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.

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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.

Amen

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.

1…2…3…Break!

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.

No and Yes

Today the flowers on the altar are given in part by Tracey Fatzinger and Greg Parker in celebration of their wedding anniversary. This week Tracey and Greg are celebrating twenty-four years of marriage since that day they held one another’s hands and promised their life to one another, and among the many unexpected blessings they will give thanks for are their two intelligent, beautiful children – blessings they could never have imagined all those years ago, on the day they were married.

In the months leading up to each wedding ceremony that I serve as pastor for, I invite the couple to attend four sessions of marriage counseling. We typically meet here at the church in my office and after we’ve all sat down and visited a bit, I always begin by asking the couple to tell me the story of what has brought them to this decision in their lives.

Some couples tell the entire story of their courtship, and sometimes their telling of the story includes the actual proposal – and they will tell me who asked who, and what the response was; what they were feeling at that moment they first said YES to each other – that moment at which they both said in some form or fashion, “I promise to share my life you forever.”
But that YES that couples say to each other, when they promise their lives to one another, is also a NO. Or perhaps its more-fair to say that their YES to one another is a NO to a myriad of other things, many of which they may have enjoyed in the past.

Their YES to one another is also a NO to leaving for the weekend without having to tell anyone what they’re up to, it’s a NO to doing whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it, it’s a NO to other potential partners, and it’s a NO to spending money however they like without consulting one another.

The things that these spouses-to-be say NO to aren’t necessarily bad things, but they can’t say YES to them anymore because they’ve said YES to one another.

Out in the wilderness, Jesus says NO to the devil because he has already said YES to God.
The first temptation laid out before Jesus by the devil is this: will you desert God for bread? Certainly, bread is not bad! Even Jesus, the Son of God, needed food to eat! He became exactly like us except for our sin – hunger and all! Certainly, God provided bread for the Israelites in the wilderness and after all, later on in Luke’s gospel, Jesus will turn two fish and a few loaves into bread for five thousand people, which is at least something similar to what the devil is asking Jesus to do.

But Jesus can read the devil’s intentions: He knows that the devil is a slanderer and an accuser. And this becomes even more clear with the devil’s second offer: the devil invites Jesus to desert God for power of his own and to commit idolatry. The devil only asks Jesus to bow low and worship him, and turn his back on the Lord God.

But Jesus reminds the devil of the first commandment, on which all the others rest: Worship the Lord God only and serve only him.

So finally, the devil, giving it one more shot, asks Jesus: will you ask God to do your will rather than you seeking his will? But Jesus refuses and so the devil leaves Jesus until a more favorable time.

Jesus could say NO to these tests because he had said YES to God.

And really, these three temptations are all the same, as all temptations are the same.
Jesus was tempted with bread, then power, and then control, but at each turn the real underlying temptation was for Jesus to put his hope in something other than God.

This is always the temptation, from the garden when Adam and Eve take the bite of fruit hoping that it will put them on even footing with God…to the people of Israel in the wilderness who complain against God believing if they were calling the shots all the wilderness wandering we be going more smoothly…to us who don’t really trust God to take care of us and often believe we’ll have better luck if we take care of things on our own.

Maybe the things that Jesus was tempted by are the things that tempt us…maybe we’re tempted by food, or power, or control. Or maybe we’re tempted more by wealth and status… our maybe its our own comfort and pleasure… or maybe a carefree life of drifting from one cool new experience to another taking pictures along the way so we can post them on facebook and make everyone jealous, which will bring more approval and acceptance from others, which is what we may very well desire most of all.

These temptations get dressed up in different clothes – but whatever the form – is always the same. The temptation that comes from outside of us and acts on us is the temptation to find our identity in something else or someone else other than the God revealed to us by a suffering Jesus on the cross.

Maybe this story about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by the devil seems fanciful and unreal or mythological, what with the devil speaking to Jesus in person, face-to-face, and whisking Jesus around from place to place in an instant like some archaic version of a Christmas Carol and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future — but what is more real than temptation?

Jesus knew real temptation. And what’s more-true about this life than knowing the difference between right and wrong and finding ourselves unable to choose to do what’s right?

