Love and Peace or Else

A  Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016, The Sixth Sunday of Easter, John 13:34-35; 14:25-27; 16:33

       

Cerezo Barredo's Weekly Gospel Illustration, John: 25-27
Cerezo Barredo’s Weekly Gospel Illustration, John: 25-27

        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…[1]

            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.

         76b86e1a1aff99776d8ac69e120423e2     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!”[2]  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.[3]

               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.[4]

               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:[5]

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:[6]

 

             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”

Amen.

(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.)

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

[2] John 20:19-21

[3] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/08/30/jan-edmiston-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[4] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/alan-bancroft-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[5] God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope For Our Time by Desmond Tutu, 2004. Doubleday Publishing.

[6] The Officer of Make Believe: Being Black in ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ by Great Big Story (2:32)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObHNWh3F5fQ

Pouring Out Love

A Sermon for Sunday March 13, 2016 (Fifth Sunday of Lent), John 12:1-8

Our scripture reading this morning comes from the Gospel of John. I will be reading the New Revised Standard Version that we are accustomed to hearing. But I’ll be reading from this slightly battered navy blue Bible, which was presented to me during my installation at Colesville Presbyterian in Silver Spring, MD, the first church I served as a newly ordained minister and associate pastor.

This Bible was a gift from the head of staff, the Rev. Mike O’Brien, and his wife Pam. And on the inside cover, they wrote the following inscription:

 

May God bless you and walk with you in your ministry.

We love you!

Mike and Pam,

In honor of your installation

September 25, 2005

A little over a week ago, Rev. Mike O’Brien died at the age of 64 from the effects of radiation treatments for an aggressive brain tumor that he was diagnosed with in early January. Yesterday, family and friends gathered for a memorial service and burial in Massachusetts (where Mike had recently been serving as an interim pastor) to celebrate Mike’s life and witness God’s love in Christ Jesus. And so it only seems appropriate, as a way of honoring our work together long ago and his life and ministry, that I read the scripture from this Bible that he gave to me:

………………

John 12:1-8

1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Let us pray… (Prayer of Illumination)

……………………….

Since learning the news of Mike O’Brien’s death, my mind and heart has been flooded with memories of the three years I served alongside him at Colesville. I learned a lot from Mike about being a pastor in those early years of my ministry (when I was young, naive and didn’t have a clue about what I was doing). And what’s often popped in my mind are the hospital and home visits we made to church members; as the only two pastors in a congregation of 400, we did a lot of tag-team pastoral care.Photo 1-Mike O'Brien

One of Mike’s greatest strengths was caring for others when they were struggling deeply with something in their lives or when they were ill or even dying.  The amount of empathy, mercy and love this large, jovial man showered on them was generous as well as blind to the person’s faults or grievances they may have held for the church or us. It was always a blessing for me to witness such holy encounters.

I also recall snippets of several conversations we had about the meaning of life and death and the importance of serving God in the short time we have on this earth.  And I remember the central theme of the sermons he preached during Lent and Holy week: God’s call of us to pour out unconditional love on others in the midst of a broken world where Empire puts Divine love on a cross to die.

          In this morning’s story from John’s gospel, Mary—who lives with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus in the town of Bethany—answers this call to pour out love even though it will subject her to much scrutiny.

          During dinner with her siblings and Jesus and his disciples, Mary brings out an expensive perfume. She then kneels before Jesus and pours out the entire contents of the bottle onto Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair. The incredible fragrance lingers in the air long after the act is done, a free gift that is freely received by all who breathe in the air and the moment.

         f215aab6-32cc-4f6b-8da4-141e1e2f332a But in this act of anointing, Mary has broken four social customs of the day:  1) she has let down her hair in a room full of men, 2) she has poured perfume on the feet 3) she, a single woman, has touched a single man and 4) she wipes his feet with her hair.

Unlike the unnamed women in the gospels of Matthew and Mark who anoint Jesus’ head, and the notoriously sinful woman in Luke’s gospel who weeps over Jesus’ feet, Mary has been friends with Jesus for a long time.  She loves him and he loves her like a friend or sibling would cherish one another, which makes the anointing so much more bizarre and excessive and over the top.

