Mercy Matters More

Today Jesus tells us a truly curious story.

There are parts of it that we can relate to easily:
we all have to make decisions about how to use our money every day.
Most of us manage projects or people at least some of the time.
We all understand that our decisions have consequences beyond ourselves.

But it seems to me, Jesus’ story is so strange
as to challenge our notion of what it means to be a Christian
and perhaps challenges our understanding of Jesus himself.

Here’s the story:

There was a RICH MAN, Jesus says,
who outsourced the daily management of his money.

Maybe he’s too busy chillaxin’ by the pool
or working on his golf game to attend to his own assets,
but for whatever reason,
he has entrusted a manager to attend to his portfolio.
And he gives his manager complete control of
and complete responsibility for his money and property,
including the power to buy and sell,
and the authority to make contracts in his name.
He clearly trusts his manager.

But someone comes to report to the RICH MAN
that his manager has been wasting his assets
and has scattered them to the wind,
and so the RICH MAN calls the manager in and says, you’re under audit.
Bring me proof that these accusations aren’t true, or you’re fired.

The manager is given time to go get the documentation:
receipts, spreadsheets, and contracts,
but he seems to know that the paper trial will only incriminate him.

The manager understands he’s in deep, and living paycheck to paycheck as he does,
he’s going to be in real trouble when the inevitable happens,
so he knows he needs to think fast.

He knows his reputation will soon be ruined and doesn’t want to end up on the street.
He looks up other job listings online but he’s not qualified for anything else.
And then, in a moment of clarity he looks back at his spreadsheets
and the names of people who are indebted to his boss,
and he has an idea that’s just crazy enough to work.

He calls the RICH MAN’s clients into his office
and like an exiting president handing out pardons,
he uses his last moments of power, before his name is stripped off the door
to RE-negotiate these clients’ contracts to their favor,
reducing what they owe by half in one case,
by 20% in another case, and doing this over and over,
one by one, until he reaches the end of the list.

It seems haphazard,
but by the time the manager has to pack up his office
under watch of the security guard and is escorted to the parking lot,
the rich man has half his assets cleaned out,
the clients have received a huge windfall,
and the manager has secured a future in which he will not be destitute
because in this Greco-Roman culture there was a reciprocity ethic
under which those who received a favor
were literally bound to take care of the one to whom they were now indebted.

But the strangeness of the story comes when, to our surprise,
the RICH MAN praises the manager
who has just unjustly swindled him out of his assets,
because, he says, the manager acted wisely, with shrewdness,
displaying a sharp power of judgment.

And JESUS says, see how the children of this age
are more shrewd that the children of light, so
Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth.

Excuse me?

What?

But how can this be?

Isn’t this strange?

Don’t we expect Jesus to tell a story about an honest manager
rather than a dishonest manager?

Wouldn’t this story be more in keeping with a Christian ethic
if the manager had been virtuous from the beginning
and never gotten himself in a tight spot?

Are we right in understanding that Jesus is lifting up this manager
as an example for what our lives should look like?

If this story has implications for our lives,
how are we to reconcile the fact that as disciples of Jesus
we’re called to be moral people?

Here’s the thing.
From the perspective of the clients, the amounts owed were enormous.

Biblical commentators say that the amount of oil owed by the first client
would equal a years’ worth of wages.

Similarly, the wheat debt of the second
would represent a share of almost 100 acres,
which would be 20 times larger than the average family’s holdings.

So the depth of the mercy these people received when their debt was cancelled
is just hard to put a value on.

If someone told you, for example,
to sit down and cut your mortgage in half, I
believe you’d see it as an amazing act of mercy, no matter why the person did it.

If someone said they would cancel a big chunk of your debt,
you might not care whether it was to save their own skin or not,
you’d just be thinking about the weight lifted off your shoulders.

The heart of this story is mercy

And the heart of Jesus is mercy.

Everything Jesus does is for the benefit of others –
his healing, his teaching, his dying, his rising, his ascending to rule in love and kindness,
and Jesus invites us to learn his way of mercy.

And so Jesus’ story centers on a manager
whose initial priority was only in taking care of himself –
not the rich man’s wealth and not other people,
but in the moment when it all comes crashing down
and he has to look truthfully at himself
and comes face to face with his weakness, his failure, and his need,
he realizes FINALLY that taking care of other people will actually,
truly be good for him.

And so he acts in mercy toward the clients of the rich man,
and that mercy matters more than how he felt about it or what was behind his motivation.

Our very best acts of mercy and kindness that we as a church ever perform –
feeding the hungry, supplying school children with supplies,
sending our handmade quilts around the world to provide heat in the cold,
assembling personal care kits for Moments of Hope –
none of these acts have their genesis in our motivation.

All the acts of mercy that flow through us
begin with God who called us into being and has blessed us with every blessing we receive,
chiefly the gift of Jesus,
who gave his life as a ransom for all,
that we might live in the peace and health of God in this life and the next.

God is rich in mercy, and we could try to waste it,
and I know that I do, my guess is you do too,
but there is no bottom.

God’s mercy is endless.

God doesn’t become less rich because his mercy is squandered.
His mercy can’t be wasted so that there is less of it to go around.

His mercy came to the world in the face of Jesus Christ
and was wasted, ignored, hated, shunned, combated and crucified and buried in a grave,
but we can’t deplete God’s mercy
and Jesus Christ returned to continue to bring God’s mercy
that is now resurrected, perfected, and everlasting, and will come again.

Our merciful and loving God, in Jesus Christ keeps coming to us,
empowering us to follow him in being merciful
and in showing love toward one another.

We mistakenly think that if we take care of ourselves and our wants
we will be the happiest we can be,
but Jesus shows us that it is in the mercy of caring for our neighbors,
near and far,
and especially those in need –
that the fabric of the human community is tighter, stronger, and healthier
and we all are better off.

Mercy.

This is the way in which the Lord takes the weak up out of the dust
and lifts the poor from the ashes,
enthroning them with the rulers of the people.

In Jesus’ story, the RICH MAN praises the manager
because he finally acts for the benefit of others
and comes to see the value of doing something good for his neighbors
rather than just for himself,
and Jesus lifts up the manager in the story for being shrewd –
that is wise and crafty,
encouraging us to be more like this.

It could be that there are many ways the world outside the church
is more shrewd than the church.
More capable of taking care of others but also preserving itself.
It seems to me that one way the world is shrewder that we are is in simply acknowledging value.

How good are we at naming the value of participating in the life of the church?

The world is very good at this.

When I see an ad for shoes,
it usually tells me why the shoes are worth buying.
The company has become expert at making a case
for why they would be valuable to me.

When I see an add for a degree program,
the school is not shy to explain that if I were to enroll
I could expect to acquire advanced tools,
learn from innovative research,
and develop skills through proven frameworks for success.

I think we sometimes assume that people will attend worship
and participate in our programs
without us having to explain the value –
that because we know the value it should be understood by everyone.

Or perhaps we think that obligation
should bring people together under the umbrella of the church,
but obligation in the church – and maybe in pretty much every facet of life – is dead,
and maybe that’s not even a bad thing,
and so I think it is not wrong to be wise,
thoughtful, determined, and even shrewd in laying out a case for people
as to the value of life in the beloved community.

How should we articulate the value of worshipping God
and growing in friendship with God and one another?

Would we say that the church is a place to belong?

Would we say that the church is a place to discover your gifts and use them?

Would we say that the church is a place
to be included even if the world tells you you’re different?

Would we say the church is a people of peace
in the midst of a world of violence?

Would we say that the scriptures of God
are how we make sense of being
and learn where humankind comes from
and where we are headed
and what to do with the gift of our life in the meantime?

Would we say the church
is the way we experience God’s mercy
that will sustain our service to the neighbor who is poor,
and the refugee who is alone,
and the person who is sick?

Would you say that the church
is God’s invitation to learn forgiveness in community?

Would we say the church is the community
that follows Jesus in the way
that will ultimately end in the death of our individual dreams of self-grandeur
and where we are born into God’s dream for humanity?

How will we articulate the good news of this strange and curious God
who elevates our relationships with one another
over everything else?

Will we be bold enough to share the good news of this strange and curious
And beautiful God
Or will we keep it for ourselves?

