Signs and Wonders

The gospel news we hear today is that no matter what horror, disappointment, or tragedy takes place in our life or in the life of the world, Jesus assures us that our bodies and souls will be preserved by God forever.

In the fall of 2001, I was a student at Appalachian State University. On the morning of September 11, I drove from the house I rented with some buddies to pick up a girl I was dating at the time to give her a ride to campus on my way to class. She came out to the car and sat down next to me, looked over and said, “Two planes just hit both towers of the World Trade Center in New York.”

I couldn’t immediately process what I had heard and I don’t remember anything about the car ride, but I do remember that the building where I was to meet my English class was sparse with people and that students and teachers were wondering through the halls in a daze.

Someone had set up TVs in some of the rooms and we gathered around in silence, watching the replay of the planes crashing into the tall silver buildings, the explosions of fire, the billow of smoke, and ultimately the collapse of glass and steel and debris.

If you’re old enough to have lived through it and to remember it, you know where you were when you heard the news. If you had family or friends in New York you held your breath and waited. I remember wondering what else might happen. I remember wondering if our entire country would collapse. I remember wondering how life would go on.

Collectively, as a nation, we all wondered these things without being able to put our feelings into words. Only later could we say that we were in crisis – on a national, social, and personal level. On every level.

I think for many people who lived through the event, it was the most scared we’ve ever been, because for people like us who live surrounded by illusions to the contrary, what we all saw on the TV that day was a sign that this world is temporary.

For the Hebrews in the first century, the destruction of the Temple, which we hear Jesus speak about in his “Little Apocalypse” from today’s gospel was 9-11.

The Temple and its home in Jerusalem were not only the national, social, and economic center of the world, but they were the religious, ecological, and cosmic center of existence. This was the one house for the One God who had chosen for himself one people, the Hebrews.

And for every Hebrew, the dream and driving desire, no matter how far away they lived from Jerusalem, no matter how poor they may have been, was to scrape together enough denarii out of the dust of their poverty to travel to the Holy City to see this enormous, beautiful structure imagined by King David, built by his son Solomon, and designated as the holiest place on the face of the earth where God himself resided, and to witness with her or his own eyes the first rays of the new day’s sun striking the gold covered stones and glinting off in a blaze of heavenly light from God.

The psalmist articulated in a song written for the people to sing in worship:

“One thing I ask the Lord and that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all they days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”

This one thing desired above everything else was to worship in the temple and so when Jesus predicts that this Temple will be torn down, and that along with this crisis there will be wars, earthquakes, famines, and plagues, but that before all this, his disciples will be arrested, persecuted, jailed, and betrayed, and some of them will be put to death, it’s hard to imagine worse news.

“But,” Jesus says, and this small word turns all this on its head. This small word changes everything. “But,” Jesus says, this will all serve as an opportunity for them to testify and witness to the hope they have in Jesus and his promise that not a hair of their heads will perish.

Clearly Jesus’ promise is a promise of ultimate things and eternal things. No matter what evil is present in this world now, God will redeem this whole world and all life, his whole creation, and the humankind God has made in his image and loves with a jealous heart will be healed and made whole.

God promises us that no matter what the testimony of the impeachment proceedings turns up, no matter who’s our president, no matter how many school shootings there may be, no matter what buildings or nations come tumbling down, God promises to preserve and protect us for eternity.

And yet, all these things around us are signs not only of the uncertainty with which we live but our absolute dependence on God.

What you and I need to know about these words from Jesus and the genre of Biblical apocalyptic literature in general is that they are aimed at giving comfort and assurance to people who are suffering more intensely than you and I will probably ever be able to imagine.

We live in privilege.

We throw away so much food we can’t imagine hunger.

We have so many clothes we have to think through where we’re going to store the seasonal clothes that won’t fit in our closet.

We’re so entertained by streaming content from Netflix to Disney plus that we might sometimes want to be cryogenically frozen like Walt himself and come back and live forever just to watch it all. We are privileged. But there is a kind of suffering on this earth that is so grave, news of the end of this world and God’s redemption comes as relief and salvation.

The first followers of Jesus lived under the constant threat of persecution – not someone seeing you pray in a restaurant and telling you not to do it publicly – but being thrown to the lions and burned at the stake and having your eyes gouged out by an empire that was willing to do anything to retain its power.

And in this period of persecution, against the odds, the church grew by leaps and bounds. In fact, the first Christians came to claim the adage: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

You see people outside of the church saw the first Christians go to the lions and the funeral pyre with confident hymns of praise to God on their lips and they had to know more. They had to find out what the story was behind this strange witness.