            The scene bothers Judas so much that he angrily questions Mary’s extravagance; it is the only time he speaks in the gospel: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Jesus quickly brushes him aside because as everyone was already aware, Judas could care less about giving money to the poor. Judas became angry because he was greedy. He believed the money that Mary spent was wasted on Jesus feet when it could’ve made him a richer man.

Jesus tells Judas that if he truly cares about the poor then he will have plenty of opportunities to care and feed them for the rest of his life. But moments like the one they are currently experiencing are precious and fleeting because soon Jesus will no longer be of this earth.

           Mary knows and understands her rabbi’s fate. As soon as Jesus showed his power by raising Lazarus from the dead (in the previous chapter), Mary sensed that the religious authorities would turn him over to the Roman Empire to be killed. (Because in those days, the emperor Caesar, who considered himself to be god-like, didn’t tolerate those who would usurp his power, even Emmanuel.) In a sermon on this text, The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

“Whatever Mary thought about what she did, and whatever else in the room thought about it, Jesus took it as a message from God—not the hysteric ministrations of an old maid gone sweetly mad but the carefully performed act of a prophet. Everything around Mary smacked of significance—Judas, the betrayer, challenging her act; the flask of nard—wasn’t it left over from Lazarus’ funeral?—and out in the yard, a freshly vacated tomb that still smelled of burial spices, waiting for a new occupant. The air was dense with death, and while there may at first have been some doubt whose death it was, Mary’s prophetic act revealed the truth.”[1]

It’s also worth noting that Mary shares her lavish gift in plain view of others while Jesus is living whereas when Jesus dies, two men who are afraid to publicly express their faith will sneak out into the middle of the night to anoint the body for burial. 

Mary’s humble act also models discipleship. In the next chapter, Jesus will wash and wipe the feet of his disciples, telling them to care for another in the same way that he has cared for them. Mary comprehends what it means to be a disciple before Jesus even gives verbal instructions to the 12 men who have worked closely with him.[2]

          Because Mary knows, she anoints the Anointed.  She honors the gift that is Jesus—the God-in-the flesh that comes bearing mercy and hope for a world that desperately needs to be freed from its ruling powers and principalities. She takes care of Jesus just as Jesus has come to take care of humanity. She pours out love on the One who, in life and death, spills out love onto the entirety of creation.

             As Holy Week and the events of Christ’s suffering and death quickly approach, there may not be a more appropriate story for us to hear on this Fifth Sunday of Lent than Mary’s anointing of Jesus.  And, aside from Christ himself, there may not be a more important figure for us in our current socio-economical and political climate than Mary, who demonstrates what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

              What Mary does—pouring out love—is so intuitive and simple, and yet it is extremely difficult for a lot of people to emulate.

                Sadly, I don’t need to list examples for you of the awful things human beings say and do to one another in this country alone. Turn on the TV, check our social media feeds or walk down the street. We are constantly surrounded by the deep seeded hate and fear that some have for those who are different because of their economic status, gender, sexual orientation, religion, culture, country of origin and race.  And there’s no escape from the vitriol.

            But there’s also no way we can ignore what’s happening or become swept up into the bitterness and hostility. Dismissiveness, silence and meeting violence with violence (verbally and physically) is not an option for us as Christians. The only option we have, the one that God bestows on our hearts, is to love one another—the neighbor, the stranger, the broken, the marginalized, the oppressed—just as God has loved us. We are called again and again and again to pour out love.

That call to pour out love reminds us who we are and to whom we belong. That call inspires us to connect our faith with everyday life and it guides us in our ministry of building the beloved community of God.

                Sometimes acts of pouring out love are displayed in the same manner as Mary, like in 2013 when Pope Francis went to a detention center in Italy to wash and kissed the feet of young people, including two women one of whom was a Serbian Muslim. [3]

Photo 2-Pope Francis

Others are more modest gestures and random acts of kindness that can be found on at StayHumbleandKind.com, a website inspired by the hit country song Humble and Kind by Tim McGraw—stories like[4]:

 

Photo 3-Feeding Homeless

Yoel Correa of Atlanta who, despite living paycheck to paycheck, sets aside money every week so that once a month he can buy food from a restaurant and feed the homeless out of his car.

