I’ve been meaning to ask…..what do you need?

Sanctified Art/ Break Open/ Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity/ SanctifiedArt.org

Scripture: Job 2:11-13

11 When Job’s three friends heard about all this disaster that had happened to him, they came, each one from his home—Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuah, and Zophar from Naamah. They agreed to come so they could console and comfort him. 12 When they looked up from a distance and didn’t recognize him, they wept loudly. Each one tore his garment and scattered dust above his head toward the sky. 13 They sat with Job on the ground seven days and seven nights, not speaking a word to him, for they saw that he was in excruciating pain.

2 Timothy 4:9-18

Do your best to come to me quickly. 10 Demas has fallen in love with the present world and has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus has gone to Dalmatia. 11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark, and bring him with you. He has been a big help to me in the ministry. 12 I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13 When you come, bring along the coat I left with Carpus in Troas. Also bring the scrolls and especially the parchments. 14 Alexander, the craftsman who works with metal, has really hurt me. The Lord will pay him back for what he has done. 15 But watch out for him, because he opposes our teaching.

16 No one took my side at my first court hearing. Everyone deserted me. I hope that God doesn’t hold it against them! 17 But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that the entire message would be preached through me and so all the nations could hear it. I was also rescued from the lion’s mouth! 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil action and will save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and always. Amen.

This morning, I invite you to use the song written for the I’ve Been Meaning to Ask series, Covenant of Grace, as a chance to pause as we prayerfully begin our time in scripture this morning.

            Facebook is admittedly a hot mess. It can both foster connections and fester deep divisiveness. It can help build relationships or can tear relationships apart. Facebook time, at least for my personal sanity, needs to be limited and while I have often thought of just disconnecting entirely, one of the biggest gifts from Facebook has been being a member of the Young Clergywoman International community. As the title of the group suggests, this is a space for women pastors under forty to come together, to offer advice, humor, and yes, the occasional rant or two. Last week, I shared with group how ministry in 2021 after months of social distancing has felt a bit like trying to paddle up creek without a paddle.  I shared I was tired of the horrible news coming out of places like Afghanistan and Haiti, and how much I missed just being a pastor and not a public health expert. Perhaps you have had similar rants over the last year. Many of my colleagues shared their deep solidarity. One of my ministry friends saw post and called me. When I picked up the phone she asked me……Amanda, what do you need? The conversation was filled with moments of sacred solidarity.

            I’ve been meaning to ask…..what do you need? Like all questions in series, this question fosters intentionality, warmth, curiosity, and courage. When we ask the question, what do you need, we are letting person know we believe certain things. We believe everyone has needs, but each of us needs different things at different times. As Christians, we believe God calls us to care for one another- in seasons of joy, transition, and hardship. As we ask this question, we commit to the work of listening and being present.

            Just as each person shares their own unique needs in their own way, the two characters in our scripture lessons this morning share needs differently. You may have noticed as I read Paul’s letter to Timothy, Paul almost has a laundry list of things he wants to get across to Timothy. Paul wants to make sure Timothy knows who to watch out for but also who he can trust. Paul lets Timothy know he needs some very practical things: the coat he left behind, along with the scrolls and Rev. Remington Johnson observes, “Paul offers us a moment of intense humility as he opens himself up to share exactly what he needs. The grievances, the stuff- all of it is important and offering space for folks to respond openly and honestly about what they need is a sacred act. We can respond to someone’s needs with additions and clarifications- but the first step is hearing- fully hearing- what someone needs and discerning how we might respond.”

            The book of Job is filled with trauma. Job loses his livelihood, his children, cattle, home….his future and present livelihood hangs on by a thread. He is in emotional and physical pain so much so that when his friends initially hear what has happened, the come to see him. Job’s pain was so transformative, his friends did not recognize him. They offered ministry of presence and solidarity, weeping loudly, tearing their clothes, and rubbing ashes on themselves. They sit silently with Job for seven days, saying nothing.

            So friends, what might be some modern practices which emulate these embodied acts of grief and solidarity?  How might we show up for someone in ways today similar to the way Job’s friends did by tearing clothes and putting on ash? Perhaps one way is just showing up and offering empathy.  

            Speaker and author Brene Brown produced a powerful video short explaining the difference between sympathy and empathy. She observes, empathy fuels connection and encourages perspective taking, staying out of judgement, recognizing emotion in other people and then communicating it.  Empathy is feeling with people and is a sacred space. It is as though someone is in a deep hole, shouting up from bottom. I’m stuck it’s dark and I’m overwhelmed! When we response with empathy- we climb down, and say, hey, I know what it is like down here and you are not alone. In face of difficult conversations, we have urge to try to make things better. In the video Brown describes sympathy as looking down in the hole and saying it must be bad. When someone shares something hard with us, empathy says, I don’t even know what to say right now but I’m so glad you told me—Words don’t make much better—-what makes something better is connection. Ask question and be willing to listen.

            What, if anything, do we say as we sit in solidarity? Christian author and Duke Divinity professor, Kate Bowler was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer at 35.  In her article, “Six things to say to a Friend in Need,” Kate gives some examples of ways to be like Job’s friends. Say something like:

  •  “I’d love to bring you a meal this week. Can I email you about it?” I can never figure out something to tell people that I need, even if I need it. But really, bring me anything. Chocolate. A potted plant. A set of weird erasers. I remember the first gift I got that wasn’t about cancer, and I was so happy I cried. Send me funny emails filled with YouTube clips to watch during chemotherapy. Do something that suits your talents.
  • “I am so grateful to hear about how you’re doing. Just know that I’m on your team.” Relief to not have to re-hash all the details multiple times.
  •  “Can I give you a hug?”
    Some of my best moments with people have come with a hug or a hand on the arm. People who are suffering often—not always—feel isolated and want to be touched. Hospitals and big institutions in general tend to treat people like cyborgs. So, ask whether your friend feels up for a hug.  
  • “Oh, my friend, that sounds so hard.” Perhaps the weirdest thing about having something awful happen is the fact that no one wants to hear about it. People tend to want to hear the summary, but they don’t usually want to hear it from you. And that it was awful. So, let your friend talk for a bit. Be willing to stare down the ugliness and sadness. Life is absurdly hard, and pretending it isn’t is exhausting.
  • *****Silence***** The truth is that no one knows what to say. It’s awkward. Pain is awkward. Tragedy is awkward. But in showing up, you bring powerful ministry of presence.” (Kate Bowler)

            Maybe other ways of being present with others in their need include asking follow up questions like- can I come sit with you for a while? Or can I come help you with laundry, dishes, or cleaning? Would you like to borrow a book while recovering?
            Invite you to hear poem, “Unlearning Hands” by Rev. Sarah Are, one of the creators of Sanctified art:

“I used to always ask,

“how can I help?” but

Maybe I can’t help

Maybe these hands are too small

Maybe the boat will sink anyway

Maybe your heart has been broken

And grief has moved in, making itself

At home in your life.

Maybe what you need from me

Is not a solution

Or a plan

Or a fix-it strategy,

But something else

Something more

I’m learning to unlearn

My desire to fix

I’m learning to unlearn

Centering myself

In the story of your pain.

When I asked before,

“how can I help?”

What I really meant to say

Was, “what do you need?”

What do you need?

My hands might be small,

But they can still hold yours.”

            I can still be present with you-hold your hand. Not trying to fix anything but just providing ministry of empathy and ministry of presence. Week after week, we witness one another’s existence, trauma, needs, and spend time together. This is why we gather together each week, in person and virtually, for connection with God and connection with one another. To seek together how God calls us to love, to make meaning of the crazy, broken, and immensely beautiful world. To remember who and whose we are and just how much we need each other—we need sacredness of solidarity.

            Join us next Sunday as we wrap up our, “I’ve been meaning to ask…” sermon series by exploring perhaps the most important question of the series, where do we go from here? Until then, friends, remember the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” It’s all that easy, and it’s all that hard. Amen.

I’ve been meaning to ask……where does it hurt?

Sanctified Art/ Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity/ sanctifiedart.org

Friends, before we come to our scripture for today, I need to lovingly share a content warning, a bit of a pastoral note. Scripture often contains stories of pain and today’s scripture is no different but I want to say a word about Hannah. A piece of Hannah’s pain comes from not being able to have a child. Our text tells us that God has closed Hannah’s womb and in within Biblical context it was very common for medical concerns to be linked with God’s divine hand. We know that wombs like infertility and child loss are emotional, mental, spiritual, and relational health. Not spiritual ailments- not caused by God’s hand, or anyone’s lack of faith. This pain is real and hard but leads me to call attention to fact that Hannah is whole and beloved by God exactly the way she is portrayed in today’s text. One deep pain in the text comes from not being fully seen- by having her pain questioned or even being accused of drunkenness. When her pain is finally acknowledged, she finds a level of peace and deep sadness leaves her face.

            But before we even get started, I wanted to pause and bear witness to any suffering that happens in silence. Please know you are loved and seen. If you are suffering silently right now, please know you can reach out to me or a trusted friend. We can sit with you, cry with you, and if needed connect you with additional forms of support. Regardless, know you are seen loved, and held, by church and more importantly by God.

