Family First

A mom who is dressed for work is standing with her eight-year-old son who is wearing a blue jacket and has his backpack on.  There in the house just before heading out to school.  The mom kneels down in front of her son, zips up his jacket and gives him a love tap on the nose.  “Alright. Let’s do it!,” she says enthusiastically and the boy breaks into a huge grin.  She grabs her bag and they head for the door.  At the bottom of the screen flashes the words: “Family first.” 

The next thing you see the mother and son are at the kitchen table.  The boy has a pencil in his hand, the pages of his homework spread across the table and the mother is sitting beside him tapping away on her laptop.  They’re both working but they’re doing it together.  At the bottom of the screen: “Family second.”

Now the mom and son are in the kitchen – their work is done – and the boy sits on the kitchen counter.  He smiles as he cracks an egg into a large glass mixing bowl.  They’re making cookies together and they laugh as the mom encourages her young son to stir the mix himself using a large wooden spoon. At the bottom of the screen: “Family third.”

As we watch this television commercial, the script across the screen reads: “Family first. And second. And third.  Education built for working parents.  The University of Phoenix.”

Its only fifteen seconds long.  You could easily miss it in the long slog of commercials between segments of the game, but it covers a lot of ground in 15 seconds.  It’s heartwarming.  A mom is getting her degree and doing something good for her family long term, without trading away the short term.  She’s firmly in line with the American ethic of valuing family as the primary and sacrosanct allegiance of our lives.  She’s not just prioritizing family.  She is prioritizing her family, first, second, and third.

Imagine the differences we might see if Jesus directed a commercial that incorporated his view of the family, as heard in today’s gospel reading.  In Jesus’ commercial he stands together with a large crowd just outside the house of a wealthy Pharisee and a crowd that’s gathered and Jesus turns to them, and he opens his arms and begins to speak…

The script across the screen reads: Whoever comes to me and does not hate their family cannot be my disciple.  Education built for losing your whole life.  The way of Jesus Christ.”

Even when we know that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, the word “hate” is a little shocking.  We know that what Jesus means is that as much as we love our family, we should love God even more.  But even that can be a challenging word.

To be a disciple of Jesus and carry the cross means to put God first, and Jesus wants us to know from the outset that enrolling in this way of life requires everything we have.  Following Jesus and being his disciple means prioritizing him above money and wealth and possessions, above our status and reputation, above our family and friends, and above even our own livelihood and well-being.  For us who have been called to follow Jesus — it is God first, and second, and third.

Family is a gift from God.  We are called to love our family, to care for them, provide for them, nurture them.  Jesus supports the institution of the family but, he says, our relationship with our family is not to take priority over our relationship with God. 

I remember being maybe eight or so and staying for a weekend with my grandparents in Blowing Rock, NC, and my Grandmother coming in at night to my room and showing me how to get on my knees, fold my hands, and pray the Lord’s Prayer.  I was uninitiated in this particular way of praying and I was feeling uncomfortable in this very formal body position, and I wanted to be done with it. I tried to pray as fast as I could to get it over with:


Grandmother snapped at me so sharply it took my breath away.  We don’t pray like that.  We pray reverently.  I didn’t know at that time what “reverently” meant but I knew I had better slow down.

In that moment I might have wondered, does Grandmother love me?  But Grandmother didn’t snap at me because she didn’t love me.  She snapped at me because she loved me and she wanted me to learn about how to be open to letting God connect with me.

Family can be an important incubator of faith.  Family can be as Luther said, a little church where faith is a part of our everyday life, almost taken for granted at times.  Our families are the primary place where young people have faith modeled for them.

But Jesus originally spoke to people for whom this faith thing was a brand-new proposition.

For the first century Hebrews who first heard his invitation, the family was the primary source of belonging, protection, and livelihood.  Family was everything.  “Family first, and second, and third,” wouldn’t have begun to describe its importance.  So when Jesus commanded them to give God priority even over family – and knowing following him might mean expulsion from the family – he cares enough to share the advice to really sit down and count the cost.

Jesus’ advice is to count the cost, almost like planning to build a tower or to go out to war. 

And both these images have a lot to teach us.

For one thing, both images speak to the seriousness of the task, but both images also point out that our personal choices have great effect on the lives of many other people.

It’s not exactly a tower, but our work project here at Epiphany to expand the commons and enhance the education wing, effects not one of us but all of us, and many people beyond us.  The builders and workers on our worksite take a lunch break and sometimes I stop and chat.  They have questions about the building and about our congregation.  I believe if we just sent them all home, if we hadn’t estimated the cost and told them we weren’t going to complete the project, they would be disappointed to see all their hard work end uncompleted.  I believe the Nursery School families would be disappointed.  I believe all the people who drove by us on the street and indeed Richmond at large would be affected if we just sent the bulldozers away and left thing the way they are now.  But we counted the cost and our personal choice as a community is to finish the project, and that effect is on more than just us.

A king going out to war against another king, when he sits down to consider the odds of his victory, makes a decision that effects more than just him and his family and court.  His decision effects all the men who would either line up on the front row to charge toward swords or guns pointed in their faces, or head home to their families and children and farms to produce food and care for their communities.

I think the national popular culture is rife with the message that we belong to ourselves and that if I’m free to do whatever I want if its not actively harming you or anyone else.

But that’s not true. Our actions do affect one another.  We do belong to one another.  We have one earth which is home to all of us.  We are responsible for one another.

The personal choices each of us make as a person effect our families, our co-workers, our schools, and the community we work for… and the choices we make as a community effect many beyond our community. 

But sometimes life in the family is a challenge —  just getting the kids out the door to school on time, or finishing our homework, or picking up the grandkids, or checking on our aging parents, and taking care of all that needs to be accomplished at work, or attending to the grocery run, the dinner plan, the house project that need completing, seems like more than we can do.

Who has time to be a disciple of Jesus and to put God first?

What I hear Jesus saying is that we can’t be. 

We can’t choose to be faithful disciples of Jesus.

If you want to give up all your possessions and prove me wrong, go for it. 

If you want to try to put God above your family and never make the mistake of choosing to care for your blood relatives, family, and children more than the person on the street you’ve never met before, who is a Child of God, I promise to be impressed. 

I will tell you that I do not carry my cross as I should — I regularly choose to prioritize my own needs over the needs of others, and I believe this is a common experience even for the most faithful of us and the most faithful of communities.

None of us can choose to be faithful disciples.  It is impossible.

But what is impossible for us, is possible for God, as Jesus says himself. 

Faithfulness is God’s gift to us.

Jesus puts God and God’s desires first — for us. 

He is faithful to us on the cross, carrying our sin and shame, our weakness and frailty to its death. Jesus is not too overwhelmed by the mocking and bullying the exclusion and name-calling, to choose to love us more than his own life.  So that from the cross come the words: Family First – as in, on the cross God has put us first.

From the empty tomb, come the words: Family first.  God has put us first.  In gathering us here today, God has put us first.  At this table, God puts us first.  Here we are given a new family with God at the center.

God is like the mother in that TV commercial – God works tirelessly and God gives everything for us, and God wants us to see that only in our relationship with him can we find the love, the learning, the health, and the life we desire.

Indeed, it is through our relationship with God – through the gift of daily dying and rising in God – that we become the best persons we can be – it is in God that we become the best child, the best spouse, the best parent, the best sibling — that we can be to the benefit of our family members, be they blood relative or our true family in Christ.

It is in our relationship with God that we as a community become the best we can be.

And all this is a gift from God, who is the eternal family, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. ffff


Good Pleasure

“Do not be afraid, Little Flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

One of my own first memories of my father was of traveling home in the car together. I was just a little guy and we were headed home from somewhere in his grey Honda Civic.

Our little neighborhood called Trayton Woods was made up of tri-level late 1970s homes, all tucked in around a little pond, and at the entrance of the neighboorhood was a little convenience store. It was called Farmer’s and it was just a little country store, but they had candy and treats and all kinds of things that get the attention of little people.

Things were different back then. I didn’t really have any sugar to eat, ever, growing up. No sweet cereal, no desert after dinner, nothing like that, but sometimes when we’d travel by Farmer’s Dad would stop and go in and get a snickers bar.

So I remember him coming back to the car with that candy bar and then we drove home and we sat together at the table and he got out a kitchen knife and a small plate and cut the snickers bar into bite size pieces, and I ate them with delight.

He would do that sometimes – stop and get a Snickers and cut it up for me – and every time, all the little pieces of snickers were for me.

He never had one bite of that chocolaty, pea-nutty, nougaty goodness.

God is our Father, who loves us, and gives to us, and cares for us, and delights to be in our company.

My father was not perfect, and I imagine your father was not perfect, and no earthly father in this life can be perfect, but we have a perfect Father.

We have a perfect Father, who loves us; who created us, who takes good pleasure in us. We have a Father who wants what is best for us and who gives of himself for us.

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

The word for “good pleasure” that Jesus uses, “eudokew” means “delight, pleasure, and approval,” and it is the same word the gospel writer uses to describe how God feels about Jesus:

“And when Jesus had been baptized the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove and a voice came from heaven, you are my son, the Beloved, with you I am “eudokewed”…in you I take delight, with you I am well pleased.”

