Take These Things

A Sermon for Sunday, March 4, 2018. John 2:13-22, Third Sunday of Lent

While I was doing some online research for today’s sermon, I discovered the following meme, which offers some sage advice:

The caption is funny precisely because many Christians forget or ignore that Jesus sometimes got mad during his life and ministry.  Nobody wants to see and talk about angry Jesus, especially that time he made his own whip out of cords and drove the merchants and money changers and livestock out of the temple before dumping coins on the floor and overturning tables.

Instead, we’d much prefer this image of Jesus clearing the temple by cartoonist and pastor Cuyler Black:

While the cartoon is a humorous interpretation and play-on-words for a 21st century culture that is familiar with extreme sports terminology, what Jesus actually does is far more risky and dangerous than a skateboarding stunt.  Therefore, it is crucial that we take a hard look at images that attempt to portray exactly what is occurring in the text as well as the story itself:

Jesus is furious and causing a scene. The inside of the temple is a mess. Dove are flying out of cages, sheep are fussing and running around in circles. Coins are spinning through the air and across the floor. People are scrambling to get out of the way. Merchants stumble over one another while others shake their fists at Jesus or grab him by the sleeve to make him stop. Jesus is livid as he swings a whip of cords in one hand and picks up tables with the other, all while shouting: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

The Gospel of John puts the event front and center, right near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The temple visit marks Jesus’ first public appearance, immediately following the calling of the disciples and the private wedding at Cana where water is turned into wine. The writer of John’s gospel wants readers to know right away that the outraged Jesus in the temple is the one he described in the first chapter as the Word who is God—the light in the darkness that shall not be overcome, the Word that became flesh and dwells with humanity, the Word that is full of grace and truth.

On the surface, it may seem as if Jesus’ outrage is not congruent with John’s description of God in Christ or what we know of Jesus from other gospel stories. The idea of Jesus being angry and causing a ruckus in the temple of all places is hard to imagine. It’s not a scene that sits comfortably next to accounts of Jesus’ healing, feeding and caring for the marginalized of society. The whip-holding, table-flipping Jesus sure doesn’t seem like the type who would want children to come and sit in his lap. But Jesus’ anger is an important part of who he is and not something that should be easily dismissed.

Over the centuries, Christians have mistakenly domesticated Jesus in their own image and have come to see him as this gentle, nice, serene person who is always smiling and giving a pat on the back. And believers have, at times, overlooked the fact that Jesus and God are connected.

Christ is God incarnate, both fully human and fully divine. Everything we know of God as the almighty creator of the universe and sovereign lord of the heavens and earth is manifested in the bodily flesh that is Jesus; unfathomable power and an incredible, mysterious force of logic and love embodied in a single person. It’s truly quite astonishing, and seems reasonable then to conclude that such an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being in human form is not going to be nice all the time. The late Christian author and theologian Mike Yaconelli once put it this way:

What characterized Jesus and His disciples was unpredictability. Jesus was always surprising the disciples by eating at the wrong houses (those of sinners), hanging around the wrong people (tax collectors, adulterers, prostitutes, lepers), and healing people on the wrong day (the Sabbath) … Jesus was a long way from dullJesus was a dangerous man—dangerous to the power structure, dangerous to the church, dangerous to the crowds of people who followed Him. …If Jesus is the Son of God, we should be terrified of what He will do when He gets his Hands on our lives.”[1]

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

The anger that erupts from Jesus upon entering the temple, though, is not irrational or petty. Jesus is not throwing a tantrum because he didn’t get his way or upset because he’s hungry and cranky. Whenever Jesus became angry, it was because he saw injustice and irreverence.

Now, the selling of animals and exchanging of money was necessary for the festivals occurring in the temple during Passover. People traveling from long distances would need sheep and doves to make burnt offerings and those who came from foreign lands would need to exchange their money for the local currency to purchase the animals.  Jesus doesn’t seem to have issue with this economic practice; otherwise he’d be ranting through the outdoor marketplaces in every town.

The problem Jesus seemed to have is that these transactions were taking place in the temple—a place intentionally set aside to worship God. What Jesus witnessed was a lack of respect and reverence for God on display. Practices that weren’t harmful in of themselves, but distracted people from giving their entire attention to God. And thus, Jesus was consumed by righteous anger.

Righteous anger is considered to be good, conscientious, moral, healthy anger and there’s always a time and place for such emotion. Alice Pau, the American suffragist, was angry that women were denied the right to vote. The civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was angry about racial segregation. And peace activist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was angry at apartheid in South Africa. In our daily lives, it is normal to feel righteous anger about bullying, abuse, poverty, racial inequality, and so much more. God has wired us to show deep compassion and care for the broken and suffering in this world; it’s only natural that we become angry when we read the news headlines and see yet another act of violence and oppression. Righteous anger is good and we are called to practice it and be an instrument of change.

With that in mind, it is very tempting to preach and read today’s story as if we’re only called, like Jesus, to deliver righteous anger by taking up a whip and overturning the tables of the injustices we most despise. However, the writer of a biblical commentary I read last week reminded me that the writer of John’s gospel has something else in mind:

“The text pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and driving us out in the name of God. Surely we can be honest enough to acknowledge that often enough we put ourselves and our institutions at the service of the powers that are decidedly less than God.”[2]

It would be naive for us to read this text and believe that Jesus is only criticizing everyone but us good Christians and our places of worship. As the biblical commentator notes further:

“For the truth is that neither the prophetic impulse nor the institutions called to embody it are well served by the quick assumption that because he is ‘our’ Savior, he is perpetually well pleased with us. It is important for us to tolerate and explore…the queasy anxiety of seeing Jesus with the whip of cords in his hands and hearing him with the righteous judgment of God on his lips—knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, but also to us and even against us.”[3]

In other words, we are not perfect followers and we don’t have this whole faith thing figured out. We make mistakes. We turn our back on God and neighbor.  It’s what we confess together every Sunday and frankly, we need Jesus to call us out when we’re wrong. We need tough love that speaks truth to our waywardness. Jesus’ righteous anger comes from a deep place of love for humanity.

So, if Jesus were to enter our sanctuaries, what might he rail against? What are the distractions and displays of disrespect and irreverence that would cause him to yell aloud with righteous anger: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house something else” What tough love speech would Jesus give?

Would Jesus be angry that worship spaces designed for the purpose of communing with God have evolved into a place where folks primarily come to socialize with and be entertained by others?

Would Jesus be angry with people who play games, text and check emails on our smart phones during any part of worship?

Would Jesus be angry with people who clap and cheer after a musician gives glory to God through a special anthem because they were thoroughly entertained, not because they are praising God for the gift of music? Or would Jesus be angry with some who allow a negative attitude about a hymn prevent them from finding joy and meaning in other parts of worship?

Would Jesus be angry with those who make grocery lists on the back of their bulletins and pretend to listen? Or with others who are so focused on every aspect of worship being flawless that they miss the chance to be surprised by the mystery of grace?

Would Jesus be angry with people who set up metaphorical tables covered with misplaced allegiances, religious presumptions and judgments, smug self-satisfaction, arrogance, envy, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, and political idols? [4]

Would Jesus be angry with those who worry more about the empty pews than being delighted by the people who have come to praise God? Or with the many who claim to be friendly and welcoming and yet never take the time after worship to know the people who sit on the other side of the room?

