Seeing The Face of God

A Sermon for Sunday August 6, 2017; 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.”

Amen.

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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.

Amen.

Reflections on “Waking Up White”: Chapter One

wuwcoverfinal

In an attempt to be more aware of my privilege as a white male and discern the ways in which I can start dismantling racism in my life and relationships, I’ve decided to write reflections that answer the questions posed at the close of each chapter of the compelling book Waking Up White by Debbie Irving. The book was recommended to me (and a multitude of folks) by co-moderators of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) of which I serve as an ordained minister of the word and sacrament:

 

 

Waking Up White is composed of 46 chapters divided into nine sections.The first section is Childhood In White and Chapter 1 is titled “What Wasn’t Said.”

Debby shares how her mother, school and the media of the time presented a single perspective about race that didn’t ever encourage her to dig deep enough in the history of other cultures, like Native Americans to understand them as something more than stereotypes.  Then she asks the reader:

What stereotypes about people of another race do you remember hearing and believing as a child? Were you ever encouraged to question stereotypes?

I grew up with a lot of stereotypes as a child and youth about African-Americans, Middle-Easterners, Asians, Hispanics and LGBTQ–from the time I was 7 years old in 1983 till I turned 18 in 1994. 

I shared some of those stereotypes about African-Americans in a sermon I preached on racism in early 2015: “As God’s Chosen.”  Additionally, I was taught that most African-Americans were lazy, crooked, foul mouthed, violent troublemakers who didn’t care about cleanliness or speaking proper English. Middle-Easterners, particularly the people living in Iran, Libya, etc. were called “dune coons” and considered to be evil, murderous terrorists. And gays and lesbians were viewed as perverts who lived unnatural lives of debauchery or were just plain weird.

Now, Asians and Hispanics were appreciated for their cuisine and some cultural contributions to society like math, science and art, but were often mocked for speaking a different language, not speaking English well and for their appearance (eyes, facial hair, clothes). But like African-Americans, they were also mis-characterized as lazy, violent, etc. Asians were also believed to be extremely uptight and strange for their beliefs in Buddha instead of the Judeo-Christian God.

The stereotypes I learned were reinforced by some TV shows and movies of the 80s and the educational system. Most African-American were viewed as incompetent and unimportant unless they were talented entertainers, did menial labor (cafeteria work, trash collecting, maid services, etc) or excelled at sports.

I began questioning and challenging stereotypes when Bonkey McCain and his family joined our Presbyterian church in suburban Birmingham-becoming the first African-American members. And I was fortunate during my older teen years to have some church members, friends, High School youth group advisers and teachers  regularly encourage me to challenge stereotypes about race, culture, gender and sexual orientation. This education of open-mindedness and questioning continued during my college years and beyond.  My early career as a newspaper reporter in Birmingham, Alabama from 1998-2001 and a seminary education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta from 2002-2005 deepened my understanding of social justice and the history of oppression and unjust systems.

By no means am I free of stereotypes. I still have painstaking moments where I entertain a prejudiced thought or change my behavior because my mind latches onto one of those terrible labels I was taught as a kid. And I certainly benefit (directly and indirectly) from a system of white privilege, supremacy and normalcy that continues to pervade our world. As such, I’m guilty for doing very little to say it’s wrong or work toward changing it.

Yes, I’ve spoken out against racism. I’ve preached about racism, justice and unity, invoking the words and lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Congressman John Lewis. I’ve posted articles on Facebook from Sojourners Magazine and other sources that talk about the injustice perpetuated toward African-Americans and how it is counter to the gospel and God’s vision of the beloved community.

However, I don’t do much more or champion against racism often enough. It’s mostly due to fear of what other whites will say or think if I start a conversation about race much less preach about it. I become uneasy thinking about how I might be accused of falsely judging another white person for being racist or having privilege. Of how I might be accused of being a trouble maker, a race baiter or having a biased, destructive liberal agenda.

To be honest, I have been accused of those things, even when I’ve spoken from the heart. And while others have affirmed and praised me for speaking out, I tend to focus on the ones who had a negative reaction and thus become paralyzed and afraid of saying more. (As a side note, my struggles with anxiety and depression, while not excuses, contribute to me withdrawing into my own corner and staying silent at times.)

On the other hand, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. A friend, a gifted writer and pastor,  wrote the following blog post in September entitled “The Five Things I Need From White People Right Now” The intriguing part, after reading the essay, is I’ve discovered that mostly all I’ve ever done in the past decade or so is No. 3–I’ve used my privilege for good; I’ve used my platform to speak out against racism. Not as frequently and often as other folks, but would be unfair to say I haven’t said anything.

I’ve also abided by No. 1 and 2. I don’t silence or dismiss the voices of blacks like Colin Kaepernik. I try more than I ever have before to listen to the thoughts and views of African-Americans.

But again, that’s not enough because I also have to be committed to No. 4 and No. 5 and continue to strive to do all 5 better and more consistently–engrain them in my life. 

