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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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

Amen.

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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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.

Amen.

…………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

 

[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.

Amen.

[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

http://sports.yahoo.com/news/nikki-hamblins-5-000-meter-000000095.html

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

http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/19/sport/feeding-the-poor-rio/

http://bigstory.ap.org/article/6a8e702c40224f6a8345d9f6fe4def54/renowned-chef-feeds-rios-homeless-excess-olympic-food

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Revolution’s Comin

A Sermon for March 2, 2014: Transfiguration Sunday, Matthew 17:1-9

Lookout Mountain, Montreat, NC
Lookout Mountain, Montreat, NC

One of the most treasured places in my life is the Montreat Conference Center in Black Mountain, North Carolina, just outside of Asheville, where I’ve attended numerous summer youth conferences since I was a teen.

Of all the experiences I’ve had at Montreat, the one I cherish the most is climbing to the top of Lookout Mountain—with friends and youth group advisers when I was younger and with the Pleasant Hill advisers and youth now as an adult in my late 30s.

There is something mystical about Montreat that compels one to awake with joyful anticipation, shortly before dawn, for a 20-minute hike. The destination is well worth the morning chill, the achy legs and heavy breathing that comes with a journey up a windy, steep and sometimes rocky terrain.

Because once the top is reached, the most magnificent sight can be seen—a pinkish-orange sun emerging from behind a nearby mountain range of trees to cast its brilliant glow on every living thing, even the souls of those of us who come to bask in the radiance while overlooking a luscious green valley and Montreat below. Reveling in the light of the Creator with friends is a hallowed moment—a joyful invitation to open eyes and hearts to see God present in creation and one another. Encounters such as this are a mere reflection of the glorious revelation that Peter, James and John witnessed while on a mountaintop with Jesus.

The transfiguration of Christ is a brilliant, strange and mysterious story that is nearly beyond comprehension. And yet Christians around the world once again recognize today as Transfiguration Sunday and in anticipation of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, they read the story of how Jesus is transformed atop a mountain.

What are we to make of this incident in Jesus’ life? How are we to understand this supernatural phenomenon in which the appearance of Jesus physically changes—his face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming as white as light? What is the significance? Why is it so important for our lives, especially as we approach Lent?

This transfigured Jesus is a hard image to depict. Ancient paintings and modern artwork fails to properly capture the event, and the actual description of the transfiguration is a difficult concept for us to wrap around our brains. The transfiguration is certainly not an earthly or tangible occurrence like Jesus’ feeding of the crowds with fish and loaves or healing a blind man with a mixture of mud and spit.

The best I can figure is that Jesus’ transfiguration is like a magnificent sunrise that opens up a brand new day or it’s the pivotal moment in any great story or film where the viewer is awe-struck by the shiny hero.

Like Superman who radiates truth, justice and the American way as he swoops into Metropolis to defeat a criminal mastermind.

Or Harry Potter who shouts Expecto Patronum as he casts a blinding white light from his wand toward the ghoulishly evil Dementors.

Or Han Solo who, while blazing through space in the Millennium Falcon, knocks Darth Vader’s ship off course so that Luke Skywalker can fire the crucial shot to blow up the Death Star.

Or Luke Skywalker who, after celebrating the defeat of the Empire, sees the spirits of his Jedi mentors Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, and also his father and fondly smiles and nods his head in respect to them.

Prior to the sermon, I asked the children of the church to use the crayons and paper in their worship bags to draw their depiction of the transfigured Jesus. This one is by MW. She depicts the scene better than most professional artists.
Prior to the sermon, I asked the children of the church to use the crayons and paper in their worship bags to draw their depiction of the transfigured Jesus. This one is by MW. She depicts the scene better than most professional artists.

The transfiguration of Jesus is like those exhilarating movie scenes, the huge turning point in the Gospel of Matthew. The transfiguration is that heroic dadadada-da-daaaa moment.