Would Jesus be angry with the people who pray for the well-being of others, but don’t always work to ensure their well-being?

Would Jesus be angry with pastors and leaders of the church for focusing too much attention on the maintenance of the institution—the upkeep of the building, the budget, the stewardship campaign, new equipment—instead of the practices of faith? [5]

These are the questions we must ask in this season of Lent in which each of us are called to look inward and discern how we have let certain things get in the way of our relationship with God.

I don’t know for sure what Jesus would specifically be angry about if he were to walk through the doors of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian’s sanctuary or any sanctuary. I don’t have the answers.

But I do know this: Jesus’ deep desire for a sacred space where people can worship and experience the holy is what leads to his death at the hands of the religious authorities who were greatly offended by Jesus’ outrage. As a seminary classmate and friend wrote recently on this text:

“’It is zeal for your house that will consume me’ reveals itself to be a prediction that the very ones who are most zealous for the Temple are the ones that will ultimately destroy Jesus. Those who have the greatest investment in the success of official religion will chew Jesus up and spit him out. You see, establishment religion cannot abide Jesus, who is the world-shaking intrusion of God’s free and radical love into the world.”[6]

Let us heed then the words of Christ who will flip the world over and scatter all the distractions that compete for our time and attention so we may be fully immersed in God’s presence; so that we may give our whole hearts to God.

Let us also take the things that turn us away from God and remove them from our midst. The things are not what matters in this life or the next. All that ever matters on this journey with Jesus is Christ himself, and his radical love that rises from the ruins, binding us forever to God and one another.


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

[2] Feasting On The Word, Year B, Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide, 2008, Westminster Knox Press

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20060313JJ.shtml

[5] https://robertwilliamsonjr.com/overturning-established-religion-john-213-22/.

[6] Ibid.


It’s About Surrender

A Sermon for the 7 pm Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship Service, December 24, 2017; Luke 2: 1-20 and Matthew 2:7-12


This evening’s sermon is unconventional for a Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. Rather than taking the traditional approach of doing character studies on each of the key figures in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth—the angels, the shepherds, Joseph and Mary—I’ve decided to explore this extraordinary event through the lens of a short animated Christmas special—Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story That Time Forgot.

Several of you may already be thinking that a cartoon illustration is better suited for young kids and their parents during the earlier Children’s Service and not serious enough for a service in which youth and adults come to profoundly reflect on the meaning of Christmas.

However, I can assure you there is as much spiritual substance and depth to be found in this Toy Story tale as there is in the beloved Charlie Brown Christmas and Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas specials. More than 50 years later, millions of people still gather with their families in front of their TV screens to watch Charlie Brown and the Grinch because it speaks powerfully to them, even though they are long past childhood themselves.

The elation that we discover again and again through the viewing of our favorite Christmas specials and movies (along with other holiday preparations) is reflective of the Christmas story itself. At the center of Christmas is the birth of the child who will turn the world upside down. A momentous occasion that brings forth great joy to the child that dwells inside each of our hearts and reminds us all that we are called to live as children of God.

Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable to you. May our entire selves be open to your wonders like a child on Christmas morning, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer, unto whom we surrender.


If you’ve ever seen a Disney-Pixar film in the last 10 years, you are well aware that while these movies are, on the surface, made and marketed to appeal to children, they contain timely messages intended to grab the attention of adults.

Popular offerings like Frozen, Zootopia, Moana, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, and Coco offer keen insights on life and relationships as it relates to the themes of fear, doubt, loss, hope, mercy, redemption, purpose, vocation, friendship, and love.  And Toy Story That Time Forgot, which first aired in December 2014, is no different.

It’s two days after Christmas and Trixie the blue triceratops is depressed that 6-year-old Bonnie never plays with her like a dinosaur—resigned instead to the roles of goblin fairy, ice cream customer and baby reindeer. The part of prehistoric beast is given to an adorable new Christmas tree ornament named Angel Kitty who only speaks words of Christmas-related wisdom, which sounds cryptic to the other toys.

After being referred to again as a baby reindeer, Trixie lets out a loud sigh, prompting Angel Kitty to say: “Greet the world with an open heart.” Trixie just rolls her eyes and the other toys give the kitten puzzled stares because they don’t know what to make of the newcomer’s sayings.

Later, Bonnie takes Trixie, Angel Kitty, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and Rex the anxious T-Rex to her friend Mason’s house for a play date. When they get there, Bonnie sees Mason playing a virtual reality video game. Rex, lamenting that he has such short T-Rex arms, shouts: “You’ve got to be kidding me! He got an Optimus X for Christmas! Sadly, the controls are beyond my limitations.”

Angel Kitty responds matter-of-factually: “Limitations are the shackles we bind ourselves.” Again, her companions look at her puzzled.

After Bonnie tosses her belongings into her friend’s playroom, the toys discover that Mason received the complete toy line of battling reptilian-dinosaurs for Christmas. Known as Battlesaurs, these fierce creatures are led by the brave Reptillus Maximus and the devious Cleric. Reptillus then takes Rex and Trixie to get new armor and tech, while, unbeknownst to them, the Cleric orders some other Battlesaurs to take Woody, Buzz and Angel Kitty hostage.

Soon, Trixie and Reptillus begin developing romantic feelings. Trixie is admirative of the Battlesaurs, while Reptillus is intrigued by her world. During a conversation atop Reptillus’ lair, Trixie tells the warrior: “You must have the most amazing play-times.” Reptillus, unfamiliar with the concept of play-time, asks Trixie to explain. She goes on: “You know, play. When you give yourself over to a kid.” Trixie’s words startle Reptillus who replies: “Giving is surrender! A Battlesaur would never surrender!”

Later, Trixie and Reptillus enter the “Arena of Woe”, where Trixie is horrified to see Reptillus attack Mason’s toys in a gladiatorial combat setting. Soon Woody and Buzz enter the ring. Woody warns Trixie that Mason has never played with the Battlesaurs and that they don’t even know they’re toys. Reptillus  battles both Woody and Buzz till Trixie demands he stop. The Cleric deems Trixie an enemy after seeing she has Bonnie’s name on her hand. Trixie escapes the arena to get Bonnie’s attention and the Cleric orders Reptillus to stop her. As Reptillus chases Trixie, he is shocked to discover the box he came in.

Back at the Battlesaurs play-set, Woody and Buzz realize that the Cleric is the only Battlesaur who knows they’re all toys and is determined to make sure the others don’t find out so he can be their ruler. The Cleric then forces Rex to dispose of Woody and Buzz in a ventilation fan that would shred them.

Woody and Buzz scold the Cleric for doing such a dastardly deed during Christmas time. The Cleric is unfamiliar with the concept of Christmas, which prompts Angel Kitty to explain with another nugget: “The joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you.”

Meanwhile, Trixie reaches Mason’s video game power cord, hoping to turn it off and direct Bonnie’s focus to the playroom.

I found myself moved by this entire special, much in the same way I get chill bumps when Linus tells Charlie Brown the meaning of the holiday by reciting the birth of Jesus from Luke’s gospel. Or when the Whos in Whoville sing proudly about welcoming the light of Christmas, in spite of the Grinch’s theft of all their decorations and presents.