 Scripture 1 Samuel 1:1-18

Now there was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite[a] from the highlands of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah. He was from the tribe of Ephraim, and he was the son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph. Elkanah had two wives, one named Hannah and the other named Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah didn’t.

Every year this man would leave his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord of heavenly forces in Shiloh, where Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas were the Lord’s priests. Whenever he sacrificed, Elkanah would give parts of the sacrifice to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But he would give only one part of it to Hannah, though he loved her, because the Lord had kept her from conceiving.[b] And because the Lord had kept Hannah from conceiving, her rival would make fun of her mercilessly, just to bother her. So that is what took place year after year. Whenever Hannah went to the Lord’s house, Peninnah would make fun of her. Then she would cry and wouldn’t eat anything.

“Hannah, why are you crying?” her husband Elkanah would say to her. “Why won’t you eat? Why are you[c] so sad? Aren’t I worth more to you than ten sons?”

One time, after eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah got up and presented herself before the Lord.[d] (Now Eli the priest was sitting in the chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s temple.) 10 Hannah was very upset and couldn’t stop crying as she prayed to the Lord. 11 Then she made this promise: “Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life. No razor will ever touch his head.”

12 As she kept praying before the Lord, Eli watched her mouth. 13 Now Hannah was praying in her heart; her lips were moving, but her voice was silent, so Eli thought she was drunk.

14 “How long will you act like a drunk? Sober up!” Eli told her.

15 “No sir!” Hannah replied. “I’m just a very sad woman. I haven’t had any wine or beer but have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. 16 Don’t think your servant is some good-for-nothing woman. This whole time I’ve been praying out of my great worry and trouble!”

17 Eli responded, “Then go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked from him.”

18 “Please think well of me, your servant,” Hannah said. Then the woman went on her way, ate some food, and wasn’t sad any longer.

            Hi, how are you? This is not a rhetorical question, friends, you can answer. J My guess is about 98% of the time, most of us respond, “I’m good, how are you?” We use this response even when we are just okay. If we want to convey we are less than good, we may say, I’m okay, how are you? We might even go so far as to say something like, “well, I’m keeping on keeping on.” Most of the time in casual conversation we keep things pretty surface level. Imagine with me what it might look like for us to say how we really were.

            Hi, how are you? Not so great. Things at work are really hard and I’m getting very anxious.

            Hi, how are you? I’ve been feeling very depressed lately and I don’t know how to shake it.

            Hi, how are you? I’m exhausted. The last year and a half has been so hard. I’m scared. I feel like I have pandemic whip lash—I can’t seem to process the last year and can’t believe it is almost October 2021.

            Hi, how are you? I’m really lonely.

            Hi, how are you? I’m grieving so hard. I miss my beloved every day and I am so mad at God and I cannot stop crying.   

            Or perhaps, as I said often last year when my husband Josh asked me, how are you? “I have a deep sadness in my soul.” Friends, can you relate?

            My guess is all of us in this room have said, “I’m good, how are you,” at one point or another when we have in fact been anything but good. That’s why our question today goes a step past, hi, how are you- instead today’s question invites a specific, honest response. We are currently working our way through the sermon series, I’m been meaning to ask. Last week we talked about how we are all interconnected, how each of us brings where we are from and who we are with us as we try our best to follow Christ. This week, we ask a deeper question—–where does it hurt?

            Maybe you can remember banging an elbow or skinning a knee as a young child. I can remember falling off my bike while riding through the neighborhood at a young age. I had gone down a steep hill WAY too fast. After I fell I looked down and notice I had several road burn cuts and a big scape down my leg. I held in my pain long enough to reach my home where I knew my mom was and immediately starting screaming in pain. My parents would then ask, where does it hurt, I’d point to my leg through tears and they bandaged my cuts and bruises. They acknowledged my pain and worked towards make things better. If you had care-givers who gave compassionate responses- let’s give thanks because one of the hurts of the world is knowing that not all children have someone loving enough to ask where it hurts or to mend and kiss their “boo boos.”

            For some reason, as we grow our hurts can become more difficult to articulate, more challenging to point to where hurts are, especially when our hurts are so complicated. We want to put on a happy face and mask the pain we feel. Think about how easy social media makes it to do this. We don’t post pictures of family fights while away on vacation—all our post are smiling faces and beautiful places. We share graduation photos but not photos of failed tests, or the financial and emotional sacrifices that were made to reach graduation day. During 2020, we may have posted pictures of the new bread recipes we tried or DYI projects, but we didn’t post the pictures of how lonely we may have felt or how hard virtual school was.  How freeing would it be to name our pain and be real?

            In today’s text, Hannah’s pain is raw and real. Today’s scripture encourages us to say our pain, and to see and listen to the pain of others. First we need to speak our pain. Even when she shares it and is met with all the wrong replies, Hannah continues to bear witness and name the pain she is experiencing. There are times in our own lives when we need to name our hurts like Hannah.  Speaking our hurts out loud, taking our whole hearts to God, crying out in despair and anguish and laying out our intense sadness are all responses.  Sometimes, when asked where does it hurt, our truest response might be, “EVERYWHERE!” This is brave, raw, and real. As we name our hurts we are able to be in better relationships with our siblings in Christ. We are able to have honest relationships with God.

            Writer Brene Brown observes, “Our lack of self- awareness and ability to be in pain constructively is directly proportional to the amount of pain we cause in the world.” Though naming our pain is incredibly hard, when we name our pain as Hannah did- we begin to realize that God meets us there. As God sees our pain, God invites us and wants to open our eyes to see the pain of others as well—-to be with people in their pain. To ask where does it hurt and then let our neighbors see our scars and show us theirs. We also are challenged to listen when we ask “where does it hurt?”

            Sometimes, when we ask others “where does it hurt?” we response to the hurts of others in all the wrong ways. Christ can use such times for teachable moments. It takes work and empathy to genuinely listen to pain of others. We need to listen without minimizing or ignoring their pain.  As we look at Hannah’s story- let us remember to ask ourselves, when we have been like Peninah and mocked the pain of others? When have we been like Elkanah and questioned the real nature of other’s pain? When have we been like Eli and dismissed other’s pains?

            We need to listen without trying to fix their pain. Without centering ourselves in their story. For example, if someone tells you they are going through a painful divorce that is not the time to say, ‘well, when I went through my divorce…I did this.” Even when the hurt is the same type of hurt, we all experience it differently.

            How does Christ respond to pain of others? Jesus allows pain to bump up against Him. We see this play out in our Gospel lesson. Jesus sees pain and meets with intense compassion. The word used for compassion literally can be translated “deep gut empathy.” Compassion means “suffer with,” and that is exactly what Christ does. Christ does not cause our pain or pains in the world but Christ does meet us there. As Christ followers we are called to put ourselves in uncomfortable places where other human beings, siblings in Christ, live, breathe, and hurt. Because friends, it is in all those places and spaces, where we also find Christ. Christ invites us into the space of noticing and acknowledging the pain of others.

            Invite you to hear poem written by Rev. Sarah Are. She writes:

“I can tell that you’re hurting.

It’s the way your eyes cast down,

the way you shuffle through the house,

distractedly bumping into things.

It’s the restless sleep and

the quiet space between us which

turns us into icebergs.

We float by, silent in the night,

most everything existing

under the surface.

I can tell that you’re hurting.

It’s the way your prayers were quick

at first, and then—none at all;

your silence challenging God,

daring God to say something to the void.

I can tell that you’re hurting,

but I don’t know what that feels like.

Tell me—

where does it hurt?

I’m not offering to fix the pain,

I’m not that powerful.

However, I am offering to see it.

Show me your scars,

and I’ll show you that

you’re not alone.”

            Where does it hurt? Know you are seen and loved through all your hurts. You are not alone. Friends, remember God in Christ sits with us in our pain. God also challenges us to speak our pains with truth, to see the pain of our siblings in Christ, and to listen to the pains of others. It is all that easy and it is all that hard. Next Sunday, we will seek to come alongside one another and continue seeking to make courageous connection by asking the question, “What do you need?” Amen.

I’ve been meaning to ask…..where are you from?

Art by: Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman/A Sanctified Art LLC/ sanctifiedart.org

Over the next couple weeks, we will be exploring the series, “I’ve been meaning to ask…” from Sanctified Art. Sanctified Art was formed by a group of young women consisting of pastors and artists who work from the premise that art in forms of poetry, music, and artwork can enhance our faith in powerful ways.

            This particular series seeks to cultivate courageous conservations and foster connection. I echo the creators’ at Sanctified Art’s prayer, “through vulnerability and authenticity, may your courageous conversations lead us to glimpses of hope, joy, and help mold us towards becoming the community God created us to be.” This series invites us to turn back towards one another, child of God to child of God, leaning in with courageous and heartfelt questions—seeking to heal divisions, and foster deeper connections.

            The series also includes song, “A Covenant of Grace” by Anna Strickland, with four verses, each building onto the theme of the week. Our New Stone band will introduce a new verse each week to help us center in on the theme and text of the day. I invite you to use the song as a prayerful way to enter into worship. I love the lyrics this week: “We all come from the dusty earth and from places of our birth. Ancestral stories, who we’ll be, we bring it all to ‘come and see.’”