So, if you dare imagine it – God our Father, feels the same way about us as he feels about his Divine Son, Jesus, who is one with him in love through all eternity.

God feels the very same way about you.

That is to say he loves you and me and all humankind with a love we can begin to imagine and describe and understand, but which we cannot plumb the depths of.

It is our Father’s good pleasure to give us everything – the very kingdom.

All that belongs to God has been given to us, and this is the reason Jesus can say to us “do not be afraid.”

And it is good to hear these words because there is so much we could be afraid of.

Last week we heard of mass shootings in an El Paso, Texas, Wal-Mart that claimed the lives of twenty-two people, with two dozen more injured; and then of a shooting in the middle of the street of a popular shopping area in Dayton, Ohio where nine people were killed and twenty-seven more injured.

We could be afraid to go out of the house, or to gather in public places, or be afraid of the mental health of our country.
We could be afraid of the open racism that motivated the shooting in El Paso, where the gunman went looking specifically to kill Mexican people.

We could be afraid that as a country we’re so divided that we have no hope of securing our schools, our places of worship, the places we shop, or our own homes.

We could be afraid, but Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

And Jesus tells us how not to be afraid.

Jesus says you can sell your possessions, you can give money to the poor, you can share the resources God has entrusted you to be faithful with, you can be ready to serve, but the way not to be afraid is to remember who your Father is and get involved in his mission.

Our fear is diminished when we get involved in reaching out beyond ourselves to extend the love we know God has for us, to a world in need.

This past week the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, our national church body, met for its triennial Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee. Over 700 called and elected persons, clergy and lay representatives, were gathered by the Holy Spirit to do the work of the church, to be about the mission of Christ.

One of the actions taken approving a memorial that declares the ELCA a sanctuary church that is committed to serving and supporting migrant children and families in communities across the country.

In response to the crisis on our border of detained refugees, the ELCA is declaring that we intend to provide shelter for undocumented immigrants. The ELCA could also fight individual cases of deportation, press for the end of mass detentions and lift up immigrants’ voices; and take “prophetic action” to extend “radical hospitality” to immigrants and immigrant communities.

Christopher Vergara, who works on immigration issues in the ELCA’s Metro New York Synod spoke to CNN saying,

“Christians have offered sanctuary for 2,000 years, continuing an ancient biblical practice in which cities and houses of worship provided refuge and asylum for people fleeing injustice. Today, (our) effort (is) to protect undocumented migrants from needless jailing procedures and deportation, and to address the dire situation within the Department of Health and Human Services that has resulted in the stripping of services to refugees and unaccompanied children.”

Our church is getting involved in God’s mission.

Neither this memorial nor any of the ELCA’s proposed actions break U.S. law, but they are the ELCA’s efforts to say that the God who is Father to you and to me is Father to all and “eudokews” all people, God takes good pleasure in each person.

God our Father, if we dare imagine it, feels the same way about you and me as he feels about his Divine Son, Jesus. He loves us with that same fatherly love.

And he invites us to extend that love to a world that is often afraid – afraid of violence perpetrated against people who are different, afraid of being alone, afraid of being without basic resources; afraid of tomorrow.

I think of the ways we are called to give witness to God and the ways I have seen you show where our treasure is.

I think of all the women and men who gathered here yesterday for Bob Mahanes funeral – of all the women who made wonderful, delicious food for Susie and the family and their friends to gather around. Of all the men and women who ushered and set up the sanctuary and cared for this family in grief, to show them the good pleasure God has in them.

I think of the eight Epiphany members who arrived home just yesterday after 7 days of building and refurbishing homes in Jonesville, VA. I can’t wait to hear their stories. I can’t wait to hear about the friends they met and how the experience was a chance to show the good pleasure God has for us and the people of Jonesville.

I think of all of you who are parents or have little people in your lives and how you work so hard to guide and nurture the little ones in your life.

I’ve talked with so many parents, who know what its like to pick stuff from up the house and make a dinner and get everyone to the table – where a good, hot, nutritious meal is waiting – only to have the child fight, fuss, and refuse to eat – aren’t they programmed to eat?! – and maybe its not their fault…maybe they’ve had a tough day….but you don’t give up.

A Father’s love and a Mother’s love doesn’t give up. It is a love that tries to give your child what’s good for them even when they don’t want it, even when it seems impossible, even when the child mistakenly thinks they know better.

Like a patient Mother, like a patient Father, God tries to lead us to the things that are good for us. He tries to get us to receive the things that are nourishing to us; that will benefit us and benefit one another.

We have a perfect Father who encourages us to share what we have.

We have a perfect Father and to take care of each other.

We have a perfect Father who calls us to pass on the news that he “eudokews” all people…that he takes pleasure in us, his children — Each one.

All of us.

You and me.

All people.

We have a perfect Father, whom we can trust.

Today and always.

Determining the Value

When I was a young boy, I used to love to watch the Price is Right on an old black and white TV we had at the time. Sitting far too close to the television, I would watch as Bob Barker called the next contestant up from the studio audience with his famous phrase, “Martha Smith, come on down, you’re the next contestant on the Price is Right!”

Of all the games the show featured, my favorite to watch was the Mountain Climber game.

You may remember this one: A contestant stood in front of a gameboard which had this huge ascending mountain slope. At the bottom of the mountain was this little mountain man with pickax and tattered clothes and leading him up the mountain were 25 steps. The little mountain man began the game at the foot of the mountain and during the game he would inevitably climb the ridge toward the cliff at the top.

As with most games on the show, the contestant’s job was to determine the value of several items that could be purchased at any grocery store by guessing the actual retail price of each one. Usually there were three items, and one at a time, the contestant would try to arrange a series of given numbers in the correct order to match the right price with the right item.

If the contestant missed the price of the item, the mountain man would move one step up the slope for every dollar the contestant was off the price, and if the mark was missed too many times, the mountain man would go over the cliff and plummet to his demise to the disappointment of the audience and the sound of the buzzer, and Bob would usher the contestant off the stage.

If the contestant correctly determined the value of the items without sending the mountain man over the cliff, she would win the three small items she had correctly determined the value of and a large curtain would be opened showing her what else she had won – a brand new car, a jet ski, or perhaps a vacation.

On first glance, the Scripture texts we heard today seem to address whether or not we can determine the value of the possessions in our life.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is convinced that the value of all our possessions – cars, homes, investments, or whatever might be behind the curtain of our secret desires for pleasure and comfort and luxury – is nothing. No matter what we have, the king is convinced, it’s all worth nothing because after all we can’t live this life on earth as it is forever, and in the end, we will leave our things to those who come after us, as he knew he would and as he did.

The psalmist agrees and composes beautiful lines telling how the 1% die just like the rest of us and the grave is their home forever, even if they might have had streets or coliseums or national holidays or cities named for them. Small gravestones and mighty monuments alike are worn down by the persistent rain and wind of a thousand years on this earth after we come and go.

And then Jesus tells a man in the crowd who has gathered around him that he has no interest in judging between family members about who should receive what inheritance, even though a rabbi would be expected to weigh in on just such a conversation, and instead Jesus reminds the man that our assets are not worth more than our relationship with one another and with God. Our possessions should not possess us, Jesus seems to say to the man and to us.

How often have we been like the man in the parable?
The man finds himself with a superabundance of wealth – too many crops – so that they fill up his barn to overflowing. He has to decide what to do with all this, and so he decides to pull down his barns and build bigger barns.

He might have also had a house with rooms packed full of valuable furniture and decorations, closets busting at the seams with clothes and shoes, an attic filled with more things that won’t fit in the house, a refrigerator packed with goodies, and too much food on his plate to even finish.

The man never even talks to anyone but himself. He never thinks about who might be able to use the extra things he has. He never knocks on a neighbor’s door to see if they’d like to join him at the table. He forgot the Christian adage that if you have two coats in your closet you have someone else’s coat in your closet.

This man mis-values the things in his life.

And like a Price-is-Right host, you can almost see Jesus holding that funny, long, spindly, microphone and looking into our home and into our very soul, trying to tell us that when we incorrectly determine the value of the things that fill up our lives – the things we comb through on the rack, and search for online, and dream about holding as our own – that we too fall headlong like the little mountain man off the top of the cliff down, down to ruin.

So at first these Scriptures seem to speak to the value of our possessions, but I think they invite us even further, to pause, to think, and to determine what is the value of our very life.
If its true that all is vanity, and all our work is for things that only pass away, then what is life for?

If its true that the wise and the foolish meet the same end, what is the purpose of working for wisdom and what are we to do with our lives?

With his parable, Jesus invites us to consider the heart of the matter and think on what it might mean to be rich towards God.

With his story, Jesus means to shake us up and wake us up and to set our minds on the things that are of God, to seek the things that are above, to hope for the things of Christ.
Every day we are being raised to new life in Christ. Every day we are dying to the old ways of our greed.

Every day we have a chance to give away the coat in the closet we don’t wear. Every day we have an opportunity to see our whole life and all our possessions as gifts from God and to consult his guidance and even the guidance of one another about how best to use them for God’s mission in the world.