And practicing No. 4 and No. 5 (loosely) is what I’m in the midst of figuring out now. Over the last year, I’ve immersed myself in black culture, not as a source of mere entertainment, but to really destroy the stereotypes and understand (up to a point) what African-Americans go through on a daily basis in a country and world that continues to mistreat them because they have brown and black skin. I’ve also done so to gain a deeper appreciation for the incredible contributions that African-Americans have made and to whom we all should be indebted for having such a rich world and life–endeavors in medicine, science, sports, architecture, music, art, literature, pop culture. 

My life is being shaped by The Steve Harvey Morning Show and Ed Gordon; Ta-nehesi Coates Between the World and Me and Marvel’s The Black Panther series; Drew G. Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing The Way The Church Views Racism; the work of James Baldwin; Beyone’s Lemonade, the TV shows Black-ish, Luke Cage, Atlanta and Speechless, the movies Dope, Dear White People and Selma and the (social media) voices of…

Rev. Denise Anderson, Rev. Margaret Aymer Oget, Charles Blow, Austin Channing, Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, Laura M. Cheitetz,  Carl Dukes, Ava DuVernay, Tre Easton, Omayra Gonzalez-Mendez, The Rev. Broderick Greer, Melissa Harris-Perry, Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, Rev. Mihee Kim-Kort, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Jerrod Lowry, Deray McKesson, Rev. Otis Moss III, Brittany Packett, Hiram Perez-Cordero, Rev. Paul Roberts, Efram Smith, Jessica Vazquez Torres, Rev. Derrick Weston (and many, many more)

These incredible, creative people of God are encouraging me to question and smash the stereotypes.

My hope and prayer is that I can continue to be shaped by their voices; amplify their voices through the platforms that I have; and join mine with theirs to proclaim that their lives (and the lives of all people of color) matter too. 

Without their lives, without their fight for the freedom and right to live without fear of racism and intolerance, the rest of us are never truly free. We’re just bound up in the stereotypes and privilege that we as whites have created and pushed for centuries.

And so my journey of “waking up white” and continuing to find myself in the story of race moves onward…

Love and Peace or Else

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

       

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

        The peace of Christ—it’s a familiar phrase that’s been heard and expressed by Christians throughout history.

             We know those four words well. We have said them frequently in the context of worship for many, many years:

                     “The peace of Christ be with you… and also with you.”

                      “Go in the peace of Christ.”

               But do we fully understand and appreciate the meaning of the peace of Christ?

              Do we know that it’s more than just a nice Hallmark card greeting that we say as an act of rote memorization every Sunday?

             Do we recognize the significance those four words have in our lives as people of faith

             Do we comprehend that the peace of Christ—which Jesus imparts to the disciples in the Gospel of John—is a holy, powerful, merciful and subversive gift from God for all humankind?

              In 2008, I asked several colleagues and friends to contribute essays on my Internet blog on what the peace of Christ meant in their life. My hope is that by revisiting their words and the wisdom of some notable heroes of the faith as well as the scripture, we all might gain deeper insight into the peace that God gives.

               In the first post on the blog series about the peace of Christ, David LaMotte, singer-songwriter and social justice activist, explains that God’s peace is routinely confused with placidity. It’s often misperceived as being chill and serene with no violence and conflict present—a state of numbing out where all you hear is the voice of Tommy Chung saying, “peace out man.” And thus many consider talk of God’s peace or the practice of peace as weak, lazy and apathetic—a leisure activity for hippies and stoners.

                David says that couldn’t be further from the truth about the function and role of peace. In his essay he wrote:

Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the product and process of doing conflict well. Conflict is not the enemy. In fact, it is a useful tool in the search for what is real and true. None of us has all of the answers, or at least all of the right answers, so our ideas necessarily conflict. That’s not a bad thing. The question is how we manage that conflict, how we listen and struggle together to seek better ways and ideas…[1]

            It’s no secret that we live in a world brimming with conflict due to angst, fear and hate:

            The economy is precarious and people lose jobs without any warning. Poverty and hunger exists in both urban and suburban settings. Bullying runs amok in schools. Terrorism consumes our thoughts. Presidential politics grows nastier and nastier by the minute. The abuse of children and youth by people in power continually make headlines. There is senseless gun violence on our streets and neighborhoods.

              Families grieve over the death of loved ones to cancer or numerous other illnesses. Other parts of the globe are plagued by war, disease, natural disasters and famine. Racism, sexism, gender discrimination, homophobia, xenophobia and Islamaphobia flourish mightily. Substance abuse, suicide and divorce rates are skyrocketing. And many people struggle daily with health challenges; insecurity about their bodies and self worth; broken-relationships; how to be a good parent, spouse and co-worker.

               With epic storms like these swirling around, it’s a wonder that any of us can get out of bed and get ready for the day; much less embody the love and peace of Christ in our encounters with other human beings. How can we possibly find the energy to daily receive and share God’s peace in the midst of the chaos?

                 The disciples, who lived amid the storm of an oppressive regime of the Roman Empire and who were labeled as insurrectionists for their association with Jesus, certainly had difficulty comprehending their rabbi’s command to love one another, to know God’s peace and to not let their hearts be troubled or afraid.