 

Photo 4-Giving ShirtA passenger on a subway train in New York who gave his hat and T-shirt to a shivering man who was shirtless and looked sick at a time when temperatures in Manhattan were near freezing.

Photo 5-Talking

A young man who bought a homeless man named Chris a coffee and a bagel at Dunkin Donuts and then asked him to share his story. They talked for a couple of hours as Chris explained how folks are usually mean to him because he’s homeless, how drugs ruined his life and how he lost his mom to cancer. When the young man had to leave to get to a class, Chris gave him a note on a crumped up receipt, which said: “I wanted to kill myself today. Because of you, I now do not. Thank you beautiful person.”

Photo 6-Handing out MoneyA man in east Nashville who handed out money at numerous bars, grocery stores and pizza joints. One store employee said, “I know one lady, he put down a $50 before she paid for groceries and she seemed like she was really overwhelmed and a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, it’s just a blessing, this is just like an answered prayer today.”  The same employee also received $20 from the man who they said was in a hurry and didn’t have much to say. “He was just like, ‘I’m giving my money away.’”

             When we pour out love on another human being like these folks have done, we honor Christ and the gift that is each and every person and life is in this world. When we pour out love, we boldly proclaim that the everlasting, sacrificial and faithful love of God in Christ Jesus can never be overcome by fear, hate and violence.

             It is a challenge, of course, to pour out love when we are incessantly worried about the state of our country and world. I’ve been agonizing lately about how we are hell bent on destroying one another and my powerlessness to change it.  But last week I saw a quote on social media that assured me that we can overcome this fear and make the world a better place:

Photo 7-Love Others

“If the state of our nation is terrifying you, PLEASE love your neighbors, befriend someone who you suppose is too different from you, be irrationally friendly to whoever you consider the other.”

             Let us be model disciples of Christ like Mary and pour out love, lavishly and abundantly on our neighbors and anyone who is deemed “other.”  We won’t always do it perfectly or consistently. There will be mountains to climb. But may always stay humble and kind:

Amen.

[1] The Prophet Mary, sermon by The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, Piedmont College and Columbia Seminary. John 12:1-8, 5th Sunday of Lent-Year C, March 21, 2010.

[2]  The ideas in this paragraph and the one preceding come from Encounters With Jesus: Studies In the Gospel of John by Frances Taylor Gench, 2007. Westminster John Knox Press.

[3] The Telegraph, March 28, 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/the-pope/9960168/Pope-washes-feet-of-young-Muslim-woman-prisoner-in-unprecedented-twist-on-Maundy-Thursday.html

[4] http://www.stayhumbleandkind.com

 

 

This Is Our Story: Finding God in the Mess

A Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015, Genesis 32:22-32, Luke 7:36-50

Bulletin graffiti art by HS youth Courtney Henry
Bulletin graffiti art by HS youth Courtney Henry

I don’t know if you are aware, but the Bible is full of poop.

Now, I’m not suggesting the Bible is a bunch of nonsense. Indeed it’s not. What I mean is that it’s literally full of it!

There are piles of scatological references in this sacred text, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering that throughout history people have always had to figure out how to deal with their crap.

In the time of the Israelites, modern conveniences like trash bags, compost bins, and indoor plumbing didn’t exist, so folks followed specific guidelines for handling waste, whether animal or human:

But the flesh of the bull, and its skin, and its dung, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering. (Exodus 29:14)

With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:13)

And much like the graphic violence that one finds in cable TV shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, the Old Testament writers didn’t pull any punches when it came to stories about killing the crud out of oppressive rulers:

Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them. After he had gone, the servants came. When they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He must be relieving himself[e] in the cool chamber.” (Judges 3:21-24)

God also doesn’t shy away from using manure to make a point. In the book of Ezekiel, God commands the prophet to do the grossest thing possible as a symbolic way of showing the people of Israel that they would be eating unclean food in the pagan lands of their soon-to-be exile.

And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself. …You shall eat it as a barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung. The Lord said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread, unclean, among the nations to which I will drive them.” Then I said, “Ah Lord God! I have never defiled myself; from my youth up until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by animals, nor has carrion flesh come into my mouth.” Then he said to me, “See, I will let you have cow’s dung instead of human dung, on which you may prepare your bread.”

