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.

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.

No Way Back

imagesBelow is the sermon that I preached at the Moderator’s Conference in Louisville, KY on Friday, November 7, 2014.  Over 100 people registered for the event to equip presbytery or synod moderators and vice moderators for their service to the Church.  May they lead the denomination to new horizons through their unique calling!

No Way Back: A sermon on John 20: 19-29

Shut the doors! Haven’t you heard, our denomination is in deep trouble.     We lost 224 congregations and our membership declined by 89,296 people. We might as well round that up to 90,000. We’ve got fewer hands to do the work and even fewer resources to make anything happen. We’ve lost buildings and whole congregations. We can’t risk losing any more people.

Turn the locks! Our churches and presbyteries are in dispute. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. And these debates aren’t just about the paint color for the sanctuary or moving the baptismal font two feet to the left. It’s all about sex and sexuality; marriage, the right to marry and the freedom to officiate…divestment and the relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters…and gracious dismissals. I’ve experienced this struggle myself. Even before I returned home from General Assembly this summer I had an email in my inbox from a neighboring rabbi. I made an appointment and sat in his office as he talked about how we had broken our friendship with their congregation. I’ve had conversations in my presbytery with people from all different sides of the spectrum who say, “Don’t you think it’s ____________________ what the Presbyterian Church (USA) decided about gay marriage?” Lock the doors before we have these conversations so that no one can escape.

Close off every single exit! Our polity as failed us: with up and down votes, winners and losers, we’ve pitted our communities against one another. We’ve been encouraged to label one another and uncover categories so that we know how to “work together” in supposed partnership. We’ve allow the debates of our presbyteries through our General Assembly define who we are and what we stand for, forgetting that we, we embodied, are the Church.

Shut everything off! It’s time to hunker down and hit preservation mode. If we can’t save what’s inside, then we surely can’t save anyone outside. It’s time to focus on us.

I imagine that that is what the disciples must have felt like at the beginning of the week after Jesus’ death. Closed doors. Locks turned. The world shut out. The joy of a culture changing Messiah so easily traded for mourning and inactivity. I always picture them cramped inside of the room, occupying the same space and yet, somehow, completely withdrawn from the deep sadness that envelops each.

“It’s time to focus on us,” they must think. “How can we face the crowds when we barely know what to think, ourselves?!”

Did you forget so easily about the unnamed men and women who had been transformed by the presence of Jesus? A simple miracle, sermon, lesson or word of mouth that travelled from city to town to village and back around again.   The people who were on the ground, trying to change their lives even though they didn’t walk alongside Jesus every day like those disciples. They had the harder job of keeping their faith alive without Jesus with them, day in and day out. Jesus the Messiah…now Jesus the Conquered. Visions of victory only to be beaten and hung on a cross. All of those communities, those countless individuals hoping for a new future, gathering outside the walls of that closed off room and mourning alone.

Only they weren’t mourning alone were they? There was Thomas. Thomas, who is no where to be found in that locked room. He’s somewhere else, dare we say among some people who are asking the same questions about the executed Christ? Unlike the disciples, might he be asking the same questions? Could he have made himself vulnerable, answering as a disciple of Jesus with the daringly honest words, “I have no idea. I don’t know.” But doubts and incomplete answers, he was still there and among them, steeped in pain and loss as a community together.

There are real, deep scars out there in our churches…mourning and vulnerabilities torn open from our denomination’s decisions…but you don’t need me to tell you that, do you?!

There are people who are celebrating the vote concerning marriage. Pastors and congregational leaders in states that recognize same-sex marriage that finally feel free to offer pastoral care and support to their parishioners without strings attached. Individuals who have fought for decades for full inclusion of the lgbtq community that feel like the long road to get here was hard won. Some have said to me, “We want to celebrate but we feel like we can’t in respect to those who disagree with us.”

There are those who mourn this decision, feeling as though we have left biblical authority at the door for cultural relevancy. Churches who have left or are considering leaving because they’re not sure we can break bread and share the cup at the same Table; they’re not even sure we believe in the same Savior who prepares the Table. And those who stay are faced with the ongoing pressure that they have conformed, giving up their long held beliefs just to stay together as a denomination. Another person said to me, “We’re bleeding. We’re hurt, and then we’re told that we’ve betrayed our beliefs by staying. And everyone else wants us to just move on.”

There are individuals and communities of color who look at the Belhar Confession and wonder if the denomination is capable of wrestling with the call to racial reconciliation. Immigrant communities whose ministries are hindered in the larger church because of language barriers and cultural differences, lack of resources in their native tongues, and an inability to adhere to our denomination’s structural demands because of their unique callings. A long history of racial/ethnic presbyteries that were never fully integrated into the life of their regional governing bodies, only joined together by name. We are a 90% white denomination in a country that is becoming increasingly more diverse. And, let’s be honest, eleven o’clock is still the most segregated hour on Sunday in many of our congregations.

There are real, deep scars…wounds that need tending. You all know them….you can name them…and if we did, we might be here all morning.

So here’s the thing: The disciples knew it was Jesus because they saw his hands and his sides. The scars and wounds didn’t disappear from his resurrected body, they were still right there as an acknowledgement of everything he had endured on earth, from his first breath to his last. They saw the marks of pain with their own eyes and only then does the text tell us that they were overjoyed to be with their Lord again. And don’t call him Doubting Thomas anymore! Thomas wanted to see the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, put his fingers in the wounds, and his hand to his side because those marks were a witness that every single thing Jesus went through, beginning to end, was real. The good, the bad, all embodied in Jesus’ resurrected form.

Every single one of you knows the wounds and scars that your communities bear. The days of trying to move around the issues or somehow skip over them or even pretend that they don’t exist, that we’ve done the hard work and can move forward…those days are gone. This day, we are called to move through the pain and suffering, to have the tough conversations, to face one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and take the harder road together.

I have a confession to make: A few days before this summer’s General Assembly I started to panic. I’ve run session and business meetings before, but what if Heath and I were actually to be installed and moderator and vice moderator. How would I moderate a meeting of over six hundred people from across the country and even around the world? So I confess, I ran to the bookstore and bought “The Annotated Roberts’ Rules” and then I bought, “Robert’s Rules for Dummies.” I had my Stated Clerk email me his flowchart of commonly used motions and how to handle them.

This weekend you will learn about parliamentary procedure, amendments that need action from your presbyteries, and resources available from our national office. You’ll engage in conversations in structured workshops and open source spaces. I hope that you will also connect with fellow moderators and find ways to support one another when you leave this place. But in our governance of up down voting, winning and losing, and the attempts to do it decently and in order, we can’t think that that’s all we need to do.

In your calling, I charge you to be like Thomas. Go out in the midst of the crowds and, even without answers, meet people where they are. And when they tell you that they have seen Christ, go and see the marks of pain and suffering. Go to touch, see, and experience the broken body of the Church, and then believe for yourself that resurrection is possible. Share that story in every meeting that you moderate and all that you do.

Because the truth is, even if we close our doors and shut ourselves off from the world, the resurrected Jesus still comes among us and says, “Peace be with you.”