Strange Seat Takers

This past May, Matt Vozar and Marine Beausergent, two truly wonderful young adults, were married here at Epiphany.
They grew up together here and discovered their love for one another in our youth group and so it was an honor to lead their wedding service with Pastor Phillip.
But to be candid, when they told me one afternoon over lunch a year before
that, that they were getting married, I kind of expected I would have a hand in the service.
The honor I didn’t expect was when I arrived at the restaurant for the wedding banquet on the night of the rehearsal and I looked all around for my name plate to see where I would be sitting, I discovered that in the midst of all their family and friends, which were considerable, we were sitting at the very head table with Matt and Marine.
I was so pleasantly surprised to be able to share this once-in-a-lifetime honor and to sit with them in this privileged place that I was truly so moved.
Not too long into the evening, however,
my phone started buzzing in my pocket in an unfamiliar way, at that same time everyone else’s phone started beeping and buzzing.
As it turns out, the dark clouds outside we had be watching were from a tornado somewhere close by and the restaurant staff announced we would all have to take cover and then hurriedly whisked us away to a partially-lit, seldom-used basement.
It just so happened that I ended up being the first one down the dark stairway and so I found myself going from the best seat at the party to being jammed into the furthest corner of a dingy basement, sitting between cardboard packing boxes and I remember thinking: Well, now this is a surprise!
Jesus cautions us against relishing places of honor too much, lest we be humbled.
And Jesus not only spoke about humility but embodied humility in surprising ways, especially in the way he was just as happy to be seated at a party next to shunned prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners as he was to sit next to admired Pharisees and society’s insiders, always bringing God’s radical openness to all people, no matter who he met.
At this particular banquet, recorded in the 14th chapter of Luke’s gospel,
Jesus notices some of the invited guests are putting their own name plate at the best table, in the highest and noblest position and he uses their self-focused action as a teaching moment to speak about the nature of God’s Kingdom and how God would have us relate to one another.
Like we also often do,the party guests on that evening were looking for the best seats and best places and best positions for themselves, but Jesus recounts the Hebrew wisdom that it is preferable to sit with a posture of humility, so that the opportunity to be called up higher might arise, rather than trying to secure that best place, having someone else snag it, and risk being publicly and embarrassingly demoted, perhaps to the corner of a musty basement somewhere!
In the first century, in this honor-shame culture of Palestine, there were all sorts of layers of meaning at work at any given social gathering.
At a party like this every person’s religious affiliation, social group, economic standing were on display and compared to everyone else.
A person’s place and reputation in the community were totally dependent upon not only getting invitations to these kinds of gatherings, but then once you were there, where you sat and who you were seated next to.
And it isn’t so different now, is it?
Today, at most schools there’s a table where the cool kids sit.
In the boardroom there is a seat at the head of the table and there are those who want to be near those in power.
I read an opinion peace this past week which suggested that most people who go to congress go wanting to help our nation and simply become intoxicated by the prospect of power so that in in the end even if these public servants know one course of action is best for the most people, they can be swayed to do something else if it will help them keep their seat in Washington.
Our society is full of people competing with one another for good places – including everything from the best, most lucrative jobs to the best, most convenient parking places.
We like seats of honor and to be thought of well; to be accepted.
We tend to like getting the best we can for ourselves.
But Jesus challenges everything we think we know about which seats are good ones, and what honor really looks like.
Jesus shows us that in the Kingdom of God the best seat you can have is the one you give away.
As a young man I lived in inner-city Baltimore and rode the number 9 bus to and from work each day, which is by far the roughest neighborhood I have ever lived in.
At the end of the day, the bus would be packed to the gills,standing room only,
with people filling the aisles nose to nose, but when an elderly person would get on the bus – those who were younger and more able – be they students, gangbangers or young professionals – they would get up to give their seat to that older, worn and visibly tired passenger with a nod and a kind word.
The Kingdom of God which Jesus describes and brings into reality
is a place where we learn to give our seat away – especially to the person who is poor, crippled, blind, elderly, disabled, indebted, in recovery, experiencing homelessness, lonely, sick, or in any need.
When I consider Jesus’ character, I think his instruction of taking a lower seat, or giving up our seat, is not about asking us to think poorly of ourselves, but rather to focus our energy and attention outward toward another person and to want even better for them than for ourselves.
Jesus, with his whole life, spent all of his energy and focus on others.
He healed and helped others, taught wisdom and God’s way to others, not for money or prestige or his reputation but because He loved the people.
On his way to Jerusalem and to the cross he was thinking of others and of you and me.
He prepared for his death thinking of us and on the cross he took the lowest seat possible, allowing himself to be given the furthest place from the power and honor of society, humiliated, naked, bruised, and killed without remorse.
He allowed himself to be relegated to the very last placeso that we can move up higher to be with God in his mercy and forgiveness and love.
We think of ourselves most of the time,
each one of us walking around believing we’re the center of our universe, but Jesus shows us that God prepares rewards and riches for those who follow him in the way of humility.
God has designed joy and health to come from thinking of other people.
When we ask: “How can I make myself happy?” And “What can I do to make myself happy?” …and if we pursue whatever that is, and if we might get what we think we desire, we won’t ever be really happy.
God has prepared joy for us in asking, “How can I care for my spouse, for my parents, for my children, for my family, for my neighbors, for my community, for the person who is hungry or lonely?”
These questions from Jesus put us on the right track, and it just so happens that when all the people around us
are doing well and are cared for, we too will necessarily find ourselves in a place of more joy.
God has prepared joy for us in seeing someone at school without a seat
and inviting them to sit down at our table.
God has prepared joy for us in helping someone who is experiencing a challenging time, spending time with someone who is in crisis, and in serving someone who may not deserve it.
On Friday, twelve youth from our congregation and some of their parents and other adult leaders made something like 600 sandwiches in partnership with “Moments of Hope” to give out to people in our community who are experiencing homelessness.
For many of them, on the very last Friday of their summer, they weren’t found at the arcade, not at the pool, not at the movies, not at a friend’s house, but in the Epiphany kitchen, slinging cheese and meat, making nourishing meals for our neighbors.
They gave up their front and center seat to an easy summer afternoon
to stand and serve.
And together we prayed that the bags they decorated with crosses and sunshines and words of encouragement, and the meal carefully placed inside, and the slip of paper with a prayer for God’s protection and guidance within the bag, would bring healing and restoration to those who received these gifts.
And more members of Epiphany distributed these gifts to members of our community, and prayed with them, and spent time with them, and embraced them.
And I would be willing to bet that every person who was there to serve, felt as if they were the ones who were blessed by the experience.
This is the power of Jesus’ humility –
The power of the one born into poverty to make us rich, to put our life in perspective and point us to eternal things.
We come to God in poverty, with nothing to give God which God needs.
We are the ones in need of God’s mercy and provision and favor.
And in coming to God in true humility
we come in right self-awareness, and God will always, always welcome us calling us up higher and restoring us to our seat at the table.
This is the way in which Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.
He is with us in our real, everyday lives.
And he is dependable.
Our position in life fluctuates: we will be at the top and sometime at the bottom, up and down, young and then old, healthy and then sick.
Our life changes constantly but however it changes one thing remains the same – that Jesus will be there for us, with a place of honor at his table, seating us next to himself at the eternal banquet.
From this table, Jesus calls out to us, and to the world, and to the nations that rise and pass away.
Come to this feast of love, where God’s crucified and risen life has the last word of welcome for all who suffer and struggle.
Come and taste and see that the Lord is your helper and do not be afraid.
Your eternal seat here is saved.
So for now, until that great marriage feast of the Lamb, When we see God face to face…
Until that day, you and I are Strange Seat Takers, out in the world among those people God loves.
We take the last seat,
the least seat,
the one next to the person everyone else has overlooked.
We are Strange Seat Takers, even giving up our seats of privilege and power all together.
We are Strange Seat Takers, inviting the poor, and the sick, and those in need to God’s party, and pulling up a seat right next to them, trusting that this is the most blessed seat of all.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.
Texts from: Luke 14:1, 7-14
Proverbs 25: 6-7
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Elite Donors

I have not personally walked from Jerusalem down to Jericho
But I have driven a small rental car down this very road
with my wife Sarah, and my sister, by my side —
And I can tell you,
when Jesus describes the trip from Jerusalem to Jericho,
as “going down”
he is telling the truth.

My sister was living just outside Jerusalem after college
And we went to visit her
And we decided to head out of town to sightsee
and we took this very road down to Jericho
And I remember as we drove down the mountain
All you could smell the brakes
Because you had to pump them all the way
As you descended more than half-a-mile in elevation
Winding back and forth
through the barren dirt terrain and the towering rock formations
reminiscent of the Star Wars’ planet of Tatooine.

I can tell you that when you travel this road
It feels like you’re in a dangerous place,
Like Sand-people might jump out from behind any one of the cliffs.

As I drove, I remember specifically
being aware of NOT getting cell reception
And wondering what you’d do if something should go wrong
out there in the middle of nowhere!

In Jesus time and still today,
This road is a place you wouldn’t want to break down or get stuck.

And so it is — in Jesus’ story –
that a man is traveling down this isolated and treacherous road,
Well-known to be a place in which people were easy targets for robbers
and for bandits who could find many-a hiding place
to lie in wait for their victims;
who would have no way to call for help.

Jesus tells a story of a man who makes his way through this barren place
And, sure enough, bandits jump him, pummel him, strip off his clothes,
Take everything from his pockets:
his cash, credit cards, and passport,
and leave him bloody and half-dead,
utterly exposed to the elements and desperate for help.

But things immediately begin to look up for the man,
Because here comes a priest – we’ll call him a pastor – a holy man,
Known to be a helper,
who was perhaps on official business to the temple in Jerusalem.
He would have been well-known to have the best interests of others at heart…

But he hardens his heart and chooses to pass by
on the other side of the road from the man.

And then, in Jesus’ story, still hopeful, but not quite as much, a Levite,
Also, a holy man, a second-ranking figure to the priest;
also well-known to be a good man and helpful to others comes by
and we think he might help…

But he, too, passes by on the other side of the road.

And so we think — if these two,
perhaps some of the best humanity has to offer,
have passed over the man in the ditch — what hope does he have?

But, in Jesus’ story, he brings a Samaritan down the road.

And here I think we could understand Jesus
to be inviting us to think of the person
In our lives about whom we have the lowest opinion.

Perhaps we have distaste for the person who is transgender
or an enthusiastic gun-rights advocate,
perhaps they are a democrat with a Black Lives Matter sign,
or a republican with a Let’s Go Brandon placard,
maybe this is a person who is vehemently pro-life or outspokenly pro-choice…

Whoever makes our blood boil, that is the Samaritan coming down the road.

Because Samaritans were hated.

And maybe it helps to understand the history —
That during an ancient war in Israel,
most of the Jews living in the northern region of Israel called Samaria
were killed or taken into exile,
and all that were left behind were people so unimportant that nobody wanted them.

And since that time, these Jews had intermarried with other people
And so, they were considered half-breeds by all “true” Israelites.

These lowlifes had perverted the national way of life.
They were people, yes, but people who didn’t get it.
People who, if they died, would make the world a better place.

Perhaps the clearest way to say it
is that the Jews hatred Samaritans so much
that it was common for Jews to walk miles out of their way
to avoid walking in Samaritan towns and countryside
and risk passing them on the street.

So along comes this despised Samaritan,
Who doesn’t cross to the other side of the road,
But is moved with pity at the sight of the man in the ditch
And comes close and bandages his wounds
And brings him to an inn and the care of the manager there
And leaves enough money for him to be taken care of for about two weeks
And promises to return to the inn and settle any further expense
That accumulates during this man’s recovery.

And Jesus asks, “which one of these men
The priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan
Was a neighbor to the man in the ditch?”

With this question, Jesus’ asks us to consider
what it would be like to be helped
in our hour of desperate need
By someone we loathe.

And Jesus invites us to see in the face of the person we detest most,
the face of someone God loves so much
that he would give the life of his own Son on the cross.

