Living in the Aftermath

This sermon was delivered on April 29, 2019 at the First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich, CT.

Luke 24: 13-35

I served as a chaplain resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, PA the summer after graduating from seminary. I walked the quiet hospital hallway in the wee hours of the morning when my pager vibrated. Immediately checking it, I made my way to the trauma bay.

When the patient arrived, I’ll call him Tom, he looked so small to me. A young, fresh face laying on the body board, his neck secured with a collar and his body restrained with straps across his chest and legs. Doctors and nurses quickly surrounded the bed and shouted orders for scans and tests. I stood silently at the side of the room and watched the medical team move with determined urgency to save his life.

Tom was a high school senior who was hanging out with friends on a typical Friday night. Speeding down the Pennsylvania turnpike without his seatbelt on when their car careened with another, he was thrown from the back seat through the windshield and landed 25 feet away on the cold highway asphalt. The diagnosis was swift and clear: Tom was paralyzed. The medical team had to first stabilize his body. He was wheeled to the ICU hooked up to a machine helping him breathe, and a medically induced coma so that his body could slowly regain its balance.

I went to the ICU in the morning and met Tom’s mother, tearful and still in shock at the foot of her son’s bed. Tacked to the small bulletin board in the room was the picture of a smiling boy in a football uniform.

She saw me admiring the photograph and said, “Tom’s played football since he was five years old. He’s always been an amazing player, gifted. He is going to be the first person in our family to go to college and he is planning on paying for it with a big football scholarship.”

Holding onto the foot of the bed to steady herself, she looked intently at me and said, “I just can’t believe it. How could this happen? Why did this happen to him?” Her gaze turned back to his now fragile body.

“Will you pray with me?” She asked.

Holding her hands, with the hum of medical machines marking each of Tom’s artificial breaths and the rhythmic beat of his heart, we prayed.

Tom had to undergo several surgeries in the following weeks to stabilize his spine. Though it was a medical impossibility for any of these procedures to return his ability to walk, his mother pleaded for a miracle. She filled the room with hopes for her son to run on the football field every single time he was wheeled to the operating room. But her prayers were never answered with the healing she longed for.

Tom woke up to realize that his senior year wouldn’t be spent in classrooms, at parties, going to dances, or playing in Saturday football games. Visits from his friends and girlfriend slowly tapered off, leaving only Tom and his mother sitting for hours in the hospital room together.

But slowly, very slowly, Tom began to respond to his therapy. He started to practice everyday activities that he once did without a thought: things like brushing his teeth or drinking through a straw. The days were never easy; he would always wake up to a body that didn’t feel the same to him anymore. Some moments he would be laughing and joking, others silent and withdrawn. Tom was struggling to find his way, working hard to carve a path that moved him forward. His long recovery took place in the shadow of the photograph of a young football player that hung on the wall; a moment in time full of hopes that would now have to be placed elsewhere.

There are times in life when the world seems split in half, broken and irreparable. Those times when what you had hoped the world would be (especially as a person of faith) and reality clash in such a huge way that it can no longer be denied.

Walking alongside Tom and his family was one of the hardest things I ever had to do as a chaplain that year. In the progressive deterioration of his once muscular physique to a thin frame, I was challenged to see the frailty human life. It forced me to see exactly how fast best laid plans can be dashed to impossible dreams. I sat with family members as they prayed for miracles that would not come in the ways that they hoped. I was turned away from the room when the teenage boy inside didn’t want anyone to talk to him, pray with him, or even sit in silence alongside him; moments when he just wanted to stare out into the distance. I talked to nurses and doctors as they balanced the medical possibilities with the hope-filled questions from the patient’s family.

“We had hoped,” the men said as they fled from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the darkness of night. 

There’s no doubt that on that third day these men on the road to Emmaus (a city seven miles from Jerusalem) were running from what might have been.  Surrounded by the one whom they called Messiah, they had filled themselves to the brim with hopes that their lives would finally be different.  And not just their own lives, but their children and their children’s children; moving from one generation to the next in which the Jewish people could once again be in power.  Both men had hopes for their future and Jesus, no doubt, embodied that hope.  Dragging their feet in the sand as they walked, the two men were heavy with the burden of readjusting to a world that dashed their hopes so quickly. 

We are a people of hope, aren’t we? 

Unfortunately, our hopes don’t always come to fruition.  Sometimes a teenage boy with a world full of possibilities ahead of him is paralyzed after one reckless night with friends.  An illness returns, a debt is never repaid, a relationship remains broken, our needs continue to be unmet, tasks pile up with no end in sight, our hard work doesn’t pay off, or we can’t seem to shake the emotions that keep us from enjoying the life that we have.  

Hopes are just that: hope but not reality.  And sometimes reality is unsettling.  Understanding this even as a part of the life of faith is an avenue to deepen our understanding about what we believe. 

No wonder we sometimes want to flee like the two men from the Jerusalems of our lives!  What happened there, the brutality that led to the execution of their beloved leader, is just like the reality of a world that has enough sting to kill our hopes for it. It’s enough to squash our personal hopes as well as the hopes that we have for those around us. 

But here’s the thing: this story is all about what Jesus was doing in the moments leading up to the realization that he was walking alongside them on the whole journey away from Jerusalem.  They didn’t notice it was him when he walked alongside them on the road, teaching them from beginning to end of the prophets who spoke of his coming.  They didn’t know it was Jesus even by what he looked like or the sound of his voice.  He was right there next to him for the whole journey until it was almost evening, and they didn’t know it was him!  No, they only recognized him through the breaking of bread.  Then he was gone again.   

But that whole experience helped them to realize that their hearts were burning as he walked alongside them on the road.  It’s enough to ignite a hope inside of them that is so bright that they turn around in darkness and return to the city that killed their Messiah and their dreams for the future, bearing a new testimony of hope for the days ahead. 

We all know what that feels like; the privilege of looking back to see where the pieces of the puzzle so easily fit together even though, in the moment, it felt like nothing was going as it should be. It draws us to be a bearer of hope again, looking for glimpses of God’s handiwork all around us.

As many have said, “Emmaus invites us to expect God to invite us.”  And not just that, but it opens our eyes to search for God’s hopes and when or how God chooses to be revealed to bring those hopes to the surface.  In the end, it’s about what God hopes for our lives, for our neighbors, the Church, and the whole world. 

Repentance is the great turn around, a naming of the exact things we are fleeing from, and returning back to the place where our deepest hopes and the realities of the world reside side by side so that we can do the work of our faith once again.  It’s not easy.  We all have hopes. 

I hope that our son and daughter will grow up in a world where difference is commonplace and lifted up as an asset instead of a liability. 

I hope that all people, near and far, can find a way to live together in peace instead of seeing one another’s uniqueness as so different that they become “others” in our eyes. 

Just days after the anniversary of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, I hope that we can build a nation where everyone has access to even the most basic needs for life: water, food, shelter, and relationship.

I hope that, as people of faith, we can put our own expectations aside to make room for what God intends for us as we are renewed by the hymns that we sing, the prayers that we say, and the music that envelopes us on this day in worship. 

