to be around family and friends or participate in-person activities like worship, weddings, funerals, reunions, graduation and birthday parties, school, concerts, sporting events and travel vacations.

An increased mental health toll on thousands upon thousands of people, especially frontline health care workers who have seen way too many patients die.

Humanity is experiencing a long period of isolation, despair and hopelessness.

During this season of Lent, we’ve been exploring the theme of “Again & Again: A Lenten Refrain,” in which the creative ministry team of A Sanctified Art explains:

“In the season of Lent, we’re reminded that, again and again, suffering and brokenness find us. We doubt again, we mess up again. Again and again, the story of Jesus on the cross repeats—every time lives are taken unjustly, every time the powerful choose corruption and violence, every time individuals forget how to love. With exacerbation we exclaim, ‘Again? How long, O God?’ And yet, in the midst of the motion blur chaos of our lives, God offers a sacred refrain: ‘I choose you, I love you, I will lead you to repair.’ Again and again, God breaks the cycle and offers us a new way forward.”

Put another way by one of the most recognizable verses in the New Testament: “For God so loved the world…”

John 3:16 is part of the late-night discourse between Jesus and the religious leader Nicodemus wherein Jesus emphasizes God’s faithful devotion to humankind by describing the how God specifically shows love for the world. 

Some of you might recall from a sermon I preached during Lent in 2020 that in 17thcentury English, the word “so” often meant “in this way,” as in: “like so,” or “so help me God.” Thus, it made sense for the translators of the King James Version of the Bible to translate the Greek houtos,“in this way” with the English word, so—”For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”  Today, though, we generally use “so” to mean “very” or “to a large extent, as in: “I’m so sad,” or “She’s so smart!” 

As a result, John 3:16 is often misinterpreted by televangelists and mega church pastors as a statement about the extent or degree of God’s love (that it’s some but not all, or it’s for these, not those) when it’s actually a statement about the way or pattern of God’s love, i.e. “For God loved the world in this way, he gave his only Son…”

The following sentence, verse 17, confirms God’s intention for the way in which love will be expressed: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.God’s love in Christ will be sacrificial and unconditional. It will rescue, redeem and protect. It will not judge, exclude or harm. God is dedicating a part of God’s self to dispelling gloom and indifference with light and love.

The light of God comes into our lives in the most unexpected forms as the Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garritty shares in her artist statement for the piece “Light Wave” that is inspired by the scripture reading. She writes:

My first memory of this passage is from writing “John 3:16” on my basketball shoes when I was in seventh grade, joining many of my teammates in blending our sport with our faith. I don’t remember knowing what the verse really meant, but my display of it was to make a statement about who I was—or at least who I desperately wanted to be. Like the branded clothes I wore, or the way I styled my hair, this

was just another way to curate my middle school self-image. I wanted to show that I was good, that I fit in, that I believed in God. Later that basketball season, I added another Sharpie pen tattoo to my basketball shoes: my mother’s initials and the dates of her birth and death, marking the 44 years she lived.  After her funeral, my teammates added her initials and the dates of her life to their sneakers in solidarity. 

Now I know that Jesus originally spoke these famous words to Nicodemus, perhaps whispering them amidst the hushed noises of the night. I wonder why Nicodemus came to Jesus in the first place. Had Jesus’ teachings uprooted his religious self-image, one carefully curated to project propriety and adherence to the law? Or had death recently left a sharp sting, unraveling his tidy beliefs, creating in him a well of desperate questions about eternal life?

Jesus speaks to him with poetry of promise: God didn’t send his son to judge the world, but so the world might be restored through him. For God so loved. For God so loves, that like light, God keeps traveling to reach us with that redeeming love. In this abstract painting, the gold leaf marks become like a wave gliding through the cosmos, moving endlessly until it reaches everything.

As I think back to those Sharpie pen inscriptions on my basketball shoes, perhaps “For God so loved… so that everyone… will have eternal life” was the perfect companion to my mom’s initials.

It is in the midst our individual and collective grief that we are illuminated with the presence of God’s love and beckoned to open our eyes and lift our heads to see it shining before us, reaching out to heal and restore our hearts and souls.

Over the past two months, I’ve been captivated, along with millions of others, by the world’s number one TV series, Marvel’s WandaVision. Streaming on Disney Plus, the show centers on the surreal relationship and life of two super-powered beings, Wanda Maximoff who possesses magical powers, and The Vision, an android who has supreme intellect and a variety of other abilities. At its core, WandaVision is a cathartic exploration of trauma and grief. 

In one scene, Wanda tells Vision how she is struggling with the recent death of her super heroic brother Pietro, who was killed while protecting innocents from the wrath of a villain:

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKKr1zCSZEQ]

Beloved, there is much to grieve these days and still, there is divine light coming toward us. It is meeting us both now and at the end of the long tunnel of our sorrow. That is true in Lent and every season of our lives. And no body and no being understands pain and anguish better than God who in Christ cares for us completely and wholly. 

As The Vision says so profoundly, “what is grief, if not love persevering?”