Our time and our talents and our treasure belong to God – so it is no strange thing for members of our congregation to go to Jonesville, VA, to spend a week sweating and working to repair homes, or to spend a Saturday morning serving in food pantries, or to offer our gift of music in worship.

Everything you have is a gift.

All you have belongs to God and is entrusted to you so that you might use it to bring care to your neighbor and to point the world to Christ.

Jesus invites us to ask:

What is valuable about this life?

What is eternal?

What is worth giving?

The story about Lee Dingle was in the local news across North Carolina last week, as well as on national news syndicates like CNN.

Lee was a 37-years-old engineer and father of two biological children, and with his wife, Shannon, the adoptive father of four additional children, one with special needs.

On Friday, July 19, just about 3 weeks ago, Lee was at Oak Island Beach in the ocean playing with his kids when a wave of freakish power pushed his head to the ground and broke his neck. His children and several bystanders tried to save Lee, but they were unsuccessful.

I knew Lee and worked with him at Lutheridge, a Lutheran summer camp in NC in the summer of 2002. I knew him as a sweet, caring, and focused counselor, who loved kids.

Perhaps part of the reason that the story became nation-wide news is that Lee was an organ donor and Carolina Donor Services reported that the organs Lee donated will save four lives, give sight to one or two people, and ultimately help 55 people altogether.

Christ’s love was at work in Lee Dingle and motivated his valuation of life – the way he gave of himself in life and in death.

On her blog this past week Shannon posted what she said at the funeral:

She said, “C.S. Lewis once wrote that death is an amputation, and it sure feels that way right now. I feel like we are missing a part of ourselves. I don’t think C.S. Lewis was right, though.

“His analogy is based in the ableism that says amputation lessens a person, but I know all of us who were touched by Lee are made better and fuller, our hearts made even more whole, by having him in our lives. The night I told the kids (the news), one of them asked me, “why does this place right here hurt so badly?” I think a lot of us relate to that right now. And I’ll tell you what I told him, “it’s because you love Daddy big and he loved you big. We have big hurt right now because we had big love.”

Shannon finished by saying, “And having known Lee, none of us are made less by any of this. He made us all more, more of the people who God created us to be.”

In the end we will all fall headlong off the mountaintop of this life, spilling the prizes and the things we have gathered, but we have one who loves us BIG.

We have a God who loves us so big and a God who has determined our life to be so valuable as to be worth dying for.

Thanks be to God, we have a God who has created us to be generous and giving, because we are made in God’s image.

Here’s the secret about the meaning of life:

We think that the big prize is behind the big curtain just waiting to be won, but the big prize is all of us playing the game together, gathered by Christ, the host, whose big love invites the whole world to his table of mercy and forgiveness, where we all receive the same care and a place forever.

Thanks be to God.


People of Peace

Berla and I were always a team.

She was about 70 at the time. She was a straight-shooter and told you exactly what she thought, which I loved. And she was funny, and not only could she could make other people laugh, but she also cracked herself up and I can still hear her great big, infectious East Tennessee laugh.

I was in my late twenties, new to Johnson City, TN, fresh-faced, and as green as they come at being a pastor. The congregation I had just been called to serve was Our Saviour’s and they had an evangelism team with a long tradition of visiting homes in the community, knocking on doors, and inviting people to church.

So twice a year, as many people as wanted to were invited to join us after Sunday service, and we would eat lunch together in the church library, divide into pairs, and talk about our game plan. Carl, the chair of the evangelism committee, almost like a coach in the locker room, would give an encouraging speech about the good we were doing and we would head out in our cars to various points all over Johnson City.

The plan was for each team of two to visit an entire neighborhood, one house at a time. If time permitted, we’d move on to another neighborhood.

So, we’d head out, Berla and I. She drove. And when we got to the neighborhood we would pull up in front of a house, we’d get out and walk up to the door, knock and step back so as not to seem too intrusive, and if someone came to the door on that Sunday afternoon we’d say something like, “Hi, I’m Joseph and this is Berla and we’re out in the neighborhood saying hello. We’re from Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. How are you today?”

If we got into a conversation, we’d ask if the person if they had a home church. And if they didn’t have one, we would invite them to worship with us and we would leave a glossy trifold pamphlet that told about our congregation, including our mission statement, service times, and some pictures which we hoped would give people an idea of who we were as a congregation.

Berla and I had a great time and we had lots of time to talk. We talked about our families, about her grandchildren, about football. I didn’t hold back much and I don’t think she did either, but one thing I never told her – my very own partner – is what a relief it was for me when we rang the bell at one of these houses and no one came to the door so that we could just leave the pamphlet in the doorjamb and feel good about being out in the neighborhood and we didn’t have to feel like we had bothered anyone, taken them away from the game, or interrupted their lazy Sunday afternoon. We didn’t have the risk that someone would slam to door in our faces.

But part of what it means to count ourselves as a disciple of Jesus is to be sent out in order to tell the news of the Kingdom and to risk rejection.

My guess is that if we’re honest I am not the only one who would be reluctant to go today and knock on doors in the neighborhood and invite people to church.
But according to Jesus, it’s not only necessary to share the news, it is urgent.

As he spoke to seventy of his followers in Galilee – more than just the twelve now – he sent them out ahead to all the places that he intended to go, and he sent them with a detailed game-plan to follow. Almost like a coach in the locker room, Jesus assured them: “The Harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

You see, these are words of urgency. A harvest in the field, vegetables hanging plump on the vine, with not enough laborers will rot on the vine and end in ruin.

Jesus says giving our witness to him is urgent.

The mission is so urgent, the game plan so pressing, these 35 pairs of friends headed out into the neighborhood are instructed not to take a purse or a wallet, a duffle bag, a pillow or sleeping bag, a phone charger or toiletries of any kind, in order that they won’t be able to depend on themselves.
They’ll have to rely on those they meet.

And as they walk up the driveway and press the doorbell their message is to be Peace.

And if they enter that home, and the household offers lodging – which in the 1st century would have been somewhat more likely than compared to today – and if there was one person in that household who received their peace, they were to stay there and continue their ministry. They were to cure the sick, and proclaim the Kingdom of God, knowing that whoever listened to them listened to Jesus, and therefore heard the Word of God.

But let’s be honest: We don’t live in the first century and no one expects you or me to uproot our lives and become itinerant ministers, knocking on people’s doors and just asking if we can crash in the guest bedroom for a while.

And so, what does it mean now to follow Jesus and share his Peace and proclaim the Kingdom?

I think there are still ways that we do this. There are still a lot of ways that this is our story.

Today twenty people from our congregation are packing up into three SUV and vans and driving to Tarboro, NC, to meet 25 other folks headed down to Tarboro from Maryland. We’ll meet one another and stay at the community center in town where for this next week we will be assisting the United Methodist Disaster Response team that has been working for months to help those recovering from hurricanes and the subsequent flooding that has disrupted so many peoples’ lives.

Today God sends these 20 of us out – albeit with cell phones and chargers, sleeping bags, and water bottles, but just the same, we go trusting that God has called us to give witness to him through the work we will do there.

Our primary TASK will be to respond to the needs of the Tarboro Community in the aftermath of multiple hurricanes, but our primary PURPOSE is to radiate the love of Christ in all we do.

And so, like everyone else headed to Tarboro and the flooded southeast with the Methodist Church this summer we signed this covenant that includes these words: “At times we will want to hurry and get our tasks complete but never at the expense of our purpose. We will make the best of quiet time to rest, get acquainted, and play with the children in the community. We will need to be flexible, adaptable, sensitive, and patient. Compassionate cooperation is the key.”

In other words, we will be people of peace. People of Jesus’ peace.

So sometimes we are sent, like those 70 disciples on the road. But sometimes we’re the houses of welcome, like when we show Christian hospitality to our friends, when we host seedling small groups, super club, or when we welcome traveling musicians and youth groups as we did last month with the group from Christ Lutheran Church in Charlotte.

And sometimes, rather than being the ones sent, or the houses that receive travelers we are the ones’ that do the sending: we send seminarians to be formed for ministry, Ginny and Daniel and those before them: we send young adults to serve in Global Mission in South Africa; we send young men and women of faith off to college, we send our youth and their adult leaders to Tarboro, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit to serve, heal, and share the Word.

And God uses our life together to tell about Jesus in lots of ways: our beer and hymns nights, our Lambs Basket and Hope Pantries, when we do a picnic on the grounds with food trucks and invite the community – these are all ways God is using us to tell about Jesus.

The thing is: We actually don’t have an evangelism team, per se.

And this isn’t just because of what humorist Dave Berry says: “that if you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve its full potential, that word would be “meetings.””

I think it’s because our mission is simply to tell about Jesus.
It doesn’t take a meeting to get ready or make a plan to tell about how good God is.

God is always forming us for mission in our life together by gathering us to hear his word, receive his supper, and remember our bath. The Holy Spirit of Jesus – our crucified and living Lord – is alive in this community to inspire us to articulate our faith.

Maybe we write a song about how God is our Rock and our Fortress and gives us peace, maybe we go visit those who are sick and pray with them, maybe we invite a friend to worship.