I hope that we can hold onto the joy of the empty tomb from Easter morning, the initial fear that was transformed to an expression of love that would not be contained.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Tom as I was preparing this sermon. Twelve years have passed since we met at the hospital in the early morning hours that day. I wonder if he went to college and celebrated the first diploma ever earned in his whole family. I wonder about his first job and where he’s living. I mostly wonder about his hopes: how did he transform what once felt like a body that had deceived him into a home to share gifts that had found just the right moment to be cultivated. Is it possible that the small hopes to accomplish mundane tasks eventually let him to accomplishing dreams that he never thought possible when he woke up in that hospital room so long ago?

We all have hopes.  Hopes that we should hold onto to keep us moving forward.  They testify and witness to what we deeply believe to be true, for ourselves and those around us.

And broken hopes: the desires that did not come to fruition and left us with heavy hearts? Those are still places where Christ chooses to meet us, teach us, feed us, and encourage us to go back to the center of it all once again. 

Last week we celebrated the resurrection of Christ surrounded by all of the marks of a joy-filled Easter. But it can be hard to hold onto that hope and joy when life goes back to normal and the world gives us countless places to doubt and fear. And this year, we didn’t even get through Easter without seeing churches on the other side of the world turned to rubble, a moment of destruction rather than new life.

Resurrection isn’t a moment. It’s not the time when life returns to the way that we desire or our hopes and dreams are fulfilled. Resurrection is movement that inches us ever closer to the kingdom of God.

If we search it, then we just might discover the hopes of the world revealed right before our eyes. We’ll uncover moments that leave our hearts burning and send us right back to the place that we wanted to leave behind, urgently sharing the good news with others.

Because if a teenage boy can slowly face the transformation of his body, reclaim his hopes for the future, and embody them in a whole new way, then the story of resurrected life goes on.

Beyond Boundaries

This sermon was delivered on April 23, 2019 at the opening worship service for the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Acts 3: 1-10

Daily life was an inevitable cycle that could not be broken.

The man would wake up and, relying on the compassion of others, wait for the time when they would arrive to carry him to the entrance of the Beautiful Gate. Gentle hands would press in on his frail body, bearing his weight to the familiar place before moving on, rarely looking back at him. Laying at the threshold of the temple with only the dusty ground for support, the man would beg for spare change. A coin tossed his way as he sought to simultaneously catch even one friendly glance made in his direction. Perhaps a snicker from a passerby or a stride that allowed someone else to avoid locking eyes with the beggar whom he or she could not help (or did not want to help). This was the world that the man knew and these were the relationships that carried him through each day. When they were ready, he could expect to make it to the gate and, when they deemed the time was suitable, he would be carried home. He was wholly dependent on the charity and convenience of others so that he could live.

I wonder if he would gaze at his legs with anger and disappointment when he was alone. These limbs that existed without purpose, mocking him as they extended in awkward directions while he sat on the dusty ground. His legs betrayed him, made him less than in a world that defined able bodies as holy. The gate was the closest that he would ever get to the temple and its faith community; the coins tossed in his direction and the hands that carried him were the only tangible representations of their religious beliefs that he would ever experience.

And so on this exact day when Peter and John pass by the beggar, he expects little more than money. In fact, I don’t believe that he expects money at all…he just hopes that they will follow suit like those who had crossed his path. The man speaks up, asks for alms, and receives just one request from Peter, “Look at us.”

Intently, the man looks at Peter and John hoping to get at least a few coins, nothing more and nothing less. They immediately confess that they do not have money. Perhaps the man’s heart sank, fearing that he was being mocked: called to look right at them so that his needs could be rejected before they walked away laughing at his misfortune.

“…but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”

The man jumped up to his feet without hesitation, joyously celebrating an even greater gift than the pennies clanging to the ground at his once useless feet. Without looking back at his daily seat by the Beautiful Gate or the pile of coins on the ground, he moves purposefully toward the temple. He eagerly crosses the threshold that once seemed like a wall rather than an entrance. Standing tall and proud, he dances and leaps among the familiar faces to praise God for the freely given gift of wholeness.

This is resurrection. This is a transformed life that brought the man from the margins onto his feet and right into the heart of community.

But here’s my honest question for us today: Are you still basking in the glow of Easter resurrection?

As our Sunday best has been thrown in the laundry basket and our days went back to normal, are the joy-filled alleluias still hanging on your lips?

Are you still celebrating as the stone was rolled away to reveal the Prince of Peace who had conquered even death by execution on a cross?

Has the shining light of Easter been enough to carry you to this place only days later?

Because if I am really honest with you this afternoon, and I am going to be honest: I am struggling. The promise of resurrection has too quickly been filled with all of the places that I do not see new life; the places where death has seemingly had the final say and transformation is a far off dream.

I look around at the world and see brokenness and division. Political leaders continuing to wield their authority over those who can do nothing more than place their trust in the powers and principalities that hang over them. I see neighbors who hide from one another, feeling more secure in the life within their own walls rather than open to the possibilities of life together. Supposed laws for civility that only result in divisions in the treatment of people based on the color of their skin, where they were born or where their families are from, or the religion that they practice. Fingers pointing outward to place blame on others rather than the inward reflection required to change the way we live in community together. A planet slowly dying; Creation transformed by human hands into what is easiest and convenient for us rather than what will feed and shelter generations to come. I see people (and I include myself in this) who are selfish enough to see only what is right in front of us, relying on the work of our hands instead of relying on the Holy One who created those hands, our whole beings, in the first place.

After reading the news headlines about Sri Lankan churches and hotels, with hundreds dead, I could not stop looking around my own sanctuary filled with spring flowers and choruses of alleluias hanging in the air. I felt my heart drop thinking about the transformation of sanctuaries to rubble, not only on the other side of the world, but also those burned to the ground right here and only mere whispers of concern for the communities of color that once inhabited them.

All humanity has shown ourselves capable of is death, destruction, division, and self-centeredness.

I didn’t even make it through Easter Sunday without questioning resurrection!

Is this really what a resurrected life looks like; what a resurrected world looks like thousands of years later? Because if it is, it appears as though human brokenness is conquering the resurrected life of Christ.

“It is finished?” Certainly not.

Here’s the thing: We aren’t Peter and John in this story.

Sure, we show up and do what we can to offer assistance to others. But then we go on to the next thing, feeling good about what we did without really doing more than placing them on the threshold of what is attainable. We stock the food pantry without considering how we are complicit in the hunger of our neighbors. We criticize stories on the news in casual conversation but do very little to engage beyond those who agree with us. We stand at an arms length when it comes to issues of racism and white supremacy, sexism, able-ism, equal rights for our lgbtq siblings, and just about any other -ism and division that we know of; we acknowledge their existence but allow our complacency to leave action for another day.

And we don’t really want people to see us. We can’t find it within ourselves to say, “Look at us,” because if we did, the illusion would be gone. “They” would eventually see beyond our polished outward selves to the struggling, insecure, uncertain parts that linger beneath the surface. The facade would be pushed aside to expose the parts that we work so hard to hide. If we don’t want to see those parts of ourselves, why would anyone else?!

