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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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Home Boy

The first church both Garrett and I served right out of seminary was in Lombard, Illinois. A western suburb to the Windy City, its claim to fame is lilacs! I have the whiskey bottle to prove it! My mother found a Jim Beam bottle that celebrates the town’s centennial at an antique mall and gave it to me as one of the most unique souvenirs I have of Garrett’s and my first hometown.

Every spring the town cranks up the machinery that culminates in the Lilacia Ball! Every local Rotarian or Lion or business owner makes an appearance. Some young woman blushes with pride to be crowned the Lilacia Queen! Garrett and I were invited one year because I was asked to give the invocation before the meal. Sometimes prayer really is your meal ticket! I looked out over a room of people dressed in their finery, many in varied hues of purple. We found it amusing that the two local funeral homes each had their own table filled with employees. Normally I saw these folks in the somber setting of a graveside service. But at the Lilacia Ball they were drinking and smoking as if there were no tomorrow! Even though it was a suburb of somewhat significant size, it still perceived itself as the small prairie town that it once was. Every town chooses their unique branding and Lombard chose lilacs.

Before Jesus came along, Nazareth was nothing to brag about. A town of 200-400 residents, this boiled down to a couple dozen extended families who shared a total of about ten acres of land. Most were farmers who worked hard for their meager living. As is often the case in rural towns, it clung to conservative values and adhered to traditional Jewish culture. Everyone would have known everyone else in this village that was nestled in the hills some twelve miles from the Sea of Galilee. Take a walk with me as we drop in on a Shabbat service in the Nazareth synagogue. Whenever you go on a tour, you expect to cover some distance. In this story we will wade into a crazy mix of emotions as the hometown folks encounter the One who put them on the map: Jesus of Nazareth.

This past week I worked at one of the home sites on our youth mission trip. We scraped and washed down a mobile home in preparation for a paint job. It’s not gratifying work because things look worse rather than better! In this story that Mark tells, the more we scrape below the surface, the more the ugly attitudes are exposed.

By the time Jesus returns to His hometown to reunite with his family and friends, He is already well-known. He is a known entity! The synagogue ruler, Jairus, recognizes Him while on His opening tour. A blind man named Bartimaeus understands that Jesus is Savior even though he cannot see. Poor people and rich rulers, the lowly and the lofty, recognize who Jesus is. Even the demons cry out His name. But when Jesus stops home, none of His homies recognize Him for who He is.

Boys in religiously conservative Nazareth would have learned how to read. The main purpose for this skill was so that they could read from the scrolls during their worship service. So Jesus steps into a familiar space when He stands in the synagogue to read before the townsfolk. His teaching astounds these folks but also seems to strike a nerve. They move quickly from being captivated to feeling jealous. They remember Him as the carpenter whose quality work is in their homes and barns. They are unable to mesh His past with the man who stands before them: a popular speaker, healer, and religious authority. As they murmur among themselves, they name the other members of Jesus’ family: His mother Mary, His brothers and sisters.  We assume that they are still living in backwoods Nazareth so how did this one get away and become such a smarty pants? Perhaps what most terrified them was the fact that His teaching moved them! They cannot—and will not—see Him in the present tense. Mary’s little boy is frozen in time on His home turf.

When I was growing up, we spent most of our summers on the shores of Lake Michigan at a family cottage. We all had our first jobs in Saugatuck (name any food establishment that dates back 50 years and one of the six of us worked at it!). We hung out with townies on our off hours but then moved on to college and life beyond that small tourist town. As a married mother of four and ordained pastor, I needed to have some dirt delivered to our cottage one summer. A burly guy backed into our yard in a dump truck. When he presented me with the receipt, I thought he looked familiar. When he was a teenager, he had a coarse mop of red hair so he was nicknamed “Brillo.” I asked him if he remembered my friend, Ava. When he remembered who I was by association, he gave a grunt of affirmation: “Anyone who partied with Ava is a friend of mine.” Well, I don’t know that I partied with Ava or Brillo and certainly our lives had gone in significantly different directions. But I noted that I was embraced as one of the old gang! If this whole ministry gig falls through, there’s a place where I still belong!

When Jesus shows up in off-the-beaten-track Nazareth with a band of brothers, He is perhaps remembered by His peers as a home boy. They had played together, studied together, worshiped and grown up together. While their Nazarene lives hadn’t changed much, Jesus’ clearly had! Jack Kingsbury writes, “The motive sparking their question … is unbelief, for they find it incredible that one whose origins they know should be able to do such astounding things.”

Jesus is not just ignored after the scripture reading. He is outright rejected. His boyhood cronies are offended that He should have succeeded so greatly while their lives look much the same. Mark lets us know that Jesus has an obedient faith which the townies lack. How could they miss the arrival of the One who would put their village on the map forevermore? Perhaps we understand. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we cling to what is familiar only to discover that our faith withers on the vine. We refuse to see what we don’t expect to see!

As we continue to hike into this rocky emotional terrain, I’m surprised by something. Mark tells us that Jesus’ power is short circuited by the hard-heartedness of His townies. He is human, after all, and having your home community utterly reject you would be difficult to overcome. Jesus counts on us to work with Him so that mighty acts of healing and renewal can happen. We have the freedom to choose our own belief system. But the regimented faith of the Nazarenes shows us the potentially dire effect of looking past Him so as to keep our worldview intact. We miss the light show when God acts in power. As fireworks of healing illumine the sky around us, we close the blinds more tightly. I suspect we do understand how Jesus’ community could reject Him: they didn’t want to change their window on the world!

After being rejected at home, Jesus pairs up His disciples and sends them off to other villages to try out their ministry bag of tricks. The instructions are few but comprehensive: Wear your walking sandals (they didn’t have Merrell hiking boots!). Don’t take a suitcase or even a change of clothes. You will have to rely on the kindness of strangers. Only take with you a walking stick that will help you cover some ground. Oh, and by the way, it may also be needed to fight off wild animals. Good luck! Have a great trip! Buhbye!

Twenty of our middle and high schoolers headed off on a mission trip this last week. Some years our youth go out of country to serve others. Other years they drive all day to get to their destination, laughing, napping, and littering the rental vehicle with food wrappers. This year, they drove eight miles north to work on the homes of our community members. Unlike the pairs of disciples, they dragged a suitcase or duffel bag into a middle school that was transformed into a dormitory for 200 youth and chaperones. They slept on the floor right next to lots of other sleeping, breathing bodies. They pitted out their fresh clothing on long, sweaty work days. The best meal they had all week were the burgers and watermelon at a church member’s home after an afternoon of swimming and boating. Ask any parent—I would be willing to bet that these kids fell into a deep sleep the moment they got home. Only rest could replenish them from the rigors of leaving home to serve others in the heat of each day.