 Scripture from John 1:35-51 CEB

35 The next day John was standing again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus walking along he said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard what he said, and they followed Jesus.

38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he asked, “What are you looking for?”

They said, “Rabbi (which is translated Teacher), where are you staying?”

39 He replied, “Come and see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.

40 One of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Christ[a] ). 42 He led him to Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

43 The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter.

45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”

46 Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”

Philip said, “Come and see.”

47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?”

Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”

49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel.”

50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these! 51 I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.”[b]

            Where are you from?

            The simple answer to this question for me is Hartsville, SC, where I sent most of my formative years.

            BUT I was born in Augusta, Georgia. A more complicated answer to the question of where are you from would be to say, Georgia, Hartsville, SC, Myrtle Beach, SC, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia. All of these places help form me into the person I am today and at one point or another, I’ve called all these places home.

            To expand even further on the question, I might share that my great-grandmother Anna, came through Ellis Island from the Ukraine as a young teenager. I may also share the story of how my great-grandfather Joseph came from Russia. When Joseph’s children asked how he got to US from Russia he always replied, “I walked.” I might share that my ancestral roots also take me back to Germany, Ireland, and Scotland.

            Friends, you see, the answer to the question “where are you from?” really has more than a simple one-word answer. The subtext of the question is: tell me how you became the person you are today. The questions only really begin to crack the surface of deeper questions- what’s your story? What makes you, you? Whose are you? Who are your people? What assumptions about where you come from do you need to disrupt? Where God might be calling you to come and see?

            Dr. Raj Nadella at Columbia Seminary reminds us that we are the sum of all the places, stories, and experiences that shaped us.

            Where we are from may also tie us to several assumptions by other people. Just like Nathanael had assumptions about Jesus simply because he was from Nazareth, we can hold tight to our assumptions about people today. So I want to try some informal polls here, perhaps a way to tell where some of ya’ll are from. Raise hand if from a small town. Big city? Raise your hand if we call carbonated beverage- coke? Soda? Pop? Raise your hand if you use the following to describe the second person plural- youse guys? Yinz? Or what I believe to be God’s personal favorite—ya’ll? J Raise your hand if you drink un-sweeten tea? Sweet tea? Tea served warm? Tea serve warm with milk? Obviously this is a silly and not always accurate way to ask people where they are from, but perhaps you know just a little more about your neighbors, maybe you can erase some assumptions. However, for the most part these are also examples of identifying where someone might live in United States and only scratch the surface. So, friends, where are you from?  

            We have all been influenced by many different places, people and experiences. So, if we are going to foster connections with one another and work with God to build a world that reflects the good desires of our creator for this diverse world, then we are probably going to need to sit down, pour a glass of our favorite beverages and stay for a while to listen to one another’s stories, inside and outside the walls of FPC. The stories God gives us to share aren’t always clean and neat, they often are messy and beautiful stories of what connects us and how we became the person we are. As God’s beloved, each and every one of us has a unique story to tell. These stories can be messy and beautiful- painful and hopeful. They are written and rewritten over time. We bring our whole selves as we seek to follow Christ along the way.

            Our text from Genesis reminds us of a common heritage. The text speaks of a river flowing from Eden and its four unique headwaters symbolize that though we come from various places and diverse backgrounds, we are all interconnected through the main river of Eden, and we have a common home. A shared birthplace. A collective calling to sustain and care for earth. The same God- given breath. We believe everyone is beloved- shaped by the dust of the earth and breath of God. The Spirit of God gives all of creation life and holds creation together, connecting us all. This is part of our origin story.

            Have you ever answered the question “Where are you from?” by saying: I’m from the creator of heaven and earth. I am from the dust of the earth and the breath of the Living God. While I don’t think I ever have, I believe it nonetheless.

            Friends, we ALL belong to God and to one another, and that is exactly where our series, “I’ve been meaning to ask” starts off- on common ground and from a position of humility that we live in a world of God’s own making, not our own. And it is from that foundation we are encouraged to listen with curiosity and openness to the unique story that each of us brings to the table.

            Think about the disciples. All unique people with unique gifts and skills. Jesus meets them all exactly where they are, but doesn’t leave them there. Each of them brings all of their self, where they are from, their assumptions about Jesus and the world, and their entire stories with them as Christ calls them all to come and see. Not only does Jesus see them for the entirety of the person they are, he acknowledges where they are from and where they may be going. You may notice that each of the disciples’ first reaction and title given to Jesus is just as unique as they are.

            Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman writes in artist statement: “This text paints a parade of shifting identities and assumptions, starting off with John the Baptist doing what he does best: pointing people to Jesus. One after the other, these men follow Jesus, despite the fact that not one of them has a full picture of who he is. There is something compelling about Jesus which brings all of these different people together on a common path. As the disciples come together, each with their own experiences and particularities, a patchwork understanding of Jesus pieced together.”

            The image also shows Jesus’ new followers wearing a pattern that references their own identity and their own understanding of who Jesus is. John the Baptist clothes have three water droplets to represent Jesus’ baptism. Andrew identifies Jesus as Messiah or anointed so his clothes contain jars of oil. Phillip who identifies Jesus as the one Moses wrote about in the law, has stone tablets with 10 Commandments. Andrew, Simon, and Phillip’s clothing contains a water reference to their hometown of Bethsaida. Andrew has waves of water, Phillip fish scales, and Simon Peter fish swimming around rocks.

            Then there’s skeptical Nathanael whose clothes are patterned with the very fig branches Jesus saw him under. I think I can relate to the initial skeptical, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” I admire the honesty and bluntness of Nathanael. He assumes that because Jesus is from Nazareth and therefore the “wrong side of the tracks,” Jesus obviously acts like everyone else from Nazareth. Rather than doubting Nathanael’s initial response, and taking his assumptions back to Jesus, Phillip still invited Nathanael to come and to see for himself. He is invited to meet this character from Nazareth first hand and assess who Jesus is from experiencing Jesus for himself. I even think Jesus commends his honestly, saying, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”  Nathanael was, however, relatively quick to bring to set aside assumptions and call Jesus God’s son, Rabbi, and king of Israel.           

            So what would your clothes look like if they had images of both who you were and of your own understanding of who Jesus is? Would your understanding of Jesus have lots of question marks? A shepherd staff? Hands scarred with the wounds of the cross? Each person in our gospel reading today sees something compelling enough in Christ to come and see. Just like each of us see various compelling things in Christ. We bring all we are, all our baggage, history, and assumptions to Jesus’ call to come and see. So friends, where are you from? What do you bring with you as you follow Jesus to come and see?

            Perhaps we need each other to discover the fullness of who Jesus is. To paint a picture. For, “We all come from the dusty earth and from places of our birth. Ancestral stories, who we’ll be, we bring it all to ‘come and see.’”

Childlike Faith: What is God Like?

Prayer of Illumination: Welcoming God, we are about to crawl back into your lap to be held and to hear your familiar stories. Grant us curiosity, excitement, and joy as we listen and as we go out into the world to share your joy with the rest of your children. Amen.

            This summer we’ve had the opportunity to wander and wonder our way through the pages of several children’s books and along the way it was my prayer that we learn more about God and our faith. We’ve met the blues and the yellows. We’ve remembered the importance of prayer. We were reminded of how we can all be like runaway bunnies but God always comes to find us. Last time, we learned that God made each and every one of us with unique gifts given by God and that even though some just clap their hands, that all God’s critters have a place in the choir. This morning, we will explore various answers to the question, “what is God like?”

Scripture: 1 John 4: 11-16 (CEB)

7 Friends, let us love one another, from love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love.  

11 Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us. 13 This is how we know we remain in him and he remains in us, because he has given us a measure of his Spirit. 14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the savior of the world. 15 If any of us confess that Jesus is God’s Son, God remains in us and we remain in God. 16 We have known and have believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.

            An online journal recently asked kids of various ages to draw pictures of God, something I encourage you to do either with kids in your life or on your own. Here are three of my favorites. When asked what God is like, one five year old drew God in superhero get up and observed, “God is like a superhero for the whole world!” Another child drew God with perhaps the stereotypical white hair and white beard man but added giant ears. This 9 year old observed, “God has giant ears so God can hear everything we are saying.” And finally one eight year old drew God watching the whole earth and said, “God doesn’t sleep because he watches over us all the time.” When I did this exercise at previous congregation, a second grader drew a picture of an angelic looking being with a huge welcoming grin and very largely portioned arms reaching towards us for a hug.  She said, “God, the creator of the universe wants to hug us all!”  Friends, what would you draw?

            I took a bit of an informal poll and asked a few folks what God might be like. A six year old observed: “God is probably like a ghost, as big as the world! God is very kind and also very, very important. God has a whole book written about Him!” Another child said, “God is really cool, very kind, and has no hate in heart.” “God is a helpful man.”  Others said God is like a pillow or a really big hug. When asked to answer what is God like, I tend to think back to today’s scripture and the reminder that God is love. God’s love for us is unconditional just like our pets’ love for us is unconditional. God’s love remains no matter what. Our specific answers and images for what God might be like can evolve and change daily. For example, my answer for what God is like today is: God is like a loving grandmother, who prays with and for you each day, who is cheering you on always, who makes you blankets to comfort you, who laughs when you are happy and cries with you when you are sad.