We confess that we do not have money: our buildings are in disrepair, our resources are stretched to their limits, and our salaries just don’t cover the time and energy it would take to do more, to be more, to the people whom we serve. We question what we have to give if we cannot resource it, trusting in the things of this world rather than allowing ourselves to dream of what God might be calling us to do before we even utter the word, “No.” The church just cannot be and do more than it already is; we are stretched thin.

We react like the crowd in the temple that day: recognizing the man look with wonder and amazement rather than joining in his celebratory dance.

The muscle memory of the church leaves us with scarcity and longing for more. If only we had more members, more youth group attendees, a young adult group, or young families. If only people would volunteer (and by this I mean, not bring their own ideas, just lend a hand to do things as they always have been done!). If only attendance in worship was higher or visitors stayed for fellowship and came back another Sunday. If only….if only…if only…

Peter and John could not heal the man if they had not been whole themselves. They acknowledge that they lack what the man desires. But they don’t let what they don’t have define what is possible. They confidently give what they possess: an invitation to the community shaped by Jesus’ love for all people. They meet an unexpected, unvoiced need for the man at the gate and, as a result, give him the ability to a part of the crowded temple for the very first time.

The man on that day lacked any kind of muscle memory that would have equipped him to leap and dance into the temple. All he had known from his first breath was a life rooted in the ground beneath him, reliant on the compassion of others. But without even a moment’s hesitation, he rose up and joined the two men who had placed their hands in his own and went to be a community member in a world where he was once just passed by.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of visiting Bothell United Methodist Church, a suburban church outside of Seattle, with the Princeton Theological Seminary touring choir. Just a few days before Christmas Eve that year, someone tried to break into their church building. He or she broke the front window, climbed through and made their way to the church office. When the glass was broken in the office, an alarm sounded and the person quickly left the building.  

I’m guessing that the church leaders did what any of us would have: called the buildings and grounds committee to tell them of the break in and pick up some brooms to sweep up the glass. They nailed plywood boards over both window spaces and maybe the committees went back and forth about the unexpected expense of replacing the security glass. And, of course, making plans for the future to better prevent someone from pushing their way in again. Security would have been high on their priority list.

But on Sunday, both pastors came before the congregation with a jar full of broken glass. They said, “This glass is from both of our broken windows. Someone tried to break into our church. Whatever they needed, they felt like they had to get in here. They needed something that we had inside. They are now a part of our community; a member of this church.”

They prayed for the unnamed person and that jar filled almost to the brim with glass stayed on their communion table as a reminder of the new member in their church.

Days later, the pastor visited the intruder at the local police department. He shared that the congregation had been praying for him and he was a welcomed member of their community, no strings attached.

I recently asked the church’s pastor for an update and Pastor Kim said this, “Unfortunately, nothing more came from that specific situation – other than a decision to change our alarm company! However, it did launch us into an all church, and all neighborhood, intentionality in supporting houseless folk. It’s been a rough year trying to change culture, both in the church and in the community. For example, it all came to a boil when we allowed a guy to live in his RV in our parking lot. But because of that, we have an even stronger relationship with our police department who send people to us who we can support, and we created a Community Assistance Plan (including a team and a fund designated). Best part – we got some non-church going neighbors to be on our team with us!”

I take it back. The church and its members can be all of the people in this story.

Sometimes we are like the unnamed people in the crowd: showing up to do what we can because it’s all we have in us to give. Watching in wonder as the miraculous happens and questioning how it could be…how the world could change so quickly to a new reality that we never thought possible.

Sometimes we are like Peter and John, journeying together with uncertainty of what the future will hold but holding on tight to the community that we have committed ourselves to. We humbly confess what we can and cannot do; all the while providing an invitation celebrating that there is always room for one more.

And sometimes we are like the man lame from birth: having little more inside of us than waiting for the empathetic touch of another person or asking for the little that we need to survive one more day. But when we are given the opportunity to do more, to be more, than what we thought possible, we jump at the chance trusting that we are loved and known in community.

Resurrection isn’t a moment. It isn’t a miracle that will magically fix everything to life as it “should be.” No, resurrection is movement. Movement to a world that is ever inching closer to the kingdom of God.

We need all the people in this story then and now to see that the boundaries we build, whether they be the Beautiful Gate at the entrance of the temple, a solid wall at the border of our lands, or even the beautiful stained glass of our own sanctuaries; none of these can hold back the abundant love of the kingdom of God.

And so we approach the thresholds of the world and celebrate the incoming reign of Christ whose Spirit brings new life to even the most broken, divided, and hurting parts of Creation.

We were made to see boundaries as doorways to new possibilities.

May it be so.

 

Life and Death

First Sunday in Lent

First Presbyterian Church of Hightstown

Genesis 9: 8-17 and Mark 1: 9-15

I regret bringing a child into this world. It may not be everyday, but some days I am just not certain where even a glimmer of hope resides. The only thing I can do to make it through those days is to go through the motions until I wake up the next day, yearning to feel differently.

It’s the reality that people feel compelled to flee their homelands and everything that is familiar for an uncertain future; individuals or families who travel miles over land and sea toward a place that they have never seen because that place is better than what they know day to day.

As the child of an immigrant, I carry worry on my shoulders for all of the families that may be torn apart as their homes are raided and loved ones taken away as they watch. Or for all the people who look like me, who will perpetually look like foreigners in our own homeland…asked, “No, where are you really from?” or given the compliment, “You speak English so well.”

I listen to the radio and watch television only to bathe in the fear and divisiveness taking over our nation…and that’s just the stories that make it to the news. We fear those who look different than us. Our differences have become liabilities rather than strengths within our communities. And if we are really honest with ourselves, all of this division is inside of our church walls as much as it is outside of them.

And then, on Ash Wednesday, another school shooting. The most captivating photograph for me was a woman with dark, black ashes on her forehead in the figure of a cross holding an inconsolable teenager in her arms. Marked by the ashen cross that said, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” she walked right t the doorway of death. Stories of teens who captured the chaos on video with their phones and Sarah Crescitelli who text messaged her parents while sitting in a bathroom for two hours in the school, saying, “If I don’t make it I love you and I appreciated everything you did for me.”

I drop off my son at his elementary school each day and worry, if even just for a brief moment, that he might not be safe. I worry that my phone will ring, alerting me that a shooter has made their way into the school. Did Jonathan duck fast enough? Did his teacher make it to the door to lock it? What will he have witnessed? What will he have felt? Will he even be alive so that I can ask him these questions?

I’ve brought Jonathan into a world that makes me question if we can live as a beloved, diverse body of Christ where there is no “other”…an actual place where we can live together.

Honestly, I want to start over. And that’s exactly what we get in today’s reading from Genesis. Don’t forget today’s reading was the result of divine anger and desire for justice. The world had become so sinful and broken that God saw no other way but to flood it with death. The cheery nursery wallpaper or up-beat tunes from children’s choirs proclaiming animals entering the ark two by two. But it was forty days surrounding by the rushing waters of death for Noah and his family. They were the only human beings left; one family to reclaim the vision for Creation once the vessel hit dry land. We know how the story ended, with a dove delivering a sprig of olive branch that illustrated a world reborn, but at that time, the encouragement to build an ark because of a holy foreshadowing of death followed by forty days on it must have been a terror-filled nightmare for Noah and his family; I don’t doubt that at least one night included dreams death rather than the unappealing smelly cabin of an tightly packed, animal filled ark surrounded by choppy waters.