The title, Toy Story That Time Forgot, is an obvious reference to the dinosaur theme and also a cheesy 70s show called Land of the Lost where a family is thrown back in time and trapped in the pre-historic era. But for me, this Christmas special also seems to be a subtle nod to the story that we in modern times occasionally forget amid the hustle and bustle and commercialization of the season: the story of Emmanuel, God-with-us—the Christ child born in the straw poverty of a manger.

This 22-minute animated film, particularly the focus on the theme of surrender, reminded me of the words of the 20th century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote:

If we want to be part of these events, Advent and Christmas, we cannot just sit there like a theater audience and enjoy all the lovely pictures. Instead, we ourselves will be caught up in this action, this reversal of all things; we must become actors on this stage. For this is a play in which each spectator has a part to play, and we cannot hold back.

What will our role be? Worshipful shepherds bending the knee, or kings bringing gifts? What is being enacted when Mary becomes the mother of God, when God enters the world in a lowly manger? We cannot come to this manger in the same way that we would approach the cradle of any other child. Something will happen to each of us who decides to come to Christ’s manger.Each of us will have been judged or redeemed before we go away. Each of us will either break down, or come to know that God’s mercy is turned toward us.

What does it mean to say such things about the Christ child?…It is God, the Lord and Creator of all things, who becomes so small here, comes to us in a little corner of the world, unremarkable and hidden away, who wants to meet us and be among us as a helpless, defenseless child. 

So, as we come so near to Christmas, what does it look like for each of us to open our hearts, free ourselves from the shackle of limitations that bind us, give joy to others, and be grateful for the gifts that are all around us?

What does it look like if we recognize that the world is bigger than we know and that the God, to whom we forever belong, chooses many wondrous roles for us to play in this life?

What does it look like if we let go and fall into the hands of our Divine Creator and allow ourselves to be a part of God’s amazing story, God’s glorious play and God’s unique imagination?

What does it look like if we set aside our personal agendas and desires for conquest and give our hearts to the Christ child, to Emmanuel who saves humanity from impending doom and transforms the world with unconditional love and grace?

What does it look like in this Christmas season and the coming New Year, in the silent night and the approaching light of a new day if we take a moment to pause and breathe?

What does it look like if we surrender?



Toy Story That Time Forgot, Dec. 2, 2014. Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Television Animation and Disney-ABC Domestic Television. Written and Directed by Steve Purcell and produced by Galyn Susan. Music composed by Michael Giacchino.

Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ausburg Fortress Publishers, 2005

The Sheep of God’s Pasture

Sermon for Sunday November 26, 2017, Christ The King Sunday

Ezekiel 34:11-16a and Matthew 25:31-40

Pastor’s Note: This is the recycled and updated version of a sermon I preached in April 2010 called One Flock, One Shepherd

Several years ago, my family and I attended the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park.  Along the path that winds around the park were hundreds of booths displaying the works of local and regional artists that were as splendidly colorful, refreshing, and mesmerizing as the spring day that enfolded us.

One of the artists’ booths that particularly caught our eye and prompted much smiles and laughter was entitled “Sheep Incognito.” The booth featured a large collection of whimsical, humorous and thought-provoking oil-paintings of sheep, each one with an outrageous title:

A sheep flying in a bumble bee suit: Bumble Baaaaa

A sheep in a gumball machine: Baabblegum

A sheep in a pickup, wearing a cap and smoking a cig: Billy Baab and his Truck

A sheep standing on a ladybug while holding two bales of hay in its hooves and a stalk of corn on its nose: Baalancing Act

And in a scene that is most appropriate for today’s scripture readings—A sheep, standing in a luscious green pasture near a clear blue lake, is gazing up at the magnificent sky with a sweet smile on its face. The painting is entitled Beside Still Waters, a reflection on Psalm 23. But it could easily be referred to as The Sheep of God’s Pasture, a nod to the illustration in today’s passage from Ezekiel.

The artist Conni Togel, who lives on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, says this about why she paints sheep for a living:

“They really are just sheep, even though you might recognize yourself or those you know in what you are seeing. Truth be told, sheep are messengers of insane moments around us, fun things awaiting us, and focal points of special things in life that often slip by unnoticed. What’s more, being the peacenik creatures they are, the sheep love being part of a greater cause: bringing some joy and whimsy back to a world that seems to be headed into all sorts of wrong directions…The sheep really are a vehicle for the message I hope to impart to the world around me. It is about hope, laughter, love, courage and just a smidgen of insanity—all the things in life that make life wonderful.”[1]

I love Togel’s view of sheep as symbols of hope, laughter, courage and a smidge of insanity because it’s a perspective that is not commonly shared in society. Sheep are not held in the same high regard as other animals, animals well known for their power, might, wisdom, cunning and loyalty like the eagle, the lion, the dog and the bear.  Whenever anyone asks the popular small conversation starter question, “If you could be any animal, what kind of animal would you be?” rarely do you hear a person say, “A sheep!”

The use of the word sheep carries a lot of negativity, a lot of wooly baggage.  No one wants to be described as “sheepish” because it means they are embarrassed or ashamed.  And no group of people wants to be labeled as sheep because it implies they are brainless conformists for whom passivity is a lifestyle.

To be referred to as a “sheep” is always an insult.  And if sheep knew they were misunderstood and could talk like humans, well, they might loudly proclaim that they’re getting the proverbial short end of the shepherd’s crook.

Sheep, of course, are not intelligent enough to communicate in the same degree as are other animals like the dolphin or horse. But they are a lot smarter and more interesting than they’re given credit. For instance, sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled. Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, possessing excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of approximately 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads.  Sheep do have poor depth perception; shadows and dips in the ground may cause sheep to baulk…but sheep have a tendency to move out of the dark and into well-lit areas.”[2]

 All sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, and sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members. Sheep can recognize individual human and sheep faces, and remember them for years. And despite perceptions that sheep are dumb creatures, a University of Illinois study  on sheep found them to be on par with cattle in IQ, and some sheep have even shown problem-solving abilities.[3]

There are worse things a person can be compared to than sheep like a venomous snake or a cockroach.  And of all the animals chosen to describe human beings and their relationship to God, the one most often used is…a sheep. Throughout scripture, we are told again and again that God loves us and cares for us like a shepherd cares for the sheep—like a shepherd cares for the flock.

This image of God as the sovereign shepherd and God’s people as sheep has a permanent hold on Christian imagination and… piety, especially among ordained ministers (and elders). It is all too easy and common for preachers, like me, to see ourselves as those who have been trained at the very best religious institutions to “shepherd” and “pastor” a church, a “flock.”

While Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 25, among other texts, can be wonderful theological and practical lessons for how church leaders are called to be guides and caretakers, it’s important for all of us to remember that none of us are The Shepherd. Even when we as church leaders are trying to faithfully model our shepherding after Jesus’ preaching and teaching; we are still following Christ ourselves. We (church leaders) are also sheep and fellow members of the One Flock, and God in Christ alone is our Shepherd, and that is an extremely wonderful and humbling truth to behold.

This concept has particularly significance for us as we learn how to move forward and embrace God’s new vision for Pleasant Hill in the wake of founding and senior pastor Dave Fry’s last day as the church’s shepherd of 32 years.

While Dave gave us nearly a year in advance that his retirement was coming in mid November, there has been a decent amount of curiosity and anxiety (albeit mostly healthy) in the church: What will Pleasant Hill do without Dave? Who’s the Interim going to be? When are they getting here? Who will be called to serve as the senior pastor? How long will the search take?