Even Jesus mentions human waste as he gives practical advice to his disciples about what will happen when they share the news of God’s kingdom:

“When people realize it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good, they are going to turn on you, even people in your own family….A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content—pleased, even—when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, ‘Dung Face,’ what can the workers expect? (Matthew 10:21-25)

Likewise, the apostle Paul explains to the early Christian church in Corinth that those who follow Christ will be treated by the Roman Empire as if they were scat on the bottom of a sandal:

 When others choose taunts and slander against us, we speak words of encouragement and reconciliation. We’re treated as the scum of the earth—and I am not talking in the past tense; I mean today! We’re the scraps of society, nothing more than the foulest human rubbish. (I Corinthians 4:12-13)

Let’s be honest: The Bible is a mess.

And it isn’t solely because the word “dung” is mentioned more than 30 times in the NRSV. There’s so much dysfunction, pain, suffering, weirdness and plain ole messiness within the pages of the Bible that TV reality shows and Shonda Rhimes primetime dramas look tame in comparison!

The Bible is full of messy stories about messy people doing messed up things and finding themselves in a whole heap of mess, right there in front of God and neighbor.

It is essentially one hot stinking glorious mess.

And that’s exactly what I love about the Bible!

It’s not a 12-step guidebook to success or a rulebook to be followed faultlessly, verse by verse so one can dwell in the clouds with golden wings and a harp. The Bible is a collection of stories about God’s love for all of humanity throughout time, despite all its sins and crap.

Some Christians, like the TV evangelists, often say that the problem with this messed up world is that we’ve strayed away from the good ole values of the families in the Bible. We need to return to those stories, they say, so we can make the world and our lives more perfect.

But you and I know that’s bull honkey.

Yes, we need to go back to these stories again and again, but not because they give us examples of how to live an impeccable existence.

Montreat Youth Conference, Week 1, June 9, 2014
Montreat Youth Conference, Week 1, June 9, 2014

We return to these scriptures about messy, flawed people so that we can be reminded that no matter how messy life gets, God is there with us in the muck; and that no matter how much we mess up, God still loves us; God still calls us to show love to the most messed up among us.

What was true in the ancient world remains true in this post modern one: Life is messy and thus our stories are messy.

Sometimes the mess is of our own making as human beings.

We dump our waste on the earth, filling the land, skies and water with garbage and pollution. And we dump on one another—people we like, people we love, people we hate and people we don’t even know.

We have difficulty seeing God’s image in our fellow human beings. We have trouble showing dignity and respect to others who are different from us. We spew a lot of hateful things instead of speaking in love, and the garbage that comes out of us only makes the situation messier.

Then there are the messes we put ourselves in as the result of a bad choice we made…

—The traffic tickets we receive for constantly zipping through a red light.

—The tummy aches we get after eating a pint of ice cream and two bowls of tater tots for dinner.

—The moody demeanor and poor health we experience following months of late night partying with illegal drugs and bottles of alcohol.

—The cutting marks we make on our skin because it’s the only way to release the amount of pain we feel inside over things that we dare not tell another soul.

Isaac's Blessing of Jacob by Suzanne Cherny, Google Images
Isaac’s Blessing of Jacob by Suzanne Cherny, Google Images

These messes threaten to consume us bit by bit by bit until our identity is completely lost, much like Jacob in the Book of Genesis.

Jacob caused quite a mess when he manipulated his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that belonged to his brother Esau. And after fleeing home for fear that Esau will kill him, Jacob still manages to wade even deeper into trouble in an encounter with a man named Laban and his two daughters Leah and Rachel. Many years later as Jacob is passing through a territory belonging to Esau, he realizes that he no longer likes the man he has become, and he struggles to make amends.

Other times the messes are beyond our control—the stuff that suddenly happens without any reason or explanation…

—The family dog that has an accident in the middle of the living room during a party.

—The child who flips out in the middle of a department store because the annoying pop song is blaring too loudly from the overhead speakers.

—The tree that falls onto your fence during a heavy rainstorm.