The flood was death and resurrection for so that God’s justice could reign. Perhaps we are so forgone that we need this kind of life and death scenario so that Creation can be reborn again.

And yet, verses 13-16 of Genesis tell us of a different story this morning: “I have set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant…”

Right here, in this very first covenant in all of Scripture, God gives up divine power and commits to the flesh of all Creation. This was as radical a theological claim for the Hebrews as it is for us today. God surrenders any ability to allow anger to demand justice, replacing these inclinations with mercy and love. And, unlike any of the other covenants in Scripture, this is one sided. God promises not to flood the earth despite whatever humankind or any living being does to destroy the heavenly potential of what has been created. Look in the text again and you will see that the bow reminds God of the covenant. The arch of the bow points away from the earth in a testimony that violence will not offer a solution, no matter how far we have strayed from God’s vision.

God commits to a different answer to sin than violence.

The covenant to be on the side of flesh and blood deepens from the moment that Christ takes his first breath as a baby and now here he is, depicted by Mark’s gospel at the beginning of his ministry. The temptation story is always the reading for the first Sunday in Lent but we don’t get much from this narrative. There certainly isn’t a list of the specifics of what unfolding while he was there. Instead we just know that Jesus was baptized, claimed by God as a son and beloved, before the Spirit “drives him out into the wilderness.” (v. 12)

But a few things stand out for me in this passage. First, the word in the original Greek that we translate as “wild beasts” is actually more accurately read as “dangerous beings.” Implied in here is the confrontation that Jesus must face during his time on earth; the danger and conflict begins here, soon to escalate as he challenges the assumptions of what it means to be a person of faith. Secondly, the verb from “the angels waited on him” is better understood as “the angels served him.” Nine chapters from now, Jesus will say that he came to serve, not to be served (10:45). Service in the midst of fear, threats, and wilderness moments is all exactly what will shape his ministry. Finally, in the midst of this whole wilderness struggle, Jesus is sent out with everything that he needs. The waters of baptism claim and prepare him to be sent into the wilderness for forty days on his own. Once the torrential waters of the flood in Genesis, the same element becomes the covenant that bathed over Christ so that he might fulfill his mission.

From the beginning of Mark’s gospel we see that Jesus cannot escape his incarnation, the flesh and blood that God embodied for even this brief time on earth. And if he cannot escape his incarnation, neither can we flee from our existence or distance ourselves from what is happening “out there,” no matter how broken the world is before us.

Mark’s gospel doesn’t give Jesus time to recover from his forty days in the wilderness because he emerges to learn that John the Baptist was arrested. His cousin who proclaimed the way ahead was taken in shackles and left with an uncertain future (though we know what happened).

But here’s the thing: the narrative ends, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the Good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (v. 14-15)

The good news still exists in a world that arrests people who testify to Christ’s salvation through repentance and new life.

The good news lives through the actions of our youth like Hannah who see the divisiveness of their school cafeteria and demand a safe space for all students.

It lives in the work of our Mission Committee who desires this church to be a place where all visitors are welcomed into the body of Christ, not left to feel unknown and unnamed on a Sunday morning.

It’s in the work of the deacons who prepared this past Ash Wednesday service and, through Scripture, prayer and song, reminded those present that our lives mark us for service even if we are here for the briefest of times.

The good news is in the rainbow flag that hangs on the door of this church as a testimony to the LGBTQAI community that they are a part of our community too, that no danger or judgment will come to them if they worship here in this place.

It’s in the countless children, families, and individuals who walk through our doors during the week to be fed physically and spiritually.

The good news is within each one of you here today. You are a living testimony to God’s covenant of mercy and love.

Often Lent becomes a season of self-reflection on the sin and brokenness that keeps us from God. But recently I can’t stop myself from thinking that this year could be different. If we give something up for Lent (chocolate, social media, television, or any number of things), we get to put them right back into our lives after this forty day journey. We take the opportunity to pick right back up where we left off at the beginning of Lent…and we base them on these small stumbling blocks rather than the wilderness experience of living in a world that is violent, divided, and broken in ways that seem irreparable.

But what if we hung our temptations up in the same way that God placed the bow in the sky, as a reminder that we would not fall captive to the pressures and sinfulness of this world again; because if we did this, our feelings at the end of this Lenten journey are not relief that we made it but, instead, a proclamation of what we believe now more deeply than we ever did before. We would testify that, even in this wilderness that we can life, God can still proclaim the good news in and through each one of us.

As this Lenten journey commences, may you deeply explore the love of God that transforms mere life and death into resurrection hope.

“What’s Next?”: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

The sermon below was delivered at Hope of Christ Presbyterian Church in Summit Hill, PA (June 11, 2017). Based on Matthew 28: 16-20.

“Daddy, where is Jesus?” our inquisitive kindergartener asked one day on the ride home from school.

Normally, my husband would say, “Jonathan, that’s a mommy question.” In our home, all theological questions get punted to the professional in the house. But it was just the two of them in the car so Dan took it upon himself to answer the simple question.

“Well, Jesus is everywhere.”

“Everywhere?!” Jonathan replied. “Is Jesus in the gas tank?”

“I suppose he is, buddy.”

Silence passes between them before Jonathan cautiously says, “Is Jesus right next to me?”

“Yes, he’s there too.”

Startled, my five year old jumped in his seat and leans a bit closer to the car door. He turns his head and looks suspiciously at the empty seat next to him. His eyes go up and down as if he is checking out the invisible man sitting next to him. As time passes, his body goes from tense to relaxed as he settles into the reality that this Jesus, whom he cannot see, might actually be in the gas tank, sitting right next to him, and just about everywhere else he can imagine.

Nothing has strengthened my faith quite like my son, Jonathan. There are times when he sweetly asks to read his children’s bible during our bedtime routine or, when we had planned to go apple picking on a Sunday morning and were rained out, says, “Well, we could go to church.” The night when he walked into the kitchen with one of his arms pulled through the neck of his shirt so that it looked like a tunic and said, “Look, mommy, I’m Jesus.” These are moments that make a pastor proud that we are sowing seeds that take root in his life.

But there are other days when Jonathan says, “I don’t believe in God.” Or the Sunday morning when he’s rolling on the floor in the narthex of the church crying out that he does not want to go to church while congregation members literally step over him to get into the sanctuary. Or the debates before we even get to church about why coffee hour (his favorite part of Sunday morning) isn’t before worship.

Those are the days when I just wish that he could have a taste of what the disciples and the early church had; a closeness to the physical Christ who lived among them. At least it would make explaining the Christian faith a bit easier for him…and for us as parents!

We’ve got a bit of Scriptural whiplash this morning as we move from the joyful movement of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church to the whole world in Pentecost to tearful, uncertain goodbyes on a mountain in Galilee. But if there’s anything that I can say about our reading from Matthew this morning, it’s that at least the eleven disciples had the resurrected Jesus right in front of them!

