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.
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
this blessing loved 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
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.
does not end –
that this gesture,
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
Believe it goes with you
Believe it knows you
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!
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.
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.
SACRAMENT OF COMMUNION
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.
CHARGE AND BENEDICTION
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.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny. (Matthew 5: 23-26)
We don’t have cable television in our house so I was left sitting on the couch with an antenna trying desperately to follow the grand jury’s decision concerning Michael Brown’s shooting. Channel 2. Channel 4. Channel 5. Channel 7. Back around again…Scorpion. The Voice. Sleepy Hollow. Dancing with the Stars. Over and over.
Eventually one television channel aired the decision by the grand jury. Only a few words came out of Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s mouth before I sank back into my seat. In the mixture of emotions that erupted in the following minutes, I maintained the sinking feeling that so many of us know, “I’m not surprised.”
I’ve not written a lot on this blog recently because so much has been weighing on my heart and mind. Recent weeks have included financial concerns in the 1001 Worshipping Communities of the Presbyterian Church (USA), churches continuing to discern if they can be in communion with those whom they disagree, an unarmed man in a stairwell and a twelve year old boy with a toy gun both shot and killed, people of color facing racism every single time they walk out their doors in the US, consistent unrest throughout the world, and now the grand jury decision concerning Michael Brown’s death. If I were to name everything, well, that would take more than one blog post.
More and more, every day, I am convinced that reconciliation continues to be the most powerful call that we have as people of faith. It bears such significance that Jesus tells the crowds to leave their gift at the altar and run to their brother or sister to make things right. Not walk, run. Here’s what I think it means in today’s terms: We do a lot to seek pledges for the coming year. We talk to our congregations about gracious giving and stewardship. We sometimes struggle to make ends meet in our churches so that we can pay the bills, keep the lights on, and run the heat. We wax eloquent as our financial gifts as well as the work of our hands and feet serve ministries near and far.
But in Christ’s call, all of this is meaningless if we aren’t reconciled to our brothers and sisters for the wrongs that we commit.
Racism, sexism, ageism, socio-economic differences, able-ness; the list goes on and on. We are at no shortness of broken relationships, promises, and situations….we are, however, short on our dedication to true reconciliation in which our needs are intricately woven into the needs of others.
“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” -Fannie Lou Hamer
This Sunday my congregation will light the candle of Hope. My hope is that the brokenness of our political system, governing bodies, churches, and relationships right down to our own humanity will never, ever be the final word. As we sing the songs of Advent and wait for a child to be born, may we be reminded that the incarnation breaks into the world in a divine act of reconciliation.
So, dear friends, hold nothing back. Dive deeply into the call to live filled with hope. Go quickly to be reconciled to your neighbors before you come to the Table or stand in the pulpit. Demand reconciliation of yourself and others or the humble gifts that we give, whatever they may accomplish or however well-intentioned they might be, will be rendered meaningless.
I’ve just experienced a long weekend in Newport, RI for vacation and now I’m trapped at the Philadelphia Airport for an almost four hour layover. I guess part of it is self-induced because I knew that I would be here waiting for the connection to Louisville for the COGA (Committee of the Office of General Assembly) meeting. But now as I sit here, the struggle to simply be in one spot with very little to do has become a struggle.
It’s outside office hours and, though I will be working remotely while attending the meetings in Louisville, I can’t help but want to spend my time checking some to-dos off of the list. Just a little email cleaning, stewardship season planning, sermon reflection, communion liturgy writing, and phone calling. All things that will make my life much easier when I return on Thursday to the office. Why not check them off of the list now while I am sitting in an airport terminal: there’s nothing better to do, right?!
Life has become even more hectic as I balance a professional life as both congregational pastor and vice moderator. If you know me, you know that I love being busy. The thrill of juggling different responsibilities keeps my brain buzzing and attention focused on the big picture. But I am learning the art of saying, “no.” I find myself in meetings to listen and contribute but stopping the urge to jump in with two feet because I am already knee deep in several areas taking my attention. It’s a completely different hat to wear in which I contribute but not serve as the go to person with endless tasks to follow-up on after the meeting.
So, herein lies the problem as I sit in Terminal F in Philadelphia. I gauge my professional success in the ability to be busy. I want to knock those items off of my to-do list and sitting here makes it even easier to do so…what better things do I have to do with my time?
I’ve realized that juggling countless responsibilities is not only stimulating but a completely justifiable excuse to keep myself from slowing down, taking a breath, and enjoying the moment. I’m good at being busy. I’m amazing at serving as the go-to person and always quick to jump to action if someone needs me. My cell phone buzzes with personalized rings so that I know if it’s an email, text message, phone call, tweet, or Facebook message. Truth be told, it doesn’t really matter because I’ll check my phone at any of those sounds.
