Psalms of Summer: Psalm of Comfort

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Psalm 63

Prayer: God open our ears to hear your word to us, without distraction or judgment. God open our minds to see you in new ways. God open our hearts to be changed by your actions in the world. God ready our feet so that once we have heard and been changed, we may follow You as we continue on this journey. Amen.

As I mentioned last week, the Psalms are a collection of poems and songs which cover a wide range of emotions from doubt to joyful praise. Last Sunday, we took a closer look at a Psalm of Lament as we looked at Psalm 10 and how God shows up and meets us in our doubts. Today, as we continue our Psalms of Summer sermon series, we will explore Psalm 63, a psalm of comfort. As I read our text this morning, I invite you to think about a few questions which I’ll touch on later in sermon: What are your favorite images of comfort? Have you ever tangibly been comforted by God? What does it mean to be comforted by God? When you think of God’s comfort, what images come to mind? I invite you to listen now to the words of Psalm 63.

The words of Psalm 63, a Psalm of David, may have been written or at least thought about when David was hiding from one of his many enemies in the wilderness of Judah. If you can imagine, the wilderness of Judah is about as pleasant as it sounds. If you somehow found yourself on one of the many survival shows on TV, you would not want to be dropped off in the wilderness of Judah. It is hot. It is dry. It is without living giving water. You would bake pretty quickly in the sun’s intense heat. Though I do not think I would survive well, a human can survive for a month or more without eating but only at the most a week without water. When you are in the wilderness your body rebels against you quickly and you long for water and nourishment.

Friends, we all need water. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why David proclaims his soul deeply thirsts for God and his flesh faints as though in a dry land where there is no water. If you go too long without water and become dehydrated, it is a disorienting and painful experience. Your muscles do not work like they were designed to and your head spins. Without our Lord in our lives, we can also become disoriented. Being in the presence of the Lord and resting in His wings reorients us. Perhaps you have been in or maybe you are currently in your own wilderness today. Perhaps you feel as though your relationship with God is a little dried up. Yet in these moments of longing and desperation, our faith in God has the opportunity to stretch in ways we did not think were possible.  It is often in such moments when we like David, come to terms with our complete and total reliance on God alone. It is in such moments when we turn to God for comfort and assurance.

The Psalms are rich in water imagery. There are two images of God’s comfort in our text today and the first is God’s comfort like relief of water when we are in dry lands. Our Bodies crave water. Water is important. Last week, I woke up on Tuesday with laryngitis (which bad for a preacher who likes to talk).  I wanted to recover as quickly as possible, and I knew drinking water was essential in order to heal.

Water brings us comfort and relief. After being dehydrated, water restores our bodies. There are several ways Psalm 63 reminds us that God alone is our Life Source and Living Water. The very opening lines of Psalm 63 confess our dependence on God. David’s very soul thirsts for the Lord. His longing for God is deep. Do we also have a deep longing for the life-giving power of God? Often times as we go throughout life, we may seek after and thirst for temporary things. We turn to things that may satisfy us temporarily but eventually will leave us with an unfilled longing. Unfortunately, sometimes we even turn our backs to the Lord and seek after these things.

Yet, ultimately God is our living water, and our true life source. When you stop and think about it, there are so many ways throughout our daily lives when we depend on God. We depend on God’s forgiveness and to be our constant help in need and our guidance throughout our lives. Even though David is in the scarceness of the wilderness, David knows God is his helper and comfort.  He knows ultimately God is with him therefore David’s lips glorify the Lord and he rejoices even amidst the oncoming threats of his enemies.  In the presence of God, we are able to find comfort, satisfaction, and security.