            Scripture writers also provide comparisons for what God is like. There are verses describing God as light, as a patient, and as faithful. Psalm 84 compares God to the life giving sun or a protecting shield. One of the favorite images of Christ in gospels is when Jesus wants to gather up followers with love of a mother hen, holding safe under wings.

            I’m both excited and sad to share today’s book, “What is God like?” Again, I remind you that all of the books used this summer will be available in our church library and I encourage you to go back and re-read them as they all offer powerful insight into what God is like. In today’s book, the late and beloved Rachel Held Evans seeks to provide some answers for children’s question, what is God like? Invite you to hear Rachel’s and Matthew Paul Turner’s words:

“What is God like? That’s a very big question, one that people from places all around the world have wondered about since the beginning of time. And while nobody has seen all of God (because God is far too big for any of us to fully see.) we can know what God is like.

God is like an eagle, sharp eyed and swift, with wings so big you can play under their shadows.

God is like a river, constant and life giving. When you grow near God, you’ll sprout up strong as a tree.

God is like the stars, forever present and bright. Even when they feel far away, you can always look up and see them winking at you.

God is like a shepherd, brave and good, a protector who loves her sheep so much that she watches over all of them and knows their names by heart.

God is like a fort, strong and secure with walls that are mighty and safe. Inside, there are hidden places to hold you when you’re scared or need a quiet place to rest.

God is like the flame of a candle, warm and inviting. With God close by, you can look to the light and see through the darkest of nights.

God is like the wind, passionate and full of mystery. God is both here and, mysteriously, also over there. God is everywhere, swirling throughout the world, whistling across mountain ranges, rustling through trees, and pressing against your cheeks on a breezy day.

God is like an artist, creative and unpredictable, always busy making and remaking everything brilliant and new.

God is like a mother, strong and safe. You can crawl up into her lap whenever you want to, and she will hold you until you fall asleep.

God is like a father, gentle and safe. He will put you on top of his shoulders to give you a bird’s eye view of all creation.

God is like three dancers, graceful and precise. They move to the same music in very different ways, showcasing all of God’s elegance and rhythm in your life.

God is like a rainbow, vivid and full of color, a dazzling reminder of promise and hope for all people after a storm.

God is like a best friend, faithful and true, closer to you than ever your brothers and sisters.

And because we know what God is like, we know that….

God is kind. God is forgiving. God is slow to get angry. God is quick to be glad. God is happy when you tell the truth and sad when things are unfair. She is your protector. He is trustworthy. They are friends when you feel alone. God hopes. God perseveres.

What is God like?”(What is God Like by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner used with permission by Matthew Paul Turner)

            I invite you to take some time throughout the day and even into this week to reflect on your personal answer to the question–what God is like (maybe some images used today resonate with you) Our similes, though never perfect explanations of what God is like, can open our minds to view God in ways that best make sense to us. Though not exact, our similes can awaken our imaginations, can push us to see God in new ways, can help provide a more vast understanding of what God is about. About what God is. So what is God like?

“That’s a very big question, one that people from places all around the world, throughout all time, have answered in many different ways. Keep searching. Keep wondering. Keep learning about God.”

            One of my wise friends answered the question what is God like—by saying I don’t know…and friends that’s a wise beyond years and fair answer. And friends, if you ever find yourself in a moment and space where you don’t know what God is like- that is one hundred percent okay. I love how Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner conclude their book by addressing questions and not knowing……they write with an invitation to remain curious:

But whenever you aren’t sure what God is like, think about what makes you feel safe, what makes you brave, and what makes you feel loved. That’s what God is like.”

            Friends, remember this- keep searching, keep wondering, keep imagining, keep learning more about God, keep access to your childlike faith. God meets our childlike faith with open and welcoming arms and our questions with so much love. Friends, remember what God is like—hold onto those images. God meets us in the love others show us. When you aren’t sure what God is like, think about what makes you feel loved. That is where God meets us because God is love. Amen.

Childlike Faith: When God Made You

Prayer of Illumination: Welcoming God, we are about to crawl back into your lap to be held and to hear your familiar stories. Grant us curiosity, excitement, and joy as we listen and as we go out into the world to share your joy with the rest of your children. Amen.

            Today we continue our summer sermon series, Childlike Faith, which looks closer at children’s books and how children’s books can help us learn about theology and God. We’ll also look at Paul’s letter to predominately Gentile Christians in Corinth. Corinth was an urban center with an ethnically and religiously diverse population. In the particular piece of the Paul’s letter we will look at today, Paul is warning Christians in Corinth about false teachers and speaking about spiritual gifts given to each for the common good as well as to show God to others. As we begin, I invite you to think of your God- given gifts. If you do not know what those might be, I encourage you to speak with family members and close friends, they might be able to provide insights. Our text today goes from 1 Corinthians 12:1-11. Here these words.

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11 (CEB)

12 Brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to be ignorant about spiritual gifts. You know that when you were Gentiles you were often misled by false gods that can’t even speak. So I want to make it clear to you that no one says, “Jesus is cursed!” when speaking by God’s Spirit, and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, 10 performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues[a] to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. 11 All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.

            “All God’s Critters have a place in the choir.” This sign hung in my mom’s kitchen when I was a child and I can almost imagine my mom saying this to my sister and I when we’d fight over who was better at something than the other, as we sometimes did. “All God’s Critters have a place in the choir.” This sign remains in my office today and still holds true. Think about how dull God’s amazing creation would be if all animals were the same. If we had a world filled with just elephants or giraffes, as much as I love both, we’d miss out on so much. God’s colorful creation is a place where there is a place for each critter and each critter bring unique life into creation to make world richer and more complete place. Just looking at the various kinds of fish in the sea shows how creative our God is.

            The same principal is true for humankind. Let’s take a minute to acknowledge how dull world would be if everyone in the room was exactly the same. God, who knows all of us deeply and knew us as we were being knit together in our mother’s womb, recognizes that each of us has a unique way of showing God to others. Some of us show God to others through teaching, others through acts of kindness, others have gifts of administration and book keeping. Others work with their hands while others make things happen behind the scenes. This list of needed spiritual gifts can go on. We all are important pieces needed to ensure God’s community is known.

            I love how Pastor Eugene Peterson’s translates pieces of today’s passage in The Message Bible. “God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of gifts are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful!”

            As I hope we’ve discovered throughout this summer sermon series, children’s books sometimes are not only for children, but also for you and me. Children’s books can teach us quite a lot about God and our faith, if we are paying attention. This morning’s book might be one of my favorites in this series. Beautifully illustrated by David Catrow, with a timeless message written by Matthew Paul Turner, When God Made You, inspires and encourages young children and the young at heart, to learn about their own special and unique gifts. Turner’s book seeks to show children and adults alike, how we all fit into God’s divine plan as we grow, explore, and create for ourselves. The book speaks for itself and offers extra thoughts on our scripture reading for today. I invite you to listen to Matthew Paul Turner’s words and as you hear these words think about some of the Spirit given gifts God has given you….how has God made you wonderfully unique in order to help make God known? :

You, you, when God made YOU, God made you all shiny and new. An incredible you, a you all your own, a you unlike anyone else ever known.

An exclusive design, one God refined, you’re a perfectly crafted one of a kind.

Cause when God made you somehow God knew that the world needed someone exactly like you.

You, you, God thinks about you. God was thinking of you long before your debut. From the very beginning, amid history and time, you, little one, never left God’s mind.

God imagined your eyes, your head’s shape and size and knew what you’d look like when you felt surprised.

God pictured your nose and all ten of your toes. The sound of your voice? God had it composed. The lines on your hands, your hair, every strand, God knew every detail like it was all planned.

Out of billions of faces from cultures, all races, people God made, from all different places, God knew your name. Your pictures is framed. God’s family without you would not be the same.

Cause when God made you, this much is true, the world got to meet who God already knew.

You, you, when God sees you, God delights in what is and sees only what’s true. That you, yes you- in all your glory bring color and rhythm and rhyme to God’s story.

So be you- fully you- a show stopping revue. Live your life in full color; every tint, every hue. Discover! Explore! Have faith but love more. And learn and relearn all that God made for you. Use your talents and passions those gifts that God fashioned. Think up ideas and then put them to action.

Cause God loves you creating, your true self displaying, when light on the inside through art is portraying. When you make believe, the stories conceived, the herorics the magic, those tricks up your sleeve.

When you dance along, spinning like a cyclone, being whoever, whatever, in a world all your own.

God smiles and here’s why- in the spark of your eye, a familiar reflection shines bright from inside.

‘Cause when God made you and the world oohed and ahhed, in heaven they called you an image of God. You, you, when God dreams about you, God dreams about what all that in you will be true.

That you- God’s YOU- will be hopeful and kind, a giver who lives with all heart, soul, and mind. A dreamer who dreams in big and small themes, one who keeps dreaming in journeys upstream.

A mover, a shaker, a lover of nature. A builder of bridges, you, the peacemaker. A you who views others as sisters and brothers and lives by three words: love one another.

A confident you, strong and brave too. You being you is God’s dream coming true.

Cause when God made you, all of heaven was beaming. Over you God was smiling and already dreaming.

