It called loudly to me with its bold title splayed over an alluring cosmic fireworks display, and the renown author’s name printed in large organ letters below: ELEVATION…STEPHEN KING.
A book by King is usually enough to grab my attention but typically I check them out at the library instead of buying them these days. I was so disappointed in his 2014 novel “Revival” from a few years ago that I have picked up and browse every book written since with a bit of skepticism. But this one, Elevation, made my heart leap and sparked curiosity and wonder. Right away I knew the story wasn’t centered around horror, but of that deeper magic found in King’s Green Mile, The Dragon’s Eye, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption, and The Body (Stand By Me). I scanned the description in the book jacket and was instantly convinced that this was a piece of literature to devour.
At less than 150 pages, it took just over a day to read. I finished it a few evenings ago, but I may re-read it before the end of next weekend. It is that marvelous of a tale.
The protagonist, Scott Carey, a 6’4 foot guy who weighs 240 pounds, suddenly discovered that he is losing weight, without his appearance ever changing. More curious is that the scale registers the same with our without clothes and even if he is carrying heavy objects like 2 pounds of quarters in his pockets or 5 pound dumbbells. As Scott continues to lose 2 pounds per day, he finds that he has more energy and literally more bounce as he defies gravity by leaping from his driveway to the stop step of his front porch, among other feats.
In brilliant fashion, King has given us a parable on what it means to let go of the things in life (the worries, the burdens and hardships) that weigh us down and allow friends, and even complete strangers, to lift you up.
The story stirred within me the following questions:
What do I need to let go of so I can have more energy and bounce…so I can be ELEVATED, so I can rise?
How can I stretch and grow?
How can I reach beyond myself and cling to the mystery of God and the love and grace that is all around?
This past week at the PC(USA) CREDO conference has led me to some answers.
Pastoral Prayer, 10 am worship at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, June 17, 2018. “Sometimes It Just Seems To Be Too Much,” written by Ted Loder, author of Guerillas of Grace. 1981. Text in red are my additions.
Sometimes, Lord, it just seems to be too much: too much violence, too much fear; too much of demands and problems; too much of broken dreams and broken families and broken lives; too much of war and slums and dying and people being torn apart from loved ones; too much of greed and squishy fatness and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much stale routine and quarrels, unpaid bills and dead ends; too much of words lobbed in to explode and leaving shredded hearts and lacerated souls; too much of turned-away backs and yellow silence, red rage and the bitter tastes of ashes in our mouths.
Sometimes the very air seems scorched by threats and rejection and decay until there is nothing but to inhale pain and exhale confusion. Too much darkness, Lord, too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference…Too much, Lord, too much, too blood, bruising, brain-washing much.
Or is it too little, too little of compassion, too little of courage, of daring, of persistence, or sacrifice; too little of music and laughter and celebration?
O God, make of us some nourishment for these starved times, some food for our brothers and sisters who are hungry for gladness and hope, that being bread for them, we may also be fed and be full.
O God, make of us joyful children like those in Vacation Bible School last week who gave you praise and lived out grace through music, play, art, mission, story and the sharing of scripture.
O God, make us of us mustard seed and scatter us across the earth so that we may sprout and grow, putting forth large branches of love and mercy where your people, especially the poor, the oppressed, the stranger and the foreigner can find protection, solace and comfort.
We ask all these things in the name of Christ Jesus who taught his disciples to pray together saying: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
A Sermon for Sunday February 11, 2018, Transfiguration Sunday, John 1:1-5, 14 and 18; Mark 9:2-9
Whenever we consider the pairing of the words “light and darkness,” we immediately think of “good and evil,” and “hope and despair.” We associate “light” with what is positive and “darkness” with the negative.
It’s what we’ve been taught since we exited the womb. We’ve endured the “dark night of the soul” and understand intimately the notion that “it’s always the darkest just before the dawn.” In the dark, we are seized with pain, and in the light, we are healed.
There are numerous books, movies, songs, and wise sayings that express that very message, reminding us again and again that the light shines brightly no matter how dark any particular moment seems. Many of those artistic expressions point us back to the scriptures, which has assured us throughout the centuries that hate and darkness will never overcome light and love.
That assurance is true and core to our beliefs.
But could it be equally true that the light might be just as scary and quite dangerous to behold and embrace—more so than we’d like to admit? The gospels seem to affirm this truth, which we don’t always notice right away.
In this morning’s reading from Mark 9, we encounter Jesus and his disciples, Peter, James, and John, atop a mountain when an amazing event occurs. Suddenly and without warning, Jesus is transfigured before them—his clothes becoming “a dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” (And no, this wasn’t a “Tide ad.”) 
Matthew’s version of the story adds that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun,” which would mean that it was intensely bright and difficult to see without squinting. While Luke’s account says the “appearance of his face” changed, most likely indicating that it became ethereal. And appearing next to Jesus in this flood of illuminating transfiguration are two revered and long-dead prophets, Elijah and Moses, striking up a conversation.
Peter responds to this incredible supernatural spectacle by anxiously suggesting they set up camp and stay awhile. On the surface, it seems to be a tone-deaf statement that highlights the disciple’s ignorance of what is occurring before him.
However, the reality, as Mark tells us, is that Peter, (along with James and John) is terrified and doesn’t know what to say. In an effort to calm his fear and cope with the magnitude of the scene, Peter starts rambling about dwelling places even though he’s probably aware that his idea is unrealistic and makes no sense.
The transfiguration is not the special effects blockbuster film that persuades you to sink into a large comfy chair with a bucket of buttery popcorn for a two-hour thrill ride. Nor is it an opportunity to set up a picnic and watch an half-hour fireworks show.