But let’s back up a bit. The beginning of this chapter opens with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary slowly walking toward the tomb. I imagine they’re preparing themselves for the worst, balancing the emotions of losing their messianic rabbi with the relief that the suffering and torture of his execution are over. Yet when they arrive at the tomb, they are welcomed with an earthquake and an angel that tells them Christ is no longer there. Instead, the women are to return to the disciples and relay the message that Jesus will meet them in Galilee.

Now, there were guards at the tomb that day who reported back to chief priests all that they had seen. Frightened and thinking quick on their feet to adjust their plans, the priests paid the guards a large sum of money to keep the story to themselves saying, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep. If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” (Matthew 28: 13-14)

It’s right here where the Gospel reading begins this morning. The disciples are where they were told to be, in Galilee. The resurrected Jesus meets the eleven men for his final moments with them. But here’s what’s so interesting to me…those words are not full of reassurance in the way that they might have hoped. There’s no pause button for their work! Instead, he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Jesus tells them that there is still work to be done and that they are the ones to do it. Perhaps some of them were still holding on to the hope that this resurrected king would finally march into Jerusalem and win back the city for them. Others might have just wanted to rest a bit from the emotional rollercoaster of the past few days. But no, Jesus tells them that it’s time to get moving! And, they are sent not only to the Jewish communities of which they are familiar, but also to all nations to make disciples of everyone whom they meet.

As I was preparing for this sermon and thinking about this daunting call to disciple making, it made me glad that Jonathan is hesitant about what he believes. It means that he is still willing to ask questions and challenge these things that my husband and I take for granted as “just because.” But even more than that, I know that the stakes of believing in the risen Christ comes with a challenging calling. It means proclaiming a God who created all things, a God who then came among us in flesh and blood to transform what had become a religious status quo even though it lead to his execution, and a God whom we say equips us for mission even today through the movement of the Holy Spirit. It’s radical…and, perhaps, absolutely nonsensical.

I’ve done a fair amount of travel around the church to regional governing bodies and local congregations of various denominations. What I have found across many of these contexts is that there is anxiety of what might be next. We can’t just open our sanctuary doors and expect people to walk through them on a Sunday morning. Loyalty to a denominational community has been replaced with consumerist interest in what we can get out of it. Churches are no longer the center of an area, instead becoming just one of many places that people find community. Church leadership worries about the decrease in worship attendance coupled with rising budgetary needs and the ways that we can compete with the unrelenting invention of new, technologically advanced ways to engage in the world, overall. Often I hear stories of people who feel as though they are running behind and trying to catch up with what might be next for their church rather than leading confidently into the future. It feels more like survival that a hope-filled life in whatever may be the future of the church.

Here’s the thing: We believe that the church’s mission is God’s mission, but too often we put our mission first. What if we were to trust that God has a mission for the world? (Working Preacher Podcast, Trinity Sunday A, 2017) That God’s mission has been in place long before we were ever on the scene, from that first breath that brought life to Creation all the way to this place right here, right now. It’s our Creator who calls us forth to participate in this mission. God’s mission is our mission….not the other way around. By trusting that, in all things, we engage in God’s mission, we bring all that we are and all that we can be to participate in the work that is already making disciples of all nations! We are a part of this greater story, a chapter in the ongoing narrative of the Triune God throughout all of creation.

Now, don’t get me wrong…the stakes are high. You’ve come here to worship while others decided to head to brunch or had to attend soccer practice or thought that extra hour or two of sleep would prepare them more for the week than sitting in a pew. But just like the disciples that day who were relieved to see Christ and yet sent out to baptize all nations, you, too, are called to share this life-giving story with others. Then, and now, in circumstances that seem less than optimal (or at times, even impossible), Christ calls us to the act of disciple making. Despite all that has happened or will happen, discipleship is still possible.

Probably the greatest reassurance for me is that some doubted among the eleven who gathered on the mountain top that day. When they saw Christ, they worshipped him but there were still some who can concerns and worries. And yet Jesus still empowered them to go out and baptize disciples near and far…to lands known and those yet unknown. The disciples that day, and even those of us gathered here today, have the power to be a part of God’s ongoing story. We’re invited to participate with all that we bring: power, knowledge, and doubts all bundled together.

As Eric Barreto said in his commentary for this week, “The key ingredient of the right use of power is not being right. It is not being the smartest person in the room. It is not about charisma. It is not about being the best dealmaker. It is not about self-aggrandizement. Power, rightly used, is about trust. The trust others place in someone. The trust someone asks others to invest in her. The trust, most of all, that someone places in God to show her the way. For, if we are honest, the exercise of power is a humbling matter, one that pushes us more toward doubt that certainty. Here, we are reminded anew by Anne Lamott that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the obverse of faith is prideful certainty. Faith leans on God; certainty says, “I know better.” Faith trusts when we can’t see the path before us; certainty steps forward no matter who might be trampled as we stomp our way through the world.”

The Christ’s blessing to the eleven men gathered that day on the mountain is the same for us today. Despite the worries and concerns that we have, whether they be for the church or the personal weights that we bear on our shoulders, this blessing sends us forth to a world that is in desperate need of God’s abundant love. I want to leave you with a poem written by the artist, Jan Richardson, titled, “Blessing that Does Not End.”

 

From the moment

it first laid eyes

on you,

this blessing loved you.

 

This blessing

knew you

from the start.

 

It cannot explain how.

 

It just knows

that the first time

it sat beside you,

it entered into a conversation

that had already been going on

forever.

 

Believe this conversation

has not stopped.

 

Believe this love

still lives –

the love that crossed

an impossible distance

to reach you

to find you,

to take your face

into its hands

and bless you.

 

Believe this

does not end –

that this gesture,

once enacted,

endures.

 

Believe this love

goes on –

that it still takes your face

into its hands,

that it presses

its forehead to yours

as it speaks to you

in undying words,

that it has never ceased

to gather your heart

into its heart.

 

Believe this blessing

abides.

Believe it goes with you

always.

Believe it knows you

still.

Dear fellow Presbyterians

Dear friends and colleagues,

You have seen the facts: we’ve had more mass shootings this year than there are days, we are 5% of the world population and account for 1/3 of its mass shootings, and that there was not one but two shootings in our country on December 2 (and that’s what made the news).

I spent much of last night posting overtures and reports from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I didn’t do this just because I am the vice moderator and feel as though I need to inform others about the resources that our at our fingertips. Each Sunday when I opened the bulletin of my church, I would read, “We are all ministers of the church.” I didn’t really think that much about the statement growing up. There is not a hierarchy. There isn’t a boss who demands certain actions. We are all ministers doing the work we are called to on this earth.

We are a denomination of words. We’re great at policy making and debate. Some would even say experts! But as I watched the news unfold yesterday and today, I am reminded that we are all ministers.

It’s time for us stand up and demand more, both of ourselves and others. We have the policies and words to back us up. We know what the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) states about gun violence. It’s now up to us to do something about it. We can no longer avoid the tough conversations with our neighbors in the pews, leave the messaging to the preacher in the pulpit, rely on our pastors to do the leg work in our communities or believe that a statement from the denomination will be enough.

We are all ministers. We are all the Church.