               As soon as the pandemonium of Jesus betrayal, arrest and death arrives, the disciples flee and lock themselves in a dark room—praying that the Empire won’t find them and give them the same fate.

         76b86e1a1aff99776d8ac69e120423e2     And Jesus, knowing the tempest is near, says calmly and confidently to his disciples, hours earlier:

               “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

               “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

               “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

                Of all people, Jesus should be freaking out. He should be packing a bag and saying, “See ya, I’m gone!” Instead Jesus, the eye of the storm coming toward him, holds his ground and expresses his love for his friends by giving them God’s peace—His peace. And Jesus does this again post-resurrection, appearing before the disciples in that locked room to say “Peace be with you!”[2]  In other words, Jesus is saying, “I am here among you. I am the Peace that is eternal and will not go away!”

             What an amazing gift the peace of Christ is to the disciples and to us. It is a gift that keeps on giving and surprising, usually in the midst of turmoil and when we least expect.

            In another essay for the blog series on the peace of Christ, Jan Edmiston, a Presbyterian, shared a story about how the Session of the congregation she was serving had to fire the pre-school director. Although it was done for good reasons (which were confidential for the sake of the pre-school director and the church), the pre-school director vowed to ruin Jan’s reputation and began spreading ugly rumors among the pre-school staff and parents.

             Several pre-school staffers quit. Subs were called in who didn’t have lesson plans or know the kids names. Jan and the Session held a meeting for parents after their kids got dropped off at the pre-school and things were tense. She said:

Children were crying. Parents were yelling. One parent spit on me…. Needless to say, I had asked God for help. I stood in the parlor, ready to offer explanatory words, and once everyone quieted down, I opened my mouth and spoke. And the words that came out sounded…kind of amazing. (“That was pretty good,” I said to myself. “Where the heck did that come from?”) The words were calm and mature and strong and uplifting. One parent said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s obvious that you did what you had to do. Thank you.” It was a God thing. Christ’s peace happens when there is no reason why a situation or a soul or a moment would be peaceful and yet it is. … It is a real peace, authentic serenity rooted in the total confidence that—in spite of all evidence that we should be freaking out—God is with us, and everyone is going to be alright.[3]

               Writing for the same blog series, a seminary classmate, Alan Bancroft opened up about a break-up with his girlfriend of a year while he was serving as an associate pastor in Franklin, TN. The woman he was dating was not sure she wanted to be a pastor’s wife and still figuring out her own life. So they talked and cried and decided to part ways. Alan was devastated and he wondered where God would be in his “cloud of sorrow.” The next day was cloudy and drizzly and after work, he decided to go on a 6-mile run. He said:

As I was coming up on the fourth mile, I began to recite the following mantra: Take it away, God. Give me peace. Take it away, God. Give me peace. Then I added another line: Take hers away, God. Give her peace. Take hers away, God. Give her peace. As I called out to God to take way the pain… the warm drizzly day slowly turned into a warm rainy day. As I continued to recite the mantra, the rain intensified and before long, I was completely soaked. At some point, the combination of reciting the mantra, the purifying, soaking rain and the rhythm of placing one foot in front of the other, brought me a feeling of peace that I truly believe was the work of God. For those two remaining miles, my heart felt peaceful and void of the turmoil that had resided there since the previous evening. …For me, in this time and place, the peace of Christ represents feeling briefly restored and sustained as I wander through a valley of hurt, confusion and frustration.[4]

               The peace that Christ gives is not the absence of pain, loss, conflict, storms or chaos. The peace of Christ is in the midst of the mess. The peace of Christ is in the midst to love us, comfort us, and heal us.  And sometimes we have to push the disorder aside to make more room for Christ’s peace to do what it does best.

             The retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa decades ago, says that if people take the time to be more loving and peaceful, amazing things can happen. In his book God Has A Dream, he writes:[5]

One way to begin cultivating this ability to love is to see yourself internally as a center of love, as an oases of peace, as a pool of serenity with ripples going out to all those around you. You can begin by biting off the sharp retort that was almost certainly going to hurt the other. … Rather than intensifying the anger or the hatred, you say in your heart, “God bless you.” …Let’s say you are caught in a traffic jam and instead of getting angry and saying, “What a bunch of morons,” you bless them. … If more of us could serve as centers of love and oases of peace, we might just be able to turn around a great deal of the conflict, the hatred, the jealousies and the violence.

Once we allow Christ’s peace to dwell within us, we are then able to share the peace with others—inviting them to first look inside their own hearts before reaching out to more hearts.

          And it is God’s merciful heart that pours the peace of Christ upon us from the cross, and loosens the peace upon the world from the grave to restore human relationships and the Divine relationship.

         And it is that Divinely heart-felt gift of peace that spurs us to seek justice for the oppressed and to care for all of our neighbors.