It takes many forms, but God puts the word in our hearts and upon our lips, and in your daily life, watch how speaking God’s name in a conversation changes things.

Because God when we share God’s word and point to the cross of Christ as the place where all peace comes from, we sometimes might find a door slammed in our face, but we sometimes may be surprised.

One of my standout memories from knocking on doors with Berla is that one afternoon we were on our route and we got to this house that had a “No Soliciting” sign above the door. It was a brick ranch style house and I remember standing out in the heat of that summer day with Berla talking about whether or not we should ring the bell. The sign said: “No soliciting.” Clear as day. Was that what we were doing? Were we soliciting?

Well, it was too hot and we had to make a decision so we went for it. I went up to the door cautiously and rang the bell. I stepped back. We waited. The door opened and it was dark inside and from the darkness emerged a man. He was much larger than me. He was taller and he had physically commanding presence. To be honest with you he looked tough.

I looked at Berla. “Good afternoon,” Berla said.

“Yeah?” He said, like get to the point.

Oh, boy, I thought. But Berla started in “Well, sir, we’re out in the neighborhood saying hello today. We’re from Our Saviour Lutheran Church. How are you?”

He was delighted to talk to us. He was a member of another church and sang in the choir.

Before we left, something in me felt I had to come clean. I told him about how we had seen his “No soliciting” sign and had wondered if we should knock.

He said, “Son, you’re not soliciting. You’re telling people about Jesus!”

So, we shook hands, and he thanked us for coming, and we headed out.

You see God sends us out into the world with the gospel news of his love for us in Christ, but God is already out in the world, like a Father caring for his creation, like a mother who comforts us, he is out there already calling forth the song of joyful praise from all the faithful, and reaching out to those who are still unsure.

In Jesus, God is knocking on the door of the world. Knocking on your door and mine. He has come to the neighborhood to bring his peace, and his love, and joy. Sisters and brothers, rejoice.

Your name is written on the heart of God.

Faces Set toward the Future

In early 2013, a brand-new sculpture was unveiled on the campus of Regis College in Toronto, Canada. It was a bronze sculpture designed and created by Timothy Schmalz depicting a life-size figure of Jesus Christ as a homeless person, sleeping on a park bench, with his face and hands obscured and hidden under a blanket, and with crucifixion wounds on his feet which reveal his identity.

Timothy Schmalz, who is a Canadian and devout Catholic, created the piece as a devotional work, which he titled “Homeless Jesus,” hoping that his sculpture would be installed on the grounds of a church, and so he offered it to two congregations that he was connected to but they both declined the offer to receive the sculpture.

A spokesperson for the first of these two congregations declined, writing to the artist to say that “appreciation for the work among the church’s leadership was not unanimous.” The other congregation complimented the work but declined to receive it.

As is common with sculptures, Timothy Schmalz made casts of the original (exact replicas so that the work can be displayed multiple places), and, finally, one of these casts was installed for the public to view – in was installed at the St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, NC.

Reception of “Homeless Jesus” was… mixed.

Some locals in the Davidson community felt that it was an “insulting depiction” of Jesus that “demeaned” the neighborhood.

One Davidson resident mistook the statue for a real homeless person the first time she saw it and called the police.

And another person living in Davidson wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, saying that the statue, “creeps me out.”

After his ministry in his own home region of Galilee, the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up. He set his face towards Jerusalem, and he sent messengers ahead of him to the towns and villages, but they did not receive him.

This is a crucial turning point in the story. Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. And immediately we hear people rejected him. They act like they don’t know him, they won’t return his phone calls, and they don’t want to be seen with him.

Previously, when Jesus healed a man living with a possessed spirit that man went away proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

When Jesus restored a little girl to life the parents were publicly astounded and grateful.

When Jesus fed five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish they ate their fill and went out to tell their neighbors about this incredible man they had met.

But when Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, the people confer and send an email back: “Thank you, Jesus, but appreciation for your work among our leadership is not unanimous.”

Timothy Schmalz who created Homeless Jesus admitted when asked that he had in fact intended for the bronze sculpture to be provocative, saying, “That’s essentially what the sculpture is there to do. It’s meant to challenge people.”

And the truth is: the cross is challenging.

You could make the case that the cross is insulting and demeaning, because the cross brings us to a point at which we must admit the sin that causes our suffering and the suffering of others.

The cross confronts us with the truth of our impulses to separate ourselves from our neighbor.

Whether we would go so far as to call the cops on our homeless brother or sister or just quietly hope they don’t get too close.

Whether we celebrate the privilege and power we have over people less fortunate than us or simply do too little to overturn the systemic powers of white privilege and economic advantage we take for granted.

Or whether, like James and John, we would desire punishment and retribution for those not as enlightened as us and want to call down shame and exclusion and fire from heaven on the heads of those people not like us.

But Jesus rebukes all that.

Instead he’s on the move, taking his rag-tag crew on down the road, asking people to join him in the way of putting God and the people God loves so radically first that he hasn’t even thought to call the Motel 6 down the road and make a reservation.

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head,” he says. And after the long day of travel, healing, and teaching, he is maybe looking for just a park bench and a blanket to sleep on.

Jesus shows us what it looks like to put God and our neighbor first as he sets face is set toward Jerusalem and the cross, saying, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus could’ve also said that you can’t put your hand to the plow and look back and be a good farmer.

Because it’s true that, quite literally, a farmer who is plowing with a team of animals has to look forward in the direction of the plow. If the farmer starts looking around to try and play the what-does-that-cloud-look-like-game, or if the farmer starts looking back to admire the work he’s already done, that plow is going to get off course and the field is going to be a mess.

Jesus invites us to look forward to God’s mission of dying to ourselves so that God can live in us and through us for the sake of a world in need and to keep this mission central — so it matters where we have set our face.

On my very first “Lost and Found” youth trip with kids from Epiphany, in the fall of 2014, I didn’t know about the tradition of taking a group picture on the hill at Eagle Eyrie retreat center.

We had pictures of the group and pictures that included everyone in the group but not that picture. On the hill. Faces forward.

After that retreat, when that picture didn’t emerge, Pastor Phillip mentioned that on the next trip we needed to make sure to take that picture. He stressed that a few times, so on the next trip we did take that picture, but as a joke, Mark Schuetze and I asked everyone turn around and we took a picture of the back of everyone’s head and then we sent that to Pastor Phillip.

I don’t know why Mark and I thought that was so funny, but we did. Of course, we also took a picture of our young men and women with their shining faces looking right into the camera.

But it matters which way our face is turned. It matters who we are looking to, and what and who we spend our attention on, and which way we’re pointed.

Jesus sets his face toward the cross for us and for the whole world to set us free from the power of sin, death, and brokenness.

He could have shown us the back of his head, and had a good laugh, and gotten out of town, and found a descent motel to spend the night in, and saved himself the pain and humiliation of the cross but God loves us too much.

Even after he was rejected in Samaria, he went on ahead to more towns and cities to invite, cajole, and reach out to as many people as he could, even if it meant having the door shut in his face. Even if no one welcomed him. Even if he was an offense.

Sharing our faith can be like that. We can have the door shut in our face for saying, “I believe.” But telling about the faith we have in us can also change peoples lives, it can encourage their trust in God, and it can remind them that they have a place as a part of a community that believes.

Timothy Schmalz, who created his Homeless Jesus sculpture was judged and his work was dismissed for a time, but once the word got out, there were many people who were moved by his witness.

In six short years, from 2013 until now, over a hundred casts of his original statue have been reproduced and occupy cities all over the world:

Liverpool, in Ontario, in Scotland, the Dominican Republic, Buffalo, NY, Charleston, WV, and Detroit, MI.

In Oklahoma City, “Homeless Jesus” is installed at a busy intersection where an estimated 60,000 vehicles pass the sculpture daily.

In Denver, Colorado, at the Haven of Hope mission which provides food, shelter, clothing, counseling, rehabilitation and hygienic services to the homeless and less fortunate, all those who enter the building see the sculpture and are reminded they are not alone.

A cast of “Homeless Jesus” has been installed in Washington, D.C., and during his 2015 visit to the United States, Pope Francis stopped there, touched the knee of the statue and spent time in prayer.

In “Homeless Jesus,” many people are able to see the lengths to which God would go to show us his love.

The message is that Christ became one of us, for all of us.

We sometimes tend to see ourselves first as American, Democrat or Republican, White, Asian, African descent, Hispanic, Southerner or Northerner or Mid-Westerner, male or female, we live in this or that section of Richmond, we are a member of this club or that group.

In the cross of Jesus, we are given a new identity.

We first and above all belong to Christ.

To some people this message might be challenging. To the world it might be insulting or even demeaning, but together we have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Together we have received freedom as a gift. Now, we can see ourselves primarily as one body in Christ.

We don’t call down fire from heaven on people who are different than us like James and John wanted to, but instead we are a part of a Pentecost people, part of a family who on that first Pentecost had tongues of fire on their heads as the Spirit formed them into a new people.

Today as the Lord gathers around his table, watch the people who walk up and down these aisles to receive the body and blood of Christ. Look into their faces and see a beloved Child of God for whom Christ died and for whom Christ was raised again.