Amen

Again & Again, We Are Shown the Way (Third Sunday in Lent)

A Sermon for Sunday, March 7, 2021. Emory Presbyterian Church. The Third Sunday in Lent. John 2:13-22

When I preached a sermon on this text three years ago, I discovered the following meme, which offers some sage advice:

The sardonic caption elicits laughter precisely because some segments of Christianity sometimes forget or completely ignore the truth that Jesus occasionally got mad during his life and ministry, especially that time he cleanses the temple. 

Jesus is causing quite the scene. The inside of the temple is a mess.  Doves 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. The 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 same being 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, admittedly, hard for a lot of us 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 a vital part of who he is and not something that should be easily dismissed.

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 thus seems reasonable to then to conclude that such an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being in human form is not going to be docile. The late Christian author and theologian Mike Yaconelli once put it this way:[1]

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.”

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

To be clear, the anger that erupts from Jesus upon entering the temple 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. Jesus became righteously angry because he saw a corrupt system that created a barrier between God and the people.

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 solely worship God. What Jesus witnessed was a lack of respect and reverence for God. The practices weren’t harmful in of themselves, but distracted people from giving God their full attention. Furthermore, the temple economy, according to the other three gospels, was rife with abuse. Vendors routinely inflated prices and took advantage of naïve travelers who came from small towns or were part of nomadic tribes. And thus, Jesus, consumed by righteous anger, challenges a temple economy that puts profit before prayer and spiritual connection.

Righteous anger is considered to be good, conscientious, moral, healthy anger and there’s always a time and place for such emotion. Alice Paul, the American suffragist and Quaker, was righteously angry that women were denied the right to vote during the early 1900s. Civil and human rights activists in the 60s, like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer and Audre Lorde were righteously angry about racism and sexism. Albertina Sisilu, an activist in South African, was righteously angry about the cruelty of apartheid. And Tarana Burke, the founder of the #metoo movement, has been righteously angry about sexual abuse and how victims are often silenced. And environmental activist Greta Thunberg has been righteously angry about world leader’s inaction on climate change.

These courageous women and many more have spent their lives disrupting unjust systems and knocking down the barriers that have exploited people and prevented them from being who God created them to be.

We are familiar with those systems that harm the most vulnerable, marginalize those who are different, and damage the planet in an effort to drive a wedge between us and God’s kingdom of justice, love and mercy. Because God has wired us to show deep compassion and care for a suffering world, it’s only natural for us to be filled with righteous anger whenever we hear about another act of oppression and violence from a structure of power. Righteous anger is good and we are called to practice it. We are called to use it so that we be affective instruments of change, disruptors of unjust systems, barrier crashers and table flippers.

In an artist statement about her piece, Overturn, the featured cover art on today’s bulletin, the Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity writes:

In this image, I wanted to freeze-frame the destruction Jesus ignites, forcing us as viewers to focus on the process of dismantling and destroying an oppressive system. For those who willingly or unwillingly benefit from systems of oppression, it may feel threatening and terrifying to see them all come tumbling down. But for those held within the unrelenting grip of injustice, it must be completely and utterly liberating. Again and again, Jesus shows us that his movement is about overturning systems of oppression to bring forth God’s beloved community on earth. Again and again, liberation movements throughout history pursue this same goal. Will we join Jesus in the overturning?

This is the hardest aspect of being a disciple and follower of Christ. 

This is the part of what Jesus does that can be uncomfortable and overwhelming. And that’s ok. Take deep breaths. 

Accompanying Jesus in the overturning doesn’t mean we have to get it all done today or tomorrow or next week. Nor does it mean that we have to generate the same kind of chaos that Jesus caused in the temple. Overturning is about channeling our righteous anger into a series of daily steps and choices that build over time. 

Every once in a while, you might take a leap, but mostly it’s small strides and modest actions, like: voting for candidates and laws that have people’s best interests at heart; or calling state legislators to demand that low income workers have better access to adequate healthcare and housing; or feeding people who live on the street; or holding up signs protesting inequality; or starting a writing campaign to hold a company accountable for fostering racial stereotypes; being an advocate for the differently abled; or caring for the environment by green initiatives in your town ; or volunteering with immigrant communities; or supporting organizations that provide a safe haven for LGBQTIA teens who’ve been abandoned or participating in programs that seek to end violence against women. 

Many of you are already doing the very things I’ve mentioned or you’re involved in other liberating endeavors. You are taking the steps. You are moving. You are disturbing the status quo and getting into some “good trouble.” You are making a difference. You are in the excellent company of holy troublemakers. Don’t give up or stop. 

If you are someone who doesn’t quite know where to start, it’s alright. You’re not alone. There are other members of the body of Christ who are beside you at the same point in the journey and will keep you close. And there are folks who are a bit ahead, but willing to briefly turn back to offer encouragement and wisdom from their experience. You’re in trusted hands. You will make a difference. Don’t worry.

Remember that regardless of wherever you are in the journey, make time to hear what God in Christ is speaking to your mind and heart, and then take one first step. And then another. And then another. With each step, be assured that again and again, we will be shown the way. 

Amen.


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