The transfiguration of Jesus is much more compelling in its brevity and comes with a soundtrack straight from the heavens as God’s voice booms: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”
Peter, James, and John have every reason to be struck with terror. This is not the soft pink light of a sunrise that is easy on the eyes, or the flame of a candle that can be contained from spreading and quickly put out. This is not a light that can be harnessed and controlled with the clicking of a switch, a swipe on a smart phone, or a voice-activated command.
This is God’s light in Christ arriving with blinding power and might that cannot be tamed. The scriptures tell us that God’s light rescues people from dark places, protects them like a suit of armor, and reveals the things that were once hidden in darkness.  The writer of John’s Gospel, whose poetic words we’ve also heard this morning, proclaims: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Even the natural light that God has created for our days is too potent for us to truly handle ourselves. Sunlight is the most powerful source of energy for our planet, crucial for growth and sustaining of life; for any human being to think it can be completely mastered and managed is quite naive.
Light will do what light does just as God and God’s light does what it will. The transfiguration is a mere glimpse of how God’s righteousness and justice radiates through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
Transfiguration—this mysterious, extraordinary, transformative display of light—is a reminder that Jesus is the hope for ages, the One who comes to fulfill the law and the prophets—the embodiment of the Ten Commandments and the dreams of the prophets who proclaim God’s kingdom will overcome the corruption of earthly kingdoms. Jesus is the Divine Light-in-the-Flesh whose cruel death exposes the powers of the world and their desire for glory and dominion. For this, Jesus has been baptized and claimed as a beloved child, in whom God is well pleased.
Transfiguration is God quickly flashing God’s hand to let us know that God has all the cards and is about to make the biggest play anyone has ever seen. Only it won’t be a royal flush of monarchs with swords who lay siege on the Empire. Instead it will be an unarmed Savior King who—through great sacrifice—peacefully conquers with unconditional love and steadfast mercy.
And while that is exhilarating to consider on one hand, it is also quite frightening as the disciple Peter can attest. Peter, James, and John know that Chris is the light of God made manifest and still the prospect of being around and following such a force is scary.
Being a disciple of Jesus is no walk in the park. Ministry is not easy. It’s risky and challenging. Not everyone is fond of helping those who are on the margins of society—the folks who are deemed to be filthy and unworthy. You can be criticized, judged, condemned, cursed, bullied, beaten, arrested, and killed as evident in the stories from the New Testament and our history books.
Peter’s fear is quite reasonable and there are many days when I resonate with what the disciple is feeling. As an ordained minister of 13 years, I know who Jesus is in our lives and world. And yet as someone who has suffered with anxiety and depression most of my life, and who has been in counseling and taking medicine for more than a decade, I am regularly startled by the overwhelming light of Christ.
The best way I can explain what it’s like to live with the debilitations of anxiety and depression is to share a description from a meme being shared on social media:
Having anxiety and depression is like being scared and tired at the same time.
It’s the fear of failure but no urge to be productive.
It’s wanting friends but hating socializing.
It’s wanting to be alone but not wanting to be lonely.
It’s caring about everything then caring about nothing.
It’s feeling everything at once then feeling paralyzingly numb.
Following Christ, witnessing to and bearing the light, is something I feel deeply about; it is certainly my calling. However, I don’t always feel comfortable heeding my call because being a part of the Light means I have to take risks and make myself vulnerable to criticism, condemnation and rejection for showing love, practicing mercy and speaking truth to power. I also have to become vulnerable when I fail at not loving God and neighbor as I should and seek to make amends. I would much rather make a dwelling place in the darkness under the covers of my bed and never come out because it can be exhausting to swing out my feet and take a step forward.
I suspect that many of you, regardless of whether you have anxiety and depression, would confess that you are also reluctance about fully bathing in Christ’s light like I am. Don’t we often present the best of ourselves, desiring to not be vulnerable or show weakness—to keep our flaws, heartache, struggles and pain deep within? We silently pray: Let a little light in God, but not too much, so no one judges us for a fool.
Like a lot of folks in the world, I feel a sense of inadequacy about myself. I have great doubts about my abilities as a pastor, husband and dad. But then I recall one of my favorite quotes from the author Marianne Williamson that render this attitude absurd. She writes:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” 
“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us…”—it’s a lot of pressure to live into, isn’t it? It’s not surprising that I or anyone else wants to shrink and play small. The task sounds quite intimidating.
But I suppose that it’s not actually about dwelling in and embodying God’s light 24-7. It’s not about us putting pressure on ourselves to always have a glowing and sunny optimism.
Instead, it’s about coming down the mountain with a small flame in our hearts and kindling the hearts of others as we slog through the mundane, messy, demanding, dark and excruciating parts of life.
God is not asking us to be the light of Christ or immerse ourselves in the light every second of every day. God knows we experience suffering and pain and are incapable of being perfect and happy all the time.
But God does call us to listen to Christ and carry what we can of Christ’s light into a world that needs to be illuminated with love. The Rev. Maryetta Anschutz, an Episcopal priest, says there is no other way:
The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe. We also cannot escape the light that God will shed on our path…God will find us in our homes and in our work places. God will find us when your hearts are broken and when we discover joy. God will find us when we run away from God and when we are sitting in the middle of what seems like hell. So ‘get up and do not be afraid.’
Christ’s light finds us and moves us onward in spite of our anxiety, depression, fears, doubts and insecurities. Christ’s light sparks something hidden inside of us that inspires us to brighten the life of another.
Like 15-year-old Gomez Colon, a resident of Puerto Rico who has raised more than $125,000 to help provide 1,400 solar lamps in 840 households that are without electricity due to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in November.