In all our faces, together, the world sees the image of Christ.

In Christ God has made a home for us forever.

Together we live by his Spirit… and so let us be guided by his Spirit.


The Things We Carry

By now, the War in Vietnam happened a long time ago.  People who are 50-years-old-and-younger today have no recollection of it at all, and that includes me, so I don’t really know, but from most accounts, it was quite different than our present war in Afghanistan.  We don’t hear too much about the War in Afghanistan.  Its always going on but it seems we don’t hear too much about it unless we go looking for news.  But if you talk to people who lived through the Vietnam War, from what I understand, every night on television there would be footage of the war.  There would be updates of the number of people who had died that day.  That was something people lived with and as they shut off their TVs at night they probably went to bed still thinking about it.

In 1990 a writer by the name of Tim O’ Brien wrote a book called the Things They Carried, about the Vietnam War.  It was required reading when I was a student at Appalachian State University and is still read widely in 12th grade curriculum and college curriculum.  He had been on the ground in Viet Nam and he used his own real life experience as the basis for this novel.

With a keen eye, he tells about the men who were in platoon together.  He tells us their names: there was Lieutenant Jimmy Cross who lead the men through the jungle, there was Rat Kiley the medic who tried to take care of the men when they were wounded, there was Kiowa, a Native American Baptist who went to sleep each night smelling the smell of the New Testament he used for a pillow, there was Ted Lavender, who didn’t make it home.  And there were many more men – all different in their personalities and from different places around the US – but, according to O’Brien, they were all united by the things that each of the men carried.

O Brien writes, “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C – rations, and two or three canteens of water.”

But each of these men carried more.  Extra socks and boots, food, helmets, ponchos.  Heavy things.  Things of war.

“In addition to the three standard weapons—the M-60, M-16, and M-79—all heavy –and they carried whatever presented itself, or whatever seemed appropriate as a means of killing or staying alive. They all carried fragmentation grenades. They all carried at least one M-18 colored smoke grenade. Some carried tear gas or white phosphorus grenades.”

The list of the things they carried goes on and on, as O’Brien paints his picture of men carrying terrible loads.  Loads always being added to by resupply choppers.  No matter what they laid down, there was always more being sent, which must be carried.  But these men were not just carrying heavy things in their rucksacks and across their shoulders.

“They were tough,” O Brien writes, “[But] They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, [and] they had tangible weight.”

“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

I think we carry heavy things.  I think you and I carry the weight of our past mistakesm, which sometimes haunt us.  I think we carry the heaviness of difficult decisions in our midst today.  We carry the worry of what tomorrow will bring.  Think about the things you carry in your life.

We carry our sadness for the brokenness of this world, in places as far away as Afghanistan and places as close and personal as right here at home, where as a country we still grapple with our racism and our sexist and how to treat one another well and live together.  We carry burdens for the things that hurt us and others which we have no power to change and for the things which are of our own doing. 

We carry heavy things. 

God knows the terrible power of the things we carry, because in Jesus he has carried their terrible weight on his very own shoulders.

With all the emotional baggage of a man who not only might die – but who is destined to die – Jesus sits at the table with his friends on the night that he will be turned over to the authorities and truly feels the grief, he truly feels their terror, as well as the love and the longing that his disciples felt.

Jesus looks and says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot carry them now – you can’t bear them up now.  They are too heavy.”

Because each of these disciples will be sent out to carry the gospel to people and places and they will experience animosity, judgement, exclusion, and some will lose their lives.

But as they sit at the table, and even as Jesus is carrying this tremendous weight of his passion, he promises to send his Spirit to guide these disciples through all these things that they can’t even bear to hear about.  He is going to be with them through it all.  He is going to be and all who would follow him on this way of self-giving. 

Jesus promises to be with you and to be with me in the difficult twists and turns of our life as we follow him.  He promises to strengthen us so that we can to stand when the weight seems too heavy and when it feels like our knees are buckling under the worry or the sickness or the grief.

When we can’t carry the weight any more by ourselves, Jesus promises, God will be there to help us.

In baptism, as water is poured over you, the Word of God penetrates into you with the sounding of the name: You are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. 

At the font, the Spirit of God took you and immersed you in the love that the Father and the Son share with one another for all eternity.

Think about the waters of God’s creation — Think about the depths of the deepest ocean.  Think about the most-high crashing thunderstorm.  Think about the most-mighty roaring river  — the waters of God’s creation.  That is the power of the love that has grasped you in baptism, because God loves you so much.  This mighty water crashed into your life to sweep away the weight of the things we carry.

Paul says it this way:  He says that we have been justified – we’ve been acquitted – the burden of guilt that we carried has been lifted away by the faith of Jesus, so that we have harmony and health and peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who causes us to stand with unbuckled legs. 

Because of Jesus, we stand before God with such favor and love that we can even boast about the things we carry. 

Now this is a mystery of faith – that we can boast about the things we carry.  If you have ever suffered, if you know what that is, to be able to boast about that – that would only be something that God could bring about.

We can boast about the afflictions, the oppression, the tribulation, the trouble, the difficulty that we experience because we know that by God’s grace – in some mysterious way – these things that we carry which would crush us if it were up to us alone, will not destroy us and actually serve the purpose of bringing us closer to God because we know that we can’t do it alone.  We have to rely on God.

By grace God brings us to a steadfastness of character and a closeness with him that produces hope.  A hope that wells up like those waters.  A hope that does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured out into the depths of our being through the Holy Spirit which has given to us.

God’s love has been given to us, NOT superficially and NOT just skin deep.  God’s love has been poured into our hearts.

This past week I was with my family in North Carolina and we went to the family grave and I recalled Marie, who was my grandmother’s older sister. 

And I recalled that when I was a real little boy, maybe four-years-old or so, I remember being at my Grandmother’s house and Marie would come to Grandmother’s house for Sunday lunch and other family gatherings and Marie must’ve been in her eighties at the time.  Wherever we were, she would always come looking for me to find me and squeeze me up tight and give me a gushing series of furious, wet kisses on my cheek.

She always found me and she always gave me those kisses.

But I wasn’t shy about taking my sleeve and defiantly trying to wipe my face dry.

I’d run away yelling, “I’m wiping your kisses off!”  

I can still her calling back after me, “You’re not rubbing them off, you’re just rubbing them in!”

God’s love for us is poured into our hearts.  We can’t rub his love off.  We can’t wipe it away.  We can’t defend against it.  We can’t do anything to stop his gracious love for us.

Look to the cross and see his love for you poured out in the One who took on the weight of humanity’s despair and gave his life to so that you might be with God forever.

Remember the running of water of your baptism poured out over your head as God claimed you and washed away the burden of our sin. 

Taste and see the body and blood of Christ poured out at this table today to penetrate into our very body and blood with the gift of love that frees us from every weight we carry.

We do not have the power to bear up the things we carry that weigh us down – the grief, our sickness,  our worry – but Jesus has carried these things to the cross where their power over us died with him, and because Jesus is risen, in a happy exchange he takes away these things we carried and now sends his Spirit to give us the things that God desires us to carry.

The Spirit pours into our hearts all that belongs to God as a free gift.  We get to carry the things that the Spirit sends us – we carry with us God’s forgiveness, God’s hope, God’s love, and God’s faith.  These are the things we carry out into a world in desperate need. 

Now we are called to give ourselves away and to spill the things God gives us to carry, so that they might fill this world God loves – so that everyone would know no one can escape what God is doing in the world.

Brothers and sisters, God’s eternal love carries us all.  God picks us up with a Father’s embrace and holds us forever.  He carries us and all the world in love.

The Team Economy

One Sunday morning a couple years ago Pastor Phillip was away for a vacation with his family and I was here at Epiphany leading the service.

Cason Gardner, who’s a freshman at George Mason, was still in high school at the time and he was also helping lead the service that morning – he may have been serving as the crucifer. Anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to ask Cason to pray the prayers of the people – the prayers that come after the sermon and before communion and which have a series of petitions that all end: Lord in your Mercy, and the congregation responds, “hear our prayer.”

I had written the prayers ahead of time and before the service that Sunday morning I gave them to Cason.

Cason and I have laughed about what happened next many times and when we talked about it again yesterday, he was glad to have me remember it with you. Well, when it came time for Cason to pray, he was behind the altar, he had the microphone in his hand, he was doing a great job, but then he came to this petition I had written where I asked God to bless the church’s ecumenical relationships.

You wouldn’t necessarily know this, but the word “Ecumenical” means the partnerships we have with other kinds of Christian denominations, and I was asking God to bless these relationships and to make us one in Christ.
When Cason came to pray that petition, he stopped a little short, he looked at it a second time and then he went for it. He said, “God, bless the church’s…ec…onomical relationships.”

Little did Cason know how right he was!

There is an economy to our relationship with God. A partnership. He gives himself completely to us and invites us to give ourselves completely to him. Through the gift of baptism, he is in us and we are in him, and through the gift of prayer we are all held together in God.

In the 17th chapter of the Gospel according to John we hear how Jesus prays for us. He prays for his first disciples and all those who will come to believe through their witness. And he prays for you and me and all those who will come to believe through our witness. With this intimacy he has with God, he calls on God’s mercy and love and protection for you and for me.