We’ve engaged in a churchwide conversation about the identity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I want us to continue to engage in policy and statement making because it’s a way that we have a voice in the national conversation. But I also hope that our identity involves the local congregations to presbyteries to synods to the national leadership doing the hard, tough work of educating/engaging one another and our politicians in demanding changes to address gun violence. I want to be a part of a denomination that recognizes the historical reality of America that racializes others when faced with fear and decides to respond with love; we need to look no further than the Japanese internment, a black teenager wearing a hoodie, a Sikh man questioned about his Muslim beliefs, or news outlets that yesterday said the shooters names sounded, “foreign.” I want us to remember the photographs of Aylan Kurdi washing up on the Turkish beach and we open our doors to welcome more Syrian refugees because others pull back in suspicion.

Let’s not just talk about who we are as a denomination…let’s live it.

Gun Violence Prevention from 221st General Assembly (2014)

Gun Violence Policy from 219th General Assembly

Resource created for congregations based on the policy from 219th General Assembly

“Trigger” (A film created by David Barnhardt based on the policy from 219th General Assembly. It includes 4 lesson discussion guide if you purchase from PDS)

Advent: Week 2 Liturgy

images

Rev. Lindsay Borden, interim pastor at the Lafayette Presbyterian Church in NYC, put together this resource for the second Sunday in Advent. It incorporates a congregational conversation about the identity of the Church (www.pcusa.org/identity) the encourage engagement in the denominational process. Please feel free to use some or all for your service!

 

LIGHTING OF THE ADVENT CANDLE and CALL TO WORSHIP

(from Baruch 5 – for 2 – 6 readers)

Reader __________: Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent means “coming,” and as we await the coming again of Christ into our world, we light the second candle, the candle of peace.

Reader ___________: Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;

Reader ___________: for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven; and God will give you evermore the name, “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”

Reader ___________:  And God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of God’s glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from God.

Reader ___________: As a beacon of peace in our warring world, we light this candle, as we look for the coming of the One called Prince of Peace. (The second candle is lit.)

Reader ___________: People of God, let us work for Christ’s peace!

All: Let us worship God!

HYMN

CALL TO CONFESSION

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee… the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

As God’s faithful beloved, let us turn to God in repentance, trusting in God’s mercy and grace.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

Loving God, we have heard the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

But we have failed to prepare for your coming.

The chasm between those in the valleys and those on the mountaintops gapes wide.

If we find our pathways smooth, we take the credit, and ignore those for whom the road is hard.

If we ourselves find the way rough-going, we try to struggle on alone, forgetting that we can do more together than we ever can on our won.

O God, have mercy on us.

Mend our crooked little hearts. Enlarge them with your love.

In Christ we ask it. Amen.

DECLARATION OF FORGIVENESS

Hear the good news: all flesh shall see the salvation of the LORD – and that won’t be our doing, but God’s. Believe the good news; live the good news: in Christ we are forgiven; in Christ we are made whole. Amen.

PASSING THE PEACE OF CHRIST

PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION

God of Peace, by your Spirit, open our hearts and minds to your Word. Teach us your way, that we may put away our garments of sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of your glory: the mercy and righteousness that come from you. Amen.

SCRIPTURE READING

Philippians 1: 3-11

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

COMMUNITY CONVERSATION: What does it mean (to you) to be church?

This week’s theme is about peace and, in the weeks building up to Advent, we have seen anything but peace on the news: rejection of Syrian refugees based on the bombing in Paris, “guilt shaming” as countless acts of violence occur around the world, and the desire to seek our own safety and peace before that of others. In some ways, it’s natural. We want to be safe. We want to be secure. We want peace.

Seeking peace is something that must be practiced. If we don’t know what it looks or feels like, then we don’t know how to obtain it.  Today’s passage from Paul to the Philippian church highlights the way we are to prayerfully seek God’s call in Christian community. He says, “…this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best…”

Today, together, we are going to practice seeking peace. The conversation begins right here, with the people we are sitting next to in our pews. So, we are going to engage in a conversation with one another. I invite you to first turn to your neighbor or neighbors and answer this question: “What does a church seeking peace look like?”

(give them 3-4 minutes)

Have people report back. Then ask, “If we strive to become that church, what must we save and what must we let go of?”

(give them 3-4 minutes)

Conclude by saying that, “Everything we do is to contribute to the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ through the glory and praise of God as Paul says in today’s passage. What fruit do we hope to harvest as a community of faith?” Encourage people to lift up things as they feel led. Make a connection to the work of your local congregation through the presbytery all the way up to the national level of the denomination. One way to encourage our work together is to participate in the conversation going on in the PCUSA now…”

[From PCUSA website: “In a religious landscape that has been changing substantially in recent history, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its agencies have been wrestling with what these changes mean for the church, its identity, mission, and focus. The Office of the General Assembly seeks new ways to faithfully carry out the direction given by the General Assembly in the 21st century. In the midst of these changes and this collective discernment, the important question arises as to whether the purposes and mission of the agencies that have served the church in the past are right for our future as a church.

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly has called for a church-wide consultation that seeks to engage the whole denomination in a conversation about what the church is called to be and do, what it means to be a connectional church, and what is our shared identity, so that the 222nd General Assembly in 2016 will be substantively informed by the insights and wisdom of congregations, councils, and agencies when it gathers in Portland to ponder these things.

What are we called to be and do as a denomination in the 21st century? The objective of this study is to engage the whole church in conversation, and to provide a summary of this conversation to commissioners at the 222nd General Assembly, where they will weigh important matters of purpose, function, mission and ministry. We have the opportunity to share our hopes and dreams about the church with the General Assembly. Will you join the conversation?”]

CONCLUDING UNISON PRAYER:

God of Hope, we pray that – as individuals, as a congregation, and as a denomination –  

our love may overflow more and more with knowledge and insight,

that through your gracious Spirit we may determine what is best –

that is, what is your will for us – so that in the day of Christ’s coming,

we may be found dressed in your beautiful righteousness, clothed in  your everlasting love.  

In Jesus Christ we pray, to the glory and praise of your eternal name. Amen.

AFFIRMATION OF FAITH (from Matthew 5: 3 – 11),

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

OFFERING

SACRAMENT OF COMMUNION

HYMN

Invitation to the Table

Hear the words of the prophet Baruch: “Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.”

At this table we are given a foretaste of that day, when all God’s people shall come from the ends of the earth, and all people shall be welcomed and fed.

To come to this table, you do not have to be without sin; none of us is sinless.

You do not have to be good; only God is good.

You do not even have to be Presbyterian – for this is not the table of the Presbyterian Church

or of any church; it is not the table of the perfect, but of the loved.

At Christ’s bountiful table, all are beloved, and all are welcome

Great Prayer of Thanksgiving (from Luke 1:68-79)

Minister: The Lord be with you.

People: And also with you.

Minister: Lift up your hearts.

People: We lift them to the Lord.

Minister: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

People: It is right to give our thanks and praise

 

Blessed are you, LORD God of Israel, for you have looked favorably upon your people and redeemed them. You raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, and you spoke through the mouths of your holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies within and without / our wayward and wandering ways.]

 

Thus you showed us the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered your holy covenant, the oath that you swore to our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, to grant us that we, being rescued from our sinful natures, might serve you without fear, in holiness and righteousness before you all of our days.