So far, we’re doing well, which is not to say that the church doesn’t need a senior pastor.  As associate pastors, Jody, Jennie and I are completely capable of taking over some of the head of staff’s responsibilities, and yet we will be the first to say in January, “we’re so glad the church has an Interim Senior Pastor!”  And I know all of you will be equally excited to meet that new person who will help us through a time of transition and the eventual calling of a permanent head of staff.

What Dave’s retirement and absence is teaching me (and I hope the rest of us too) is that the One Flock of sheep, the Church Universal, keeps going no matter which ministers, elders, Christian Educators or church leaders are serving in a particular congregation.  The Church Universal keeps following The Shepherd even when folks leave the fold for whatever reason.

It’s true that a church’s staff and Session who oversee or lead ministries are called to use certain gifts for leadership and decision-making among the flock. But those folks are not the only shepherds nor is any one of them The Shepherd. The designated church leaders are not even the one flock, the Church, the larger body of Christ…not without the other members of the fold.

There are many members at Pleasant Hill who don’t have seminary degrees or master’s degrees or have not been ordained in the church that are faithfully leading, teaching, preaching, comforting, and nurturing the flock with the gifts God has given them. There are people doing extraordinary things among the fold even when one of the “shepherds” or church leaders is unavailable or busy with various church tasks. Ministry happens among the One Flock with, without and despite any one of us because of The Shepherd who leads all of us—who lays down his life for us so that we may live, love and serve abundantly.

The words of Ezekiel and Jesus help the church understand its role as God’s sheep and inspire the members of the one flock to do ministry. As one biblical scholar notes: “The calling inherent in this passage (from Ezekiel) is to do as God does: to care for the least, the last, the lost, and the excluded of society, out of a deep sense of love and compassion. This is a call that goes beyond the normal assumption that this pertains only to the pastor as shepherd; this image calls all in the church to minister to others.”[4]

We, who are nurtured by God like sheep under a shepherd’s care, are to live out a life that is keenly attuned to God’s presence in our midst. With sheep-like abilities we hear God’s voice, we see God’s face and we trust God will seek us out when we are lost, injured and weak and draws us from the darkness. And in return, we answer God’s command of us to minister to the broken and excluded people in society.

The command doesn’t come from a stern, tyrant king-like deity who seeks to condemn and torture our souls, but from a benevolent God who desires to nurture, rescue and protects us.

I realize that sounds odd when considering humanity’s long-held view of how a king or world leader should be. Those images of monarchy and dynasty and absolute power and prestige are engrained in our brains.

But the scriptures and our faith remind us again and again that God and Christ defy our expectations for how a leader should function.

Jesus is not a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time nor is Jesus like any crowned figurehead, dictator, world leader or president that has existed throughout human history.

Jesus is not a king who rides in on a horse, brandishing a sword or riding atop a tank, sporting a machine-gun as some renowned Christian preachers would have you believe. Nor is Jesus a bloodthirsty revenge seeking action hero or a ruthless drug kingpin as some aspects of pop culture depict him to be.

No, Jesus is the King of love and peace because Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our world and lives.

And this all-knowing, almighty, mysterious entity arrives not as a power-hungry, oppressive god seeking to wipe out sinners and evildoers.

But as a small defenseless child born into poverty—no less than an animal trough in the poorest part of town—and is visited first by sheep and shepherds.

The Child that grows into a man, who breaks bread with outcasts, heals the sick, and gives comfort to the prisoner.

The Man who does not dress up in regal clothes but who, as Matthew’s Gospel reminds us, appears as the hungry and thirsty person needing a drink; the stranger needing to be welcomed; the naked needing clothing; the sick needing comfort; and the prisoner needing a friend.

The Savior who presides over our lives and world not through acts of coercion and violence but through the supreme act of unconditional, selfless, suffering love.

The Ruler who builds a beloved community where all are welcome and compassion and love are freely and fully given.

The Shepherd who feeds, nurtures, rescues, protects and guides the flocks; and who calls each of us to do likewise for the least of these—the last, the lost, the despised and marginalized—all sheep of God’s pasture.

And all God’s people said: Baaaa—amen!

[1] Conni Togel, Sheep Incognito, http://www.charisma-art.com/

[2] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[3] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[4] Feasting on the Word : Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4, Christ the King Sunday, Ezekiel 34:11-16, Karyn L. Wiseman

Gotta Keep Moving

A Sermon for Sunday, May 28, 2017. The Ascension of the Lord Sunday, Acts 1:6-12

The Ascension of the Lord—it’s a peculiar event, don’t you think?

Jesus, after being raised from the dead, spends 40 days hanging out with the disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. And then, whoosh! Up in the air he goes. Artists’ renderings of this scene are quite surreal and a bit ludicrous, as if aliens are beaming Jesus up. Whoowhoowhoop!

Jesus’ ascension is an episode that many preachers and churches avoid entirely during the church season because it is odd and difficult to grasp. It’s not grounded in the mud, spit and blood of life. It’s not as substantial as Jesus’ birth into poverty, his ministry among the sick and the poor and his brutal death. Even resurrection—the breath and heart beat returning to the body, the seemingly dead now come alive—is more palpable than ascension.

And yet as lofty and bizarre as Jesus’ ascension seems, it is what people of faith have sought to comprehend for thousands of years. Jesus’ ascension, his grand departure from the earth and his friends, is reflected in many of the stories we tell—stories that try to make sense of this epic moment:

Like Superman the man of steel, who often leaves the city of Metropolis and rises above to keep a watchful eye over humanity.

Like E.T. the extra terrestrial who tells the boy Elliott that he loves him and then boards his family’s space ship to return home to his planet in the stars.

Like Maui the charming demigod who embraces the young chieftain Moana with a hug and then leaves by transforming into a great hawk that soars off into the sky.

Like the zany Genie who, upon being freed from the lamp by Aladdin, zooms into the air and packs a suitcase for an adventure of his own choosing.

Like Mary Poppins the magical nanny who concludes that she has successfully brought a family back together and then, with a wink and a smile, flies away clutching her umbrella.

Ascension in those stories is about goodbyes, endings and beginnings, transition and change. And Christ’s ascension is all of those things and more—the shaping of Jesus’ glory as the one who conquered death and fear; the establishing of Christ’s rein above all worldly powers; and the fulfilling of God’s promise that human beings are in possession of and destined for a future brimming with hope in Christ’s mercy and love.

Naturally, it’s a lot to take for the disciples to take in and, understandably, they have anxiety about what is occurring before their eyes. With nervous excitement, they ask Jesus: “Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The disciples know God is triumphant and yet Jesus, their friend, teacher and savior, is leaving them. They want to know what is going to happen and they can’t bare the thought of Jesus not being among them.

The disciples are likely wondering:

  Is Jesus going up for a few minutes to recruit an angelic construction crew before coming back to rebuild Israel?

    Is he going up in the clouds for a few hours for a period of prayer, rest and renewal before returning to end all of the world’s problems with a word or the touch of his hand?

When Jesus tells them they don’t need to worry about the time in which the kingdom of God will be formed, the disciples realize deep in their hearts that the Jesus they knew—the Jesus who preached and taught as they traveled dusty roads from one town to the next; who shared meals with them and healed and fed the despised and downtrodden—wasn’t coming back.

