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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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Restraining Order

When I pastored a church in suburban Chicago I worked with a couple in the community who faced more hurdles than most. The woman was attractive and in her mid-thirties. She had struggled with addiction and promiscuity in her earlier years. But then she met a somewhat older man who was good to her. He saw past her insecurities to an inner beauty. They married and became very involved in our church for a time, having the fervor of converts to the faith. The woman had never been in a more stable situation in her adult life and she was able to leave the past behind in the protective care of her new husband.

They asked to meet with me to talk about some difficult news. He had been diagnosed with a chronic disease that would make each day much more challenging. They had to face his mortality squarely. He underwent several procedures and the younger wife bore the brunt of caring for him. It was a demanding situation that would tax even the strongest marriage. The wife began to backpedal from his health needs. She relieved her anxiety by reverting back to the addiction that had claimed much of her young adult years. The weakening husband continued to love her even as she distanced herself from him. The final straw was when he discovered that she had sold some of his medicine to make money to support her own habit. He flew into a rage, even punching a hole in the kitchen wall because he was so heartbroken at her betrayal. Frightened by this atypical showing of anger, she fled and took out a restraining order against this otherwise gentle, loving man.

With enforced time apart the couple began to think through their marriage, his illness, and her past. When the restraining order expired, the husband again sought out his wife and she came home. She asked his forgiveness for betraying his trust. He asked that she pardon him for his outburst. The last I knew of them, they were still working on their marriage as their love was tested by his disease. Even in his vulnerable condition, his love for his unstable wife led him to fight for her. He always, always believed in her.

In the story of the rainbow, I notice that God self-imposes a restraining order. Humanity is so wicked that God decides for a Divine Reboot by sending a devastating flood. Only Noah and his family survive. As the water recedes and the beauty of creation resurfaces, God has had some time for introspection. Clearly God’s intention for humanity and the world has not panned out. Rather than enjoying an Edenic setting in which to live their lives, families of the earth sin against one another and God. After the flood God seems to come to terms with the fact that the created order was not always going to follow the blueprint God had in mind. Since the people were not going to change, the broken-hearted Creator did. In this story it is stunning news that God is changed—and changing. Out of this deep sadness, God initiates the first covenant with humanity.

We have begun our Lenten journey. The gritty ashes from Ash Wednesday have long since washed down our drains to infuse the groundwaters far beneath the earth’s hard surface with holiness. In this Lenten passage, we meet a God who repents! Since punishment hasn’t driven men and women to penitence, God changes so that the relationship can be maintained. We could easily skip over this poignant lesson while focusing on the gift of the rainbow. But we need to pause here before we move on. God loves us so much that a divine restraining order is self-imposed! “…never again…” is heard between heavenly sobs as God grieves an ideal for creation that will clearly not be realized. The freedom granted to creation has led and will lead to sin. So God performs a major reboot of heartfelt hopes for humanity. In the ancient world turbulent water was frightening and represented chaos. Fishermen earning a living wage for their families lost their lives when storms blew in suddenly. After the angry flood waters recede, God promises that the chaos of their world will never separate them from the love of their Maker again.

In this scripture passage God refers to the rainbow as a bow. A bow was commonly used by ancient people to kill animals for food and to protect themselves from their enemies. The bow in the sky is unstrung. It cannot be used to harm. I don’t know what tactic you use to remind yourself of some task, but God chooses a rainbow as a sort of string tied around the finger. We set alarms on our phones to ping us into a meeting at the right time. God casts an arc of colors into the sky as a note-to-Self to never again punish humanity for their wickedness. God has the compassion of a mother who sees the good in her boy even as he misbehaves. God’s heart is touched as a father suffers alongside a hurting child. The intimate glimpse of God we are given in this story is that God refuses to give up on Creation even as the Creation refuses to change. Like a wedding ring that signals to the world that someone is married, the rainbow is a tangible reminder to God of a promise made. It is a promise built on an abiding love for us, for children of the living God who struggle to live holy lives.

We see in our world the beauty of different people, places, and animals. Spouses are drawn together because of their complementary talents, not because they are identical in all things. God’s design is for affirmation in our variance. In Lent, we recognize the imbalance between God’s plan and the way we live each day. We choose to be part of Christ’s Church so that we can grow in our faith and more closely approximate God’s plan for creation rather than fighting amongst ourselves. Jane Ferguson writes, “The church can respond to God’s call to be a place where ‘all the colors of the rainbow’ were welcome and equal in God’s sight, in terms of race, age, gender, and sexual orientation. The church can seek constructive dialogue with communities of other faiths or communities on the other side of denominational or doctrinal divides. Previously unimaginable partnerships may be formed, and a reconciliation may blossom. The patience and forgiveness spilling forth from hearts broken open by God’s love may paint the walls of the church, color its people, and emanate from its doors and windows into the world.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2; Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, page 30)

When we see a rainbow, we remember that God invests in us. God is all in, whether we do good deeds each day of the Lenten season or fail miserably in spite of our best intentions. Just as we persevere in relationships in spite of their brokenness, God refuses to give up on us. In this first contract God makes with Noah, do you notice what’s asked of us earthlings? Nothing! Can it be a contract if only one side promises certain goods to be delivered with no expectation of payment from the other party? That’s a losing proposition for a business owner! God promises to refrain from ever acting out of destructive anger again toward a people who are bound to fail repeatedly. We see God punish the Israelites when they act like selfish ninnies right after witnessing a miracle. But the rainbow is God’s memo-to-Self to never again destroy the inhabitants of the earth for acting like, well, for acting like earthlings. God will ride the ups and downs of being in relationship with flawed men and women because they are beloved sons and daughters.

In Lent we meet that self-restraining God in the person of Jesus. We have entered into the most somber season of the Church year because we have turned with Jesus to face Jerusalem, knowing what lies ahead. The self-limiting action of God in Genesis 9 foreshadows a Son who will lay down His perfect life for a broken world. For a very brief time the Son cannot feel the love of His Father as witnessed through His words on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The sky turns pitch black and a storm rolls in as God wails over the sacrifice needed to right humanity once again.

In this story of the rainbow, I take solace in the lesson that change is always possible. We meet a very different God when we read the words of the Psalmist in the 103rd psalm. Far removed from a vengeful destroyer of nature, we read this: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.”

We began our Lenten journey with the imposition of ashes upon our brows: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but praised be the name of the Lord.” It’s a long journey to shift the focus from ourselves to others; from judgmental glances to affirmations of worth. It’s a struggle to leave behind our favorite sins and most unhealthy habits. We fight to live in transparency with our loved ones rather than secrecy. So, as winter gives way during Lent to springtime storms, we remember a God who self-imposed a restraining order with a rainbow serving as a reminder. “Never again…” we cry out as we begin this journey.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy, have mercy upon us.

Photo credits to Anna Ellerbroek. Thanks!

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Leaving Home

I invite you to take a tour with me. Like most journeys this past year, it will have to be virtual. But I want you to imagine that you are in the place that became known as Jesus’ home. We typically think of Him as being One who had no place to lay His weary head. But in Mark 2:1 we read, “When he returned to Capernaum, after some days, it was reported that he was at home.” Even though Jesus walked hundreds of miles to bring the Good News of a loving God to many small towns and the big city of Jerusalem, He had a place that He called home.   

The name of that village is Capernaum and it sits at the far northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. I had the great privilege of walking in Jesus’ footsteps there several years ago and found it impactful because of its authenticity. I’m want to share a few pictures with you from the archaeological excavation of Capernaum.