People had to know about this prophet Jesus, who not only was able to predict the destruction of the temple, but whose followers really were given words and wisdom in the moments of their suffering and trials and were able to speak of the hope of God in such a way, according to Luke’s follow up book the Acts of the Apostles, that thousands joined in a given afternoon.

This message of the cross, spoken by people persecuted in the same way as the One they pointed to touched lives, grew the church, and spread across the world, all the way to this very morning and to you and me, and through our congregation and congregations like it, it is spreading on and out and further still.

You may have noticed the pattern: Every other Sunday we say the Apostles Creed in worship as a sign of our faith. Most of us have most likely memorized these words that recall who God is and what God has done, is doing, and promises to do for the life of the world. And it could be that it becomes rote and that we could say the creed slipping in and out of being attentive to it.

This was more or less the case made by our speaker last month at the Virginia Synod Ministerium. All the Lutheran pastors serving in Virginia attend this conference in the fall in Virginia Beach each year and this year’s theme was on church vitality.

It is, of course, a timely topic, and our speaker had lots of helpful thoughts that I am still chewing on. For me, one particularly provocative thing he suggested is that we should never say the Apostles Creed in worship.

His take is that because the verb tenses in the creed are mostly in the past tense, we send the message to visitors and internalize the narrative ourselves that our Christian faith is something that is more tied to the past than what’s going on now.

We say we believe Jesus was conceived back then, was born, suffered, was crucified, died, was buried, rose, descended – all past tense verbs – and finally, we say, he is seated (a present tense verb), and will come again (a future tense verb)
And perhaps that is something to think about.

And I think there are ways the church could confess a creed that speaks of our conviction that God is still acting in many and various ways today:

We could use Luther’s explanation of the creed:

I believe God has made me and all his creatures. God has given me my body and still takes care of me. He also gives me clothing, richly and daily provides for me, defends me, and protects me, for this it is my duty: to thank, praise, serve, and obey him. This is most certainly true.

Or we could say:

We believe in God the Father from whom every family on earth comes and is named. And we believe in the Son of God, crucified and risen who lives in our hearts and fill us with his love. And we believe in God the Holy Spirit who strengthens us with power from on high.

But I will say that we ought to remember when we say the Apostles Creed that hundreds and thousands of men, women, and children have died for the content of faith expressed in these particular words and something special happens when God gives us the gift of faith and we express it on our still-warm and wet lips:

And that is that we are connected to the life and the witness and words and discipleship of those who carried this gospel to one possible logical conclusion that comes when you fix your eyes on a cross and the love that died there, and we are reminded that this possible logical conclusion of death for our faith is always a possibility; a possibility that we pray doesn’t come to us, but which we ask God for the strength to accept if it should.

Jesus promises that because he lives we won’t always suffer, and he promises that all this world that we can see and touch and taste is temporary and preparatory.

But while we are here, in the gift of this moment, we point to what is to come.

You are the signs and the wonders of God.

You are a living creed that tells of the faith God gives.

I see it when I go to the hospital to visit someone whose surgery has been postponed and two women of the church are already there with a prayer shawl, knitted with care and in prayer, to lay over their friend as a constant reminder of God’s promise that not a hair of our heads will perish.

I see it.

And you see it.

You see it when you see teenagers assemble Advent baskets for our shut-ins so that even though they may sometimes be plagued by the nagging feeling of loneliness that comes with having their mobility limited and being shut off from parts of the world, they can count down with us to the celebration of Christ’s coming in the manger and his promise to come again in glory to heal the whole creation.

You can see that.

You can see it in the hands that cut red and greed construction paper stars for our Christmas Giving Tree, in hands that assemble Thanksgiving Baskets, in hands the put cans on the shelves of our food pantry and hand them out to friends in the community, in hands that hold one another in prayer.

You can see it in the ones who are helping.

The Richmond Marathon was yesterday, which some of you ran in or watched. I don’t get involved in such things other than to be stuck in traffic. But you may have heard that about a month ago the world record was set for the fastest time in a marathon ever.

Eliud Kipchoge ran the 26+ miles in 1:59:60. Many say this is the greatest feat in running history and maybe the greatest feat in any athletics. No one thought this was possible! But the record won’t stand and it can’t count because he had help. He had a team of pacesetters, encouragers, and re-fuelers.

We do what we may think is possible. In a world of troubles and suffering, God enables us to witness together to Jesus. And it counts! It counts in the loves of those who hear the good news!

