Awakenings, Part 2: Waking Up to Healing and Comfort

Sermon for Sunday, May 12, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Fourth Sunday of Easter. 

The harbor town of Joppa, which means “beauty” in Hebrew, was aptly named for it offered a breathtaking view of the deep blue coastal waters of the Mediterranean Sea during the day and the most glorious orange and pink hued sunsets at dusk. Joppa (or Jaffa, the southern part of Tel Aviv, as it is known today) was a prime port of the nation of Judea and afforded easy access to Jerusalem, 35 miles southeast.

The materials for the building of the first and second temples of Israel were brought through Joppa, and the town provided passageway for pilgrims coming to and from Jerusalem and a place for people to seek refuge. Folks in Joppa, those many centuries ago, relished telling a comical story about this scaredy-cat named Jonah who decided he would run away from God by stowing away on a boat leaving from Joppa, only to be thrown overboard by the crew and swallowed up by a whale!

Joppa was always bustling with activity: dockworkers loading and unloading cargo; merchants selling the finest goods; rabbis teaching the Torah to their students on the sandy shoreline; children running around playing in the streets; farmers laboring on a patch of land next to their home while their wives milked the goats and baked bread.

It’s here in Joppa that a disciple of Jesus, a woman named Tabitha, lived. Tabitha dedicated her life to serving others in her community. She would bring something cool to drink to the dockworkers as the late morning sun began taking its toll on their necks and backs. She would help some of the boys memorize their verses from the Torah in the evenings. She bandaged the skinned knees of the kids who took a tumble during their play. She kept other women company while they did chores around the house and would share her food with the families of farmers who were having difficulty growing crops. On occasions, she would tend to those who got sick and nurse them back to health.

Tabitha’s greatest passion, and what she was known widely for in Joppa, was her work as a seamstress. Whenever new shipments of textiles arrived, Tabitha would be the first in line to purchase the materials. Her skills were unmatched and the clothes she made were exquisite. She poured herself into every stitch so that poor widows and others in need would have something to wear.

But then late one afternoon, Tabitha unexpectedly became ill and after a few days, she died. The widows, whom Tabitha had helped, took great care to wash her body, clean her hair and put on fresh clothes before laying her down in her bedroom. Afterwards, they send for the apostle Peter who is staying in the nearby town of Lydda. The widows knew Peter was one of the original 12 disciples who ministered alongside Jesus and they wanted his pastoral presence as they grieved the loss of Tabitha—a faithful disciple who impacted so many with her kindness and compassion.

When Peter arrived a few hours later, the widows began weeping as they told him about Tabitha’s death and how much she meant to them. They gestured at their clothes, tearfully explaining that if it weren’t for Tabitha and her love, they would have nothing. And after Peter ushers them out of the room, the women remained in the hallway crying and telling stories about their friend Tabitha. [1]

This story is a familiar one isn’t it?

Everyone here knows or has known a Tabitha—a person who was a source of kindness, compassion, strength, courage and love that gave whatever they could of their time and gifts to the church and the community.

Many of us are grateful for the Tabitha who took us under their wing and showed us how to do things with grace and humility; who gave an encouraging word and celebrated our accomplishments; who modeled selflessness by serving those on the margins of society; who consoled us when we were sad; who picked up off the ground, and dusted us off when we were hurt or wallowing in our failures.

We’ve all been blessed by the life and legacy of a Tabitha who devoted themselves to loving others, particularly the poor, the lonely and the outcast. And we have also grieved their death and wondered who will continue their ministry.

We’ve grieved even as recently as last week when the world learned the news that two Tabitha-like figures—devoted saints to Christ’s work in the world, both writers and activists and powerful voices in the Church Universal—had died: Rachel Held Evans on Saturday, May 4 and Jean Vanier on Tuesday, May 7.

Jean Vanier, who succumbed to thyroid cancer at the age of 90, was a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded L’Arche (The Ark) in 1964—an international federation of communities across 37 countries for people with intellectual disabilities and caregivers. In 1971, he co-founded Faith and Light which also assists the disabled, their families and friends in more than 80 countries.

An author of 30 books on religion, disability, normality, success, and tolerance, Vanier lived as a member of the original L’Arche community in France, until his death.

Vanier was living in France in the early 60s when he made his first visit to an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. Moved by their pleas for help and newly aware of the plights of thousands of people institutionalized with down syndrome and other conditions, Vanier invited two of the male residents to live with him, and soon L’Arche was formed. The guiding philosophy of L’Arche is Vanier’s belief that people with disabilities are teachers, rather than burdens bestowed upon their families.