—the landscaping crew who kicks up a rock while mowing and breaks your car’s back windshield

—The boyfriend who breaks up with you and gives you the silent treatment.

—The grandparent who gets cancer.

—The sudden death of a friend.

These messes comprise a lot of daily life. And more often than not, we try to stick our chins out and wallow our way through the messes in the best way possible.

And finally there are the messes that the world and society has deemed to be a problem, but actually aren’t messes at all…

 —The working poor and homeless

—The LGBTQ person

—The African-American man wearing a hoodie

—The transgendered athlete

—The developmentally challenged child

—The woman with a black eye

—The young adult struggling with depression and anxiety

—The man with severe skin burns on their face

—The middle-aged adult battling their weight

Each of these folks is declared to be a mess by society, and they hear the message so much that they start to believe it themselves. They start to hear their inner voices say: “You’re a mess, you’re a worthless piece of trash!”

But it is up to us to tell those who are viewed as rubbish that they are indeed worthy of a whole mess of God’s love and grace. It’s up to us to say to the marginalized and downtrodden, “You are not a mess.”

Even when we’re in the middle of a mess; whether it’s our own doing or otherwise (and all of us have our own messes to deal with), that mess doesn’t completely define us.

We are much more than our messes because we are beloved creations of God.

Therefore we should show great compassion to others who are dealing with their own mess, unlike the religious leaders who dismiss the sinful woman who comes inside the Pharisee’s home to greet Jesus.

While the details of her mess are not known, the woman is viewed as one who is unworthy of human contact. To Simon the Pharisee and his cohorts, the woman might as well be a pile of dung. Even if she has managed to distance herself from whatever mess she created, the woman can’t seem to escape the label of disgust that has been placed upon her.

And yet hope is not completely lost. Because it’s in the mess that we find God. Or better still, it is in the mess that God meets us face to face.

oil on panel - 12'x8' - 2012
Jacob Wrestling by Edward Knippers, oil on panel – 12’x8′ – 2012. edwardknippers.com

In Jacob’s case, it took an all-night wrestling match of the soul and the cracking of a hip for God to get him unstuck. And the resulting limp in his walk slowed down this slick thief who’d been on the run for so many years. It made him wiser and more tuned in to God’s presence in his life.

 

 

It’s always the messy struggles that leaves us with a scar and shapes us forever. As one of my favorite authors, Rob Bell, says in his 2010 book Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts On Creativity and Suffering:

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

From the mess, we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals. Often it’s a matter of laying the mess at the feet of Christ so that we can be changed.

Anointing of Jesus' feet, artist unknown, Google Images
Anointing of Jesus’ feet, artist unknown, Google Images

For the woman who has become a pariah in her own community, there is nothing else she can do but interrupt a dinner party to bring all of her pain and tears to Jesus and pour it into the washing of his feet—an incredible act of humility and servant hood.

Jesus responds to this act—in the midst of the Pharisees who want to make more of a mess out of the situation—by showing the woman compassion and mercy. And the woman, we assume, is changed for a lifetime by Jesus’ love.

When the mess is too much to bear—too much to lift an arm to wrestle with—the only thing we can do is humbly bring it to Christ so that we can be cleaned and made whole.

And just as Jesus awaited the woman at the table in the home of Simon the Pharisee, he awaits us at this communion table now—ready to forgive our messes, to promise us hope of a kingdom and a future without messes and to send us out in peace to clean up the messiness of the world.

And all God’s messy people say Amen.

Notes:

This sermon is a short version of the 45 minute keynote I will give during Week V of the Montreat Youth Conference, Day 2 “Our Stories Are Messy.”

The sermon was inspired by the 2014 book Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by The Skeptical, The Faithful and A Few Scoundrels, edited by Cathleen Falsani

Shonda Rhimes is the creator, head-writer and executive producer of the primetime TV dramas phenoms Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, which all air on ABC.

Post-Sabbatical Reading Reflection: The Divine Magician by Peter Rollins & What Does the Church Do with His Message?

Unknown-1I desperately wanted to “love” this book or even like it a whole lot. The concept grabbed me right away when I read it on Amazon.com a few months ago:

In this mind-bending exploration of traditional Christianity, firebrand Peter Rollins turns the tables on conventional wisdom, offering a fresh perspective focused on a life filled with love.