The cross is God’s testimony that he has not, does not, and will not desert us or cower and hide from the ongoing crisis, the falling of buildings, the destruction of natural forces, or the terror of war but that God stands firm with us and that he will preserve our bodies and souls forever, and by the endurance he gives us we can stand and sing and shout and serve and say and be his witnesses.

May God bless you with words and a witness.

May God bless us to be signs and wonders.

May God grant us endurance in our every effort.

And may the gospel news that not a hair of our heads will perish be our hope, now and forever.

Life in the Beautiful River

In celebration of the festival of All Saints we sing in this wonderful hymn: “Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river, Gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.”

Herman Hesse’s novel named for his main protagonist, Siddhartha, tells of a young man who wanders the wide world in search of the good life: happiness, peace, and meaning.

Siddhartha acquires and loses wealth, he tastes love and finds it unable to satiate his deepest longing, he travels until he becomes an old man and finally, having lost hope of uncovering his ultimate purpose, he sits down by the river he has crossed many times in his life and really looks at it for the first time.

He gives the churning water his attention, and in watching the water pass by he finds enlightenment.

He is illuminated.

He understands his place in creation and comes to know deep within that every person is given the gift of being only momentarily and yet we are all found in God.

Today, on All Saints Sunday, the Triune God gathers us at his river of life. We stand by the baptismal river that claims us as sons and daughters of God and we give thanks for those who are far downstream:

For Daniel and Paul who bring us words of life, and for our mothers and fathers in the faith on whose shoulders we stand.

And today we God thanks, in particular, for Ellen, JoAnn, Bob, Ron, Bradley, Eddie, and Flo, and for all the ways they gave themselves for Christ’s ministry and for all the ways they blessed us.

These sisters and brothers who have gone to be with God were founding members of our congregation, Sunday school teachers, men and women who served on church council, people who blessed us with their gifts, who raised up children in the faith, and who were examples of God’s love.

Today we give God thanks for their lives and their ministry and remember that God has done and continues to do wonderful things thorough the lives of his people.

The gift of baptism, the river of God’s love that comes from the source of God’s deepest longing to make us his own, means for us that we don’t have to search for God. God has searched for us and found us, and as Paul says, God has marked us with the seal of the promised holy spirit, the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

God has blessed us with a rich inheritance.

When Paul spoke of an inheritance, he had his readers’ full attention, because no one in the ancient world would ever have received an inheritance except for royalty and the aristocracy, but Paul impresses upon the first generation of Christians that they stand to cash in handsomely because of what God has done in Christ:

Paul shares the vision with them that as they come to know Christ, with the eyes of their heart enlightened, they will see what is the hope to which he’s called them, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power. Hope. Riches. Power. An inheritance that changes their perspective on what’s possible.

I have a friend in Charleston, SC, named Bob. He is a bit older than me but we grew to be close friends in my time there. Every time we went to lunch, he would pay for it.

Nothing I could say would change his mind. Every time we ate together, I offered to pay and every time he’d grab the check, smile, and explain: “My wife and I received this in inheritance from her side of the family.” And then he’d do this funny shrug as if to say, I don’t really have a choice do I?

The inheritance had changed his life and given him a sense of generosity that seemed beyond his control.

In our baptism we have been given the inheritance of God’s love and favor. It comes as a free gift, not because of who we are but because of who God is, and God means to fill us with a sense of generosity toward each other.

We belong to God and have received the riches of his mercy and friendship and we don’t really have a choice in the matter.
Paul writes his letters, and this letter to the Ephesians, almost as if he has little choice in the matter. Jesus has appeared to him and changed his life with an inheritance that Paul finds to be so valuable he has to share it.

So he writes to this little church on coast of the Aegean Sea, which was surrounded by pagan influence and the Cult of Artemis and all sorts of cultural forces hostile to God as a plea to treasure the gospel, to imitate God, and to share the news of the riches of Christ that are for all people.

Interestingly, we know of no other group in the ancient world besides the young Christians that imagined all the world should be gathered into one community and worldview.

The Romans did not believe all their citizens should worship the roman gods and didn’t try to force them to do so.

The Jews didn’t proselytize and try to bring pagans to the synagogues.

But with the infant church, for the first time, we have this community with the starling notion that God has a plan to untie all things and that plan was laid out even before creation began.

Today we are surrounded by as many different worldviews as the Ephesians. Some say the world is a zero-sum game of politics where if one party gets anything the other necessarily stands to lose everything.