In his own life and ministry Jesus was open to each person he met
He came near to those who others overlooked,
And he intends his church to do the same:
To welcome and love those who look differently,
love differently,
and live differently
than you might or I might.

Is it just me — or does our country and our world
need the witness of the church,
and to hear the calling God extends to us —
to see what it looks like to respect and care for people
who are different than ourselves,
Rather than vilifying and attacking those with whom we disagree.

With his story, Jesus is of course making a point
about who is in the kingdom and who is not,
And it seems to me he is saying
anyone who follows his actions of love and service
Are full-fledged members of God’s family
Blessed to bear fruit that brings the grace of God into the world.

Jesus is also pushing us to consider what it means for us to be a neighbor to those in need through the example of the Samaritan’s radical and lavish actions.

And truthfully, we might wonder why the Samaritan stops to help
and the other two continue on their way.

The text doesn’t say,
But I have my guesses (and maybe you do too).

My guess is that the two holy men who do not stop
are worried about what might happen to them if they do.
Maybe they wonder about those Sand-people or bandits
or whoever might still be around
And might beat them up, leave them naked, and half-dead.

And my guess is that the Samaritan
Doesn’t consider what might happen to him if he stops
But considers what will happen to the man in the ditch if he doesn’t stop.

I don’t know about you but I feel convicted by this story.

It causes me to reflect on opportunities I have missed to be a neighbor.

I mean, have you ever known the right thing to do or say, and done nothing?

I have.

Have you ever known someone needed your help,
But your own insecurity somehow paralyzed you from acting
And you passed by without stopping to help?

I have.

God forgives me and God forgives you for those missed opportunities
And for the times we didn’t stop to help.

And, even better, Jesus frees us from our paralysis
and leads us to reach out to a neighbor in need.

This past week Channel 12 news featured a story about the shortage of blood
That the Virginia chapter of the American Red Cross is experiencing
And called upon a local Elite Donor
to tell the story of why he gives blood
in order to inspire others to help in a time of great need.

This Elite Donor is the Director of Rehab Services at VCU health
Macon Sizemore, a longtime member of Epiphany.
He and Karen raised their family in this congregation
and he has served as a council member.

In the story Macon said he began giving blood 40 years ago
just after college and fell into a groove from that point.
Macon has given blood… are you ready for this?
206 times…so far.
206 pints of blood equals about 25 gallons of blood.
Which is enough blood to fully supply more than 20 adults

To put his generosity in perspective–
Among 25 million people who have given blood to the Red Cross
Macon is in the top 1% of givers throughout their history.

“But it’s not about 200 units or 25 gallons,”
Macon said as he was interviewed,
“Each pint can save several lives
And so why not give and help somebody?”

Jesus invites us to follow him in stepping out of ourselves
towards people in need and to be a neighbor.

A neighbor, very literally, is simply
someone who comes close to another person.

But you know as well as I do that you can have neighbors on your street
That you are physically proximate to
but you’re still personally unknown to one another.

Every time you chose to truly be a neighbor to another person –
To really come near to their everyday, ordinary life –
And put your emotional, personal self on the line — you take a risk.

If you invite someone to your home or to an event or gathering,
You risk that they will say no…

but what if you ask they do come and make your party better?

If you introduce yourself to someone at church whom you don’t know
you risk they may say you’re supposed to already know them…

but what if you go for it and make a new friend?

If you sign up to join a ministry team at church
You risk getting involved only to find out
you could be spending your time in more valuable ways…

But what if God surprises you and uses your gifts
to enhance the ministry of our congregation
By advocating for the poor,
Or feeding hungry people,
Or raising children in faith?

Jesus’ story about travelers on the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho
Invites us to stop and reflect and consider what kind of world we want to live in.

And he shares God’s vision of a world in which
people stop for one another,
help another, and risk themselves for one another.

This is kind of world God intends
And the kind of lifestyle God makes possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In baptism, God makes us Elite Donors
Who are ready to risk ourselves;
Who are ready to freely give of what God has entrusted to us.
Who are able to empathize with someone different from ourselves.

In baptism, we are free to begin a new journey now,
ready to be a neighbor,
Ready to come close to the person in need,
ready to take the risk of friendship,
and ready for the risk of extending words of faith and encouragement.

My dear Elite Donors –

God has equipped you,
God has given you his mercy and love,
and passes these gifts on to others through you.

God loves you.
Go and do likewise.

Our Brand

One oppressively hot summer day
when I was 5 or 6 years old,
somehow, I ended up at a public pool.

Obviously, my parents must have taken me,
but we weren’t members anywhere,
so I don’t remember who we were with or how we got there.

But I do remember that the sun was hot
and as I waded into the shallow end,
how the water was crisp and refreshing,
throwing refractions of light on the faces of children
who were bobbing up and down in the water
playing and shouting and shrieking.

And I remember too that there was a young boy, about my age.
He was also slender and he was African American.

For some reason, so much black skin uncovered
shocked me in its difference from my own body.

Naturally, I swam up to him and commented on this.
Look at me, I have white skin.
Look at you, you have black skin, I said (or something like that).

And he, still bobbing along in the cool water,
turned over his palms and put them in my own hands
and pointed out that his palms were white like mine.

This young man showed me
that while we were different from one another in our skin color,
we were the same in the most substantive regard.

We were both people,
made by a God who had blessed us both
on a very hot day
with the marvelous gift of cool water to share.

In the deep baptismal waters of God’s love
Jesus Christ takes us by the hands
and shows us we are all the same underneath our differences
in the way that matters most –

we all belong to God as God’s own beloved children.

Oh, we certainly are different from one another.
And being in Christ doesn’t undo our differences.

God has made us black or white
or Asian or Hispanic,
male and female,
tall or short;
and we are born into a nation and a particular culture,
but because of Christ,
these things don’t define us,
and they don’t divide us in a way
that makes some people more valuable than others.

Through the gift of faith and trust in God, we all have a place,
And we all stand on equal ground at the foot of the cross.

But God is certainly a lover of particularity,
And of people in their distinctiveness,
And of nations in their uniqueness.

God chose Israel to be a people
set apart as a light to all other nations.

God gave them the Law.
Or Maybe we could call it God’s rules for living,
Which disclose God’s prerogative for our path through life.

Although Paul speaks of the Law as a disciplinarian that imprisons,
which seems to me to be a negative sounding description,
the Law was meant for good, and as a gift from God.

It includes the 10 commandments, of course,
but also many, many more commands

  • 617 rules by some counts.

All together, it was meant to guide the people –
to constrain their individual freedoms
in order to create a good, healthy life for the community and society.

Earlier this spring the Mertz Family gave Epiphany a basketball goal
Which we now have beside the Star Lodge.
Kids and adults alike love to play knock out
And shoot around
And lower the goal so we can dunk.

The youth group leaders and I
very much like to give the youth group free time
To play basketball or to play gaga ball, and other things,
But when we get together,
there’s a qualifier to free time.

We say, you can have free time as long as everyone in the group is included.
If we see anyone excluded we will gather the group together
For an activity the adults choose
And free time ends.

This is a rule – or you could even call it a law – for our group.
It constrains the freedom for individuals to choose activities
which might leave some people out,
yet it’s meant for the collective good of the group.

God’s law to the Hebrews was a gift
because it limited and constrained people’s behavior for the good:

people were commanded to honor their parents, which is good
not to kill, which is good
not to steal, which is good
and not to lie, which is good.
The law made the community better because right behavior was mandated,
and that was a good thing.

But by virtue of the very need for the law,
It also pointed out the people’s brokenness and sinfulness,
Our sad, selfish and misdirected desires
And our need for direction.

So the law was a gift from God to constrain us for good,
And was meant to give witness to our shortcomings
so that we know our need for God
And it also functions as a testament to what God expected of humanity.

A short time of reflection makes us aware we are not able to fulfill the law

We bend the truth and break it
We do not respect one another or ourselves
We murder and cheat and can be cruel to one another

But praise and thanks to God
He has sent Jesus Christ to fulfill the law’s demands for us.

The law requires us to submit to Gods desires for our life
rather than doing what we want
and Jesus, takes our place
as Paul says elsewhere,
though he was equal with God, emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
Assuming human likeness
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God exalted him even more highly
and gave him the name
that is above every other names.

Now we have something greater than the law to guide us –
No, no! Not something to guide us.
Someone to guide us.

Jesus, like a conductor at her podium guides us together
collecting our various gifts and bringing
them to a confluence of one song to praise God.

Jesus, like a coach, courtside, sends
us to compete with plays designed for us to work together to serve.

Jesus, like the major general arriving in Galveston, Texas on June 19
One hundred and fifty seven years ago today,
to declare all former-slaves free –

announces in his death and resurrection
that the law no longer has power over US,
we are free,
we are emancipated,
as God intended,
to use the gifts God has given us.

So we celebrate that we have all been made free,
and this freedom in Christ, breaks the chains of our bondage to sin.

This is exactly what Jesus does for the man in today’s gospel reading.

Jesus frees the man from his demonic torment,
and from the subsequent darkness and isolation his torment had caused him.

But the truth is that Jesus does much more than heal this man,
Because everyone in this town was captive by his possession.

In fact, counseling professionals might call the man the “identified patient,”
Which is to say, simply, the person who exhibits the sickness in a system
whose ills must be manifest in some way.

Even today you can visit the ruins of this town and imagine the scene:

The tombs which are still there are up on a hillside above the town,
And its obvious when the man was
Was roaming about out on the hillside among the tombs,
he would’ve always been seen by those in the town below.

As he cried out in anguish
His cries would’ve rung through the air,
a tragic and ever-present cloud over anything happening below.

So, this whole town was captive by the man’s demons.

Don’t we know,
that in our own families
when one person is sick, we are all ill?

Don’t we know
that in our country when inflation rises and a recession comes and jobs are lost,
we all feel the impact?

When some are captive to poverty
or oppressed by racism,
we are all held captive by these evil forces,
even if we try to ignore it …

It makes us all sick and
None of us are truly well.

You see, Jesus sees this man who has been invaded by darkness,
and has compassion on him,
and heals him and the whole town with him.