            When God Made You is about how God delights in you- in every single person in this space and beyond this gathered space. So friends, what gifts has God given you to help make God known in our world? I invite you to take some time today to think about your unique gifts….to think about God’s dreams for you…to remember that God smiles over each and every one of you.        

            Each of us has been uniquely made by God for a purpose and each of us have God-given gifts to use to glorify God. I challenge us all to claim our God-given gifts, to use them to show others who God is. May we know and claim the knowledge that God’s family without each of us would not be in the same…… for all God’s critters have a place in the choir. Amen.

Faith Like a Child: Runaway Bunny

Prayer of Illumination: Welcoming God, we are about to crawl back into your lap to be held and to hear your familiar stories. Grant us curiosity, excitement, and joy as we listen and as we go out into the world to share your joy with the rest of your children. Amen.

            This morning, we continue the sermon series, “Faith like a Child,” as we look closely at what children’s books can teach us about God and scripture. We know the Bible itself is rich collection of books, filled with stories and poems about the incredible ways God continuously redeems humankind, even and especially when we turn from God and when we try to run away from God. The once lost but always found crowd.

            From the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son to God calling prophets who would much rather run the other direction, to Moses insisting surely there was someone better to lead God’s people, to the disciples who scattered after Jesus’ arrest; humankind has a long history of wanting to hide or runaway. I imagine we can all add additional scriptures or our own personal stories to this list. There are many scriptures of God seeking those who have run away—so in some ways choosing scripture for today was challenging but instead of a well-known lost and found story, I invite us to take a closer look at the minor prophet, Hosea.

            Hosea’s prophecy revolves around God’s unfathomable love for wayward Israel. He prophesized in a time God’s people had turned their backs on God. It was a time of conflict and confusion; a time Israel turned to other Canaanite gods, particularly fertility god Baal. Yet, God continues to seek after God’s wayward people. Hear these words from the prophet Hosea’s from chapter 11:1-11.

Divine love

11 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
        and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
        the further they went from me;
    they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
        and they burned incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
        I took them up in my arms,
        but they did not know that I healed them.

I led them
        with bands of human kindness,
        with cords of love.

    I treated them like those
        who lift infants to their cheeks;
        I bent down to them and fed them.

Divine frustration

They will return to the land of Egypt,
        and Assyria will be their king,
        because they have refused to return to me.
The sword will strike wildly in their cities;
        it will consume the bars of their gates
        and will take everything because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me;
        and though they cry out to the Most High,[a]
        he will not raise them up.

Divine compassion

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
        How can I hand you over, Israel?
    How can I make you like Admah?
        How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
    My heart winces within me;
        my compassion grows warm and tender.

Israel’s and Judah’s responses

I won’t act on the heat of my anger;
        I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;
    for I am God and not a human being,
        the holy one in your midst;
    I won’t come in harsh judgment.
10 They will walk after the Lord,
        who roars like a lion.
        When he roars,
        his children will come trembling from the west.
11 They will come trembling like a bird,
        and like a dove from the land of Assyria;
        and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

            In today’s text, the prophet Hosea seeks to share God’s words for Israel. Even as Israel rebels, God recalls lovingly how God taught the people to walk, like a parent holds a toddler’s hands as they experience attempting to walk for first time. The text recalls how God bent down to the people and fed them. How God’s compassion grows warm and tender not with wrath. The persistence of God to come help and rescue no matter how much Israel turns its back or runs away from God.

            How many of you have read, “The Runaway Bunny?” Margaret Wise Brown, also author of famous children’s book, “Goodnight Moon,” published her classic children’s book, The Runaway Bunny, in 1942. More than 79 years ago, and during that time it has never gone out of print and remains one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. Margaret Wise Brown died more than 65 years ago, so we cannot ask her what influenced her writing The Runaway Bunny, but each of the dozens of times I reread it, I am reminded of how God persistently comes after us, no matter what. I read it as a comforting story that is ties to Psalm 139, the Psalm we spoke pieces of earlier in worship during call to worship: If we ascend to the heavens, God is there, if we make our beds in the muck, in Sheol, or in chaos of life, God is there. God searches for us.

            So as I read her words this morning, I invite you to think through two questions: 1) what might we have in common with the runaway bunny?  And 2) don’t take my word for it, think for yourself who does the momma bunny remind me of? Invite you to hear the story of “The Runaway Bunny.”

 “Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I am running away.” “If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.” “If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny, “I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.” “If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,” said his mother, “I will be a mountain climber and I will climb to where you are.”

“If you become a mountain climber,” said the little bunny, “I will be a crocus in a hidden garden.” “If you become a crocus in a hidden garden,” said his mother, “I will be a gardener and I will find you.”

“If you are a gardener and find me,” said the little bunny, “I will be a bird and fly away from you.” “If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”

“If you become a tree,” said the little bunny, “I will become a little sailboat, and I will sail away from you.” “If you become a sailboat and sail away from me,” said his mother, “I will become the wind and blow you where I want you to go.”

“If you become the wind and blow me around,” said the little bunny, “I will join the circus and fly away on a flying trapeze.” “If you go flying on a flying trapeze,” said his mother, “I will be a tightrope walker, and I will walk across the air to you.”

“If you become a tightrope walker and walk across the air,” said the bunny, “I will become a little boy and run into a house.” “If you become a little boy and run into a house,” said the mother bunny, “I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”

“Shucks,” said the little bunny, “I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.” And so he did. “Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny.

            I don’t know about you, but I often times have a lot in common with the little bunny. I can try to runaway from God or try to get God to prove love or how much God will come after me.

            I hear a bit of a game being played. Do you hear it? The Little Bunny wants to know how far he can go before his mother will stop looking for him, how secret and how different he can become before his mother stops loving him. And her answer is: there is no limit; my arms will always be open to you and I will always love you. No matter what.

            Since today’s children’s book has been around for ages, “The Runaway Bunny” has made its way into pop culture. Perhaps most notably in a 2001 for television movie based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Wit. The plot of the movie follows young, accomplished, Vivian Bearing who is a professor of English literature known for her expertise in metaphysical poetry. Her life takes a turn when she is diagnosed ovarian cancer. Late in Vivian’s illness, the only visitor she receives in the hospital is her former professor and dissertation advisor, Evelyn Ashford. Evelyn is in town visiting her grandchildren, when she hears that Vivian is in the hospital. In a powerful scene of compassion and deep, tender love, Evelyn takes off her shoes and gets into the hospital bed with tearful and suffering Vivian to comfort her. Evelyn reaches into the bag she has brought and pulls out a copy of The Runaway Bunny. She begins to read Vivian excerpts from the book in the calm soothing voice that a loving parent would use to comfort a frightened, vulnerable child, and as she pauses to reflect, Evelyn states, “Ah! Look at that, Vivian, a little allegory of the soul. Wherever it hides, God will find it.” Wherever our souls go, God will always persistently follow us; even when our souls go through dark places and death, God remains by our sides.

            It becomes easy for us to imagine the banter between the little bunny who wants to run away and his mom being similar to conversations we might have with God. We might say, “God, if you run after me, I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.” Imagine God smiling and responding: “My child, if you become a fish in a trout stream… I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

            God always comes after us. As Paul writes in letter to Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of God—- not death nor life, not present nor can future circumstances, heights nor depths, not our sins or trials, not becoming like run away bunnies—–nothing once so ever separate us from God’s love. Even when other voices try to tell us we are forgotten and we’ve fallen too far from God’s hands—-friends, we cannot fall too far from God’s hands. God remains with us always welcoming us back when our hearts aren’t in it, and offering us carrots. God persistently comes to meet us and God remains with us—no matter what. There is no escaping God. We are never alone – runaway bunnies or runaway Christians.

            Next time, we will look at Matthew Paul Turner’s book, “When God Made You.” Until then know that God constantly comes after us when we go astray or run away. God is like a patient mother bunny, persistently coming after us to meet us where we are. Thanks be to God, amen.  

Faith Like a Child: When I Pray for You

Prayer of Illumination: Welcoming God, we are about to crawl back into your lap to be held and to hear your familiar stories. Grant us curiosity, excitement, and joy as we listen and as we go out into the world to share your joy with the rest of your children. Amen.

            This morning, I’m continuing my summer sermon series- Faith like a Child- which takes a closer look at what we might learn about God through children’s books. Last time, we asked, “who is my neighbor?” and learned about the Good Samaritan through the blues and the yellows. Today, we will talk a little bit about prayer. I say a little bit- because I want to acknowledge prayer can be very simple and simultaneously very complex. Let’s start by looking at what Paul’s words can teach us about prayer in his letter to the Philippians. 

Scripture: Philippians 1:3-11 (CEB)

I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. 10 I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. 11 I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.

            “I thank our God when I remember you.” This is how Paul begins his letter to Christians living in Philippi. Not with a scolding, not with anger. There’s a fondness, a love, a relationship that has been built up between Paul and his audience throughout the years. The letter is believed to have been written anytime between mid-50’s to early 60’s Common Era, depending on what imprisonment Paul is referring to. Paul composes the letter while in prison and gives thanks for Christians in Philippi for their support and love as they have been praying for him while in prison. Paul has prayed for them, and they have prayed for him. Prayer partnership can hold basis for a strong relationship.