We experience it every day. Its easier to tell a little white lie –or a big one for that matter – than face the uncomfortable truth, its easier to be mad at someone rather than to see where our own decisions contributed to the problem, its easier to look the other way than to get involved in the hard work of making our community stronger, its easy to choose the path that both major political parties in our country have chosen and which has brought us to this long cold stalemate, which is to believe that the ends justify the means and its okay to do or say the wrong thing if it brings about some envisioned greater good.

We are tempted daily. And we fail daily. By our actions we show that we love ourselves more than others, we love things more than people, and we love control more than compassion.

But when Jesus is tempted, he says, “We do not live by bread alone…power…or control, “but we live instead by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
Jesus faced all these temptations we face and said NO to them, because he had already said YES to God.

And in our baptism, we are joined to Christ and God says YES to us.

God says YES to us and calls us his own. God says YES to us and promises faithfulness to us. God says YES to us and promises he’ll never leave us. And because in every YES there is a NO, in baptism God also says NO: God says NO to punishing us for our failing. God says NO to cutting us loose and leaving us on our own. God says NO to giving us what we deserve.
Every time we celebrate a baptism we hear an echo of this very wilderness scene.

The baptismal party – the family of the infant – or the adult, if an adult is being baptized, is asked three questions to which they are to respond NO and three to which they are invited to respond YES.

They are asked to say NO to the devil and all the forces that defy God, NO to the powers of this world that rebel against God, and NO to the ways of sin that draw us away from God.
And they are asked to say NO to these things… so that they can say YES when they are asked: Do you believe in God the Father? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

Within every YES there is a NO and within every NO there is a YES.

As a congregation we help one another say YES to God and help one another say NO to the things that would hurt us, or hurt one another, and lead us away from God. We live together in partnership trusting that once and for all God has said YES to us in welcome and unconditional love.

Every year on the first Sunday in Lent, the church hears this story – the story of the Holy Spirit leading Jesus out into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Even before the cross of Good Friday and empty tomb of Easter that are to come, we are able to see that the devil, darkness, and sin, which have their way with us on a daily basis, have no power over Jesus.

Jesus defeats all these dark powers because of the YES he has said eternally to God, and he takes our hand and leads us through the wilderness into that YES of God in which he lives. He leads us on this journey that begins with ashes and leads to life.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Blessings and Warnings

