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Peace

Perhaps you saw the movie, Wild, which starred Reese Witherspoon in a 2014 film. It was based on a book written by Cheryl Strayed, a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon. Cheryl based the story on a time when she lost her mother and was extricating herself from her marriage. Turning to destructive behaviors, including heroin use, she decided to channel her personal turmoil into a physical journey. With no previous hiking experience, she set out to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, stretching from the Mojave Desert up to the Bridge of the Gods in the state of Washington. The movie offers flashbacks into earlier portions of Strayed’s life that illuminate her present angst. In the course of her 1,100 mile solo hike through deserted terrain, Strayed faces her demons and arrives at the Bridge of the Gods ready to cross into a new life with a hard-earned peace.

We like these sorts of stories, don’t we? It starts young with stories like Cinderella, the girl charged with sweeping the cinders of the fire. Yet she becomes the princess of the most eligible bachelor in the land. We hunger to see wilderness areas become lush with flowers and streams. On the second Sunday of Advent we lit the candle of Peace. What makes for peace? On the First Sunday in Advent I invited the congregation to write down on a slip of paper what they were waiting for this Advent season. Out of 55 sticky notes deposited in the offering plate, 24 individuals expressed the desire for some sort of peace. The second place answer falls from 24 answers for peace to 5 wishes for a just government and global responsibility. A hope for joy brought in four votes—three of those naming joy that we find in the context of family. Four people penned a desire for healing: for grampa to get better and for the miracle of speech for an autistic grandson. Three people yearned for God’s love–an acceptance of one another. Work and employment needs weighed on the hearts of two people. Two other people simply wrote the word, “Patience” on their paper. The remaining answers from individuals were clarity, truthfulness, humility rather than selfishness and better communication. What an insight into the hearts of our congregation these sticky notes provided! However the yearning for Peace won by a landslide!

One person practically wrote the script for Wild and other similar hardship stories with their answer. On their small piece of paper they expressed the desire to get out of the quick sand; to know their place and use their gifts for God and the Church; and to know their journey. Which path should they take?

How many of us can relate to that at some point in our lives? It boils down to a prayer of Rescue me, Use me, and Guide me.

Amen. Truth told. Sermon given!

Another person wrote that they are waiting for a child. Two words on a slip of paper that speak volumes. We gather in our sanctuaries each week carrying in with us hopes and dreams and sometimes battling despair. Some requests we dare to speak aloud in the context of worship. Others are buried so deep in our hearts that we sometimes forget what it is that we most desire.

What are you waiting for in this Advent season?

The Bible texts chosen for this time of year often speak words of warning. We’re focused on Christmas gifts and parties and decorations. Who needs warning? While in England my sister noticed the packaging of Sterling cigarettes. On all but one panel of the box, words of dire warning are printed. Clearly the British government has mandated that producers of cigarettes warn the consumers that what they are buying could well hurt their health. Sterling cigarettes did not disappoint! Each time you light up you would see the image of this poor man who appears to be on his death bed and subtle messages like SMOKING KILLS: QUIT NOW! But folks buy these and smoke them in spite of the government-mandated truth-telling. It’s easy to look past what we don’t want to see. Maybe that’s why those who put the lectionary readings together put these passages in front of us as we begin a new church calendar and our spirits are merry and bright. WARNING: YOU MIGHT JUST MISS THE WHOLE POINT OF CHRIST’S BIRTH IF YOU’RE WAITING FOR THE WRONG THINGS.

The lectionary text for the second Sunday in Advent is Luke 1: 67-80. It brings us into the presence of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Earlier in the story we learn that he loses his voice because he doubted an angel’s promise. It was an absurd promise—he’d be a fool to believe it. The angel tells him his elderly wife is going to have a baby. He leaves the temple after his time of service and returns home to his wife, who had long ceased hoping for a child. Before long she is, indeed, pregnant and Zechariah is still muted in this gestational chapter of their geriatric lives. It isn’t until the child is born—a boy, as the angel had promised—that Zechariah’s speech is restored. So what does he have to say after nine months of silence? He preaches a sermon! He becomes a prophet who speaks in the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s voice had been absent for 400 years leading up to Jesus. No prophets or prophecies. No miracles. The yearning of the Jews for a reappearance of their God had deepened. So, as Zechariah emerges from the wilderness of being word-less, he breaks God’s silence with words of prophecy.

I like to play a game when reading scripture and that is “Find the verbs.” If you look at this sermon that old Zechariah preached, notice the verbs: Looked favorably upon, redeemed, raised up, spoke through prophets, remembered the covenant, rescued. The power of God’s Holy Spirit has broken into the world again and the awe-struck father of a tiny boy prophesies that things are about to change. The wilderness is ready to bloom!

Part II of his sermon moves toward his little boy. He will become a prophet of Yahweh, the God of the Jews. Remember what comes along with the job description of being a prophet: rejection, shunning, physical harm sometimes. Have you told your kids or grandkids that you hope they will become a prophet when they grow up? That you hope they will preach against the evils of their time, even stating the truth before leaders who will take offence? Probably not! Zechariah knows, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that his boy will somehow prepare the way for God’s anointed One. He will do it in such a way that folks will newly understand the salvation that God offers them. It comes in an unlikely way—not through memorization of scripture or performing a certain number of good deeds or because they have articulated a particularly beautiful prayer. Their salvation comes through forgiveness of sin!

Have you ever spent time in the wilderness of guilt, the desert of inadequacy, the forsaken land of regret? We can waste our lives stuck in these places! John the Baptist came to prepare the way for God’s Messiah who offers us forgiveness. After 400 years of God’s absence, Preacher Zechariah speaks of God’s tender mercy—not warnings of judgment! These people knew that they had strayed from God. They understood why God had left them to their own stubborn devices for four centuries. They had ignored the warning of the prophets for hundreds of years! The last thing they expected was for God to show up with mercy that dispels the darkness and brings about the dawn of a glorious new day. Zechariah prophesies that history is about to be rerouted and the path we are on will lead, not to our destruction or continued remorse over bad decisions; not to further wandering with no sense of direction. No! The presence of Zechariah’s God will guide OUR feet, all y’all’s feet, into the way of peace.

24 out of 55 answers expressed a desire for some sort of peace. These are a few of the prayers: National peace and compassion and morality. Peace around the world. I pray for peace, for people’s tolerance and understanding of each other. Waiting for stories of peace and love to be told on the news. Peace deep in my soul. Moments of stillness and reflection.

In Luke 3, beginning at verse 4. Luke quotes from the prophet Isaiah who foreshadows the arrival of a messenger who will prepare the way of God’s Savior. It will be hard work. Have you ever had to clear rocks from a field to prepare it for planting? Were you assigned to weed a garden? Did you lay pavers in your yard to create a path? Then you will appreciate how hard the job description was for John! He was sent ahead of Jesus to make the paths through the wilderness straight, to fill in the valleys and bring down the mountains. This is commanded long before backhoes could do this sort of back-breaking labor! Crooked ways will be made straight and rough places smooth. All who travel upon these newly paved roads (that part of an election campaign promise in our state recently!) will arrive at the same place: a vantage point of clarity, a vista that showcases that God is present and offering salvation to our world. Wow! Imagine how Zechariah and Elizabeth must have unpacked that sermon?!

The end of Zechariah’s sermon ends with a post-script that is succinct and startling: “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”

No stories about his first steps, his first word, blowing out the birthday candles or celebrating his bar mitzvah. Holy Spirit. Wilderness. Public ministry. That’s John’s life, in a nutshell. I suspect old Zechariah and Elizabeth had many sleepless nights worrying about their precious boy.

It is perhaps instructive to us that John’s preparation for his prophetic work took place in the wilderness. That was Jesus’ seminary setting as well! John the Baptist and the Son of God are not spared wilderness experiences in life. In fact, God intentionally sends them to wilderness camp trusting that, in that harsh setting, they will discover who and what they can rely on and who or what will let them down. The necessary training grounds for facing our hardships with holiness is a parched land devoid of distractions. Much as we seek to avoid wilderness chapters to our lives, it is in the trenches that we are most apt to experience God’s rescuing. How can God redeem, restore, save, forgive, liberate, and show mercy to us if we’ve never had to struggle? God sent John to pave the way for Jesus who would show us the way of peace.

Their earthly reward? John’s head ended up on a platter presented whimsically to Herod’s wife. We can only hope that Zechariah and Elizabeth had died before their beloved son met his end in this way. And Jesus? His earthly story ends badly as well—on a cross, crucified as a common criminal like a public lynching. So how does this lead our feet into the way of peace? Who would choose to enter into the wilderness if this is where it dumps us off?

The story that we read in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is a story of God’s love for us. The story is much greater than John the Baptist, even though he fulfilled his job description honorably. It’s even bigger than the human Jesus. Through Christ’s bodily death God’s power to bring life out of death was showcased. Sacrifice precedes peace. Working for peace takes….work! It’s a holy task that often plants us in a desolate area. No one is exempt from wilderness time. But if we invite God into those hardships, we can expect a word of hope to break forth. One person wrote on their slip of paper that they are waiting for a new beginning. Another said they were hoping for peace, a ray of it in the world and a light of it in my family. A life of faith will teach us that striving peace may require great sacrifice of us. But we discover that we’re in good company. We are thrilled when we see how much more we can accomplish when we work alongside of others who imitate God’s grace. In looking back at our lives we want to be able to say that we didn’t ignore the warnings, that we didn’t wait around for others to do the work, that we would never eliminate the wilderness moments because those are the crucible in which we do our most important work. Those are the steps that lead into the way of peace. Is that what you’re waiting for this Advent season? Amen.

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Family Reunion

(A sermon I preached in Thetford, England in June of 2018 while on sabbatical. I was graciously invited to lead worship at the Cloverfield Church in Thetford, England. There was a sense of “homecoming” to that journey!)

Good morning! Thank you for welcoming me into your worship service today. It is a privilege to step into any pulpit and I deeply appreciate the trust Rev. Helen has shown by inviting me to offer a message to you today. I am from Michigan where I have pastored a congregation for 22 years. I’m ordained in the United Church of Christ, a sister denomination to your reformed roots. I am on sabbatical this summer and enjoying a trip around Europe, the first two weeks with my husband and daughter and now with three of my sisters.

I received a Lilly Foundation Clergy Renewal Grant that is funding my adventures. The theme to the grant is Nourishing Roots and I am on the move first in Europe and then in various parts of the United States to learn more about my ancestors.

A couple of things bring us to England. First, I did a DNA test that confirmed what my siblings and I already knew: we belong here! 92% of our genetic make-up comes from your British shores! That was even a little higher than we had thought. So we’re looking into graveyards and at street signs that bear the names of Tharp, Chapman, Seymour, Readyhough, Camp, and Webster.

After England we will scoot up to Scotland where we will visit the MacDougall castle in Oban to get a feel for the clan and land from which our paternal grandmother’s side of the family immigrated. The other fact that brings us to you, here in Thetford, is that my family lived in Barton Mills for three years when my father was stationed at Lakenheath Air Base in the early 60’s. Number three sister, who is here today, was born among you—named Elisabeth, in fact, to honor one of your own! Given this authentic claim to English roots, we were a bit miffed when we weren’t invited to the Royal Wedding! We would have moved up our trip to be part of the festivities. But it looks like George and Amahl got in ahead us. 