Like the former NFL player-turned-Baltimore teacher Aaron Maybin who inspired his community to donate hand warmers and gloves to students when Matthew A. Henson Elementary School lost heat and electricity during the winter cold snap last month, and who has also helped raise more than $80,000 to repair the problematic heat systems that exists throughout Baltimore Public Schools.
Like the church members who lovingly insert quarters in the machines at Kim’s Laundromat to provide clean clothes to those in need.
Like the volunteers who spend a couple of hours every month reading to the children of the Burmese refugee families we sponsor.
Those lights seem like tiny flickers in the midst of darkness, but their affects are everlasting and inconsumable. There is a light even though the darkness always surrounds it, and we must shine that light, however big or small, in any way that we can.
For when you shine the light of Christ that is within your heart, you free other people to do the same, immersing all in the warmth of God’s love.
A Sermon for Sunday, January 28, 2018; Ruth 1:12-18 and Ephesians 2:19-22
The word has many meanings:
What makes a place home?
What does it mean to leave home? What does it mean to feel like you don’t have a home?
What does it mean to make a home or engage in God’s kingdom-building for those who don’t have a place to dwell and who cry out for justice and mercy?
More than 1,000 people, including a group of 14 from Pleasant Hill, wrestled with these questions during the 2018 Montreat College Conference held earlier this month at the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina.
Montreat itself is “home” or a “home away from home” for many Presbyterians who have attended youth and adult conferences because it’s a sacred space where people come to enrich their faith, create community and discern how they are being called to use their gifts to serve.
In the College Conference video that beautifully captures the experience of being at home with one another and God, you probably noticed a cover of the hit single Home by Phillip Phillips playing in the background. If you weren’t able to hear every word or if you’re unfamiliar with the song, here are the lyrics. Listen carefully:
Hold on, to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home
Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home
Greg Holden, the musician who co-wrote Home for Phillip Phillips to perform after the Georgia native won American Idol, said the song was penned for “a friend who was going through a really dark time, and I wanted to write a song that sort of let them know that someone was there for them.”(1)
Home is immensely popular because of the way it emotionally connects with listeners. It’s been used in numerous movies, commercials and sporting events. When asked in an interview about the impact of Home on listeners, Phillip said:
“I hear the most incredible stories from people about how the song helped them through something tough in their life or was part of a beautiful celebration… ‘Home’ has these arms that can stretch so wide that people can relate to it in many ways.”
Home’s powerful message is particularly relatable to the beginning of the story of Ruth and Naomi. Hear again Ruth 1:14-16:
Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.”
Ruth’s actions in this moment are as important if not more so than the words she speaks to Naomi. The text says Ruth “clung” to her. Now, for my of my life, whenever I’ve read this story, I’ve always pictured Ruth wrapping her arms around Naomi’s waist or her legs like a child who doesn’t want their parent to leave without them. And if you do a Google search, you’ll find numerous paintings that depict Ruth as the one who seems to be clinging to Naomi out of fear and desperation.
But that’s not what is actually happening. We ascribe a modern day definition and image to the word “cling” that implies someone is desperately holding on for dear life. However, the Hebrew word for cling—dabaq—indicates the opposite is occurring. Dabaq means to keep close, to fasten your grip, to overtake, to stick together.
As Rev. Linda H. Hollies notes in her book on Ruth and Naomi:
Naomi did not quite “get it,” but Ruth was offering to shelter her from the storms of life, to stick by her side without fail, and to be her protection from harm and starvation… (3)
Ruth also takes a risk by protecting Naomi and taking her mother-in-law back to her hometown of Bethlehem in Judah. Ruth is a Moabite who has never left her home country of Moab. She was born there and raised there. She married one of Naomi’s sons in Moab and was planning to have a family and die in Moab.
Moab, by the way, wasn’t regarded highly by the people of Israel. Moab was renown for it’s sensual, sexually immoral habits, culture and mores. The Israelites, with a high sense of moral values, had a decree that other Gentiles could be converted to Judaism within two generations. However, Moabites had to wait ten generations to convert because of Moab’s reputation.
When Ruth leaves Moab with Naomi, she fully realizes that “her kind” will not be immediately accepted when she steps foot in Judah. And yet she still clings to Naomi and promises to go with her. Ruth is confident that the God of the Israelites will take care of them and lead them home.
During a sermon at the College Conference, Rev. Jill Vandewater Isola explained how Ruth’s devotion to Naomi and her trust in God reminded her of a scene from a popular TV drama where one character, Leo, a recovering alcoholic is giving advice to another character, Josh, who is struggling with depression and has contemplated suicide. Leo tells Josh a story. He says:
This guy is walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey, you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription and throws it down in the hole and moves on. And then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole. Can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. And then a friend walks by. “Hey, Joe, it’s me! Can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. The guy says, “Are you stupid? Now, we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.” (4)
This is what “home” is about, Rev. Jill told the conferees. “Home is where you’re not alone in your doubt and struggles,” she said. “Home is where someone is in the hole with you to help find the way out.”
Naomi is in a hole. She left Israel due to a severe famine. Then, she loses her husband and a decade later, she loses both her sons, presumably from illness. Naomi is grief-stricken, feeling hopeless—resigned to spend her remaining days in loneliness till she dies. Ruth, who has lost a husband, had a hard life in Moab and is uncertain about how she will be welcomed in a new land, “jumps in the hole” with Naomi. Ruth knows the way out and it is forward with God.
One of the College Conference’s keynote speakers, Rev. Becca Stevens, shared how the organization she founded, Thistle Farms in Nashville, TN, shows the way out and forward for women who’ve fallen on hard times.
