The Best Kind of Troublemaker

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We are nearing the end of our Lenten journey. As one friend on Facebook observed, this Lent in many ways may feel like “the lentist lent we have ever lented” Today turns the calendar to the beginning of the most holy week of our Christian faith. Once again we will hear the familiar stories of Christ. Stories of palms. Of crowds yelling hosanna. Stories of disciples procuring a donkey and a colt. Stories of a humble king, riding on donkey and colt, with eyes fixed on the cross. A story of crowds gathering, some waving branches, some curious onlookers asking, who is this?

Friends, we know the stories- we know the one riding in on the donkey and colt, the best kind of troublemaker- the one whom we worship and adore. Our worship may look and feel different this year. We may remain physically apart, yet the one entering into Jerusalem remains the same, and binds us all together in His immense love. In spite of our communal worship leaving the church building, we are still the church. We are still the people of God sent out into the world. We are the church still as we worship in our living rooms, outside on our patios, or around our dining room tables. Palm Sunday looks and feels different but the story and the words of scripture are unchanging.

So as we once again turn to the story of Palm Sunday, I invite us all to take a collective breath and close our eyes during this pause and reading. As I read I invite you to imagine yourself in the crowd. What do you see? What do we hear? What do we feel? Hear now these words from Matthew 21:1-11.

21 When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that their master needs them.” He sent them off right away. Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.

Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Jesus, is our Lord and Savior, and the best kind of troublemaker. His triumphal Entry was not a spontaneous event, it was very calculated and planned.  Jesus entered Jerusalem’s chaos knowing things would be stirred up and the cross was on the horizon. Jesus was not the passive recipient of impromptu adoration.  Though worship might have happened, it was not the point.

In their compelling book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem, New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue that two processions entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday; Jesus’ was not the only Triumphal Entry.  You see, every year, the Roman governor of Judea would ride up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west. Why? To be present in the city for Passover — the Jewish festival that swelled Jerusalem’s population from its usual 50,000 to at least 200,000. The governor would come in all of his imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge. They could commemorate an ancient victory against Egypt if they wanted to.  But real, present-day resistance (if anyone was daring to consider it) was futile. Jesus’ triumphal entry was holy resistance; Jesus is a Holy troublemaker, riding into Jerusalem’s chaos on a donkey.

Compared to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, here is Borg and Crossan’s description of Pontius Pilate’s imperial procession, loud and showy. “A visual of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.” It’s important to remember that according to Roman imperial belief, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome; he was the Son of God.

Enter Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the true Son of God and the best kind of troublemaker. While there were two entries into Jerusalem that day, there was only one humble King. He is the one who comes to be with the people, not to oppress them. He comes on a donkey and colt, not an imperial stallion. He comes to fulfill ancient prophecies, not appease his ego. He comes to save us, maybe not in the way we think we need, but in the way we truly need to be saved. He comes into our midst, eyes focused on the cross, no matter where we are.

Jesus tends to draw crowds. He tends to stir things up. The Greek word seio, meaning “stirred up” is only found five times in all the New Testament. Three of the five times occur in the gospel of Matthew. All of the three occurrences are related to Jesus’ Passion and resurrection story. Jesus enters into our stirred up and chaotic world.

As Jesus entered the scene, crowds gathered and shouted, Hosanna! Or Save us! Things were stirred up. Some in the crowd, ask who is this person? While palms and cloaks are place on his path, Jesus’ ears rang with cries of Hosanna, cries of people asking to be saved. Cries of those who were sick and lonely. Cries of those who were in need.

What does this familiar story mean for us this day? This year we will wave our palms in our homes and not on the beautiful streets of Old Town Winchester. Yes, our celebrations will without a doubt be simpler, quieter, and certainly less demonstrative than gathering with our friends on Old Town Mall.  However, these quiet offerings of celebrations will not be stopped. The Son of Man enters into our living rooms no less lovingly than he rode into the streets of Jerusalem.  Friends, nothing can stop Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. All our anxieties, concerns, grief, cries, all the things that stir up our souls and cause us to tremble- none of those things, can ever, EVER, prevent Jesus from being with us in our midst. COVID-19 or not, Jesus enters fully into the stirred up city of Jerusalem.

Our losses are real, even as God in Christ meets us in them. They are still hard. As author and pastor, Jill Duffield writes, “As we grieve what is lost this year- the waving of palms, the swell of the organ, the handshakes and hugs- we can be assured Jesus meets us exactly where we are, no matter how we are. Jesus will not stop on the outskirts of Jerusalem or on the fringes of our lives. He enters fully into the city knowing what’s to come. He enters fully into our lives, knowing our doubts, failings, denials, betrayals, misunderstandings and disappointments. He comes humbly toward us, accepting whatever we offer, a palm branch or tattered coat, exuberant praise or mumbled hope, knowing that soon he will go to the cross for our sake.”