In the verses that precede this passage, Jesus entered their synagogue on the Sabbath. He went into their sanctuary and the people were astounded at the authority with which He taught.

Our group of 15 people were there in October of 2017.  I was able to walk through the stately remains of a synagogue that dates back to the 4th or 5th century AD.

I peered out the window and felt the breeze that wafted up the hill from the Sea of Galilee. I sat on a bench that stretches along the west wall of that structure, trying to wrap my heart around the fact that Christ had been healing and teaching in that same spot, even if a few feet lower than where I sat.

Several foundations are stacked on top of each other. You can see the lowest exposed foundation is angled to the ground and is not flat. Subsequent foundations needed to correct the sagging that inevitably happens over the course of decades. You can see how the top foundation provides a flat and stable footing for the synagogue constructed on the ruins of Jesus’ synagogue several hundred years later. Thousands of first century coins were found in the Capernaum synagogue, reminding us that people have historically sacrificed from their livelihoods, no matter how meager, to maintain the costs associated with congregational life.

After astounding the faithful in that synagogue with His authoritative teaching, we read that Jesus headed to the home of Peter and his brother, Andrew. This is not a long walk—only about 100 feet south of the synagogue. We can assume that these brothers were very involved in the life of their congregation.

The scriptures tell us that they had moved their families from Bethsaida, which is on the northeastern side of the lake. The tariffs on processed fish were collected at the customs office that was manned by Levi at Capernaum. Jesus called him to leave his hated position to became one of the twelve disciples. If the two brothers lived in Capernaum, they didn’t have to pay that tariff. So two astute businessmen who fished for a living left Bethsaida and settled five miles west in Capernaum.

As you make the 100-foot walk between the synagogue and Peter’s home you can see the excavation of a neighborhood. Believed to house a population of between 1000 and 1500 residents in Jesus’ time, it is always referred to in the Gospels as a city. It was near a major trade route and the fishing industry was prosperous. We can assume Peter and Andrew made a good living as fishermen.

As was common of any ancient settlement, folks clustered their homes together. This offered protection against the elements and possible intruders. It also meant that neighbors were easily able to recognize need in their community since everyone lived so closely together. These would have been modest homes that consisted of several roofed rooms clustered around an open courtyard. Each home or compound opened out onto the street. Peter and Andrew lived in a double lot, indicating that they raised their families together. Walls were built of drystone black basalt that would not have supported a second story. The areas that were covered had roofs made of crisscrossed tree branches melded together with a natural mud clay. The whole of the village covers a one-mile stretch of land that has been largely excavated.

As you approach Peter’s house, where his mother-in-law suffered in bed, you will only be able to get so far in our walking tour today. Walls surround sacred history and a church building sits atop these precious ruins! Early pilgrims to the faith turned Peter’s house into a chapel. There is evidence that the walls of the home were enlarged at one point. Different unearthed items dating back to the first century reveal that the private home became a place of public gathering for worship purposes. Small pots for cooking and fish hooks for domestic industry were replaced with lamps and large storage jars.

As early as 50 AD, one large room stood out from others. The walls, arched ceiling, and floors were plastered smooth, which was unlike the other modest buildings in the city. Graffiti on those walls sends a message from some of the earliest believers that they were Christians: “Christ have mercy” and “Lord Jesus Christ help your servant.” The numerous crosses indicate that this space was used for worship. The two large courtyards opened onto the main street where crowds gathered outside Peter’s door hoping for healing. In this story these devout Jews waited until the sun set so as to honor the laws of the sabbath. The cross that you see at the far side of the structure identifies the place where early pilgrims believed the crowds stood in hopeful expectation.

You can’t get too close to the interior room believed to have housed Jesus because it is protected. In the 4th century Peter’s house was set apart from the rest of the town with an enclosure wall.

In the 5th century an octagonal church was built over it to serve the multitude of pilgrims who journeyed to the sacred sight. A new church has since been built atop this holy space. The floor serves as a clear window through which you can look into this 1st century chapel. It has become cloudy after years of use by countless pilgrims. But the sense of holiness that I felt as I looked into the space that Jesus called home was overwhelming. It was here that Jesus rebuked the fever that Peter’s mother-in-law was fighting, as if it were a wild creature that had a hold of her. In that space she served Jesus and the other men out of a profound sense of gratitude.

The verb for her service is the same one that describes the work of church deacons. In essence, this recovered woman “deaconed” Jesus and she became the first individual to serve Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.  Later, while teaching a sold-out crowd in this intimate space, friends of a paralyzed man clawed a hole into the roof above Jesus’ makeshift classroom and lowered the helpless man into the room. Jesus “deaconed” him by restoring health and mobility to him.

Capernaum was home to Jesus. It quickly became a destination for people seeking miraculous healing, like the pilgrims who travel long distances to Guadalupe or Fatima. Capernaum was home for Jesus but it wasn’t restful. He became their local celebrity and their streets clogged with visitors when He was in residence. Verse 33 states that “the whole town gathered at the door.” Word spread quickly and everyone wanted a piece of Jesus. Townies seldom appreciate tourists except for the income they bring into the village. So, after the healing, the two brothers wanted to keep Jesus to themselves. They hoarded His enviable power, wanting to make sure He always had a reserve for them. But, when they awakened the next morning, Jesus was gone. They found Him in a solitary place and bubbled over with enthusiasm: “Everyone is looking for you!”

I wonder what Jesus was praying about early in the morning while it was still dark? His overnight success made it clear that devotional time with God would be hard to find. Maintaining any balance between public and private was going to be a challenge. Did He ask God to give Him direction about where His earthly home would be? Should He stay in Capernaum, the place He called home, and settle for being a big fish in a small pond? Was His ministry to be a one-town wonder? Was His prayer offered in the words of a song from the ‘80’s: Should I stay or should I go?

Like a gentle breeze that scatters the seeds of a dandelion, Jesus knew the answer. The Spirit would be His guide, leading Him from town to town along the Sea of Galilee. It was a beautiful area where rural life was valued by hard-working people. The Spirit would lead Jesus to Jerusalem where He would ultimately give up His life for the sake of a needy crowd and a band of greedy disciples. Those who flocked to Him for His healing touch would ultimately nail His hands to a cross and reject the wholeness He offered. In the dark of that morning in a solitary place Jesus knew that He wouldn’t be one to settle down. He would disappoint His disciples by pushing on, away from their families and a familiar life they loved on the lakeshore. There were too many people like the beloved woman who languished with a fever in a town named Capernaum. Jesus told the men to pack their bags because time was short and the list of needs was long. As inviting as it seemed, Jesus knew He needed to leave home.

We know from the archaeological data that there were two communities that coexisted peacefully in 1st century Capernaum: Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity. The movement Jesus started in the synagogue moved into Peter’s house. The rock upon whom Jesus would build His Church opened his home as the first Christian sanctuary. Merely 100 feet apart, these two worship spaces shaped a peaceful community that Jesus called home. Isn’t it interesting that our Christian faith took root not in sacred buildings but in humble homes of ordinary people? We’ve learned this year that our faith cannot be reliant on a building. This year we had to leave our spiritual homes in order to stay together as congregations. Our ministry has not stopped. I hear stories of soup being dropped off on folks’ doorsteps, flowers being delivered to surprised widows and carols being sung to the person still recovering from surgery. We may have left the buildings but we’re traveling with Jesus each time we pick up the phone or drop a card in the mail to offer words of encouragement to a lonesome friend. We’re on the road with Jesus when we take time to pray for the church member who just received a difficult diagnosis. We practice our faith when we confess our needs and patiently wait for God’s answer. We’ve chosen to get out of our comfort zone when we take a stand for our beliefs by peacefully marching in our communities. The life of faith requires us to leave home knowing that a world awaits our ministry. We stretch our boundaries assured that worship happens anywhere—and everywhere…because Jesus goes with us. Ironically, it is as we follow after Him, searching for wholeness, that He brings us home.