So let’s talk about the royal wedding just for a moment! My husband and I watched it on TV several hours after the fact. Do you know what I liked about it? Well, the fashion show was, of course, mesmerizing. The celebrity appearances were interesting. The horse-drawn carriage ride along quaint streets lined with cheering citizens was endearing. But that’s not what really moved me. I was grateful that the world was given a glimpse of what it looks like to be a Christian! The worship service was reverent but also had humor—a critical mix for a healthy faith! There was beautiful music that has inspired the human spirit for generations. We heard authentic preaching of the Word by a priest who probed a deep understanding of the meaning of love. Congregants prayed the Lord’s Prayer. The couple spoke vows that positioned God at the center of their relationship. I was touched that millions of people got a peak into our experience as Christians. I prayed that those who have been turned off to the Church or never even been exposed to it— which is increasing numbers of people—would meet Jesus in that service and be drawn into our communion in some fashion.

When we trace our roots, we find ourselves meeting up with folks at family reunions. The dynamics of each clan is somewhat different. Idiosyncrasies of the family are on display in greater measure when everyone meets together with shared genetic material. Some of us look forward to our family gatherings—others, not so much! I have a friend who carries the same needlework project with her to each holiday celebration with her extended family. This gives her the excuse to focus on something other than the bickering that tends to dominate her reunions. When she returns home she sticks the needlework in her closet until the next gathering. What I loved about the royal wedding is that folks all across the globe were invited into our reunion as Christians which takes the name of “worship.” The service was rich and beautiful and inviting.

In the setting of family, God allows us to experience the fullness of life. This happens with wonderfully easy moments and those that are challenging. Good family reunions are the ones where people share their gifts readily with each other, take an interest in each other and listen well. But nobody is perfect, right? Some of the most interesting stories we have come from interesting characters who share our DNA. We all have at least one crazy aunt or drunken cousin, right? Do any of you have an interesting relative that you can count on to bring some excitement to the reunion?

In our congregation we did a winter retreat with a theme modeled after the TV show, Family Feud. We polled our congregation beforehand about their family reunions. When asked, “Who/what would you prefer NOT to see at your next reunion” there was an interesting mix of answers: weird uncle, sassy old aunt, step mom, cousin’s boyfriend and Uncle Rick. In fact, Uncle Rick showed up in quite a few of the answers so we had fun hearing about the role he played in one couple’s family! Another undesirable part of the reunion was a flaunting of grandma’s scars! The source of tension at some reunions, acccording to some who returned our surveys, were talk about tattoos, drunkenness, politics, drama and lies. But when asked what emotion accompanies their reunions, the most popular answers were love, joy, happiness and excitement. Every family has their history, which they pack up and bring with them to the reunion. Sharing blood ties is not always easy but it is the most influential of all our relationships, for better or worse!

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible tells a story about family, about our family! I could recite some of the genealogical lists that we find scattered throughout this book: Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob and Esau, who begat Joseph and brothers and so on and so forth.

Boring, right!? No one wants to be the liturgist when that’s the Biblical passage because the names are hard to pronounce and mean very little to us. But our text from Hebrews traces our lineage way back and names the common denominator that marks every reunion of God’s people: FAITH. One look at the list and we know that the family crest for every guest at this ancestral parade could be, “Nobody’s perfect!” Abel tops off the guest list and his pure sacrifice to God infuriates his brother who then kills him. I wonder how many times that story was told around family campfires?! We have Abraham who introduced his beautiful wife, Sarah, as his sister to safeguard his own security. The two of them gave up on God’s promise of offspring when they found themselves blowing out close to 100 candles on their birthday cakes. We read the name of Jacob who was known as a schemer. It is only fitting that he would meet his match in a conman of a father-in-law. So these folks, who are in the distant reaches of our spiritual ancestry, are very human. I find that reassuring, don’t you? God loves them and uses them in the grand drama of human salvation because of the one attribute they possessed that mattered: FAITH.

Faith is hard to come by. Let me clarify that: faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior is not going to win you entrance into elite affairs in our societies today. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close their doors each year in the States. Fewer than 20% of Americans regularly attend church services. All mainline denominations report a loss in numbers over the past 30 years. Those reporting no religious affiliation (the “Nones”) has risen from 6% in 1992 to 22% in 2014. Among millennials, the figure is 35%. From statistics I could pull up on my hand-held encyclopedia, the percentage of the British population who claimed no religion rose from 14% in 2001 to nearly 25% in 2011. Interestingly, Norwich, just south of here and home of the revered Julian, claims the highest proportion of folks who claim no religious beliefs: 42.5%. Poor Julian must be turning in her grave. So, whatever the figures, it’s clear to all of us who gather at this reunion called worship each week, that the vast majority of our neighbors wish NOT to join us. 

So I wonder what it is that draws you here? This is counter cultural so why do you get out of bed, put on presentable clothes and make your way to worship and other church functions during the week?

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

I brought my baggage with me today. We all do that when we go to a family reunion, right? We stuff a suitcase with every conceivable outfit we might need and a bag of toiletries besides. This isn’t even all the baggage I could’ve brought! I’ve lived out of this small suitcase for about three weeks now so it’s best that I not open it. Sometimes our baggage doesn’t smell so fresh. What’s awesome about being part of a Christian congregation is that we are welcomed—even when we are a stranger and even when we bring in the baggage of our past. It is by FAITH that we meet together. We have witnessed unimaginable transformation in our lives and those of others who have invited Christ to be our Guide. It is our faith that allows us to be hopeful in the face of tragedy.

We’ve had a spate of suicides recently of public figures—we grieve the death of Anthony Bourdain who seemed at the top of his game. Suicide rates in America have increased by 28% since the year 2000. Remember the high percentage of millennials who have rejected religion? Well, suicide is the number three cause of death for youth in the US. We are experiencing an epidemic of despair with those who have abandoned the gifts of the Christian faith. Symbols for the Church historically have been an anchor, a solid rock, a boat in a storm, a fortress offering protection from enemies. Each week we gather in some sort of a sanctuary. I think we go against the grain of our cultures because we have seen Christ take every form of brokenness and offer healing. Even amidst our hardship, we’ve found joy for the simple gifts of each day. The line-up of ancestors in the Hebrews 11 list isn’t perfect but they clung to their faith so as to navigate the choppy waters of their lives.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that these giants in the faith died before seeing God’s promises fulfilled completely. They could see the hoped-for changes from a distance and that was enough.

So four wild and crazy sisters come swerving into your town in a rented Peugeot, trying desperately to stay on the right—I mean, the left—side of the street. We’re searching out our roots but we’re reminded in your holy presence this morning that those roots are found wherever two or three gather in the name of Jesus. Our reading today tells us that we will never be able to find our identity simply in geography or race or on one particular family tree. The family reunion where we will always feel welcomed is not the one where we leave our baggage behind. No, it’s the one where we meet under the sign of the cross, showing off our scars and sharing the faith that has brought us healing. Let’s be sure to share that good news with a world that may not know their way to the reunion!

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When the Spirit Moves

At the young age of ten, George Lowden and his friend, Alan French, crafted their first guitar out of fishing line hooked over bent nails attached to a sound box. Alan’s father was a boat maker so he provided technical help when asked and the boys found building supplies lying around his workshop. At age eighteen George crafted his first electric guitar with a dream of becoming Ireland’s version of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Five years later, when considering his life’s vocation, George felt led by God to become a luthier—maker of stringed instruments such as violins and guitars.

What had been a hobby was to become his life’s work. In an interview with Irish musicians, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Lowden explained that God not only led him to pursue this unusual vocation. God also equipped him for each challenge that arose. It was in prayer that his questions were answered. Through prayer he was directed and redirected at each crossroads of the business. For 47 years, George Lowden has designed and produced high-end guitars for some of the most noteworthy musicians. In 2019 Ed Sheeran asked if George would enter into a joint venture with him to produce sonorous guitars at a lowered price so that new musicians could afford an esteemed Lowden instrument. (The price tag for one of those cheaper models begins at about $850!) George’s career path continues to be Spirit-driven in ways that no longer surprise him. He expects the Spirit to move. God has become the central craftsman in the workshop, guiding George as he provides a means for making beautiful music to so many musicians.

Since Easter we have been spending time in texts that trace the growth of the Church. The passage from Acts 8 could easily be developed into a movie! One part sci-fi, another part drama, a miracle occurs because two men follow the leading of the Spirit and their lives overlap. Philip, one of the disciples, is directed by an angel to go to a certain place that is on a deserted road. In our movie that translates into a dark alley in a deserted part of town. Anyone with a lick of sense would know not to go there. But Philip is so attuned to the Spirit that he immediately gets up and RUNS into danger! His commitment to lead others to Christ takes him to places and people that no friend would direct him to go. When the Spirit moves, he trusts that God will protect him.

Many years ago I decided that I wanted to add an element of urban ministry to my sabbatical experience. So I volunteered to lead a spiritual study group at Liz’ House, a shelter for women and their children. It was on Division Street in Grand Rapids in the early ‘90s when a number of human services could be contracted out of car windows around that area at night. Garrett was concerned for my safety—and I was, too. But I knew God was calling me to this teaching task by the enthusiastic response to my offer. Each week a group of the residents met with me, some caring for their small children during class, and we talked about life issues: hope, despair, love, injustice, evil, grace, and God. I couldn’t advertise it as a Bible Study since Liz’ House received government funding but each woman brought her Bible to class on that first day. So I invited them to examine different texts that we were able to connect to our own experience. One of the class members was a young white woman had gotten pregnant by her black boyfriend. This led to her parents disowning her. She lived in the group setting, waiting to deliver her baby and line up a means to live independently. Another young woman who joined the class suffered from epilepsy. She had mild seizures at a couple of my classes and I was deeply moved to see how the other women knew to get her in a safe position. She would surface out of her spells to see concerned and supportive faces around her even though her own family had abandoned her. The challenging task that God gave me to lead a class in a homeless shelter became a blessing of inestimable value to me. I should have known that my safety would never be an issue: these women watched out for me! When the Spirit moves, we can trust that God will watch over us.

As Philip is running toward the intersection in the forsaken area, the screen cuts away to another scene. A man is bouncing along in a chariot, reading aloud. Apparently immune to motion sickness, he is immersed in his book. We learn right away (and repeatedly!) that he is a Eunuch. He would have been castrated at an early age so that he could become a trusted staff member on the Queen’s court. He was important in his own hometown and must have been a God-fearer because he had made a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple. His relationship with Judaism would have been complicated since he was a Gentile. He would not have been able to get any further into the Temple than the Court of the Gentiles. He was also viewed as being ritually unclean because of his castration. No one with bodily imperfections or mutilation was allowed into the Temple at all! In spite of his limited access to the Temple, he still chose to journey a long distance from Africa to worship God in Jerusalem.