The slight difference, however, between the illuminating moments of movie icons and Jesus is that the Son of God doesn’t proceed to vanquish his enemies.

Jesus doesn’t swoop in to take out the religious leaders and Roman authorities with one super punch. He doesn’t wave a wand and cast a spell. Nor does he shoot lasers from a space ship or wield a light sabre.

Instead, Jesus instructs Peter, James and John to not talk about what they saw on the mountaintop until after Jesus’ resurrection.  And then, following a few chapters in the gospel where he preaches, teaches and heals, Jesus goes non-violently into Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, beaten and crucified because his practice of God’s goodness threatens the powers-that-be.

The transfiguration is a reminder that Jesus is the hope for ages, the One who comes to fulfill the law and the prophets. The spirits of Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain with Christ because Jesus is the embodiment of the Ten Commandments and the dreams of the prophets who proclaim God’s kingdom will overcome the corrupt kingdoms of the world.

Jesus is the Divine-in-the-Flesh who uses a cruel death to expose the powers of the world and their desire for glory and dominion.  For this, Jesus has been baptized and claimed as a beloved child, in whom God is well pleased.

This is what transfiguration is about. It’s God quickly flashing his hand to let us know that God has all the cards and is about to make the biggest play anyone has ever seen. Only it won’t be a royal flush of monarchs with swords who lay siege on the Empire. Instead it will be an unarmed Savior King who—through great sacrifice—peacefully conquers with unconditional love and steadfast mercy.

Transfiguration is synonymous with many familiar words: transformation, transition, mutation, modification, etc. The most fitting and appropriate synonym for transfiguration as it relates to God’s actions in Christ is the word revolution.

The transfiguration of Jesus is a glimpse of revolution. A revolution of unfathomable love that comes down to heal and transform a broken world.

A type of rebellion that is mightier than any mob armed with guns, stones and Molotov cocktails.

A holy insurrection of non-violent proportions that puts fear into the hearts of the religious authorities and Caesars who hold a tight grip around God’s people.

Like Moses and Elijah who challenged the pharaohs and kings and helped free God’s people from slavery and oppression, Jesus confronts the powers by giving himself up to free the world.

And the powers don’t stand a chance of thwarting God’s plan anymore than Peter has an opportunity to make the work of God fit neatly into his own comfort zone.

The Rev. Maryetta Anschutz, an Episcopal priest, says:

The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe. We also cannot escape the light that God will shed on our path…God will find us in our homes and in our work places. God will find us when your hearts are broken and when we discover joy. God will find us when we run away from God and when we are sitting in the middle of what seems like hell. So ‘get up and do not be afraid.’[1]

Transfiguration is when God tells each and every one of us that it is time to stand tall and be a part of God’s revolution.

God’s love revolution.

God’s mercy revolution.

There’s an energizer, a popular song with liturgical movement, which the youth have done at Montreat youth conferences and shared in worship with this congregation called Revolution. The lyrics by singer Kirk Franklin go like this:

 No crime! No dying! Politicians lying,/Everybody’s trying to make a dollar.

Makes me want to holler/The way they do my life

There’s gonna be a brighter day/All your troubles will pass away.

A Revolution’s comin, yes it’s comin, comin/Revolution’s comin.

(woot, woot!)

A revolution is coming, and all will be transfigured by it.

All will be transfigured. No exceptions.

Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped end apartheid in South Africa, once wrote:

The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation, is “untransfigurable,” that the whole of creation, nature, waits expectantly for its transfiguration, when it will be released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God, when it will not be just dry inert matter but will be translucent with divine glory. Christian history is filled with examples of transfiguration. An erstwhile persecutor like St. Paul could become the greatest missionary of the church he once persecuted. One who denied his Master not once but three times like St. Peter could become the prince of apostles, boldly proclaiming faith in Jesus Christ when only a short while before he was cowering in abject fear behind locked doors.[2]

Courtesy of Google Images
Courtesy of Google Images

There are hundreds more examples of transfiguration—instances in your life where you’ve seen the sparks of the Divine revolution ignite the sacredness within humanity. Times when you have seen the holy shining brightly in the faces of other human beings…

The homeless men of Clifton Sanctuary Ministries who are trying to put their life back together.