And then in this reading from Revelation today we hear how he sends his Spirit to inspire us to reciprocate and return our prayer to God.

We pray for our salvation, our health, and our life – when we pray Come Lord Jesus. We pray for the healing and the renewal of this weary world and so we pray for Jesus to come.

This prayer is given to us as a gift so that we can be in that intimate embrace between the Father and his Son; and made a part of the economy of what God is doing in the world.

He is praying for us, and he is inspiring the prayers we lift up to him, as we call for Jesus to return as crucified and risen, glorious Lord of all, and to bring the fullness of his salvation, health, and life to us and to the whole world as a free gift.

A few months ago, I went to a varsity basketball game between Tucker and Hermitage high schools to see a young man from our congregation play.

The young man I had gone to see play is a student at Tucker and at halftime his team was down by a few points, but just before the start of the second half a member of Tucker’s team gathered his teammates courtside and gave a pep talk. This guy may not have called it that, but that’s what he was doing – he was pumping his team up, and everyone stepped forward and leaned in to hear what he had to say.

I was sitting way up in the stands with parents and grandparents and we were too far from courtside to hear the words this guy was saying, but you could tell he was on fire, gesturing with his hands, commanding their attention, everyone was looking him, completely focused on what he was saying, and nodding at every word he said.

When they broke the huddle with a thunderous chant they went back out on to the court and the whole team was on fire, and the father beside me summed it up just right when he said, “I don’t know what he just said, but everyone on the team heard it!” Sure enough, Tucker clawed their way back and won the game in the last seconds before the final buzzer sounded.

There’s something about playing on a team that changes the way you think about life. When you put on the team jersey, you hang up something of your individuality. When you run out of the locker room, you do it together. There is an economy to the team. You all come sharing the gifts you’ve been given for the good of the whole.

Jesus’ prayer is a plea for us to be a part of his team and he prays for our success.

Jesus prays that we will all be one, like a team breaking from the huddle, headed out to run the plays of forgiveness, service, gratitude, and love. Jesus prays for us, that we might learn to hang our impulses of individual preservation and the need to be right up on the hanger in the locker room and put on his team jersey of humility, of partnership, of bearing with one another.

But we don’t always do well at being a part of the team. We sometimes want things to be our way. Its sometimes too hard to stay in relationship with other people or put forth the effort that it takes to be a part of the team.

The church isn’t perfect and the unity Jesus prays for sometimes seems to be an unanswered prayer.

On Memorial Day, just this past week, we were all thinking about all the heroic women and men who died for our freedom and I came across an article on the history of Arlington Cemetery and the continual need for its expansion and on some of the people who are buried there.

Apparently, there are now 63 individual faith symbols that can be selected for an individual’s headstone. I looked at them all and I counted at least four different Lutheran churches that offer symbols. The Lutheran church is not one, as Jesus prayed we would be, and that’s to say nothing of other Christian groups and denominations.

Sometimes the church has disagreed on fundamentals of the faith and sometimes egos have gotten in the way, and sometimes we have been willfully uncaring toward one another. The worst part about this is that it weakens our witness. The world says, “Why should I believe in the God they espouse faith in – they can’t get along and don’t look any different than any other group!?”

And yet this morning there is a sign in our midst.

This morning we are breaking ground on a building expansion. Our congregation – literally hundreds of people – from at least 5 surrounding counties, with various desires and tastes, have come together as one and decided what to build and when build it. We’ve agreed how to build it, what it should look like, and what materials to use. And today we will turn over dirt as the sign of what God is doing in this community to build a space for us to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people who aren’t here yet.

By comparison, my wife Sarah and I – now, I’m talking about the person I love the most in the world – have a kitchen in which subfloor is our floor and has been since sometime in the middle of Lent. Even though any one in our family could get a splinter the size of a tentpole any day, we can’t quite decide how to finish the floor, when to have it done, what materials to use. Etc. etc. and that’s only two people.

Here we have hundreds of people who have come to an agreement on what God has called us to do for the sake of the gospel in this time and place.

Only Jesus could do this! This could only be happening by the work of his Holy Spirit as Jesus makes us one by fixing our attention on God.

It can sometimes be hard to come to agreement with one another even if our goals are the same, and yet today we begin work on this new part of our physical building.

The God who loved Jesus before the foundation of the world loves us and builds us into a community of joy in order that we might be a witness to a world in need.

And the world needs the witness of a loving God.

This weekend we heard news of another mass shooting – this time in Virginia Beach, where we have friends, where we spend time, where we have been and felt safe, and we try to make sense of our ongoing inability to stop these tragedies from happening…and we pray come, Lord Jesus!

We watch as families and children on our southern border come looking for sanctuary in the US, and know that they are coming because they are trying to escape violence and persecution…and we pray, come, Lord Jesus!

We gather the people in our lives in prayer – those near and far, those who are sick, those who are struggling, those who are in need of special care… and we pray, come Lord Jesus!

The whole world sees the need for a savior, and God has called us to witness to who that savior is.

May God show the love of Jesus though us for the sake of the people who have not yet joined us, so that they can meet Christ here, come to know him as the savior of the world and their own lives, and come to join in our prayer: Come Lord Jesus!

There will be basketball on tonight. In the run up to game 2 of the NBA Finals, there’s been lots said and written about what kind of teams each city’s owners and coaches have built, who has to have what kind of game to win, about triples doubles and shooting percentages, but on this team Jesus builds, of which you and I are a part, no one is keeping those kind of statistics.

The only goal is to listen to and focus on the one who is on fire with the love of God, to listen to Jesus, who gathers us around himself to speak his word, and to send us out of his huddle to invite others to be a part of his team and through our life together to teach the fundamentals of faith and hope and love.


Called To Be the Evidence

Philosophers, poets, and writers throughout history and still today have all lifted up and commended to us the idea of love. Socrates, William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Jonas Brothers…

On the top of the charts you can hear them singing:

“We go together/Better than birds of a feather, you and me/We change the weather, yeah/I’m feeling heat in December when you’re ’round me/

I’ve been dancing on top of cars and stumbling out of bars/I follow you through the dark, can’t get enough/You’re the medicine and the pain, the tattoo inside my brain/And, baby, you know it’s obvious/I’m a sucker for you

You say the word and I’ll go anywhere blindly/I’m a sucker for you, yeah/Any road you take, you know that you’ll find me”

Every generation has its love songs, and they’re fun to sing along to.  You might even be able to learn something about love, but the truth is even at our best, our love for one another often requires something in return – it isn’t free.  We want some reciprocated action that communicates gratitude, some sign of appreciation, or a ‘thank you’ at the very least.  We want something to show for the effort of reaching out to care for someone else, even if it’s just the pride we feel for being so noble.

Jesus’ love, however, is entirely self-giving.  He gives up his life for us as a free gift, demanding nothing in return, only wanting to be with us.

Jesus gives up his life, but it’s not just as a sacrifice.  Because Jesus loves us so much he puts himself on the line for a specific reason: in order to protect the ones entrusted to him.

Next weekend a bunch of us are going to Bear Creek Lake Star Park to camp together for Memorial Day Weekend. 

Growing up, my family used to go to Hungry Mother State Park in Smyth County, VA, which is one of the original Civilian Conservation Core parks built during the depression and completed in the early 1930s.  The park has over two-thousand acres of lush woodlands for camping and hiking and a large lake for swimming and fishing.

When I was very small, I remember sitting with my grandparents in their living room one day as they told stories about going to the park they loved so much and asking my Grandmother how the park got its unique name.

She said that she had been told as a girl about a mother and daughter-of-about-two-years-old who were traveling far from home through Smyth County long before good roads and they got caught out in a snow storm.  The mother gave the daughter all of her food and tried to shelter her daughter from the ice, the cold rain and snow, the freezing temperatures, and in an effort to protect her daughter, had found an embankment and dug into the snow and placed her daughter down on the ground and then covered her up with her own body to keep the child warm. 

A group traveling through the same area in the next day or so came along and found the pair.  The mother was frozen to death, but under her, the small child was alive and in a small, pleading voice was crying out for help: “hungry, Mother.”  The child was taken and cared for.  She was adopted by a loving family and she grew up to live a heathy life.

Jesus shows us his vision for a new kind of love without limits by laying down his life to save us from the storms that ravage the world around us and churn within us.

In Jesus we see that God knows about the storm, because as Jesus gathered at this table for a final time with his friends and lavishly washed their feet, there was a storm coming.

You see the “he” in the first verse we heard this morning from John’s Gospel refers to Judas. 

Judas was going out in order to betray Jesus, bringing a storm of betrayal and arrest and death.  But as Judas heads out into the dark of night with ice in his heart toward what Jesus is trying to do in the world, Jesus is in control, aware that all this has been set in motion so that his disciples and the people will be able to see God’s glory revealed in how he will use his body to protect us and give his life for ours.

As followers of Jesus, we have been commissioned to follow him, and to give of ourselves, even to the point of death if necessary.