But the story doesn’t dwell on his shortcomings in the eyes of faithful Jews. It only presents his positive attributes. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “…the text presents the Ethiopian as someone wealthy enough to ride in a chariot, educated enough to read Greek, devout enough to study the prophet Isaiah, and humble enough to know that he cannot understand what he is reading without help. He is also hospitable…”

As we look in on this African scholar, a figure comes into view, running with determination and catching up to the chariot. He is able to overhear the passenger reading from the prophet, Isaiah. Neither man seems particularly surprised to encounter the other in such unlikely circumstances. The eunuch invites the jogger into the chariot and Philip invites dialogue.

The Eunuch is reading about the suffering servant so he asks Philip if Isaiah is speaking about himself or someone else. Perhaps the emasculated man who faced discrimination at every turn related to the description of a sheep that is shorn. The essence of this foreign believer’s question is, “Can this only be about Isaiah and his situation or is it about me too?” He easily related to the injustice described by the prophet 600 years earlier. According to Jews, the right-hand man to Queen Candace was the wrong nationality, race, and sexuality. The Book of Isaiah promises freedom from marginalization in the worshiping body of believers. This would have been of encouragement to the Eunuch. Philip doesn’t challenge who he is or condone his life’s work. He does what the Spirit leads him to do. He interprets scripture for this foreign convert so that he might be welcomed into the Body of Believers. Philip is so caught up in the presence of the Spirit in their conversation that he agrees to baptize the man when he asks. In a lake that seemingly appears out of nowhere, the royal servant is dunked three times: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. No sooner is he admitted into full life in the Spirit and Philip is mysteriously drawn away from the Eunuch. The disappearing act doesn’t stop the newly baptized man from praising God and telling anyone who will listen about his new family in faith. The screen shifts to the town of Azotus where Philip physically materializes like some bodily reconstruction in Galaxy Quest. The disciple keeps teaching in all the small towns. He must have felt a hint of moisture in his robe that reminded him that his baptism of the regal eunuch was real!

Julian of Norwich lived in the time of the Black Death when half of the residents in her English town died of the bubonic plague. She herself came so near to death that her mother called in the priest to offer last rites. While she was absent from this world God gave her 15 visions or showings that revealed intimate knowledge of the triune God. She surfaced from her coma and her condition miraculously began to stabilize. The next day she had one more vision, a sixteenth showing in which the Spirit assured her that her previous visions were real. This final showing was separated out from the previous fifteen because God knew she might well doubt their authenticity once she recovered. She detailed those sixteen revelations in her writings and they have inspired believers for more than 600 years.

In this remarkable story of evangelism in the Early Church, we must note that there are three main actors in this story: Philip, the eunuch and the Holy Spirit. Thomas Long writes, “…as the gospel moves into the world, it gathers under the wings of God’s mercy more and more of those who have been lost, pushed away, and forgotten.” We are reminded in this story from the Early Church that God’s love is boundless. God’s attention is focused on a single sparrow as well as a royal servant who faithfully serves his Queen.

Years ago, when my father was dying, my neighbor, sent me a message saying that God had drawn her attention to me during a time of prayer. She offered to be present to me in whatever way would be helpful. I let her know that I was deeply moved to know that I was in God’s sights. Intellectually we believe that God knows and loves us. But to truly experience that God is aware of our struggles and sends people to us is breathtaking. I thanked her for getting vulnerable and letting me know of God’s nudging. We walked together and she ministered to me in my grieving. We were joined on our walk by a third companion: the Holy Spirit.

A common theme in Luke’s writing is the joy that comes when something that has been lost is found. Even though Philip miraculously disappears after the baptism, the Ethiopian man changes. The power of the apostle’s Biblical interpretation and the arrival of the Spirit at his baptism stay with the African man. The eunuch is made whole through this encounter. Philip is further convicted in his faith from this unlikely encounter and emboldened to preach the good news of a crucified and risen Lord. What Christ’s death inaugurates is the age of the Spirit. Miracles abound as healing breaks out in contagious glory. Long writes, “When the eunuch’s story of shame is refracted through the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, it becomes a narrative of redemption, restoration, and hope.”

These are signs of the movement of the Spirit. Watch for them! Be assured that, wherever you are led, no matter how unlikely the tasks set before you or how seemingly dangerous the path ahead, God goes with you. You are never alone.

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Ron

I always knew Dallas DJ, Ron Chapman, as Uncle Ralph. He was my dad’s younger brother. So, if I ricochet between the two names, you’ll understand.

I remember my dad telling me that he had preached a sermon featuring his brother as the centerpiece. In fact, he stated that Uncle Ralph was a model for understanding God. I know, right? That verges on heresy!

So what prompted a sermon that exulted his kid brother in such a way? Ron and his lovely wife, Nance, invited my parents, Jim and Katie Chapman, to join him for a cruise. This is not the sort of cruise most of us take–where thousands of people are crammed into small cabins sharing tainted, recirculated air. While most of us would welcome that sort of vacation but Ron had a different excursion in mind! He chartered a ship that came with a staff, including a private chef. He also invited his sister and her husband, Florence and Fred Littauer. The six of them were the sole passengers. With a crew ready to meet their every need, they headed out into aqua waters where they had days to connect with each other. Since all three siblings were public speakers, I can only imagine the volume and constancy of their conversation!

So how does this turn Uncle Ralph into a model example for God? Ron had a gift for creating significant moments. He knew who he was inviting into any particular experience. He knew their gifts and shaped the experience to more than satisfy their needs and desires. He was a gracious host and expected nothing in return. My dad stated that, if his brother invited him to join in on an adventure, he would drop everything, pack a bag, and run to meet him. He could completely trust that his little brother, Ralphie, would know what suited him best and have a great experience in store. My dad preached that this gives us an understanding of our God. The One who created us is trustworthy. God knows us intimately and directs our lives so that our needs are more than met. God grants us the deepest desires of our hearts. When we encounter God, we are imprinted with memories that transform us. In this way, dad appreciated the way his brother reflected an image of the divine. That’s a pretty high compliment to give the brother who slept on the bunk beneath you!

As they disembarked from the ship, my dad stood before his brother and said he was unable to adequately express his gratitude for such a tremendous gift. He described his brother’s response to his words of thanks. As my father fawned all over him, Ralph simply smiled modestly and said,

IT’S SOMETHING I CAN DO.

No fanfare. No egotistical posturing. No consideration of what my dad owed him because of his extravagance. Simply joy that he could provide for his siblings this fantastic time of respite from the daily grind.

ITS SOMETHING I CAN DO.

One brother for another, the younger treating the older to a memorable vacation. 

ITS SOMETHING I CAN DO.

These are the brothers who shared a bunk bed in the same room as their dad. He was older than most dads so he got the twin bed. His wife, my grandmother, shared a daybed with her daughter. Every morning it was folded away to make a little more space in their tiny communal area. Running a general store for their town, they lived in three small rooms behind that store. One was the bedroom that became the men’s quarters. One was a small communal space that had room only for a table with four chairs. (That’s right, there were five of them.) The daybed that my grandmother and aunt slept on served as a couch during daylight hours. The third room was a small bathroom that had a sink and toilet. No bathtub or shower. Water was heated for a bath each Saturday. Four of the family members vacated the living space so that one of them could bathe. One after another was given privacy to clean up for the week.

Ralphie was the youngest of three. His two older siblings followed the rules and excelled at school. Ralph had different gifts. From an early age he was aware of his family’s meager circumstances. Of course, most families were living with financial limitation because of the depression. But the living conditions of the Chapmans of Haverhill, Massachusetts seemed a bit more austere than they did for many. My father was four years ahead of Ron and Florence was eight years older. So Ron continually felt that he lagged behind them. He was aware of the mountain he needed to climb to measure up to their sizable accomplishments. With a steely resolve, Ralph’s mantra was born:

I’LL SHOW ‘EM!”

It’s evident to me that Ron Chapman’s genius as a DJ and his caring nature was forged in that store. The family lived their private life in the public eye. The only place that had ample room to seat five around a table was in the store. So, as they sat down to eat their dinner, they knew it was entirely possible that Mrs. Miller would stop by to purchase laundry soap during their dinner hour. When she did, she would interact with the whole family as they ate their baked beans and spam supper. Then one of them would step away from the table to ring her up. From a young age the three Chapman siblings were taught to ask, “May I help you? Is there something I can help you find?”

In spite of their meager finances, it was a home where there was plenty of laughter with enough love to go around. They claimed joy amidst poverty. And the youngest child developed a tenacity to persevere, to see it through, and to help folks out.

All of these attributes prepared Ron for a very public life. He lit up a room. He was the life of the party without seeking attention. He was driven to prove that the youngest would not just succeed but thrive! In fact, he once jumped out of an airplane to show that he could SOAR! Neither of his accomplished siblings dared to undertake such a feat!

Just as his parents continually welcomed people into their home, Ron invited his listeners to greet each new day with him. There was always room for more at Ron’s “morning show” party. For a city of Dallas moms, time spent with Ron while getting the kids off to school wasn’t tedious. It became FUN! He called out the best in people. He affirmed their gifts. He prepared them for each day with weather and traffic reports. Ron relayed the news of the world to his people. Even as he covered stories from across the globe, he knew what mattered most: the places we call home. He never took for granted that he was invited into so many people’s lives. As they sat at table drinking their coffee or fought traffic while driving to work, Ron was a trusted companion for the journey.

I remember my father smiling as he said to me in the last stage of cancer, “I can’t imagine the world without Jim Chapman.” I was privileged to spend the weekend in Dallas with family members, remembering the impressive life of my uncle. We agreed that we can’t imagine the world without Ron Chapman, even though we’ve been living that reality for several days. His larger-than-life personality is noticeably absent. I suspect many of us remember moments when he did something kind for us. We still marvel at a generous gesture. So I give God thanks for a man who could say with a shrug, after treating someone to an extraordinary moment, “It’s something I can do.”

Ron was modest in thinking ahead to his death. He suggested that those who cared for him could remember him by going to their favorite bar and raising a glass to him. So I raise a glass to remember Ron, a man who magnificently combined humility with generosity, who laced the ho-hum morning news with an element of humor.

I toast a man who cherished the intimacy of his own family while keeping good company with thousands of listeners who welcomed him into the privacy of their homes.

I offer a toast to celebrate Ron Chapman who exceeded his childhood resolve because

HE SHOWED ‘EM, DIDN’T HE?!

We are impressed! But, more significantly, we are blessed.

Rest in glorious peace, Uncle Ralph.

Cheers!

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One Flock, One Shepherd

For several years I traveled fifteen miles to a church each Wednesday for a Lectionary Study group. We pastors sat in their multi-purpose room which was set up for an after-school program that meets each Wednesday afternoon. While the program offered academic help to young children, its primary function was to provide safe and free after-school care for at-risk kids. A highlight to this group of children was the snack that was provided. Hungrily they devoured whatever was served. They grew to trust the adults who were there each week, offering kind words and homework help.

