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.