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Naked Faith

Years ago my mother was driving my young family down to Amish country one hour south of their home in Akron. A mother of six, she never gave up having a station wagon. It was just too practical. So my two young sons were in the rear-facing seat in the way back and my mom drove through those Ohio hills with confidence—and speed! After a time, conversation between the two brothers lagged. One son leaned forward to me, in the middle seat, and told me he didn’t feel “vewy good.” Well, that’s not good, is it? Before I could think of what that meant and what to do, he vomited all over the back area of the car. Poor boy. We pulled over quickly and opened the back hatch. My mother was impressed with the volume my son produced as he sat there feeling sickly and looking very uncomfortable.

What do you do when you need new pants and you’re in Amish country? We were not optimistic but he clearly needed new pants. We stripped him down to his undies, mopped things up as best we could, and went on a search of a store that would offer a change of clothes. We imagined it might have to be cotton cloth in a solid color with a safety pin as a closure. Did the Amish folks in this area only sell their own style of clothing? To our amazement, we found an A&P store that stood as a gleaming oasis of modern products in a desert mirage. It carried, among other things, cheaply made sweat pants. We grabbed his favorite color, green, and headed back to the car. He could not have been more pleased! Virtually naked and defiled, he was transformed into a happy child in a new outfit. We enjoyed an afternoon wandering through Berlin, Ohio as if nothing had happened in that back seat of the station wagon. Those became my son’s favorite pants for the next year because of what they represented: a transfiguration from soiled to dignified and a chance at new life!

If you’ve ever taken a class in public speaking you’ve probably heard the tip for how to get rid of your fears: imagine you audience is naked. I’m not sure how much that would lower my anxiety actually! But this is the stuff of our nightmares: beings exposed, unready, or vulnerable before an aggressor. The enemy might take the form of an unexpected college exam or a bear chasing us through the woods in the dark of night. Our psyche processes our fears while we sleep, dreaming us into preposterous but gripping places of vulnerability.

In a story from 2 Kings we read about two prophets: Elijah and Elisha. Elijah has been the mighty spokesperson for God but his life is nearing an end. We look in on a story of leadership succession in which everyone is primarily concerned about their own well-being. As the pair travel from one town to another, almost like a presidential motorcade, prophets from each town line the street to watch this Godly man pass by. Just as pilgrims line up for miles to be in the holy presence of the Pope, these men of God want a glimpse of Elijah and maybe a piece of his spiritual mojo. They know that Elijah is on his last journey and they don’t hesitate to say this to poor Elisha. Perhaps they line the streets, wondering if God is still in charge as the leadership changes. Elisha is learning on this final journey that being a prophet is no privileged position. David Lose writes that prophets are completely vulnerable and utterly reliant on God’s grace. To be a good prophet is to love God’s people enough to tell them the truth about their condition. If they are naked and defiled, you tell them that then you set about to improve their lot. As Elisha doggedly follows after his beloved master, we witness a repeated cycle. At each stop on the final tour, the other prophets call out the news that Elijah is surely going to die. Elisha confirms their news but asks them to be quiet. He can’t bear to hear it. The journey continues and the same verbal exchange happens at the next stop.

But the third stopping point is different. The prophets have no words because God is at work. When God shows up, our language fails. The prophets stand in reverent silence as Elisha wails his grief. Being a prophet is no easy task. Elisha is separated from his teacher and left vulnerably staring up into the heavens. I wonder why Elijah tried to dissuade Elisha? Was he testing his devotion? Did he worry that the younger servant would be unable to endure an encounter with God? As the fiery chariot carries Elijah away, Elisha tears his clothes in anguish. He is left alone with his naked faith.

Our faith is tested by how we respond to the unknown. When we are stripped down to the essence of our being, are we thinking of God, of our neighbor, or of ourselves? I read an account of a rabbi’s treatment during the holocaust. He was struggling to survive in a concentration camp. The Nazis loved to denigrate the Jewish faith so they stripped the rabbi of all his clothing and commanded him to preach naked while they beat another prisoner in front of him. He was sickened and resistant but the soldiers prodded him to keep going. The rabbi realized that he could not stop them from the murderous violence they were bent on but he could preach. He could surround the dying man with the Word of God that assured him he was loved. In that moment the scene was transfigured from a heinous murder into an altar to Almighty God. Transfiguration happens in the least likely places.

Elisha cried out to Elijah, “Father, father!” When the elder prophet asks Elisha for a final wish, he asks to inherit a double share of the holy man’s spirit. He wants to be Elijah’s heir, his spiritual son. Elijah wisely reminds the younger that he cannot grant such a wish, only God can. It is a bold request. He had witnessed the hardships the seasoned prophet had faced. He had endured times of yawning solitude and religious persecution. He knew that his only chance at continuing Elijah’s ministry was to have an even deeper faith to draw from. He knew the risks that came with the position and wanted to arm himself with the word of God. It was a bold request he made.

I wonder if we’ve considered that vulnerability is intrinsic to our Christian faith? Are we able to see hardships as reminders of our complete reliance upon God? Or do we cry out that God has wronged or abandoned us? I wonder how vulnerable we are willing to be with each other as believers, how willing we are to stand in our community with a naked faith that won’t let us fall? It is in those unexpected moments, those times of change, that we show what we are made of. Do we believe in and serve a powerful God or do we rely on our own strength? Do we allow God’s grace to transfigure the ugly moments in our lives? Do we invite God to transform our vulnerability into strength, to clothe us with dignity in our humble state? Or do we settle for our mundane lives of predictable answers and waffling faith?

I read the account of a surgeon who was in the hospital room of a patient and her husband after surgery. He had removed a tumor from the woman’s cheek and, in the delicacy of the procedure, cut one of the facial nerves. Her smile drooped on one side. Her husband was with her, sitting on the side of her bed. Quietly she asked him if it would change. The husband shook his head. The woman vulnerably looked in a mirror at her new smile. The husband told her in the quiet of that room, “I sort of like it. It’s cute.” He turned his head and planted a tender kiss on her newly shaped mouth. The surgeon felt like he was looking in on a private moment of transfiguration. A surgical error was transformed into a new expression of their marriage vows. On the day of our wedding, we stand at the altar, young and innocent. We can’t know the road we will travel as a couple. But our faith assures us that God blesses us when we dare to stand naked for the sake of our faith. God makes something beautiful of it. David Lose states that “To be a prophet is to enter deeply into the realities and relationships of the people to whom you are sent.” Transfiguration for one woman began by her choice of a seat on a creaky city bus. Rosa Parks changed the lives of her people. Who would guess that sitting down could transfigure a nation? We can’t walk the journey for others or force them to join our movement. But we can urge them to keep their eyes open and watch for God.