So friends, as we begin holy week differently than we may have anticipated, know that you are loved. Know that our Lord and Savior is with you no matter where you are. I’m going to close a little differently than I might have if we were meeting in person today. I’m going to close by asking you to reflect on two questions. These are some questions I read in the Presbyterian Outlook this week. I would encourage you to take some time after the service to chat about these questions with your families or friends.

  • What are your favorite Palm Sunday memories? Think about how you can incorporate the meaningful aspects of this Holy Sunday in your day today.
  • What do you have to offer Jesus this week? What metaphorical palm branch will you wave or coat will place down? How can you be the church this Holy Week wherever you are?

Friends, as you discuss these questions, remember and know nothing can prevent the best kind of troublemaker from entering into the stirred up places of your life and being present with you. Nothing can prevent Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. And all God’s children said, amen.

 

 

 

Sacred Sharing

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Prayer of Illumination: Good Shepherd, who supplies all with living water and bread of life, open our hearts and minds to hear your words for us this day. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be ever acceptable in your sight, Lord our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.

Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7, Matthew 14:13-21

Who among us has siblings? I have two, both I deeply love and both also deeply frustrate me at times. I know they both love me and are frustrated by me as well, sometimes simultaneously. And while I have been frequently quoted and remembered by my parents as the young middle child who often said, “one for me, one for sissy;” I’ve also been the sister who was overly excited when my sister started kindergarten because that meant having mom’s attention and My Little Pony toys all to myself. Over the years, both my siblings have taught me lessons in what it means to share. Share toys, share pets, share rooms and spaces, share responsibilities, share attention of parents and grandparents.

Perhaps you have had other people in your life teach you how to share: roommates, friends, colleagues, spouses. Often times it can be hard to think about ways to share our gifts, spaces, and resources because we live in a culture which tells us we don’t have enough. A culture of scarcity. Please forgive me if this is too soon, but if we need reminders that we live in a culture of scarcity, all we need to do is try to find toilet paper at Walmart.

“Is the Lord really with us or not?” In our Old Testament text, Moses is leading people so tired of change that they are sick of life. The people are tired of feeling scarcity pains even though the Lord has provided and continues to provide manna. Even after all the Israelites had seen and experienced after escaping Egypt, they furiously shake their hands at Moses yelling, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us in desert?!”  Surely, since they experienced all of God’s mercy and grace up until this point, they should be able to sit back and trust that God would provide, right?

Yet they still ask “is the Lord really with us or not?” A valid question. A question, I think that if we are honest with ourselves, we still ask at times in 2020. Moses must be feeling a sense of anguish as the people he leads complain and want to stone him. Yet Moses relinquishes his anguish and his doubts to God in trust; trusting and hoping the people will follow. The Lord does not turn away from the needs of the people, the Lord meets them where they are and supplies water in abundance. God responds with compassion. Water gushes from the rock with renewing life. The journey in the wilderness of change continues with new hope.  God’s abundant gifts are poured out like a cascading water for the people. Doubts are abandoned…at least for that moment. Even when people complain, God meets them with an abundance of water.

Both our Old Testament and New Testament texts contain examples of God’s abundance. Abundance of grace and mercy, abundance of compassion and love. Even as Jesus seeks isolation to mourn the loss of John the Baptist, he shows deep compassion to the crowds who have followed him. He does not tell them to go away, instead he tells his disciples, “you give them something to eat.” You share resources with your neighbors. You, help me do something to take care of these people because they are not just a problem to be dealt with, they are people worthy of love. Our New Testament text is the perfect example and case study of when everyone shares, there is enough. In fact, there are left-overs. There is an abundance. Sacred sharing is taking place.

God’s abundance is shown when we share gifts with our neighbors and when we view all people as gifted by God. Last week, I had the privilege of traveling to NEXT Church’s national gathering. NEXT Church is a national movement of the PC (USA) that encourages church leaders to think creatively and outside of the box for new ways to engage worshipers and neighbors in changing times. Two of the keynoters, D’Amon Harges and Mike Mather from Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana told powerful stories of the power about sacred sharing and ministry partnerships. Mike, who is the pastor of Broadway and D’Amon who is the “roving listener” by title, spoke about what happened when they stopped viewing their neighbors as people who needed something from them and started viewing their neighbors as individuals who were gifted by God and had resources to share just as they did.

The entirety of D’Amon’s work as “roving listener,” is wandering around the neighborhood near the church and spending time developing relationships with neighbors. This practice strengthens all partners. For example, Broadway had an afterschool tutoring program to teach children English in the church’s neighborhood. D’Amon noticed children had stopped coming.  As D’Amon talked to neighbors, he learned that the children were still meeting, but meeting in the house Maria, an immigrant who spoke fluent Spanish and English, was an excellent teacher, AND gave the children community through inviting their families to meals every week. Maria also offered her students’ younger siblings a place to play after school. Through the process of knowing their neighbors and listening and being open to where God was already at work in their neighborhood, Broadway was able to form partnership with Maria in their community.  Broadway stopped their tutoring program and partnered with and got on board with what Maria was already doing in neighborhood. The neighborhood children benefited and the church benefited from knowing neighbors. Is the Lord, really with us, or not? Yes, the Lord meets us in our neighbors.