Peter Rollins knows one magic trick—now, make sure you watch closely. It has three parts: the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige. In Divine Magician, each part comes into play as he explores a radical view of interacting with the world in love.

Rollins argues that the Christian event, reenacted in the Eucharist, is indeed a type of magic trick, one that is echoed in the great vanishing acts performed by magicians throughout the ages. In this trick, a divine object is presented to us (the Pledge), disappears (the Turn), and then returns (the Prestige). But just as the returned object in a classic vanishing act is not really the same object—but another that looks the same—so this book argues that the return of God is not simply the return of what was initially presented, but rather a radical way of interacting with the world. In an effort to unearth the power of Christianity, Rollins uses this framework to explain the mystery of faith that has been lost on the church. In the same vein as Rob Bell’s bestseller Love Wins, this book pushes the boundaries of theology, presenting a stirring vision at the forefront of re-imagined modern Christianity.

But reading Rollin’s latest work was painstakingly hard to get my head around at times. Maybe it’s why it took me more than a week after my Sabbatical ended (during Holy Week at beginning of April) to finish reading and two more weeks to write this post.

This is not to say that the book is poorly written or horrible theology.  I just struggled (and still struggle) with the practical implications of his message for myself as a Jesus follower and for the Church Universal which is called to be the body of Christ in the world.

I suppose it bugs me because Rollins completely flips the whole centuries-accepted notion of discipleship, servant hood, and being a part of a faith community upside down. More accurately, he doesn’t simply turn over the empty magician’s hat. He blows the sucker to smithereens!

And that’s what’s so unnerving and uncomfortable about the book: like a swirling, mesmerizing magic show, there’s no satisfying conclusion or answer at the end. You are left stunned and bewildered; unsure of what happened and the seemingly impossible was achieved with the wave of a hand.

If I’m understanding Rollins correctly, he essentially implies that we as Christians and members of the Church are not living–as we have tricked ourselves into believing–the Jesus way that is meant to be separate from the ideologies of institutions.

Instead, says Rollins, we are living smack dab in the midst of ideology that keeps us from actually following Christ.  In other words, the Church’s mere presence and close ties with society and culture is not what Jesus intended when he sent out the apostles to serve the poor, oppressed and broken.

Jesus actually called/calls us to model a different way of living based on his teachings and actions (which, of course, ultimately led him to a cruel death on the cross). But from the early days of Constantine to now, we’ve turned Christianity into a commercialized endeavor and the Church into a vast enterprise or, dare I say, Empire that is concerned more about attracting members and having a building that offers comfort and luxury for joining than living a nomadic life of poverty that is constantly moving down the road helping others.

(This, again, is my summation of what Rollins demonstrates more intelligently and somewhat esoterically in the book. And I will be the first to admit that I don’t fully grasp every statement he makes concerning pyrotheology).

Now granted, there is a lot of good things happening in churches (Protestant and Catholic)–lots of authentic recognition and worship of the triune God in our lives; lots of humble acts of love and service toward the marginalized; lots of compassion and hospitality shown to people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, economic status, race and culture, etc.

However, it is also fair to say that we’ve created an institution or system of doing ministry that can hold us back from taking great leaps of faith from our comfort zones to follow Christ in the wilderness, never to return to them.

We’ve created a way that keeps us more grounded than ground breaking.

We’ve become settled in one spot when we should be unsettled as we move from one spot to the next, never completely satisfied that the work of God’s love is done.

We’ve become more about preserving the institution of the Church (the buildings, the names on the signs and the denominational structures and symbols) than being a fluid community of believers that helps out in one place before disappearing to another, never waiting to be thanked or recognized.

We’ve become prideful about cornering the market on God, absolutely certain that God resides within our particular church or denomination’s walls and no others.

And Rollins reveals that actually what we’ve kept in our holy boxes is an idol of God that serves our own interest. Not the God of the Bible and life experience that dwells in the world.

I agree with Rollins’ overall assessment even if my brain got tied up in knots at times to understand what he was communicating. However when I turn the last page and close the book shut, I’m still confounded by a single gnawing question:

So what do we do now?!!!???!!! (Again, like a true magician or illusionist, Rollins doesn’t offer any answers. He just leaves us to figure out the solution on our own.)