Some people imagine this world to be a place where everything is for sale and you and I are primarily consumers of products that advertisers promise will fill a void we didn’t know we had until they tried to convince us of it.

A secular world view today says that God isn’t active in the world, all truth is relative, and any enlightenment and illumination come from finding our “true self” by building our own identity from scratch.

The truth is that we inherit our identity as a gift from God.

Part of the glorious inheritance we receive from God are the saints — those women and men of faith who have come before us as examples of how to live as disciples of Jesus.

We had some friends over to the house on Friday and Samuel had two little boys to play with. These boys are in the stage of life of looking for archetypes to base their own lives on. It actually has nothing to do with Halloween that they pretended to be cowboys, policemen, robots, and spacemen. For hours.

As we grow and mature as women and men, we learn to become ourselves and discover who God has made us to be, but we always need to have someone to look to in order to imagine who our best unfolding self can be.

We are always being influenced by the people and things around us so we would be wise to ask: who are we learning from and who do we look to as an example?

God provides people, doesn’t he?

Saints at rest and saints among us who show us how to live.

Don’t you know people of faith that you would like to emulate?

I see them all the time.

If fact, I’m looking at them: Fathers who inspire me to be a better father, mothers who show me a picture of the God who shelter and protects the ones entrusted to him, young people who inspire me with their desire to get their hands dirty and risk great things for God, children who come to God with a spirit of open vulnerability and curiosity that I believe resides in all of us and I sometimes wish we older folks could reconnect with.

When Samuel and his friends are playing, constantly changing identities, they have to repeatedly ask each other, “Who are you?” Their identity is changing so frequently they have to ask one another explicitly to stay abreast of the situation.

We learn who we are in community – asking questions, trying on different roles, and taking risks together, and the saints are the ones who point us towards Jesus in whom we find life.

The gift of Jesus is the gift of eternal life with God and all the saints, but the gift of Jesus is also that God comes among us to show us and tell us what a good life, well-lived looks like.

Jesus words and actions in the gospels make it clear that he’s after our heart and our entire person. Martin Luther famously said you could sum up all Christ’s teaching and preaching in the words: Do to other as you would have them do to you.

If we could keep this one thing in mind: Be toward others as we’d have them be toward us – we’d be less lonely, more connected, more joyful, and more at peace.

Jesus made this little statement short enough and memorable enough that we can hold it in our mind and heart, but we often can’t do it.

Jesus asks us to identity with the other person so deeply we imagine they are us and we are them. He asks us to take his lead and bless those who curse us, love our enemy, do good to the haters in our lives.

My best friend Jonathan who really is a gift from God to me – we didn’t like each other when we first met each other. He thought I was aloof and I thought he was a know-it-all. Somehow God brought us together.

God wants us to connect with each other, to find friendship, to take care of each other, to learn to grow in maturity as his disciples, so he shows us how: do to others as you’d have them do to you.

Jesus shows us how: he forgives his betrayers from the cross, he comes from the empty tomb to search out and reconnect with those who stood by and didn’t help him. And that his risen life goes on and on, bringing God’s forgiveness and healing to us today.

Because we are baptized into Christ we receive the promise that the same power that brought Jesus back from the dead is at work in our life.

Because we belong to God, he has gathered us around his table and today we will lift our voices with all the saints so that with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven we praise God’s name and join them in their unending hymn.

I have to say that in this moment around the table, as we sing to the holiness of God, I often find such joy and relief because I know at that moment, we are all in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.

I wonder if you are like me. If like me, your life is filled with so many moments of wondering if we’re in the right place, if we’ve prioritized the right task, if we’ve said the right thing. In this moment of total praise of God at the table we have no doubt. We have been joined to the whole creation’s awe and wonder that the creator would take on flesh and come to us in kindness, mercy, and love.

In this moment the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have gathered us in praise to recall and sing the truth that God has filled all creation, that the Lord is the name above every name, that our inheritance from God is that we get to live for the praise of his glory, and that the fulness of his life fills all creation and makes every cell and atom of creation hum with the sacred presence of God.

This table is meant to raise our vision for all the moments of our lives to this level.

It is meant to give us the means of grace to live in the joy of Jesus as saints of God ourselves and put on our baptismal identity as Christ in the world.

With this identity comes hope, riches, and power – and the ability to see life from the perspective of eternity.

Today we give God thanks for the community we share with all the saints – all those people of faith who have now received happy hearts, quivering in the rest of God – even as we await the day when Christ returns to set all things right.