When I was living in Baltimore and working at Project PLASE, a homeless shelter for men living with HIV and AIDS I was surprised and stirred by the common response to the ordinary morning question, “How are you?”
Now, I hear morning greetings in and around Richmond all the time. Nearly every day I hear people ask, “How are you?” And the responses I most often hear are the usual. “I’m okay,” “I’m good,” “everything is fine.”
But nearly all of the men at 201 North Avenue in Baltimore would answer the same question by saying, “I’m blessed.”
Ask Anthony, “How are you?” — And he’d say, “I’m blessed.”
Ask William, “How’s it going?” — And he’d say, “I’m blessed.”
Ask Squeeze, “What’s going on?” — And he’d say, “I’m blessed.”
I have to say that it startled me to hear it. I had to pause when these guys who were so sick, who were hardly more that skin and bones, without much of anything in the world beyond what they could fit into a bookbag to call their own, many of them battling addiction, many of them estranged from family, who had to ask me for a bus token each morning because they couldn’t afford to ride the bus on their own… identified and designated themselves “blessed.”
Most of us probably have our own ideas about what it means to be blessed. I am not certain then or now I would begin my definition by describing these guys’ lives as blessed. But they did.
Jesus pronounces blessing in a way that is just as startling.
Jesus comes down the mountain with his twelve disciples and stands on a level place and invites us to hear — you are blessed, you are favored and you are given happiness when you find yourself with empty pockets, an empty belly, emptiness inside that leads to tears, and an empty social calendar and the experience of exclusion because of your love for him.
Blessed are you, Jesus says to the poor. You will be filled and yours is the Kingdom of God. You will laugh. You will leap for joy.
This is not the gospel of Matthew’s spiritual beatitudes where Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit. Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says blessed are the poor. And here in Luke, Jesus also pronounces woe.
Jesus invites us to hear that pain and grief are for you who have pockets that are full, bellies that are full, mouths that are full of laughter, and ears that are full of people’s praise for you, but woe to you who are wealthy and filled and carefree now, because you will be hungry, you will grieve, and you will cry because, Jesus says, you have already received what you wanted and what you worked for.
I don’t know about you but this is not the message that I most often hear from the world.
Most often, the message I think we receive is that blessing and happiness can be ours if we just choose it and work hard enough. It can be found somewhere down the strip of Broad street, in the stores of Short Pump, at the outlet malls, on Amazon; it can be experienced with a luxury vacation, the purchase of a new truck, a vacuum that can be programmed to work while we sleep, or whatever else.
How many times must we be disappointed until we learn deep down that the things we purchase won’t and cannot bring us happiness?
Soren Kierkegaard tells that story of walking by a shop window with a sign that read “we press pants.” He ran home to bring back his trousers, walked into the store and laid them on the counter. He said, “I’d like to have these pants pressed please.” “Oh, we don’t do that,” the man at the counter said. “Yes, but your sign says ‘We press pants.’” The man said, “Yes, but we don’t press pants, we print the sign that says ‘we press pants.’”
It’s an illusion. The world advertises that happiness is available through material over-consumption but the truth is it is all an illusion. And so there is a chasm between what the world promises will bring us happiness and the life Jesus invites us into and shows us how to live.
And you guys, what if Jesus is right?
What if equating success with having resources, relaxation, and reputation is hollow? What if Jesus can’t just be an add on to our life, one part of our identity, and someone to call on when we need divine intervention in the few and far between instances when we can’t figure out what’s next on our own?
Jesus calls us to experience the blessing that comes from emptying ourselves, and as we listen to his word it becomes clear that if we’re going to trust Jesus, it’s going to cost us everything. So, we have to ask what the proof would be that we can trust him.
And certainly, Jesus comes down to this level place and speaks these words of blessing and woe having just healed and cured and shown his power, but its Paul who gets to the heart of the issue and tells us what’s really at stake.
Paul says to the church in Corinth and to us: If Christ has not been raised from the dead then our faith has been in vain and we are of all people most to be pitied.
If Jesus is not living and standing with God, sending his Spirit to gather us here today to receive his word and his supper, his forgiveness and his mercy, then this hour of your life is a waste, and worse yet, all of your worship and prayer and serving and sharing in his name has been a waste, and worst of all, there is no hope for this weary, broken, divided, violent and hurting world, so somebody declare a National Emergency and an International Call to Hopelessness.
If Jesus is not alive then the death that awaits us all simply quiets all that we are and all that we have been – our work, our memories, our tears and laughter, our energy, and our hope.
And certainly, if Jesus is not Lord of all, his words of blessing and woe make no sense at all. We might as well fill our pockets and our bellies and lives with as much stuff as we can, while we still can.
But in fact, Brothers and Sisters, the good news is that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. His heart which had been slowed and silenced by the cross, beats again and forever. His breath that was stopped by betrayal and hatred, breathes his Holy Spirit into our life again today. His work of healing and forgiveness which was buried under the rock and dirt of the ground is loose in the world to create new life in you and me, in his whole church and in the world.
Because Jesus is alive, sending us his forgiveness and compassionate mercy, these words of blessing and woe become an invitation.
Jesus stands on a level place, not above us but with us to issue these woes as a warning. Jesus doesn’t want any pain to come to you. He doesn’t want grief or hunger for you. His cross shows the lengths to which God would go to bring you and the whole world back to him!
From this perspective we can hear the woes as warnings. “Woe!” Jesus says, “Be careful. Don’t miss out on the blessing of God.” These are words of warning and instruction to people whom God loves.
About 2 years ago, in March of 2017, the youth group went down to Norfolk for a youth event. First Lutheran in Norfolk had invited us down for a lock-in called the Hunger Rumble – over the weekend we had bible study and we did service in the community. And everyone was invited to fast – to actually abstain from eating for a period of about 30 hours in order to get a small glimpse of the experience of hunger. We had a wonderful time and we collected a large amount of food for a local Norfolk food bank.
On the way back I was driving the van and Rob Burger was in the passenger seat. Rob was catching up on some work email, but we were also talking and the radio was on, and all of a sudden Rob looks up. And the surroundings did not look right. Come to find out, we had overshot our exit by about 20 miles. Rob, a good man and a good friend, but also a man of sound decision making and high expectations, looks at me for a response, and as he tells the story, my response was, “Dude, I’m just driving.”
Jesus knows that it is so easy to get off the path of following him. With these woes he cautions against following our own way, of being misdirected by wealth or our own comfort, of being oblivious to our surroundings and the people around us. We have people in the van with us after all, who are looking to us to be carried along the way of discipleship.
These words of Jesus, these woes and warnings to watch what our heart loves, are an invitation to repentance and to come back daily to journeying with him.
Jesus invites us to a level place where we share what we have.
The poor are blessed, and they are a blessing. Anthony and William and Squeeze didn’t just befriend me in Baltimore. They invited me to church at a time when I wasn’t sure the church was something I wanted to be a part of. The people I worked with, all women and men who had been through the experience of homelessness and had gotten their lives together through help, and prayer, and the ministry of the church invited me to their homes where they showed me why they were blessed, because God had given them enough for another day.
We are renewed in the path of Christ when we meet him in the poor. When we realize the ways we are poor ourselves.
Christ blesses those who are empty from the cross. With absolutely nothing left and completely emptied he pours out God’s love on you who are poor and you who are rich, you who are hungry and you who are filled, you who are weeping and you who are laughing, you who are excluded and you who are spoken well of.
So Sisters and Brothers come to the table and receive God’s blessing.