Recently I was listening to one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons called “a Knock at Midnight.”  Dr. King says that in our call to stand up to the evil and the storms of the world we should never forget how many Christians there are in the world (he said at the time there were a billion Christians but I think there must be more now). 

He reminded those gathered at his church that we must be willing to give up our life if it’s asked of us and recalled how Caesar demanded his subjects to fight in the imperial army, but Christians refused and they would go to the lions with a “hymn on their lips and a smile on their faces.”  Why?  King asks.  Was it in their ecclesiastical machinery?  No!  Was it in their creedal system?  No! It was not only that.  They had “love for the brethren,” he said.

They loved one another with a love that came from Jesus.

You see, I don’t have enough love with which to love you, forgive you, or care for you or any other person.  And you don’t have enough love with which to love me, forgive me, or care for me or any other person.  But Jesus Christ stands between us.  By his resurrection power at work in us, Jesus gives us love with which to love one another.

This is how the world will know we are his disciples.

One week ago, last Sunday morning, perhaps while we were in worship together messages of graffiti were being discovered on the walls of Godwin high school.  Overnight, multiple crude drawings of guns appeared with the word “soon” and the date 5/15/19, which was the date of last Wednesday.

It is a terrifying thing to happen in our community, but its hard to imagine what kind of fear courses through your body if you are a student at Godwin.   The 1,800 students and 200 staff of Godwin high school must have all been rocked by this egregious, threatening display.  Parents and families must have felt – may still feel – perhaps even more trepidation.

From Sunday morning on, Principal Leigh Dunavant and her staff were tireless in their pursuit of uncovering who drew the graffiti: they explored tips, found information by scouring social media, they asked hard questions, they didn’t stop, and finally they uncovered who made the threat and secured a confession through a hard but compassionate confrontation with them.

The staff of Godwin pulled together and scrubbed the spray paint off the walls of the school.  They invited the students to write and sign banners of hope and positivity and inclusion, and the news went out that WITH the people who had written the graffiti in custody, it would be safe to go to school on Wednesday.  Still, there were extra police called in – police on the campus, in the parking lot, in the buildings –people to be there with these young men and women to make sure they were safe.

They might not think of it this way, but Leigh, the police, and the staff were there to put themselves on the line.  They were there to protect the ones entrusted to them.  They were there to show love without regard for themselves, instead putting others first.

Who says the love of Jesus Christ isn’t allowed in the public schools?

I know better, and we all know better, because this week we saw the evidence.

God’s glory is revealed in Jesus’ willingness to meet the evil of this world head-on and face-to-face in the cross and empty tomb, and he sends us out to step forward as he stepped forward: without fear and in full confidence that God is with us and his own love pulses through our shared life.

Sisters and brothers, we are called to be the evidence of Jesus’ love.

We are called to share the news of a vision of the things of heaven coming down to the things of earth, so that all who suffer and grieve will hear the promise that God will wipe away every tear. 

We are called to share the news with those who experience life cut short by senseless violence, with those who experience hunger and tragedy, with those who experience the loss of loved ones, and to all of us who bring any grief or sadness to God…. 

Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Jesus makes all things new.

We simply point to God.

We point to the One who is the mother of all creation and the father of Israel, who is praised by angels and the host of heaven; sun and moon, fire and hail, snow and fog, mountains and hills, and all peoples, old and young together…

…we point to this God who became flesh and lived among us so that God’s glory – his reputation – his splendidness – would be revealed in the cross. 

The cross of Jesus is what love looks like.

Jesus laid down his life for us as a free gift of love and because Jesus has been raised, his love has no limits.  He will not hold back anything of his own but lays it all out for you and for me and the small, pleading voice of the world that cries out for help.

You can hear Jesus respond in love when he offers you his forgiveness, when he calls you to his table.  If you listen hard enough you might even be able to hear him singing to you, singing to me, singing to the whole world:

We go together/Better than birds of a feather, you and me/We change the weather, yeah/I’m feeling heat in December when you’re ’round me

I’ve been dancing on top of cars and stumbling out of bars/I follow you through the dark, can’t get enough/You’re the medicine and the pain, the tattoo inside my brain/And, baby, you know it’s obvious/I’m a sucker for you

You say the word and I’ll go anywhere blindly/I’m a sucker for you, yeah/Any road you take, you know that you’ll find me.

We Have Seen the Unseeable!

Jesus Christ is alive!

On the cross Jesus opened his arms in love for you and for the whole world and God the Father looked on Jesus’ faithful life, passion, and death, and acted decisively to upend and overturn the worst of what we can do, raising him from the dead.

But Jesus really died.

He did not nearly die and then find himself nursed back to health in the ICU.

He did not have a near-death experience but find himself resuscitated.

He did not come very close to death only to be brought back to health by a clinical trial of experimental medicine.

In the tomb, Jesus’ body lay dead.

Until the women came to the tomb with spices and found the stone rolled away, and two men in dazzling white said to them, “why are you looking among the dead for the living? He is not here but has risen! Don’t you remember how he told you he had to be betrayed, crucified, and rise again?”

But what happened before the stone was rolled aside?

What happened before the women arrived?

What happened inside that tomb?

That’s what our daughter Lucia wanted to know last night.

Our daughter is five years old, and was probably trying the stall-tactic, but when I was putting her to bed last night in the pitch-black darkness of her bedroom, she asked me, “Daddy, who was in the tomb with Jesus?”

“Who was in the tomb with him?” I asked.

“Yes, was anyone in there with him?”

I had to think about that.

Well, Joseph of Arimathea gave the tomb for Jesus and it was a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.

But more to the point, Yes, there was someone in the tomb with Jesus.

God was in the tomb with Jesus.

God had promised never to leave Jesus and God was with him in the tomb, just as God is with us in the tombs of our life.

You have been in the tomb, haven’t you?

Oh, of course you have stood beside graves of loved ones where part of you dies. But I know you have been in the tomb yourself.

You have been in the doctor’s office and received the diagnoses of illnesses we can’t control. You have been touched by separation and divorce, the loss of a job.
You have known loneliness and stress and sadness.

We experience the deep darkness in our lives – we experience the tomb – when it feels like it’s all over – AND there is tremendous pressure not to let on, not to let anyone know.

We don’t want to feel the shame; we want to keep it to ourselves and then we feel guilty about that.

We experience the tomb. And it is dark.

We live in a country captive to the darkness of violence as we mark the 20-year anniversary of Columbine knowing that things have only gotten worse.

We are captive to the darkness of racism where we still have basically-segregated-neighborhoods and lives.

And we are captive as a nation to the darkness of dysfunction as we wonder what happened to being the shining example to the rest of the world as to what integrity and justice look like.

We have been in the darkness of the tomb ourselves, but the good news of Easter is that Christ is now alive and sends the Spirit of his love and healing to you and me, to this whole world, and to the deepest, darkest places of this universe – places so dark it’s almost impossible to comprehend.

A week and a half ago astronomers with the National Science Foundation announced that at last they had captured an image of what had previously been thought unobservable:
a black hole.

Black holes are those cosmic abysses in the universe so deep and dense that not even light can escape them.

The black hole captured in the photo revealed to the world a week and a half ago was one located far across intergalactic space, 55 million light-years away from Earth, in M87, a giant galaxy in the constellation Virgo.

There, this black hole, which is several billion times more massive than the sun is unleashing a violent jet of energy some 5,000 light-years out into space.

I have to say, that what I have recalled by reading about this monumental discovery over the past week is that black holes aren’t just mysterious. They’re violent. They’re major disrupters of cosmic order.

Formed when too much matter or energy is concentrated in one place, black holes trap matter and light in perpetuity, and furiously consume everything around them pulling all life into itself where it is trapped forever, where it can never get out, and where it ceases to exist.

Most of the black holes that we experience aren’t 55 million light years away.

The abyss of addiction is much too close,
the darkness of depression is inside us,
estrangement from family; the void of loneliness and thoughts of suicide hover within us and in the ones we love –

They become a black hole within us that traps the matter and light of our lives and threatens to furiously consume everything good around them,

And, in the deep darkness, we ask:
is anyone here in this tomb with me?
God, are you here with me?

If you hadn’t seen the just-published picture of this black hole it might be interesting to hear how people have described it.

Some have described it as an illuminated smoke ring, others say it resembled the Eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings, one friend of mine says she thinks it looks like a fuzzy donut, but I can tell you what it looks like.

It looks like a tomb with the stone being rolled away and the beautiful light of God’s love escaping out into the universe and reaching out to you and me.

You see Jesus and the light of his love illuminate the tombs that we experience, are with us in the black holes of our life –
when we are afraid, when we are sick, when we are hopeless – God is there.

Just as God was with Jesus on the cross and in the tomb.

Maybe the two men at the tomb who greeted the women to tell the news that Jesus was alive had dazzling bright clothes because they were still iridescent from being in the tomb when God’s second big bang of love woke Jesus from the dead in a blast of light.

Maybe these two men were shining as bright as a supernova because the same love that exploded in joy to make this world, exploded in an equally joyous outpouring of love to
remake this world through the resurrection of the one who has saved it.

The women and the apostles can’t be blamed for being slow to believe.

If you and I are sometimes slow to believe maybe we can’t be blamed either.