Presbyterian churches were encouraged to read the book Neighborhood Church: Transforming your congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission. One quote from the book captures exactly what D’Amon and Mike were encouraging through listening as well as sacred sharing of gifts and space. Authors Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Mueller write, “Everyone has something they can give. Learning to receive as well as give is essential to preserving the dignity of all partners. Maintain an abundance mentality recognizing resources that are already present.”

Shared space is sacred. Sacred sharing builds up the community and the community of faith. Sharing spaces at tables, homes; sharing gifts to build up all. Sharing resources so no one goes without. As the famous African proverb goes, “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. But if you want to walk far, walk together.” Is the Lord really with us or not? God, our Rock is everywhere.

I saw God’s gifts and love in action as I watched a women let an elderly man on oxygen go before her in the line at Walmart. I see God’s gifts and love in action as I read an article about a woman sharing toilet paper and groceries with a 92-year-old man who was just out doing his weekly shopping trip. As people work together to make sure the most vulnerable of our neighbors, hungry children and the elderly are cared for. Times like these remind us we are all in this together. We all have gifts to share. We all can point towards God’s abundant love and comfort. Sacred sharing takes both partners being willing to do the hard work of listening, and of holding space together. Poet Micky ScottBey Jones’ poem, “Invitation to Brave Space” takes this notion of sacred sharing a step further. The poem reads:

“Together we will create brave space

Because there is no such thing as “safe space”

We exist in the real world

We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.

In this space

We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,

We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,

We call each other to more truth and love

We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.

We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.

We will not be perfect.

This space will not be perfect.

It will not always be what we wish it to be

But

It will be our brave space together,

And

We will work on it side by side.”

What gifts do you have to share? What space can you share? Encourage you to share your responses with those around you or feel free to post your response in comment section. Is the Lord really with us or not? As we share, God’s love spreads. Friends, as we continue to view others through the lens of the cross throughout this holy season of Lent, let us do so with the love and compassion that Christ had for the crowd of people gathered to be taught and healed, even as Christ mourned the loss of John the Baptist.

Let us be challenged like the Israelites to see the signs that God is indeed with us and search for God’s abundance all around us. Let us accept the challenge to see everyone, even those we may disagree with, as beloved and gifted children of God. Everyone we encounter in the world has something to bring to the table. Everyone listening has gifts and spaces to share. Even if it appears small, like a loaf of bread, through God, all are multiplied and abundant. Shared gifts and shared spaces are sacred. Walking together is a sacred walk. Will you share what God has given? Amen.

What I See Through Lens of Cross: Holy Dust

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Scripture: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

(Poem by Ann Weems) Merciful God, those of us who walk along this road do so reluctantly.

Lent is not our favorite time of year. We’d rather be more active-planning and scurrying around. All of this is too contemplative to suit us. Besides we don’t often know what to do with piousness and prayer, and stillness.

Perhaps we’re afraid to have time to think, for thoughts come unbidden. Perhaps we are afraid to face our future, knowing our past. Give us courage, Oh God to hear your word and to read our living into it. Give us the trust to know we’re forgiven, and give us the faith to take up our lives and walk. Amen.

Friends, here we are again tonight walking solemnly into another Lenten season. Again we come together on a holy Wednesday evening, striving to have contemplative hearts and spirits in a world that refuses to be quiet. Lent invites all of us to hit the pause button, to refocus on hearts on God as we prayerfully examine our priorities, actions, thoughts, and expectations. As the listeners of Joel had a call to “return to the Lord with all our hearts,” we too, have the same call. Ash Wednesday calls us to remember the fragility of life and to “tear our hearts” with the many things going on in our world that break the heart of God. It invites us to communal and individual repentance.  This holy evening invites us to remember the gift of life and how short our lives are.

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” are perhaps the most solemn words pastors speak. No one likes to think about death. No one likes to remember we are frail, mortal human beings and that death will come one day. Death evokes in many a fear which makes us uncomfortable.  Not an Ash Wednesday goes by without a resurfacing of images from Parkland school shooting in Florida, as a women grieved with ashes on her forehead.  Yet, Ash Wednesday invites us to live in tension of fear and hope of promise resurrection.

There is beautiful liturgy of Ash Wednesday that calls us to response in fear, but also in hope. In fear, but also in hope we enter into this holy and reflective season of Lent, not knowing where it will take us, but having confidence that God will be with us each and every step of the way. As we follow Christ’s footsteps towards the cross, we remember the power of God’s love.

In fear, but also in hope we rend our hearts and not our clothing, resting in a God who is slow to anger and quick to forgive. In fear, but also in hope we return to God. A God who turns a face towards Jerusalem and toward the cross. A God who fabricated us from dust and is with us as we return to dust. A God who sits with us and holds our hand as we each inevitably walk through the shadows of the valley of death.  A God who promises resurrection and hope, who makes all things new, just as flowers and plants begin to sprout up from ashes of devastating wildfires in Australia.