Their hearts ache with a truth they don’t want to accept. So they stare up in the sky, hoping the Jesus they knew will make a quick U-turn and re-enter their lives as before. They know time is marching forward but they’re not ready to do the same.

Sound familiar?

We don’t like to part with someone we deeply love and cherish (and move forward without them) anymore than the disciples, even when we know in our heart of hearts that it’s usually what is meant to be.

It’s why we get choked up or melancholy at the end of a movie or TV episode, when a main character we’ve grown to appreciate, bids adieu. Those stories remind us that nothing stays the same, that the people closest to us will one day leave and that change is inevitable, whether we enjoy it or not.

Of the multitude of viewing options available these days, no show embraces the concept of goodbyes and change better than the long-running international sci-fi hit Doctor Who.


For the non-Whovians out there, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a humanoid alien known as The Doctor who explores the universe in his TARDIS—a sentient time-traveling space ship that appears as an ordinary blue British police box.

In 1966, after the show had been on air for three years, William Hartnell, the first actor to play Doctor Who, became very ill. So the show’s creators invented a plot device in which the character of The Doctor would regenerate or take on a new body and personality as a way of recovering from something that would kill an ordinary person. This allowed producers and writers to cast a new actor into the role without losing momentum in the breadth of the series.

Throughout the show’s run, 13 actors have played the role of the Doctor—all becoming beloved for the unique persona they brought to the character. But no matter how many times fans watch The Doctor regenerate and know that change is going to occur—that an actor you’ve come to enjoy will be replaced by one who is unfamilliar—they become a bit emotional.

That was certainly true for this fan and many others when Matt Smith exited the show as the 11th Doctor and Peter Capaldi took over as the 12th Doc in the final moments of the Dec 25, 2013 episode “The Time of the Doctor.” The 11th Doctor’s trusted companion Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Coleman) knows her friend and mentor is regenerating, but she can’t bear to see him go. And as he is transforming, The Doctor reminds Clara about the importance of change while also remembering his previous companion, the late Amy Pond:

            “We all change, when you think about. We are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be,” the Doctor reminds Clara and viewers. And Clara, speaking on the audience’s behalf, says, “Please, Don’t change.”

Don’t change. Don’t leave.

Those words are imprinted on the disciples’ faces as they look longingly into the sky as Jesus ascends into the heavens. And they’d probably remain stuck there, fixated on the clouds for hours and hours awaiting Jesus’ immediate return, if the two angels hadn’t appeared.

The angels tell the disciples they have work to do and they need to get busy. Christ has chosen them to be witnesses of love and grace to the ends of the earth. There’s no time to gaze at the sky. The disciples gotta keep moving to share and embody the story of God’s love in the entire world.

So often, I think, Christians get stuck when significant change is happening, especially in the life of the Church. Many congregations struggle with saying goodbye to their long-time beloved pastors who accept a new call or retire. They struggle with saying goodbye to programs that are no longer viable or sparking joy.

They grapple with welcoming new leaders and visions for ministry. They have difficulty letting go because, in the words of Marie Kondo (the author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up) there is “an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

Most of you in this congregation know that we are in the midst of a process of letting go. As a way of honoring Dave Fry’s legacy as the founding pastor of 32 years and his retirement in November, we’ve embarked on a capital campaign–Gifted Past, Bold Future. The campaign’s purpose is to give gratitude for years of faith-shaping ministry as we strive to pay off the mortgage debt and make room for new ideas that will shape people’s lives.

And while Pleasant Hill is embracing the change, particularly Dave’s farewell, in a healthy way, I imagine there is still some anxiety among us. While we realize that Dave’s retirement is unavoidable, we don’t want him to go. We don’t want things to change.

A Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church without Dave Fry seems strange after decades of service. We know deep in our hearts that this church won’t quite have the same relationship with Dave as it does at this moment. Eventually, Dave will not be in his office every day or preaching from Sunday to Sunday or teaching classes or making pastoral visits or doing baptisms, weddings and funerals. Dave’s not ascending into the clouds, of course, but he will no longer be present among the congregation as he is now and has been for so long.

Like Clara Oswald, we might be in bit of a shock to see someone else in the head of staff role. And the new pastor, like the new (12th) Doctor, might be a little bewildered about how to “fly this thing” or operate Pleasant Hill.

But if we love God and treasure Dave’s ministry, we won’t be stuck in the past or resistant to change or looking off in the distance or leave the new pastor on their own to figure things out. Instead, we’ll answer Christ’s call to be the Church, to be his followers, to be his witnesses for love and grace for all people in every time and place.

And although Dave won’t be roaming these halls one day, and although Jesus is not physically present, we won’t truly be alone in our endeavors.

As Sirius Black tells young Harry Potter who laments never knowing his parents, murdered when he was a child: The ones who love us never really leave us, you can always find them in here.” (points to Harry’s heart)

Therefore, let your hearts not ache or be torn or anxious, for not too long at least. Dave will soon leave us with an amazing legacy to build on for many years to come. There is much to do and to experience as time goes onward. In the beautiful parting words of the hobbit Frodo to his best friend Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

         “You have so much to enjoy and to be and to do. (Your) part in the story will go on.”

Jesus has gone ahead of us, preparing for a future full of hope. And he beckons us to follow and to continue the story that God began–a story with many twists and turns. And Christ assures us that something inspiring is coming—like a mighty rushing wind and tongues of flame—to guide us as Christians and the Church on the journey ahead.

Therefore, we gotta keep moving.


Meeting Jesus in the Mud

A Sermon for Sunday March 26, 2017 (The Fourth Sunday of Lent) John 9:1-17 and 24-41

One of God’s greatest gifts is…mud. Glorious, messy mud.

For many children, playing in the mud provides endless enjoyment.

Mud pies to serve at a party with friends—each delicacy decorated with pebbles, twigs and flower petals.

Mud puddles to stomp and splash in after a good thunderstorm—brand new rain boots spattered with artful gray streaks.

Mud creeks to explore for signs of tadpoles, minnows and crawfish—squishy clumps wedged between the toes in that cool water.

Teens relish moments romping in the mud too.

I have a fond memory from seven years ago when the high school youth from this church did mission work in Houma, La in July. Nearly every day there was an afternoon downpour.

By the middle of the week, there had been so much rain that a pool of water, a couple of inches deep nearly 30 feet in length had formed on our lodging site—a muddy oasis that had to be experienced by a group of teens who had worked hard all day doing construction work. They spent more than an hour running and sliding through the giant puddle, giggling and shouting the entire time.

Did you ever have those exhilarating experiences growing up? Do you remember what it was like to play in the mud as a kid and the unbridled fun you had?

Of course, there are also plenty of adults who don’t mind playing and working in the mud. On mission trips to Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic or even a couple hours away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s impossible to avoid getting filthy.

         After a long day of digging holes, carrying rocks, pouring concrete, laying bricks, building homes, adults—caked in a muddy mixture of dirt, cement and sweat—wear their grime as badges of honor.  I’ve seen many adults tease each other over who has worked the hardest by the amount of mud they have on their clothes.

There is something exhilarating and satisfying when we are covered in God’s earth, isn’t there?