            Christians living in Philippi in the first century lived under the Romans as Philippi was a Roman colony in the province of Macedonia.  We see Paul writing to encourage them, to build up their faith, to remind them for importance of prayer. He also warns them to beware of false teachers.  Overall Paul consoles Philippians by lifting up joy in all circumstances. He prays that the Philippians’: “love may overflow more and more in knowledge and full insight to help determine what is best.” Paul also expresses his thanks to Christians in Philippi for being ministry partners. He prays that the Philippians will hold him in their hearts as he holds them in his. One of the many things today’s scripture can show us is that when we pray for each other, we are acting out our call to love our neighbors, as one way to love our neighbors is prayer.

            Today’s book written by Matthew Paul Turner and beautifully illustrated by Kimberly Barnes, “When I Pray for You,” showcases the importance of prayer. As you hear the story, I invite you to think through some questions: Who has been a “Paul” figure in your life, that is who is someone who has held you in prayer? What does prayer mean for you? How can we support one another with prayer? And lastly, who can you pray for this week? Invite you to hear Matthew’s words:

            “From the moment I saw you, I started to pray. Big prayers and small ones I have sent God’s way. I prayed as I held you when you sat in my lap. I prayed while we rocked as you peacefully napped. As you took your first steps and when you started to run. As I pushed you on swing sets or we skipped in the sun. I prayed you felt safe, full of joy and content. That when I whispered I love you, you knew what I meant. When you said your first word, repeating what you’d heard. When you mooed like a cow or tweeted like a bird. When you giggled out loud or made yourself proud. To God I said thank you. To you I said wow!

            As I watched you pretend all alone or with friends, I prayed over you again and again. Cause when I pray for you God knows this is true, every word I whisper is a prayer for me too. At the moment I hear you jump out of bed, I start praying that God puts good thoughts in your head. I pray when you’re smiling and when you feel sad. I pray when you’re sick, embarrassed, or mad.

            When you’re kicking a ball or twirling in place. When I know what you’re thinking by the look on your face. I pray you grow strong, have passion and fight. And stand up for what’s good with all of your might. I pray heaven protects you, that you’re generous and kind. That your brave little spirit never ceases to shine. That you believe in yourself and follow what’s true. That your confidence grows just as fast as you do. As I drive you to school. While you splash in the pool. As you challenge a friend to a lightsaber duel.

            When you open your eyes to a birthday surprise. When the joy on your face cannot be disguised. I pray you love well, that the light in you swells. That the story God writes is one that you tell. Cause when I pray for you, I imagine God’s view and pray all that God see comes alive inside you. When suddenly it seems you’ve gotten so tall. When you’ve grown so much that my lap’s way too small. When you’re glued to a screen or your bedrooms unclean. When you’re no longer a child but not yet a teen.

            I’ll pray when you’re hyper, obnoxious or chill. I’ll pray when you’re chatty and cannot sit still. When you’re running relays or performing school plays, or you’re somewhere in the middle of a garage band phase. When you know all the answer or just think you do. When you find out the hard way you know less than you knew.

            I’ll pray you choose hope should you ever face fear. And seek wisdom with patience when the pathway’s unclear. That you will love others, whether strangers or friends, with the same kind of love that God feels for them.

            When you break from your shell to stand up for yourself and I realize you didn’t even ask me for my help. I’ll pray and I’ll cheer, I’ll probably shed a tear. And hope that you know, if you need me, I’m here.

            Cause when I pray for you, no matter what we go through, the dreams that you dream, I’ll be dreaming them too. At the moment you realize it’s time to explore, I’ll pray God gives you wings, and like an eagle, you’ll soar.

            I’ll pray where you go that wherever you land, you’ll find purpose and meaning and a role in God’s plan. That you’ll know who you are and like what you do. And love yourself fully, as God wants you to.

            I’ll pray you keep shinning that God keeps refining. That your story reflects what in you God’s designing. That you’ll give and share with compassion and care. That how you live life will to God be a prayer. Cause when I pray for you, I pray all that you do bring love and brings light and helps the world shine like new.”

            I love this story because it shows how prayer can be fluid and continuous. The book teaches children and us that one of the ways you show love for someone is by holding them in your heart in prayer. While parents certainly pray for children- it doesn’t end there- we know it takes a village—communities, friends, other relatives, Sunday school teachers, the list goes on… all of can show and teach love to children through prayer.

            When addressing college graduates, Fred Rogers always made space for the graduates to remember the ones who loved them along the way.  He says, “From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.” Prayed you into praying. Who would you think of? When I think about learning how to pray, I think back to Sunday school teachers, and especially one named Mr. Sam. Mr. Sam taught me at a very young age a simple prayer that often is template for prayers today. “God be with my friend…my family member…fill in the blank. It was simple because Mr. Sam taught us that no matter how simple the prayer was, God hears every prayer.  

            Over the years, it has been a sacred privilege and responsibility to pray for people in the various congregations and communities I have served. Praying together builds unique relationships ties and I still carry these prayers in my heart. As you can imagine while I’ve sought to teach others about prayers, more often than not, they’ve ended up teaching me along the way as well—that’s how relationships work. Riley was about to embark into the preteen years, right around 10 at the time I met her and deep in the phase of figuring the world and her unique place in it. The way back from a fun and sun filled day at an amusement park was vastly different from the way to the amusement park. On the way up, I had four fabulously energetic preteens belting Taylor Swift songs on repeat like there was no tomorrow (I may have joined them) and on way back, three of the four girls were so rollercoastered out they were all asleep in the backseat. Riley used the opportunity of one on one conversation to update me about her dog who we had prayed for at Sunday school the week before.

            After a pause, Riley asked me how she could pray for me and while it seemed the question was wise beyond her years she reminded me we had talked about prayer as a way of showing you love someone. Riley wanted to show love for me and wanted to include me in her prayers—-this was humbling and warmed my heart. We can always pray for each other, even when one of us is the student and we want to pray for our teachers—just like the Philippians prayed for Paul, their teacher—he needed it as much as they did. 

            Next week, we will take a closer look at the minor prophet Hosea and what we might learn about God through a closer reading of the popular children’s book, “Runaway Bunny.” Until then friends, know that you are loved and prayed for. Remember one way we are called to love our neighbors is to pray for them. It is my prayer for you that, “how you live life, will to God, be a prayer.” And with that knowledge, continue to lift each other up in prayer always- amen.

Faith Like A Child: Who is My Neighbor?

Prayer of Illumination: Welcoming God, we are about to crawl back into your lap to be held and to hear your familiar stories. Grant us curiosity, excitement, and joy as we listen and as we go out into the world to share your joy with the rest of your children. Amen.

Luke 10:25-37 CEB

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”[a]

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

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Throughout the summer when I preach, we will be exploring what it means to have faith like a child. And fair warning, if Dan geeks out about history, the English major in me geeks out children’s books with deep meanings. I geek out about finding new ways to relate to God through reading literature. Children’s books are a great way to experience and learn about God. While these books are often simple, they can pack a theological punch. All the children’s books I’m using for this series will also be available in our church library after the close of the summer and I encourage you to re-read them.

Today’s book is “Who is my Neighbor” by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eistenberg Sasso and illustrated by Denise Turu. As you hear the story, I invite you to think about some questions:  Where are you in this story? What groups do you belong to? Do you ever think your group is better than others? Have you ever been scared of doing something even when it was the right thing to do?

Who is your neighbor? By: Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso: Once there was a town where only the Blues lived. There were navy and indigo, aqua and sapphire, powder blue and midnight blue. They planted irises and forget me nots and feasted on blueberries and blue cheese. They sailed on blue waters. Blue jays perched on branches, and brilliant blue cracker butterflies shimmered. The blues thought they were the coolest colors!

The yellows lived in a different town. There were gold and bronze, lemon, and mustard, canary and pale yellow. They planted daffodils and feasted on bananas and butter scotch pudding. They traveled on yellow brick roads. Goldfinches perched on branches and busy yellow jackets buzzed. The yellows thought they were the hottest color.

The blues and yellows did not like each other. The blues said: Be careful of the Yellows. We are better than they are…they are not our neighbors. There is no such thing as a good yellow.

The yellows said: Be careful of the Blues. We are better than they are. They are not our neighbors. There is no such thing as a good blue.

One day, midnight blue put on his best blue helmet and got on his blue bike. He loved cruising under the bright blue sky and passing by the tranquil blue lakes, singing a bluegrass tune. Then, out of the blue, someone passed by so quickly that he lost his balance. Midnight blue tumbled to the ground. His knees started to turn black and blue. He needed help.

Navy comes around corner but is afraid. She wondered maybe someone made midnight blue fall, maybe that person is still around so she pretended not to notice. Why hadn’t Navy stopped to help? After all, Navy was his neighbor.

Along came Powder Blue. Surely Powder blue will help me, midnight blue thought. But Powder blue wondered, did midnight blue get into a fight? Is the other person still around? He was afraid, so he pretended not to notice midnight blue. Midnight Blue was surprised. Why hadn’t Powder blue stopped either? After all, Powder blue was his neighbor.

Along came Lemon. Oh no! A yellow! Thought midnight blue. A yellow will only make things worse. Maybe this yellow will steal my books! But midnight blue wasn’t the only one scared. Lemon worried about helping a blue. What if that blue wanted to trick her? What if that Blue jumped up and took her bike? Maybe she should just hurry by.