There are many beautiful images of God’s comfort.  In the second image of comfort in today’s psalm, the psalmist writes of being sheltered under God’s wings. As we are sheltered under wings, we become protected from wind, rain, outside elements, and predators. Sheltered and protected under the wings of God, the psalmist is able to sing for joy.  One of my favorite images of being comforted by God is similar to being sheltered under wings, but I love the idea of God’s comfort and love surrounding us like a blanket. Throughout our lives we use blankets to wrap ourselves up in. One of first things a child might experience is being lovingly wrapped in a blanket. Blankets are something we use in every season of life. Blankets comfort us and reminds of love others. When I was a baby, my Nanny made me blanket, which I still have and remember her love for me every time I see it. This is a prayer shawl blanket was made by my home church in Hartsville, SC before I came to Winchester to be with you all.

So have you tangibly felt God’s comforting presence? When you think of God’s comfort, what images come to mind? I decided to take an informal Facebook poll and my friends didn’t disappoint. Some felt as though God physically held their hands during illness, others resonated with the image of climbing up into God’s lap after the death of a loved one. Others felt God’s comfort through the kindness of others, through friends who directly comforted and brought meals and supplies to them in times of need. One mentioned receiving a card from a friend with the words they needed to hear, exactly when they needed to hear them. One of my friends from seminary, Melissa Morris, a pastor in PA said, “I directly feel God’s comfort as though I’m one of those oil covered duck who are being cleaned during the Dawn commercials. I know there are two very gentle but very active hands holding me as I’m continually washed clean by water. The less the duck struggles, the quicker the hands do their job. The more we surrender and trust those hands to do their job, the better we are.” I love this image. We can feel God’s comfort in worship through songs and when we feel the prayers of others praying on our behalf when we are unable to pray for ourselves.

The words of our scripture today remind us that it is the Lord who acts first in our lives and we are invited, challenged, and called to response. Because of who God is, David realizes he is invited to “bless the Lord as long as I live” and as God’s people, we are invited to do so as well. Because of who is God, we are able to lift up our hands and call upon God.  Because of who God is, we are able to come together and worship. Because of who God is we can rejoice in the shadow of God’s wings.  Because of who God is, we are called to bear witness to the work of the Lord in our lives. Because of who God is, we are called to comfort our neighbors with God’s love.

When it comes to teaching and studying the Psalms, one exercise that is sometimes helpful is re-writing one of the Psalms in our own words. Dissecting the psalm line by line and re-writing can be a spiritual discipline and provide new insights. I love the version of Psalm 63, a Christian blogger, Sylvia Purdie, wrote especially with children in mind. She interprets Psalm 63 writing:

O God, my God, my friend,
I am looking for you, I need to find you!
I need you like I get desperate for a drink on a boiling hot day.
I need you when I am hiding
from people who are trying to hurt me.
Save me from lies, rescue me from danger!
I have seen you sometimes out of the corner of my eye –
you are light and kindness and glory.
I have felt you in church as love fills the air,
it’s great to sing and praise and celebrate!
All my life I will love you,
O God, my God, my friend.
And now you are here, you found me!
You lead me to a party, all my friends waiting for me,
plenty to drink and eat, a feast of my favorite food –
I am full of joy!
And when it is time for bed
I snuggle up with you, like you were soft as soft,
gentle wings over me through the night.
And tomorrow, and every day, I will hold on to you
and you will hold on to me,
O God, my God, my friend.

Friends, when we feel as though we are in a dry wilderness, God is there, holding us close, walking beside us every step of the way. Because of who God is, God seeks to comfort us. God’s powerful, protecting, presence, and compassion surrounds us day in and day out, comforting us in the shadow of loving wings. Even when we feel as though we are in the wilderness. God seeks to comfort us when we need it the most. Friends, how have you tangibly felt God’s comforting presence? Remember that comfort, and share it with others. Amen.