In the book Dangerous Wonder, author Michael Yaconeli recounts how a friend did a one-man show on Jesus’ life in which he imagined Jesus and the disciples taking a break in the Jordan River after many days of travel and doing ministry. The scene plays out like this:

Jesus and the disciples were all in the river taking baths when the beloved   disciple,  John, reaches down to the floor of the river and brings up a huge mud pie. Preoccupied with their washing, none of the disciples notices. John takes careful aim at his favorite target, Peter. SPLAT! The mud pie strikes Peter in the face. John immediately ducks underwater as though he is scrubbing.

Peter reaches for his own mud pie, takes careful aim at Matthew and lets it fly. WHAM! James wastes no time responding with his own mud pie, and soon bedlam breaks out amongst the disciples. A full-fledged mud fight is under way.

 Philip and Bartholomew sneak up on Judas, whom they didn’t particularly like anyway, and nail him with two mud pies.

 Simon the Zealot…lets loose with a huge mud pie. John ducks and the mud missile hits Jesus right in the middle of his forehead. All the disciples freeze. After a long silence Thomas leans over to Simon and says, “You idiot! You just hit the Son of God with a mud pie…He’ll turn us into turtles!”

 Jesus gazes slowly at each of the disciples, each one fearing the worst.

With a knowing smile, Jesus stops when he sees Simon, who refuses to look Jesus in the eyes. Jesus reaches down into the mud and comes up with a very large mud pie and—BAM!—Simon is hit squarely on the top of his head, and as the mud slithers down his face, everyone, including Jesus, breaks into laughter.

During Jesus’ day, mud was a treasured substance that had many practical and enjoyable applications for daily living.

Mud was the prime building material people used to make things—jars, pots, plates, tools, ovens, art, tablets, roads, homes and other structures. Additionally, it was used to heal wounds on the skin or give relief to aching muscles, i.e. the mud facial and mud bath.

Now, as far as anyone knows, mud was not considered a cure for a more serious infliction like blindness.  But that doesn’t stop Jesus from mixing spit and dirt into mud and placing on the blind man’s eyes.

           Mud is an essential part of life and it is also sacred because it is of the earth that God created and formed out of darkness and brought into the light.  Thus, it’s no surprise that Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, uses mud to create something new, to give sight to a blind man who was born unseeing.

More alarming is the Pharisees’, the religious leaders’ judgment of the blind man and Jesus.  In spite of this extraordinary act of compassion, the Pharisees believe the blind man is a sinner from birth who is undeserving of healing and that Jesus is a heretic.

The Pharisees have become so self-righteous and full of absolutes and lofty ideals that they’re no longer grounded in God’s ways. They care more about their own status and prestige than getting their clothes dirty by helping their brothers and sisters in need.

The Pharisees have become completely detached from those they are called by God to serve.  They claim to be all knowing about God while ignoring the God who dwells with the poor, sick and oppressed, the Christ who is willing to get mud on his hands to show love to another human being. They’ve forgotten the beauty and joy of playing and working in the mud and being in relationship with others.

The Pharisees behave as no one else matters but them and their absolutes about how God works. And sadly our history shows there have been hard-nosed religious folks who’ve acted just as arrogantly and dogmatically ever since.

The late science historian and mathematician Jacob Bronowski commented on this egotistical behavior of some human beings in the 1973 BBC documentary Ascent of Man:

“It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”

Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, spits on the ground and makes mud with his own saliva and touches the blind man’s eyes. And minutes later, after washing his face in a nearby pool, the man is able to see for the first time in his life!

Christ’s actions are a reminder that we as his followers are supposed to touch people—to reach out and dirty our hands if necessary to bring love and life to someone else.  We as followers are called to meet Jesus in the mud.

And it will be clear and beautiful… if we have the eyes to see it


The Messiness of Christmas

A Sermon for January 1, 2017. First Sunday After Christmas. Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-22

37036One of the Advent-Christmas traditions here at Pleasant Hill is to place this beautiful, porcelain made Nativity set on the communion table. These figures from Matthew and Luke’s gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are familiar to worshippers: Mary and Joseph, the baby, a shepherd, an angel and the magi. All the major players are here…except for one.

There’s no figure of King Herod—King Herod the Great who was appointed by the Roman Empire to rule over Judea, the country in which Jesus was born.

In the millions of interpretations of the Nativity in displays, greeting cards, paintings and children’s books that have been created over thousands of years, a depiction of Herod is not included. Cattle, sheep, camels, a donkey, a dog, a cat and even Santa Claus are added to the scene. But not Herod. The beloved hymns of the Advent-Christmas season don’t mention Herod either, except for two obscure carols, one written in the late 16th century and the other in 1911.

And yet he is an integral part of Jesus’ birth and early childhood.

The reason for Herod’s absence, of course, is obvious. He’s not a good guy and certainly no admirer of Jesus. Herod is, quite frankly, scared of the baby and the prospect that this child will one day overthrow his reign and become Israel’s ruler.

Herod is so terrified of losing his throne and power that he plots to murder the infant Jesus by sneakily asking the magi to let him know the baby’s exact location so he also may pay homage.

But his plan is thwarted when an angel of the Lord warns the magi to return home by another road and then tells Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. This, however, is not the conclusion of the story, although historicaly our retellings often end here.

After realizing the magi have tricked him and the baby who threatens his kingdom is not within his reach, Herod becomes filled with rage. “If I can’t have the one baby who will become king, I will kill them all!” Herod probably thought as he ordered his soldiers to murder all boys in and around Bethlehem who were between the age of infancy and 2-years-old.

And that image of children being slaughtered by a ruthless king is too much to comprehend. Genocide doesn’t fit neatly with the angels’ pronouncement of joy, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, the star over Bethlehem, and strangers coming to worship the child.

Herod’s violence breaks our silent and holy night in which we celebrate the prince of peace on earth. Herod makes the celebration of Christmas messy and ruins one’s sentimental view of and desire for the holidays, which is not something many Christians like to consider. But we need Herod in the Christmas story in spite of his horrific actions or maybe because of them.

In her essay “Putting Herod Back in Christmas” Anglican priest and author Joy Carroll Wallis[1] puts it this way:

Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race. …Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees and nobodies.”

Christmas, with its spirit of giving and message of incarnate love, peace and joy, certainly speaks deeply to our hearts and draws out our child-like sense of amazement. It sparks our imaginations and stirs our souls to do a lot of good in the world. But the events that occurred on that first Christmas reminds us that humans have the potential to cause a lot of mayhem.

Jesus is born into a broken and sinful world, in a time in which the Roman Empire controlled everything and Caesar proclaimed himself to be god-like. And from birth to death, Jesus encounters persecution by the Roman authorities and religious leaders who feel intimidated by his presence and the truth that he is the actual embodiment of God’s love among humanity.

Jesus shakes up the world and threatens the status quo. And that holy upheaval scares people who wish to cling to their own power, prestige and agendas. It scares them enough to lash out violently against “the other” whom God has created and to ultimately reject God’s love for human beings—especially the ones who are marginalized and viewed as unnatural and different.

Jesus not only rattles the people during biblical times, but his life, teachings and resurrection also frightens people today, including devoted, long-time believers. Can Christians then open their eyes to recognize and understand the messiness of Christmas and this birth in our lives and world?