          Embodying the peace of Christ in word and deed is literally an act of witnessing God’s love in the other whom we meet. Seeing the immigrant not as “illegal” or the Muslim as a “terrorist” or the black man as a “thug” or the poor person as a “lazy bum” or the woman as a “sex object” or LGBQT as “abominations” —but as beloved children of God.

            Whenever we say “the peace of Christ be with you” or embody the peace through our actions, we are a conveying a message to others that says:  “No matter who you are, I recognize that you are one of God’s creations who is loved to death and beyond.”   

             There was once a Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, PA who delivered that message every day to millions of people for more than 30 years. His name was Fred Rogers:[6]

 

             There are many ways to say “I love you” and to tell someone they make everyday special just by being themselves, the person God created them to be.

            And so I say to everyone here:

            “The peace of Christ be with you”

Amen.

(Special Thanks to Alan Bancroft, Adam Copeland, Jan Edmiston, Carol Howard Merritt, Emily Miller, David LaMotte, and Derrick Weston for their incredible insights about the “peace of Christ.” God’s work through them was the inspiration for this sermon, even if they are not all directly quoted.)

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

[2] John 20:19-21

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

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

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

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

Pouring Out Love

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

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

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

 

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

We love you!

Mike and Pam,

In honor of your installation

September 25, 2005

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

………………

John 12:1-8

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

Let us pray… (Prayer of Illumination)

……………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo 2-Pope Francis

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

 

Photo 3-Feeding Homeless

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

 

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

Photo 5-Talking

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

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

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

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

Photo 7-Love Others

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

 

 

2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 5 – Go And Tell The Story

[Note: This is the last of five keynotes given at the Montreat Youth Conference Week Five, July 27-July 31. Below is a transcript and the photos/videos used in keynote that aren’t on the SoundCloud audio track]

Friday July 31, Keynote 5 – “Telling The Story”

Go, Tell and Live God’s Story!

Scripture

2 Corinthians 3: 1b-6a “Written On Our Hearts (We Are All Ministers of the Gospel: Your life is a letter, written by God.

When I was 18-years-old, a graduated senior of Shades Valley High School in Birmingham, Alabama, I sat in this exact spot (7th row from the center aisle, back of Anderson Auditorium) on my very last day of my very last Montreat Youth Conference.

And at the end of the keynote, a guest musician stood up and played the inspirational Garth Brooks’ hit: “Standing Outside the Fire” –Life is not trying, it’s merely surviving if you’re standing outside the fire.

Needless to say, I was a sobbing mess by the time the song came to a close.

All I could think about was how much I was going to miss my friends from youth group and the Montreat experience (there was no such thing as College Conference back then) so I truly thought this was the absolute LAST TIME I WOULD EVER BE HERE!!!!! (Bye Lake Susan!….Bye Huck!…Wah, wah, waaaahhhhh)

On top of all that I was scared to death of to college at Auburn University, two hours away from friends and family, my church, etc.,

And yet, I had to leave and pursue a higher education and learn how to be and live as an adult.

I couldn’t stay on this sacred “mountain top” forever.

I had to go.

So I went.  (move toward Anderson Aud stage)

And the journey took me through four years of college in which I graduated with a journalism degree and back home to Birmingham to be a newspaper reporter. I also started volunteering as a High School Youth Group adviser at my home church, which….

LED ME BACK TO MONTREAT!!!! WOO HOO!!!!!

And I spent the next three summers taking youth to MONTREAT!!!!!! DOUBLE WOO HOO!!!!

However, in the middle of these MONTREAT experiences as an adult volunteer,

I started hearing God’s call of me to make a career out of youth ministry.

More specifically, I felt a desire to become an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who proclaims:

“Go and tell the story! Go and tell the good news!

And yet, I had to take a break from summers at Montreat for a while to attend seminary for three years to learn how to tell and live God’s story so I could teach others to do the same.

I couldn’t stay on this sacred “mountain top” forever.

I had to go.

Since becoming a full-time employee in God’s storytelling business a decade ago, I’ve experienced Montreat numerous times with High School youth. Each one has been memorable. Each one the refueling I needed for ministry. Each one a faith-shaping encounter with God.

And yet, I’m unable to ever stay here for weeks and weeks because I have a family and church I’ve made commitments to in Georgia.

I can’t stay on this sacred “mountain top” forever.

I have to go.

We all have to leave this place at some point. We all have to come down the mountain with the lessons we’ve learned about the story of God that we’re called to proclaim to the rest of the world. Storytellers can’t stay in one spot. And if we are to live our calling as tellers of God’s story…

We’ve got to keep moving. We’ve got to keep living. We’ve got to keep telling.

And, trust me, when we do our job as storytellers, something extraordinary will happen, along the way.

Excitement will grow as we pass the stories

of our encounters and adventures with God

to the next person

and the next

and the next

and the next.

Now you might be saying to yourself:

“Ok Andy, that’s great and all, but I’m not an ordained minister. I’ve never been to seminary much less college. Heck, I don’t even know the Bible that well. I’ve only read a few passages here and there, and I’m not sure I get it. So how in the world can I tell God’s story if I don’t fully understand the Bible.”