One Little Word

We come to worship each week and it is interesting and, I think, beautiful to pause for a moment and think that our Lord Jesus also gathered in a similar way to worship.
We don’t know everything about the practice of worship in the synagogue during the time of Jesus’ life and ministry but we do know that there was a liturgy and an order to the weekly gathering, somewhat similar to the liturgy we practice this morning.
We know, for example, that it was customary for a teacher to stand and read from the scrolls of the holy scriptures and then for the teacher to take a seat to interpret what they had read and teach the people.
So, Jesus, freshly baptized, begins his public ministry by coming to the synagogue of his hometown on the sabbath day to worship. As a teacher among the people he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and he unties the string and unrolls it, he finds this powerful, prophetic passage:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

As was common practice, Jesus then sits down to interpret the scripture, but what Jesus says for an interpretation, no one is ready for.
What Jesus says next is not what these hometown Nazarenes would have expected from his very first sermon. These are words from Isaiah are words of promise and words that all imagined described a far-distant future. But Jesus is saying that he has come to bring God’s ultimate reality to the present.
With one little word, Jesus calls their hearts and minds to be open to God’s immanence crashing into the present. With one little word, Jesus calls us to be open to God showing up in the present. With one little word: “Today.”
“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Lots of teachers have taught about the meaning of “today,” of course. From the popular adage of “Carpe Diem” during the time of the Roman Empire, which they took from the much more ancient teaching of the Greeks, the idea of seizing the day and squeezing everything we can out of it, has come all the way down to us, which we see when teachers teach mindfulness, and the idea that power that comes from being present to the moment at hand.
Jesus is not the only teacher who has lifted up the importance of “today,” and, in fact, we almost don’t need a teacher to understand how it differs from the past and the future.
Life itself teaches us, somewhat brutally, that we can never go back to the past and make different decisions no matter how desperately we might wish we could. We also know that we can’t always affect the future in the ways that we would like. It is often beyond our control as well.
But we are always being given this moment of now; this gift of today.
And I think we get that. We understand that very well.
But Jesus says its more significant than we thought: TODAY is when and where God encounters us and meets us.
Today is not just a gift, but a gift from God who is present in this moment and is calling to us in this very moment.
Certainly, we tell the story of God’s activity in our past and sing and write and celebrate all the ways God has saved us, has provided for us, and has led us in the past.
And certainly, we know and tell about how God promises to prepare a future for us that is good, and a future with hope.
But we meet God in this moment. God encounters us today.