Who would think a person who had died could live again?

But an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Shepherd Doeleman, speaking about the photo of the black hole last week, said,

“We have seen what we thought was unseeable.”

God breaks into your life
and is with you in the loneliest voids,
the deepest black holes,
the darkest tombs.

And when God breaks in with the light of his love,
through his word,
through the meal of forgiveness,
through the friendship of another,
through the surprising moment of grace,
you have to tell it.

You can’t keep news that good to yourself.

I am not a scientist, but I have a friend who is. We were talking about the photo released and this amazing scientific breakthrough.

I asked him what he thought and he said, “Oh! I believe it. Ibelieve it because they went public. You only go public if you know what you’re talking about!”

That’s how it works.

At the tomb, the women remembered Jesus’ words, and they realize:

In Jesus’ resurrection
God didn’t just reached into the grave of one man to raise him up.

In Jesus’ resurrection
God has reached into the black hole of the cosmos and rescued life from the clutches of death – for you and for me and for the whole universe.

So, then we have to tell the news that he is alive!

God’s Spirit has called us here today to hear this good news of Jesus’ victory over death…

and to tell it,

to sing it,

to live it,

to be it,

and to share it….

Our Living God is with us and says, “Friends, it’s time to go public!”

Welcome Home

A lot has changed with the family in just a few short generations. 

I’ve heard Baby Boomers tell about their childhood and explain that if they did something wrong, their parents would discipline them by sending them out into the yard to get a switch off of a tree – that’s a branch that would be used to switch the legs. The child was to bring back the weapon with which they would be punished and if the switch they chose wasn’t big enough, mom or dad would go get one the right size and it would be so big that you would never make the mistake of bringing in a switch too small again.

Just look around and you’ll see that the approach to parenting today has relaxed a good bit, but you’d be hard pressed to find a parent more permissive than the father we meet in this parable Jesus tells to the crowd of tax collectors and sinners, and pharisees and scribes that are gathered around him.

The father in the parable is approached by the younger of his two sons, who comes to make a demand, but he’s not just asking for access to social media because all his friends are on Instagram, or an Xbox One with NBA2K19, or even a car of his own. 

The son says, give me… EVERYTHING.  I… want… it… all. 

And the father says, “Okay!”

The father takes stock of all that he’s worked for, saved for, and stashed away.  He cashes out his stocks and bonds, his equities and annuities, and liquidates half of all that he has and gives it to his younger son. 

And this leads us to wonder: What kind of father is this?!

This is the kind of father who has a son who can’t wait to blow town.  The younger son heads down the road with his pockets stuffed with cash, spending it like it will last forever, until is doesn’t, and in a far distant town, he realizes that he has spent everything he has and scattered it all into the wind.  And then, bankrupt, penniless, and all alone, things go from bad to worse.  A famine hits that country and no one has anything to eat. 

So the boy gets a job at a local farm slopping the pigs, but he hasn’t eaten for days and as he looks at the gruel in his bucket, he feels the hunger pain in his gut, and the pod soup, which he’s supposed to feed the pigs starts to look good, and he wishes that he could eat it, but no one allows him to have even that.

So the younger son realizes he’s hit rock bottom.  He has no food.  He’s far from home.  He has no friends.  He has no one who can help.  He may wonder how he could have possibly failed so spectacularly and taken every single wrong turn necessary to end up standing in this field of excrement and mud, with pig food a delicacy beyond his reach.

And then he remembers.  His father!  His father’s servants at least have food to eat! So he will go home and apologize and throw himself at his father’s mercy.  Surely, his father will help.

And we don’t know what really motivates the younger son at this point.  Maybe he is contrite.  Maybe he has been brought down so low and feels so devastated by his failure that his heart is filled with remorse and he’s prepared to change his ways. 

Or maybe he is the same conniving, manipulative, selfish son that his actions have so far shown him to be, and he just knows his father well enough to know if he can get home, his father will be a push-over and will agree to help him.

This younger son’s motivation is impossible to read, but he has a moment of clarity about what’s happened and he heads home. 

And in this moment, we learn what kind of father this is.

The father sees his wayward son far off, coming over the horizon, which means he or a servant has posted themselves around the clock to keep watch for the son.   He’s kept watch because he loves his son, and maybe because knows his son and his son’s lack of business acumen well enough to know that eventually he’d be coming home empty handed.

And so the son comes over the horizon and the old man is running – not sending a servant or even walking out to meet his son – but running out to meet his son – and the Greek here is even more poignant and lovely than what we heard read this morning. 

We heard that the father is filled with compassion and puts his arms around the son but the text actually says that the father throws himself on his son’s neck – imagine the old man’s nose buried deep into the warm flesh of his son’s neck – it says: and he kisses and he kisses him fervently.

Before the son can finish the talking points that he had rehearsed and explain that he had just hoped for some food and maybe a place to live, the Father is calling for the finest robe – which signifies he won’t be working like a servant in the fields – and calling for a ring for his finger, which signifies that his honor as a son has been restored.

The father is so happy that his son has come home that he calls for a feast.  He’s not thinking about his financial ruin, or the fact that he’s lost half his estate, because he’s too busy giving orders: “Fire up the grill!  Tell everyone you know: tonight, we sink our teeth into grain-fed beef and all the fix in’s!  Bring everyone you see: tonight, there’s going to be an open bar!”  And you can almost see the guitar players tuning up their strings, as the band counts off and the first song lifts into the air as everyone heads out onto the dancefloor. The father has to celebrate because his son is back home under his roof safe and sound. 

But the strains of music aren’t so sweet to everyone.  The father’s older son is standing out in the field after a long day of work with tired muscles, and he is incredulous.  He simply can’t believe it.  He hears the ruckus, and finds out second-hand what the party is all about, and he refuses to come in.  It would be a shame worse than death to walk in in order find his reserved seat by locating the little card with his name on it above his plate and to sit down at the table and join this party thrown for his loser brother.

And again, in this moment, we learn what kind of father this is.

The father leaves the celebration and comes out to his eldest son to plead with him to join in the party.  Under the stars the father listens to his son’s complaints.  He listens as his son finally unbottles his feelings that he’s always seen himself as a slave rather than a son.  He listens as his son admits that when he dreams, he dreams of having fun and celebrating with his friends – not with his dad.  The father listens as the son grumbles about how terrible his life has been with him at home.

The father listens to this rule-following but cold-hearted son and tries to get him to see that his fatherly love for him isn’t diminished by anything that’s happened.  In fact, each day that they were together through his brother’s long absence was precious to the father because the elder son was with him at home.

The father assures his older son, “All that is mine is yours” and holds out his arms to the older son, hoping he will give in and join him and his brother and their family and friends inside, where the party is going strong.

This is the invitation and we are invited to the party.

Our Heavenly Father welcomes us home when we are like the younger son and go astray, when we waste opportunities, when we neglect his compassion, when we ask for things from a place of selfishness, when we try to manipulate him, and when we hurt the people he has put in our lives.

And our Heavenly Father welcomes us home when we are like the older son and are cold-hearted, and judgmental, and have a chip on our shoulder, and don’t want to make room for others who aren’t as faithful or smart or this-or-that as us, and when we think we’re good enough to earn God’s love.

Jesus’ parable features two unfaithful, stumbling sons. 

We can focus our eyes on the younger son and see that those who recognize they’re powerless to save themselves and call on God will receive the full welcome, forgiveness, and love of God.   

We can focus our eyes on the older son and see that there’s the danger of forgetting how much we need of God, but that even if we do God will forgive us.

And we can probably see parts of ourselves in each of these sons, but really, the best place to focus our eyes is not on the younger or the older son, but the son telling the story – the one who gives us the love of the Father.   

In Jesus Christ we are all brought home, we are forgiven, we are sheltered, we are kissed and kissed fervently, we are given a robe and a ring, and we’re invited into the feast that never ends.  His death and resurrection is the celebration that is the bright light in the night of our despair, our fear, and our wandering.

I don’t know about you but I’ve been far from home. I’ve been through times in my life that were so hard, I didn’t know if I would make it through.  I didn’t know if I had it in me to take the next step.  In those times there was nothing left to do – no other options – but to pray to God and beg for enough strength to get through the day.  And he did give me enough strength.  I remember thinking in those times that if I could just keep going; if I could just get through it, one day I would look back on that time and it would be like a dream; almost like it never happened.

This morning, Joshua reminds us of how God brought the Israelites through the desert and after forty long years, how their long wilderness wondering was finally ended as they ate manna for the very last time and finally sunk their teeth into the crops growing on the vines of the promised land.  Their years in the desert were over, like a dream they just woke up from, because God saved them.

And Paul tells us that most surprising news that if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away.  It’s over.  It’s almost like it never happened. Everything has become new.  Its as if we never were in the far distant land with excrement and mud on our boots.  Its as if we never were standing outside the party with our arms folded, too resentful and ashamed to come in.

In our baptism into Christ, we are home with our Father, who keeps watch for me and for you by day and by night. 

We have a Father whose discipline is forgiveness.  Whose correction is mercy.  And whose approach to parenting is grace.

Today God embraces you, protects you, loves you, and invites you to the feast.