Maybe the words of the author and pastor Frederick Buechner can help us to comprehend what the Bible is all about. Buechner says:

I think it is possible to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety,The Bible is held together by having a single plot. It is one that can be simply stated:

God creates the world, the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which he created it.

That means that the Bible is a book about you and me, whom he also made and lost and continually seeks, so you might say that what holds it together more than anything else is us.

You might add to that, of course, that of all the books that humanity has produced, it is the one that more than any other-and in more senses than one-also holds us together.

Or put another way, the Bible, the story of God and humanity, is about a God who in Christ

–claims each of us and values our unique lives and stories

–meets us in the messiness of our stories and offers love and grace

–intertwines our stories with others, especially the silenced and oppressed

–appears in surprising ways, promising to never abandon us and encouraging us to keep writing and living our stories.

–calls us to go and tell the good news of an unconditional, sacrificial, redemptive and divine Love that transforms our lives and shapes our stories for the better

And every single person here is capable of sharing this story about God and humanity. In his 2nd letter to the early Christian church in Corinth, the apostle Paul writes:

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant.

Paul says that all are all called to be ministers. God has chosen you…and you..and you…because “you are the special”…

You don’t actually need a seminary degree or have the Bible memorized or be perfect to heed God’s call.

You don’t even have to be the most brilliant or the most popular or the most wealthy person in the room.

It’s not about that.

You just have to believe that you are “special” and that you are capable of making a difference with the gifts you’ve been given.

God has written a call on your hearts, not in ink but in the Spirit, to live out loud the story of God and humanity.

In case you still have doubts about being called to tell the story and make a difference, let me share a few real life examples of teens like you who are telling the story in their own unique way and inspiring others to do the same…

KP Book--Catlyn and Addison

In 2010, High School students Addison Pointer and Caitlyn Watkins started a simple canned food drive that sparked them to want to do more.

“It opened our eyes to the bigger need in our own community” says Addison. And so the friends created Handy Lunches—a once a month program where they and their classmates go into the west side of the Florence, AL community and serve a free meal to anyone who is in need.

“Handy Lunches is an organization that feeds the body and the soul,” Addison says. “Handy Lunches is no where near reaching its end. We plan to continue to grow and serve the community and anyone in need.”

KP Book--Sharon Li We Care Act

Sharon Li of Texas remembers the harrowing images from the television in 2008, when the earthquake in China devastated Sichuan province, which killed tens of thousands of people and razed buildings.

Sharon, who was 10 at the time, was haunted by an image of a mother who was killed by falling rubble but was able to shelter her baby with her body. “That was really the first sadness I felt as a child,” she says.

Sharon and her siblings were moved to do something, so they with just began walking around their neighborhood and collecting money to send to victims in China.

“We came back and we decided this couldn’t be a one-time thing,” she says.

But it wasn’t. Some months later, Hurricane Ike hit the Houston area, and the Li family went to a Gavelston school to donate books and winter clothing, among other items.

However, Sharon said the most meaningful action came in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan.  Instead of the traditional disaster-relief monetary and goods collection, Li and her siblings decided to do something more personal:

they gathered between 5,000 and 6,000 letters sharing condolences and stories from around the world as well as origami cranes, sending them to schoolchildren in Japan.

From that project, Sharon, now a recent High School graduate, co-founded the non-profit group “We Care Act” which distributes donated items to disaster victims around the globe.

Li estimates that the organization has collected

$220,000 worth of donations since it all began.

…………

Addison, Caitlyn and Sharon—

they’re not ordained ministers or Bible scholars or celebrities or people who have a wealthy of resources at their disposal.

They’re just ordinary people who wanted to do some good in the world.

Even if they never say a single verse from scripture, they are still telling the story of God’s love with their lives! There’s a quote that is often attributed to the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, which says:

St. Francis Quote

This is a philosophy that we adhere to at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian where I serve as an associate for Youth and Misison & Outreach. It’s a way of believing and living and telling the story that we are constantly teaching to the youth (as well as the congregation.)

And the greatest gift I am regularly given as a pastor for Youth and Mission is seeing the young people at Pleasant Hill preach the gospel through their service to God and others in need.

Earlier this month, a group of 10 High School Youth returned, for the second consecutive year, to the community of Consuelo in the city of San Pedro in the Dominican Republic.

DR Trip 2

DR Trip 1

DR Trip 3

 Serving in the DR was such an incredible, faith-shaping experience. And these youth worked hard and gave abundantly and loved fully as they complete the building of a new church for a Pentecostal congregation, led Vacation Bible School for the children of Consuelo and helped out at a medical clinic for the community.

The youth at Pleasant Hill inspire me—not only through this trip in the DR—but in every aspect of their lives. They make me a better minister, a better husband, dad, and human being.

They enrich my story in ways I can barely describe. And often its with few words and lots of laughs

Or it’s an incredibly sweet gesture like making a 4 hour-drive from Atlanta to come (and driving 45 minutes back and forth from Hendersonville, NC) to hear my keynotes (Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) this week.