 

And so we praise you, singing with all the saints on earth and all the saints in heaven:

(Hymn # 568) Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,

Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.

 

Yet we continued to turn from you, but you never turned from us.

You sent a prophet called John to go prepare the way of our Lord,

to give knowledge of salvation to your people by the forgiveness of their sins.

 

And in the fullness of time, by your tender mercy, O God,

you sent your child Jesus, to shine into our lives with the dawn of a new creation,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.

 

In his birth, in his life, in his ministry, and even in his suffering and death,

Jesus taught us what it is to be fully, joyfully, generously human –

loving you and our neighbors just as we are loved.

In his resurrection, we learned that even death cannot destroy your love.

And so, according to his commandment:

We remember his death,


we proclaim his resurrection,

we await his coming in glory.

 

God of Grace, as we wait with holy impatience for the advent of our Savior,

send your Holy Spirit now

upon these gifts of bread and wine, and upon your gathered people,

to bless us and bind us together,

to make us indeed one with the risen Christ and with each other,

to feed and sustain us for your holy work of loving the world.

 

Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

all glory and honor are yours, almighty and merciful God,

now and forever. Amen.

 

The Lord’s Prayer.

 

[Words of Institution, if not said during prayer]

 

Prayer after the Communion

O God you have fed us at your bountiful table.

May this holy and joyful meal encourage us to help prepare your way:

To straighten the paths of injustice,

To fill in the valleys of poverty

And tear down the mountains of injustice;

To strengthen our hearts, until that day

when all flesh shall see the your salvation

through Jesus Christ our peace. Amen.

HYMN

CHARGE AND BENEDICTION

A Prayer for the World

Miller Chapel

This prayer was delivered at Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary on November 19, 2015. 

Were you there when people strapped bombs on and armed themselves for battle? Were you there when violence erupted in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Nigeria? Did you hear the gun shots and bombs in Paris as people screamed and kept silent, not to hear you but to protect their own lives? Did you perceive the defiance and acts of retaliation that united two countries that were once in opposition with one another; were you weeping as sadness gave birth to unified violence? Were you watching as homes were ripped apart and raided under the banner of greater safety? Did you see yet another unarmed black man shot this week in America, another unvalued life lost in the headlines? Are you listening as people celebrate this morning at the death of Abdelhamid Abaaoud? Are you there as students mere steps away from our campus protest against racism and demand a better community for Princeton University?

Where are you as our world is torn apart?

We beget violence with violence, preferring more weapons to prevent gun violence. A photograph of a young boy washed up on the shores of Turkey brought tears to our eyes only weeks ago; and now we turn our backs on refugees who flee the familiarity of their homes because it’s a better option than staying. We want to close our doors and build walls along our borders. We embrace fear in the name of our own safety.

Where are you as our world is torn apart?

We are ripping our theology books apart as we ask the question, “Why do bad things happen?” We look into the eyes of our fellow students wondering what this is all about, why do we care? A theological education, books and papers, that gives birth to what?

Where are you as our world is torn apart?

How can we remain silent when it seems as though you are doing the same?

 

Where are you as we tear your world apart?

This world is not ours, we were merely the stewards of Creation. Though the waves of violence sweep around the world, we will not allow it to wash over us. We acknowledge that this is your dance, not ours. Movement to your tempo and beat within the steps laid out before us. We dance because the terror and fear cannot overtake us; this is what a life of faith is all about.

Where are you as we tear your world apart?

Beside us, behind us, alongside us, in front of us. You, O God, are embracing us in this dance. We move our bodies in defiance of the depths of despair that could draw us in. We dance so that your song can be known in all corners of this world.

 

 

Who’s Next?!

ananisas-graves

Closing Worship of ASC, MCL and GACOR: October 11, 2015

Psalm 130 and Acts 5: 1-11

“Who’s Next?!”

We all have at least one Annias or Sapphira in our lives, don’t we?

Those people who come to the microphone during a presbytery meeting and there’s a collective eye roll. Commissioners sit back in their pews, arms crossed, getting comfortable for the flood of words that is about to come from the sound system. It’s the mixture of anger, frustration, criticism, and Robert’s Rules that rolls off their tongues so easily…the finger that points to a problem but hands that are rarely a part of doing the repair work.

Or what about those churches who give just enough? Those congregations that have decided to withhold their per capita in defiance of the denomination but still hold the blue and red seal on their signs and “Presbyterian” in their names. Communities that rarely send teaching or ruling elders, but when you start to see their faces regularly, you wonder what they might want from the presbytery.

And it goes without saying as we near the season of overtures and preparations for General Assembly, those who plan conspire and plan together. The masters of strategy who lay out the ways that support can be garnered for their position…because of course, we don’t mean that it’s bad for those who agree with us to strategize! How else would we be sure to approve the measures that matter to us?!

I’m going to give you a moment to just imagine your own Ananias and Sapphira. Now imagine them pop, out of the picture!

What a breath of fresh air! New space created from what one of my good friends calls, “Energy vampires.”

In February I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I have gone through round after round of chemo in the spring and surgery this past summer. Recently I went to see my oncologist who placed me on a medication saying, “Most women experience hot flashes. There is also an increased risk of cervical cancer, cataracts and liver cancer.”

I laughed. I let our giggles that could not be stopped. It just all seemed funny to me that one drug that could both prevent reoccurrence of my cancer, but also put me at risk of others.

I just happened to have an eye doctor’s appointment the same week and when I told the doctor what medicine I was on he said, “Did your oncologist tell you about the side effects.”

“Why yes, she said cataracts.”

“Oh, cataracts are the least of your worries!” he responded. “It can also effect the blood vessels in your eyes and increase your chances of other damage.”

Innocently, I asked, “So if my vision becomes blurry or I see spots, should I come in.”

“If you see any of those things…it’s too late.”

Everything about cancer treatment is all about measured risk, putting chemicals at just enough of our concentration into our bodies to kill the exact cells that give other people life. It includes obsessive hand washing, tapped energy levels, and losing hair for a new style that many of us would have not tried otherwise.

You see, for me, the hardest part about facing cancer wasn’t taking the drugs that could kill me, either now or in the future. It’s all about learning how to live into hope when I know what could be on the horizon, even if it is years or decades away.

You see, no one told me that I would have to navigate what it meant for me to live without cancer. In my head, I was sure that I should be celebrating that the surgeons were able to get clean margins around the tumor and that my lymph nodes showed that the cancer hadn’t spread. I should have been living as though I have gotten a second chance at life! The people around me were certainly celebrating. But inside, I just couldn’t jump up and cheer.

For the first time since my diagnosis, I felt unsettled.

Here was the problem: No one told me that I would have to figure out how to live while I was afraid of dying. No one told me that I would have to make memories that, years from now, I could possibly look back on with a smile that I had done that because I needed something to sustain me through the next crisis. I didn’t know how to live again.

All of Acts before our passage for this morning is about the radical movement of the Holy Spirit. This is a community that is literally on fire! We have the Spirit moving on Pentecost that sends those of unified mind out into the surrounding neighborhood to evangelize in tongues once unfamiliar to them. Leaders are confidently defending their trust in the teachings of Jesus and baptisms are happening like crazy.