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Psalms of Summer: Psalm of Doubt

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Scripture: Psalm 10

Over the course of three Sundays (next week, and August 11th), we will look at three psalms for a summer sermon series I’m calling the Psalms of Summer. Psalms is one of my favorite books in Bible, perhaps because the rich poetry speaks to my English major heart, perhaps because the Psalms are rich in imagery and emotion. If you are searching for a new spiritual discipline, I’d suggest reading through the Psalms. One of my seminary professors once said, if you don’t know how to pray, start reading through the Psalms, because in the psalter you will encounter every type of emotion from the pentacles of joyfully worship to the lamenting valleys of emptiness, grief, and doubt. Today we’ll look closer at a lament psalm, a psalm of doubt. Doubt can make us uncomfortable, but is important to talk about. Hear now these words from Psalm 10

WHY God? The Psalms can ask some hard questions. I’ll confess, several times last week, I thought to myself, “No wonder Psalm 10 doesn’t appear in the lectionary!” I can at least assure you that people of faith have been asking these same questions for millennia.  For instance, the Psalms, have been the prayer book of the Jewish people since well before the time of Jesus. Christians, too, have prayed through The Psalms in every generation and on every continent.  In the Church we’re likely best acquainted with psalms of praise, psalms of trust, and psalms of rejoicing – which isn’t surprising since those are the ones we do tend to lean on most often in worship – but did you know that a full 40% of our biblical psalms are actually psalms of lament? Lament, though a universal emotion, doesn’t preach as well as joyful praise. Monks read through the Psalms as a spiritual discipline and act of Morning Prayer. I actually find it really quite brave that monastic communities pray through the psalms – all of the psalms – regularly, gathering for prayer multiple times a day to lift up these ancient words.  They’re not picking and choosing their way through the book the way we sometimes do, selecting the sweeter, gentler words.

Those who commit themselves to praying through the entire Book of Psalms learn very quickly that they are going to have to let it all hang out with God.  To pray from the depths of pain, and the heat of anger sometimes, rather than simply offering up the kinds of pious-sounding words we think God wants to hear. Friends, we don’t always have to pray all the right words or even have un-shakeable faith to pray and engage God in conversations—-there is room for doubt, emotions, anger, grief, shouting, crying, and wondering. There is room for all that in our conversations with God…we don’t have to use our best Sunday language.  The Psalms not only encourage; they require from us deep honesty in prayer.  They don’t shy away from asking hard questions of God – a whole lot of tough, tough questions. Even though these questions are hard, there is a benefit to asking them.

In his book, “Having Words with God: The Bible as Conversation,” Karl Allen Kuhn writes, “There are probably a number of reasons why the psalms of lament are not all that popular among us. One reason might be that these psalms speak to situations of pain and distress, and we would rather focus on what we consider positive and uplifting in worship. Another likely reason behind their unpopularity is that in these psalms the psalmist sometimes speaks to God in a manner that we might find offense.” In our Psalm today, David, the psalmist in his anxious distress, basically cries out, “Hey God, wake up! These guys are after my neck! If you don’t do something, I’ll die!” Kuhn also argues that when we neglect reading and studying the psalms of lament, we risk neglecting the permission and even the calling to cry out against injustice and evil in our world, and to do so with the expectation that God will hear and act.

Our text today calls for God’s justice to be revealed in an unjust world. The Psalmist, mourns the actions of the wicked and pleas for God to get moving! The Psalmist cries out, “Don’t you see all the bad things going on! Where are you, Lord?!” In this psalm of lament, the writer seems to be in a dark place spiritually and in a place of doubt. Can you relate?

Our doubts do not equal unbelief. Though sometimes, we think there’s no room for doubts in our Christian faith.  We want all the answers to our deepest faith questions tied up in neat little bows.  After all, doubts bring forth uncertainty and fear, and shouldn’t we have all the answers? Can you think of people of great faith today who also have their own unique questions, doubts, and uncertainties? I can think of many! Many scholars believe King David wrote our Psalm today and he certainly wrote a number of doubts in Psalms. Is there room for doubt in our walks with God? As Christians, we often live between the spheres of great faith and great doubts, sometimes journeying from faith to doubt in a matter of seconds.  Is this an acceptable way to live out our Christian faith? How does God respond to our doubts? Shouldn’t we always have our faith all together? Friends, I don’t think so.