I am grateful that their stories are a part of my story and that they model (for me) the telling and living out …of God’s story.

 You see, it’s not always about praying the right prayers out loud or being able to articulate every aspect of Reformed Theology and Presbyterian beliefs.

It’s about speaking the love of Christ Jesus through actions and seizing the opportunities to act-to make the world better than it is.

Three of our Jeremiah Project youth will now share how they are going to seize opportunities to go and tell the story—to go and tell what they’ve discovered this week at Montreat…Listen to the Sound Cloud Audio to hear their incredible stories

God created you to be patient, courageous, and loving (among other things) and God creates opportunities for you to use those gifts to serve and help others.

You don’t need an advanced degree in science or a wad of cash.

You are special. You are creative and you are capable of changing the world. And God places people in your life to create alongside you.

Whatever you do will have an impact on people’s lives and stories.

I want to personally thank each and every one of you for sharing your stories this week, whether in your small or back-home groups or while sitting in these pews before keynote and worship or as you hung out at the Huck and Lake Susan.

Thank you to those youth who personally shared their stories with me during the conference and who lovingly affirmed the stories that have been told from this stage.

In the words of gospel musician Morgan Harper Nichols who sings “Storyteller”:

Oh the mountain where I climbed

The valley where I fell

You were there all along

That’s the story I’ll tell

You brought the pieces together

Made me this storyteller

Now I know it is well, it is well

That’s the story I’ll tell

For years and years and years I’ll tell

That’s the story I’ll tell

 What is the story you will tell when you leave this place?

What is written on your hearts as you go down from the mountain and back into the valleys of the world?

(The song “Let Us Love” by NEEDTOBREATHE plays as members of the Jeremiah Project form two lines and pass spray paint cans and pantomime what they want the two people at the head of the line to paint on the large canvas)

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As you go, let me share this final quote from the book When Jesus Came to Harvard by Harvey Cox (which a Back Home Leader told me the day before when I passed him in Anderson Lobby)

Some people tell stories. Some people are the type about whom stories are told. Rabbi Jesus was both.

Let us love and tell the story of him, like him and for him.

And all God’s storytellers said…

AMEN!

 

Our Stories Are Intertwined

A Sermon for Sunday, September 6, Ephesians 4:15-16 and Luke 6:19-31

(A shorter version of the third keynote I delivered for the 2015 Montreat Youth Conference, Wednesday July 29)

During my last sermon in July, I preached about how God meets us in the mess of our stories, life and world with love and grace, and how God reminds us that we are more than our messes and that our stories aren’t over.

In that spirit, I’d like to take us one step further by saying that God continues to call us to live out and to share our story with others as well as listen to other people’s stories, particularly the messy and difficult parts.

God calls us to show compassion to others, particularly the poor and the oppressed.

God doesn’t intend for us to disregard other people and their stories; to duck our heads, close our eyes and walk away from the messes; to avoid opportunities to see the face of God in another.

To not recognize how we are connected and how our stories are intertwined would be un-Godlike and inhuman. To attempt to live solely unto ourselves conflicts with God’s design for us to be in relationship with our fellow human beings.

In Africa, the people ascribe to a philosophy known as Ubuntu, which means “you are human because you participate in relationships… A person is a person through other persons.” Or put another way: “I am because we are.”

ubuntu

This concept is reflected in the scriptures, particularly Ephesians 4:15-16 in which the apostle Paul writes:

Ephesians 4 Quote

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

God created us to be together, and God wants us to maintain our connections with one another. And it is our connections and our sharing of one another’s stories that remind us we are bound together with God.

Paul sees our connection with God in Christ and one another as a functioning body. Christ is the head and we are the various parts “joined and knit together” to ensure the body is working properly.

We are connected to other human beings, and we are connected to God who creates and fuels those connections. When we sever a connection, we are going against God’s purpose for creation.

This idea of ubuntu—of connectedness and intertwining—is obviously counter cultural. There is much emphasis in society on individualism and fending for oneself.

However, our faith demands that we live a different way. God’s command to love the mistreated and to seek justice for the downtrodden is essential to discipleship and a common thread throughout the scriptures. And it was one of Jesus’ main teachings.

Let’s consider the parable Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31 about “The Rich Man and Lazarus” This version of the story comes from The Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan who founded the Koinonia Partners, an interracial farming community in southwest Georgia. (Btw, The Cotton Patch Gospels were written in plain Southern speak and therefore it must be read with a thick accent)…

 Once there was a rich man, and he put on his tux and stiff shirt, and staged a big affair every day. And there was laid at his gate a poor guy by the name of Lazarus, full of sores, and so hungry he wanted to fill up on the rich man’s table scraps. On top of this, the dogs came and licked his sores. 

It so happened that the poor fellow died, and the angels seated him at the table with Abraham. The rich man died, too, and was buried. And in the hereafter, the rich man, in great agony, looked up and saw from afar Abraham, and Lazarus sitting beside him at the table. So he shouted to him, ‘Mr. Abraham, please take pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in some water and rub it over my tongue, because I’m scorching in this heat.’