The community has fully committed to this movement, living with everything in common. Only a few verses before this morning’s passage we are told that no one lacked. People were selling all of their property and giving everything that they earned to the community. Even a Levite man named Barnabas sold his land and placed all of the money at the apostles’ feet.

Most commentaries on this passage focus on the honest stewardship of Barnabas and the emptiness of Ananias and Sapphira. Not only did they lie to the apostles about their gift, but they conspired together to do it. They created their own partnership, trusting in what they could provide to one another over the community that was attempting to live with full reliance on one another.

But here’s the thing about Ananias and Sapphira: I think the community failed them, too. The apostles were sending the signal to the ever growing and changing community that they were to share everything in common. Maybe they were even encouraging people to sell their land and everything they possessed to lay the money at their feet. They were giving the big stewardship message that we are all told today NOT to give.

But what was missing in the message that Ananias and Sapphira couldn’t fully trust the community? I wonder if they thought…

This all sounds like a great deal, but what happens when the furvor is gone? What happens when the crowds leave, the conversions decrease, and we’re hungry for more than promises?

Do you think that they looked around at the society and culture around them, one that was full of deities and excess, and wondered if the ideals of this faith could be sustained? Where would their cushion be if it wasn’t? How could they return back to their status if they needed to?

What if they looked around and saw their neighbor’s slaves, the widow, those physically disabled, individuals facing illness…the marginalized… and wondered…what were they going to give? Why were they to give everything they owned to share with people who wouldn’t have to give anything near what they were asked to sacrifice? (I’d love to preach a sermon about the power and privilege steeped in these comments, but that’s for another time.)

No one told them how to live for their faith when they were asked to let everything that they had once valued.

No matter what led to their decision, Ananias and Sapphira die on the spot. The passage concludes, “Trepidation and dread seized the whole church and all who heard what had happened.”

The community became cautious and worried. I imagine they were asking, “Who’s next?” or even, “What did I sign up for?”

Here’s the thing: This is the first time that the community is actually called “church,” ekklesia in the Greek. In the midst of sadness and fear, they are gathered together as the people of God.

We’ve been talking over and over again about the necessity to have this conversation about what it means to be the Church today.

  • Heath’s call to the Church, Next Church, COGA’s invitation to talk about identity, the Fellowship’s exploration of the call to be together in difference…I could go on.
  • But I want to remind us that we are called to explore this together and I find my own call at this unique time and place to be sure that we are lifting up the voices of the full body of our denomination.
    • We have to have a conversation about the processes that many of us love, that some of us feel make us uniquely Presbyterian, and the ways that they favor those who possess power and privilege.
    • Puerto Rico à Who gets to decide what is an essential document for their community?
    • We need to explore who we are…that advocacy and justice work isn’t just a response to our call as people of faith, but a reflection of what it means to be the full body of Christ.
    • It’s the reason I have worked with Valerie Small to adjust her workshop for tomorrow morning to reflect on the conversation about what it means to be the Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), inclusive of the voices that are so often marginalized.

If you want to know what it means to face death, to give up everything for what you believe and the community that you love, you need to go no further than look at this table. This was the last meal of a death row inmate. And each time that we partake of this bread and this cup, we proclaim that it is our meal. We shout throughout all of Creation that his last meal is the same food that will feed us in our call to ministry.

A Pastoral Letter to Members and Friends of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

NOTE: Full resources from the Office of the General Assembly can be found HERE.

Dear members and friends of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Presbyteries have been engaged in conversation, discernment, and prayer concerning the recommendations from the 221st General Assembly (2014) in the nine months since Detroit, Michigan. On March 17, 2015, Amendment 14F (On Amending W-4.9000 Marriage) received the required majority from the presbyteries.

The approved amendment to the Book of Order lifts up the sanctity of marriage and the commitment of loving couples within the church. It also allows teaching elders to exercise their pastoral discretion in officiating weddings and in doing so “… the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church property for a marriage service.”

Though we know that this amendment received the necessary majority for approval, we encourage the congregations, presbyteries, and synods of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to continue to be in conversation about marriage and family. We hope that such “up/down” voting does not mark the end, but the continuation of our desire to live in community; a partnership that requires prayer, the study of Scripture, listening to and with one another, and a dedication to partnership in the midst of our diversity of opinion.

We trust that God whose Word brought Creation into being is also the same Word that speaks to us today. With confidence, we believe that God calls the Church into living as a transformative community that embraces the call to be God’s beloved community in the world.

 

 

Ruling Elder Heath K. Rada

Moderator, 221st General Assembly (2014)

 

 

The Reverend Larissa Kwong Abazia

Vice Moderator, 221st General Assembly (2014)

What We Need To Hear

imagesIn my nine months serving as the vice moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA), I’ve been talking a lot about the Syrophoenician woman.  Here’s a link to the sermon I gave at Princeton Theological Seminary and a written version from a visit to the Presbytery of Wabash Valley.

I’m not letting her go because I don’t think that she has anything to say to the Church.  I’m letting go because she and I have been journeying together for a year now, wrestling and grappling with what it means to be a driven person of faith in a world that would rather cast off challenges and embrace the easier path.  I think there are new places to walk toward.  But before I let her go, I want to lift up a few reminders of what she stands for:

1. We have got to get out of our own way.  I know there are to-do lists that grow each day and we are daunted that our membership numbers are dwindling, but the solution isn’t just in us.  We can’t forget the covenant that God has made…and that covenant might be growing, expanding, and reaching out farther than we ever imagined!  We’ve got to take the hands and feet that we keep in constant motion and remember to lift them up to God.

2. We can’t miss the big picture.  There will always be another fire to put out, a vote to cast, a division to be created in the Church.  These range from allowing pastors to officiate at same-gender weddings to being annoyed that the three year old in the pew next to you is being distracting in worship again.  If only the church weren’t made up of people!  However, the minute we let issues define who we are, then we have lost our mission as the whole body of the Church.

3. When we turn the page or wake up to a new day, we still have to figure out how to be the Church together.  The decently and in order way that we, Presbyterians, love to do our work does not mean that we know how to live together or that a vote will mean that we can automatically move on.  The harder road is to wake up each new day committed to reaching across the table and loving those who are our “enemies” or the ones we deem as “other.”  It’s coming back to the Table if things didn’t go our way (OR if they did!) and sharing a meal together because we value the whole body.

4. Like Jesus, we can get so steeped in what we think needs to be done that we miss out on the needs right in front of our eyes.  Yes, buildings need tending and that Bible study is faltering, but there is a whole world outside of our doors too.  The world may be kneeling right at our feet but we’re missing it because we’re focused on what needs to get done first.  It’s not about putting our houses in order before we reach out to others…that’s giving others the scraps from the Table.

5. Women understand what it means to be pushed from the Table, underestimated, undervalued, and silenced…but we still came/come over and over again for our seat.  Women are still paid less, judged against stereotypes, and criticized for “wanting to have it all.”  We’re told to lean in or lean back, judged for speaking up, criticized for what we wear to work, and called a _____ if we’re too assertive.  I am so thankful for every single woman who has gone before me, those who walk alongside me, and those who are discerning who God has called them to be.  We not only pull up a seat for ourselves, but we remember to pull up a seat for others.