Vanier often emphasized the value that weakness, brokenness and vulnerability has in creating authentic communities. In his book Becoming Human, he wrote:

Weakness can open up our hearts to compassion: the place where we are concerned for the growth and well-being of the weak. …If we deny our weakness and the reality of death, if we want to be powerful and strong always, we deny a part of our being, we live an illusion.To be human is to accept who we are, this mixture of strength and weakness. To be human is to accept and love others just as they are. To be human is to be bonded together, each with our weaknesses and strengths, because we need each other. Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered, is at the heart of belonging.

Similarly, Rachel Held Evans, who died at the age of 37 after a sudden illness was also a champion for belonging and inclusion in the Church; an advocate for those who were rejected by Christian communities. The author of four books, a regular blogger and Twitter user, mother of two small children, and a wife, Rachel believed Jesus made room for everyone at the table. She once tweeted: “The folks you’re shutting out of the church today will be leading it tomorrow. That’s how the Spirit works. The future’s in the margins.” As two of her best friends wrote in an essay for The Washington Post:

Rachel was “for” an all-embracing vision of Christ’s church and the relentless inclusion of refugees and those suffering poverty, of LGBTQ people, of women and especially women of color, of the unseen and unheard and swept-aside. She recognized the real geometry of God. She used her writing to build the bridges so many of us needed to get back to God’s love, to one another and to the church. And in a world that covets power, cash and influence, she lavishly gave away all three. She centered the marginalized, quietly offering expertise, introductions, endorsements, speaking invitations, money and more.[2]

Her far-reaching influence was evident in the wake of her death as more than 100 articles have been written about her in the last eight days. More notable, however, has been the outpouring of grief on social media via the hashtag #becauseofRHE where numerous people have shared gratitude to Rachel using the refrain of:[3]

“Because of RHE, I am a female pastor in a church,”

“Because of RHE, I found a church that openly accepted me for being gay,”

“Because of RHE, privilege was set aside and space was created so my voice as a person of color could be heard,”

A familiar theme in many tributes was that Rachel privately encouraged writers and journalists in their work, notably when they were being attacked by judgmental and hateful readers. Rachel believed fervently that Christians were called to be in relationship with those who had been hurt and that the Church should be a place for healing and comfort. In Searching For Sunday, Rachel wrote:

There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to show the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome. …The thing about healing as opposed to curing, is that it is relational. It takes time. It is inefficient, like a meandering river. Rarely does healing follow a straight or well-lit path. Rarely does it conform to our expectations or resolve in a timely manner. Walking with someone through grief, or through the process of reconciliation, requires patience, presence, and a willingness to wander, to take the scenic route. … The truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure. It doesn’t offer a quick fix. The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation. The church offers grace.

The first take-away of this ancient story from Acts is that Tabitha’s return to life is less about what Peter does and more about what God has done and is doing. Peter’s actions, while remarkable, are merely a quick fix, considering that Tabitha ultimately died again. The significance of her resurrection is that it symbolizes God’s power that conquers death and frees us from its fearful grip. It’s a sign, says one scholar, that, “The God who created the world and raised Jesus from the dead is still active in the world, bringing healing to the diseased, hope to those in despair and life where death seems to reign.”[4]

The second lesson is that the church, the community of faith, is to be involved in the “slow and difficult work of healing” that is “messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching and never-ending.” The widows put all of their energy into preparing their beloved friend’s body for burial—conceivably crying, wailing and cursing the heavens throughout the process. And they don’t wipe away their tears and hold in their emotions when Peter visits. They loudly weep and share stories and show off the garments made by Tabitha’s hands.

It’s in the vulnerability of community that we encounter the presence of God’s grace. We grieve the losses of people who have impacted our life and we bear witness to their legacy so that hope and reconciliation may be known in the midst of pain.

The person dies. The work lives on.[5]We help keep it alive by sharing it with the world. And the work continues to impact people’s lives for the better, even after we are long gone from this earth.

We manifest resurrection and affirm the truth that while death comes for each and every one of us, God in Christ claims us in life eternal. One day, after much time has passed, we find creativity and renewal; we find comfort and healing again—for ourselves and one another.

We eventually wake up from the grief, we rise from the mess, we dust ourselves off and we carry on.