After experiencing the death of her father and subsequent child abuse when she was 5, Becca longed to open a sanctuary that offered a loving community for the survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. In 1997, five women who had lived life on the streets and in prison were welcomed home to Thistle Farms. More than 20 years later, Thistle Farms continues to welcome women by providing free lodging, medical care, therapy and education for two years. Residents and graduates earn income through one of four social enterprises within Thistle Farms, and the global arm of the organization helps employ more than 1,800 women worldwide—women who face abuse, oppression, hunger and poverty in their countries.
Three incredibly brave and courageous women, graduates and employees of Thistle Farms, came on stage with Becca Stevens to share their stories of transformation—of how Thistle Farms clung to them and sheltered them from their storms. Each woman expressed gratitude to Thistle Farms for giving them welcome, redemption, love and hope.
Becca reminded the conferees that “being in community means there will always be someone who needs help,” and that “radical hospitality is what the church needs to be about.”
Being in community by clinging to those who need comfort and protection—by jumping down in the hole to help someone who is stuck and in trouble—is our biblical heritage. It’s in our identity as people of faith, as the apostle Paul states in his letter to the early Christian communities in Ephesians 2:19-22:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Do you catch what Paul is saying in these verses? We are joined together in Christ to build a home for God.
Not a brick and mortar or wooden or steel structure, mind you. That’s fine and all, but the apostle isn’t talking about traditional materials used to construct a church building. Those things are not what make the Church; they’re merely a casing or outfit for what truly is the Church: people. Flesh and blood human beings who create room for God to reside within their very souls and who seek to grow holy temples from their hearts.
We gather together as people of faith in community inside and outside of these walls because we are citizens of God’s kingdom and members of God’s household, no longer the strangers and aliens that parts of society and the world deem many among us to be.
We go out to do the work of Christ’s ministry in neighborhoods near and far because God calls us to cling to others, to provide comfort and love to our brothers and sisters. The reason why we serve at Clifton Men’s Shelter, Laundry Love and the Duluth Co-Op or send mission teams to Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic is because we desire to be in solidarity with fellow human beings who are hurting and who clamor for God’s justice and mercy.
We welcome people all backgrounds and walks of life to discover their meaning and purpose and to seek protection from their storms. We help those who are a bit stuck and need direction so that together we can together find a way out and forward with God.
Joined together in Christ, we make a home for one another. A home where none are alone in their doubts and struggles. A home where all are loved accepted and cherished.
Regardless if you are in this sanctuary or a hospital room or an apartment or a classroom or an office or a shelter for the poor, or a city park or an impoverished village on a hillside thousands of miles away or even a hole in the street, a home will be found and made.
For where you go, we will go.
And where you lodge, we will lodge.
And so will God, who clings to all of us, now and forever.
Sermon for Sunday November 26, 2017, Christ The King Sunday
Ezekiel 34:11-16a and Matthew 25:31-40
Pastor’s Note: This is the recycled and updated version of a sermon I preached in April 2010 called One Flock, One Shepherd
Several years ago, my family and I attended the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park. Along the path that winds around the park were hundreds of booths displaying the works of local and regional artists that were as splendidly colorful, refreshing, and mesmerizing as the spring day that enfolded us.
One of the artists’ booths that particularly caught our eye and prompted much smiles and laughter was entitled “Sheep Incognito.” The booth featured a large collection of whimsical, humorous and thought-provoking oil-paintings of sheep, each one with an outrageous title:
A sheep flying in a bumble bee suit: Bumble Baaaaa
A sheep in a gumball machine: Baabblegum
A sheep in a pickup, wearing a cap and smoking a cig: Billy Baab and his Truck
A sheep standing on a ladybug while holding two bales of hay in its hooves and a stalk of corn on its nose: Baalancing Act
And in a scene that is most appropriate for today’s scripture readings—A sheep, standing in a luscious green pasture near a clear blue lake, is gazing up at the magnificent sky with a sweet smile on its face. The painting is entitled Beside Still Waters, a reflection on Psalm 23. But it could easily be referred to as The Sheep of God’s Pasture, a nod to the illustration in today’s passage from Ezekiel.
The artist Conni Togel, who lives on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, says this about why she paints sheep for a living:
“They really are just sheep, even though you might recognize yourself or those you know in what you are seeing. Truth be told, sheep are messengers of insane moments around us, fun things awaiting us, and focal points of special things in life that often slip by unnoticed. What’s more, being the peacenik creatures they are, the sheep love being part of a greater cause: bringing some joy and whimsy back to a world that seems to be headed into all sorts of wrong directions…The sheep really are a vehicle for the message I hope to impart to the world around me. It is about hope, laughter, love, courage and just a smidgen of insanity—all the things in life that make life wonderful.”
I love Togel’s view of sheep as symbols of hope, laughter, courage and a smidge of insanity because it’s a perspective that is not commonly shared in society. Sheep are not held in the same high regard as other animals, animals well known for their power, might, wisdom, cunning and loyalty like the eagle, the lion, the dog and the bear. Whenever anyone asks the popular small conversation starter question, “If you could be any animal, what kind of animal would you be?” rarely do you hear a person say, “A sheep!”
The use of the word sheep carries a lot of negativity, a lot of wooly baggage. No one wants to be described as “sheepish” because it means they are embarrassed or ashamed. And no group of people wants to be labeled as sheep because it implies they are brainless conformists for whom passivity is a lifestyle.
To be referred to as a “sheep” is always an insult. And if sheep knew they were misunderstood and could talk like humans, well, they might loudly proclaim that they’re getting the proverbial short end of the shepherd’s crook.
Sheep, of course, are not intelligent enough to communicate in the same degree as are other animals like the dolphin or horse. But they are a lot smarter and more interesting than they’re given credit. For instance, sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled. Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, possessing excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of approximately 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads. Sheep do have poor depth perception; shadows and dips in the ground may cause sheep to baulk…but sheep have a tendency to move out of the dark and into well-lit areas.”
All sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, and sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members. Sheep can recognize individual human and sheep faces, and remember them for years. And despite perceptions that sheep are dumb creatures, a University of Illinois study on sheep found them to be on par with cattle in IQ, and some sheep have even shown problem-solving abilities.
There are worse things a person can be compared to than sheep like a venomous snake or a cockroach. And of all the animals chosen to describe human beings and their relationship to God, the one most often used is…a sheep. Throughout scripture, we are told again and again that God loves us and cares for us like a shepherd cares for the sheep—like a shepherd cares for the flock.
This image of God as the sovereign shepherd and God’s people as sheep has a permanent hold on Christian imagination and… piety, especially among ordained ministers (and elders). It is all too easy and common for preachers, like me, to see ourselves as those who have been trained at the very best religious institutions to “shepherd” and “pastor” a church, a “flock.”
While Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 25, among other texts, can be wonderful theological and practical lessons for how church leaders are called to be guides and caretakers, it’s important for all of us to remember that none of us are The Shepherd. Even when we as church leaders are trying to faithfully model our shepherding after Jesus’ preaching and teaching; we are still following Christ ourselves. We (church leaders) are also sheep and fellow members of the One Flock, and God in Christ alone is our Shepherd, and that is an extremely wonderful and humbling truth to behold.
This concept has particularly significance for us as we learn how to move forward and embrace God’s new vision for Pleasant Hill in the wake of founding and senior pastor Dave Fry’s last day as the church’s shepherd of 32 years.
While Dave gave us nearly a year in advance that his retirement was coming in mid November, there has been a decent amount of curiosity and anxiety (albeit mostly healthy) in the church: What will Pleasant Hill do without Dave? Who’s the Interim going to be? When are they getting here? Who will be called to serve as the senior pastor? How long will the search take?
So far, we’re doing well, which is not to say that the church doesn’t need a senior pastor. As associate pastors, Jody, Jennie and I are completely capable of taking over some of the head of staff’s responsibilities, and yet we will be the first to say in January, “we’re so glad the church has an Interim Senior Pastor!” And I know all of you will be equally excited to meet that new person who will help us through a time of transition and the eventual calling of a permanent head of staff.
What Dave’s retirement and absence is teaching me (and I hope the rest of us too) is that the One Flock of sheep, the Church Universal, keeps going no matter which ministers, elders, Christian Educators or church leaders are serving in a particular congregation. The ChurchUniversal keeps following The Shepherd even when folks leave the fold for whatever reason.
It’s true that a church’s staff and Session who oversee or lead ministries are called to use certain gifts for leadership and decision-making among the flock. But those folks are not the only shepherds nor is any one of them The Shepherd. The designated church leaders are not even the one flock, the Church, the larger body of Christ…not without the other members of the fold.
There are many members at Pleasant Hill who don’t have seminary degrees or master’s degrees or have not been ordained in the church that are faithfully leading, teaching, preaching, comforting, and nurturing the flock with the gifts God has given them. There are people doing extraordinary things among the fold even when one of the “shepherds” or church leaders is unavailable or busy with various church tasks. Ministry happens among the One Flock with, without and despite any one of us because of The Shepherd who leads all of us—who lays down his life for us so that we may live, love and serve abundantly.
The words of Ezekiel and Jesus help the church understand its role as God’s sheep and inspire the members of the one flock to do ministry. As one biblical scholar notes: “The calling inherent in this passage (from Ezekiel) is to do as God does: to care for the least, the last, the lost, and the excluded of society, out of a deep sense of love and compassion. This is a call that goes beyond the normal assumption that this pertains only to the pastor as shepherd; this image calls all in the church to minister to others.”
We, who are nurtured by God like sheep under a shepherd’s care, are to live out a life that is keenly attuned to God’s presence in our midst. With sheep-like abilities we hear God’s voice, we see God’s face and we trust God will seek us out when we are lost, injured and weak and draws us from the darkness. And in return, we answer God’s command of us to minister to the broken and excluded people in society.
The command doesn’t come from a stern, tyrant king-like deity who seeks to condemn and torture our souls, but from a benevolent God who desires to nurture, rescue and protects us.
I realize that sounds odd when considering humanity’s long-held view of how a king or world leader should be. Those images of monarchy and dynasty and absolute power and prestige are engrained in our brains.
But the scriptures and our faith remind us again and again that God and Christ defy our expectations for how a leader should function.
Jesus is not a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time nor is Jesus like any crowned figurehead, dictator, world leader or president that has existed throughout human history.
Jesus is not a king who rides in on a horse, brandishing a sword or riding atop a tank, sporting a machine-gun as some renowned Christian preachers would have you believe. Nor is Jesus a bloodthirsty revenge seeking action hero or a ruthless drug kingpin as some aspects of pop culture depict him to be.
No, Jesus is the Kingof love and peace because Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our world and lives.
And this all-knowing, almighty, mysterious entity arrives not as a power-hungry, oppressive god seeking to wipe out sinners and evildoers.
But as a small defenseless child born into poverty—no less than an animal trough in the poorest part of town—and is visited first by sheep and shepherds.
The Child that grows into a man, who breaks bread with outcasts, heals the sick, and gives comfort to the prisoner.
The Man who does not dress up in regal clothes but who, as Matthew’s Gospel reminds us, appears as the hungry and thirsty person needing a drink; the stranger needing to be welcomed; the naked needing clothing; the sick needing comfort; and the prisoner needing a friend.
The Savior who presides over our lives and world not through acts of coercion and violence but through the supreme act of unconditional, selfless, suffering love.
The Ruler who builds a beloved community where all are welcome and compassion and love are freely and fully given.