When we act in faith, we are given a level of authority. With authority comes responsibility. With responsibility comes risk. Jesus sent His guys out after they saw how He endured rejection from those who knew Him best. He wanted them to know that rejection, at some point in the journey, is inevitable. So move on. Go to another town where people will receive you. Don’t even let particles of their DNA cling to your dirty tennis shoes. Jesus warned against a form of spiritual cooties. Shake the dust off your feet and move on down the road! Times a wastin’ so don’t take too long trying to convert the know-it-alls!

So what is asked of these men who must have been terrified as they were sent packing? The same thing that is required of us as we journey through each day. Michael Lindvall writes, “…they need not have polished words…They are simply called to speak the Truth in love, from the heart, in their own words, and never be ashamed.” We are summoned to follow their example and to become evangelists. We must tell our story of faith with words—they don’t have to be eloquent. We offer our story in spite of anxiety or embarrassment, trusting that God will use our testimony for the well-being of others. With faith we are entrusted with authority which leads to responsibility. When we speak of our faith, our risky behavior begins to change the world.

At the mobile home community that was the locus of our mission activity last week, folks couldn’t miss us. Our vans stuck out too far in their narrow streets. Our team members played music and laughed together. Residents ate lunch with their workers and everyone did devotions together. The Spirit moved with a beautiful contagion that was all the more powerful after the viral infection we’ve fought the past fifteen months. One resident drove by the many work sites in his car, smiling out the window as he observed a miracle of change in his neighborhood. As we packed up to leave at the end of the first day, two men in a creaky car drove by and asked if we had trash we needed to dump. We said yes and they took it off our hands. They got caught up in the movement of the Spirit that wafted in with the mission teams and they wanted to do their part. As the neighborhood changed, the townies noticed!

The limited perspectives on Jesus by the people who should have known Him best actually limited His power. Their misunderstanding neutralized Jesus so that His only option was to journey on until they found individuals who would listen with open hearts. That can still be difficult to find today!

These mission trips pack a spiritual wallop into the hearts of our young people. We look forward to hearing from them in the fall when they are back from the adventures of summer. We need to hear their stories and they need to tell them! In their absence, I offer a prayer that was written years ago by a young man at the close of a week long mission trip. Both of his parents suffered from significant mental illnesses and his only sibling lived with debilitating cerebral palsy. His home life was loving but traumatic. A week serving others in Jesus’ name gave him a voice that emerged in the form of this sermonic prayer:

Today we are all one in the body of Jesus Christ and we have gathered together to worship our Father, in Love and in hope for the future. Our Father rests among us, watching and listening. I come to you to speak the word. God is the Master, the Creator and our Savior. We are his children. I ask you today to listen and watch, because now is the time. Jesus has come and cleansed us of all sin. It’s always easy to lose the way, but Jesus will still be there. Fear is quick to knock us off balance, but do not be fooled, because God has given us his perfect Love and it has cast out all fear. Remember your faith when you drive home today. Remember your faith when you speak to your family. God is miraculous. Can we imagine His Majesty? I believe that it takes Love to dream, Courage to believe, Humility to see and Wisdom to be. PEACE BE WITH YOU. AMEN.

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Our Just Deserts

We are given a poignant insight into the heart of God in a narrative from 1 Samuel 8: 4-20. I feel sorry for both Samuel and God in this story. The Israelites see their power structure crumbling. Samuel is their connection to God. A prophet, he serves as God’s mouthpiece. But he’s getting old and his two sons are up to no good. The rule of succession dictates that the father elevate the sons to his prophetic position in his state of decline. The Hebrew people know they are doomed. So they cry out to Samuel, asking him to appoint a King for them. Living by an alternative system of government to the surrounding tribes has been taxing. They want to conform: “Give us a king so that we can be like the other nations.” They want to fit in.  Some things never change from generation to generation.

Samuel feels like a failure with this request. God’s governance over the chosen people was to guide them directly through prophets, not to shape royalty out of regular folks. Samuel doesn’t want a monarchy to be established on his watch. But God assures the weary prophet that the people are not rejecting him. The Israelites are rejecting God. God gave them freedom to choose their way of life. So God invites Samuel to give them what they want. Samuel feels guilt. God is resigned. It’s a tough moment in the history of the Jews.

We hit up against an unlikely paradox in this story. God is omnipotent yet humanity is free. This is a remarkable model for power that few leaders choose. Parents understand it however. When our grown children insist on charting a path of destruction in spite of our best guidance, we shake our heads but stand close by. We brace ourselves for the consequences we believe will inevitably come their way. With every choice, they receive their just deserts. In other words, they get exactly what they deserve. Sometimes the path of rebellion has minimal repercussions. Other times, the carnage is painful to witness. As parents, it grieves us to know that our grown children must have the freedom to make their own mistakes.

In this snapshot into the impatient, insecure Israelites, we notice that God meets us where we are at. Our choices may have long-term consequences but God never abandons us. To this generation of adults crying out for a human ruler, God responds, “I’ll still be with you if you choose a king but here’s what the king may do to you…” God strings together a litany of policies that monarchs use to control their people. Taxes, conscripted military service, greed, forced servanthood will be their just deserts if they replace God with a King. Even the best leaders govern their people through these tactics. In contrast to those policies, God liberates, defends, protects and loves. The two models of governance could not be in greater opposition.

The issue at stake in this passage is how will God’s people choose to be governed? What is the foundational protocol for empowering leaders? Is it bribes? Birthright? Is it a popularity contest or, like Samuel tried, succession? Is it a voting process that become hotly contested for its efficacy? Will we raise up leaders who close their eyes to the injustices surrounding them in order to protect the status quo? Is maintaining the power structure more important than shaping a national ethic of compassion?

On June 1 Pope Francis issued an extensive revision to the laws that guide the Roman Catholic Church. After decades of scandal surrounding abusive priests who were reassigned from one parish to another, even as rumors or accusations of sexual misdoing surfaced, the Pope clarified the fitting and harsh response of ecclesial leaders to these transgressions. This revision will not undo the damage that has driven countless believers away from the church. But it may restore some confidence in an institution that, at times, seemed to protect the hierarchy rather than act justly. When politics and faith collide, can there be authenticity or do we expect leaders to protect other leaders? This story perhaps raises more questions than it answers!

Samuel’s allegiance to God stands in stark contrast to the willingness of the Hebrew people to dethrone God. Samuel comes to God’s defense but his sermon falls on deaf ears. I’ve often felt like I was the defender of God! It’s amazing to me how often folks blame God for their mishaps but never thank God for the many gifts in their lives. Quite often the struggles are born out of human sin. Yet God is blamed. What if we did that with a human relationship? Every time something goes awry, we blame the same person. But we never invest in a loving relationship with them that affirms their gifts to us. How long would that relationship endure? We live in a society that readily abandons faith—and Church—for perceived insults. Yet the Offended haven’t had a conversation with their Maker in years! Often the underlying problem to our social issues is spiritual in nature but we hang it on our favorite scapegoats. As long as we blame our problems on others, especially an amorphous deity, we fail to make peace with the inevitable challenges we face. Sadly, embitterment toward God is rampant in our nation today. We are an increasingly secular country where God doesn’t factor into our daily decision-making. But that doesn’t stop us, avowed atheists included, from pointing the finger at God for the slightest discomfort!