Come Lord Jesus!

Not Afraid to Wrestle

I think its popularity has diminished somewhat in recent years, but once upon a time, professional wrestling was as big as the National Football League. At least, for the ten-year-old boys that I was hanging out with. 

My friends and I loved to watch professional wrestling together on television and we got tosee all the greats:

 Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Jake “the Snake” Roberts – who would put a live python on you after he had knocked you out, Brutus “the Barber” Beefcake – who would cut his opponents hair after he defeated them, and more.  And they all had these great nicknames.  We had the action figures of all these wrestlers and wore the paint off all their faces with a thousand matches on the living room floor that included a million jumps off the top rope. 

When we would watch on TV we would debate about whether wrestling was “real” or just entertainment and one of the features of the TV program that was as entertaining as any actual wrestling was the storylines about which wrestler was mad at which other wrestler and what they were going to do to them.  They would tell you all about it during the pre-match and post-match interviews and we never forgot, how during one of these interviews, Andre “the Giant” had crossed the line by taking “Hulk” Hogan’s gold necklace and ripping it off his neck. 

There are no jumps from the top rope or chairs being pulled out of the stands, but in our reading from Genesis today we have a real “smackdown” by the banks of the Jabbok. The match lasts all through the night and is fierce.  It includes a debilitating injury, but like professional wrestling on tv, more interesting than the action itself is the larger story of these two opponents. 

Jacob “The Trickster” has alienated his brother by stealing his birthright and angered and saddened his father by stealing his blessing so that by this point in the story, in a sense, Jacob has wrestled with his family all his life, and now he is on the cusp of meeting his brother again and facing up to the chaos he has created.

On the other side of this river, Esau is waiting, and when the day breaks, he will meet him and all the problems he has created, and he may well be wondering if his brother will wrestle him into submission or kill him, and what will become of his family. 

So, here by the Jabbok River, Jacob has come to the crossroads of his life.  It is an occasion so large that he perceives that he is face to face with God himself.  Whether he can go on at all is at stake. 

He wrestles with what his life has become, what it all means; he wrestles with God. And what we hear about God is that God is willing to get in the ring with him!  God could destroy Jacob! God Almighty in all his power could pulverize Jacob!  But God wrestles with him and lets him go on with just a limp.  God even blesses him.

This story in Genesis is our opening match, but there is another wrestling match in our texts today. 

In the main event, in one corner of the ring we have the “Unjust Judge.”  Now that’s a great wrestling nick-name.  Its almost better than “Nature Boy”!  He doesn’t fear God and doesn’t have respect for the people, but he is huge and powerful.

My guess is he wears a mask to hide his identity, he has music that plays loudly over the speakers as he and his entourage make their way to the ring.  He is not to be messed with.  He answers to no one. 

And in the other corner we have just an ordinary old woman.  She is a widow.  She is weak.  In a society where only men worked, only men spoke, and only men were counted, she would have been completely powerless. 

If she was a character in professional wrestling, she would be one of the people with no nickname, no entrance music, no cool costume.  One of the nobodies whose sole purpose is to come out early on in the night to do nothing more than get beat up just to warm up the crowd.  The audience knows her storyline before the opening bell.  She’s just here for someone else to throw around.

In front of the crowd, the widow comes out and makes her way to meet the Unjust Judge in the ring. She puts herself on the line, but he slams her request for help, piledrivers her hopes, and he sends her away in shame to learn to live with defeat.

Astonishingly, though, the woman dares to come back; to make her way through the crowd and come back and lock up with the Unjust Judge again.  And she keeps being defeated and she keeps coming back and no matter how many times the judge sends her away, the woman dares to come back and try again.

And she keeps coming back and the “Unjust Judge” keeps sending her away in defeat, until he thinks to himself, This is embarrassing! If I don’t give this woman what she wants, she will keep coming back and she will keep browbeating me – literally in the original language “giving me a black eye” — and wearing me out with her request, but if I just give her what she wants she will go away and I will never have to see her again! 

And so finally, just to get rid of her, he gives her what she wants.

Jesus tells this story to illustrate our need to pray always and not to lose heart. It is a story about persistence in prayer.

We are people who pray frequently.  We all pray together in worship.  We pray when we’re in small group gatherings and at ministry team meetings, and we pray with our family or our friends in our homes.

We have prayed for an end to sickness, for a diagnosis we wish we wouldn’t have received to be reversed, for help in the face of the loss of a job.  We have prayed for the state of the world, for loved ones and the obstacles they face, for forgiveness.