In fear, but also in hope we look toward one another through the lens of the cross, as the cross builds bridges of reconciliation with people who on the surface are unlike us. As we strive to work on our hearts, as we strive to see our siblings through the lens of the cross, do we see each person created as a beloved child of God? Do we see a life created by God that while fleeting, deeply matters in God’s world? Do we take steps towards valuing life in such a way that we never hesitate to show God’s love to all we encounter?

Friends, let us challenge ourselves this Lenten season to see the lives of others through the lens of the cross. To see each person’s brief time on this Earth as valuable and worthwhile. To gift up acts of mercy and compassion. To not look at another person as an object or means to an end, but as a beloved child of God. To keep looking for- and being part of what God is doing here on Earth among and through us.

Every year, as part of my Ash Wednesday devotions and preparation for Lent, I’ve read Blessing the Dust, a poem by author Jan Richardson. I invite you to hear her words now as we reflect on the fragility of life and the importance of each life.

Blessing the Dust for Ash Wednesday (poem by Jan Richardson)

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

Friends in life and in death, we are beloved, and we belong to God. Amen and amen.

 

Be the Light of Christ

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Before we come to our text this morning, allow me set the stage and give some background. In Isaiah’s text, the Israelites have likely only recently returned from Babylonian exile. Isaiah fiercely speaks against false worship, which is self- serving, and urges people towards true worship. Worship that doesn’t stop but bleeds over into the lifestyles of the people. Like our text from Micah last week, Isaiah delves into what God values and how God really wants followers to act in order to let their light shine. Hear words from Isaiah 58:1-12. We will be focusing on Matthew’s text which continues this theme and is situated immediately following the beatitudes and part of sermon on mount. Hear words from Matthew 5:13-16.

Imagine a world without salt and light. Imagine a world with no sun, light source or no salted chocolate covered pretzels. Both are important. In our text, Christ names and announces what listeners of sermon on mount and what people gathered here today already are.  You are salt. You are light. He names and claims the crowd and us. Jesus gives the crowd and us our true identity and purpose. Jesus doesn’t say we are “supposed to be” salt and light or “encouraged to be” salt and light Jesus doesn’t say if you strive and work hard and finally become salt and light God will love you more. No, he says- you are salt, you are light…and remember the sorts of folks Jesus addressed Sermon on the Mount to…the poor, the frightened, the hungry, the outcasts, the sick, the misfits. Yet Jesus says you are worthwhile and seen. You are heard and I am commissioning and sending you to be the salt and light that you already are in the world, a world that desperately needs salt and light. You are claimed. You are embraced. Friends, God made us to spice things up- not to overpower the dish, but to enliven it, to enhance and highlight flavors, to preserve. And God made you to shine in a way only you can. You are called to live out gifts now go and do.

Has anyone ever experienced a complete absence of light? One incredible aspect of living in Winchester is we have several caverns within driving distances. Last summer, I had the opportunity to tour the breathtaking Shenandoah Caverns. While the cavern formations were beautiful, the piece of the tour I most vividly remember was when our guide gave our group the opportunity to experience an environment completing lacking light. I remember lifting my hands to my face and not even being able to make out the outlines of my fingers. The guide waited several minutes to let us take in the darkness but then lit a small match. I remember even this small match sent beacons of light throughout the cavern and illuminated the faces of people on tour.  Even in small quantities salt and light can make a difference. Just a little salt is needed to enhance a dish and bring out other flavors in dish. Even the small match can fill a dark cavern with light.  Even a small candle is visible from over a mile away. My favorite service of the year has always been the candlelight service on Christmas Eve.  Because as we pass the light from Christ candle from one to another the sanctuary is a glow with the light of Christ.

Since our Epiphany theme is “Be the Light of Christ,” we will shift to focus more on being light of world. There’s a powerful illustration from one of my favorite movies that seems to capture the power of just one light and even how just one light can make a big difference and spread outward.  In the clip, the hobbit Pippin sneaks up to light a signal torch. Once the torch is lit, the light signals various torch keepers from other villages to light their beacons and the light spreads. You may have noticed as the light spreads from beacon to beacon, Gandalf profoundly says in a way only Gandalf can, “Hope is kindled.” Sharing even a little bit of light makes a difference.

You are the salt of the earth, but don’t ever lose your saltiness. You are the light of the world, so don’t hide your light.  Friends, in the darkness of the world it can be easy for us to want to withdraw from society and dampen or not fully embrace the light that Christ sees in us. It can be easy to “hide our lights under a bushel,” but Jesus reminds us that because we are God’s people, we have received God’s light and something that is meant to be shared. Light that comes from within is never, ever meant for ourselves alone. While the light of Christ can’t help but warm us, it is always meant to be shared. Always meant for the world.