So that those who once guarded the man at the tombs
go back to jobs down in the town.

So that the pig farmers no longer had to tend an animal
that was unclean-to-Hebrews
and which served as a constant reminder
of the cruel occupation of the roman Empire.

So that every day they saw this man in town,
clothed and in his right mind
they were reminded of how much God had done for them all.

Jesus saw this man in his nakedness,
when he was alone,
and cast out from town.
And identified with him.

So much so, that from the cross,
Jesus himself will end up naked, alone, outside the town among the tombs,
crucified by our sin and the power of the empire,
in order to set us all free and make us all one –

All of us are equal and the same
in our need for God.

We may be different in the way we look, speak, or act,
But in Christ we are one in God.

Jesus has torn down the hostility between us,
and destroyed any distinction of superiority or inferiority
based on the respective illusory categories we place on ourselves.

In baptism we are all clothed in Christ,
which is to say he gives us our true identity.

Most of us have shirts or hats
or clothes of some kind with brands on them:
Nike, under armor, off-white, Gucci.

I think wearing a brand
That the world has deemed cool gives a
Person a valuable feeling.
Like you’re a part of something that everyone agrees is good.

I don’t know it for a fact,
but I’ve always thought the term “brands”
and the idea of wearing a “brand”
had its etymology in cattle branding:
Like when old-west cowboys branded cattle to tell
which rancher it belonged to.

Brands seem to be the same thing.
We use them to tell the world what we think of ourselves,
Or where we think we fit,
and what we want the world to know about us.

Every year we make a youth group t-shirt.
This year our excellent design
came from the mind and heart of William Edwards.

You may have seen them around, especially on Youth Sunday.

It’s a sight to behold when we’re all wearing our t-shirts together
showing our unity and displaying how God has made us one in Christ.

This year’s shirt is light blue
with dark blue mountains
running across the bottom
and a large, white, cross
with something like light radiating out into the world.

And we hope the design will tell the world about who we are:

Our foundation is rock solid,
and we have light to share with a world in need,
because we belong to Christ.

My friends, our brand is Jesus,
Which means we’re about what he is about in the world –

Clothing the naked,
whether its gifts of clothes for the poor,
socks for refugees,
or compassion for the stranger.

Our brand is Jesus
And we have been marked forever
in God’s holy and life-giving waters.

God has welcomed us
So we welcome others;
work for the end of oppression, racism,
and the marginalization of any in our communities
whether it is because of race, religion, creed, class, sexuality, age, or ability.

Unlike the latest fashion brands that rise and fall
And are only just skin deep.

Our identity in Christ goes to the core.

We have been claimed by Christ
and he loves us
and lives in and through us.

You could call it classic… or
You could call it timeless, but regardless…
Our brand is Jesus,
That makes us as fashionable as it gets.

One Perfect Prayer

Once when I was in college
a couple of good friends of mine were getting married
And at the rehearsal dinner, moments before the time of the prayer for the meal,
The groom pulled me aside and asked if I would offer the prayer,
Because, he said, it would mean a lot to him and his wife-to-be.

I felt a shot of adrenaline shoot up my spine.
I hadn’t ever prayed for such a large group of people
at such an important occasion,
And the truth is I was terrified… no petrified… to pray, off the cuff, in front of the 50+ people.

But because he asked, and because we were friends,
and because I was honored in this way, I said, of course.

In those brief moments I tried to think of some wise words,
Something deep and thoughtful that would capture
the gravity and grace of the moment,
as two people I loved started a new life together.

I wonder how many of us are very comfortable praying extemporaneously in public.

Well, before I could think,
while I was drowning in the blood that was beating through my mind
and almost hyperventilating
My friend was calling me up to the microphone.

I don’t know what words I prayed,
but I remember thinking
Between my awkward breathing and all the sputters and stutters
That it didn’t make much sense.

I just couldn’t think of what to say.

Afterwards, another guest at the rehearsal dinner and friend of mine
came over to me.

He clearly realized I didn’t know what words to say or what to ask for
And I guess he was trying to be helpful.

And, I will never forget. He said:

“Next time, you could try asking God to bless the food,
Its kind of the elephant in the room.”

If you have ever struggled to pray, my friends,
Publicly or privately.
If you have ever found it difficult to find the right words for the longing inside,

Take heart, Jesus prays for you.

God knows your longing
And is there listening.

Our Risen Lord, Jesus, prays for us now at the right hand of the Father,
just as he did in the moments before his betrayal and arrest.

“I pray not only for these my disciples,” Jesus says,
“but also on behalf of all those who will believe through their word,
that they may be one.”

Jesus was not in some last-minute, slap-dash rush to find the right words.
He stands in the moment of his greatest hour and prays for us with a prayer he had been preparing since before the foundation of the world.

Jesus taps into the wellspring of God’s mercy for us.,
He seeks God’s face for himself, for his disciples, for us,
And for all people, hoping and longing for us to know God’s love and grace
And forgiveness in our lives.

If anything makes us nervous about prayer,
I think it’s probably the notion that God deserves the highest and utmost praise.

Maybe we think we don’t have words deep or wise enough for the God of the Universe, but we shouldn’t worry about that.

Only Jesus’ prayer is perfect.

And what makes Jesus prayer so perfect?

Is it his wisdom or eloquence that make his prayer so poignant?
Is it that he has special knowledge of the exact words to say?
Is it that his heart is in the right place?

Well — the distinctiveness of Jesus’ prayer is that it comes from him.

Jesus is the Son of God — One with the Father —

In perfect obedience he has executed God’s plan of healing, forgiving, and restoring those in need by touching them through his life and ministry simply by being who he is and drawing near to them.

Jesus’ presence brings God’s power.

This week I have been reflection on
One of the lines in our liturgy at the time of Holy Communion:

“Lord, we give you thanks not as we ought, but as we are able.”

To me is seems, these words are a public prayer offered up to God,
In which we acknowledge we who are called to be saints, are are also sinners,
that even though we have heard the joyous news of the gospel,
we have failed to live and speak and share that good news.

And yes, that’s true, I think.

But perhaps I have been thinking of them
because prayer has seemed difficult, at least for me.

It is hard to even come up with the words for prayer after the events of this week.

We pray for the community of Uvalde, Texas,
and for the children and teachers who were murdered,
for their families, for their parents,
for those who were injured and for all those who are experiencing trauma.
But words seem insufficient.

And we pray for the people murdered in Buffalo, New York, and for their families,
and for all who are victims of racist violence and racism
and for all people of color who have endured
mistreatment because of their body’s color.
But mere words seem hollow and not enough.

We pray for Ukraine and for their military and for the civilians
caught up in the mad games of an evil dictator.

But sometimes, in the face of these terrible events in the world,
And challenges and struggles in the lives of other people
and situations close to our hearts,
I don’t know about you, but I don’t really have the words for prayer.

It may be that we trust God, but feel so deflated
that it can be a challenge to come up with words that seem appropriate.

Words escape us as if
hidden in a crossword puzzle with no clues.

Do we ever ask: Does God really hear our prayers?

Does God really care?

What if I’m just talking to myself?

How ridiculous would that make me?

When Jesus prayed, though, he was confident in God.
No second-guessing with him.

On the cusp of his own murderous death
Jesus is not intimidated by what people might think
of his public extemporaneous petitions,
about how they or others may judge him,
He is not unsure of his prayer’s usefulness,
And he is not intimidated by the forces of evil that are coming to crucify him.

You see, the Father knows the grief of losing a child to senseless violence.

And Jesus knows what it is to be mown down.
And, in the moments before that tragedy,
with you and me, and all his Beloved in his heart,
He looks to his Father and trusts the promise of God’s faithfulness
And the resurrection to come,
And thinks not of himself,
But he prays for us.

Jesus has prayed for us and continues to pray for us,
Especially when we can’t.

His simple prayer
is for his mission to be fulfilled:

that the world would believe in him
and therefore come to know God’s
deep and abiding love for all who suffer and cry out for healing.

When I was in high school I was on the track and field team.

For me, one of the most exciting events in track and field is the relay.

Its really the only time, I think that a race’s outcome is based on more than one person’s speed.

After the starting gun, one runner runs her part of the race carrying the baton and then passes the baton off to the next runner, who passes it to the next runner…

From hand to hand, the race continues on from one runner to the next.

Jesus passes the baton to us and sends us to be his presence in the world, living and loving like him.

And as we go,
With his prayers and with his love he cheers us on from the stands…

Praying that we might live lives that help others believe in him,
and speak words that help others believe in him,
and share love so unselfishly and so freely that the world would believe in him,
and, in so believing, receive God’s love.

He trusts that we will succeed.

And he leads us… in a life of service and fellowship.

He leads us… in a life of coming to God even in our grief and the unknown.

He leads us… in a life of endure suffering for others.

He leads us… in a life of prayer.

And because he leads us and gives us his courage and capacity to pray,
Our prayers don’t have to be wise or eloquent,

We can simply rest in God.

We can rest in the loving and joyous relationship God has already initiated with us.

I think back to my friends who were married.

They are still married and, happily, have one beautiful son.
Their future did not depend on my ability to pray…

Clearly, their rehearsal and wedding and life together has
Unfolded before them through the years to this very day,
because of God’s guidance and blessing.

God’s success in mission doesn’t depend on us,
But is a gift from God.

By God’s grace he will use us for his purposes, even in our weakness.

Especially today as we remember and give God thanks
for those who have served our country and given their lives
so that we can live in freedom,

we acknowledge that
these women and men are heroes
but they were not without flaw.

Like us they had fears and insecurities,
But they gave their life for the greater good of our country and our freedom.

God doesn’t work with perfect people,
God works with sinners
whom he gathers,
And blesses,
And fills with heavenly blessing and grace,
Who he forgives,
And who he forms to be holy people
One with all the saints in light.

So, we rest in God
And we grip the baton,
and we run the race set before us together.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Known and Loved

This spring I have been coaching a baseball team of ten 6-years-olds.

We signed our son Samuel up for the league
but it’s all volunteer coached
and we found out there weren’t enough volunteers
and if someone didn’t step up there wouldn’t be a season… so I’m the coach.