The host pastor said that several of these children started coming to worship on Sundays. Some were by themselves, without any parents who cared to join them. Not having been raised in the church and absent any parental guidance, they were often talkative and inattentive. Established church members started complaining about these rogue children who weren’t polite. They wanted to mandate the presence of parents for any children in attendance. So the pastor addressed these murmurings. She dismissed all the children to a Sunday School class one week. She preached about Jesus welcoming the children and blessing them, even after His disciples had tried to shoo them away. She pointed to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who taught about leaving the 99 secure sheep whose needs were fully satisfied so as to search out the one lost lamb. Was not any neighborhood child who cared enough to join them for worship worthy of their compassion and grace? I want to say that she scolded her parish for their expectations that all children must behave “properly” in worship. But she would say that she exhorted them to model kindness to these young guests. The pastor reminded her congregants that Jesus, the model Shepherd, expected them to nurture the very fledgling faith of these vulnerable members of their community.

The most challenging part of this passage is the assertion that there can only be one flock and one shepherd. Our image of Jesus as Shepherd engenders warm fuzzy feelings of a well-kept man calmly standing amidst grazing sheep in a lovely meadow. But the life of a shepherd was not serene or clean! There was always danger lurking as sheep have many predators. The job requires the herdsmen to be away from home for long stretches of time as they search for green pastures. It was viewed as a menial job that guaranteed compromised hygiene! And yet, for the sheep, the shepherd was crucial to their survival! The relationship between the two is based on what the shepherd does. The sheep are just pawns who have to be led. Sheep follow the shepherd because they know and trust him. The shepherd knows the sheep well enough to recognize when one is missing, to know which one is crippled and needs help, and which one is regularly pushed away from the feeding trough. If the flock scatters when a wolf appears, the shepherd knows where to look for them and they follow him back to the fold.

On April 1 a ten-year old boy from Central America was found walking alone just north of the Mexico border in Texas. The group he had been traveling with left when he was sleeping and he awakened to discover that he was without adult protection or care. The video by a Border Patrol officer shows the young boy hurriedly approaching the patrol car, asking for help. Through tears he told the officer his story and said he was afraid. He was taken to a child detention center in Donna, Texas where he joined thousands of other unaccompanied minors in that part of our country. Some families are separating from each other in Mexico so that their children have a chance of making it into our country solo. The situation is complex, fraught with ethical dilemmas no matter which policies we embrace as a nation. These young ones are caught in the vortex of their elders’ politics and posturing. They are literally crying out for protection. In the relationship between shepherd and sheep, there is an intimacy and security even as danger looms. Shepherds hear the cry of the young and immediately set out to rescue them.

In the first chapter of James we read this from The Message translation: 26-27 Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.

You mean, reach out to those ill-behaved kids who talk in worship and devour the cookies in coffee hour before the adults can even get there? Are you saying we should help out with the local residents whose homes will be repaired during our summer work camp in Cedar Springs? Surely you’re not suggesting that United Church Outreach Ministry workers deliver food to the homes of some of their Hispanic clients when they dare not get their name entered into any data base for fear of deportation? If they can’t make it to the food distribution center, that’s their problem, right? Who are these “others” that Jesus named who are also part of the one flock He loves?

Stephen Cooper writes, “The ‘other sheep’ of today must be determined by the setting in which the word is preached and heard. Who are ‘other’ for us? This line of questioning brings the affluent churches of the developed world into discomforting reflections on the ‘other’ in our midst—in our own societies—and the ‘others’ elsewhere in the world. Both ‘others’ are on the margins of our horizons, the horizons established through circumstance, habit, and counsels of prudence. The key point is that these ‘others’ are Christ’s sheep, just as we are, and they too recognize his voice.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 2, page 450)

The notion that there is one flock and one shepherd is the most challenging directive from this passage! Christ’s teaching confronts denominationalism that splinters the Church into competing segments who spend more time proving their moral superiority than doing Christ-like outreach in their communities! The motto of our denomination (the United Church of Christ) comes from John 17 and it echoes Jesus’ words in our passage for today: “…that they may all be one…” It sounds good. We may even heartily agree with it. But living toward that vision of unity will occupy our lifetime.

Yesterday was Compassion Sunday for our congregation and hundreds of churches across our country. We spent time looking in on the plight of disadvantaged children across the globe. The theme for this year is “A Call to Hope.” “Hope” is a hard-sell item lately. Our nation seems in as much turmoil as we’ve witnessed in half a century. There’s no way we can look at our country and affirm that we are one flock under the guidance of one shepherd. Even those who claim to be followers of Jesus are angrily divided against each other. We argue theological points while these Compassion children smile for the camera, hoping that someone will choose to sponsor them.

Our congregation was given 31 children’s names from all over the world who look to us as members of the same loving shepherd’s family. In the impoverished communities of these Compassion International children, COVID has ravaged countless families. Mim is an 8-year-old girl from Bangladesh. Last year her father suffered a back injury that kept him bedridden for months. Shortly after his accident, their world was shut down due to the pandemic and her mother couldn’t find work. Their food supply quickly dwindled. By God’s grace, Mim’s family learned about the Compassion outreach in their church and she was accepted into the program. Though the congregation didn’t meet in person for months, they nonetheless distributed food packs to Mim’s home. Because Compassion works through local churches, they are able to provide families with food, medical care, emotional support and many other essentials. However, what they deliver primarily is hope!

I learned from my brother-in-law’s sheep farm in Morley that orphaned lambs are not adopted by other ewes. They know the scent of their own babies and those are the only ones for whom they accept responsibility. Each Spring Scott’s parents have baby lambs housed in their main floor bathroom, crying out to be bottle fed again and again! Those sweet, vulnerable, abandoned lambs would not survive without the provision of a human family.

A name I remember from my childhood is Chang Yueh Mei. My father spent one year stationed in Taiwan. He met a young girl that must have reminded him of the five daughters he had to leave behind for a year. He learned that she was enrolled in the Christian Children’s Fund and hoped for a sponsor. Our family, far across the globe from our dad, sponsored her and grew to know her through him. When I lived in an apartment complex in the Congo as a teacher, there was an African family with eight children who lived below me. The youngest, whose name was Banywesize, became me little friend. Five years old and small for his age, he would knock at my door and I would let him in for a visit. I didn’t know much Swahili but spoken words didn’t matter much. We connected on a human level and I was able to help him and his family at certain times of need. Garrett and I have sponsored two different boys while raising our own kids. Our children wrote letters to Brandon, a Native American in South Dakota until he aged out of the program. We continue to support a young man named Luis who lives in the Rio Grande area with his mother and older sisters. Being connected to these children at different stages in my own life and in the lives of my children has shaped us to model our own lives on that of the Good Shepherd, Jesus.

Cooper writes, “The world surely will perish if its inhabitants continue to pursue narrow forms of self-definition, identities based on nation, class, race, and gender. The voice of Christ calls out to all the others just as it calls out to us; thus now is the time to examine our attitudes, practices, and behaviors that keep us safe from the concerns and needs of Christ’s other sheep. To the extent that we decline to enter into the world of these other sheep due to discomfort or limited perceptions of our advantage, it is we who are refusing the voice that insists ‘one flock’ is a correlate of the principle ‘one shepherd.’”

On Compassion Sunday for our congregation, the Good Shepherd issued a call to hope. We have the opportunity to take under our wing one child from another part of the world and to offer them a level of security that is life-changing. And the gratitude with which they receive our meager financial gift and friendship will transform our lives as well!

One flock, one shepherd. May it be so.

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So what’s the miracle?

My sister sent out Easter cards this year with a photograph on the front. It was of four of us sisters posing for a picture. We were dressed in our Easter finery, which included spring coats with matching hats, white gloves and patent leather shoes. The ensemble was laid out on the eve of Easter with great anticipation. We might wear the coat on a cool Sunday after Easter. We would occasionally pull the pretty dress out of the closet for a special occasion. But never again did we put all those special elements together for one particular outing. When Easter is over the dress is dry-cleaned and the bonnets are put away. The baskets are emptied of their eggs and stored in the attic for another year because Easter is over.

Or is it?

Melissa Fay Green, in her book The Temple Bombing, wrote about the events surrounding the hate-crime against the oldest synagogue in Atlanta. The temple was damaged by dynamite in 1958. The very next Friday, the shell of a building was filled to overflowing as congregants met to worship in the carnage. Their rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, looked out over the packed crowd and said, after a lengthy pause, “So, this is what it takes to get you to temple?”

What does resurrection look like? Does new life come out of dead places only one Sunday a year? Or are we Easter people who continually watching for signs of God’s renewal among us?

In the Book of Acts we encounter a description of a miracle that happened in the Temple a short while after Jesus’ resurrection. A man born with a crippling condition is deposited by his friends at his usual begging spot: at the entrance to the Temple called the Beautiful Gate. His disability stood in stark contrast to all that was considered beautiful in first century Israel. He asks Peter and John for a few coins, a request he has made to countless pilgrims for a lifetime. But instead of tossing him a few coins, the men stop to look intently at him. Instead of money that could by a crust of bread, they offer the social outcast something better: “the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” No sooner do they invoke the powerful name of Jesus and the man’s ankles and legs are strengthened. They help him to his feet and he jumps about like a victorious athlete after winning the entire tournament!

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Instead of a hand out they give him a hand up. This healing gives the man the possibility of earning a living. Now he can move about freely and enter his world, no longer sidelined by sanctified discrimination. We can imagine the energy that surrounds that scene and the crowd it drew. Folks excitedly recount the miracle they just witnessed. With mouths agape, all stare at the man they recognized from their daily trips into the Temple. The man who was never before seen at eye level now dances among them, singing God’s praises.

People are drawn to sacred spaces after momentous events. When supernatural moments challenge our world view, we are drawn to a divine power. We want an interpretation of what we’ve witnessed. Remember how folks drove around on the evening of 9-11 looking for a worship service to attend? When our human framework for interpreting life has been blown to smithereens, we want the consolation of Someone more powerful than our best friends or enemies. The people who gathered at the Beautiful Gate were shaken because something stunning just disrupted their expectations for a normal day. The crowd expanded as folks hungered for another dramatic show of power. Instead, they got a sermon. In fact, the main event appears to have been the message and not the healing.

The lectionary text for this past Sunday builds on this miraculous healing with an interpretation. Today I’m asked to deliver a sermon…on a sermon! This was Peter’s second sermon in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. His text had to address the divinity of Christ. Those who believed that a crucified man was the Son of God had a monumental task to convince others of this unlikely truth. Undoubtedly there were those in the crowd who cried out not so long before, “Crucify Him!” Peter tries to convince these oglers that they made a grave mistake in crucifying Jesus. This would have been an unlikely message to teach to a throng of voyeurs who simply wanted another act to the magic show!

In his sermon, Peter unpacks the errors in their evaluation of this remarkable event at the Beautiful Gate. Thomas Long lists three crucial mistakes. First, the onlookers misunderstood the source of the healing. They assumed John and Peter possessed the power to straighten out this man’s legs. We easily fall into idolatry of the healers in our society. Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil have an impressive fan base on their respective television shows. We spend money on supplements that promise youthfulness. We listen to podcasts that give us hope for a new way of life. We buy tickets to hear speakers who divulge secrets about magical cures. Like the hemorrhaging woman who reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ coat, we grab at the panacea offered by our community healers, sometimes traveling long distances for the cure. John and Peter quickly set the crowd straight by saying that it’s not about them. Rather, this healing has everything to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God they worshiped regularly in the temple was the one true healer.