The Shepherd who feeds, nurtures, rescues, protects and guides the flocks; and who calls each of us to do likewise for the least of these—the last, the lost, the despised and marginalized—all sheep of God’s pasture.
A Sermon for Sunday, May 28, 2017. The Ascension of the Lord Sunday, Acts 1:6-12
The Ascension of the Lord—it’s a peculiar event, don’t you think?
Jesus, after being raised from the dead, spends 40 days hanging out with the disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. And then, whoosh! Up in the air he goes. Artists’ renderings of this scene are quite surreal and a bit ludicrous, as if aliens are beaming Jesus up. Whoowhoowhoop!
Jesus’ ascension is an episode that many preachers and churches avoid entirely during the church season because it is odd and difficult to grasp. It’s not grounded in the mud, spit and blood of life. It’s not as substantial as Jesus’ birth into poverty, his ministry among the sick and the poor and his brutal death. Even resurrection—the breath and heart beat returning to the body, the seemingly dead now come alive—is more palpable than ascension.
And yet as lofty and bizarre as Jesus’ ascension seems, it is what people of faith have sought to comprehend for thousands of years. Jesus’ ascension, his grand departure from the earth and his friends, is reflected in many of the stories we tell—stories that try to make sense of this epic moment:
Like Superman the man of steel, who often leaves the city of Metropolis and rises above to keep a watchful eye over humanity.
Like E.T. the extra terrestrial who tells the boy Elliott that he loves him and then boards his family’s space ship to return home to his planet in the stars.
Like Maui the charming demigod who embraces the young chieftain Moana with a hug and then leaves by transforming into a great hawk that soars off into the sky.
Like the zany Genie who, upon being freed from the lamp by Aladdin, zooms into the air and packs a suitcase for an adventure of his own choosing.
Like Mary Poppins the magical nanny who concludes that she has successfully brought a family back together and then, with a wink and a smile, flies away clutching her umbrella.
Ascension in those stories is about goodbyes, endings and beginnings, transition and change. And Christ’s ascension is all of those things and more—the shaping of Jesus’ glory as the one who conquered death and fear; the establishing of Christ’s rein above all worldly powers; and the fulfilling of God’s promise that human beings are in possession of and destined for a future brimming with hope in Christ’s mercy and love.
Naturally, it’s a lot to take for the disciples to take in and, understandably, they have anxiety about what is occurring before their eyes. With nervous excitement, they ask Jesus: “Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
The disciples know God is triumphant and yet Jesus, their friend, teacher and savior, is leaving them. They want to know what is going to happen and they can’t bare the thought of Jesus not being among them.
The disciples are likely wondering:
Is Jesus going up for a few minutes to recruit an angelic construction crew before coming back to rebuild Israel?
Is he going up in the clouds for a few hours for a period of prayer, rest and renewal before returning to end all of the world’s problems with a word or the touch of his hand?
When Jesus tells them they don’t need to worry about the time in which the kingdom of God will be formed, the disciples realize deep in their hearts that the Jesus they knew—the Jesus who preached and taught as they traveled dusty roads from one town to the next; who shared meals with them and healed and fed the despised and downtrodden—wasn’t coming back.
Their hearts ache with a truth they don’t want to accept. So they stare up in the sky, hoping the Jesus they knew will make a quick U-turn and re-enter their lives as before. They know time is marching forward but they’re not ready to do the same.
We don’t like to part with someone we deeply love and cherish (and move forward without them) anymore than the disciples, even when we know in our heart of hearts that it’s usually what is meant to be.
It’s why we get choked up or melancholy at the end of a movie or TV episode, when a main character we’ve grown to appreciate, bids adieu. Those stories remind us that nothing stays the same, that the people closest to us will one day leave and that change is inevitable, whether we enjoy it or not.
Of the multitude of viewing options available these days, no show embraces the concept of goodbyes and change better than the long-running international sci-fi hit Doctor Who.
For the non-Whovians out there, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a humanoid alien known as The Doctor who explores the universe in his TARDIS—a sentient time-traveling space ship that appears as an ordinary blue British police box.
In 1966, after the show had been on air for three years, William Hartnell, the first actor to play Doctor Who, became very ill. So the show’s creators invented a plot device in which the character of The Doctor would regenerate or take on a new body and personality as a way of recovering from something that would kill an ordinary person. This allowed producers and writers to cast a new actor into the role without losing momentum in the breadth of the series.
Throughout the show’s run, 13 actors have played the role of the Doctor—all becoming beloved for the unique persona they brought to the character. But no matter how many times fans watch The Doctor regenerate and know that change is going to occur—that an actor you’ve come to enjoy will be replaced by one who is unfamilliar—they become a bit emotional.
That was certainly true for this fan and many others when Matt Smith exited the show as the 11th Doctor and Peter Capaldi took over as the 12th Doc in the final moments of the Dec 25, 2013 episode “The Time of the Doctor.” The 11th Doctor’s trusted companion Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Coleman) knows her friend and mentor is regenerating, but she can’t bear to see him go. And as he is transforming, The Doctor reminds Clara about the importance of change while also remembering his previous companion, the late Amy Pond:
“We all change, when you think about. We are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be,” the Doctor reminds Clara and viewers. And Clara, speaking on the audience’s behalf, says, “Please, Don’t change.”
Don’t change. Don’t leave.
Those words are imprinted on the disciples’ faces as they look longingly into the sky as Jesus ascends into the heavens. And they’d probably remain stuck there, fixated on the clouds for hours and hours awaiting Jesus’ immediate return, if the two angels hadn’t appeared.
The angels tell the disciples they have work to do and they need to get busy. Christ has chosen them to be witnesses of love and grace to the ends of the earth. There’s no time to gaze at the sky. The disciples gotta keep moving to share and embody the story of God’s love in the entire world.