In the New Interpreter’s Bible one commentator offers good insights into this passage from 1 Samuel. He writes, “In this story, the elders and Samuel both suggest dangers that still face us in the modern church. The elders have a legitimate concern for justice, but are willing to erode the authority of God for the sake of stronger centers of human power. Samuel is protective of the integrity of God, but represents a vested interest in the way things have always been done. Chapter 8 offers no simple right-and-wrong way to adjudicate the claims of citizenship and faith. It merely demands an awareness of the interrelated character of these claims.”

I was hoping for a simple explanation!

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I wonder when your faith has led you to establish firm, counter-cultural boundaries? When has your stance gotten you in trouble or made things awkward for you? How does your understanding of citizenship and discipleship interact? When you pull up alongside a disheveled person who is holding a sign inviting donations, do you roll down your window and hand out a couple bills? Or do you write a check to a charitable organization that addresses the root causes of poverty in our city? Or do you hope the light changes soon so you don’t have to avoid making eye contact with a pitiful figure who looms outside your car window? As our reasoning capacities mature over the course of our years, we discover that there are seldom easy answers to our faith crises. Job’s wife offered a solution that still is popular today for those facing hardship: Just curse God and die.

But martyrs have died for the Christian faith over the ages! Why would they do that? What belief system is worth dying for? If you want a good but startling answer, read some of the letters written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during World War II. He was a German pastor who worked to bring Hitler’s reign of terror to an end. When this was discovered, he was sent to an internment camp. His letters reflect a beautiful faith that recognizes that he is at the mercy of evil leadership. But God kept company with Bonhoeffer in that death camp. He was killed by firing squad just days before the war ended. When does our faith lead us to say “no” to prevailing attitudes even when it’s costly to us? Political power is usually maintained by force and threat of physical harm. Jesus leads by love. Jesus preaches that we have a choice about how we live each day but reminds us that we can’t serve two masters. Jesus takes on Himself the guilt of others, hoping that the least likable person will encounter God through His willing sacrifice. Do we follow Christ’s example? Or do we keep at a safe distance from our cultural clashes?

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Father Richard Rohr writes about the first spiritual experience he had when he was just five. Alone by the Christmas tree he was overwhelmed with a sense that the world was good, that he was good and that he was part of the good world. He realized that his family didn’t know what he was experiencing and it felt like a good secret to keep. He experienced in that holy encounter that he was chosen and loved and he wanted to keep that to himself. He writes, “…see how my ego was already getting involved? Like the Apostle Paul, I now believe that chosenness is for the sake of letting everybody else know they are chosen, too… Our job is to be who we say we are and who God says we are—carriers of the divine image…I can only imagine how differently our lives, families, and nations would look if we trusted the foundational promise of Christian incarnation. When you can see Christ in all things (including yourself!), you will see and live differently.” (Post from April, 2021 on the Center for Action and Contemplation daily reflection)

While the Israelites cry out for a king who will go to battle for them and make a great name for their nation, Rohr suggests that we are to choose a life of “simplicity, service, generosity, and even powerlessness…” Powerlessness? That doesn’t sell! Can you imagine a candidate running a campaign that boasts those attributes? This seems the very opposite of everything that we would describe as “kingliness.” But it also paints a clear picture of the One we claim to follow. Jesus’ ministry, more than one thousand years after poor Samuel took a stand for God, models the necessity of reaching for God during trials rather than relying on false security. When our community cries out for justice, we often grab onto the nearest promise of safety that has flesh and voice. What we receive for our short-sighted security grab is our just deserts.

Jesus calls out to us, wherever we find ourselves marooned, reminding us that we are not alone. His sovereignty goes against the sort of power most rulers flash in order to impress. But He introduces us to a God who liberates, defends, protects and loves.

Do you want a king to be like the other nations? Or will you spend your life in the shelter of this loving God? The choice is yours.

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Open Wide Your Hearts

Last Monday marked the 34th anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry. June 14, 1987 was a hot summer day in suburban Chicago. I drove to church early that Sunday morning and the bank sign informed me that it was 78 degrees at 7:30AM! The ordination service to ceremonially authorize Garrett and me for ministry was in the afternoon. We wore our robes in a sanctuary that was not air conditioned. I sat upright for much of the ceremony, feeling the sweat literally drip down my back! My dad, a career U.C.C. minister, gave the charge to Garrett and me. He said that there was a fairy tale element to serving in Jesus’ name. Princesses have to kiss frogs without knowing that there’s a fair prince mysteriously inside that green body. Likewise, we disciples of Christ are called to embrace lots of toads trusting that their inner beauty can shine forth.

Denominational leaders laid hands on us. The congregation stood so that they, too, were linked to our two kneeling bodies through a web of prayerful touch. At the close of the service, I was able to put my newly-ordained status into immediate practice by baptizing my two-month-old daughter, Lisa. Wearing a baptismal gown that her father and grandfather had both worn at their baptisms, we welcomed her into the family of Christ. All four of our parents and seven siblings were present to celebrate her place in our extended family. The Holy Spirit transformed the First Church of Lombard into holy ground for us. After being feted with cake and hot coffee at a reception, we headed home to our duplex where fourteen of us sat around a ping pong table in an unfinished basement, eating steamy lasagna and garlic bread. Like the Pentecost fire, the Holy Spirit blessed our gathering!

Just as a couple standing starry-eyed at the altar, it’s impossible to know where our vows will take us. Pastor Paul, knocked off his horse while persecuting members of the early church, could have not known where Christ would lead him as the church-planter-extraordinaire! In 2 Corinthians 6, we read a portion of a letter Paul wrote to one of his beloved congregations that gave him much angst! In this thick theological correspondence, Paul is blunt and vulnerable. The theme of the letter is reconciliation with a divided, distracted community. We know that this letter follows another that was lost. He references that letter in 2:4: “For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” Scholars refer to the lost document as the “severe letter” or “letter of tears.” In this follow-up letter, Paul attempts to guide this fledgling Christian community into a spirit of genuine Christian service rather than heated disagreement. He wants them to understand that faithful living is not the absence of hardship. Rather than running from hot debates, Paul exhorts them to know God’s grace within that hardship. This is a lesson every generation of believers has struggled to embrace.