With this particular league, it really is about fundamentals.
Everyone gets a chance to hit.
There are no outs.
We don’t keep score.

But strangely enough, part of the program is that after every game
a medal is given out for sportsmanship and there’s only one.

After the game I have to select one, and only one, child to receive the medal,
And they all know it’s coming so they’re looking at me like a pack of hungry dogs.

By the second practice,
I would be trying to show them about fielding a grounder
and individual kids were stopping me to ask if they could have the medal.

After a game, as I put the shining gold medal,
Slung on a ribbon of stars around one of their necks
the whole group goes wild.

For them, this is glory.
It is as significant as knighthood or beatification.
The selected child, in this moment, has been ratified as “as special as it gets,”
And he or she is lifted up above their peers,
singled out to be called great.

Jesus receives his glory in God
and is singled out and lifted up as the one above all.

Gathered with his teammates under the stars
Jesus says, Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.

And yet Jesus’ glory comes not from being superior in and of himself
as we usually define glory.

His glory doesn’t come from accolades and awards
but in the way he gives himself away for others in obedience to the will of God.

Jesus’ glory is given to him by God
And it is a glory he shares with God.

And When Jesus is lifted up on the cross
and suspended between heaven and earth
it is THEN that he is ratified as great.
THEN all things are made new
THEN God’s glory shines out to the world.

Jesus lifted up is God’s love given and displayed for all to see.

Of course, there are so many kinds of love. Between friends, between spouses, between family.

What kind of love is this? How deep is it?

If there was any doubt about the character of Jesus’ love
we only need to refer to first verse of our gospel and read again the words:
“When he had gone out.”

Do you know who “He” refers to?
“He” refers here to Judas.

Judas had gone out to betray Jesus and to set in motion his arrest,
his hour of humiliation and agony,
the cold iron through his hands and splinters from rough wood
laced through the skin of his back.

Jesus sees this moment of his betrayal as the moment of his greatest glory
because now he gets to show you and me how much God loves us.

Jesus gives and desires us to give a love that lays down our life for the sake of another.

Because, the truth is, the command from God to love one another was not new.
The scriptures of the Old Testament compel us to love our neighbor as our self,
but Jesus’ command is new because through his death and resurrection
he is with us to share his power to give ourselves away for the good of the other.

This is a love that demonstrates itself.
A love that is costly.
A love that risks.

We see this love displayed in Peter
who risks his place and standing to wade into the dis-ease
between the circumcised and the uncircumcised factions in the early church.

Hebrew followers of Jesus, from his same culture and creed,
Peter and all the apostles,
just weren’t sure about the new Gentile converts.

There was a long history of separation between the groups,
a long litany of real or perceived grievances between the two.
Like Washington and Dallas football fans,
Or Capitals and Penguins fans,
these two groups really weren’t supposed to keep company with one another.

The Hebrews followed the laws of Israel that the Gentiles didn’t keep.
Hebrews definitely weren’t supposed to be around Gentiles,
Much less share a table together,

yet Peter sees a vision from the Holy Spirit showing him
that the distinction that had been made between the two groups should die
and a new community should rise.

The Holy Spirit breaks down the wall that divides the two groups
and make them one.

Its amazing that Peter, a betrayer of Jesus, could come to this place.

He too had been a part of this deep-seeded perspective
of looking at the Gentiles as outsiders and non-entities,
and yet he sees what God is doing and says, “Who am I to oppose God?”

And this was a witness to the world of what it meant to be a Christian:
To welcome people who were different,
And to lay judgment aside for friendship.

And in this significant action of table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles,
The course of church history and world history
Was forever altered and Jesus’ words came true:

By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

This is what love looks like.

If you’re out driving on the streets of Chesterfield county
and you come to the place where Wood’s Edge Road ends
at a crossing with Ramblewood Drive you’ll find
a large, homemade sign at the intersection
painted with a message to share with those driving by.

The sign’s made of plywood, about my height and painted in bright colors and it reads:
“I love you. You’re probably thinking, you don’t know me.
But if people can hate for no reason, I can love.”
It is an arresting message. It is specific and personal.

It has been getting a lot of attention
and some drivers even stop to find out who is behind the message,
including the Channel 6 news team who featured the sign and its creator, Tina Wells,
in a story this week.

Tina lives across the way from the busy intersection
and was inspired to put the sign up by to road because, she says,

“here’s so much darkness in the world nowadays
and if you listen to all the negative, you’ll get brought down.

My husband was back behind the house and found a sheet of plywood
and I painted the sign to share some joy.
I want to plant some positive seeds.
I hope that just like songs get stuck in your head,
this message will get stuck in people’s head.”

I have to say that I think what Tina says is true –
negative messages are copious around us.
They come from the world and they come from within us
and get stuck in our head making us think negatively about ourselves
and about the state of things.

It is easy to get frustrated by the cruelty
and the hate and the darkness of sin in the world.

But God has a sign written for the world:
“I love you!” in the cross.

Big and Bold and Bright: I love you!

You’re probably thinking – at least of you’re like me –
That the difference between Tina’s love and God’s love is that
Tina’s saying she doesn’t know me and God definitely does.

For me, I actually find it easy to love people I don’t know, in many cases.
I can hold a door for a stranger.
I can give someone I just met my undivided attention.
When a person is a clean slate to me, I am at my best.

It is actually when we know one another that love is costly.

And God does know us.

God knows all the ways we have spoken poorly of one another
and failed to pass on God’s generosity to others,
and all the way we have misused the gifts God has given us.
And God still loves us.

And so my friends,
Please hear this:

Whatever other forces and voices may accost you, God loves you.

If it feels as if the whole rest of the world hates you.
Excludes you.
Doesn’t let you sit at the cool kid’s table.
Won’t look at you. Or treats you as diseased.
If, and when, that happens to you. God loves you.

God thought you important enough
and God loved you enough to suffer and die for you.
God has blessed you with gifts to share.

You are the recipient of God’s medal of love,
You are the song stuck in God’s head that God can’t forget.
You are deep down in God’s heart.

And God will supply you with the love to give to others.

Jesus and his cross are the sign by the road inviting you and me
And all the world into a new kind of love the world has never seen.

Peter experienced a conversion in this love that leads him to take huge risks,
Just like Paul who goes from persecuting the church to building it.

Our experience is that we need ongoing conversion.
Every day we are in need of the power of our baptism.

Sin is so deeply rooted in us, we are so centered on the self in our human thinking, and the gospel’s demand of us is so different, that we need a lifetime of conversion to be made into the new creation God has in mind for us.

And in baptism, every day is new for us. Just like Brielle Lenhart.
Every day we are born fresh in God.
And we need it.

I can’t think of a family member or a friend in my life
who I have not hurt or who has not hurt me in significant ways,
and yet by God’s grace we can love people
beyond the barriers that would otherwise bring fraternity to an end.

This is what a congregation is.
A group of people God has called to love one another for the long haul.

Not because we’re perfect.
Not because we’re the same.
Not because out political views align.
Not because we have the same hobbies or interests
or even because we all want to make the world a better place.

But because Jesus’ love calls us together in love
and for love.

Love that doesn’t forget the people at home who are a part of this body
And who can’t join us in worship,
But goes to them with the meal of life.

Love that promises to walk with Breielle
and all those who are claimed by God in baptism.
No matter what unfolds.

A love that reaches out to neighbors
and even to enemies
to care for them more than we do ourselves,
not because they are like us or the same as us,
but because they are God’s holy and beloved creation
in whose face God promises to meet us,

and because God can and does make a new beginning in relationships
that seem broken beyond repair.

This love, Jesus’ love, is the only power to erase distinctions between people
and to bring healing to the divisions in the world.

This love, Jesus Love, is God’s gift to us
and shared through us,
God’s gift to the world.

In Jesus Christ every day is new,
no relationship is ever beyond healing,
no community is beyond transformation,
and no story has reached its end,
because we are still waiting for the return of the one
who says, “See I make all things new.”

All glory to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Under Holy Wings

In hindsight, I can see that Brandon was only a few inches taller than me,
but at the time he seemed to be twice as big as me,
and I think he was particularly stout and strong for a 5th grader.

Like me, he rode bus 218 and lived in Summerfield.

We had never really had beef with each other before,
but he was a bully, and one afternoon on the school bus,
somehow his attention landed on me,
and I found myself in his crosshairs.

I don’t remember if it was an argument we had or he just started picking on me,
but I can recall the feeling of my body’s fight or flight response going into overdrive,
and being scared for life and limb,
as he taunted me and got up in my face.

I also remember being hot with shame
that everyone’s eyes were on me and
felt like it was all playing in front of the whole world.

But as scared as I was
I also felt fairly confident that Brandon wouldn’t beat me up me on the bus,
For fear of the intervention of our bus driver, Ms. Athey, who was a tough lady.

And I was right.
Instead of beating me up right there on the bus,
He challenged me to a fight
and told me he would come to my house that day after school.

And I remember so clearly
that I felt smarter than him when I told him
“Oh no, I can’t fight today I have a basketball a game”
… and he bought it.

“Tomorrow then!” He shot back.
Oh yeah, well, no, I can’t tomorrow, I told him,
I have a doctor’s appointment.

And then I just kept making up excuses
until it was his turn to get off the bus
and miraculously I escaped Brandon’s wrath
and nothing ever came of it.
Traveling through Galilee on his way to Jerusalem,
Jesus was taunted by the Pharisees,
who seem to be getting up in his face and trying to bully him into leaving town.

They try to intimidate him with the threat
that King Herod is after him and wants a pound of flesh
But Jesus is not afraid to stare down Herod and the Pharisees.

He is not intimidated,
And he doesn’t make excuses,
or pretend that he has another engagement.

He says, “if you or Herod want to find me,
I tell you where I’ll be today, tomorrow, and the next day.
Come on and find me.”

“I will be here doing what I have been doing,
not turning tail and running,
but sending demons running and sickness scrambling for cover.”

And so we see that only Jesus decides when and where he goes and what he does.

But while Jesus won’t be run off,
he also knows that his real fight is not with Herod and not with the Pharisees,
But is much grander.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and to the cross.