So often, I think, Christians get stuck when significant change is happening, especially in the life of the Church. Many congregations struggle with saying goodbye to their long-time beloved pastors who accept a new call or retire. They struggle with saying goodbye to programs that are no longer viable or sparking joy.
They grapple with welcoming new leaders and visions for ministry. They have difficulty letting go because, in the words of Marie Kondo (the author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up) there is “an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
Most of you in this congregation know that we are in the midst of a process of letting go. As a way of honoring Dave Fry’s legacy as the founding pastor of 32 years and his retirement in November, we’ve embarked on a capital campaign–Gifted Past, Bold Future. The campaign’s purpose is to give gratitude for years of faith-shaping ministry as we strive to pay off the mortgage debt and make room for new ideas that will shape people’s lives.
And while Pleasant Hill is embracing the change, particularly Dave’s farewell, in a healthy way, I imagine there is still some anxiety among us. While we realize that Dave’s retirement is unavoidable, we don’t want him to go. We don’t want things to change.
A Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church without Dave Fry seems strange after decades of service. We know deep in our hearts that this church won’t quite have the same relationship with Dave as it does at this moment. Eventually, Dave will not be in his office every day or preaching from Sunday to Sunday or teaching classes or making pastoral visits or doing baptisms, weddings and funerals. Dave’s not ascending into the clouds, of course, but he will no longer be present among the congregation as he is now and has been for so long.
Like Clara Oswald, we might be in bit of a shock to see someone else in the head of staff role. And the new pastor, like the new (12th) Doctor, might be a little bewildered about how to “fly this thing” or operate Pleasant Hill.
But if we love God and treasure Dave’s ministry, we won’t be stuck in the past or resistant to change or looking off in the distance or leave the new pastor on their own to figure things out. Instead, we’ll answer Christ’s call to be the Church, to be his followers, to be his witnesses for love and grace for all people in every time and place.
And although Dave won’t be roaming these halls one day, and although Jesus is not physically present, we won’t truly be alone in our endeavors.
As Sirius Black tells young Harry Potter who laments never knowing his parents, murdered when he was a child: “The ones who love us never really leave us, you can always find them in here.” (points to Harry’s heart)
Therefore, let your hearts not ache or be torn or anxious, for not too long at least. Dave will soon leave us with an amazing legacy to build on for many years to come. There is much to do and to experience as time goes onward. In the beautiful parting words of the hobbit Frodo to his best friend Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:
“You have so much to enjoy and to be and to do. (Your) part in the story will go on.”
Jesus has gone ahead of us, preparing for a future full of hope. And he beckons us to follow and to continue the story that God began–a story with many twists and turns. And Christ assures us that something inspiring is coming—like a mighty rushing wind and tongues of flame—to guide us as Christians and the Church on the journey ahead.
A Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016, The Sixth Sunday of Easter, John 13:34-35; 14:25-27; 16:33
The peace of Christ—it’s a familiar phrase that’s been heard and expressed by Christians throughout history.
We know those four words well. We have said them frequently in the context of worship for many, many years:
“The peace of Christ be with you… and also with you.”
“Go in the peace of Christ.”
But do we fully understand and appreciate the meaning of the peace of Christ?
Do we know that it’s more than just a nice Hallmark card greeting that we say as an act of rote memorization every Sunday?
Do we recognize the significance those four words have in our lives as people of faith
Do we comprehend that the peace of Christ—which Jesus imparts to the disciples in the Gospel of John—is a holy, powerful, merciful and subversive gift from God for all humankind?
In 2008, I asked several colleagues and friends to contribute essays on my Internet blog on what the peace of Christ meant in their life. My hope is that by revisiting their words and the wisdom of some notable heroes of the faith as well as the scripture, we all might gain deeper insight into the peace that God gives.
In the first post on the blog series about the peace of Christ, David LaMotte, singer-songwriter and social justice activist, explains that God’s peace is routinely confused with placidity. It’s often misperceived as being chill and serene with no violence and conflict present—a state of numbing out where all you hear is the voice of Tommy Chung saying, “peace out man.” And thus many consider talk of God’s peace or the practice of peace as weak, lazy and apathetic—a leisure activity for hippies and stoners.
David says that couldn’t be further from the truth about the function and role of peace. In his essay he wrote:
Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the product and process of doing conflict well. 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…
It’s no secret that we live in a world brimming with conflict due to angst, fear and hate:
The economy is precarious and people lose jobs without any warning. Poverty and hunger exists in both urban and suburban settings. Bullying runs amok in schools. Terrorism consumes our thoughts. Presidential politics grows nastier and nastier by the minute. The abuse of children and youth by people in power continually make headlines. There is senseless gun violence on our streets and neighborhoods.
Families grieve over the death of loved ones to cancer or numerous other illnesses. Other parts of the globe are plagued by war, disease, natural disasters and famine. Racism, sexism, gender discrimination, homophobia, xenophobia and Islamaphobia flourish mightily. Substance abuse, suicide and divorce rates are skyrocketing. And many people struggle daily with health challenges; insecurity about their bodies and self worth; broken-relationships; how to be a good parent, spouse and co-worker.
With epic storms like these swirling around, it’s a wonder that any of us can get out of bed and get ready for the day; much less embody the love and peace of Christ in our encounters with other human beings. How can we possibly find the energy to daily receive and share God’s peace in the midst of the chaos?
The disciples, who lived amid the storm of an oppressive regime of the Roman Empire and who were labeled as insurrectionists for their association with Jesus, certainly had difficulty comprehending their rabbi’s command to love one another, to know God’s peace and to not let their hearts be troubled or afraid.