The children who raise their hands in the middle of the service for a worship bag.

The police officer who directs traffic following a serious automobile accident.

The New Orleans resident who moves back into a home once filled with the water and debris from Hurricane Katrina.

The checkout girl at Kroger who puts in a double shift for a co-worker who is in the hospital.

The former addict who mentors a young person who has lost their way.

The elderly man who takes in a stray dog.

The daughter who takes her cancer-stricken dad out for a dinner and a movie.

That is transfiguration.

That is revolution.

That is God’s vision of love for all of creation.

As the late theologian Walter Wink so eloquently put it:

Transfiguration is living by vision: standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling to it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us.

In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self worship or when groups or committees or even, rarely, when whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst—on the way to the cross.”[3]

Transfiguration is happenin.

Revolution’s comin.

Are you ready to be a part of it?

Amen.


[1] Feasting on The Word, Year A, Volume 1: Advent Through Pentecost. Transfiguration Sunday. “Pastoral Perspective” by Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz. Westminster John Knox Press. (2010)

[2] God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu. Doubleday Publishers. (2004)

[3] Imagining the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource. Pilgrim Press. (1996)

“Here & Be Heard”

A Worship Service Reflecting on the HS Montreat Youth Conference, Sunday June 16, 2013

Call to Worship: John 1:1-18 (The Voice-A New Bible Translation)

Hymn: “Come and Find The Quiet Center”

Scripture:  Romans 10:15-11:2a, James 2:5-9 (The Voice-A New Bible Translation

High School Montreat Youth Conference Video

Sermon

As a long-time movie fanatic and comic book geek, I eagerly read nearly every review about the new Superman film Man of Steel. While there were varying opinions on whether the story was stupendous or stupid, the critics did mostly agree one aspect of the latest reincarnation of the 75-year-old hero: IT’S LOUD!

“Busy, bombastic,” said a reviewer.[1]

“Lots of noise and clutter,” claimed another.[2]

“When I came out,” wrote one columnist. “My ears were ringing as though I’d been beaten around the head with tin trays.”[3]

According to the critics, the movie might even be too loud for the red caped hero who is known for his super hearing among other abilities.

It’s not too surprising, I suppose, that a blockbuster summer film is noisy. On average, the big budget action-adventure films register at 100 decibels in a movie theater, which is like having a running chain saw sitting in the seat next to you!

And I guess it’s not too shocking that manufactured noise is such a common complaint…when we are surrounded by so much of it on a daily basis! Finding a quiet space to escape the cacophony of noises made by human hands seems near impossible in the early 21st century.

Bernie Krause, an author and musician who records nature sounds for film and TV, said that in 1968, in order to capture one hour of natural sound, it would take him 15 hours of recording time.

But today, to get the same hour of undisturbed sound, requires 2,000 hours of recording time![4]

Think about that for a moment. Less than 50 years ago, Krause would only need to record for a little more than half a day to get an hour’s worth of a blue jay singing because of the rare truck that passed by on the highway. noise2

And now that process would take him nearly 3 months due to the overwhelming noise from airplanes, cars, businesses, factories, gadgets and every beep, blip, bop, boop, crash, bang, zoom in between. That’s A LOT OF NOISE!

Scientists and health care professionals have determined that 183 million people are regularly exposed to noise levels labeled as excessive by the EPA.[5]

Studies by the World Health Organization reveal that North American children “may receive more noise at school than workers who spend eight hours in a factory.”[6]

 

Researchers also have concluded that 40-50 million Americans have a condition known as tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ear when no sound is actually present. And one-quarter of them experience tinnitus so severely they have to seek medical help.[7]

We live in a noisy world. And it’s getting louder and louder and louder every day.