Do all ministers like myself sell our houses and our possessions and began a nomadic existence with our families? Do all Christians leave their churches, hand over their buildings and land to people in need of housing and move down the road from one town to the next preaching the gospel and living in people’s homes?

We know the disciples/apostles did. And there are some folks, ministers and congregants who, along with their families, travel all over the place with their families, staying in the homes of strangers and carrying only the most minimal of essentials on their backs and trusting in God that all needs will be provided for.

But is it reasonable to expect the majority, if not all, Christians to do the same in this day and age? Think about how hard and impractical that would be.

Is there a middle ground in all of this or is looking for something that falls in between the “living in the comfort zone” and the “constant journey on the road” just a cop-out?

If Rollins is to be believed, the Church will die and cease to exist and have any relevance if we don’t return to those ancient practices of Jesus and his first followers.

Returning to those practices held long before we got too focused on ourselves and the idea of Christendom means a lot of sacrifices have to be made to do that, right?

Or am I missing something?

I invite you to share what’s on your minds and hearts, especially if you’ve read Rollins’ book and find yourself wrestling with these questions and concepts.

And in our wrestling, I will pray this beloved Franciscan blessing for all of us:

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.”

For now, that gives me comfort in the midst of the wrestling and wondering and wandering.

 

Instagram Reflections on Easter and Resurrection by Rob Bell

On Easter 2010, pastor and author Rob Bell released the provocative video Resurrection. Five years later, he released more reflections on the powerful meaning of the Resurrection with six handwritten messages-posts on Instagram:

Resurrection 1

Resurrection 2

 

Resurrection 3

Resurrection 4

Resurreciton 5

Resurrection 6

 

Bell’s words are a beautiful affirmation of how God’s victory over death in Jesus (non-violent, unconditional Divine love)–Resurrection–connects each of us to one another and frees us to embody Christ’s love, God’s goodness and grace, in all that we say and do. The Body of Christ. Children of God. Easter people. Resurrection reminds us who we are, to whom we belong and how we must live.

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Moving Toward The Cross

Toward the end of tonight’s Maundy Thursday Worship Service, following a hand-washing ritual where worshippers washed each others hands and then partook in communion, I offered the following reflection as we moved toward the Cross:

Holy_Week_Pics_2015-3Jesus goes from the water basin where he washed the disciples’ feet in love to the hands of Roman soldiers who will spit on his face, strip away his clothes and beat him unmercifully. 

Jesus goes from the table of communion where the bread was shared and wine was poured to his execution where his body will be broken and his blood spilled.

Jesus goes from having his followers faithfully by his side to his disciples abandoning him as he faces his earthly demise.

Jesus goes from being a breathing human being to the Cross  where he will cry out to God: “Why have you forsaken me?!?!” and breathe his last.

Jesus goes from the light of life into the darkness of death.

 And we go from following Jesus in joy and faithfulness to 

abandoning him in his final hour. 

staring teary eyed at an empty cross where the full embodiment of God was murdered.

locking our doors, turning off the lights and pulling down the shades to grieve his loss.

hiding and shaking under the covers as the world comes apart.

lamenting how we rejected the Divine Love that created each and every one of us.

wondering if this is the end of life as we know it.

The triune God of our beginnings and endings, goes with Jesus and all of us through the entire journey 

from nothing to something

from sorrow to happiness

from hardship to redemption

from judgment to forgiveness

christ-in-gethsemane-pAnd God declares that this is an end but not THE END,

as we go from sin to grace

as we go from darkness to light

as we go from the cross into the future of a new world–a place unknown

A reality and kingdom that lies beyond ourselves, our fears and our walls.

What’s Next For Christian Education?

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 10.50.56 PM(Note: A slightly different version of this post was published at 7 am on the new Christian Education resource blog HOPE4CE: A Place Where Innovative Ideas and Lesson Plans Can Be Shared For Christian Education)

I recently returned from the NEXT Church Conference, held  March 16-18, in Chicago, and once again it nourished my soul and heart for ministry. Worship services, presentations and workshops (regarding innovative ministry and discernment about what works and what doesn’t) as well as opportunities to connect with friends and colleagues filled me with hope for where the PC(USA) and its churches are headed in the foreseeable future.