A couple of weeks ago two men were collecting trash on their usual route in a Louisiana neighborhood. They noticed a strange car parked out in the middle of a field. Its location aroused suspicion. One of the waste workers, Brandon, realized it looked like the car described in an Amber Alert the night before. These men acted fast, blocking the only exit from the field and calling the police. The kidnapper was apprehended and a 10-year-old girl restored to her grateful family. These men had their eyes open as they picked up folks’ trash that day. Both of them fathers, they put themselves in harm’s way to rescue someone else’s child. Merrick commented after hte girl was safe: “Thank God, man, because I got a little girl. I’m on the job doing what I got to do.” A forsaken field is transfigured into a place of redemption because two men stepped out in faith.

This was the gift the older prophet offered to Elisha and Elisha did not back away from the challenge. He made a daring request to follow in the example of Elijah at even greater cost to himself. As he stood there naked, his ripped clothing at his feet, he began to understand the source of his strength. It didn’t have to do with anything he could create or command. It had to do with obedience. His power would come from God. As he turned to make his journey home, he was a different man. The prophets who had spoken down to him on the journey in now stood back with reverence. It seems that transfiguration happens off the beaten track, by the grace of God.

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Living Lent

She was a walk-in and we haven’t had many of those this year. Our church building has been in varied stages of lockdown, like the rest of our world. So there haven’t been many folks who have rung our church doorbell, asking for help. But, on a cold winter morning, Jennifer did.

She was a thin young woman with a tired expression. She smiled—I could tell just from her eyes since we were both dutifully masked. She wondered if we ever help people with expenses so I invited her to go upstairs to the Fellowship Hall where we could sit at a distance from each other and talk privately.

Once settled into hard plastic chairs with two tables between us, I asked her what was going on in her life. She needed assistance with room rent. She had landed at the Colonial Motel the night before. Her money had gone into an unexpected car repair and whoever had housed her for a time had suggested it was time for her to move on. I asked if she had anyone who would help her. I could see her eyes welling up with tears, a courageous smile under her mask. She quietly said, “I had a difficult home life.” I didn’t ask for details because they wouldn’t change the obvious fact that Jennifer was fending for herself.

I asked her if she had children. Our congregations works with Family Promise, making sure homeless families have a safe place to stay. She nodded and said she had three children. When I told her that Family Promise would house her and help her get back on track with her children, she shook her head. She told me that they weren’t with her. “Are they with their father,” I asked. She nodded, her eyes again filling with tears. Their ages? 11, 10 and 6. “Do you ever see them?” She shook her head. Her ex had bankrupted her through enough custody hearings to exhaust her meager funds. She hadn’t seen them in several years so she couldn’t be sheltered as a family. I gave her a couple of other suggestions of places that might offer her long-term support. What she needed from our church was enough money for one more night at the Colonial Motel. Affter that her dad would receive a paycheck and he would help her out. “Is your dad good to you?” I asked. She smiled and nodded.

I excused myself to go downstairs to my office to get the checkbook for our Discretionary Fund. Overseeing this ministry of financial mercy allows me to meet people like Jennifer. I could just write out a check or turn folks like her away. But I wanted to give her a chance to sit with someone who would listen. I sensed she needed to experience the unconditional love of Christ. I seldom write out checks to individuals. Rather I pay their bills directly through utility companies, landlords, pharmacies, or car repair shops. But I knew her needs were greater than just one night at a hotel. So I made an exception. I wrote out a check to her. I told her I was glad to meet her and prayed that she would find a place to stay on a more permanent basis. We both stood up and she offered her tired smile again.

But then she surprised me: she asked if she could have a hug. Like most of you, I haven’t been doling out hugs this year, especially to strangers. But I made an exception. With our masked faces angled away from each other—the new COVID clasp—I offered her a hug and felt God in the embrace. Christ repaired the breach through the way that we connected in the safety of a church gathering room, emptied by a pandemic. The woman who hasn’t been able to hold her babies for years asked for a hug. Nothing could have felt more right to me.

Our church joined a sister church in our community for an Ash Wednesday service tonight. When Pastor Dawn and I talked about the usual Lenten practices, she suggested that the only fitting thing for us to give up for Lent this year would be our burdens. It’s been an unimaginably challenging year. We’ve lived Lent for 11 months so sacrificing from our lives seems redundant. What I invite you to do this year is to lay down your burdens at the feet of the One who has sat with us, listened to us, and rescued us more times than we know.

The prophet Isaiah speaks on behalf of a God who is wearied by folks trying to earn brownie points for heaven. God turns from the spiritual show-offs who flash their good deeds before others like a woman in a fur stole laying down a $100 bill to pay for a cup of coffee. God tells the shallow servants, “Don’t bother. This isn’t what impresses Me. I want you to open your homes to the poor. Keep the peace in your family. Feed the hungry. Give a coat to those who are trying to survive this cold winter without a home or a friend.”

This is how we rebuild the ruins. This is how we restore the streets where people live. I have dim memories of how it felt to open our church building to homeless families not so long ago. We invited people into our space to lay down their burdens. This is how God is glorified! So I invite you to do the same this Lenten season. As we begin our Lenten journey I urge you to start small as a repairer of the breach. Open the door and let Jesus in–always! Entrust your burdens to Him because He will carry them!

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Ashes

Preaching Life

She came to me when the shadows of the past had started to eclipse her vision of the present. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the trauma that was done to her had a way of surfacing every so often. She had spent years doing the hard work of therapy–and praying. After talking about the dark place in which she found herself, I suggested that we might meet in the sanctuary some evening to share communion. I’ve only done this a couple of times in more than thirty years of ministry. Communion, by its very nature, is communal so we typically celebrate the sacrament in the context of congregational worship. But something seemed right this time to offer an opportunity to sit in the quiet of the sanctuary, seeking God’s nearness together. She thanked me but said that she wasn’t worthy. Self-doubt and guilt are some of the ashes that…

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Holiness Re-Invented

On my trip to the Holy Lands in 2017 the place where I most felt Christ’s presence was in Capernaum. Archaeological remains have revealed a city of about 1,000 to 1,500 residents in the time of Jesus. Situated on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, it was an important city whose main industry was fishing. What impacted me powerfully was spending time sitting on a stone bench on a side wall of the remains of a synagogue that dates back to the 4th or 5th century. It was not the same synagogue where Jesus performed the miracle described in Mark 1. But it most likely was built on the remains of the sanctuary that Jesus entered in order to teach simple people a new way to see God. So I’m delighted that I have a moment to live in that space through the lectionary passages in the next few weeks. I hope you will be able to feel, even to a small degree, the stunning reality that Jesus lived powerfully among us with obvious traces of His time in Capernaum.

The movement in this passage shifts from a shoreline recruiting excursion to a holy space where the traditions of the Jewish people were safeguarded. The synagogue was a place for teaching the Jewish Law and we read that Jesus entered that sanctuary to do precisely that. We must also note that the disciples, under Jesus leadership, were in the habit of going to the synagogue on a regular basis to worship. It was a place where people gathered in hopes of encountering the living God. Worship invited weary Jews who had suffered much persecution to be in prayerful conversation with the Divine so that they might better understand what God was doing among them.

It’s almost funny how Mark immediately contrasts Jesus’ teaching with that of the most respected Jewish leaders, the Scribes. Richard Swanson states that the authority of the Scribes lay in grammar and stature. He viewed them as “soulless bureaucrats with fat salaries.” It sounds a bit like some upper echelon management positions today! Jesus, in contrast to that, did not operate out of windowless board rooms paneled in dark, impenetrable wood. He mixed with real people in real life, extending loving care. Whereas the Scribes sought to preserve tradition at all cost, Jesus jumped onto the scene blazing a new trail and dusting off old truths to find how they might speak to a new generation.