On the eighth anniversary of my ordination, I found myself at a camp situated in the Mayan jungle. I led a youth group on a mission trip to Belize where we were immersed in a new culture while facing the challenges of living together as a community. My experience with week-long mission trips is that the initial excitement wears off after three or four days of hard work and minimal sleep. Add extreme tropical heat and humidity to the mix and “my kids” were not at all happy with each other that Wednesday night. Facing off with angry words in the community room, my heart was heavy as I tried to move them from frustrated animosity to unified service. Through tears I told them how sad I was that they succumbed to divisive tension when they had worked so hard for this tremendous Christian adventure in beautiful Belize. I hugged each one of the angry teenagers and left the room. As I wandered the darkened campus, illumined by moonlight and amplified with insect sounds, I realized that I was honoring my ordination vows in that moment. By the end of the week the group had forgiven each other their irritating behaviors and grieved the conclusion of our mission trip. Perhaps my tearful message helped to reshape the way we related to each other. Perhaps we understood anew that true Christian community is not forged out of an absence of hardship but through God’s grace while living those trials. Whether in the jungles of Belize, the crush of school hallways, or the tension of crowded offices, we can expect heated moments when only our faith will enable us to emerge as friends.

Peter Hawkins (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 159), a commentator on this text, writes this about Paul: “In essence, he is writing his own letter of recommendation to a church he planted, loves, and feels betrayed by.” Two other leaders in the Corinthian congregation became inflated by their elevated positions and turned the members against Paul. Not being physically present to them, Paul had to defend himself in this letter so that the congregants wouldn’t be led astray by Cephas and Apollos. He worried that these two men were dividing the church family while advancing their own status. Paul reminds them of the call to be servants on behalf of Jesus and subservient to each other’s needs. He points to himself as a good example for discipleship. He doesn’t do this to receive kudos. He fervently tries to convict them of Christ-like behavior. He names the many ways he suffered to point them toward their baptismal calling: be willing to die to self for the sake of others. Paul is at his most vulnerable in this letter as he voices his deep love for them.

Three years ago Garrett and I spent our ordination anniversary touring my favorite place in Paris, Sacred Heart Basilica. I spent a semester in France while in college but was too poor to take tours of significant places. So I was happy to learn much about this beloved church and the surrounding area 39 years later. I didn’t realize that the Church of St. Peter, a much earlier structure, sits right next to the grand basilica that dwarfs it.

As we toured through that tenth century church, our guide told us that St. Peter’s had been built on the site of a Roman temple to the god, Mars. Later it became a sacred spot for Druid worship. Many ancient church buildings are built atop the ruins of pagan altars in a sort of archaeological game of “King of the Mountain.” Conquering groups feel superior when they are able to move into the space of the vanquished and use it for their own purposes. But remnants of the past remind us that we take our cues from previous believers, whether by imitation or differentiation. Two immense Roman columns that date back nearly 2000 years stand in the nave of the Church of St. Peter. I touched one of them, thinking of believers who worshiped in a sanctuary whose structural support relied on these massive posts. Human-made structures have a lifespan. Every now and then, they survive for generations, serving as reminders of our transiency, like those pillars erected to bring praise to a Roman god. On our roots tour to Europe, I was humbled to learn of the sacrifice of my Christian forebears so that I could stand firm today as an ordained Christian pastor in a congregation that dates back to 1847. Like our forebears, the congregation and I honor our commitment to this community as the very first Christian congregation who gathered to worship. Some of you sit in the same sacred space where your grandparents and great grandparents worshiped. Each generation faces trials but must learn to persevere by God’s grace. Their suffering teaches us what it means to carry the torch of faith in our time.

Paul’s leadership was hotly contested. He was unafraid to name sin because his allegiance was to God and not to any human conventions. Often pastoral leadership shifts away from bold proclamation in a futile effort to keep everyone happy. Paul didn’t concern himself with that. (He might have benefitted from a Pastor/Parish Support Committee in Corinth!) On occasion, I’ve had to stick up for this bold apostle when folks in our bible studies tell me that they’re not a fan! What we witness in this letter is that Paul loves each congregation deeply and suffers repeatedly for the sake of the Gospel. Our existence as a Christian congregation owes Paul and other ancient messengers of the faith a debt of gratitude for their courageous witness that went against the grain of their time.

Last year I marked my ordination anniversary by welcoming a class of confirmation students into church membership. We were in the thick of the quarantine so we had to get creative about how to hold our final class session. Each student brought a beach towel and sat apart from one another on the side yard of the church building. They worked on their statements of faith as a final expression of their desire to be confirmed into the Church.  Most had no recollection of their baptism. Their parents took vows to raise them in the faith and now it was their turn to make a commitment to follow Jesus. At an outdoor service in our parking lot that was limited only to immediate family, twelve young people, wearing masks, read their statements of faith. Family members laid hands on them as we prayed over their commitment. No hugs. Cupcakes individually packaged from a bakery. A group picture of 12 kids standing at a distance from each other. Different form for a confirmation ceremony but as rich as ever. Those of us who have traveled a few miles as Christians know, like the Apostle Paul, that it is not an easy journey. Our faith does not insulate us from problems. But we also learn that Christ walks with us every step of our journey, giving us a holy perspective on suffering. Paul, almost as an aside, tells this beloved congregation that he is speaking to them as he would to his own children. Hawkins writes of this passage, “Nothing else in the rest of his correspondence approaches this level of self-disclosure.”

Paul urges these church members to follow his example. “Open wide your hearts,” he begs of them. In other words, accept the grace of God. Don’t waste your life complaining about inevitable hardships. Accept your brokenness and invite Christ to transform it into areas for powerful ministry. Earlier in this letter he used the image of fragile pottery: “We have this treasure in clay jars.” Unable to carry the burdens of this life on our own, we entrust ourselves to God. We are baptized, confirmed, and ordained into Christian service so that the light of Christ will shine through the cracks of our fragile lives to inspire others. Paul tells this divided, distracted congregation that the time is NOW! The Greek word used is KAIROS: God’s favorable time. Now is the opportune moment to open wide our hearts to the presence of Christ who accompanies us on our pilgrimage. Each moment we live confronts us with certain demands and opportunities. The best we can do is to point beyond ourselves to the only One who keeps us upright. In the powerful name of Jesus, Paul gives himself away to this congregation. He pours himself out for the many individuals who met Christ through his sacrificial evangelism.

Having celebrated the privilege of 34 years of ordained ministry last week, I give God thanks for the courageous testimony of Paul. I am thankful for ancestors who handed the torch of faith to me so that I was led to this particularly rewarding vocation. I am so grateful for the congregations that have embraced my family and me, for churches that have opened wide their hearts so that Jesus is powerfully experienced among us!