So now I am blogging about this struggle because I am NOT going to check my work email, respond to any messages, or search for liturgies on Google. I’m going to sit here to read a book, surf the internet (for fun!), and relax. All of this because what I do outside of the office is just as valuable as inside.
And now you are my witnesses and can hold me accountable to it.
Exodus 3: 1-15
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’ But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
This is my name for ever,
and this my title for all generations.
Friday, August 22 at Stony Point Conference Center with the newest Young Adult Volunteers became exactly what I needed to end my week. Just days earlier, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) released a statement about Ferguson, MO which bore my name on it. It took only a few minutes for concerns, comments and disappointment to come from across the Church: Were we speaking for our Church’s or on behalf of “the world”? Were we really asking people to trust law enforcement officials and the justice system at a time when some of the same individuals participated in Michael Brown’s death and proceeding events? Did we avoid naming “racism” and stop short from calling our denomination to hands-on, immediate action? Was it possible for us to have used so many words to say so little?
As the only person of color named at the bottom of the letter, I felt even more responsible for what many called a lackluster response published over a week after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson. Others, my good friends and colleagues included, wanted more from me. I wanted more from me.
So I did the only thing that I could think of: I dove into the project of curating sermons, blog posts and articles from across the Church about Michael Brown’s death and the unrest in Ferguson, MO. I wanted our denominational voice to be more than one statement published on one Tuesday afternoon. I wanted to show that we are a connectional Church struggling in real time with the crisis unfolding right in our backyards.
In just a few short days I could do nothing except focus on the collection, receiving additions whenever they came and almost immediately adding them to the post. I slept little and, when I did, I woke up with a mind buzzing of what might be next. I wrote to over 60 pastors and colleagues across the country seeking their writing as well as any of those whom they encountered. Members of my presbytery received by blurry-eyed emails for calls to action. It both filled me up with hope while at the same time draining my ability to see clear visions of what might be next. It was at that exact moment of teetering on either being half full or half empty that I drove up to Stony Point. I was only able to be there for a few hours but in that short bit of time, the YAVs expressed what took me days to learn: Everywhere we go is holy ground and everything that we do is the best that we can give in that moment. They didn’t need to say a word…I could just feel it wherever I went with them.
God tells Moses to take off his sandals because the ground beneath his toes is holy: A man who never felt at rest. Lands that housed him but never quite felt like home. Communities who didn’t dare to claim him as their own. But on that sandy mountain, in front of a burning bush and in the presence of God, was a place where he could kick off his shoes, make himself comfortable, and turn fully to the divine’s call for his life.
I met young adults who were heading off to familiar cities but with expectations of living in community and serving in new ways. Young adults who would live in host homes: inhabiting someone else’s space until it became their own, uncovering unspoken rhythms of life, and learning about a different culture through everyday immersion. Those filled with a mixture of uncertainty and excitement about reaching across different cultures to build bridges and create change. Others for whom the reality of their packed bags finally meant that they would be flying off to new destinations in just a few days; the goodbyes they had said to friends and family just a few days earlier were actually the goodbyes that needed to last a year until their return. Young adults ready to give, receive, learn, uncover, grow, explore and discern.
They had already kicked their sandals off and touched the holy ground beneath their toes. With eagerness, they were ready to give everything that they have to the adventure ahead.
They may not have known this, but they were the encouragement I needed to pick myself up, sandals in hand, and move forward on my two-year journey as vice moderator. Injuries (physical and emotional) will happen, toes will be stubbed, calluses worn…but we (every single one of us!) still have to feel the ground beneath our soles/souls, claim its holiness, and take another step.
Take off your sandals, because the ground beneath your feet is, indeed, holy.
On June 15, 2014, I was elected as the Vice Moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It’s all a blur when I think back to the election, moderating the assembly of over 600 people from across the country and around the world, talking with people about the Church, and embodying my new role in the denomination. You can read more about the election, hopes for the future, and find some background information on me HERE. What I remember the most from Detroit as well as the weeks following is the feeling of familial connection that I have whenever I participate in something like the General Assembly. It sometimes takes an event like this to rekindle friendships, reconnect with people that I haven’t seen face-to-face in a long time, and foster new relationships. I always walk away feeling like I’ve received a gift: a reminder that I am not serving in ministry on an island but in a network of pastors, leaders and congregations from across the country that are just as passionate about heeding God’s call as I am. It is this sense of connection, hope, honesty and trust that I intend to bring to my term as Vice Moderator. I’m not sure about your families, but in my family we often disagree on a variety of things. We sometimes leave bruised, hurt from the conversation and uncertain about the future. Other times we leave in celebration, forgetting that others might be less than optimistic about what just transpired. Still others leave us in silence for a period of time until we can approach one another again (in hope that reconciliation will be possible). I look forward to this two year journey as we seek to explore God’s call to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) together!