In reference to these religious practices, Swanson writes this: “These habits, protected through generations of difficulty, have created a people ready to jump up and run to John. They have created a community of faithful people who hear Jesus and hope for something big, not because he is new, but because he is rooted in something very old.”  (Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year B by Richard W. Swanson, p. 98.)

More than any other Gospel writer, Mark keeps the narrative moving. He uses phrases like, “and then” or “suddenly” or “immediately” to give us the feeling that Jesus is on the move. There’s a paradigm shift in the way that familiar religion was being re-interpreted. Their faith derived from a rich tradition that anchored people through difficult times. But Jesus wasn’t content to sit in the past, reciting outdated creeds. He was challenging the favorite notions of His people and breathing new life into them. That became frighteningly apparent with the eruption of a tortured soul at one of His Bible studies! If ever Jesus wanted a teaching moment to kick off His ministry, this was it!

The bad spirit in this man interrupts Jesus’ teaching and speaks to Him as if they’re old friends. It appears that the demon is accustomed to getting his way and throws a fit when he comes up against someone stronger! Mark’s description of this presence is an “unclean spirit.” It indicates something that has evaded control of God’s holiness and causes humans to be banished from God’s presence. This state of uncleanness came about by simply being involved in everyday life. Faithful Jews could be rendered unclean when dealing with birth, death and bodily cycles.  The unclean spirit in this man was strong and vocal, acting almost as a heckler as Jesus took the tradition of the Law and painted a new picture of freedom. He toys with Jesus and challenges the authority with which He taught.

Jesus is unfazed. I think of attorneys or politicians who have bolstered their reputations by the effective way in which they responded to an unexpected legal battle that landed in their lap. With calmness and efficiency they have navigated turbulent waters bringing justice. Folks look in on them with awe and they become an overnight sensation. When Jesus preached His words don’t hang in the air like a boring lecture series by a professor who always talks over your head. His words effect results. There is so much that is familiar for those sitting in their Capernaum sanctuary, hanging on every word of a visiting Rabbi. But whatever felt predictable for the students that day suddenly became new material. Jesus not only honors the Sabbath on a regular basis. He and His disciples habitually violate the rules of Sabbath. In this Capernaum launch party Jesus upbraids an unclean spirit with unequalled power. The lesson taught that day to wide-eyed students is clear: All that is against God, both in the religious institutions and beyond, will not survive the assault of Jesus of Nazareth. In this passage I can almost picture Jesus dressed in cowboy apparel and bursting through the half doors of the saloon where folks nurse their beers in a semi-alert state. What felt familiar just a moment before becomes foreign. Holiness shows up in unlikely places and is dramatically re-interpreted!

I wonder if we can relate to the sense of disorientation those believers felt in their holy space on the shores of the Sea of Galilee? Many of us have been exiled from our beloved sanctuaries most of the past year. I am amazed and encouraged to see how many households from our congregation tune into our on-line worship each week. We are doing church in a new way! We are surviving and even growing (maybe in spite of ourselves) in the midst of a paradigm shift. We have learned to Zoom, Stream, breathe through heavy masks and look through fogged glasses! Whether doing ministry within the building or trying to keep up with each other in new ways, we often overlook those among us who suffer. Most congregations have unofficial assigned seating charts, right? But we might sit near the same family in worship for months and still not know about a grave diagnosis, marital struggles, or anguish over finances. We can faithfully attend to the business of our church but still miss the need for healing that sits among us. In this pandemic we have so anticipated “getting back to normal” that we’ve sometimes missed the ministry opportunities in the moment. Perhaps we have made an idol of the way we did things in the past. Truthfully, I don’t think we will ever go back to “normal”, whatever we might understand that to mean. We will be a changed people on the other side of the COVID 19 siege. How we live in the challenge of the NOW will greatly influence where we find ourselves when vaccinations have been widely dispersed. Looking for new ways to serve Jesus NOW will shape how we feel when we can finally sit next to someone in our familiar sanctuary again. Perhaps we need to pray for Jesus’ words to once again be powerful and performative as we re-interpret what it means to be holy both now and in the future?

This story of Jesus’ inaugural Bible Study tells us that His students were astounded by his teaching—and that’s even before He subdues a tormented believer! I wonder when you were last astonished or astounded by the work of the Holy Spirit? When have you seen the powers of wrong exiled from traditional forms of worship, city governments or national caucuses so that a new day can be celebrated? In the tension of the past months, when have you been an agent of grace to those around you who may have given up on hope? Our ministry in churches has, of necessity, been “out of the box” or out of the four walls of our sanctuary for months. So how have we channeled the power of Jesus to address wrong and bring healing?

Perhaps the upheaval in churches from COVID 19 is being used by the Spirit to remind us that our faith is not linked to geography but to hearts of service? Discipleship isn’t about space but is all about Spirit. I’ve been amazed that our on-line worship has broadened our congregation to include folks who have not previously and may not ever enter our lovely sanctuary. Yet together we walk with in the power of the Spirit each week, bringing that word of hope into our communities. In nontraditional ways, we are nourished by spending holy time together on the miracle called YouTube!

Just 28 verses into Mark’s fast-moving Gospel, Jesus’ fame is spreading throughout that whole region. As He enters their synagogue, the Spirit blows the dust off of their unexamined past and invites them to embrace a new way of holiness. The elements to their religious life that brought healing and hope continue to guide them. What no longer fits is left in the history books. A new teaching astounds them such that they no longer find themselves romanticizing the past. They face forward with anticipation.

Epiphany is the season of revelations. This text invites us to consider what opposition to the goodness of creation looks like. It invites us to expect action to come out of our favorite words of faith. This story confronts us with a Jesus who is more powerful than any other force around Him. He will not be silenced. He will not settle for the way things were. He will not overlook those who have sat quietly in the pews waiting to be noticed. He will guide us now and when we reconvene in person, to create spaces of freedom, places of healing, and a re-invented holiness that astounds!

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Choosing Teams

In our household fantasy sports teams have been the source of great excitement..and angst. What pick will I get? Have I done enough research to know my top picks? What if the players I want are taken before I get my pick? Will somebody make a good trade with me if one of my players fails me? My son has amazing success at noticing the underdog with underestimated talent. Many times Joe wins the game because he puts the overlooked athlete into play. Long before the draft night, he determines his options and goes big!

Just fourteen verses into Mark’s gospel Jesus is choosing His team. Mark’s narrative is succinct. He doesn’t give us more than we need. In just a few verses he tells us about a few of the more memorable players—just like real life! The top of the heap is given more press than those who work equally hard but don’t stand out…like a lot of us. We work hard. We love well. Our sphere of influence is quite local and, for most of us, that’s enough! In Mark’s Gospel we don’t get a full roster of the twelve select men. We read that Jesus chooses two pairs of brothers: Simon and Andrew, James and John. The other eight go unmentioned. Mark is clear about the timing. It’s game time! God’s realm has come near. Repent and believe me that it’s all good news!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

More than 500 years ago, John Calvin looked in on this Disciple Draft and stated that God called “rough mechanics,” like the disciples, to demonstrate that none of us are chosen because of our great talent. Jesus’ picks are solid grace. But there’s an element of risk for these guys who drop their careers and leave their families to travel with Him. The opening line of this passage sets the stage with sobering news: John the Baptist has just been imprisoned. He is Jesus’ relative and his job description was to pave the way for Jesus’ success. He did it so well that he got noticed and then arrested. So when Jesus calls Peter’s number and asks him to put on a jersey for Him, Peter knows that signing the contract doesn’t come with a bonus. It potentially comes with a bounty—on his head! Some of the twelve are believed to have been John’s disciples first. They saw what happened to him and still said “yes” to being on Jesus’ team. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “yes” when Jesus picked him and look at the price he paid!