Where have you seen God’s light in others lately? My three years at Pittsburgh Theological seminary would have been darker without my friend Minh. Despite encountering horrible hardships very early in her life, Minh’s faith showed great light to others. Minh grew up in Vietnam and was 11 years old when the war when Saigon fell. She experienced more horror early in life than most people experience throughout their lives. Her father and two of siblings were all shot and killed in front of her in her family’s backyard. She was in Saigon as it fell and tried to escape with her younger brother but was caught and become a prison of war. She endured horrible hardships as she escaped the country. But her light is the strongest Christian light I know. Even despite all the tragedies in her life she did not allow her faith in Christ to be overcome by darkness but with God’s help she became a light for others. While in seminary, she encouraged all our classmates through prayer, support, and wonderful homemade Vietnamese food. So we all referred to her as “Auntie” Minh because she was like our mom away from home, even when she had her own academic struggles through seminary. She never hid her light and felt called to share her story with others in hopes to let others know that even though she lived through trauma, and struggled with her faith, God was always with her and is with them too. So she worked with author Michelle Layer Rahal to write her story, Straining Forward, to encourage others.

So what actions might we all take to be the light of Christ? There may be a kid at your school who everyone else talks about behind their back and who is frequently bullied.  Who sits alone at the lunch table and is always excluded. Even if you shine a little bit of light and sit with them at lunch, you are standing out. You are setting an example.  When you welcome the stranger, you are the light of Christ. Maybe our lights shine when we stand up against violence, when we work to unify our neighbors in times of darkness.  Maybe our lights shine when we try to bring people together and not find more grounds for which to divide people.

What is the darkness today that our light needs to dispel? Apathy? Privilege? Divisiveness? Jesus makes concrete the work of love, compassion, healing, and justice. It’s not enough to simply believe our identities of salt and light. That’s a powerful starting place but we are called to take even a small step forward. To be salt, to be light, to be followers of Jesus, is to take seriously what our identity signifies. To not hide our light. To not choose blandness over boldness. To not keep our love for Jesus a hushed and embarrassed secret. But to do our part to make sure hope is kindled. Amen.

Follow the Light

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Scripture: Matthew 4:12-23

Out of all the gospels, it is safe to say that the writer of Matthew is most meticulous at wanting to make sure their listeners understand that Jesus is the one who has come to fulfill the prophecies of Old Testament prophets. Our text this morning references Isaiah, a text which we most often hear at Christmas time. The text speaks to the people who walk in darkness and the promise of the magnificent coming light. Isaiah’s text is pastoral and speaker is striving to fill the people who are in darkness with a great hope in a greater light to come.

Sometimes, we don’t talk too much about where Jesus was located when events in his ministry occurred but today he is in a cross roads type town. But Capernaum, where our New Testament reading takes place, might have some back history which is worth mentioning. Matthew says, Jesus makes a home here, by the water (can’t blame him.) This particular community had a long history of being Assyrian, a growing town in Roman Empire, and deep roots in Jewish history. The original audience would be familiar with the darkness wrapped up in the history of geography. In Matthew, Jesus’ light or saving presence shines into and among the darkness of Roman’s imperial domination. The Old Testament lectionary is quoted in the New Testament reading. Pastors tend to geek out when the lectionary readings from the Old and New Testament support each other so well.

To start off, I need to confess something. If God in Christ would have approached me the way he did Simon, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee, I would have not followed. The idea of become a fisher of people, does not resonate with me in the same way it would have resonated with these men. In fact, the idea of making someone fishers for people would have had me running scared going the opposite direction. You see, I don’t like to fish. During my college years as I served as a camp counselor, one of my least favorite tasks, was teaching young campers to bait hooks, I didn’t like harming the worms. I even tried to get the summer camp to use the little jelly fake worms to no avail. Don’t get me wrong, I like being near or on water, but something about baiting hooks and smelling the fish smells drives me away.

Maybe you would fit into the fisher of people mold, maybe you really love to fish and can identify with Jesus’ calling to these men, but I’ve never really bought into it—the fishing that is. Even growing up in the church, I’d hear amazing stories about people giving up everything to follow Christ in radical ways, leaving families and all they knew.  And yet somehow, growing up, as much as I admired these people, I thought the only authentic way to follow was to somehow become NOT me. To try to fit into a certain mold, that didn’t feel like me. I thought I would have to leave behind my authentic self and unique gifts to fit into a cookie cutter mold for Christ follower.

But friends, one of the exciting takeaways from our scripture reading today is that Jesus calls people as they are, from where they are, being who they are. Phil set this up perfectly- if you were here last week and heard about being born again…and again, I say this because throughout his sermon, Phil demonstrated how God’s call to each individual is particular to and as unique to the person’s personality as our fingerprints are. Phil’s call story looks and feels different from mine, and that is okay. My Christian journey may look different from yours, and that is okay too.

So what compels me to follow Christ day in and day out? One of the more memorable times I experienced God’s grace and call was when I was working at summer camp in college. I loved seeing campers experience God in nature and I lived for seeing the “light bulbs” go off when they learned something new about Christ. I love to hear about ways God intersects with people’s lives and I love walking alongside people through their faith journeys. I’m compelled to follow Christ because of the hope following Christ brings.