But Lemon didn’t hurry by. She decided to help. She didn’t steal his books; she picked them up. She lifted midnight blue from the dirt and took him to her doctor.

While they waited, lemon gave midnight blue a butterscotch cookie. It was broken but still delicious. Midnight blue said, “you’re a good yellow, not like the others.” “most yellows are good.” Lemon said.

“So are most Blues,” midnight blue smiled and pulled out a small bag of blueberries to share.

Midnight blue turned to lemon and said, “thank you for helping me. I would like to be your friend.” Lemon nodded, “of course! A Good friend!”

When Midnight blue returned to his town, he told all the blues what had happened. It was not at all what they expected to hear. He said, “Lemon did not pass by. Lemon did not look the other way. Lemon helped! And Dr. Gold did too.”

The blues thought, the yellows do not look like us or eat the same foods, but maybe the yellows can be our friends.

When lemon returned to her town, she told all the yellows what had happened. It was not at all what they expected. She said, “midnight blue wasn’t mean at all. He was thankful! He shared his blueberries. From now on we are going to be friends.”

The yellows thought, the blues do not know our songs or grow our plants, but maybe we can help the blues and the blues can help us.

From that time on, the blues and yellows began to say, “maybe we don’t have to look alike or even live nearby. Perhaps we will like hearing new songs and tasting new foods. We might like making new friends! Maybe we can all help one another!”

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What makes Lemon a “good” yellow? What makes the Samaritan good? For Jesus’ original audience a “good” Samaritan is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as a “good” Samaritan for Jews. That is one of the many things about this story that turns it around on its head- the oxymoron of the Good Samaritan, there simply was no such thing.

Today we may fill in Samaritan with a variety of words. How might you fill in? If you cheer for Virginia Tech, you might think there is no such thing as a good University of Virginia fan or vice versa. If you are a Pittsburgh Steeler fan, you might think there is no such thing as a good Baltimore Ravens fan.

If you are a millennial you might think there is no such thing as a good Boomer or vice versa. For the most part these are light- hearted examples however, you can probably think of many other examples of diametrically opposed foes, modern day Samaritans, groups of people or people who when seen as good creates a tense oxymoron.

But who gets to define who is good? What if the Samaritan was good because he simply made the choice to come near the almost dead guy in the ditch? To approach the man who clearly needed help? Friends, we tend to spend a lot of energy in our lives toward decided detachment, disengagement, and disenfranchisement. Sometimes these decisions are very much justified — for our safety, our self-preservation, our self-care. But other times, our distance is decided by our determination not to change. Our resistance to intimacy of being near. Our rejection of those persons that might actually expose who we truly are. Imagine if the Levite and the priest came near? Maybe then they would have to face some hard truths about themselves that I suspect they would rather not admit and that they have spent a lifetime pretending, hoping, even ensuring, don’t exist.

“Who is my neighbor?” means, according to Jesus, a commitment to coming near. Your neighbor is not just the person living next door…Your neighbor is not one who happens to be convenient for you to help. Your neighbor is not the one who meets the qualifications of your company. Your neighbor is someone who, without a doubt, is experiencing pain, struggles, challenges, and sorrow, and yet to whom you draw near. Your neighbor is someone who clearly has needs and you decide — I will help you. Being a good neighbor means coming alongside.

A part of what makes Lemon yellow and the Samaritan good neighbors is they see the needs of someone and do something about it. They not only look at their neighbor in the ditch with fear for what might happen to them if they help, the Samaritan and Lemon see a need and crawl into the ditch with their neighbor, a stranger, in need. The Samaritan and Lemon do something. Can you think of ways to become a better neighbor?

Maybe being a better neighbor means not turning an eye on the suffering of those in need. Maybe being a better neighbor means volunteering at Highland Food Pantry or Jubilee kitchen. Or perhaps the best insight comes from my favorite theologian and everyone’s favorite neighbor, Mister Rogers, who says: “Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered just one kind word to another person. There have been so many stories about the impatience of today’s world, road rage and even restaurant rage. Sometimes all it takes is one kind word to nourish another person. Think of the ripple effect that can be created when we nourish someone. One kind empathetic word has a wonderful way of turning into many.” Maybe the act of just noticing and drawing near to our neighbors is a starting place.

But perhaps the best insight on this question comes from Flora, a young girl I had the privilege of working with while serving as associate pastor in Graham, North Carolina. As we talked about today’s scripture, I asked the group why do we love our neighbors, and without batting an eye, Flora responded, “Because God made everyone and loves everyone. God wants us to, isn’t that a good enough reason?” Friends, we can learn so much from the children and youth among us. It is all that simple and all that hard.

Next time, we will spend some time looking at prayer and Matthew Paul Turner’s beautiful children’s book, “When I Pray for You.” Until then, let us strive to be a good neighbor. Someone who works to break down prejudices rather than build up prejudices. Someone who is moved with compassion when they see someone in need. Someone who shares an empathic word. Let us go, and do likewise. May it be so, amen.

Childlike Faith

Prayer of Illumination: Welcoming God, we are about to crawl back into your lap to be held and to hear your familiar stories. Grant us curiosity, excitement, and joy as we listen and as we go out into the world to share your joy with the rest of your children. Amen.

Scripture: Luke 18:15-17 CEB                      

15 People were bringing babies to Jesus so that he would bless them. When the disciples saw this, they scolded them. 16 Then Jesus called them to him and said, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. 17 I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.”

            Throughout the summer, we will be invited to examine our faith through the eyes of children. For some, childhood is happening right now- an exciting time filled with discovery, learning, growing, and fun. For others, childhood was a long time ago. This summer sermon series is for both. But even those who have long left the sights and sounds of childhood in rearview mirrors still can learn so much from children. I learn from children every time I talk to them and I’m so so grateful for the young people in our church, who continue to teach me more and more about God. Throughout the summer, we will explore scripture using children’s books. But before we jump into series- today we will look at how Jesus views children.

            In a society that treated children more as property than as people, Jesus welcomed and blessed children. Jesus did not view children as insignificant but important members of God’s family. The gospel of Matthew talks about children being brought to Jesus “in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray.” (Matthew 19:13)   Mark’s gospel says Jesus, “took them up in his arms, and laid his hands on them, and blessed them,” which is no doubt why many of us call to mind when we hear this story a picture of Jesus sitting with a whole bunch of kids up on his lap, and others crowded around.  Jesus not only welcomes children, but Jesus holds children up as an example of the way to welcome the Kingdom of God.

            There is wonderful artwork of Jesus blessing and welcoming children. One of my favorites is a portrait of children dancing with Jesus. We see a huge, welcoming, loving smile filling Jesus’ face. Children are depicted with smiling eyes and throwing heads back with laughter. While some adults in the background don’t appear to understand Jesus’ love of children, others are clapping and smiling—thankful that Jesus sees and interacts with children. You can almost hear Jesus’ deep belly laugh as he spends time with children. While the disciples saw children as nuisances, Jesus saw them as people who were curious and worthy of love. For children Jesus blessed and welcomed, Jesus was the exact kind of king they needed. A savior who laughs at their jokes and tousles their hair, danced joyfully with them, and hears their endless questions with love and compassion.  What a beautiful image of Jesus. That’s how Jesus interacts with the Galilean children in our scripture and that’s what Jesus interacts with children of all ages today.  

            While serving at First Presbyterian Church in Orangeburg, South Carolina, I met Harry, a six year old full of energy, questions, and amazing bluntness that only a child can have. Like all of the children I’ve worked with over the years, Harry taught me a lot about childlike faith. Once during a children’s sermon, when I asked how to do prepare for vacation, Harry bluntly answered: “You make sure you pack enough underwear!” Like other children, Harry taught me that childlike faith is magically, filled with awe and wonder. Harry’s eyes always filled with wonderment every time he heard a new Bible story.

             Do you remember the first time you heard the story of Jesus and the grand narrative of the Bible? There is a certain contagious energy from watching a child hear Jesus’ story for the first time. There’s an innocence children have that spreads joy as well. Children’s joy and curiosity when it comes to developing faith is often infectious in the best possible way. During one of our Wednesday afterschool ministries, Harry wandered out of our main room where we were meeting and into the hallway. When I walked over to get Harry to join the rest of the group I asked, “Harry, where are you supposed to be?” Harry does not miss a beat and looks up at me with his black curly hobbit like hair, complete with dimples on either side of his innocent smile with big, bright, blue eyes and says, “With you.” A completely honest and innocent answer to my question.

            A friend who is in a tradition that wears clerical collars tells a story about how when giving a children’s sermon one day, he asked the children: why do you think I wear this collar? To which a child immediately jumped up and declared without hesitation- because it kills ticks and fleas for thirty days! Children are honest (sometimes painfully honest) and excited with their answers.

            Having faith like a child also keeps us curious and encourages us to ask questions while we continue to learn, stretch, and grow. If you have ever been around a child you know children are very curious, always wanting to examine new things, and most of the time children love to ask questions. Why is the sky blue? Why are you sad? Why is our cat orange? Over the years, children have asked me many good, hard theological questions as well such as: why did Jesus have to die? What is heaven like- will my grandparents and pets be there? When I’m sad, is God sad? So many endless and important questions. While growing in our faith, we don’t want to lose sight of being curious, of asking questions, of continuing to learn. That’s what it means to be a child of God.