Calvin called the twelve “rough mechanics.” Let’s look at this team that Jesus put together. It might make us feel better about ourselves!

Jesus starts the process of choosing His team members with an all-nighter. Unlike our college nocturnal cram sessions, Jesus spends the night intentionally in prayer. His choices are Spirit-led, not haphazard. In Mark’s gospel we begin with Simon and Andrew, a pair of brothers. Jesus renames Simon “Peter,” meaning “Rock” because “on you, Peter, I will build My Church!” Peter is the Lebron James of his team. Jesus knows He can trust this passionate, impetuous man to lay a lasting foundation for His legacy. Peter has some rough moments after saying “yes” to discipleship. When he refuses to believe that Jesus’ might die for the cause, Jesus rebukes him more harshly than He did anyone else: “Get behind me, Satan!” Yikes! Later Peter denies even knowing Jesus after loudly proclaiming that he will follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, even laying down his life for Him. Jesus is able to tame his wild side and channel that passion so that Peter indeed becomes the foundation upon which Christ’s Church is established. Andrew has a Greek name with no Semitic equivalent. This makes us think that Andrew and Peter might have had one parent or close relative who wasn’t Jewish. Picking a pair of men with mixed race background points ahead to Christ’s Church. It will include all nations and peoples. Jesus wants to widen the circle and embrace the stranger.

The next pair Jesus picks (according to Mark) is James and John. They are the sons of Zebedee. When Jesus calls them they are doing a day’s work with their dad. They have a family fishing business. But they leave their poor dad in the boat with hired workers and walk away from all that is familiar. I always feel sorry for Zebedee since he loses two key workers and the sons who were his retirement plan. But Zebedee’s wife was Salome. She was at the foot of the cross and at the tomb on the morning of the resurrection. So this family, it turns out, is all in for the Jesus movement. Jesus’ pet name for the pair is the “sons of thunder.” Jesus understands that these brothers have some fire in their bellies that can work to His advantage. While traveling through Samaria, villagers refused passage to Jesus and the disciples. As if on cue, the brothers ask Jesus, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and destroy them?” Whoa, boys! Those are the instincts of the sons of thunder! Jesus redirects their energy. James is martyred for his faith. He is murdered for show by King Herod. John becomes known as the “Apostle of Love,” living the last years of his long life writing letters to the Church from prison. Only Jesus could take electric voltage and transform it into love!

Next in the line-up is Thomas, who is remembered as the Doubter. He can’t believe that Jesus came back to life (let’s be honest—would we?!). Jesus isn’t mad at Thomas for his doubts. Rather, when He pops up in their hidden room, slipping past bolted doors, Jesus invites Thomas to touch Him to verify His wounds. Thomas’ doubt melts away and he proclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

In John’s Gospel we meet another pair. Jesus travels through Bethsaida and meets Phillip. All He has to say is, “Follow Me” and Phillip joins the team. Phillip is so drawn to Jesus that he drags his friend over to meet Jesus. As Nathaniel approaches the charismatic coach, Jesus declares —in Bible speak, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no guile!” Nathaniel wonders aloud how Jesus knows him and Jesus tells him things about his life that He had no right to know. These two friends join the team, perhaps opening up the playing field to non-Jews since Phillip’s name is Greek. Tradition holds that they are crucified upside down together. Two more “rough mechanics,” in John Calvin’s words, who give up their life for the chance to be on a travel team with Jesus.

Jesus invites Levi to join the team. Levi becomes known as Matthew and is a tax man. Who asks an IRS guy to be a central part of a movement? Yet we are so thankful for Matthew’s gospel account that gives us a unique look into the life of Jesus. Judas of Iscariot is the self-appointed treasurer. When the movement doesn’t go as he thinks it should, he sells off access to Jesus for some cash. The poor guy goes down in history as the one who betrays the Son of God.

Faces in the background of the team picture are those whose lives are never explored. Perhaps we relate easily to them? We show up. We work hard. We sacrifice for our loved ones and our communities. But we don’t get any press. There’s the second James whose skill set is so much less celebrated than that of the other James that he goes down in history as James the Lesser. How would you like that humbling name as a team player? There’s a second Judas who is the guy with all the nicknames: Thaddeus, Judas, or Jude. Finally, there’s Simon the Zealot who is known as the most obscure disciple. But lack of prominence doesn’t stop him from giving it his all. We believe that he and the others were martyred for spreading the good news about Jesus to distant parts of their world.

Jesus doesn’t ask them to add one more commitment to their schedule. They don’t have one Zoom meeting per month to talk about their faith. Jesus calls them into a new way of being. Their identity changes when they say “yes” to Jesus’ invitation. It turns out that being picked by the charismatic Jesus is just the beginning, not the end. Living and traveling with Jesus requires them to continually rethink their world. As disciples they are asked to live in the now and the not yet. They sign one contract only to discover over the course of three years that there are eternal implications. Like us, they are asked to live the faith in the face of confusion and questions so that others will be drawn into Christ’s Church. They spend three years on the road with Him but still don’t recognize Him after the resurrection. A tax man, a reactionary, a doubter, an outsider; a friend who isn’t sure that anything good can come out of Nazareth; a thunderous youth who lives the last of his days writing letters of love; a convert who betrays the team leader unto death. These 12 men comprise the team that Jesus chooses. Becoming a disciple, it turns out, is something that any of us can do!

Last week we welcomed a new team into the leadership of our country. They face a population that is divided. They face a people who have drawn distinct lines of exclusion. Our leaders argue among themselves, like Jesus’ team members did. Some doubt. Most serve. Some betray. We’ve seen it. We are discouraged by it. We know the temptations of power are great. So we pray today for our leaders. We pray that they will recognize the tremendous responsibility that comes with their position. We pray that they will be authentic in their service and faithful to their constituency. We pray for God’s grace to shine upon our nation  so that we might truly be one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

We look in on a team of men Jesus hand-picked who, in Calvin’s words, look like they could have come out of a greasy automotive shop. But Jesus taught them to fish—not with bait that tricks fish into biting. They converted people to a saving faith in Christ without a clever bait and switch tactic. So we watch for the opportunities for God to use us. We step out. We play hard. We campaign honestly for Jesus. We give thanks that He picks each of us to be a part of His team, no matter our handicap. This is extraordinary!  This is grace! Amen.

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Selective Narrative

As we stand on the brink of the inauguration, I find it interesting that the Old Testament lectionary reading for last Sunday tells the story of a power shift for the Israelite nation. The two books of Samuel recount the essential work of the prophet, Samuel, whom God uses to anoint the first of the Israelite kings. The chapters on either side of our passage read like a Harrison Ford script, including the unique powers of the Ark of the Covenant and people who lose their lives for spiritually misbehaving. So strap on whatever protective gear seems appropriate for a Raiders of the Lost Ark story and let’s jump in!