I love how Jesus’ invitation for disciples to follow is specific, particular, rooted in the language, culture, and vocational quirks these men knew best. During the season of Epiphany, our scripture readings each week reveal characteristics of Christ.  This week, we see Christ as highly relational and a speaker who knows his audience. These men would have known what fishing entails, all the joys of reeling in a hard to catch fish, the nuances of the water, and how hard it can be to be patient when no fish are in sight.  What I love so much about this passage is we are shown that Christ relates to all of us on a deeply personal level. Jesus did not invite them to walk away and abandon who they were, Jesus called them to follow and become their most authentic selves. Jesus throughout his ministry is authentic and relational.  He meets people where they are. How does Christ uniquely call out to your heart of hearts in a way that best makes your Spirit sing?

Perhaps you resonate with Sam, who is in business but love rehabbing homes on the side for affordable rent. While working on flipping homes, Sam reuses materials that would have otherwise gone into landfills. Being a business man pays Sam’s bills but working on flipping homes for affordable rent is what makes his heart sing, it is Sam’s ministry. Or perhaps you are a teacher who works long hours because you know it is your ministry to mentor, be with, and teach children or youth. Each person here holds a unique part of story as each person here strives to follow the light of Christ the best they can, day in and day out.

I love and wholeheartedly agree with pastor and blogger Debi Thomas’ statement, “I don’t believe we are meant to follow Jesus into self- annihilating abstract. We’re not supposed to heed his call in general as if Christianity comes in a number of pre-packaged, cookie cutter shapes we have to pummel ourselves into. If we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in. We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our memories, our backgrounds, and skills and that God will multiply, shape, and bring to fruition everything we offer up to God from the daily stuff of our lives. As though God is saying, I will take cultivate, deepen, magnify, protect, and perfect the people God created you to be.”

Another important note from our text reminds us that God’s invitation for us to follow Christ, is that God alone initiates the invitation. The promise is from God to us and not from us to God.  Just as we can point others to the light of Christ, but we solely are not responsible for their spiritual “saving.”  As pastor Barbara Brown Taylor beautifully reminds us, “This is not a story about us. It is a story about God, and about God’s ability not only to call us but also to create us as people who are able to follow—able to follow because we cannot take our eyes off the one who calls us, because he interests us more than anything else in our lives, because he seems to know what we hunger for and because he seems to be food.” It is God alone, who captures the imagination and makes visions of God’s love and light for the world known. We can only follow the Light, share stories about the light, and seek to share God’s light with all we encounter.

Friends, to close, I invite us all to think through the following questions, because our individual thoughts on these questions are as unique as our fingerprints: What compels you to follow Christ? What is it about the light of Christ that attracts you? How might God be calling to you this day, January 26th, 2020? Andrew King’s poem, “Why you leave your nets and follow,” begins to address some thoughts on these questions. I invite you to hear his words:

Because your hope for that promised kingdom

Has teased the edge of your thoughts

The way waters tease the edge of the shore

Because his words stir that hope

In the depths of your soul

The way wind stirs the waves of the sea

Because you sense that his love

Like a sea without bounds

Is as large as the needs of the world

And because he’s called you by name

And the heart in you swims

Towards that love, toward joy, toward light, toward home.

Friends, follow Christ, the Light, the best you can every day. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Marked By God’s Love

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Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

I am told by some that I can find theology in every movie I watch.  I’m not sure if this is true for all pastors types, but I think it is for me. A memorable scene from one of my favorite movies includes conversation about identity and reminds me a lot about baptism. In fact, from the very opening scene as the sun rises over African landscape, there are hints of theology spread throughout. In the Lion King, after the tragic death of his father, King Mufasa, young Simba is forced out into the wilderness, away from his family and destiny. While in the wilderness Simba is faced with a bit of an identity crisis. His father, Mufasa appears in the African night sky while Simba is at a watering hole.  Mufasa voices booms in the night sky, “you have forgotten who you are and therefore you have forgotten me. Look inside yourself Simba, you are more than what you have become.” Mufasa challenges Simba to, “remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king.” Mufasa is challenging Simba to remember his roots. To remember where he came from. To remember his destiny and who he really is.

What’s your baptismal story? I always encouraged students in my confirmation class to have conversations with their families and hear stories about when they were baptized. I encourage them to ask how they reacted. I don’t remember my baptism, but my parents do. So they have passed along stories. I know I was baptized in the summer and that my Pappap served as the elder representative. I know I heard the words of baptism and that I was along with others in the waters of baptism, baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But even before we are baptized, we are children of God. Friends, it is important to remember who we are. To remember our identities.

Our text from Matthew tells Jesus’ baptismal story. Like others before him, Jesus approaches the baptismal waters and ask his cousin John to baptize him. I’ve often wondered why Jesus needed to be baptized and thought a lot about that this week. So I looked closer at Jesus’ words. These are the first words of Christ, spoken in Matthew’s gospel.