Second, the crowd misunderstood the nature of life with God. They assumed that brokenness was the norm and healing the stunning exception. They believed that disappointment was the expectation and joy the surprise! Long writes, “Life is perceived to be barren of God, and if God ever should speak or act, it would be an incredible exception to the norm.”

Finally, the mob thought the healing required only a response of amazement. In his sermon, Peter urged them to repent. I suspect repentance was the furthest thing from their hearts as they watched the lame man jumping for joy! Events that fill us with wonder are invitations to reflect at a deeper level about who we are and what we’ve come to expect of our world. Maybe we need to confess that we limit God by our lowly expectations. We are surprised when our prayers are answered powerfully. Would our spouse be saddened if we found it highly unusual when they did something wonderful for us? Of course they would! What do we expect from those we love? Do we have room for joy or are we predisposed to pouting?

In the frenzy of a miraculous healing, Peter teaches this crowd about Jesus. A couple of times he talks about how they rejected Him. This is insider language because Peter’s denial of Jesus used that same word. Out of the pain of his own betrayal, Peter argues with this crowd what it means to be faithful. He assures them that there is still time to repent. Could you preach to a mob who was responsible for the murder of your dear friend? Could you offer them the gift of forgiveness? Peter affirms that the power to heal came not from them but was found in the name of Jesus. God has been at work all along and the power of the crucified Christ continues to effect miraculous changes in their world. Peter asks these awestruck believers to repent—to change their minds about who Jesus of Nazareth was and is! Peter preaches that those who accepted that Jesus as the Messiah would experience times of unimaginable refreshing. This miracle was a clear indicator of the kind of world God created for us and continually restores through Christ Jesus. For those who define their worth through shades of shame and guilt, Jesus’ resurrection confronts them with the reality of forgiveness. God is willing to wipe away the entire record of our misdeeds but we have to be willing to receive that gift.

I wonder what we have learned about how we are to live as Easter people? How did Peter’s sermon work on our forebears and how does it speak us into action today? Do we expect to see double rainbows out our windows in the calm of a Spring evening like we did last week? Do we anticipate the greening of the earth each Spring and for bulbs to courageously raise their blooms above ground even as snow threatens? Do we trust that rifts between family members can be repaired or do we construct higher emotional walls to keep them eternally at bay? When we walk through the doors of our sanctuary, do we expect to meet God or do we simply want to hum a few bars of our favorite hymn?

Annie Dillard challenges our expectations of worship in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk: “On the whole, I don’t find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

In what ways are we still resisting resurrection? Are we packing away our faith in God’s resurrecting power even as our Easter finery gets dry-cleaned for the next grand event? Do we cling to favorite sins that are viewed as normative in our communities? Can we embrace the opportunity at new life or do we prefer the usual combination of guilt and relapse? Are we so worried about doing everything perfectly that we sit safely on the sidelines doing nothing? Maybe we like the predictability to how things happen now that we reject new visions, new people, and new challenges for a rewarding life?

The people at the Beautiful Gate of the beloved Jewish Temple assembled to ogle a miracle but got a sermon instead. Peter delivered a mandate to expect new life to come out of dead places. In our own congregation we celebrated tremendously good news this past week. A woman who was taken into surgery to have a malignant vertebrae replaced was given a clean bill of health. The doctor went into the procedure expecting her spine to be porous, like swiss cheese, because of the cancer. When he opened her up he found that everything was…fine….healthy….normal. He closed her up and told the anxiously awaiting family that he has never seen anything like it. So what’s the miracle here?!

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on Pexels.com

Do we expect resurrection on the Sundays after Easter? Do we believe there’s power in Jesus’ name? Do we expect disappointment or joy? Times of trial or moments of refreshing? Ongoing worry or dancing with paraplegics? Can we let go of our pessimism to embrace an abundant vision of reality?

Christ has risen and is moving powerfully among us…now and always.

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Throwing a Fit

Parishioners have gotten to know my dog, Hunter, since we’ve been doing our worship services online. He typically likes to add his voice to my sermon each week. He is a beloved part of our household and we are protective of him as he ages. He gets up slowly because his back legs are feeble but he still protects us. He no longer hears the doorbell when it rings. He doesn’t see well but is still able to catch food mid-air much of the time. He devours the treats we slip his way, belying his priorities.

When Hunter is given a savory bone from our dinner table, he wanders our estate, looking for a suitable hiding place. We know when he’s in this state of worship because he whines. He walks around our house with the bone in his mouth, looking tormented as he struggles to find the most secure nook. Garrett’s side of the closet is a favorite spot. But he’s also taken it outside, even burying it in the snow. I’m amazed at how he can sniff out a bone in the snow on a bitter cold day. He trots in victoriously like a King preparing to count his money. We joked that he’s a little bit like Peter at the time of the transfiguration. Perhaps you remember that Peter was so stunned by the glory on the mountain top that he wants to build a booth or pitch a tent. He wants to encamp for days to hold onto that sacred experience. We build a booth when we take seventy pictures of a breathtaking mountain only to discover that none of them measure up to the lived reality. In fact, we may have diminished our experience by trying to capture it through a lens rather than just living it. Hunter wants to build a booth to house his bone. He hangs onto the precious moment of unimaginable blessing in case we never toss him a bone again! He finds a protected place and relaxes–but only for awhile! He checks his bank balance by digging it up the next day then wanders the earth looking for another safety deposit box. You can never be too careful!

In John’s Gospel the order to the events in Jesus’ life is different from that of the other Gospel writers. In John 2 we read the prophetic story of Jesus chasing the moneychangers off the temple grounds. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this disruptive event happens in the last week of Jesus’ life. In John’s Gospel this bold act shows up as Jesus is kicking off his ministry. We have to wonder why John would place that defiant moment at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Any Jew approaching the Jerusalem Temple would do so with awe. They would have a keen sense of belonging in this place that hosted the deepest spiritual moments of their ancestors. It was always a privilege to be in this sanctuary yet Jesus disrupted the scene by throwing a fit. The temple was an amazing structure. Herod the Great had tried to curry favor with the Jews by starting a renovation of the temple in 20 BC. 47 years later, Jesus showed up and spoke of tearing down the structure. The Jews within earshot of this preposterous claim were incredulous: “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?“ I can hear their snide laughter.

The Jews were expected to sacrifice from their personal lives to keep the temple in good condition. They gave money to support the priests whose lives were dedicated to the spiritual well-being of their people. Money was allotted to help widows and orphans, a charitable outreach unequalled by other religions. When Jews entered the temple grounds, they found themselves in the Court of the Gentiles. Temple insiders authorized these non-Jews to be present in a sort of religious flea market. They sold animals to the pilgrims which served as their offering. There was a secondary need for having these merchant services on the temple grounds. Each individual paid a temple tax. Roman coins were not accepted in the Temple because they bore the image of rulers not unlike dear Abe on every one of our pennies. Those faces were understood to be graven images, thus violating the second commandment. The Roman coins had to be exchanged for Jewish currency. Banking and trading was not intrinsically evil but it had gotten out of hand. The money changers charged unfair rates of exchange. The price for animals was high, taking advantage of weary pilgrims who needed to make a suitable offering. The principle of supply and demand was brazenly on display in the Court of the Gentiles.  Jesus saw that it was a racket and threw a righteous fit!

Most images of Jesus portrayed in artwork display serenity. I’ve heard some people say that He is depicted as a “wimp.” If that’s the image you have in your mind, this story will confront you. As early as twelve years of age, Jesus claimed the temple as His Father’s house. This was heretical language. Knowing God with such intimacy, Jesus was incensed when people used the sanctuary for their own gain. It’s the classic tale of the teenager throwing a big party in her parents’ lovely home when they leave for the weekend. It’s all fun until the guests abuse the house because they don’t care about it. The girl has to oust her guests and repair the damage before the parents return. Jesus defended God’s honor by protecting the temple as a worship space. But the Jews turned it into Mall of America, attempting to buy their salvation for a fee. Jesus turned that bad theology on its head!

The story asks a question: What is Church? John features this story early in Jesus’ ministry to call out idolatry of place. He decries the inverted values by which we worship gods of our own making. We want to preserve precious moments as treasure. We refuse to relinquish them so they interfere with God‘s will for our lives. Like the Apostle Peter–and my dog Hunter–we want to build a booth, assemble a Shutterfly book, and buy a souvenir to mark an event. Time and again we discover that nothing equals the experience itself. Often we miss the beauty of the moment in our fervent effort at containing it.

A Mainline church in New York City owned a high-rise building across the street from their sanctuary. A developer asked to buy their unused space. A total of 60 stories, they sold twenty stories to the developer for five million dollars. This seemed like a win-win proposal but actually created great consternation. The congregation was not unified when deciding how to spend this unexpected windfall. Comprised of Wall Street executives and educated city folks, some of the membership wisely suggested they invest it! Great idea! Other people said that it goes against the nature of Christ’s Church to sit on piles of money. Their suggestion was to use it to support a homeless shelter. A compromise was reached: they split the income in half. Two and one half million dollars was invested and two and one half million dollars was spent to create shelter for some of the homeless population in that city. It really was an argument about idolatry. Do we deify our facility, putting the beautification of a facility above the calling to love the least of these? At what point is it irresponsible to give money to missions if our building is falling into disrepair? There has to be a balance, doesn’t there?

I wonder if Jesus is cleansing the Church in this time of COVID? Is He perhaps asking us to examine our priorities and be ready to change? Hulett Gloer writes, “The ways of the world invade the church gradually, subtly, never intentionally, always in service of the church and its missions. Soon the church is full of cattle and sheep and turtledoves and money changers.” Is Jesus at work as we isolate at home?

My last morning in Jerusalem was spent in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This grand structure is built over the site of Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was crucified. It is a massive compound that houses some 25 different sanctuaries. Each one is operated by a different Christian denomination. Each jealously guards their own space. Each cleric tries to out-bellow the other in worship. Before I left on my trip, a friend recommended that I soak in the cacophony of worship noises on my visit. I wandered from one unique sanctuary into another. Crusader crosses mark the basement walls from one thousand years ago. Sadly, this sacred space has become a breeding ground for territorial Christians who guard their own sacred turf like my dog protects his bone.

I have no doubt that Christ is worshiped in that holy space but there is a selfishness that cannot be ignored. Each night the door to this holy complex is locked. Guess who holds the key? For generations the same Muslim family has been entrusted with it because the Christians can’t trust each other. Every night a member of that Muslim family locks the door and re-opens it in the morning. Christians have built a spectacular sort of booth over a holy site, wanting to contain it. Christians from all over the world worship in that space. But I wonder what Jesus might do if He entered through those doors today?