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The Other Boy

I recently met in a small group and the story of the tension between Sarah and Hagar was used for opening devotions. It’s an odd story to use if you’re looking for light-hearted optimism to kick off a meeting! But it prompted much conversation. The story speaks to us on a number of levels. Abraham is ordered by his wife, Sarah, to expel Hagar (Sarah’s servant) and Ishmael (Hagar’s son) from the family compound. Never mind that Sarah was the one who suggested that her elderly husband try to make a baby with her maid, Hagar  Abe and Sarah’s efforts at procreation (both older than 80!) weren’t very successful so desperate measures were taken. It worked! Old Abraham sired a child with Hagar with the blessing of his wife. Well, sort of. Legally the boy belongs to Sarah since Hagar is her servant. The boy also belongs to Abraham since he is the baby daddy. Though Sarah hopes that this little boy will feel like her own, it is always apparent that Hagar is the mother. When God’s promise to Sarah is finally fulfilled and she holds her own flesh-and-blood child, she wants the other mother/son pair out! Heartbroken, Abraham obeys. Hagar and Ishmael are exiled to the wilderness, refugees from family, home, culture and nation. They must leave everything that is familiar to them behind.

In discussing the story our group shared the ways they related to this refugee duo. One man in his early 40’s had lost his wife to cancer a couple of years before. His grief was still overwhelming. Her absence in his daily routine echoed into his social life. Everywhere he went, he felt like a foreigner. He struggled with a sense of betrayal by God. Why should he lose his beautiful wife to cancer when she wasn’t yet 40? Why would God leave him to raise three small children on his own?

Another group member was preparing to move to a small town in Georgia. It was more her husband’s vision for their retired life than hers. So they were packing up all that was familiar: household goods, friendships, and a sense of belonging. They would be living near family but these relatives viewed the group member’s spirituality with suspicion. She wondered if she and her husband would find a church that nourished their spirits in their new hometown. Anticipating the move, she already felt like a refugee amidst family in Georgia.

One other group member had experienced an injury since we last met. His days revolved around pain management administered out of the  palliative care unit of the hospital. A retired doctor, he spoke of the discomfort of being cared for by others after a career as a caretaker. His senses were dulled from pain meds and there was no promise of returning to his routine. He voiced that he felt like a refugee from his former life, a life that gave him the freedom he enjoyed. Continual pain made him a refugee from his own body. He was struggling to adjust to this new life.

The story of poor Hagar and Ishmael struck a chord with our group in surprising ways!

In Genesis 21 we read that the child promised to elderly Abraham and Sarah finally arrives. We witness in this miraculous birth just how powerful God’s promises are! A newborn is delivered to a couple who, according to St. Paul generations later, are “as good as dead.” But there is not the sort of celebration they might have expected. The birth announcement is sandwiched between narratives of tension between members of the family compound. Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggeman, notes that the proclamation of Isaac’s birth is “peculiarly understated.” There is no prolonged jumping for joy. Abraham doesn’t distribute cigars to the towns’ elders. It would be easy to miss this first page in Isaac’s baby book even though God shows up in creative force in the form of a baby boy. Years of anguished waiting evaporate but the story moves forward quickly to ugly jealousy that leads to eviction.

Sometimes the choices we make in the present rob us of joy when good things arrive at our door later. I look at the birth of a little girl this past week. A tiny princess was born to an British Prince who resides now in California. A sort of refugee from his own family or, at least, from their royal way of life, Harry and Meghan announced to the world the joy of Lilibet Diana gracing their family. The international buzz over this wee child cannot melt the tensions that keep Harry an ocean apart from his own kin. Personal and communal sin can make us refugees from our dream of having a happy family life.

We are given a glimpse into the awe that accompanied the miracle birth of Isaac in just two verses (verses 6 and 7). The 90-year-old new mom cries out, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” The joy bursts forth from those brief words but is short-lived. The text fast-forwards several years to the time of the boy being weaned from his mother. Sarah sees her little boy playing sweetly with his half brother and jealousy wells up within her. Two heirs to her husband’s good name and the other boy is the elder. Ishmael is deserving of the larger portion of her husband’s estate. So the laughter and community feasting dissipate as a distant memory as the older boy and his mother are sent off without a moment’s notice. They quickly run out of food and water and Hagar fears that her young son will die in the desert. Everyone but Sarah values Ishmael who, in fact, is never called by name in this story. We do harm more easily to someone we refuse to name. The young boy, through no fault or power of his own, is cast aside by a heart-broken father who is instructed to do what his envious wife asks of him.

In a previous parish one family had five children. The third child was adopted. He looked different from his four siblings. But what underscored his “otherness” was the fact that his mother would refer to him in conversation by saying, “He’s our adopted son.” She loved him but always set him apart in her own mind and heart. His sense of belonging was continually compromised by a mom who saw him as being different from her biological children. He thrashed his way into adulthood, struggling greatly to claim a healthy sense of identity. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was the one who lived with his elderly mother in the last years of her life. He was a faithful son who tended to her physical and emotional needs. The earlier lines of genetic demarcation disappeared with each meal he served and load of laundry he folded. As his elderly mother expressed her utter reliance upon him, he was finally able to leave his refugee status behind.

As Christians, we trace our lineage back to the promised son, Isaac. We share that family history with our Jewish brothers and sisters. But remember that God promised Abraham that the exiled boy would be cared for and made into a great nation. Muslims trace their spiritual roots back to Ishmael. We have witnessed how the division between these two sons of Abraham has festered over thousands of years into a bitter hatred. A recent round of peace talks has brought a brief respite from the bombings between Israel and Gaza. Several of us journeyed to the Holy Land in 2017 and are thankful we were able to go when we did. Even then, we felt uncomfortable seeing police holding machine guns at check points that were heavily guarded. They exchanged easy conversation with one another near a gate into the old city of Jerusalem. At first glance they looked at ease. But their fingers were always on triggers and their eyes were always vigilant. The sons of Abraham are still refugees from the peace they both crave because of ancient jealousy and a possessiveness of God’s promised favor.

Our southern border is overrun with refugees seeking asylum from poverty and danger. In recent months tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have crossed from Mexico into the United States. They were sent by desperate parents who would rather be separated from their own offspring than risk losing them to violence in their home countries. We are a nation built on the hard work of refugees but we anguish over how many we can successfully assimilate into our country? Like Ishmael, these children cry out for mercy.

My small group members experienced refugee status in unexpected ways. Sometimes we feel like outsiders in our social groups because of a changed status: divorce, lost job, or a wayward child. A younger generation is learning that BFFs on social media may not amount to much when looking for in-person support. Poverty can isolate one family from another. But then they are blessed with a new sense of belonging when invited to move into their own Habitat house that hundreds of volunteers have built with them. Their nomadic life is exchanged for a home.

In this story of two brothers, God provides water for the outsider. God does for the refugee pair what Abraham cannot do. God brings life out of a hopeless situation and invites us to do the same for others who are excluded. When sin separates us from our dreams, God gives us a future. When our efforts to push through a plan fail, God picks up the broken pieces and fills us with awe. When we relinquish our fierce grip on each day, God blesses us with joy and we live with with renewed wonder.

The Psalmist gives a beautiful insight into the joy that is available to us when our sense of alienation is replaced by God’s generosity. When the Israelites are restored to their own land after a time of wilderness living, they express a joy that flows forth like rainwater gushing through a dry riverbed.