As soon as the pandemonium of Jesus betrayal, arrest and death arrives, the disciples flee and lock themselves in a dark room—praying that the Empire won’t find them and give them the same fate.
And Jesus, knowing the tempest is near, says calmly and confidently to his disciples, hours earlier:
“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Of all people, Jesus should be freaking out. He should be packing a bag and saying, “See ya, I’m gone!” Instead Jesus, the eye of the storm coming toward him, holds his ground and expresses his love for his friends by giving them God’s peace—His peace. And Jesus does this again post-resurrection, appearing before the disciples in that locked room to say “Peace be with you!” In other words, Jesus is saying, “I am here among you. I am the Peace that is eternal and will not go away!”
What an amazing gift the peace of Christ is to the disciples and to us. It is a gift that keeps on giving and surprising, usually in the midst of turmoil and when we least expect.
In another essay for the blog series on the peace of Christ, Jan Edmiston, a Presbyterian, shared a story about how the Session of the congregation she was serving had to fire the pre-school director. Although it was done for good reasons (which were confidential for the sake of the pre-school director and the church), the pre-school director vowed to ruin Jan’s reputation and began spreading ugly rumors among the pre-school staff and parents.
Several pre-school staffers quit. Subs were called in who didn’t have lesson plans or know the kids names. Jan and the Session held a meeting for parents after their kids got dropped off at the pre-school and things were tense. She said:
Children were crying. Parents were yelling. One parent spit on me…. Needless to say, I had asked God for help. I stood in the parlor, ready to offer explanatory words, and once everyone quieted down, I opened my mouth and spoke. And the words that came out sounded…kind of amazing. (“That was pretty good,” I said to myself. “Where the heck did that come from?”) The words were calm and mature and strong and uplifting. One parent said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s obvious that you did what you had to do. Thank you.” It was a God thing. Christ’s peace happens when there is no reason why a situation or a soul or a moment would be peaceful and yet it is. … It is a real peace, authentic serenity rooted in the total confidence that—in spite of all evidence that we should be freaking out—God is with us, and everyone is going to be alright.
Writing for the same blog series, a seminary classmate, Alan Bancroft opened up about a break-up with his girlfriend of a year while he was serving as an associate pastor in Franklin, TN. The woman he was dating was not sure she wanted to be a pastor’s wife and still figuring out her own life. So they talked and cried and decided to part ways. Alan was devastated and he wondered where God would be in his “cloud of sorrow.” The next day was cloudy and drizzly and after work, he decided to go on a 6-mile run. He said:
As I was coming up on the fourth mile, I began to recite the following mantra: Take it away, God. Give me peace. Take it away, God. Give me peace. Then I added another line: Take hers away, God. Give her peace. Take hers away, God. Give her peace. As I called out to God to take way the pain… the warm drizzly day slowly turned into a warm rainy day. As I continued to recite the mantra, the rain intensified and before long, I was completely soaked. At some point, the combination of reciting the mantra, the purifying, soaking rain and the rhythm of placing one foot in front of the other, brought me a feeling of peace that I truly believe was the work of God. For those two remaining miles, my heart felt peaceful and void of the turmoil that had resided there since the previous evening. …For me, in this time and place, the peace of Christ represents feeling briefly restored and sustained as I wander through a valley of hurt, confusion and frustration.
The peace that Christ gives is not the absence of pain, loss, conflict, storms or chaos. The peace of Christ is in the midst of the mess. The peace of Christ is in the midst to love us, comfort us, and heal us. And sometimes we have to push the disorder aside to make more room for Christ’s peace to do what it does best.
The retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa decades ago, says that if people take the time to be more loving and peaceful, amazing things can happen. In his book God Has A Dream, he writes:
One way to begin cultivating this ability to love is to see yourself internally as a center of love, as an oases of peace, as a pool of serenity with ripples going out to all those around you. You can begin by biting off the sharp retort that was almost certainly going to hurt the other. … Rather than intensifying the anger or the hatred, you say in your heart, “God bless you.” …Let’s say you are caught in a traffic jam and instead of getting angry and saying, “What a bunch of morons,” you bless them. … If more of us could serve as centers of love and oases of peace, we might just be able to turn around a great deal of the conflict, the hatred, the jealousies and the violence.
Once we allow Christ’s peace to dwell within us, we are then able to share the peace with others—inviting them to first look inside their own hearts before reaching out to more hearts.
And it is God’s merciful heart that pours the peace of Christ upon us from the cross, and loosens the peace upon the world from the grave to restore human relationships and the Divine relationship.
And it is that Divinely heart-felt gift of peace that spurs us to seek justice for the oppressed and to care for all of our neighbors.
Embodying the peace of Christ in word and deed is literally an act of witnessing God’s love in the other whom we meet. Seeing the immigrant not as “illegal” or the Muslim as a “terrorist” or the black man as a “thug” or the poor person as a “lazy bum” or the woman as a “sex object” or LGBQT as “abominations” —but as beloved children of God.
Whenever we say “the peace of Christ be with you” or embody the peace through our actions, we are a conveying a message to others that says: “No matter who you are, I recognize that you are one of God’s creations who is loved to death and beyond.”
There was once a Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, PA who delivered that message every day to millions of people for more than 30 years. His name was Fred Rogers:
There are many ways to say “I love you” and to tell someone they make everyday special just by being themselves, the person God created them to be.
And so I say to everyone here:
“The peace of Christ be with you”
(Special Thanks to Alan Bancroft, Adam Copeland, Jan Edmiston, Carol Howard Merritt, Emily Miller, David LaMotte, and Derrick Weston for their incredible insights about the “peace of Christ.” God’s work through them was the inspiration for this sermon, even if they are not all directly quoted.)