When we profess our faith in God and when we are claimed by God in our baptism does this mean all our doubts and questions magically go away? Doubt can still creep in on us like a slithering snake, even when we are young. I will confess, in my walk with God, I have had times of doubts, it is hard to see pain and injustice in the world. I’ve had times when like the Psalmist, I’ve thrown up my hands and asked, “Why, God?! Where are you, Lord?” You may have experienced such doubts in your own lives. As a community of faith, we come together to worship God, but individually our faith journeys and times of doubt can be as different as our fingerprints. We can doubt the way God shows up, we can question if God truly cares for us and our life circumstances. Doubts can be painful and cause fear, especially when you feel like you are going through your doubts all alone.

Yet in verse 14, the Psalmist sees a glimmer of hope, “But God, you DO see!”  God seeks to bring about justice for the orphans, the helpless, and those who are oppressed. We are never left alone with our doubts, God meets and encounters us through doubts. Friends, God sits with us in our doubts as we cry out, WHY?!

As Christians, we are never told having faith would be easy. Yet, through processing faith and doubt, we learn more about God and how God chooses to relate to us with each new day. Pastor and writer, Frederick Buechner writes, “Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. Faith is on-again-off again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps. Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith, they keep you awake and moving.” Doubt can challenge, stretch, expand and tinker with our faith in God. Doubt can cause us to delve deeper into studying scripture, asking deeper questions, and crying out in earnest and uncensored prayer.

Doubt can even be a doorway to spiritual growth. Faith gone unchallenged may not have room to grow. Growing may hurt, but growing pains can also make our faith real and stronger. Ultimately, faith isn’t about having all the answers or correct theological models, it’s about all the ways God is reaching out to us, guiding us through our questions. It’s about praying authentic prayers, reaching out to God for guidance, and asking for God’s help. It’s about relying on God’s strength in our weakness. In his book, Dangerous Wonder, theologian Michael Yaconelli writes the power of God meeting us in our doubts, he observes, “Give me a Jesus who meets me in the rushing, crashing waters of my questions. Let me stand precariously close to the dark and menacing skies of doubt, so I can hear the fierce and gentle loving voice of my Jesus who drowns out my fears and stands just beyond my questions with open arms.”

Friends, we can yell, scream, and cry out to God in times of doubt and suffering, and God will reach out to us and sit with us as we yell and scream doubts. Friends, if you are at a period of doubt today, even as a person of faith, know God is with you in your doubts.  Know it is okay for you to have questions. God will not turn a blind eye to our doubts and questions. We worship a God who sees each and every one of us and meets us all where we are, doubts and all. Amen.

You Give Them Something to Eat

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Every day, there are roughly 795 million people in the world, that’s 1 in 9 people, who are hungry. Friends, that is 795 million people too many. Today, I’m going to preach a short sermon because during the rest of our worship service, all of us here today, will preach an ever better sermon.  Our congregation will preach the good news through the actions we take – through partnering with Rise Against Hunger to pack meals and provide food for those who are hungry. This time spent serving together will preach a sermon much more powerful than the words I can every proclaim from a pulpit.  Today’s faith in action will tell the good news of Jesus Christ through love shared with people, they will tell of the grace of God through bridges built across communities of difference, they will tell of the joy of the Spirit through taking a step to work to put an end to world hunger. So today, I will preach briefly because you, the church, will preach words of God’s love through your actions.

Before we read today’s scripture, I invite us to consider the context. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus had just been rejected in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus just sent the disciples out to teach people, cast out demons, and heal those in need. John the Baptizer had been beheaded and Jesus, along and his disciples, were seeking a space to rest, regroup, mourn, and eat. We can imagine they were tired and hungry from their journeys. Close your eyes and imagine the last time you were really hungry. Your stomach growling, longing for nourishment. I know I’m never at my best when I’m hungry (I’m at my worst, and Josh, my husband can verify.) We can be grumpy, cranky, and unable to concentrate to make good decisions. Do we know what it feels like to be hungry? Hear passage from Mark 6: 30-44.  