And so he looks ahead to the horizon,
and his vision rests on Jerusalem, Jerusalem, The city of God

With its stone walls rising high
and its cool, dark streets winding and
circling the Temple pulsing from it’s core, this is God’s city.

For centuries Jerusalem had been the heart and center
Of God’s interactions with his chosen people.

If any city should welcome him, Jesus knows, God’s city should!

This is the city which God has provided to a people who almost weren’t.

From Sarah’s barren womb, to slavery in Egypt, to exile in foreign lands,
This city only exists and this people only exist
because God has rescued God’s people from certain
Destruction again and again.

And Jesus looks and laments,
Because he knows that this city has rejected the prophets of God again and again
The leaders and the people have spurned
The God who can offer them protection and safety,
And have not reciprocated his deep and abiding love for them.

Jesus looks and cries out in frustration and disappointment and heartbreak,
Because he knows this city is precisely the place
where he will be spit upon, made fun of, beaten, and killed,
even as he will try again in vain to bring healing, protection, and love
to the very ones who reject him.

God wants desperately to gather us together;
for us to find ourselves in his love,
for us to receive balm and salve for our wounds;
to taste the joy he has prepared for us through all that human life offers,
And so God gathers a people,
But so often we are not willing.

From our first parents, to the crowds crying “crucify!” in Jerusalem,
to the church throughout the generations, to our own divided hearts

So often we find ourselves attending to our own desires and perceived needs.

So often we make even faith about our own journey,
About our individual relationship with God,
So that even in a congregation, we can feel lonely or
Or find ourselves on parallel tracks without much overlap with fellow travelers.

And, of course, a pandemic makes that even more of a reality.

But Jesus is intent upon gathering a people.

As we come, later this week,
to the two-year anniversary of our long sojourn through the wilderness
of facemasks, quarantines, and social upheaval
because of the Coronavirus pandemic,
I have been reflecting again on how central being gathered is
to the life of Christian discipleship.

Jesus doesn’t look at Jerusalem and say:
How I have longed to teach you correct theological doctrine.
How I have longed to give you moral excellence that’s better than other peoples.’
How I have longed to inspire you to make a difference in the world.

Jesus says:
How I have longed to gather you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.
To simply have you, my beloved ones, in my care.

Pandemics aside, there are lots of reasons not to be gathered.

We have to be vulnerable to really be gathered with others –
that is we have to share your weaknesses, struggles, and heartaches
and make time and space to hear the true life situation of another.

We have to take risks to be gathered with others.
And it is a risk to open yourself up and let someone know who you really are.

We have to do the very difficult work of relinquishing
some of our desires for control
to be really gathered with others.
In other words, I may not always get my way.

But we find these things hard to do
And I find these things hard to do.

But thanks and praise to God, Jesus has done all that is needed to gather us.

He has been vulnerable on the cross,
he has risked his own life and given it freely,
he has agreed not to get his own way, praying in the garden,
“Not my will, Father, but yours be done.”

In the cross, like a hen with outstretched arms,
Jesus has reached out to shelter you and me and the whole world
Under God’s merciful care.

In the cross, Jesus looked the power of dread and death in the eye
for all those who have been bullied at school or online,
for those who have been abused for the color of their skin or because they are different;
for all nations and people who have been attacked and oppressed…

…and for all who have perpetrated these acts;

and Jesus laid down his own life to rob death of its power
and to bring God’s peace to our conflict.

And Jesus gathers a people who live and love like him.

That is to say, our gathering looks different than a sports team,
different than the crowds gathered at the symphony,
different than the masses gathered to shop in Short Pumps teeming stores.

In our life together,
In the church, the Body of Christ,
God is at work
in this city and in our neighborhoods and in our various social groups and gatherings
to bring others under the shelter of the cross of life.

I see in this congregation many ministries
that extend God’s care and shelter to those in need –

a community garden and feeding ministries
that bring Christ’s provision to those who are hungry,

Stephen ministry to those in grief
and support as well to those with dementia,

a vibrant quilting ministry,
partnerships with Hanover Adult Center and those who are definitely-abled,
ministry with our partners: the Red Cross, Fox Elementary, Safe Harbor, and more.

Here, in the sacrament of shared communal life,
Gathered around the body and blood of our crucified and living Lord,
Christ meets us with a promise and with provision and with his power.

We can trust that he will be with us when we follow him
Carrying our cross of love for our neighbor,
walking into the places we would rather run from but where he leads–

to have the conversation with a friend who has become estranged,
to bring up the abuse of power at work,
to have the hard conversation in our marriage rather than sweeping it under the rug,
to abide with people who think differently about masks or politics,
trusting that Christ is with us to gather us
as a mother hen to shelter her vulnerable ones.

The ministry of the church and the work of being gathered
more than a simple inconvenience
Is more than hard work,
It is a cross.

It is a reorganization of our entire world in the illumination of Jesus Christ.

In the light of our God of resurrection,
Our God of new hope;
We go with God who has already taken the first step,
Who creates wonderful and surprising and life-giving possibilities out of nothing.

In our God, unexpected mercies that seem impossible, come to be.

33 years ago
The iron curtain of the Berlin Wall
With its barbed wire and concrete bulwark
Came down, unexpectedly
Because of a gathering of God’s people.

From 1980 on, nine years before the wall crumbled
at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig
The pastor called his congregation
in the face of the oppression of communism,
in the shadow of the fear of nuclear powers at a standstill,
To gather on Monday nights to pray.

Often in the first years there were less than a dozen people.

But the gathering grew steadily
and after 7 years there were 8,000 people gathered in the church.
And this gathering of God’s people continued to grow until
outside in the streets there were as many as 70,000 people
gathered in prayer and carrying candles.
It was the largest impromptu demonstration ever seen in East Germany since WW2.

With so many people gathered
the government began to prepare their military and tanks
And there were many doctors present expecting a bloodbath any moment.

Eventually there were 300,000 people gathered
And under that pressure the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
It’s difficult to believe, even in retrospect, that peace prevailed.

And one communist official from Leipzig registered his shock,
commenting to a journalist who asked how this all came to be:
“We were prepared for every eventuality.
But not for candles and not for prayers.”

It is a gift to be gathered by God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Let us be faithful to the gift of being gathered…

In spirit and flesh, body and mind and heart,
Under the care of God’s holy wings,
And in the strong compassion of God’s mighty arm,
Until all the world lifts her heads and joins us to sing in praise,
“Blessed in the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Total Eclipse

I remember golden light like I had never seen,
And like I haven’t seen since.

For months the media had been hyping
what they were calling the “Great American Eclipse.”

They assured us it was to be the celestial event of a generation.

The date was August 21, 2017, and I can remember it very vividly and I bet you do too.

That late summer afternoon was to be the first time
a total solar eclipse would be visible
across the entire continental United States
from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts in a hundred years.

You might remember that in order to see the event that day —
That is to see the moon pass in front of the sun
you had to have special solar eclipse glasses.

These paper spectacles looked like glasses
for a 3D movie theater or IMAX theater.

And all through that spring and summer you could buy them on Amazon
But there was unprecedented interest in the eclipse
so that for weeks ahead of time
they were sold out.

Fortunately for this procrastinator,
my neighbor down the street, Will,
had bought enough for the whole neighborhood.

On Cardigan Circle where I live,
families were all out in the street together
and I guess similar scenes played out across the country.

That day for about a half an hour,
the world seemed to change.
An indescribable golden light, like butterscotch,
covered everything you could see with an otherworldly glow.

And we all stood in these funny paper and plastic glasses,
craning our necks to look up at the sun…
but not for too long.

Even with their protection, a warning on the side of the glasses said,
and newscasters reminded us,
you weren’t supposed to look directly at the sun for too long
or you could go blind.

Not from the sun above, the brightest light in our natural world,
but from inside Jesus himself
on the mount of the transfiguration
dazzling, resplendent, supernatural light radiates outward
from the dimension of the Eternal Triune Unity
of God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
into the darkness of our world.

Through prayer Jesus manifests his divine connection with God
in a display that defies our understanding.

Which is to say, we can’t look directly at this mystery described in scripture
and we can’t crane our minds
to grasp exactly what happened there on the mountain.

We can only receive the witness of the apostles who saw it
And listen to their account
of the brightest light who is Jesus shining out in his belovedness
as God declares him to be in a category all of his own
among the generations of humankind.

Every sport has it’s hall of fame and
We argue about who the GOAT is – MJ or LeBron, Walter Peyton or Tom Brady,

But here on the mountain is God’s Hall of Fame,
Moses, the greatest shepherd and leader of God’s people
and Elijah, the greatest prophet and teacher of God’s people –

And both are on-hand to witness this unprecedented event,
even in the life and ministry of Jesus.

Of all Jesus’ many miracles and signs
This is the only miracle recorded in the scriptures
which happens to Jesus himself.

Here God’s illuminating love for Jesus shows us that he
is more than a miracle worker, or teacher, or holy man.

Jesus is the Greatest of All Time.
and the only Son of God
and in his brilliant love the world has changed,
not for a day, or an hour, or a generation, but forever.

This is one of the biggest events in Jesus’ life,
Along with his baptism and his death, resurrection and ascension.
And all the synoptic writers – Matthew, Mark and Luke – tell us about it.

But interestingly only Luke’s gospel tells us what these great three figures
Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are speaking about
and the content of their conversation.

They are discussing, Luke tells us, Jesus’ departure, his exodus,
And the fact that Jesus is now turning his face to head down the mountain
From this moment of light and affirmation,
Into the darkness of the plane
To accomplish our freedom,
With his eyes fixed directly on the cross.

Just as the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt in the exodus,
So Jesus will enter and succumb
to the enslaving power of death, humiliation, sin, and darkness
In order to break their bonds with God’s presence and power at work in him.

Peter, on the other hand, in this very same moment
has his suffering-eclipse-glasses on
And he wants to pass them out to the whole neighborhood,
Especially Jesus.

Peter doesn’t want to leave this mountain,
But to build three dwellings where God’s Hall of Famers can remain
And where he can remain in denial.
Where he can look away from the vision of a suffering messiah.