The story starts off with seeming calm. In fact, the lectionary planning committee suggests we only focus on the first ten verses of the story. This is the sweet account of a young boy being called into service by God. How nice. But when we add the next ten verses, which are listed as optional-for-the-brave-of-heart, the tone of the story completely changes! All of us are guilty at some point of paying attention only to a selective narrative. Perhaps it is taught to us. Certainly our life experience shapes it. We get comfortable with it and our view easily narrows. So it takes courage to jump into these 20 verses to see what surfaces for us.

We learn that the priest who ruled over the Israelites was Eli. If you back up a chapter you will learn about his sons. These are not Sunday School lessons to be read at bedtime with your children! Suffice it to say, Eli didn’t do a good job of raising his boys. Young Samuel was given over to Eli’s care as a toddler and somehow the priest raised a fine young man. The scene is set by several descriptions about the spiritual state of their nation. The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Visions were not widespread. HOWEVER, the lamp of God had not yet gone out. There is a flicker of hope in an otherwise spiritually dark time.

God calls out to young Samuel who sleeps in the temple while the blind, elderly priest is asleep in his room. Samuel hasn’t yet learned to recognize God’s voice so three times he runs off to Eli, asking him what he wants. Samuel is an obedient child. It takes three times for Eli to realize Who is calling this young man. Even though his sight is diminished and his track record as a father is dismal, Eli recognizes God’s presence. Why does the arrival of God in the Temple surprise this holy man? Had he narrowed his expectations of God’s activity to a selective narrative that didn’t include a power shift? In spite of his tapered view on God’s movement, Eli knows that God is near. He gives Samuel the answer for the next time he hears the voice. Then the old priest drifts back into exhausted sleep. Lawrence Wood writes, “..while Samuel sleeps, God turns out to be delightfully awake.”

The third time God calls out, Samuel has his answer: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

This adolescent boy could have no idea how dangerous it would be to answer God’s call. After assuring God of his attentiveness, God immediately dumps a big secret on him. The bad behavior of Eli’s sons has not gone unnoticed. The norm for leadership succession then and now, in many places, is birth right. Eli’s sons assume they will inherit the mantle of responsibility when their frail father dies. They want to help themselves even more inappropriately to the perks of power. But God has other plans, plans to destroy Eli’s lineage. God will supplant the birthright of Eli’s sons by transferring power to the adopted son who had been dropped at Eli’s door years before. I imagine that went over about as well as Cinderella’s step-sisters learning that she is marrying the Prince! No wonder Samuel found it impossible to fall back asleep after this epiphany! In that moment, Samuel had to grow up fast. Young Samuel had to announce to Eli the charges against his family. Do you know how much courage it takes to listen well and speak words of truth clearly? What if those words God asks you to speak go against the selective narrative of those around you? What if they go against the selective narrative with which you have become so comfortable? This midnight calling is a heavy initiation into his new position as prophet of the Hebrew people. Years later God called into service a man by the name of Jeremiah. God’s mandate to this prophet who never asked for the job was this: “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” Can you imagine the courage it took for Jeremiah to sign the work contract? In 1 Samuel 3 God chooses a boy on the cusp of manhood who must learn the language of the Spirit. He is an outsider to power and doesn’t have a team to promote his agenda. He has questions about his role. His naivete is clearly on display. But we have seen with the birth narratives that questions asked honestly and earnestly of God are welcomed. Questions asked so as to understand the truth launch us on a journey for which we are equipped step by step.

God seems to be excited to share this news: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.” When did your ears last tingle with news that came your way? I witnessed last week how our ears tingled at our Tuesday morning Zoom Bible Study as class members talked about how they had just gotten the COVID vaccination. What good news! With the varied narratives circulating about the ineptitude of the distribution process, what an unexpected gift it was to hear that the light of God has not yet gone out in spite of a hellish year of COVID domination!

Our ears tingled ten days ago when our screens lit up with unimaginable images of an angry mob breaking into the Capitol building, carrying spears, guns and zip ties. The unrest in our country was on display for the world to see. Our ears have tingled with news at so many different moments in the past year. We are exhausted trying to determine a response of faith to these deep lines of division resulting from ardent allegiance to varied selective narratives.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, but only those who see take off their shoes; the rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

God is continually breaking into our world to introduce a time of renewal and forgiveness. Even though visions are rare and the word of God is increasingly absent in our culture today, the lamp of God’s light has not completely gone out! I like blackberries but have I missed that heaven is crammed between the prickly branches even more abundantly than the berries? What is it that I really crave: sweet fruit or God’s presence?

I admire Eli for the fact that he commands Samuel to share God’s message, no matter how difficult it might be for him to hear. Though the old priest has been sleeping on the job at times, he accepts that God is in control. When the fullness of God’s narrative goes against our own selective narrative, Eli reminds us that we may be disciplined. If we have been sleeping while on duty for Christ’s Church, we may discover that God has been very much awake and vigilant over our troubled world.

No doubt we approach the inauguration this week with feelings that are quite different from other election years. I am greatly saddened over the deep divisions that often prevent us from seeing each other in our full humanity. I am worried about the threat of violence. I am offended as a follower of Jesus that Truth has become so elusive since so many people claim their selective narrative to be Gospel truth. I am weary of witnessing acts of discrimination that harm individuals and nations. I think of poor Samuel who got much more in his job description than he bargained for. His humility was essential as he entered into the politics of his people on behalf of his God.

We are a people of hope so I do not despair. I wonder who we relate to in this story? Is it Eli, the tired old priest who was surprised when God showed up at church? Is it Samuel, who had to learn the language of the Spirit and yield power over his life to the God who came calling? Is it the sons of Eli who abandoned the moral imperative of their position by grabbing the goods of power for themselves?

Perhaps the crucial question that surfaces for us out of this story is: What shall we say or do when God shows up? Eli’s wisdom lives on. We set aside the selective narrative that has driven our decisions. Like Samuel, we make a humble commitment in the dark: Speak, for your servant is listening.

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Remembering MLK, Jr.

Remembering MLK, Jr.       May, 2019

Rev. Laurie TenHave-Chapman

For the healing of the nations, harmony between the races;

No one up pushing others down; no more grasping for a crown.

White supremacy growing strong. summer protests addressing wrong.

Weapons loaded; words exploded! “You’re not human,” Hatred goaded.

“I have a dream,” the preacher said. “I’ll preach this truth until I’m dead.”

Black folk marched in peaceful protest; the world peered in on this equal rights quest.

The Civil War raged on it seems with images of children facing angry cop teams.

Rosa fought by taking a seat. Black churches burned, turning up the heat.

A bullet silenced the voice of the Pastor which advanced the movement even faster.

“A martyr’s death”, the world proclaimed. The scourge of racism our nation shamed.

The world aghast, laws were passed, equality promised at long last.

Schools and restaurants integrated. Mistrust kept churches separated.

In St. Landry Parish 50 years later three churches torched by a racist hater.

The Deputy’s son arrested and jailed. Has all of King’s effort miserably failed?

The color of skin still sets us apart but progress is measured by the love in our heart.

“Free Hugs” offered Devonte on Ferguson streets. So a cop, for a moment, left his beat

to heal our nation with a viral embrace. Black boy, white man celebrate race.

It’s in these moments God sends our way that tears mark the path to a hope-filled day.

Revolutions start small, one smile at a time. Up the mountain with Martin we continue to climb.

The way is long. The ascent is steep but the martyrs summon us from our slumber deep.

The night is o’er. The day has dawned. Let’s put on our armor and move along.