With no long hours of sheer silence in sight, this leads many of us to wonder:

In the midst of this ever-increasing noise in our lives, when do we ever have the chance to be still and listen for God? When do we ever cease an opportunity to be fully present to what God is saying to us in the stillness? When do we ever carve out space in the here and now to speak to God and be heard?

255648_10151400578276517_106725758_nThese are the questions that I and a group of 27 High School youth and 5 adults from Pleasant Hill (along with hundreds of others) had to ponder and discern during the recent Montreat Youth Conference in North Carolina.

Through the Montreat experience, we learned that we have to first let go of a lot of the balls we are trying to juggle in the air— some of the busyness and responsibilities and distractions that keep our attention from God. And as we let go of those things that sidetrack us, we have to make space so we can hear God’s Word/Call/Voice. The Voice of God that has always been present in Creation…

In the beginning,

Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking.

The Voice was and is God.

This celestial Word remained ever present with the Creator;

His speech shaped the entire cosmos.

Immersed in the practice of creating,

all things that exist were birthed in Him.

His breath filled all things

with a living, breathing light—

A light that thrives in the depths of the darkness,

blazes through murky bottoms.

It cannot and will not be quenched….

He entered our world, a world He made;

yet the world did not recognize Him.

Even though He came to His own people,

they refused to listen and receive him….

But Jesus the Anointed offered us gifts of grace and truth.

God, unseen until now, is revealed in the Voice,

God’s only Son,

straight from the Father’s heart.”

God is with us and God speaks to us,

and God hears us,

God listens to our hopes, our dreams, our joys,

our anger, our sorrow and our cries.

God listens even when we are angry at God and have hit the ground with our knees.

God listens despite the mess and brokenness and pain we find ourselves in.

God listens because God knows we are complex human beings for whom life is a daily struggle and never 100 percent easy all the time.

God listens actively, not passively. God engages us in the struggle and expects us to engage the Divine.

God listens to us with a deep, unconditional and abiding love, and God expects us to give the same attention to our Creator and to all whom have been created.

And the devotion we give to God and others through active listening is a ministry.

Listening is a ministry we are called to do. Therefore the Church has to always strive to be a place where people feel listened to.

Because God listens to the voices in our culture whom the majority tries to suppress—

the lonely

the lost

the abused

the addict

the prisoner

the slave

the sick

the homeless

the malnourished

the immigrant

the gay teen

the single parent waitress

the black school janitor

the foreign convenient store employee

 

turning-to-one-another-lIn her book, Turning to One Another, Margaret Wheatley says that listening moves us closer (to the other) and enables us to become more whole, more healthy and more holy:

Not listening creates fragmentation, and fragmentation always causes more suffering…This is a very noisy era. I believe the volume is directly related to our need to be listened to. In public places, in the media, we reward the loudest and most outrageous. People are literally clamoring for attention, and they’ll do whatever it takes to be noticed. Things will only get louder until we figure out how to sit down and listen.[8]

Once we have truly listened, we must then go out to speak …boldly, courageously and lovingly for those whose voices are quieted.

“It is good that we are here,” the Montreat conference keynoter reminded us the last day we spent on that sacred mountaintop, “but it is better when we take the experience out there.”[9]

We must share the message found throughout scripture—particularly in today’s readings from the letters of Paul and James—

that God is faithful 

God has not, and will not, abandon His covenant people

God has picked the poor of this world (and the down trodden)  

and we are to Remember God’s call to love others as you love yourself

It’s a message that our youth took seriously as they came down the mountains of Montreat to bring what they heard into the world.

One of them, Molly S., a recent high school graduate, said she feels more convicted than ever that she is called to speak to others about God:

I am being called to courageously speak to new people I meet in college. The ones that are starting over new from high school. I want to encourage them. I want to reach out to those who are on the outside.