While the conference didn’t explicitly talk about the best Christian Education models or ministries (which relate to me as an associate for youth at the church I serve in Georgia), the various leaders, teachers and presenters faithfully teach Christians about what it means to be the body of Christ and to do God’s work in the world—to (according to this year’s theme) go “beyond our walls, our fears and ourselves” to encounter God’s transforming grace. Also, Christian Education is about being creative in the ways we tell the good news of God’s love, and the act of imagining and sharing ideas is the essence of the NEXT Church movement.

Worship in particular is so moving, inspiring and thought-provoking (with liturgy, prayers, music, preaching and visual art) that it is impossible not to remove your shoes because you are standing on holy ground like Moses.

Photo taken by NEXT Church photographer, posted on NEXT Church Facebook page. Art done by NEXT Church worship team.
Photo taken by NEXT Church photographer, posted on NEXT Church Facebook page. Art created by NEXT Church the Rev. Shawna Bowman.

For the closing service on Wednesday, the representation of a bird was hung from the ceiling of the sanctuary. The piece is made mostly of strips of paper (taken from old hymnals) upon which we wrote our prayers earlier in the week and tied to a make-shift chain link fence that symbolized the things and fears that hold us back.  

The bird soaring high above exemplified how God knocks down our walls and sets us free. During the service, these words (written by the Rev. Shawna Bowman who also created the art piece) were offered to help us connect the meaning of the flying bird:

Grounded in the grace of God

Our love takes flight

Not beyond one another

But beyond ourselves

Beyond our fears

Beyond our own limitations

God’s blessing infuses us

God’s spirit blows us

God’s strength emboldens us

God’s beauty beckons us

Out into the day and the night

Out into the world beyond these walls

To be the people of God

In the world God created.

 This poetic and prophetic piece reflected a profound statement made the previous evening by writer/dreamer/theologian Diana Butler Bass who said during a presentation on Christianity’s “Great Awakening:

The best part about being human is that history is ours to make and we make that history with God.

Diana’s wisdom, closing worship and a workshop I attended earlier in the week–“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” by the Rev. Jan Edmiston–stirred up many questions about how we might discern the role of Christian Education in a faith community of the 21st century world :

 –What kind of history are we making with Christian Education and what stories are we telling that feeds people’s hunger to know about their faith and beliefs?

 –What does Christian Education look like when it’s beyond ourselves, our fears and walls?

 –What does Christian Education look like out in the world God created as opposed to being in a church building or classroom?

–What is God’s strength and beauty moving us to do differently, unexpectedly, creatively, and imaginative with Christian Education?

— What cultural shifts are we willing to make to keep Christian Education relevant and viable ministry that nurtures and emboldens others to be the body of Christ? (This question and the subsequent ones are adapted from questions that Jan Edmiston posed concerning general ministry).

 o   What does Christian Education look like if we focus less on attendance at events, the building to house classes and the cash it takes to run programs? What does CE look like if we focus on doing the ministry in the surrounding culture and neighborhood of the church?

 o   What if we move a church school class or youth adviser training from the church parlor to a coffee shop?

o   What if we move from doing CE events at the church to attract people (like VBS or a Fall Festival) and send people out into neighborhoods to do VBS or host a Fall Festival in the town square or community center?

o   What if we ask more questions about our purpose for doing a certain CE program and event and whether people are passionate about participating or comfortable with failing or afraid of trying something new?

o   Who is being spiritually nourished and what relationships are being nurtured by CE? Who is being transformed to become more faithful? Who is being impacted?

 o   How can CE better nurture faith and discipleship that carries over into every aspect of our week and lives, beyond Sunday mornings and the Wednesday evening supper and Bible study?

Photo: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com. Posted on the NEXT Church website, http://nextchurch.net
Photo: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com. Posted on the NEXT Church website, http://nextchurch.net

These questions must be wrestled with and answered so that the people of God can faithfully educate Christians on how to live fully in Christ, so that we can all take flight into the wildly creative imagination of what God has for us next.