We’ve had to explore what it means to be a church without a building this year. It has been disorienting. Not only have we lost our space but we can’t even gather together safely. After a year of transformed worship, we are anxious to get back in the building. We are ready to serve as a shelter for homeless families. Our youth director worked alongside our high school students to transform the youth room into a space that is both safe and comfortable for meetings. I can’t wait for them to gather and grow their faith in that appealing room. We are tailoring our sanctuary to suit the needs of a streaming audience. We have discovered that the Internet does not readily cooperate in a building that was constructed in the 1870s! It takes money to get good cell coverage. It takes money to have good lighting for a streaming product. It takes a good camera and a skilled person behind the camera. Part of our church budget is needed to make the technological improvements so that our sanctuary allows folks to join our worship from their homes. We anticipate that expanded congregation even when we can safely gather again. Do we idolize our building and insist it remain the same as it was a generation ago? Or do we adapt so that the Spirit of the living God can continue to be experienced by a broader congregation?

When Jesus made a scene in the temple courts, he was angry at those who took advantage of the faithful for their own gain. Jesus grieved that His people had lost sight of true worship. I hear Him crying out, “You’re missing the point! Forget the success plan you’ve carefully tailored to earn your way into heaven! Get on your face and rest in God‘s presence. Be in awe of God‘s power. Bask in the reality that God notices you! Don’t obsess over shiny stars by your name on the attendance ledger.”

Friends, with the renewed promise of resurrection, lay down your burdens in this long siege called COVID. Let go of your sadness, anger, and frustration.  Don’t’ feel like you have to bury God’s love. No one can steal it from you. Don’t hoard it, like it’s a limited commodity. Don’t try to out-preach another believer. God needs all of our voices. God has enough love for you and me and them, all of them, whoever they are! So lay it down in Jesus’ name, all of it! Amen!

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This IS Church!

I wonder what you’ve been watching this past year? I bet you have a sharpened opinion now on where you find the best programming: Netflix, Hulu, Peacock, Youtube, Acorn…. The list could go on and on! We’ve had some time on our hands since last Easter and we’ve filled some of that time with programs. Even though I like to finish what I start, there are some series we started in our household but never finished. They weren’t worth our time or emotional investment. In the past month my son and I discovered a program that was touching, worthy even of an Easter sermon! It’s called Last Chance U and the particular episode focuses on a coach at East Los Angeles College. It’s a documentary that celebrates a triumph of the underdog. At this community college, a basketball coach by the name of John Mosley transformed a team into winners and put their modest school on the map!

Mosley had been a successful basketball player and coach in several different settings before accepting the part-time position at East LA College. He took a significant pay-cut even though he and his wife are raising three children. His wife supported this vocational move because she understood his sense of calling: to give underprivileged young men a chance to escape poverty and aimlessness. He brought with him significant basketball skills and a seemingly endless supply of energy. Perhaps the greatest gift he offered to these young men was his Christian faith.

The guys on the Huskies team learned to expect sermons from him. His half-time pep talks in the locker room were impassioned and sometime angry but they often morphed into prayer. The players closed their eyes when he prayed in Jesus’ name and headed back onto the court with the assurance that a power greater than their coach would fight for them. I’m surprised that the academic institution has allowed him to be so vocal about his Christian perspective. Perhaps he was granted such latitude because of the great success he has brought to their team. Maybe the administrators allow him to throw out scripture passages as motivation because they’ve been on the receiving end of his compassion. They have witnessed the broad capacity he possesses to love others. In the series we meet one of the star players who never had a dad in his life but was very close to his mom. When she developed advanced cancer, her son found team practices and games to be his safe space. As the mom lay dying, she told Coach Mosley that she was entrusting her son to him. In one of the sideline interviews, Mosley says with a smile that he will always be there for that young man—always. At the end of the season this orphaned student, along with eight other players on the team, was given a full scholarship to play for a 4-year university. Offering his players the opportunity for a better life is central to Mosley’s mission.

In one of the locker room scenes, Mosley is giving one of his boisterous pep talks. Then he quiets it down and asks, “You know what we’re going to do now?” One of the young men mutters, “Go to church?” The players knew when their coach was going to launch into a sermon, pray, or recite scripture. But Mosley replied, “We’re not going to go to church. This IS Church!”

What is Church? Have we been out of church? Or have we been going all along? Is it a building with stained glass windows, pews, and a bell we ring into the community? Or have we learned, in the past year, that Church happens in more ways than we ever imagined possible? Where is Church? Is it found where a crowd of believers gather to sing hymns and bow their heads in prayer? Or does it happen in our homes when we set out communion elements and share in the feast remotely with other believers? Does Church happen when we sit on our beds, wearing our pajamas, drinking our coffee while we sing hymns at the top of our lungs–by ourselves?

We have discovered that new life comes from unlikely places in the past year. Christ has been at work in each of us so that we could affirm at unlikely times and unusual places: This IS Church!

A couple of weeks ago a man stopped by the our church looking for some financial assistance. We sat at a distance from each other in the sanctuary so that he could tell me of his struggles. His mother had just died and he needed gas money to make it to Indiana. He needed to bury her and close out her life there. He told me he had hoped to move her near him but she became sick and died before he could do that. He confessed his emptiness. He missed his mom and wished they had more time together in recent years. He started to talk about his faith and I realized that he needed a pastor. He asked me a few questions and showcased a great knowledge of the Bible in our reflection. As light streamed through our stained glass windows and danced around the pew where we sat, he expressed his amazement that God gave up the beloved Son, Jesus, for us! He grew quiet and hung his head, reflecting on this miraculous gift. That very morning I had stopped at CITGO to pick up some more gas cards. I wanted to have a few available just in case someone stopped by. I told him his timing was just right. We both knew that God orchestrated our meeting. As I sent him off with a couple of gas cards and a prayer, I thought to myself, “This IS Church!”

Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”

We have been to Church in a lot of new settings this past year!

Church happened when I went to the local motel to pay for several nights lodging. It was for a couple who have been living out of their car. COVID cost them their jobs. They both have health challenges and and rely on an unreliable vehicle. I talked with the woman over the phone, asking about their circumstances and offering words of encouragement. When I told her we would be able to pay for several nights, she wept. After the phone call, I stopped by the motel with my church checkbook. I met with the owner who is of a different religion. We have worked together before, across cultures and faiths, to put a temporary roof over the heads of individuals who find themselves in desperate circumstances. Our congregation—this Body of Christ in Rockford, Michigan—have supported a pastor’s discretionary fund. Their compassion brought Church to these two women who had lost hope. In the modest shelter of a Colonial Motel room, we offered them resurrection. We assured them through our actions that there is always new life in Christ. That morning I came in to the woman’s message on our church answering machine: “You’ve helped so many people and that is a really beautiful thing. But if you can help us, we’ve been living in our car…”

How good it is that word is out in our community that we can be counted on for respite in troubled times.

When have you brought Church to someone who wasn’t sure they dared to hope for new life? There’s been so much bad news this past year. Even now, the COVID numbers in Michigan are headlining in national news. I wondered if we would have to stay virtual after all our planning to reunite in person—even if at a distance and masked! We repeatedly hear news of shootings in our towns and cities. In California a disgruntled employee turned a gun on folks he knew. The price of his anger: four deaths and another shock to our nation. Rage simmers just below the surface for many people. The prophet Isaiah ministered during the time that the Israelites were overtaken by the Babylonians and marched far from home as slaves. After half a century of servitude, God opened the way for the people to return to Jerusalem. Isaiah wrote, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, why say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

When have you been the bearer of good news to a people who have come to expect only disappointment? When has Church happened on somebody’s doorstep, by a hospital bed, in a Zoom conversation with people you missed? When have you coached someone not just on how to play a sport or master an instrument? When have you coached someone into discipleship in the name of the resurrected Christ?

One of our members, who has been tested as a frontline worker this past year, was recently approached at the workplace by a young colleague. He said to her, “You’re the only person around here who goes to church. Why do you go?” Nearly twenty years his senior, she told him, “My faith keeps me safe and gives me the strength I need to deal with my struggles.” This person isn’t preachy but she lives her faith. She mentions church in her conversations which is code for, “I’m a Christian—if you want to talk faith!”

After a year of confronting our mortality, people are hungering to talk about eternal matters. About truth. About a God who loves us for who we are. Church happens in the most unlikely places when we invite Jesus to use us. Church happens when we dare to tell someone we will pray for them. Church happens when we invite someone to go to a worship service with us or send them a scripture verse that offers encouragement.  

George McLeod, the founder of the Iona Community in Scotland stated, “I simply argue that the Cross should be raised at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles; but on a cross between two thieves; on the town’s garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek…at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died. And that is what He died about. That is where church-men ought to be and what church-men ought to be about.”  (Beyond Playing Church: A Christ-Centered Environment for Church Renewal by Michael Slaughter. Anderson, IN: Bristol House, 1994, p. 69.)

In the darkest times, we experience new life in Jesus. I asked folks on our church Facebook page what blessings have surprised them during this COVID year. Guess what? Folks’ answers assured me that God is with us! Church happened! We found gifts amidst the COVID carnage! Maybe you can relate to some of these answers: I learned to appreciate the little things. Slow down. Quality time with my kids—maybe I missed something in the past because I didn’t have time to really watch them grow and learn. Folks from all over the world joined in our worship and Bible Study. Random acts of kindness. My sense of community deepened. Creativity abounded, like sewing and cooking and bread baking and woodworking! I added new and let go of old. I changed priorities. Deep conversations with my spouse and family. We understand each other better! Reading. Long walks. An appreciation for nature…and for quiet.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene headed to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. When she discovered that the tomb was empty, she ran to the place where the fearful disciples were hiding. Peter and John raced back with her, mystified by the empty tomb as well. They returned to their hideout, leaving Mary alone. She was unable to leave without the assurance that her beloved Jesus was safely at rest. She worshiped Him even in death. We read that when He revealed Himself to her, she fell at His feet and wept. This is Church. Mary encountered the risen Christ and couldn’t get enough of Him. He had a mission for her. His resurrection was not simply for her. It was for the disciples—and the world. He told her to share the good news of His resurrection with the beloved disciples who had abandoned Him in death.

“How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of one bringing good news…” I can only imagine how effortlessly Mary covered the distance between the tomb and the disciples’ hide-out. She is the very first missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ. When she burst through their doors, she cried out, “I have seen the Lord…”

This IS Church when we attest to the ways that Christ is alive within us. This IS Church when we act with kindness to those who have lost hope. This IS Church when we encourage the gifts of a stranger or offer financial help. This IS Church when we break bread at our dining room table, fully confident that we meet the risen Christ in that meal. This IS Church when we assure a hospitalized family member of our love on speaker phone because we can’t be with them. This IS Church when we help a friend move in the thick of a pandemic when workers are hard to find and COVID threatens us.

What we have been doing this past year, as frustrating as it may have been, IS Church! The celebration today that met in our building on Easter morning and in our parking lot and streamed into our homes IS Church…because the risen Christ cannot be contained or owned or denied. Like Mary, run with that good news wherever God leads you.

Christ is risen. Risen indeed! Hallelujah!