“Let it be so then; it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness,” Jesus says, and it sounds so dry and stiff and formal, as if to say, let’s just check this box and be done with it. But read under the words: John blessing Jesus will be an act of righteousness.

And in this moment Jesus redefines what righteousness is, and you wonder if any of the Pharisees and Sadducees were still hanging around to hear it, if their beef started right then, because in Jesus’ eyes righteousness is not about crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s in a way that doesn’t anger God, but about living in such a compassionate and joyous and loving way that what you do is a blessing and delight to God. God delights in us, and we can bring smile to God’s face. Righteousness isn’t about following the rules in order to fly under God’s radar. Righteousness is about grabbing God’s promises by the hand and saying I love you too with every single action. About being claimed by and marked by God’s love.

And so it is that John, prophet but mortal, man of the odd fashion sense and the even odder diet, comes to dunk Jesus under the waters of the Jordan, and to tell this sinless man that his sins are forgiven, because to hear words of forgiveness is a delight to God. And God in heaven shows that delight by opening up the heavens, and God the Spirit soars down to rest on the dripping wet shoulder of God the Son, the beloved. The Holy Trinity, blessed and full of blessing.

God comes to us for blessing. Not because God needs it from us, but because God delights to see us be more loving, more joyful, more courageous, more faithful. God delights when we strive to be beacons pointing others to the light of Christ. God sees us as blessings. Blessings in human skin, just waiting to reach out and bless others. That is how God created us to be. Beloved blessings for God’s beloved world.

There is a line in the Presbyterian Book of Order that I love—I know, it isn’t exactly beach reading, but buried in section three of article two of the Directory for Worship is one of the clearest summations of Christian living I know: It says, “Baptism is God’s gift of grace and also God’s summons to respond to that grace. Baptism calls to repentance, to faithfulness, and to discipleship. Baptism gives the church its identity and commissions the church for ministry to the world.” (W-2.3006)

Look inside yourself and remember who you are.  Remember whose you are. Baptism is God’s gift of grace to us, grace enough to turn our sin-spotted lives and messy efforts into blessing enough for the world we know. Baptism is God’s call to respond to that grace, to go out into the world to love and serve and be truthful and kind. In baptism, God comes to us and says: you are going to be my blessing. You are going to be my blessing in this world. You are going to share God’s light and be marked by God’s love.

Let’s circle back to what does it mean when we say, “Remember your baptism?” is it merely a remembrance of the ritual? I have a pastor friend who says she strives to remember her baptism every time she washes her hands, swims, gets caught in the rain, in order words, she remembers her baptism every time she interacts with water. Ever since hearing her rituals for remembering her baptism, I’ve strive to do the same. Friends, to remember your baptism is to remember who you are and whose you are. To remember you are claimed and beloved by God.

In baptism we are forgiven, but not just so we can feel good about ourselves, not just so we can wave our clean records under other people’s noses. In baptism we are forgiven so we can get over ourselves and our failings and get on with God’s holy work. In baptism we are forgiven so that when God comes to us, there will be nothing holding us back.

I love how Christian author Rachel Held Evans describes baptism. She says, “Baptism reminds us that there’s no ladder to holiness to climb, no self-improvement plan to follow. It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair. Where the world calls us names like, screw-up, fake, slacker, addict, in baptism we are named beloved. In baptism you are told you are beloved and that is enough.” Baptism is the very acknowledgement of people’s beloved-ness. I would add in baptism we are claimed and marked by God’s love.

Even still, about a million times a day I echo Simba’s identity crisis and John’s disbelief. I echo John’s question…You come to me? But God does. Over and over, despite all the evidence I can give that I am not worthy to be God’s co-worker, God comes to me and God comes to you and says, “Look here. I have work for you to do. You are forgiven, freed, and beloved. So no excuses. Get to it.” Come to the waters. Remember who you are. Over and over, Jesus comes to us. I’m asking you to bless me, he says.

Will we? Will we remember who we are? Will we remember whose we are? Friends, may we all remember we are beloved and sent.  Amen.

 

 

When God Moves In…

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Today’s scripture lesson is the gospel of John’s highly poetic and deeply theological birth narrative, only there are no shepherds, no manger, no Mary, no Joseph…just the Word which is Christ and God. The One who chooses to enter into the world of messiness and heartache. The One who comes to redeem the nonredeemable. So what happens when God moves in? This poetic opening of John’s gospel sets the stage for Christ and for the ministry Christ will embody during his time on Earth, here these words from John 1: 1-18

There is a lot of deep theology happening in our passage this morning. Pastor Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message of John 1:14 beautifully captures Jesus’ mission to relate to us.  John 1:14 reads, “The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhoods.”  Other translations note that Christ “pitched a tent, and made a dwelling among humankind.” God came to be with us.  I don’t know about you, but when I move somewhere, I don’t want to move into a neighborhood or house that is a mess. I want things safe, neat, and organized.