Abraham replied, ‘Boy, you remember that while you were alive you got the good stuff (the good jobs, schools, streets, houses, etc.) while at the same time Lazarus got the left-overs. But now, here he’s got it made, and you’re scorching. And on top of all this, somebody has dug a yawning chasm between us and you, so that people trying to get through from here to you can’t make it, neither can they get through from there to us.’

The rich man said, ‘Well, then, Mr. Abraham, will you please send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers; let him thoroughly warn them so they won’t come to this hellish condition.’

Then Abraham said, ‘They’ve got the Bible and the preachers; let them listen to them.’

But he said, ‘No, they won’t do that, Mr. Abraham. But if somebody will go to them from the dead, they’ll change their ways!’

He replied, “Well if they won’t listen to the Bible and the preachers, they won’t be persuaded even if someone does get up from the dead.’

The rich man had everything one could dream of having. He had the finest education, the best job, the most delicious meals and the biggest mansion in the most luxurious neighborhood. And like any good Jewish person of the time, he was intimately familiar with the scriptures and God’s commands to be welcoming to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor.

And yet with all that wealth and power and opportunity to do some good, he chose to focus solely on himself instead of recognizing another person suffering outside the gates of his home.

That mistake—that sin—burned him. The problem wasn’t that he was wealthy and fortunate. The issue was that he refused to see and help someone in his midst who was hurting. He refused to reach out to Lazarus and hear his story.

 Even when the man is enduring the scorching heat in the afterlife, he still views Lazarus as someone who is beneath him—a poor, lowly being who is meant to do his bidding.

You see, when we ignore our connectedness and view someone else as inferior, as the rich man does, we also ignore God who is present in those ties that bind.

When we snub the connections and our need for them, like the rich man, we tend to become more selfish, more bitter and more resentful.

When we refuse to help out someone who is hurting in our midst and get to know his or her story, we end up crafting our own living hell.

We become less and less human and more like monsters with sharp claws that slash out at those whom God means to be our brothers and sisters.

We become more destructive and less creative; more hateful and spiteful and less loving and merciful. And we end up forming a deathly and expansive chasm between God, humanity and ourselves.

Therefore it is vital to our existence as human beings that we live and thrive together in the mutuality of God’s wondrous and transformative love.

It’s crucial to our well being that we become aware of our connectedness and that we do what we can to let the world know that another person’s story matters to our own.

The wise retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the oppressive system known as apartheid in South African more than 20 years ago, reminds us that:

Desmond Tutu Quote

 You can’t be human all by yourself. And when you have this quality—ubuntu—you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.

 What you do—good or bad—affects the world, even the smallest corner of it. Maybe not right away and sometimes when you least expect it. But trust me, it makes an impact.

So make sure that what you do affects the world in a loving, grace-filled way. Stand up for what is right and show compassion to the Lazarus’s of the world who are being mistreated and pushed to the margins of society. Don’t overlook them.

Open your eyes and see them for the unique and beloved creations and stories God has created them to be. See them the way God sees them.

 When you do so, you will be amazed at how much it changes a person’s life and world for the better. It’s a lesson the folks on Atlanta’s hit radio morning crew “The Bert Show” learned several months ago when Davi, the show’s producer who is in her mid 20s, found her childhood journal.

While perusing through it, she found “MULTIPLE entries spelling out this sad dislike for herself and how she looked.”

And then she remembered that when she was a teen, the girlfriend of her older brother had a “PROFOUND impact on her self-esteem and stuck up for her.” Davi knew right away that she needed to find this woman and thank her on the radio show. And so she wrote the following letter which Jillian Zinn will read for you now:

 Hi, Kelly.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. You have only shown me respect in the short time we once knew each other and I want to do the same for you. I completely understand your wishes and am so grateful to have the opportunity to write you.

 It was nearly 20 years ago when our paths crossed. I was somewhere around the age of ten. Perhaps you don’t remember me at all! Maybe you hate thinking back on this time in your life. I doubt you look back on the relationship you were in fondly. I get it. (Seriously. I’ve met the guy.) If that is the case, I truly apologize for stirring up any negative emotions. Personally, I have many bad memories of that time. But I remember you. And I remember your kindness.

 I also remember that you were strong. You walked proudly with your shoulders back. You seemed like the type to not put up with any B.S. – hence why you got rid of my brother. You were nice. And so cool! A twenty-something body builder putting herself through college. Inspiring!

 I need to explain myself a little bit more just to adequately express how much your presence in our home was needed at that time in my life.

 When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you’re flawed. That’s the best part of being a kid! Kids don’t see the stress-inducing magazines of supermodels in the grocery. They only see the comic books. Kids don’t know that things about them are weird or disproportionate. They just want to play!

 “As long as my sneakers light up- I’m happy.” Right? Kids don’t think “I’m odd” or “I’m ugly” until someone else plants that seed in their head. Then a few more people say it. I happened to hear it again and again.