Another youth, Courtney H./Lauren B., who just completed her freshman/sophomore year in high school, discovered that speaking courageously starts with one step, as she will share with you now:

………………………………………

(Courtney—8:30 am service)                    

At the beginning of the week, Claire Keyser, one of our adult advisers, told the group that Montreat was like a bubble. It was a bubble that you could come into and be loved and cared for and listened to no matter what. For me this was exciting! As a freshman I had dreamed of going to Montreat for as long as I could remember.  Now I had finally made it. The theme “be here and be heard” would play an important part in my week. From my past, I have been excluded and pushed around for a long time. Montreat gave me a place that I could be listened to and my own voice be heard.                    

In one sermon, Amos, the conference preacher, told us “to have the courage to speak up for others” now that is not the easiest thing to do but it what we are being called to do. The first night we were at Montreat, Colby Geil pushed me into a Montreat “tradition” of yelling out your small group numbers to find other members. To begin he called my number, “22! 22!” I soon caught on and my voice grew stronger and my call was answered with others yelling back “22!” Colby had the courage to speak up for me and help my voice to be heard.  From that night, I met people who I am now good friends with. I enjoyed getting to hear their beliefs and also their struggles; some of which many people in our group were going through.                

At the end of the week, Scott, the conference keynoter told us, “We all have to come down the mountain sometime” we cannot be protected by the Montreat bubble forever. We have to step outside of our comfort zone. For me that will be going up to those, who like me have been pushed around and becoming friends with them or simply lending a helping hand. It might just make a world of difference for that person. For others that risk could also be simply asking to talk to someone when you are feeling down or that risk could being going on a mission trip. It differs for each person. But by going up to those in need, we can be there and be heard.

……………………………………………….

(Lauren—11 am service)

I was a paranoid child. I checked to make sure the doors were locked at least five times before hesitantly falling into restless sleep each night. I went to school praying to God that I hadn’t left my straightener on and I washed my hands at least thirty times every day. I embraced my overactive imagination as a curse, creating all sorts of “worst case scenarios.”                  

Middle school taught me one thing: “look out for yourself, watch your back because trust is a weakness.” If I could adopt the “every man for himself” principle then maybe I would be okay. Life is only good for those on top. And I definitely did not want to know what it was like being crushed at the bottom. For me, the most terrifying thing in the world is letting go. To feel a vast nothing below me and trust that God will catch me.              

Trust is not a weakness but strength because it requires the greatest bravery I’ve ever encountered. Jesus calls us to leave our doors unlocked, our hearts open, and our souls free falling. God is not in the deadbolts, the germaphobia, the anxiety, and the need for control.             

Serving in the Dominican Republic with my family during Spring Break taught me one thing: “my life is a gift for others.” I found security in “the least of these.” While holding a Dominican child, I not did stop once to think about her lack hygiene or even shoes. I was set free from the ropes of trivial, earthly things that had been ho

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lding me down, keeping me from God. Those who are “on the bottom” taught me more in a week then I had ever learned in my whole life. Yeah, it’s great that I was born in America where I have the ability to go to college and come home knowing that there is going to be plenty of food for me and my family.            

But the Dominican Republic taught me that I have an obligation to God and to myself to provide for those who have nothing. God is reckless, restless, and limitless. He lives in me; he lives in you; and he lives in a little Dominican girl.            

And he’s always on the move. I know when I tried to control my life, I almost broke it. Life is waiting for the ones who let go. And letting go has given me the courage to speak for impoverished, those deemed less fortunate. Who am I to doubt what the Holy Spirit can do through me? Jesus calls us to leave our doors unlocked, our hearts open, and our souls free falling. 

 

Like these youth and many more who have gone ahead on this journey of faith,

let us make time to listen to God,

let us make time to recognize God’s presence among us,

let us make time for our voices—which proclaim God’s love and grace for the least of these—to be heard!

Amen

Benediction:

“Revolution” by Kirck Franklin (Montreat Youth Conference Energizer)

“It is good to be here (in this sanctuary) but it is even better to share what we have heard and experienced out there. Do so in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit this day and forever more. Amen.”

Hymn: “Here I Am, Lord”