In some sense, there is no difference between us and the Israelites gathered around the Water Gate of Jerusalem with Nehemiah and Ezra.
These Israelites had been taken into captivity far away in Babylon, and for a generation were not free – not free to be and not free to worship – and now they have returned home and they have rebuilt the city and the temple and this second generation of returnees is gathered together in the morning sun to listen to the reading of the books of Moses, the beginning of our scriptures, that tell of God creating us, extending a covenant to us, and promising to bless us to be a blessing.
And these people in the bright morning sun hear this story and these words for the very first time. They hear the reading of scripture and its interpretation and all the people weep and mourn for their sins, for the ways that their actions have lead them far away from God, but Nehemiah says, “Listen, don’t weep and mourn, but instead eat the fat of the meat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for this day – today – is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Today is the gift of God encountering us again, for the first time.
Just because we trusted God in the past doesn’t mean trusting him today has been taken care of. Today is the day God invites you to trust him.
Just because we have been open to a prayer life in the past, doesn’t mean that our prayers for today have been taken care of. Today is the day God invites you to open your life to him.
Again and again, Jesus shows us that this very day, this very moment is holy. Listen to what Jesus has to say about it:
Out in the village, when Jesus meet the tax collector Zacchaeus, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” And Zacchaeus is able to stop and really listen.
On the cross, Jesus says to the man being crucified next to him: “Today you will be with me in paradise and the man is able to see who Jesus really is.”
And when the disciples come to Jesus and ask how to pray, Jesus says to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. And give us today our daily bread.”
Jesus instructs us, who have so much, to ask God, “Give us today our daily bread,” because we have to be reminded we need God. We have to be reminded that God recreates the world every day, and that without him we perish. And that the only way we can connect with God is in the present moment.

This past week, our middle and high school youth and their families have been handing out what they call blessing bags to people in our community hoping for daily bread.
On Monday of this past week, as a way to celebrate MLK Day, some of the middle and high school youth gathered in the Star Lodge for a day of service.
We started the day thinking together about all the ways God has blessed us in the past, about the ways God is blessing us in the present and at this time in our life, and about the promises God makes to bless us in the future. We shared these with one another and remembered again how God blesses us to be a blessing.
So then we formed ourselves into an assembly line to make what we had come to call “Blessing Bags.”
We took about 50 gallon-sized Ziploc bags and filled each one with a lip balm, a toothbrush, a tube of sunscreen, a couple protein bars, hand-knitted scarves and socks made by our friends and partners in ministry at Hanover Adult Center, a hand-written word of hope from the scriptures, and various other goodies.
And at the end of a half-hour we had a large pile of blessing bags. Everyone in the group took a couple bags home so that throughout this week, with our families, we could give these bags to people around town who look like they could use one.
Youth have been texting me this week to tell me about how they were able to hand their bag to someone and say, “God loves you.”
Our young men and women seemed surprised at how easy it was to give and how grateful the men and women who received them were.
A man from Russia here in the US with a 2-year-old daughter and waiting on immigration papers said that just a chance to talk with another person about his challenges meant everything in the world to him.
A family said they were in awe that the person who received their bag said “God bless you!” and blessed them when they thought they were the ones doing the blessing.
Families told me that they continued to pray for the people they met on the street throughout the rest of the week.

Isaiah writes:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing, through you and me, and the ministry of the congregation God has gathered here today. Through feeding ministries, through friendship, and through service to those who are crying out to God for help.

Like Paul’s image of a body with many members, we are each given our own unique gifts to share, and the Spirit binds us all to Jesus, who gathers us here around his table for the meal that feeds us with enough trust in God for today.

How beautiful to pause and think:

In this meal, Jesus is placed in our hands, and then Jesus calls us back into the world to use these same hands as he lives in us, and through us, for the sake of a world in need.

Not only yesterday. And not only tomorrow. But today.