Our text says because of all the comings and goings, the disciples had no leisure to even eat. So when they arrived to rest and saw a crowd, they were also hungry and tired, and probably not at their best. As the evening came, the disciples wanted to send the crowd away and have people find their own food. But Jesus had other plans. We are told Jesus, “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” In the gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus implores, “you give them something to eat.” As though to say trust me enough to follow my instructions and provide food for these hungry people. Jesus sees the crowd through compassionate eyes and not through the lenses of the crowd being a problem. And he then challenged his disciples to lean more towards compassion as well.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes of the feeding of the 5,000: “You give them something to eat”, Jesus says; “Not me, but you; not my bread, but yours; not sometime or somewhere else, but right here and now. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead.” And today, we remember that it is not just our few hours of work and service that change lives and that make real difference in the world. We remember that with these small acts of offering we give, we trust that God will multiply and make extraordinary the ordinary time spent, because to put it simply – that is the habit of Jesus. Jesus looks upon all with compassion and acts, then challenges us to move and act alongside Him.

Nadia Bolz Weber reminds us that – “Every parable about God’s kingdom, every teaching Jesus had about how God creates something glorious, starts with something small. Never once did Jesus say ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is like a Fortune 500 company with super happy shareholders.’ It is always something small, insignificant, easily overlooked, that reveals the glory of God.” In the case of today’s scripture, it is five seemingly small loaves of bread and two fish used to reveal God’s glory.  Jesus invites us to participate in revealing God’s glory, in feeding large crowds until everyone is full. God invites us to be moved with compassion to feed our brothers and sisters who are hungry.

Let’s continue packing. Let’s participate in a small way, but know that through Christ, this time will make a big impact. Now we are invited to do something

As we continue to pack, I invite you to listen to some testimonies of RAH workers, all can be found on RAH blog. The first is a story from Haiti written by RAH worker, Dominic Alexander. He writes, “Early in my career at Rise Against Hunger (then known as Stop Hunger Now), I spent a week in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In Cité Soleil, one of the most impoverished communities in the world, I visited an elementary school with Pastor Leon from our partner Haiti Outreach Ministries. Outside the school, a woman had a large blue tarp spread on the ground in front of her, on top of which were dozens of mud “cookies.” Pastor Leon explained to me the cookies were a mixture of mud and fat “baked” on the tarp beneath the hot Haitian sun, and eaten by some students to stave off hunger. Later during lunch, as the students happily ate Rise Against Hunger meals, I thought about the stark contrast between the nutritious meals they were eating versus a “cookie” made of mud and fat. I departed Haiti on January 11, 2010, one day before a devastating earthquake struck. In collaboration with Haiti Outreach Ministries and other partners, Rise Against Hunger responded immediately by distributing more than 1 million meals, which were already on the ground in Haiti. Soon after the earthquake and in the years since, many more Rise Against Hunger meals and in-kind aid have continued to support Haiti’s recovery.  I’ve seen firsthand what a tremendous impact Rise Against Hunger has made on more than millions of lives in Haiti and elsewhere around the world, and want to sincerely thank the hundreds of thousands of volunteers, donors and hunger champions who are making it possible for us to end hunger by 2030…or sooner!” (Replacing Mud Cakes with Nutritious Meals in Haiti, written by: Dominic Alexander)

“In December, Eric Taft, Community Engagement Manager for Rise Against Hunger’s Nashville location, and Ryan Tsipis, Rise Against Hunger’s Program Monitoring & Evaluation Coordinator, traveled to Da Nang, Vietnam, to visit our long-standing partner, Children of Vietnam (COV). COV, our partner since 2008, distributes our nutritious meals to 111 facilities in Vietnam including kindergartens, medical centers, eldercare facilities, vocational training programs, orphanages and general feeding initiatives. Eric and Ryan share their takeaways from this inspiring trip.  Eric writes, “At our Meal Packaging Events, volunteers move scoops of meal ingredients through assembly lines at lightning speed, producing a joyful blur of grains, packets, tape and brown boxes headed straight for a shipping container and out into the world. Volunteers regularly package tens of thousands of meals in just two hours. As an event facilitator, this is my daily scenery, dancing with a crowd of hairnetted, smiling hunger champions and watching piles of meal boxes stack up in mountains of hope and opportunity — visual evidence that the movement to end world hunger is alive and well.