From Psalm 126:

A song of ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of[a] Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.[b]
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”

God’s promises replace our refugee status with a deep and abiding joy. Hallelujah!

(Sculpture of Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael is by George Segal, 1987)

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Which God?

On Mother’s Day we had the joy of welcoming a little girl into the life of our congregation through the sacrament of baptism! It seemed a particularly fitting day for this young family to entrust their child into the care of the Church. On the second Sunday in May we pause to honor the gifts of mothers. Their gifts have been more brightly illumined in the past 15 months in this age we call COVID! Moms have learned to homeschool their children while keeping up with their paying jobs. They’ve cooked countless meals in quarantine and reminded their children repeatedly of the tasks that come with independent learning. The house has been in a constant state of invasion with very few residents interested in keeping it clean! So this little girl, baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ, reminded us of why we moms happily set about the many tasks that come with parenting our children! We serve simply because we love them!

This tiny girl, wearing a beautiful white dress, was at a very sweet age. The sleep deprivation of the earliest months had passed and she hadn’t yet started to say, “No!” She knew that her parents are in charge and already learned that she needs to follow their lead. She trusts them completely and rests well in the safety of the home they have fashioned for her. In some ways, these toddler years are easier than when children begin their journey into adulthood and try out their wings. What is both exhilarating and terrifying as parents is the age that our children begin to drive, go to college and define themselves apart from us. When we are no longer the enforcers of helpful rules, who will be? What authority will they recognize and obey?

In John’s first letter that he wrote to fellow believers, he challenged them to name the God they chose to obey. To choose a god is to be ready to obey that god. So which one is it? Whose rules are you ready to follow? What or who will be the driving force behind all your choices? Obedience describes the nature of our faith. It is a gift because who we choose to serve narrows our options. But obedience to any outside force also becomes our greatest struggle. By age two we’ve learned to stick our chin out and answer, “No” to our parents. Keep that image in mind when you consider how willing you are to accept the sovereignty of anyone or anything over your life! We are a stubborn people and we cry out from an early age, “Me do it!” Fortunately for us, when we choose to follow the intrusive God, who interrupts our labors, we discover that we are loved. That love makes it much easier to obey!

To choose a god is to be ready to worship that deity. John used repetitious language to remind us that God the Father and Jesus the Son are one. Tom Wright gives his own translation of these verses: “Everyone who believes that the Messiah is Jesus has been fathered by God. Everyone who loves the parent loves the child as well.” So what do we learn about God when we look at the Son? Most notably that God is willing to sacrifice on our behalf. Like any loving parent, we would give up our life to save that of our child without a second thought. We hear in these words that God loves us unconditionally, not because we’ve completed a particular list of holy tasks. Most other gods punish disobedient subjects who can never measure up to their standards. The gods of many religions exercise their power by vanquishing their enemies. We worship the God of Jesus Christ because our God’s show-of-force is by dying for the sake of all others. This is the God we choose to worship.

John went on to say that anyone who has the Son has life. He laid a foundation for the earliest believers to claim that their lives hinged on their faith in Jesus as the Son of God. This is the new life into which the little girl was baptized on Mother’s Day. Maybe we need to look at our own experiences of faith to understand what that means. Remember when someone exclaimed to you, as you awaited the birth of your first child, “Kids will change your life!” We nodded knowingly. After all, we’d read lots of books that prepared us for baby. We had a custom-designed nursery filled with diapers, pacifiers, and toys. We’d watched other parents raise their kids and had carefully critiqued their flaws, knowing we would do better. We knew, without a doubt, that we were ready for this child! And then they were born. After just a few months of parenting, we found ourselves saying to other expectant couples, “Kids will change your life!” Depending on the day, we stated it with a glowing smile or a sigh of exhaustion! What does that new life look like when we have taken a child under our wing and into our home? Can we truly describe that?

In 1966, in response to the Civil Rights Movement, Peter Scholtes wrote the words to the familiar hymn, “We are one in the Spirit.” It took him a matter of hours to put the lyrics to music because the God he worshiped inspired him. Do you remember the words to that song? “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord…and we pray that all unity will one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love…” This composer lived in the world that the Apostle John described. In the first three verses of the fifth chapter, John dropped the word “love” five times! Love enables us to obey God. Love for God will catapult us into the world to be of holy service to those around us. What does this new life look like that comes from our baptism? We have a deep understanding that we are loved. We work alongside of our neighbors to better our communities. We worship the God we choose to obey.

John went on to say that everything that comes from God conquers the world. I don’t typically look at my day in terms of what I have conquered! I remember feeling like I had conquered the laundry as a working mother of four children when the pile changed from “dirty” to “clean.” When I’m able to throw away the post-it notes that are stuck all over my desk top because I’ve completed the tasks, I feel as if I’ve conquered my to-do list. But what does it mean that the God I choose to worship has conquered all of creation? In John’s Gospel (16:33) Jesus used this same language with His anxious disciples: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But cheer up! I have conquered the world!” How do we work alongside of Christ to conquer the world? Do we do it for ourselves or for others? John urged us to look at the world in which we live with the eyes of an outsider. What fits well under the umbrella of God’s love? What choices can we make that either reflect this powerful, loving God or eclipse our view? What language do we use when talking with others? Is it sacred or filled with profanity? What do we feel in our heart toward the driver who just cut in front of us to shave a few seconds off their commute? What words do we have for a neighbor who lets their dog dig up our flowers and whose kids jump dangerously on our trampoline? What does it look like to conquer the world just as the One we choose to worship has done for us?

John wrote this letter in an effort to bring his straying congregation safely back into the fold of faith. He challenged them to recognize the contradictions in their way of life that claimed obedience to the God of Jesus Christ but, in fact, made gods of money, power, prestige, or (even more innocently) family? The gauge by which we measure our discipleship is how we love others. Do we treat folks like family even when conflict arises? Or do we shake the dust off our feet and close ourselves off from them for good? By what actions would outsiders know that you are a Christian—yesterday, last month, or last year? How have we been compassionate toward complete strangers during this pandemic that has tested and tried all of us?

John asks this congregation to decide which God they choose to worship and obey. Those who are welcomed into the Christian faith through the waters of baptism are assured that love is their birthright. Through the sacrificial blood of Jesus, we are made one. We are “blood relatives.” By the work of the Holy Spirit we are unified and empowered for service. This God invites us to choose whom we will worship. This God asks us if we are willing to be obedient to a new way of life. This God of Jesus Christ has conquered the temptations of the world for us and reaches out in boundless love to claim us as family! Hallelujah!

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Night Talks

My sons are just thirteen months apart in age. They developed their own language when they were toddlers, saying things to each other that we couldn’t understand. After exchanging words that were unintelligible to the rest of us, they would head off together in some sort of joint venture. When they left crib life behind, we tucked them in each night in bunk beds, one boy stacked on top of the other. I always tried to keep my children on a good sleep schedule. So, when I heard them talking in the dark, half an hour after saying bedtime prayers, my instinct was to suggest they pipe down and go to sleep. But then I would hear their conversation. They processed the day, they giggled over funny moments, and they asked questions that the other was willing to answer. Many times, even though there was no answer to a question, they knew that they were heard. One brother cared enough to reflect on life with the other even if they couldn’t make sense of every experience. This loving dialogue allowed them to fall into a deep sleep.

The philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, described Nicodemus as an admirer of Jesus but not a follower. He came to Jesus in the night, drawn to what he saw in Jesus but not ready to publicly own Him. Emmanuel Lartey states, “Like Nicodemus, we discover some of our most profound understandings about life come from conversations and consultations with people we talk to ‘at night,’ people we are often afraid to be seen associating with.”

Nicodemus is a work in progress in John’s gospel. He moves from intrigue to belief. In this introduction to him, Nicodemus seeks Jesus out but only under the cover of darkness. In chapter seven we meet him again and he defends Jesus in the midst of his angry Pharisee colleagues. They deride him for his willingness to see Jesus in a positive light when they only see Him as a threat. Finally, we meet Nicodemus in John 19 after Jesus’ death. The man who initially was not willing to meet Jesus in the light of day anoint Jesus’ dead body with expensive spices. He and Joseph of Arimathea give a proper burial for the man they love. Like us, Nicodemus is a work in progress, moving from admiration to worship.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night looking for enlightenment but finding only confusion. Notice where he starts the conversation: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God…” This learned Pharisee is giving a lecture to Jesus about who He is! But it sounds like Nicodemus is trying to convince himself of Jesus’ identity. He begins his speech with assuredness. As a scholar he is accustomed to being the one who teaches students. He is the intellectual who studies his world and defines it for others.  But his teaching moment goes downhill from there. He thinks he knew Jesus well enough to lecture about Him. But, when faced with the very man he so admired, he learns that there is much he can’t comprehend.

I wonder if you have ever been certain that you knew someone well only to discover that you never really knew them? You missed telling revelations because you were sure you knew all there was to know about them. Many in our world today are put off by Christians because they come across as know-it-alls. These believers are ready to lecture about truths they have pinned down. In their self-righteousness, they miss the remarkable revelations others bring to the conversation because they aren’t open to a re-ordering of their carefully constructed world!

Nicodemus, the scholar, begins with a proclamation about who Jesus is and ends with a repeated refrain of, “How can this be?”

What did you once understand thoroughly only to humbly discover that you grasped the subject matter very little? In matters of faith, the closer God draws near, the more we realize that we cannot know this God fully. The instant we are sure we can predict the movement of the Holy, the wind shifts and we recognize that the power of our God cannot be contained. In our arrogance, we are humbled.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week I was outside with my grandson. He was racing along the sidewalk, trying out his running skills. At a rare moment when he was still, the wind gusted and a thousand rosy helicopter seeds blew toward us from a nearby maple tree. We were mesmerized as they floated past and tried to anchor themselves in a manicured lawn. The breeze moved on and our world was once again still. God’s creation seeks to bring growth, to perpetuate the species, to put down roots so that life can break forth from unlikely places. If we devoted all our energies to stopping the shedding of seeds from plants and trees right now, we could not. If we put all our efforts into preventing locusts from showing up every seventeen years to do their brief dance out in the open before leaving their eggs deep in the ground, we could not.

The Spirit of God moves over the face of the earth, sending seeds of growth that challenge our self-assuredness.

John Calvin thought that Jesus wasted His precious time on proud Nicodemus. But Jesus understood that there are lots of us who begin as secret admirers. In the dark of night, we dare to ask our questions, hoping that we will be heard. Jesus’ willingness to challenge this scholar gave Nicodemus the opportunity to recognize how much he had narrowed his world. Nicodemus understood that Jesus loved him enough to engage with him. Jesus trusted that this confident Pharisee could see the world newly through Jesus’ eyes. When we meet him again in John 7, Nicodemus is no longer in the dark about Jesus. He takes a stand before his judgmental colleagues, losing professional credibility because of his willingness to see the divine in controversial Jesus. You see, Nicodemus was indeed born again through that night talk with Jesus. The encounter gives him the humility to allow the Spirit of God to take the lead and teach him new truths. Nicodemus learns that the life of faith is built upon a continual movement of self-surrender. Lartey states, “Rebirth is a spiritual experience available to all, but perhaps most needed by religious people who might think they do not need it.”

Does that challenge you like it challenges me?

On Trinity Sunday we remember that the nature of God is to be in community. God sent Jesus to give us a greater understanding of who God is. Like those helicopter seeds that optimistically float to the ground, hoping to put down roots, the Spirit blows in each of our lives. We are reminded of a glorious truth: God blows across the face of this earth seeking relationships with all of humanity. God searches you, me, our children, our crabby neighbor, a dying atheist who is finally willing to look for the Divine in the sunset of his life. This is one of only two places in John’s gospel where Jesus speaks of the kingdom. His message is not that God’s Realm is limited to the great beyond, experienced as eternal bliss beyond this physical space that we call home. The Realm of God is here and it’s now! It is found in the quality of life we shape for ourselves and others today, tomorrow and next week. Nicodemus embraced this lesson because we find him for the third time in the nineteenth chapter of John’s gospel, taking a very public stand before the religious authorities. They are so threatened by Jesus that they orchestrate His crucifixion. Nicodemus, alongside of Joseph of Arimathea, tenderly carries the broken body of Jesus (who died a criminal’s death) and anoints Him with spices to welcome Him into the next life. To say that Nicodemus’ caring for Jesus’ body is controversial is a gross understatement. He understands that God’s realm is lived out here and now with each word, thought and decision that we make, both privately and publicly. In the end, Nicodemus worships Jesus.

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This past week was Trinity Sunday. The point is not to understand the Trinitarian God. We are called to love God. We are invited to watch for the movement of the Spirit by the seeds that drift before us and settle in our lives, trying to take root. Nicodemus would tell us, “Don’t hold back from God! Never stop asking your questions because God is listening and will hold you in your times of need!”

It is in the dark of night that we wrestle with our deepest questions. Captives, held against their will, whisper questions about their future for which there are no immediate answers. In the asking, they are comforted to sense that God is with them. Lovers at night pledge their devotion to each other, choosing to commit to one another for a lifetime of faithfulness. They know that they can be true to those promises only if they invite God to guide. A father holds his fearful child, assuring her with the words she somehow believes: “It’s Ok.” She falls into a deep slumber because she knows she is safe. My boys’ questions, uttered from stacked bunkbeds in a darkened room, may not all have been answered but they, nonetheless, drifted off to sleep contented that they weren’t alone in their journey. As children of the Tri-une God, we understand that we are created for community. The past fifteen months have been a painful lesson in how much we need to be in each other’s presence, hugging, listening closely, and looking each other in the eyes. Even when we can’t answer each other’s questions; even though we get it wrong at first, what matters is that we are heard and held and loved. What matters is how we hear and hold and love.