 Before long that’s all I saw in the mirror. A monster. Put together all wrong. I was subject to that kind of abuse at school from other children. Boys and girls. Kids that don’t really know any better. But the cut downs were worse within the walls of my home.

 We weren’t an affectionate family. The only acceptable emotions to display are anger or disappointment. And instead of board games everyone collectively got their kicks from picking on each other. And when the abuse is happening, no one speaks up to defend for fear of becoming the target. And if I was present, I was always the target. I heard horrible names, everyday –

 Ugly

Idiot

Crypt Keeper

Praying Mantis

Bug Eyes

Ratface

 just to name a few.

 So many insects and rodents, right? Those creatures you don’t want in your home. Why would family say these types of things to each other? I was always so sad and confused. I cried. A lot. My diaries are filled with pages of monstrous self-portraits and wishes. But not your average childhood wish.

 “I wish I could hide my face,” or “I wish I didn’t exist.”

 One day, we were all gathered in our living room to watch television. My father started the name calling. My brother joined in. You said that they should be ashamed. You stood up for me. You made me feel good about myself at a time when I never did. Yours was a strong female voice that I desperately needed to hear at that time. As an adult, I find we concentrate so hard on the negative comments that we don’t ever hear compliments. But long ago, you told me I was

 “beautiful” and that has always stuck with me.

 You made me realize that the ugliest thing in that room was not me, but the people firing shots. It always had been. Those words and that atmosphere was ugly. That attitude is ugly. I didn’t deserve it. And I didn’t have to put up with it forever.

 After that, I stood up for myself. A lot. My parents even threatened to send me to juvenile boot camp a few times. I got teased more – but I fought back.

 I’m not weird. I’m an individual! After awhile, I would see myself in pictures and not be totally repulsed. Because I valued myself. I studied hard. I worked even harder. I grew up. I got out of there.

 This all sounds quite trivial as adults, right? Because we know now that being “pretty” is not the point.

 We’re not on this earth to look nice.

We’re on this earth to BE NICE.

Stick up for one another.

Stand up for what is right.

 And ultimately, that is why I want to write you so many years later. You may not remember this moment as well as I do – but you taught me a wonderful lesson that day.

 I have always wanted to thank you for that lesson in humanity. From the bottom of my heart – Thank you.

 Kindest Regards,

 Davi

Kelly received the letter and responded a couple of days later with the following message to Davi, which will be read by Kristen Ching (8:30 am worship)/Amy Lewis (11:00 am worship):

Dear Davina,

I read your letter, and I must say it left me verklempt.

 Your spirit of triumph and courage surely compelled you to share a very personal experience—

 a contribution that clearly touched many lives and not only with the young girls who are at the age of learning those mean girls tactics that evolve into grown women ruthlessly tearing one another apart.

 Your story has also undoubtedly reached some young girls who suffer emotional trauma and abuse at home.

 And even reaching just one is enough to change or save a life.

 How amazing is that?

You’ve also unknowingly paid it forward by touching a little girl I know and love with all my heart, and I must personally thank you.

You see, my 11-year-old daughter was recently involved in a mean girl incident which actually rose to the level of a mom participating.

As you might imagine, I contacted the mother about the horrific behavior she was modeling for these young girls.

But still my heart aches for my baby who wants to eat lunch in the office every day at school because it feels safe.

I played your story for her from the Internet yesterday, and her beautiful little face lit up.

You connected with her in a way that my offerings of support and affirmation has not.

It was a remarkable thing—a moment in a developing girl’s life that offered hope

 (And by the way she says both of your pictures on the website are pretty.)

It make me so sad to hear the thoughts and feelings that were thrust upon that beautiful little girl you were some years ago.

What an injustice!

I’ve been a guardian in the courts for abused and neglected children and fought for people who had their world turned upside down by other people with more power.

For as long as I can remember I have not walked away from a fight for the underdog.

That is who you are too, my friend.

I am proud to have been part of your life, and you’ve added indelible meaning to a time in my life that I previously tucked away.

 You may not make a history book or maybe you will.

You are still young, but either way you’ve made a change in the world.

Thank you for that. Please call me any time. I would love to talk to you.

Kelly  

 Our stories affect one another for the better in ways that we can’t even fathom.

But that’s how God made us.

We’re not meant to live alone and ignore others.

We are meant to live together and love one another.

Our stories are connected, and we are called time and time again to build those connections, recognize how we are intertwined and strengthen our relationships with another human being—

the suffering and downtrodden as well as those we disagree with or those we consider enemy.

We are called as the church to be the hands, feet, eyes, mind, and heart of Jesus who helps bind people to one another…every ligament knit together for the purpose of building up love!

We are called as the church to be the body of Christ—

a community of faith that reaches out to others, regardless of who they are, and says:

Welcome. Join us. Be loved. I am because you are.

Let us always take the time to be and become and grow the body of Christ.

Let us always make the effort to see and cultivate the connections and stories that are all around us.

And as we go into the week, let us never take the connections in our lives or the chance to be a part of someone’s story and life for granted…

 And the body of Christ said:

 Amen!