[1]An attempt at doing some midrash:


[3]These are summarized from the scores of tweets paying tribute to Rachel Held Evans because she made the Church a safe and inclusive place for so many who had been hurt by churches, pastors and congregations.

[4]Feasting On The Word, Year C, Volume 2. Rev. Joseph Harvard.

[5]Many thanks to author Diana Butler Bass who wrote those words in a Tweet on Saturday evening, indirectly helping me convey the concept I had written about earlier in the day sound less convoluting and more to the point.

Ash Wednesday: What do we need to “cultivate” and “let go” during Lent?

A Meditation for March 6, 2019, Emory Presbyterian Church, Ash Wednesday, Lent 2019 “Cultivating and Letting Go” (theme resources from A Sanctified Art, LLC, a sanctified

Isaiah 58:1-12 

Christians all over the world today will receive the imposition of ashes on their foreheads in observation of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  But what does this ancient practice exactly mean for us as Christians in a post-modern world? Why do we need ashy smudges above our eyebrows? Why does Lent begin this way and does our observance of the season mean we have to give up chocolate or caffeine or The Voice for more than a month.

The season of Lent is recognized as a time of prayer, fasting, self-examination and service that helps us prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning.  Dr. Martha Moore-Keish, a professor of theology at Columbia Seminary, explains:

“Presbyterians do not enter this period of fasting and prayer to attract God’s attention or to be noticed by other people. Lent is a way of paying attention to our own lives. We receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads to focus our attention on who we really are…Ash Wednesday and the whole of Lent provide a time to focus our attention on the mystery at the heart of the Christian life: that through the death of Jesus Christ, we have entered new life…The paradox of Ash Wednesday, and of Lent, is that we take on particular disciplines—fasting, prayer, service—in order to repent and conform ourselves more closely to the life and death of Christ, all the while recognizing that Christ has already come to us before we sought him.”

Ash Wednesday and Lent is an incredibly profound opportunity to practice humility and compassion with and toward others on our faith journeys, all the while reflecting on Jesus’ ministry and walk toward the cross in Jerusalem.

It is a chance to cultivate something new like:

a spiritual discipline (prayer, writing letters of gratitude to the important and unsung people in life like a teacher, a sanitation worker, a police officer, a coffee shop barista);

a mission practice (serving at a food bank or a pet shelter or putting together meals for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta);

relationships with others (family and friends, neighbors, someone different than you, someone with whom you are engaged in conflict;

a moment for self-care (taking a daily walk, tending a garden, reading a book, drawing, painting, playing music, journaling);

It is a chance to let go of the stuff that gets in the way of us and God, that keep us from following the ways of love, grace, justice and peace like:







judging others,

poor choices,

deep seeded anger and hate,

things you can’t control or fix,

self-doubt about the amazing gifts God has given you,

Lent is a powerful and challenging time in which we invest our love and our life into a different way of living–

a type of living that is counter to the self-centered, consumeristic, mean-spirited society that permeates our TV screens and smart phones and various other corners of life.

a type of living that faithfully seeks to build a community where all are welcome with an abundance of grace.

a type of living that believes in God’s promise to awake our souls (our inmost being) to the reality of God’s kingdom and the hope of another world that has already been formed and is still being fully realized.

a type of living where we cultivate God’s dream for us to grow in the light, and we let go of the fears that try to bury us in the dark.

a type of living in which the ancient prophet Isaiah says that…

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry …
then your light will rise in the darkness…
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail…
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

Ash Wednesday and the receiving of the ashes in the sign of a cross on our foreheads is a reminder of our own mortality and that we may not see the results of our work. Yet we are called all the same to repent of our selfish ways and turn toward the way of Christ’s unconditional, selfless love.

A prayer written decades ago in the memory of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated by political extremists for speaking against poverty and social injustice, sums it up this way:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.


The Voice

A Sermon for Sunday, January 13, 2019, Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, (Guest Preacher), Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

This is an exciting time in the life of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church as the congregation anticipates the February arrival of Mike and Melody Watson’s first child. And there couldn’t be a more perfect occasion to throw them a baby shower, following the worship service, than on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday. On this day we recognize Jesus’ baptism and remember our own baptism with Christ—of how God showers us with grace and calls us beloved, just as you will shower Mike and Melody with that same love and affection.

The event of Jesus’ baptism, recounted in the scripture lesson from The Gospel of Luke, inaugurates his public ministry of ushering in God’s kingdom on earth. Although it doesn’t have quite the flourish of Christmas, Jesus’ baptism is just as significant, if not more so, than his birth.