Will Willimon reminds us of how much God loves us: “Salvation, our healing and restoration by God, through God’s son, is not our achievement. It is God’s gift. The requirement is not that we know, but that we are willing to be known. God so loved the world that God gave the Son.” Amen!

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Revival

Little Kennedy Buettner, a four-year-old, went to a pool party and ended up at the bottom of the pool, in spite of the fact that there were more than 40 people in the pool at the time. A team of 9- and 10-year old boys managed to pull him off the bottom of the pool but he was non-responsive. He had been in the water long enough that his prognosis was poor. His parents, who rushed to the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama to be at his bedside, were told that he would likely have severe brain damage, if, in fact, he survived. Kennedy’s family and church began to pray. Amazingly, he not only lived, he began to show some signs of improvement. Two days after the near-drowning, he began fighting with the tube down his throat. Then he began squeezing their hands on command and prompted tears of joy when he gave them a thumbs-up! His mother felt prompted to read a portion of Psalm 18 during that precarious time of waiting:  “God reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”

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     Exactly one week after the accident, Kennedy was released from the Hospital. While this was a miracle in and of itself, his mother learned more as she talked with him in the weeks afterwards. She asked him, “You were asleep for a long time, I have been missing you. What did you do?” He answered, “An angel picked me up and we flew. We flew through walls, clouds, and I flew through you, Mommy.” She asked him what the angel looked like, and he told her the angel had long white clothes. Kennedy told her they flew to heaven and that there was a door with jewels all around it and “when they opened that door, it was snowing in there.” His mother was careful not to put words in his mouth. He told her that he had seen his recently deceased uncle in heaven, and that he looked “just like Jesus, and all his boo-boos were gone.” He told his mother that Mark was happy and that he wanted to stay in heaven. Kennedy told her further that Jesus held him and that there were a lot of angels. She asked him continually if he was ever afraid. He said, “No, I was with Jesus and Uncle Mark, and I was standing on glass; I was invisible.” When asked how he got back he told her that Uncle Mark gave him a push and an angel flew him back. His mother asked Kennedy if he would like to go back to heaven again, and he said, “Yes, but Jesus is coming here.”

     Two weeks before, Kennedy was a little boy who would have gotten upset if you discussed death and going to heaven with him. Now he was a boy who told of seeing Jesus and being in heaven with excitement and joy. The effect of his words is to have emboldened his family to shout aloud the good news of what God did for their little boy and the assurance they now have confirmed of what awaits us when we leave this world.

     The apostle John shared a story of similar conviction in his first letter. He affirmed what he and the others had witnessed personally: that Jesus had died and resurrected and promised them an eternal life with Him in a place free of sorrows and pain. Those who saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion courageously spoke of His resurrection and risked their lives to proclaim to a doubting world that He was the long-awaited Messiah.

     We struggle to keep the good news of the resurrection central to who we are. Easter is in our rearview mirror before we’ve finished our Cadbury egg and laundered our fine Easter outfits! So we have to continue to look for the ways that Christ appears among us and assures us that His claims are true. It is our responsibility as the Church to share that news, no matter the risk, no matter the doubt, so that others can find their way to Him.

     The beloved preacher Fred Craddock tells the story of his unbelieving father:

“My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home. Sometimes the preacher would call, and my father would say, ‘I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name, another pledge, right?’ Sometimes we’d have a revival. Pastor would bring the evangelist and say to the evangelist, ‘There’s one now, sic him, get him, get him,’ and my father would say the same thing. Every time, my mother in the kitchen, always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt. And always my father said, ‘The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge.’ I guess I heard it a thousand times.

One time he didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital, and he was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat, and said, ‘It’s too late.’ They put in a metal tube, and X rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed. And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat, on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups from the church. He saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: ’In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”

     Just as John had to tell the news of the resurrected Jesus to a doubting world, we are called to live and speak in such a way that people meet Jesus in us. They find hope in our cards, kindness in our words, self-sacrifice in our deeds. And this isn’t just for the people we know and like. It’s for those God places before us who carry a grudge, whose nose is out of joint, who have a chip on their shoulder and only angry words for God. Particularly for these people we carry the message of the resurrected Christ.

     After my mother died of cancer at age 66 my dad said, “If someone had asked me a year ago whether I would want to die suddenly or in a long drawn-out process like cancer, I would have said a sudden death, without hesitation. But, now I think I would choose the other. I would not trade the last nine months your mother and I had together for anything. In dealing with life and death issues we were closer than ever before.” When cancer comes calling, we draw on our resurrection hope. When death takes someone home, especially at an age we deem as being young, we cling to the promises that Jesus is waiting (and other loved ones as well) to carry them into an eternal life that knows no suffering or loss. The news of the resurrection must be on our lips for all people, all of the time.

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Repairer of the Breach

She was a walk-in and we haven’t had many of those this year. Our 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 February morning, Jennifer did.

She was a thin young woman who appeared very tired. 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 follow me 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 a safe distance of 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. This is a local motel that serves as short-term housing for those without shelter. There are rough stories of broken lives in those rented rooms. Jennifer’s limited budget had gone awry with an unexpected car repair and whoever had housed her most recently 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 I knew they wouldn’t change the obvious fact that Jennifer was fending for herself.

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I asked her if she had children. Our congregation works with Family Promise, a housing organization that ensures homeless families have a safe place to stay. She nodded and said she had three children. When I told her about Family Promise she shook her head and said 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. She said she needed enough money for one more night at the Colonial because after that her dad would receive a check. 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 check book for our Discretionary Fund. Overseeing this ministry of financial mercy allows me to meet people like Jennifer. Rather than simply handing her a check, I wanted to sit with her and listen. She needed the tangible experience of Christ’s unconditional love. I seldom write out checks to individuals. Rather I pay their bills 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 between our very different lives as we connected in the safety of the Fellowship Hall, long empty because of 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.

For the Lenten season this past winter, a couple of clergy colleagues and I wrestled to find a theme. One suggested that the only fitting thing for us to give up for Lent this year would be our burdens. The COVID virus has enshrouded our days for what seems to be an eternity. We’ve lived Lent for many months so sacrificing further from our lives seems redundant. What I invite our church members to do this year is to lay down their burdens at the feet of the One who sits with us, listens to us, and rescues us more times than we know.

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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 pulling out 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 home to the poor. Keep the peace in your family. Feed the hungry. Give a coat to those who are trying to survive the cold of winter without a home or a friend.” This is how we rebuild the ruins of lives eked out in the Colonial Motels of our society. This is how we restore the streets where people live. We 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 and we look forward to offering that hospitality again soon. This is how God is glorified.

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As restrictions mercifully loosen and we resurface in each others’ lives, start small as a repairer of the breach. Open the door and let Jesus in. Entrust your burdens to Jesus because He will carry them!

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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?

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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.