And who can blame Peter? Really?

Life can be hard for all of us.

Aren’t we like Peter and don’t we like wearing our suffering-eclipse glasses?

I mean, honestly, its easy to feel beaten down and tired,
and feel like taking care of our own needs is more important than the needs of others,
And the details of our own life are more than enough for us to deal with and sometimes too much.

How are we to muster what it takes to choose to help anyone else?

Our hymn of the day today articulates very well that God
Doesn’t desire us to build three dwellings of complacence and apathy and comfortability,
But to chose to build structures of justice, mercy, and compassion.

But how are we, in the midst of our own tasks and troubles
to choose these things for ourselves as a way of life?

Its noteworthy that only Luke’s gospel calls Jesus “chosen.”

In Mark’s gospel, at the transfiguration God says this is my son
and in Matthew God says this is my Beloved,
but only here is Jesus called Chosen.

It makes me think of Neo from the Matrix
which just got a reboot
or Anakin from Star Wars
or any other myth or fable or Marvel comic book or movie narrative
where one person is chosen by a deity or by the universe
to somehow set everything right.

I think this is the very sense in which Jesus is called Chosen.
The difference between Jesus and these other stories and myths
Is that the gospel is true.

J.R.R Tolkien, the great Christian writer
Of Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit and more
explains his belief that all stories, all myths, and all legends
that have a hero can only be told because the gospel is true:

He says, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth:
a myth working on us in the same way as the others,
but with this tremendous difference that it really happened:
and one must be content to accept it in the same way,
remembering that it is God’s myth
where the others are the myths of humankind.

In other words: Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.”

Jesus invites us to see what is real.

His voice speaks to us
And he invites us to walk with him
And to view the world as he does.

Jesus knows that he is chosen for the mission of the cross.
He doesn’t choose it –but it has been chosen.

Jesus has no suffering-eclipse glasses, and he is not afraid.

He knows his identity as messiah, and he knows it meaning
He will not look away from image of the cross which waits for him below in the darkness.

In the same way, we don’t choose our life, but we have been chosen by God.

Jesus calls us, directs us, empowers us to follow him
in not turning our eyes away
from those who suffer in our midst
and not to look away from those who drag their crosses,
choking under the weight.

We look to our hungry neighbors, not averting our eyes,
Making hundreds of sandwiches,
Spreading mustard and mayonnaise, layering lunch meat,
Stuffing lunches in Ziploc bags,
Saying to those in our midst who are hungry
we have made you lunch
Two sandwiches, chips, and fruit,
And we are here to talk with you and to pray with you and to console you.

Jesus has not looked away from us in our need
And so we can set our sights on those in need right in front of us.

So we are ready to join with community members
In the aftermath of the misfortune of Fox Elementary school and
Gather supplies and perhaps even
Meet with students and families to provide comfort and consolation
As they discern their next steps.

Jesus has not been quiet in the time of our need but has spoken up for us
And so we can speak up for others.

We don’t wear suffering-eclipse glasses.

And so we have all watched in sadness and horror
these past days at the invasion of Ukraine.

It is, at least for me, hard to understand the brazenness of the acts of Russia
And what it means that the world cannot in some way prevent Putin’s
Blatant selfish ambitions and the murdering of civilians.

It makes us feel impotent and robbed of power to be unable to do more than watch.
And there is perhaps some temptation to embrace our privilege and luxury
And simply look away.

And yet if we look we will see acts of courageous service and willingness to suffer.

One news story yesterday today
How during the Russian invasion of Ukraine
At the Henichesk bridge over the spanning water of the river below
Ukrainian troops stood their ground
In order to slow the advance of invading Russian troops
northward from the occupied Crimean Peninsula.

As a Russian armored column approached,
it was determined that the only way to stop the advance
would be to destroy the bridge.

Vitaly Skakun, a Ukrainian combat engineer,
volunteered to place mines on the bridge.

After placing the explosives, Skakun lacked time to get himself to safety
And so, from the bridge, he texted his fellow soldiers
to let them know what he was about to do,
and detonated the mines
laying down his own life to destroy the bridge.

His actions slowed the enemy advance allowing his battalion time to regroup.

In the midst of our unspeakable tragedies
God is present in these acts that recall and reenact Christ laying down his life for us.

Jesus offered up his own life for you and me,
And allowed himself to he crushed in the rubble and shrapnel of the cross.

But God has raised Jesus,
who is the first-born of the New Creation that will include us all.

I think we don’t know how the geo-political acts of these past days will play out
But we know that Christ is living and in his resurrection,
All war and violence ultimately meets the power of God and is quieted

God has already eclipsed the power of hate and violence with the love of Jesus
And this love comes to us again
inviting us to live and burn bright in God.

Jesus calls us to his table of forgiveness.

And bids the whole world listen to his invitation of peace
And on the great day to come
All eyes will be only on him
All voices will only be in praise of his victory
All relationships will be renewed in their common humanity.

In hopeful expectation of that day
Our eyes will be fixed on our neighbor
in their need
and in their suffering
as God empowers Christ’s church to suffer with and for those who suffer.

Captured Alive

Seventy years ago today
Elizabeth Windsor was in a remote Kenyan village,
in a lodge with her husband and the locals,
watching baboons swing in the treetops,
when she heard her father had died.

She had not been born to wear the crown.

She had planned to take up residence in a country house,
looking out only for her horses and dogs,
and living a comfortable but uneventful life.

But then King Edward abdicated the crown,
and she became the heir apparent,
and when her father died,
she knew in that moment
in the Kenyan village where she heard the news,
that her life would never be the same.

We have moments in our life when everything changes,
And afterwards, nothing can be the same.

This is the kind of moment Simon Peter has
when he meets Jesus on the shore by Lake Gennesaret.

In the gospel of Luke up to this point Jesus has been a one man show,
a one-man band,
and he’s been quite busy speaking in the synagogue,
casting out demons,
and healing the sick,
but now the project of God’s-love-come-near has gotten too large.

This start-up is growing too fast,
the word is out,
and there are just too many people
who are in need of the work Jesus is doing,
and so, Jesus sees that he needs to expand.
He needs to fill out a staff to help him.

And so there by the lake he invites Peter
and subsequently James and John to join up,
and for Peter and the other fisherman,
life will never be the same.

Jesus speaks the word of God from the edge of this small boat
To this crowd gathered by the lake.

And you would have to imagine they smelled of fish and hard work and wood smoke –
and yet it’s here
not in a holy place – not a clean church or synagogue
but amidst people such as these
that Jesus announces and displays the power of God.

Even though Simon and his friends have had a disappointing night
and found their nets empty,
Jesus asks them to go out again and put their nets down.

And although Peter at first protests,
when he and the others put down the nets and pull them back up
they are filled
with a superabundance of fish,
so that the nets are about to rip,
and the boats are about to sink.

And Simon Peter realizes in that moment he is in the presence of the Holy.
God is right in front of him in the middle of his very own life.
And his life will never be the same.

We can imagine that without meeting Jesus and without Jesus’ invitation to follow,
Peter’s life might be quite predictable.

How many times has Peter scanned the lake deciding where to lower the nets?
How many times has cleaned and prepared his fish with hands callouses and chapped?
How many times has hauled in the boat on the sand and shallow waves?

We could imagine that apart from meeting Jesus
his life would include many more days like these.
And perhaps a family life.
And who’s to say that wouldn’t be a good life of simple pleasure?
Fisherman in Galilee made a good living
and were able to provide a comfortable life for themselves if they did well.

But into the midst of Peter’s ordinary everyday life,
God meets him and calls him to follow,
and changes his life forever.

He doesn’t know it by the shore yet,
But he will witness Christ die for the sins of the world,
be buried in a tomb,
and be raised on the third day,
and for all of Peter’s stumbling, denying, and running,
The risen Jesus will come alongside him
And together they will do things much more amazing than catch two boat loads of fish.

Because of the Risen Christ,
Peter’s life will change forever.

Rather than bringing in fish, Peter will bring people into the community of God’s beloved.

Rather than using his experience in the craft of
manipulating the prow, the stern, the rudder and the oars of this sea vessel,
Peter will use his experience in fellowship with the Lord to craft relationships.

Rather than feeding people with Kinneret sardines and tilapia,
Peter will be called to a life of feeding people with hearts hungry for good news,
With the living word of God’s love.

When Jesus meets us, and calls us to follow, our life can never be the same.

And so, what about you?

What about your life is different than it would be otherwise if you weren’t a disciple of Jesus?

You have to imagine that it would be different, wouldn’t it?

Maybe you would have a different job.
Maybe you would have a different spouse.
Maybe you would live in a different place.
Perhaps you’d have different friends.
You could imagine that you might spend your money on different things.

To follow Jesus means our life will be necessarily different
than it would have been otherwise.

I might go so far as to say that if we can’t imagine any ways our life is different
than it would be otherwise
because of Jesus’ call
we haven’t heard it right.

When Jesus calls us to follow, our life will never be the same:
We are called to tasks that we wouldn’t choose for ourself.

I know that our congregation council, for example,
meets once a month to tackle sometimes thorny issues.
They prayerfully plan and seek to position our congregation
to be faithful to Jesus’ call.

There’s a lot of work involved.
There are some missed dinners and missed family time,
especially for the officers.

Last month we were trying hard to find a secretary,
a person who would go even further above and beyond,
to keep track of all our work
with minutes and edits and tracking down this and that information.

And it was Matt who stepped up the plate.

I’m guessing not because he loves to type,
Not because he loves to have a couple extra hours of work than the rest of us,
but because Jesus calls us to tasks that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves
but are for him and in service to ministry.

My guess is Peter the simple hometown fisherman
wouldn’t have been all that excited if he had known up front by the lakeshore
that he would end up being a thrust into a public role
as a preacher in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and more.

When Jesus calls us to follow, our life will never be the same,
And we are called to be in relationship with people that we wouldn’t otherwise choose to be.

Last month we had an EYG alumni meal
and one of the college kids brought a friend – someone no one else knew.