Religious writer Matt Emerson[2] says it like this:

We are two thousand years from first-century Palestine, but the Incarnation is not like the Civil War. It is not simply an event from which we draw lessons. The challenge for moderns is to see the dynamics of Palestine within the human landscape of the human heart. Our inner life is one of clashing sects and regimes, of shaky alliances and diverse languages. A Herod hides in all of us. So does a Pontius Pilate. And a St. Peter. And a Mary. At one time we are the moralizing Pharisees; at another, the ruling Romans. Christ today must enter this territory. Will we prepare him room? It’s strange. And it’s difficult. Christ unsettles. Christ imperils…A mix of joy and confusion, happiness and worry. This is the first Christmas. Can we today recover some of its dramatic impact?”

Amid our joyful celebration of Christmas, can we connect with the upheaval that accompanies Christ’s birth? Can we admit that as much as we want Christmas time (and the days ahead) to be filled with peace and forever free of violence and heartache, the reality is that it’s not going to happen instantaneously?

Can we stop brushing aside the messy, hard-to-look at parts of Christmas and life so we can take a moment to see the pain of humanity instead of ignoring it and pretending that the atrocities around us bear no affect on our daily living and happiness?

Can we acknowledge the pain so that we might connect with the hurting, the oppressed, the outcasts and nobodies whom Jesus came to dwell among?

Can we see in the faces of babies, particularly those born in extreme poverty, the Christ child who was delivered in a musty stable to a poor peasant couple in the hub of Empire?



Can we see in the faces of immigrants and refugees the family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus running for their lives under the cover of night to a foreign land to escape a bloodthirsty king?



Can we see in the faces of innocent children and families of war-torn Aleppo, the fear and anguish of the children and families in Bethlehem who suffered genocide at the hands of Herod’s army?



Can we see in the faces of the poor, the working class, the discriminated, the abused, and the broken, the God who dwells among the suffering?

Homeless Man on the Street

Can we see in the face of Herod, our own capabilities for destruction and know that God desires for us to act in the restorative ways of love?


Can we witness as the magi did, the epiphany of God’s love in the world’s most broken places? Can we truly see the power of our Sovereign Creator who comes to be with us in human flesh and divine glory as a vulnerable, defenseless child?



In a reflection on the scripture reading, Christian theologian David Lose[3] assures us that we can:

Sometimes life is beautiful and wonderful and filled with goodness and grace. And God is a part of that, giving blessing and celebrating with us and for us. And sometimes life is hard, gritty, disappointing and filled with heartache. And God is part of that as well, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with promise that God will stay with us through the good and the bad, drawing us ever more deeply into God’s loving embrace and promising that nothing—not even death—will separate us from God… God is working not only with the characters of this (Christmas) story, but also working through their triumphs and tragedies in order to work salvation in and for the world. God is likewise holding onto us through the joys and sorrows, working through the triumphs and tragedies that attend our lives—all to share the news of the salvation God has wrought in and through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.”

God is calling each of us to share the good news and help build God’s kingdom—a place where all are welcomed, redeemed and cared for in love.

God is calling each of us to do the work of Christmas, long after the carols have been sung, the decorations have been removed and the season has officially ended. Or as the late civil rights activist Howard Thurman said so profoundly in his poem The Work of Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken,

To feed the hungry, to release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers,

To make music from the heart.

             The work of Christmas is not easy. It’s hard, challenging, frustrating and tiring at times. It’s plain ole messy. That’s just how it is.

We take the fear, scorn and despair with the joy, wonder and hope. We take the bad with the good. We take Herod with the magi.

But the anguish reminds us that Jesus enters into a mess and the mess doesn’t overcome God-with-us; and the gloom reassures us that we’ve been made to endure messes and to get busy living out God’s love.

This is the first day of a new year, a new beginning. There’s a lot of messiness in this world and there will be a lot more. None of it will get cleaned up by itself.

So let’s get up and get to work.





[1] http://liturgy.co.nz/church-year/herod-christmas

[2] http://www.americamagazine.org/content/ignatian-educator/terrifying-first-christmas

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2973

Each Other’s Angels

A Sermon for Sunday August 28, 2016, Luke 14:1, 7-14 and Hebrews 13:1-2, 16

             Le Chambon 2About 5 months ago the middle and high school youth, along with Rev. Jennie, the youth advisers, and myself, visited the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in downtown Atlanta to hear the story of a Holocaust survivor and visit the facility’s permanent exhibit, “Absence of Humanity: The Holocaust Years, 1933-1945.” Toward the end of our hour-long tour—in which we viewed detailed accounts of the Holocaust and the horrors committed by the Nazis during World War II—our guide directed our attention to a grainy black and white photo of a Protestant village in France called Le Chambon, population 5,000.

Le Chambon

           Between 1941-1944, the residents of Le Chambon and nearby villages provided refuge for 5,000 Jews, more than 3,000 of which were actively fleeing from the Nazis and the collaborating French authorities that sought to put them to death in concentration camps. Led by Pastor André Trocmé of the Reformed Church of France, the villagers offered shelter in private homes, in hotels, on farms, and in schools. They forged identification and ration cards for the refugees, and sometimes guided them across the border to neutral Switzerland. Despite some visits to the area and a raid on the town, the Nazis never discovered the hidden Jews in Le Chambon and the surrounding area. The town never divulged its secret or considered giving up any of the refugees they had welcomed.

As one former child refugee recalled many years later:

Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not. Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your father was or if you could pay. They just accepted each of us, taking us in with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents—children who cried in the night from nightmares.

            The residents of Le Chambon never spoke of their deeds until decades later in the mid 1980s when filmmaker Pierre Sauvage returned to the town that had sheltered him as a newborn in 1944. But even then, the villagers, whose story is breathtakingly captured in the documentary Weapons of the Spirit, were reluctant to say much about their role in history:  “How could you call us good? We were doing what had to be done…It happened so naturally, we can’t understand the fuss…We never analyzed what we were doing, it happened all by itself.” [1]

For these incredibly humble Christians, the words from Hebrews 13:1-2 and v.16 were ingrained on their hearts:

Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it….Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

             If the Nazis had discovered their plans, the villagers would’ve been executed and the town would’ve been burnt to the ground. And yet the town of Le Chambon never thought twice about their decision to show mutual love to Jewish refugees nor did they question the danger of taking in strangers. They simply did what they intuitively felt in their hearts was the right thing to do.

And thus, Le Chambon’s humble actions continue to be seen 75 years later as one of the most inspirational examples of the radical hospitality that is encouraged in the scriptures and which God calls humankind to live out each day.

          Unquestionably, not every practice of hospitality has to be that grand or require such enormous risk. But all practices of hospitality can be bold, creative moments where we leave our comfort zones and reveal our vulnerability to welcome the stranger into our hearts and lives. As author Lonni Collins Pratt explains in her book Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love: [2]

Hospitality requires not grand gestures, but open hearts. When I let a stranger into my heart, I let a new possibility approach me. When I reach past my own ideas, I begin to stretch myself open to the world, and this opening of my heart could change everything.

          The opportunity to open our hearts can come when we least expect and change our life instantly. This was certainly true at the recent Olympic Games in Rio during when the qualifying heat of the women’s 5,000 meters when American runner Abbey D’Agostino accidentally clipped New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin from behind, causing both runners to fall down with about 2,000 meters remaining.

          Nikki landed heavily on her shoulder. She was in a daze as she laid on the track, her hopes of a medal dashed.  Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder and a voice speak into her ear: “Get up. We have to finish this.”  It was Abbey.