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Unmasking the System

Walking into the hard days of Holy Week, we sit with the Beloved Disciple, John, for an advanced lesson. Jesus teaches His witless disciples a theology of the cross. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t make sense to His followers. The disconnect between His understanding of the future and theirs is on full display in John 12. As Jesus’ popularity increases, momentum builds. People travel to hear Him. Everywhere He goes, crowds gather. The disciples interpret this as success but Jesus knows He’s wrapping up the farewell tour.

Jesus is attracting a very diverse group of followers. In this instance, some non-Jews are looking for Jesus. There is yearning in their request: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Perhaps it’s not by chance that they address themselves to Philip. The text reminds us that Philip is from Bethsaida in Galilee. That region was known as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” It may have been clear to these visitors that Philip was from their home area. They found the natural contact person for gaining an audience with Jesus.

Philip seeks out Andrew with their request. Then the two of them find Jesus to let Him know that His fan base is expanding! Perhaps there is a problem because the Galileans are not Jewish. They let Jesus decide what to do. Earlier He told His disciples that there would be “other sheep” who would be welcomed into the fold of His love. He knew that His message held an appeal for a broad cross-section of people. In the verse that immediately precedes this passage, we hear the religious authorities voice their jealousy of Jesus’ popularity. They exclaim in private: “Look, the whole world is going after Jesus.” This bruises their egos but is good news to Philip and Andrew. Even so, Jesus surprises them with His response.

Rather than welcoming these men and fielding their questions, Jesus seizes the opportunity to lecture about His death. In somewhat veiled language, He let’s them know how and when He will die. My guess is that this deterred the men who had been  seeking Him out! Philip and Andrew must have glanced at each other, shaking their heads. It was a lost opportunity for boosting the fan club enrollment.

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The image Jesus offers is that of a grain of wheat that must die to its present form in order to multiply. We’ve seen how a sunflower seed bursts open against the pressure of a growing sprout within. We have black oil sunflower seeds in a feeder by our front door. My dog sniffs around since I recently put stale bread crumbs out there too. Now we have dried sunflower seed shells tracking in through our front doors. When the seed receives rainwater, soil and sun, it begins to grow and the original container for the seed is destroyed. However, it is through this natural growing process that a harvest is possible. One seed can grow a plant that yields hundreds of times over the value of the original seed. That seed dies to self for the sake of a new generation.

Jesus summons believers to be ready to suffer on behalf of others and not for our own gain. Disciples then—and now—find that hard to grasp. Jesus prepares His disciples for His imminent death. He wants them to understand that He willingly gives up His life out of a profound love. We are more accustomed to seeking the easy way out. We wish to avoid suffering. When we have to go through trials, we question how it will benefit us. Think of the news frenzy when Ted Cruz packed up his family to escape to the tropics. As his constituents sought refuge from freezing temperatures and uninhabitable homes, the Cruz’ flew to Cancun. His constituents exploded with anger. Their exodus pf this elected official from a national disaster even shaped the story line of a Simpsons’ episode! We are a people who have come to expect folks to act selfishly, not sacrificially. We don’t like it but we accept that self-interest will prevail over voluntary personal risk. Those in my generation saw it when Popeye pummeled Bluto; when the road runner fled from the assault of Wile ol’ Coyote. Our children see justice get played out as violent victories in video games. We accept this as normal.

Jesus goes further in this lesson by suggesting that only those who hate their lives will save it. Why would Jesus, the One who came that we might have abundant life, exhort us to hate our lives? I like the interpretation that Biblical scholar, Dale Bruner, offered in his commentary: The one who hates their life is “the person who dies to the supremacy of his or her own self-preservation and advancement at all costs.” Jesus’ teaching steers followers away from a “what’s in it for me” attitude and directs us toward the challenging notion that we must be ready to give up our lives for others. I’m not sure that this lecture made sense to His disciples or those who so earnestly sought Him out.

The Greek word used in this passage for “world” is “kosmos.” It translates best to mean “the System.” Jesus’ crucifixion judges the world, the kosmos, the System. When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, He was taking on the System. In this unlikely teaching, as His disciples are ready to grow His fan club, Jesus targets the systems that hold us captive and lead us from abundant life into forms of death. It was interesting to me that, in her interview with Oprah, Meghan Markle used two different terms in reference to her husband’s family. There was the Family and there was also the Firm. Decisions made by the Firm, the corporate entity that manages the well-being of Queen Elizabeth’s family, may not always reflect the wishes of individual family members. Grand Rapids’ philanthropist Fred Meijer’s business was so successful that he had to entrust the management of his grocery empire to a Board of Directors. They didn’t always operate as Fred might have. Jesus’ ministry brings us together as a united family. Because we love each other, we are called to expose the forces that crush us and our neighbors.

Our culture upholds an expectation that we will succeed by fighting our way up the corporate ladder. Pushing other people down, when necessary, is a given so that we can advance our own agenda. This happens between business execs. It happens across fences in neighborhood yards. We do it so that we can support our family. We do it to feed our egos. Laying down our lives for others does not fit within the equation for the American Dream!

This past year we have witnessed far too often how one death can become a movement that takes on some aspect to the System. Several weeks ago the city of Minneapolis awarded George Floyd’s family the largest pretrial civil rights settlement ever: $27 million. When two of the carefully selected jurors in the trial of Derek Chauvin learned of this unprecedented financial award, they were dismissed and two more neutral individuals were chosen. The death of Floyd sparked outrage in our country and added fuel to the fire of a protest movement that was already well underway. We recently marked the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death. Her face is painted across parking lots, on buildings and down main streets of major cities. Her tragic death has pushed the issue of police reform forward. The logo chosen to remember her speaks to her basic humanity: Say her name. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer unmasked the system that needs reform in a statement he issued: “For White America, these deaths were the latest reckoning and a just alarm that things must change—that America, united, must listen, understand and act to end the injustice that’s hurt and held our country back for far too long.”

As people of faith, we are called to identify the primary aspects to the System that hold us captive and walk us toward forms of death. Can we invite Jesus to work with us to unmask the wrongs and bring healing? Will we recognize fake news and extricate ourselves from its grip? Martin Luther King courageously unmasked a racist system by continuing to march peacefully as violence against them increased. In his famous “I have a dream…” speech, he restated his resolve to unmask the System by letting the nation see their hateful actions: “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.”

The very next day King was assassinated while standing on the second-floor balcony of his hotel room. His death unmasked the System that sought to silence him. Like a grain of wheat that died to self, his death brought an abundant harvest. King’s sacrifice brought down judgment on our nation that still challenges us today.

Jesus vulnerably voiced His sadness in this passage: “Now my soul is troubled.” I suspect we have said that many times this past year, in so many words. We have had to face inequity in our world. We have remained vigilant, courageously naming the wrongs that have become normative. There was nothing easy for Jesus when approaching the hour of His death. He prayed for God to remove that final trial but closed His prayer with an invitation: “Not my will but yours be done.” As His disciples campaigned for more card-carrying followers, Jesus gave this lesson about a grain of wheat dying. He voiced the necessity of hating our lives. He knew that His days were numbered. So we stick close by His side in this final leg of our Lenten journey. We resolve to finish the course with a God who allowed the System to showcase their ugliness so that we could recognize and name it today. We stay the course. We finish the race. We look ahead knowing that resurrection from all forms of death is just around the bend. Thanks be to God!

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Change in Status

Our congregation recently marked the one-year mark that we moved out of our building. Except for three months in the late summer and early fall, we have worshiped remotely. Not only has our congregational life been confined to individual houses. Our work life has sent us into nooks in our homes where we set up shop thinking it would only be for a short while. My sister transitioned from her office to a card table with a plastic chair for months on end. She needed physical therapy because the unyielding furniture did a number on her spine and hips. We never imagined we would be isolated for so long. Mandated to stay out of community, we were expected to teach our children, run our businesses, and cater our own meals (in spite of sold-out ingredients) with no advance notice.

And we have done it! Each one of us deserves a medal for adaptation but I suspect we would settle for hugs from the loved ones we have missed!

So now we begin to consider leaving our homes as vaccinations are administered. We accept that we have to continue to observe basic safety precautions but warm weather is calling us beyond the walls of our homes. I’m hearing that many of us are feeling anxious about the thought of freely mixing with other people. Even those who are fully immunized experience a gut reaction against meeting a friend for lunch or going back to the office a few days a week. We have become so reliant on the safety of our dens that we have almost forgotten how to interact with others easily. We long for companionship yet hold back from re-entering our world.

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Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar based in Albuquerque. I have been following his daily devotions this past year while squirreled away in my home or working in a quiet church building. I appreciate his theory of the three domes which he described in his January posts. Picture three conical domes that fit inside each other. The smallest and inner dome is comprised of my personal interests. Rohr calls it the world of “My Story.” It’s me living each day based on my needs. I thrive thanks to self-help books. I seek to fulfill my deepest desires. I immerse myself in my interests and can find it pretty rewarding! Many of our members have talked about what a relief it was initially to be mandated to stay home. We ate meals with our loved ones. We tackled home projects, read books, and slept in. We self-actualized by learning new cooking techniques and organized neglected files. When we focus all our efforts on ourselves, we risk settling for an inwardly-focused life. In our increasing narcissism, we easily take offense at others and are fearful of anyone foisting changes upon us. Every aspect to our lives, when we live exclusively in this smallest dome, resembles a selfie: Look at me! Tell me how great I look! What can you do for me today? Fixating on ourselves gets…boring, right? Think of how yucky it is to wear a mask, breathing our own breath for any length of time. Even if we’ve brushed and flossed our teeth, after 20 minutes of talking with our co-worker, our mask smells rank! Too much of me becomes unpleasant!

We place another dome over “My Story” and that is called “Our Story.” “Our Story” is the narrative of whatever group we claim as our own. We commonly base this allegiance on race, nationality, gender, religion, or occupation. We might call those in this second dome “my people.” We find value in associating with those who share our attributes and values. Being part of a group is the necessary training ground to lifelong trust. Church involvement fits under this dome as congregations live their faith together. Unchecked group-think, however, leads away from a healthy sense of belonging with others to an ardent defense of “our group.” We are willing to sacrifice for “us” so as to defeat “them.” We broadcast our group commitment by wearing the right swag and joining the proper on-line group. We seek out fame. Sometimes we even strive for domination, like rival gangs in an urban setting. The Bible values both of these domes as evidenced in Jesus’ command: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. God works in us on both a personal and communal level.

The largest dome encompasses the first two. This one Rohr refers to as “The Story.” It is here that we encounter patterns that are always true regardless of personal story and cultural bias. We cannot peg anything easily in this realm because it is so beyond our human level. We realize that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves and our best human communities. In order to find our way to “The Story,” we have to take responsibility at both the personal and group levels. We admit our errors that hurt us and others. We look at the group with whom we affiliate and notice their prejudice. We become aware of our blind spots. We are humbled by our blunders and discover that we need something more than personal satisfaction and communal belonging. We embrace the necessity of forgiveness. We are moved with compassion for those in need. We care for the earth as our home. We love others because we experience Divine love. When we live in the realm of “The Story,” Rohr states that we are saved from the smallness of “me” and the illusions of “we.” When all three domes are honored as worthy of our love and attention, we mature spiritually.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is written in the characteristically dense language of the Apostle. As we sift through it we notice a once/now structure. He begins by pointing out our status as individuals: The 47th selfie you took of yourself today may look great but you’ve missed the point! Your self-absorption has isolated you from all that matters. You have used your independence to serve your own personal needs which has damaged you and others. Paul warns the readers to be very clear about whom they follow. There are good guys and bad guys. There is God and Satan. Know that you are choosing your leader with each decision, thought and word. For all of us “My Story” is flawed and incomplete. We need community.