“John the Baptist” by Jen Norton

It is such a big deal that Jesus’ cousin—that camel-hair coat wearing, locust and honey eating wilderness preacher John the Baptist—loudly proclaims that the people need to prepare for this sacred moment by repenting and receiving baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, John shouts to the crowd gathered at the Jordan River:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

The people immediately ask the preacher: What do we need to do differently? How can we repent?” John replies: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Next, the tax collectors approach John and ask the same questions. He tells them: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

Finally, Roman soldiers come to him and also inquire about their behavior. John says: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

The people, according to this morning’s gospel passage, are filled with anticipation and wondering if John is the messiah. John reminds them:

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Google Images

After John finishes baptizing everyone, he baptizes Jesus who somehow snuck into the crowd earlier without being detected by anyone else. As Jesus is praying, the skies open up and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, accompanied by a booming voice from heaven that says:“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism is quite a spectacular scene—a hundred times better than the climatic images of any blockbuster super hero-sci-fi-fantasy movie. It is so awesome that it may seem initially challenging to determine it’s meaning for our own lives.

When we ponder stories of baptism, they seem on the surface to be dull in comparison to what happens to Jesus. Church steeples didn’t rip apart for a dove to dive bomb our heads. Nor did a thunderous voice speak to us from above the clouds like Darth Vader in a Star Wars movie: “I am your father.”

Despite the lack of such a grand display, however, our baptisms (and reminders of them) are just as powerful, poignant, and full of surprises when we take time to contemplate them.

In the last week, I’ve thought a lot about baptisms. Baptisms I’ve been a part of, as well as the holy experiences of water in unexpected moments…

Five years ago this coming March, my wife Elizabeth and I had our son Davis baptized at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church where I was serving as an associate pastor. It was a wonderful day. Extended family and close friends drove many miles to witness the baptism of a plump, bald, chipmunk cheek 4-month-old. The sacrament went fairly smoothly. Davis was alert but calm as the senior pastor placed water atop the child’s head. Even Davis’ precocious big sister Katie, who was 5 years old at the time, stood quietly next to Elizabeth, a large smile radiating from her face.

That is, until I stepped forward to give the closing prayer. As I wrapped up the prayer, I glanced down to see Katie walk up next to me, mouth the word, “Amen” and then take a dramatic bow as if she had just performed the lead role in a play. She was, apparently, expressing how “well pleased” she was with her brother’s baptism.

Then there was the time before my senior year of high school, when my family was living in Birmingham, Alabama and my parents went through an ugly divorce that rendered me despondent. I spent several days sitting in a recliner watching TV. One afternoon, the doorbell rang. I went to answer it and two of my good friends from youth group, Kathy and Stacey were standing on the front stoop, smiling.  Before I could say hello, they said excitedly, “It’s a beautiful day and we’re going to the lake at Oak Mountain State Park and you’re coming with us. Grab your towel and bathing suit!”

A half hour later, we were swimming and laughing and splashing around as the warm sun sparkled across the water. Never once did we bring up the mess at home. Words weren’t necessary. Their love and care for me was evident by their actions and the hours we spent together in the cool, clear water of the lake.

And lastly, in the summer of 2013 I took a group of middle school youth to North Carolina to participate in a week of service at Asheville Youth Mission. We closed out the trip with a morning spirituality walk through the city of Asheville. Led by AYM’s co-founder, the late Rev. Aimee Wallis Buchanan, we paused at various spots to read and discuss stories about Jesus’ ministry to the sick and the poor. It was one of the most meaningful experiences of the week, due in large part to the love of God that flowed from Aimee as she greeted her brothers and sisters who were living on the streets.

Toward the end of the walk, we stopped for a few minutes to look at a fountain located in Pack Square Park. The fountain is beautifully constructed fountain with a large bronze-ring surrounding a mound of quarried stone. Water covers the entire ring, creating a reflecting pool, and then flows slowly over the edge onto the ground to form a circle around the fountain’s base.

It was here that Aimee reminded us of who we are and to whom we belong. She spoke about how baptism is a sign of God’s love for us and how baptismal waters clean, refresh, and sustain us on our journeys. And then, as a way of joyfully remembering our baptisms and the life we have been given, Aimee encouraged us to splash one another with the water from the fountain. With a spark of mischief in her eye, she hinted that the youth might want to make sure they did a good job reminding me of how the waters feel. Needless to say, I was instantly soaked from head to toe.