Yet, one of the main points that jumps out in our passage today is that God in Christ, sought out humankind and came into the messiness of our world. Christ chooses to enter into the messiness to be in relationship with humankind. When God in Christ moved into our neighborhoods, one of the first things that happened was the messiness and horrific events of our text last week. As a toddler, Jesus is faced with people who want to take his life, Jesus and his family have to flee to Egypt and deep sadness comes for all male children under two who are left behind. This is the messy world Christ entered into.

Yet God chooses to bring light into the world of darkness. Christ heals the sick, eats with sinners, and works on reconciliation. Jesus, in the flesh, is in the presence of the unclean and untouchable.  He speaks to outcasts. God through Christ, knows what it is like to cry and have deep ranges of emotion, as hymn “Once in Royal David City” so beautifully points out, “tears and smiles, like us he knew.”  Christ knows what it is like to lose a loved one. He knows what it is like to be rejected. Christ is generous inside and out, true from start to finish. When God moves in, things change.

What does it mean that God in Christ moved into our neighborhoods in 2020? What does it mean to First Presbyterian Church in Winchester, VA? What does it look like to witness God moving among us and among those with whom we interact with each day? I love how we can see out into our neighbors as people pass us by. Because God in Christ came into the messiness of our world, there is a light which no darkness can overcome and the light of Christ is something Christians must strive to share with all they encounter. The challenge for each of us is to step outside of our boxes and comfort zones and move into the neighborhoods where God is already present and point to the light of Christ.

This morning, we will participate in tradition known as “Star Words” or “Star Gifting.” You may have noticed extra baskets this morning as you came in. In these baskets are stars. Each star has a word written on it. The stars are face down because you don’t get to pick your word- the star will, like a wand, choose you in a sense.

Think of it as the opposite of a New Year’s Resolution, in which you try to correct some defect in yourself, and receive instead this gift of a word, to carry with you throughout the year. To illuminate your journey; to help guide you as seek new ways to encounter God and share God’s love and light with neighbors throughout the year. Perhaps consider looking your word up in the dictionary in order to grasp new meaning.  For example, we hear the words like grace, peace, joy, and hope all the time, but what exactly do they mean?

I invite you to take a star. Take it home with you, and put it somewhere you can see it. On your bathroom mirror, near your coffee pot, as a bookmark in your daily devotional, on your computer monitor at work or home, in your workshop or car.  The word on your star may not make sense to you at this point. You may not even like; but watch and wait. After all, we don’t always get a word that makes our hearts sing, but as one of my much younger friend says, “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.”

For some, Star Words might be easy. For example, one of my pastor friends received the word time just before she went on sabbatical. As she entered a time of rest, she was more aware of what a gift it was to be able to rejuvenate her spirit and spend time with God without the many of the distractions of day to day life. But for others, your Star Word will be a growing edge. One of the words is serenity. I can imagine many of us would struggle to find the gift of serenity in our busy lives…we can struggle with being calm or tranquil.

However, in some ways, meditating on the words that are more challenging or dissonant can be even more revealing than words that we like, or words that make sense to us easily. Sometimes the word we most need to hear is that which we least want to hear. Our challenge is to reflect on the words’ presence in our lives throughout this year. It may break in like an epiphany. It may slink in quietly through the back door like a barn cat.

My question for all of us this year as we receive our star word is how can we use our word to show the light of Christ? Friends, it can be so easy to find all the darkness among us in the world as we begin 2020, we unfortunately don’t have to look too far….but our challenge as Christians is to display the light of Christ and help others see the light and hope of Christ in our world. We are called to point to the Light of Christ, which shines through the darkness when all other lights go out.

Some of my favorite books to read fall into the fantasy category of literature which often chronicle epic battles between sources of good and evil, so it shouldn’t be too surprising to discover I’m a fan of Harry Potter series. One of the more popular quotes from the series comes from Headmaster Dumbledore in the Prisoner of Azkaban during his start of the school year speech.

Speaking into the lives of the students and the rising darkness that is Voldemort, Dumbledore reminds the students that, “Happiness can always be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” As Dumbledore says we just need to turn on the light. We just need to remember to open our hearts and eyes and look for God’s light that shines even in darkness. Our star words can help us gain a little clarity in the coming year and can help us see the Light of Christ burning all around us.

So friends, as I wrote words on each star, I prayed over each one of these stars-that each star would find its way to precisely the right person, to guide them in the way of Jesus. To challenge them in a new way as they seek to grow in their faith journeys and strive to love God and love neighbor. My hope is this word may guide you this year as you share the all-encompassing love and grace of God with all you encounter; as you seek to get out of these walls and out into the neighborhood.  We are all challenged and invited to use our words as a chance to reflect on how God speaks to God’s people.

What might we learn from one word? What treasured wisdom might resurface? May your word surprise you in the best ways, may you wrestle with it and poke at it-and may it poke back at you. Friends, may you be pushed out in awe into the neighborhoods as you encounter God in new ways and share the light of Christ with all you encounter along the way. Share the light of Christ this year. Amen.