            If you childhood is far in your life rear view mirror, do you remember what it was like to be a child? To have faith like a child? Perhaps Bible stories sparked your imagination, perhaps you still remember songs from Vacation Bible School. Ruth Ann, who was my childhood pastor’s wife tells a story of visiting a newborn with a serious heart condition at MUSC in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband, Olin. As she rounded the corner she heard some children singing a song about how God takes care of them while sitting with their grandparents waiting to see their newborn baby brother. My first lessons about prayer were taught to me through songs. God takes care of me, God’s with me all the time—were some of the words of a Vacation Bible School song that my sister and I were singing as the pastor and his wife came to visit our brother and pray with our family. To this day, I still hum that tune to myself occasionally. It is so simple, so comforting, and so true.

             1 John 3:1-2 also reminds us we are children of God, no matter what our age, and encourages us to have childlike faith. Says: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are! Because the world didn’t recognize him, it doesn’t recognize us.Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is.” We need to remember these words as we get older too, and sometimes that’s a whole lot harder.  Because there are so many competing voices, telling us conflicting things.  Telling us we’re not worthy of love. But these are false messages.  Listen again to the simple truth of the matter: we are God’s children simply because God loves us.  Period.  It’s that simple. No strings attached.  No application process or standardized testing required.  No dress code or income prerequisites. We are beloved children of God.

            I invite you to hear part of author and theologian Rachel Held Evan’s piece reflecting on childlike faith. Hear these words:

But faith, like a child, you are resilient,
Like your Sister, you bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.
You are braver than you ought to be, more trusting than is safe.
Like a child, you make the most fanciful connections between things—
Metaphors that only make sense between the two of us,
Art that in its simplicity gets right to the essence of a bug, a sunrise, a family, a death. 
You are whimsy. 
You are curiosity. 
You are petulance. 
You are grace. 
You are a little hurricane of life and destruction and healing that upsets everything in your path. 
Faith, like a child, you ask too many questions. 

Faith, like a child, I love you. 
Unconditionally. 

            So friends, the questions for us all today are: what can we learn from children? How can children enhance our faith? How might we continue to have faith like a child? May we think through these questions and live out these questions each day, no matter our age, amen.

Dry Bones, Breath, and Fire

Prayer of Illumination: Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us this day. Breathe life into our dry bones. Send us out to bear witness to your work in the world. Guide our feet and our steps each day. Amen.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 (CEB)

The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.

He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”

I said, “Lord God, only you know.”

He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word! The Lord God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.”

I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.

He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”

10 I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.

11 He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ 12 So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. 13 You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. 14 I will put my breath[a] in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.”

Acts 2:1-21 (CEB)

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved

Dry bones. Dry bones that represent weary exiles. Yes, Pentecost is meant to be a fiery day of celebration. But perhaps, dry bones can help us understand the good news of the Pentecost story even more. So hear again these words from the prophet Ezekiel: ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ (Ezekiel 37:11). It can’t be just me, there are a lot of us feeling like dried up old bones these days. Our hope might feel lost. And some of us may feel cut off completely. The struggle is real.

 The prophets get us. And today, it really feels like Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is just as real to us today as it was to those living in the midst of the Babylonian captivity in the late 500s BCE.

            There is so much that has the potential or actual ability to suck the life from us- to dry up our bones. And friends this not only happens in the midst of a pandemic, or exile, but anytime. Maybe it’s hearing of the continued violence in Gaza, or maybe it’s a broken relationship. Maybe it’s imaginable grief or physical or mental illness. Maybe a turn on life’s journey leaves us exhausted or disenchanted …we can very easily continue to fill in the blanks. Friends, perhaps this image of dry bones resonates because I feel it in my dry bones. And I don’t necessarily think I’m not the only one.

 Bones that are the left overs when so much else has been taken from us.

The places of death and decay. The tombs. The graveyards. The ghost towns and empty chairs or spaces where there used to be life, and vibrancy. The things that steal our joy. The places – real, or imagined, that we don’t want to go to… and have been told to avoid at all costs. And because we want to… and sometimes need to avoid these places, we think God does too.

We assume, or have been told, that these valleys of dry bones are places where no one- not even God – would go to willingly. And if you are there, there must be a reason for it. You must have done something to deserve to be there. And if you are to get out, it will be by your own doing.

 And, friends, that simply is not true.

Hear the words from the prophet Ezekiel again: [the Lord] said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” This is God’s promise to the Israelites and this is God’s promise to us: [I will] put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.

Friends, God gives life. God has sent the Spirit, who is life and who is the aid to life. Even, and especially, in places of death and decay; even, and especially, in the midst of valleys of dry bones. Even, and especially, inside of tombs, and graveyards; in the midst of war, and conflict, and strife, and even in the midst of global pandemics. The Holy Spirit, the breath which makes even our driest bones wake up, gives us life. Gives us purpose.  From the beginning, God breathes life into creation out of chaos, out of nothing – so why would it be any different for us now? That is what God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit is. God in us. With us. For us. A Comforter. An Advocate. This breath, this life, this God in us… with us… for us… is there in all times and all places.

And to drive the point home, we hear this message throughout scripture again and again: In Acts, we hear the story of the Spirit being poured out onto and into the community. Filling everyone in such a way that they heard and understand in ways they didn’t anticipate (or even fully understand).

 This is who God is. This is what our Triune God does in and through the Holy Spirit. Not just at Pentecost. But always.

God’s Spirit is with us. For us. No matter what. No matter where. In the valleys of dry bones or on the highest mountain peaks – in the midst of chaos and calm. So maybe it’s ok on this Pentecost that the fire is not burning inside of us. Maybe we still feel like dry bones. As Dr. Anna Florence Carter said in one of her sermons, “Maybe, vitality is us being depleted so God can do a new thing through us.”  “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will… put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:5-6). Through the Holy Spirit a new thing will come even from dry bones.

The day of Pentecost is celebrated fifty days after the resurrection. 50 long days of learning and uncovering what new life looks and feels like; 50 days of encountering God through the resurrected Christ in familiar but new ways. Fifty days of engaging with the real grief – followed by doubt and disbelief the disciples and we experience when death isn’t the end. Fifty days later, as the season of Easter draws to a close we receive the Holy Spirit – a reminder and promise that God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer… that Jesus… is still with us and is doing a new thing in and through us. Even in the midst of death and dried up bones. Even when we aren’t sure what to believe or what the future holds. Even when we can’t even any more. Times when the lyrics of Amy Grant’s song call out for the Spirit’s help and guidance.

Breath of heaven
Hold me together
be forever near me
Breath of heaven.
Breath of heaven
Lighten my darkness
Pour over me your holiness
for you are holy
Breath of heaven.

The Spirit shows up. The Holy Spirit intercedes, leads us into new life, and invites us into God’s amazing story.

So what do we celebrate at Pentecost? As pastor, Danielle Shroyer observes, “Without Pentecost, we’d just be people who tell Jesus’ story. With Pentecost, we’re people who live into Jesus’ story.” From Day One of the church, the call was to press in, linger, pray, listen, and listen some more. Our call is to be intoxicated with the Spirt, and to be lead to do crazy and foolish things like follow a crucified and risen Lord.

We don’t talk about the Holy Spirit enough within the Presbyterian Church. Perhaps it is because the Holy Spirit by her essence is mysterious and Presbyterians like everything to be neat and orderly. The Holy Spirit rarely is neat and orderly. However, there is great value in making space to talk more about the Holy Spirit. Each of us need to be reminded that the Holy Spirit is at work in us- guiding and challenging us, helping us as we try to make sense of our faith. Breathing life into our dry and weary bones.

The Holy Spirit is often described as an ever-present fiery flame. The Spirit is as necessary and as dangerous as fire, so pay attention. There is no city, no village, no wilderness, no ocean, river or stream, where you cannot find the Holy Spirit at work, we only need to pay attention.

The Holy Spirit meets us in the sacraments and in the streets of our neighborhoods. The Holy Spirit is at work in and speaks through the youngest among us and the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in and speaks through the oldest among us. Though, perhaps the Holy Spirit is better thought of as a verb rather than a noun. Or better yet, perhaps we can continuously remind ourselves, the Holy Spirit is like breath, as close as our lips, chest, and lungs, and as near as our nose.  A captivating Spirit, as everywhere as the air, a Spirit which we inhale and exhale, a Spirit which animates, revives, sustains, speaks, and nourishes. The gift of sending the spirit happens over and over again, day after day.

So friends as we pray, come, Holy Spirit, come, let’s get ready to jump up and jump in. To pay attention. For sometimes the spirit is loud and constant like a buzzing of 17 year cicadas, and sometimes she whispers in barely a whisper. So let us be ready to see the Holy Spirit actively running through all the parts of our lives, beckoning us to come and see. To come and be renewed. To see the Spirit take even the driest of bones and the driest of our souls, and breathe life- giving breath into them.

May the Holy Spirit enflame our hearts and bring life to our dry bones. AMEN.