I could feel in the group that everyone was so excited to connect with old friends
but there was this new person there.
And I have to admit I was surprised but not surprised,
when these college kids, formed and called by Jesus,
made room, welcomed the new person, got to know her, and included her in the fellowship.

As for Peter, his relationship with the Apostle Paul was not always a unified one –
they opposed one another openly
and yet they both were great witnesses to Jesus and his power of life over death.

When Jesus calls us to follow, our life will never be the same:
And tis call that comes
is not passing fad,
no flash in the pan,
but lasts a lifetime.

As we celebrate Betsy Williamsons’ birthday today
it is an opportunity to remember again,
as we have so many times,
a life lived in service to Jesus.

The way in which one life, one person
who answers the call
can be used by God to form generations of children.

And just like Peter, Betsy’s call came on a simple day,
that at the time, she may not have known,
no one may have known
was the day a life would never be the same.

Betsy had a cousin who led an “opening” before Sunday school at their church.
One day her cousin asked Betsy to help her with the opening,
she was a teenager then, and she’s 94 years old today,
and all the while she never looked back.

Jesus calls us to a life of tasks and relationships that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves
And yet God does miracles for the people God loves through us.

God feeds people, heals people, and shapes people
through the ministry of the church
and through the power of the gospel:

Through the news that today is a new day,
your life will never be the same,
because Jesus Christ loves you,
has died and been raised for you,
is with you in your struggle,
and works through your life to share this news with your neighbor.

Not only in this holy place,
But in our ordinary daily life,
In our ordinary daily work,
In our ordinary daily relationships,
God is present with superabundant
Mercy and strength and blessing and power and grace,
Calling us to follow.

You and I are called to be “catching people,” just as Peter was,
although the original Greek is a little more specific:
it says we are called to “capture people alive,” which I find helpful.

I think to be captured alive and to capture others alive means in part:

We are not to coerce others to follow Jesus.
Neither do we trap people.
We don’t invite people into the life of discipleship
because we want to use them for our own benefit.

We are not captured dead, but captured alive … and we capture others alive.

It’s a bit like when the youth group and I went to Atlanta some years ago.
We had gone down to work in food banks and community gardens,
but at the end of our service weeks each summer we always do something fun to unwind.

We decided to go to the Atlanta Aquarium
and I remember walking through these dark tunnels together
below millions of gallons of water
and looking up at the aquarium that was above us.

Above us we could see great white sharks swimming by;
mana rays and eels
and glorious schools of brightly colored fish with their scales flashing in the light.

These fish were captive, but very much alive.
There life was very different than it would have been otherwise,
but now they had a greater mission.

Now their mission was to give witness to myriads of thousands of people
of the beauty of God’s creation under the sea.
To inspire people to a greater realization
of the need to preserve and protect the oceans of the world,
and creation as a whole.
And to a greater appreciation of the glory of God.

There is a sense in which our life is a captive one.
We do not belong to ourselves.
We belong to each other.
And we belong to Christ.

And so, we are captive to the love of God.
And captive to the life of Jesus Christ.

We belong today and forever to our God
who is high and holy and greatly to be praised,
And yet cares for the lowly,
And calls us by name.

Thanks be to God.

The Life of the Party

This week I was talking with some young people in our congregation about what the essential ingredients are for a good party. 

One person felt that good music is essential to a good party.  I agree with that! 

Another person felt the environment is important: Where a party happens.  That’s also a good answer. 

Some said good food makes a good party better.  But we all agreed in the end that the most essential, the most-important ingredient to a good party is the people.

The guest list… It’s all about who you’re with.

And by this metric, the party in Cana of Galilee was a good party because Jesus was there.  He and his mother and his disciples had been invited and they are all there in attendance, enjoying the festivities and being together. 

Isn’t it good to know that in addition to healing the sick and raising the dead, telling parables and feeding hungry people, Jesus also made it a point to go to a party.  He took time at the beginning of his ministry, to attend a wedding, and it was here that he chose to disclose his identity with his first sign. 

These signs Jesus performed were miraculous events where he made the impossible possible, but each of these signs really, more deeply tells us something about who Jesus is and reveals his character, his intentions, and his desires for us.

But it turns out this particular party was in peril. This future of this wedding was worrisome.

Jesus was in attendance, but still, this celebration was in shambles – not because of a bad DJ or a severe weather watch in effect sending everyone to scramble and rethink the itinerary, but because of a snafu of gigantic proportions:

For some reason, when the steward in charge of the festivities calls for more wine to be brought out and served to the guests but he is told there is no more.

This was a catastrophe. Not only for this young couple who were tying the knot but for their families and their guests. In first-century Palestine, hospitality was everything. This couple’s name and reputation were on the line. 

To run out of wine on the third day, not even half-way through what was probably a customary seven-day banquet would have been more than deeply embarrassing for them. It would have shamed their families and shamed the whole community. 

It would have truly been a disaster.

But, at his mother’s urging, Jesus takes command of a terrible situation. 

Jesus steps into action and sees six 20-or-30 gallon stone water jars, all empty, and has the wait-staff fill them to the brim with water, and then sends the servants to begin to dip the water from the jars out into glasses and to carry them out to the people at the party and the glasses are filled with wine!

And not just wine, but good wine, well-aged wine; the kind of wine that draws rave reviews.

At this party there could have been shame and embarrassment and disappointment but Jesus changes everything.  Just by his presence there is grace upon grace, and he chooses to erase the disaster, to take away the shame of the couple and their family.

He wants the community to celebrate, to rejoice; he wants the party to continue. He blesses the couple with a joyful start to their marriage rather than the whole bash coming to a screeching stop, and everyone going home in shame and disappointment.

At this point, we have had so much disappointment that its hard to quantify it.  We can feel like the last two years have been one disaster after another.  There are militaries mobilizing at the border of Ukraine and Russia.  Partisan politics at home in our own country goes on and on.

In our own lives, we have known disappointment:

We have had parties cancelled, travel plans postponed, trips cut short.

We take stock of our life as church and we count up the ministry suspended, the retreats cancelled, long hoped for events postponed and postponed again and then cancelled.

And what do we do with all that disappointment. Do we just hold on to it? Do we nurse it? Do we think about it over and over again and play “what if” games about what could have been?

Do we wonder: what if all the pandemic carnage hadn’t happened…where would the kids be in school? How much fitter and happier and more productive might I be?  How would our lives be different?

What do we do with all this disappointment?

Jesus invites us to give it to him.

And Jesus says, I can take it all.

Just as Jesus turned the despair and disappointment of empty wine jugs into glasses full of the best wine, raised in toast upon toast, so Jesus can take all our emptiness and disappointment and fill us with grace upon grace and the joy of God.

Jesus forgives me and you and takes away our shame.  Jesus joins us together in a community where you, and I, and all people are on the guestlist; where all have a place at the table.  God delights in you and lavishes over you as a groom lavishes over a bride with a priceless love.

God shelters you, and in invites you to drink from the wine of gladness that is a river of delight.

Have you ever had a friend who just seemed to take the party with them wherever they went?

Everywhere Jesus is, there is a party.  And Jesus makes even the most hopeless situations into a party.

Even is the face of his own death, on the night before he would be crucified, Jesus gathered in an upper room to celebrate the Passover.

And if a party is music, and good food, and good company, then this night as he prepares his disciples to see his death on the cross is nothing shy of a party.

In that upper room there is a freedom party, a victory party, a party to cast out God’s people’s shame forever party, a party to destroy disappointment and despair –

In this upper room there is music — Jesus and his disciples sing together — and at this gathering they eat together as Jesus breaks bread and gives wine – and at this party Jesus toasts to God’s promise of victory over death.

The party that begins that night and which the Holy Spirit has been drawing God’s people into ever since is that party of love and justice and freedom that you are a part of today.

At this party we learn what it means to love one another as Jesus loves us, laying down our own life; and we’re renewed daily in our calling to be signs to a world in need of what hope and joy look like.

Jesus is here with us to take all our emptiness and disappointment and carry it for us. 

In place of it he says, reach out your hands, I give you wine to drink that is the finest in the universe, my own blood;

I give you food to eat, the richest in the world, my own body to eat,

I give you the gift of my forgiveness and my friendship. 

Because of his presence with us we know that this worship of the Triune God is a party… and faith can see that even when we are sick, even when we are sad, even when we are walking through streets riddled with disappointments, Jesus is with us to transform our lives into a witness of hope and the Word becomes enfleshed in us, as we use the gifts we have been given to bless others.

This past week 2 leaders and 3 participants from Hanover Adult Center came to Epiphany to share their gifts. 

Hanover Adult Center offers a variety of services to adults with various disabilities.  All of the participants that came on Thursday of this past week have hearing loss or have no hearing at all, but that didn’t stop us from joking and laughing together, they were quick to teach sign language and share a joke. 

Avery, Franklin, and Danny came because in spite of their personal setbacks they wanted to help someone else out in some way, so they volunteered to fold, stuff, and put lanyards around the name tags that will eventually sit in Joel McKean’s nametag carousel – one for each member of our community.

As all of us worked together on those name tags and I saw the joy that these guys were having it occurred to me that wherever they go, it’s a party. They have joy to share and it is a gift to behold.

Each of us has gifts to share.

Some of us have the gift to teach, and we are blessed by our teachers who are ready for Sunday school in February or March, or whenever we can resume gathering, and we know we will get back to it…

Some of us have gifts to administer… our office staff… working day in and out to keep ministry moving forward.

Some of us have musical gifts to share…

Some serve on council… attending to the business of the church

Some work in our nursery school… some are teachers…. Some are healthcare workers… some are managers…. Some are counselors…. Some are encouragers…

You have God given gifts which are necessary for our shared life and witness….

All of us are set free to use our gifts to let neighbors and friends and co-workers know they are on the guest list of our living God… they too are gifted to serve….they too are being gathered into one righteous party, thrown by the dude who knows how to party like no other…

Yes, this Jesus is the life of the party, at the center of the universe, sheltering us in love, and shining through us in joy…. Miraculously transforming us…and setting us free to delight in God.

May we drink deeply of God’s spirit poured out for us, and may that same Spirit lift our hearts to rejoice in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.