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Star Witness

In reading the passage from Mark’s Gospel about Jesus’ baptism, I thought of a long-time member who lived to be over one hundred years old. She was very active: a golfer, walker and long-time swim teacher. She taught hundreds of kids over decades of instruction how to get into the water without fear and swim with joy. That’s no small feat! My memories of swim lessons as a girl are not particularly positive. I sat on the edge of the pool on cool summer mornings, shivering. I had to jump in before the sun had been up long enough to warm the concrete I sat on or the water I was asked to enter. My final exam was to swim ¾ of the way across the width of the pool to the teacher, who was treading water, swim around him and then return to the edge of the pool. I dog-paddled out to him with some level of calm. But when I got near him I panicked and grabbed onto the surprised teacher. It took me a few years to graduate from Beginners to Intermediate. Patient teachers along the way helped me face my fears and gain life-saving skills.

Isaiah 43 offers reassurance to us that the trials of life will never overtake us: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.”

Have you ever seen a small child learn to swim? They sputter and cough and gasp and we regret ever entrusting them to a swim coach. But then they learn. They float on their back peacefully, their eyes no longer big with fear but looking up at the sky that seems to envelop them. Befriending the water prepares a child for unexpected moments ahead. Baptism by water and Spirit is our entry into the Church. It was quite tame for most of us—sprinkling on our heads while held securely. But in some traditions it’s by full immersion and the preacher holds the person down a little longer on the third dunk. The message is clear: this is no small commitment. Your baptism is life-changing. This sacrament is a death to self and an acknowledgement of full reliance on God’s protection. It’s a unique entrance exam into club membership! For many organizations you offer words of allegiance and accept a membership pin. Then you sit down for cake and punch served afterwards to celebrate your new sense of belonging. Not in the Church! You get wet, your hair is slicked down and the words of the preacher remind you that you have died to self so that you can rise to new life in Christ.

Wait, what did I just commit to? I thought this was going to make my life easier?

There’s some amazing news in this story that we could easily overlook if we get lost in the details of a very human experience. God loves us so much that God entered our world vulnerably as a human being. The heavens are torn open and love descends in the form of a dove. It lands and stirs up a sense of calling in Jesus, who is anointed for ministry. Jesus’ baptism launches Him on His career in Mark’s gospel where there are no lengthy pauses or picnics. It’s full speed ahead until the heavens open again at the Transfiguration and, later, the crucifixion. In the wilderness the sweet dove is replaced with wild animals. Quite often adults who come to me excited to be baptized fall away from the faith a short time later. While baptism is a beautiful beginning point to a life of faith, there’s nothing easy about what follows. Temptations come our way. Recognizing them must be followed by resisting them. Our baptism doesn’t insulate us from the world’s pain. It gives us the spiritual tools to face that pain and triumph over it.

A picture is painted of John in just a few sentences. His clothing, his diet, and his words brand him as a fringe character. No wonder he is more at home in the wilderness than in the cities. He stands between the wilderness and the land flowing with milk and honey. Ted Smith writes, “John has become an all-purpose container for any kind of radical content.” He stands out and religious authorities show up in his rough neighborhood to check him out. Just three verses after our passage for today ends, we read, “After John was put in prison…” Baptizing his relative, Jesus, is one of the last things he did before he was imprisoned. He was killed as a star witness to this Messiah who was equally disruptive of the status quo. How many detective shows have we seen where the star witness is murdered before they can share what they know at a trial? It’s dangerous to get close to a controversial figure. It cost John his life.

John still calls out to us today as we struggle to embody our baptismal vows in daily living. He asks us to confess our sin, repent of it and enter into each new moment with hopeful expectation. Since God has broken through the heavens to claim us, we dare to have hope even when the world around us is marked by political strife and life-threatening illness. In baptism we reverse the direction of our life. The Greek word is metanoia which translates to mean that we turn around and repent. The whole church makes promises to accompany us on our bold journey of facing each temptation with spiritual strength. Our congregation has accepted the responsibility of accompanying countless parents in raising their children in the faith through the sacrament of baptism. If we think we can do it alone, we’re in trouble!

We speak of bubble-wrapped children in our culture today. Parents try to spare their children from any kind of hardship. Everybody gets a prize and no one is sent home from the party without a goodie bag. In baptism we are reminded that there has to be a balance between abandoning our responsibility to our children (neglect is on one end of the care spectrum) and controlling their every move. Lori Laughlin and her daughters have admitted to making mistakes in that area recently. She was released from prison over the holidays after a very public scandal over paying bribes to get her two girls into prestigious colleges. We do our children a disservice when we overly protect them and do their heavy but necessary lifting. On a rafting trip down the Little Muskegon River years ago one of our members got stuck in an eddy that is particularly strong right at the endpoint of the journey. We couldn’t imagine that the water was as powerful as she suggested until we spilled out of our boats to drag them out of the water. There are moments that seemingly come out of nowhere and we find that we are stuck in a whirlpool that threatens to pull us under. If our parents and other guardians haven’t allowed us to try out our chops on smaller problems, we will not do well. Baptismal love prepares us for the continual moments when we are released to try out our wings. Each time we entrust our children with freedom to make and learn from their own mistakes, they are readied to face bigger challenges.

In Mark’s Gospel there’s a secrecy motif. Jesus repeatedly tells folks who have witnessed a miracle not to tell anyone about it. He knows the danger that comes with being a key witness to controversial news. Jesus receives the Spirit and passes it on as a gift. He knows that His radical acts of mercy will cost Him His life at some point. But He doesn’t want to arrive at the cross until His earthly mission is complete. So He asks folks to keep what they’ve seen to themselves. His baptism is a rare parting of the heavens so that God’s presence can be easily discerned. I wonder if you wish that God would open up the heavens to answer your questions. Is it difficult to see God? Maybe you’ve had some memorable moments of God showing up in your life, bringing peace where there was only chaos? Maybe you had a wilderness period when you felt as if you were being stalked by wild beasts with no help from God? It’s been a rough week for our nation. It’s been a deadly year for our world. Much of the time we slog along, getting the job done without asking for much help. But then God shows up in glory and we realize that we have never been alone: in the water, in the fire, in the wilderness, on the boat. The more we cling to our faith in hard times, the more we will be able to draw on that strength again.

A Lutheran woman wrote, “That’s why I love attending a church with a rich liturgy, a church that has rituals. The thing I love is that even when you don’t feel like being with God, the Church, through liturgy, insists that you talk to God and also put yourself in a situation in which God can talk to you.”

When have you parked yourself in a place where you thought you would encounter God? When have you stuck with devotions, scripture reading, volunteer work you were ready to quit–because you knew it was the right thing to do? When have you offered a holy response to a secular problem? When have the heavens opened and God claimed you with a love that sent you into the next part of your journey refreshed. When have you gone out on a limb to be a  witness to your faith in Jesus Christ?

Ted Smith writes, “…for most of the Gospel this love lives out of sight, like a seed growing secretly. Only the demons know who Jesus is. The disciples stumble along, forever forgetting what they have seen and heard. The heavens seem not torn open, but sealed and silent—as they do so much of the time today.” So put on the life preserver we call Jesus. Allow Him to encircle you and the sweet children entrusted to your care. Know that He is always present in the boat with you. And when the waters get rough and you worry that you will capsize, cry out for God who called you by name at your baptism. Watch for the heavens to open and embrace you as a beloved son or daughter. Be a star witness to this Love no matter the cost. It will never fail us no matter what’s going on in the world around us.