Instead of running to catch up with the other runners, Abbey was crouched down next to Nikki and encouraging her not to quit. Abbey put her hand on Nikki’s shoulder and then under her arms to help her up.  “That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Nikki said of Abbey D’Agostino later. “I’ve never met her before. Like I never met this girl before. And isn’t that so amazing. Such an amazing woman.”

Olympic Race 1But Nikki Hamblin turned out to be just as amazing. As both women began running again, Abbey realized that she had severely hurt her ankle in the fall and soon crumbled to the ground. Nikki then stopped and helped Abbey to her feet and offered her encouragement before running ahead. Nikki then waited for her new friend, grimacing with every stride, come across the finishing line. The two women hugged and then gripped each other’s right arms as Abbey was seated in a wheelchair.

Because of their extraordinary act of sportsmanship, Nikki and Abbey were both awarded the International Fair Play Committee Award and allowed to enter the final of the women’s 5,000 meters days later.  And while Abbey dropped out due to her injury and Nikki finished last in the final as a result of her fall, both women achieved something great—they showed hospitality to a complete stranger.

Olympic Race 2They opened their hearts, expanded their worlds and changed each other’s lives forever. As Nikki so eloquently put it, mere moments after finishing in 17th place, “You can make friends in the moments that really should break your heart.”[3]

When we open our hearts to practice hospitality, we create space for something new to happen. The late author and theologian on spirituality, Henri Nouwen, says it this way:

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.

When we reach out to love the stranger, the person who is different from us;

When we do good for others and share what we have from our hearts;

When we create free spaces where a stranger can enter and become a friend;

When we offer another the freedom to be who God has made them to be, instead of the divisive, judgmental label that society has placed upon them;

We are showing hospitality.

We are entertaining God’s angels.

We are helping to establish God’s kingdom on earth.

            It’s quite revolutionary and counter-cultural to demonstrate hospitality to strangers and accommodate angels. It’s not always acceptable behavior.

Politeness and manners, yes. But a hospitality that offers love, respect, honor and dignity to the other—not so much.  The radical hospitality that God calls us to practice is often frowned upon in our society much like it was in Jesus’ day.

There has and always will be banquets that place the most honorable, the most successful, the most rewarded, the most privileged and well-to-do in the best seats in the most splendid room in the most luxurious of places.  And upsetting that system will not win a person much influence of wealth and power.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t care about such things. He’s not much for keeping the status quo and maintaining rituals that exclude others. Jesus eye is set on God’s kingdom table where all are welcome, including the poor and the oppressed. So he insists that traditional seating at a banquet or any meal where the “insiders” are given room over the “outsiders” should be tossed aside. Speaking to his host in Luke 14:12-14, Jesus says:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Or as Kayla McClurg, the creator of the daily devotional site inwardoutward.org puts it:

Turn the tables on your usual patterns. Get out of your cozy rut. Hang out sometimes with the wrong kind of people, notice who is missing from the circles you participate in, get to know and care about some strangers. Rearrange the familiar. Urge the humiliated components of your life to move on up, and the proud and aloof parts to come on down. Practice getting your life into balance—you’re rehearsing for a resurrection feast!

            If that seems impossible, consider another story from the Rio Olympics.  Knowing that the country of Brazil is amid a deep recession and that Rio’s government had to close or cutback service at 16 meal centers, world renown Italian master chef Massimo Bottura decided to create an upscale restaurant to exclusively serve the poor during the Olympics.

Rio restaurant 1From August 9 to August 21, Refettorio Gastromotiva served 100 meals per day—breakfast, lunch and dinner—to the city’s homeless—using tons of leftover ingredients Olympic caterers and other local partners. Food that normally doesn’t sell at stores and goes to waste because it’s ugly looking or not ripe enough.

One evening, more than 70 homeless men, feasted on a three-course meal of ossobuco (cross-cut veal shanks braised with vegetables, white wine and broth), along with buttery barao potatoes and a gelato dessert.

Bottura said that on the second night of the restaurant’s opening, two homeless men left the building saying it was the first time they were treated like human beings—like princes and princesses.  “It’s breathtaking,” Bottura told reporters. “Because it is exactly what we want to do here. We want to build the dignity of the people.”

        Rio Restaurant 2   And Bottura and his restaurant are continuing to build the dignity of the people and practice hospitality and entertain angels even now that the Olympic festivities have faded away. As originally intended, the exquisite dinners for the homeless will be offered every evening, with funding for the project coming from lunch paying customers eating at an affordable price.

We want the whole community to come here to sustain this project because it is a social project and we need to add as many people as we can,” Bottura said. “I’ve just been rated best restaurant in the world…what more do I want from life? I have to give back to people.”[4]

Rio Restaurant 3Bottura’s example is precisely what Jesus meant by turning the tables, rearranging the familiar and practicing a resurrection feast.

We also can do what Bottura and many others have done to practice radical hospitality and to make the resurrection feast or God’s kingdom more and more of a reality in this world.

Practicing radical hospitality, according to a TED Talk speaker I heard last week, means: “seeing every person as an individual who is worthy of respect and honoring them as an equal.”[5]

It can often be inconvenient in a world where the slightest hiccup in our daily routine can annoy and frustrate us. As a friend and colleague wrote recently:

It’s easy to offer genuine hospitality when everybody’s saying please and thank you. It’s not so easy when people don’t wait their turn or they smell bad or they take more than their share…Imagine a church that offers hospitality even to the children of God who make everybody uncomfortable.”[6]

Radical hospitality requires risk, creativity, boldness, an open heart and a willingness to sacrifice our egos, agendas and uncomfortability to do what pleases God.

And to be perfectly honest, this church is already doing as such…

Delivering communion to the home-bound,

Hosting fellowship meals after church,

Serving as a Blood Drive center for The Red Cross,

Yard-work project on MLK Day,

Mission trips to the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Asheville and Blue Ridge,

Women’s retreat,

Vacation Bible School,

Summer Worship and Church School,

Caring for Burmese refugee families,

Sponsoring a low-income family at Rainbow Village,

Feeding the homeless men at Clifton,

Collecting toiletries and clothes for the homeless women and children at The Salt Light Center,

Donating and sorting canned goods at The Duluth Co-Op,

Laundry Love, and so much more.

You are practicing radical hospitality all the time. You are entertaining angels without knowing it.

           But friends, let us not ever be completely satisfied with how we do good for strangers and share what we have with them. Let us be humble enough to know that the work is never complete, can never be achieved on our own and that there is always more work to be done.

Let us constantly look for ways to open our hearts and create spaces where strangers and “enemies” can become friends. Let us continue to seek it in this church and beyond these walls to our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our cities, our state, our country and our world.

Let us be each other’s angels to all we encounter–angels who keep each other going and show each other signs of the kingdom of God that is here and is still to come.


[1] Weapons of the Spirit by Pierre Sauvage, 1989. http://www.chambon.org/weapons_en.htm

[2] Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love by Lonni Collins Pratt and Father Daniel Homan, 2001 and 2011, Paraclete Press.

[3] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/2016-rio-summer-olympics/rio-2016-runners-abbey-d-agostino-nikki-hamblin-show-true-n632476


[4] http://www.refettoriogastromotiva.org/english/



[5] TEDTalk San Diego, Grace Rodriguez, “Embrace Radical Hospitality,” Feb. 16, 2016

[6] https://achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/hospitality-is-inconvenient/