But even most people who are persistent in prayer have at one time or another wondered how effective they can expect prayer to actually be.

Even people who are pros at prayer have wondered if they’re praying for the right thing.

Most of us, at one time or another, have felt like this widow wrestling for a hoped-for outcome. 

And some of us may even feel like Jacob, wrestling with God himself.

There is young man in our congregation who is a wrestler.  I should say he is a real wrestler, for his high school team.  He is really good and he wins a lot of matches and he has a particularly risky style of wrestling that ends in a lot of pins – mostly for him, but sometimes he does get pinned, but he likes to go for it.  I was asking him, months ago now, about his wrestling and somehow it came up that one controversial aspect to wrestling these days is that men wrestle women. There isn’t a division that separates the men and women.  They’re all on one team.

This young man shared that some guys won’t wrestle a girl and will just take a loss when they come up against a girl in a match.  He said these young men say they don’t want to hurt a girl, don’t want to touch a girl or be perceived to touch a girl in a way that is disrespectful.  I asked this young man what he chooses to do and he said without reservation he wrestles girls.  When I asked why that was, he said, “I make sure I don’t hurt anyone I wrestle. I respect everyone I face.  I only want the best for everyone I meet on the mat.”

God is willing to wrestle us only wanting the best for us. He is not out to hurt us.  He is all-powerful and yet he is willing to take our frustration and disappointment, our doubt or anger. He meets us and takes our grief or whatever we need to give him.  He can take it.  And he returns to us blessing and mercy and kindness.  God embraces us, hold us, lets us struggle, and always returns love.

On the cross, Jesus has been fully defeated.  Like the widow in his own story, he was wrestled to the ground and pinned by death.  And like the widow he persists because of his love for us.

Jesus was laid in the grave and three days later he emerged, victorious, hand held high in the air, never to die again and sending to us and to the whole world God’s power of love and forgiveness. 

When we receive that power and respond to God’s grace by reaching out to God in prayer, we’re reaching out not to someone who gives to us grudgingly, like the “UnJust Judge,” as Jesus points out, but to a God who loves us and delights to hear our prayers.

In the last few years of her life, my Grandmother had gotten feeble.  She was in her 90s and she didn’t see all that well, or hear that well, and she couldn’t get around all that well but she fiercely wanted to live at home and so we had gotten her a life alert, which was a little bracelet that she wore on her wrist and she could use to alert the life alert company should she get in a bad situation.

Well, she fell in the kitchen.  But she didn’t push her life alert.  Instead she lay in the floor for two days.  For years, she and my Dad talked every day on the phone so that when he didn’t hear from her, he thought something might be was wrong.  He called Grandmother’s house but she didn’t answer because she couldn’t reach the phone.  So, Dad drove to her house and that’s when he found her lying on the floor. 

He got her up off the floor and took care of her, and then he asked her why she hadn’t pushed the life alert button. And she said she didn’t want to bother anyone.

God wants to hear our prayers.  God wants us to reach out to him.  God wants us to cry out so that he can come to help us.

God delights to have his children call on him.  God delights to come quickly to the help of his beloved and to answer our cries.

Prayer is the way God makes room in us for his guidance as we wrestle with the challenges and decisions and details of our lives.

So like the poor widow in the ring against the Unjust Judge, or Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka being pounded on the mat by Andre the Giant with the referee about to slap the mat for the third time, when we are in trouble or in need, we have been given the gift of prayer so that we can reach out to God – our faithful tag-team partner – he is on our side and God is always coming to help.

Family First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 OurFatherwhoartinheavenhallowedbetheynametheykingdomcomethywillbedone

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

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

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

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

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

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

And both these images have a lot to teach us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faithfulness is God’s gift to us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Pleasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God feels the very same way about you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jesus tells us how not to be afraid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our church is getting involved in God’s mission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of us.

You and me.

All people.

We have a perfect Father, whom we can trust.

Today and always.

Determining the Value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This man mis-values the things in his life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything you have is a gift.

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

Jesus invites us to ask:

What is valuable about this life?

What is eternal?

What is worth giving?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the secret about the meaning of life:

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

Thanks be to God.

Amen

People of Peace

Berla and I were always a team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus says giving our witness to him is urgent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your name is written on the heart of God.

Faces Set toward the Future

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

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

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

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

Reception of “Homeless Jesus” was… mixed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the truth is: the cross is challenging.

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

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

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

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

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

But Jesus rebukes all that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We first and above all belong to Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ God has made a home for us forever.

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

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!