Some tension had arisen among the group that week between a few of the 6th grade girls and me (the typical “you’re being an over-bearing jerk with the rules” v. “you’re not listening and acting immature” battle). Aimee knew instinctively that frustrations and anger and tiredness and stress had dried us up and that we needed to play in the refreshing waters of life.

In both our baptism and the everyday reminders of that sacrament, we re-discover what it means to be human and a citizen of God’s kingdom. We learn again that we are each a beloved child uniquely created by a loving God for the purpose of living a life of love. We realize that while it’s not in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, God does speak to us loud and clear in the ordinariness of life. The writer Debbie Thomas observes:

(Jesus is) the one who opens the barrier, and shows us the God we long for. He’s the one who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain — all so that we might hear the only Voice that can tell us who we are and whose we are…. Listen. We are God’s own. God’s children. God’s pleasure. Even in the deepest water, we are Beloved. [1] 

In baptism, we hear the voice of God who beckons us to turn away from our complicity with practices that cause brokenness in the world, and instead look toward a kingdom that offers opportunities of healing and wholeness for all of God’s beloved children.

Jesus’ baptism signaled that God was taking steps to reform this old world of earthly kingdoms and corrupt rulers by establishing a new world in which “all things live forever in love, peace, justice, mutual support, freedom and dignity.”[2] God continues to make that world even now; signs of transformation all around us:

There’s the Oklahoma mom, 54-year-old Sara Cunningham who offers to stand in as the parent for LGBTQ couples if their own parent or parents choose not to on their wedding day. [3]

And there’s 13-year-old Jerry Hatcher, Jr., who, over the last six years, has woken up before dawn on Christmas Eve, and asked his parents to drive him to Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital so he can buy breakfast for the families who have to spend the holidays with an ill child. [4]

Or there’s Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the emergency and refugee program of the PC(USA) that has provided $50,000 in grants to presbyteries in the southwest to support local churches and partner organizations that are providing food and temporary shelter for asylum seekers. [5]

And of course, there are the members of this church who faithfully serve their community on a regular basis, like last year on the MLK Day of Service when some of you made a delicious pot of chili and sandwiches to give to cold and hungry folks living on the streets of Atlanta.

The ministry Jesus did and the work we do in Jesus’ name is a manifestation of God’s vision for a world that is different from our own.

And the Holy Spirit empowers us by our baptisms with Christ to be a part of the kingdom and to invite others to heed God’s call to welcome the foreigner, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, feed the poor, free the enslaved, and make space for the marginalized to lift their voices.

This is the message that John the Baptist delivers from the wilderness to those with ears to hear.

In baptism, God dusts us off and rinses us clean of our mistakes—our failure to cherish God and to treat our neighbors with dignity, fairness and generosity. And God calls us to try again and again and again.

In baptism—where we gather together as a community to witness God’s unconditional love for humanity in Christ—God clothes us in the garments of a new social world and movement: kindness, compassion, humility, courage, hope, patience and mercy. And God calls us to share those gifts with others.

The faith-based non-profit media company known as SALT eloquently put it this way in a recent blog post regarding Jesus’ baptism:

In Jesus, God comes alongside us, even to the point of joining us in a rite of repentance and renewal.  And it’s a powerful reminder that arrogance has no place in Christian discipleship. If even Jesus gladly undergoes a rite of conversion, how much more should Christians live humble, unpretentious lives of conversion!  Indeed, following Jesus means setting out with him on this path of humility and solidarity, confession and grace, a way of love with which God is ‘well pleased.’ Jesus is baptized and calls us to follow him on a path of unassuming generosity, never looking down our noses at anyone, and always gladly embracing the Spirit’s sanctifying, restoring, empowering renewal.  For each one of us – and everyone we meet – is a beloved son or daughter of God, and Jesus’[6]

The voice of God—who in Christ has claimed us through the baptismal waters and deemed us beloved creations—has spoken and still speaks.

In response, may we—with humility and grace—continue to listen, follow and love.













Seeing The Face of God

A Sermon for Sunday August 6, 2017, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, Genesis 32:22-31 and Matthew 14:13-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Love and Peace or Else

A  Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, 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”


(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.)


[2] John 20:19-21



[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)

Pouring Out Love

A Sermon for Sunday March 13, 2016, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, 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, 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 we always stay humble and kind:


[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.




This Is Our Story: Finding God in the Mess

A Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, 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.

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.


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.