In verse three Paul shifts into the first-person plural: We, all of us, once lived among those who were busy building their resumes to promote their personal best. We were lost in sin and didn’t know it because “everyone was doing it.” If any reader was feeling smug about escaping the snare of peer pressure, Paul bursts that little ego bubble mercilessly. We were part of a group but our priorities were wrong. William Stringfellow wrote, “Biblically speaking, the singular, straightforward issues of ethics—and…of politics—is how to live humanly during the fall…” Perhaps what we are made of has been revealed more clearly in the past year of isolation and fear. Maybe we have retreated deep into our shell so that the light of a new day is barely discernible. So Paul reminds us that it is only when we acknowledge the reality of the powers to act selfishly that redemption can happen. It is only when a church undergoes self-examination that it can recognize and name the way it has become a power. We need the season of Lent every year to be reminded that we cannot overcome the forces of evil that surround us. Rather, we choose to follow Christ as He journeys toward Jerusalem. We witness to His strength and admit our own powerlessness.

Verse four beautifully describes a status shift. It features those of us who have transparently struggled through “My Story” and “Our Story” to find ourselves still on the dusty road with Christ. In spite of our lostness, God notices us. In spite of the stench of sin that clings to us, God reinvigorates us by placing us alongside of Jesus. Paul makes sure that none of us backslides into myopic arrogance by thinking we’ve earned this status shift. In verses 8 and 9 Paul issues a blunt reminder: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Paul was never one to mince words! Before we know it, the stinky face mask is removed, God holds our fully-revealed faces, and life-giving breath fills us with renewed purpose. “I am” and “We are” is abandoned for “God is.” A whole new life stretches before us, by God’s grace. We become the very person God created us to be. I love the sound of that. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good work. We feed the hungry. We love beyond our own tribe. We recognize our unity as children of a loving God who calls us to leave the obsession with self behind. God invites us to claim our story even as we celebrate the narratives of others. Following trusted guides who have navigated the potential pitfalls of “My Story” and “Our Story” faithfully, we find ourselves elevated beyond the pettiness of human life to the glory of God’s presence. The shift in status is God’s gift and it’s never too late.

We have spent months in virtual seclusion. We have expanded to safe pods, savoring the tenderness of hugs like never before. We may find it challenging to leave the safety of our homes as COVID begins to lose its grip. But we must remember the image of the three domes. Staying fixated on ourselves is deadly. Ian Markham writes, “Egotism and selfish preoccupation are so damaging to our being that our spirit is not alive to God and to love.” As a stroke victim labors under the direction of a rehabilitation coach, we must push ourselves slowly but surely back into our world. We can’t get stuck in a small circle that focuses on defending itself against all others. With our fears elevated unlike any other year, it would be easy to seek out “our” group and fully entrust our well-being to them. Only family. Only my closest friends. Only my church group.

Limiting our interaction to those within our circle of trust puts us in the driver’s seat and ejects God. Closing ourselves off to the beauty of complete strangers suffocates our God-intended humanity. Will we hang on to the wheel and avoid the places where we feel threatened? Or will we trust God with our journey? Will we leave our safe zone in good faith that God can shift our status from once to now, from lost to found, from lonely to home?

As we slowly leave COVID behind, we must carefully choose our Guide. Intentionally, sacrificially, we follow Christ’s lead.

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Irish

For those of you chilling your green beer for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration tonight, listen up! Let me broaden your understanding of this holiday with a brief bio about dear Patrick! We started a new study at my church this week: Saints and Greats of the Faith. Since we commenced the study this week, it made sense to examine the life of the man behind all things Irish.

Patrick was born in Romano Britain, living during the 5th century. The exact details of his life are a bit sketchy. From his later writings we know that he was kidnapped by pirates at the age of 16 and carted off to Ireland where he served as a slave for six years. He tended the sheep of his master so another disciple of great faith understands what it means to know Jesus as the Good Shepherd of the sheep. His father was a deacon in the church and his grandfather served as priest. But young Patrick, at the time of his kidnapping, wasn’t a particularly devout disciple. Few 16-year-old boys are now, for that matter! But kidnapping and slavery can do a number on whatever construct you have of your teenaged life. During those unimaginable years of forced labor, his relationship to the God of his childhood deepened.

During his time of captivity God told him that he would soon go home and that a ship was at the ready. This didn’t mean, however, that his master understood this vision. The man who owned him certainly didn’t walk him to the boat, sending him off with a fond farewell. Patrick had to flee from his master, trusting the voice he had heard. He traveled some 200 miles, if you can imagine, to get to the eastern coast of Ireland. Even then, there wasn’t a ship’s captain holding up a sign with the name of Patrick inscribed on it. An exhausted and impoverished slave, he had to convince a skipper to take him aboard. God’s promises are true but don’t always come neatly wrapped with a bow! When his boat docked, he traveled by foot with other passengers 28 miles to find his way home. This wandering band of nomads grew weak with hunger. Patrick, with his fervent faith, prayed for God to sustain them. Not long after that public prayer, an unfortunate herd of wild boar appeared and a feast of roast pork ensued! The folks who traveled with this 22-year-old young man took note of his spiritual prowess and were impressed. This was the very beginning of his popular rise to Sainthood.

Patrick did arrive home, clearly changed by his experience. He pursued the Christian faith with great zeal, studying in France for a time. His spiritual accomplishments were noticed and God’s plan became clear in a vision. Patrick heard the Irish calling out for him, begging him to rejoin them. He took this vision seriously. I suppose you would have to, if you were being asked to return to the land of your enslavement! He left family and culture behind once again, this time by choice, and headed to the western coast of Ireland. He docked his boat in one town and they made it clear that he wasn’t welcome. Sometimes complete strangers help us in the task of discernment! These folks must not have been the ones Patrick heard in his vision. So he hopped back into his boat and paddled further north along the coast. Isn’t it interesting how we can assume we know where God is leading us, sacrifice to get there, then learn that we haven’t yet arrived where God will use us? The good news is that, a short distance up-stream, Patrick disembarked and was welcomed. That was the beginning to a lifetime of Christ-like leadership among a people who revered him. He baptized thousands. He ordained priests and sent them out to establish new faith communities. He made enemies when he inspired wealthy women from prestigious families to renounce their heritage and become nuns. He converted princes to the faith, who left highly privileged positions to enter the monastery. He is attributed with planting 300 congregations. The primary place of his ministry was in Armagh where both a Catholic parish and Church of Ireland were named after him.

There is plenty of folklore about this great man of the faith. He is reputed to have taught about the Trinity by using a three-leaf clover as a visual aid. He is credited with banishing all the snakes from Ireland after an uncomfortable encounter with some slithering reptiles. Ireland is still known as a land without such creatures. There were reports of his walking stick, completely detached from any root system or other form of nourishment, sprouting green shoots. All of this falls in the category of myth but it has made its way into revered memory. In stained glass images of the saint, you are likely to see him holding a shamrock, standing on defeated snakes and/or holding a walking stick bedecked with healthy greenery. We celebrate his inspiring life on March 17 as that was understood to be the date of his death.

This was all the more interesting for me to research this year since my Ancestry.com DNA panel was further refined in recent months. As more individuals send in their vials of saliva, looking for some sense of personal identity, the data base expands and my information becomes more specific. Before the recent report, my ethnic passport credited England with more than 75% of my DNA roots. I easily embrace the British, having lived three of my first five formational years in jolly old England. My dad picked up fish and chips wrapped in newspaper on the way home from work and I devoured it. I fed pigeons in the quaint British parks, Mary Poppins-style. I loved the Beatles music and laughed at Monty Python’s odd version of humor! James Cordon singing with celebrities in a car makes me smile. I readily embrace being a part of these people!

Another 12% of my DNA comes from Scotland. My great aunt Jean, after whom I was given my middle name, donned a three-piece wool suit on special occasions. It was tailored out of the bright red MacDougall tartan. I have a picture of her father, my great-grandfather, in full Scottish kilt attire, playing the bagpipes. Three sisters and I had the amazing experience of digging into our MacDougall roots in 2018 by visiting two of “our” castles in Oban, Scotland. The crisp seaside air invigorated me as I considered that my ancestors, perched at the top of impressive stone structures, breathed in this same air as they played their bagpipes and savored their beloved haggis (A lot like meatloaf, truthfully. Just don’t ask what’s in it!).

A token amount of “me” traced back to Nordic Vikings who conquered my ancestors then settled into family life with lovely Scottish lasses. No wonder I was drawn to St. Olaf College where Scandinavian immigrants welcomed the frigid temps of winter as reminders of home-sweet-home.

But all of that changed when a new breakdown of my ethnic constitution was emailed to me this year. COVID changed a lot of things about my life, one of which was connecting me to another homeland. What we thought was an overwhelming percentage of English blood was newly divided into two parts: half remaining with the English and the other half traveling across western waters to land in Ireland. More than one-third of my ethnic heritage is Irish! No wonder I’ve always favored green! How awesome that I can now add  “Luck of the Irish” to my resume! Surely that’s an asset that I haven’t yet exploited! So, for my two classes on Saint Patrick this week, I’ve dressed the part. Even before knowing of my Irish roots, I purchased bright green suede pumps for just the right occasion. I even stopped by a department store today to check out their discounted St. Patrick’s Day swag. I guess I haven’t fully bought into my Irish identity yet since I wasn’t willing to pay full price to broadcast my roots! But I’ve got plenty of green in my wardrobe!

The lessons I learn from the Patron Saint of Ireland today are what impact me most. Just because God calls you in a new direction doesn’t mean that the path will be clear or easy. Just as you arrive at one place, sure that you have landed in the port of God’s choosing, you may discover that your gifts are rejected and you need to travel further. Following the prompting of Christ will often lead you away from all that is familiar. The very nature of the Christian faith is to avoid excessive attachment to the things of this world so don’t get too comfy at any one stage of your journey. When the layers of familiarity are peeled away, as they were for 16-year-old Patrick when pirates carted him far from home, we are most open to the moving the Spirit. We learn that God keeps pace with us all along. When we are famished for our physical needs to be met, God dishes up a healthy serving of reassuring Presence along with sustenance for our bodies. When we do what God asks of us, our life may not flow more easily but the imprint we leave in the communities to which God calls us will be immeasurable.

So raise your stein of green beer to St. Patrick today. May his tireless devotion to the poor inspire us to quiet acts of mercy. May his unflinching gaze upon the rescuing God be our inspiration beyond the shamrock shakes and green beaded necklaces of today.

Slainte!