In December, I visited some of our meal recipients in Da Nang, Vietnam. This was a refreshing change of pace to my daily life, and much more than that, an eye-opening first experience of what our meals look like in the hands of real people being affected by hunger. The most striking thing about my visits to the rural Vietnamese schools was walking into the storage areas and seeing how few boxes of meals sat stacked in corners. Some schools had 10 boxes, some had 20 — nothing close to the mounds of meal bags I’ve seen at our events. What these schools needed to make a lasting difference in kids’ lives was actually very simple.

My visits in Vietnam reminded me not to lose sight of the power of one box, or one bag or one scoop. Among the piles of pallets and stretch wrap are transformative moments for real people. In the blur of my daily job is warm soup on a cool misty morning, preparing a third-grader for her upcoming test at school. Or maybe on a warm day in Honduras, a boy feels physically stronger with every spoonful of his school lunch. The sea change of ending hunger is starting in small ways in schools, hospitals, training centers and orphanages, with one modest bag. I’m overwhelmed to think of the magnitude of change we speak of when we say goodbye to a shipping container full of almost 300,000 meals, reflecting always on the power of just one.”

Ryan adds to the story, “Working remotely from my apartment in Washington, D.C., can get lonely. Even our headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., can seem a world away, not to mention the 18 partners I coordinate day-to-day logistics with in South America and Asia. Considering the time differences and the language barriers, emailing back and forth and numerous Skype calls, it is crucial to plan for in-person meetings to sustain and deepen these relationships. The opportunity to meet with our partners face-to-face is irreplaceable, and one that I have been lucky to experience. While visiting COV in December, I trained their staff how to use our new reporting forms, worked out some distribution challenges and listened to concerns easier discussed in person than via email. Most notably, we visited a kindergarten that COV distributes our meals to and sat down to enjoy a delicious porridge version of our meal packs. Seeing our meals at their final destination — the mouths of growing children — reminded me of all the effort that goes into getting these meals to Da Nang. Endless coordination is required to get one meal to one beneficiary. The menial tasks done in my apartment are just a small piece to the puzzle. I took that moment to admire all the hard work done by so many to accomplish this one task that seems so simple, but one that can make all the difference in a child’s day.” (all RAH stories were taken directly from Rise Against Hunger’s blog. To read more stories: https://www.riseagainsthunger.org/category/blog/)

Friends, as we continue to pack meals, let us hold these stories from Rise Against Hunger workers, in our hearts and allow them to take root. Every meal packed, though just one meal, makes an impact in the lives of those who are hunger. Let us hold Jesus’ compassion for those who are hungry in our hearts. Let us hold Jesus’ call to love and care for our neighbors close in our hearts.  And let us strive to do our part to fight hungry in our community and around the world. Amen.

 

 

What the Holy Spirit Can Do!

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Sermon Text: Acts 2:1-21

When encountering the work of the Holy Spirit for the first time, observers in our scripture passage sneered and said those speaking were drunk with wine! They could not understand the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. They didn’t exactly “get it” right away. Things can become lost in translation and not just in foreign languages but also through misinterpreted actions and sometimes in generational conversations as well.

I’m reminded of a conversation I watched one of my former youth have with one of their advisers about conversations in relation to bullying.  Ainsley who was about to go into high school at the time said something like, “Sometimes, I’m afraid to talk to my friends about anything private, because I don’t know if they’ll keep what I say and show it to others. So I really watch what I say, because I don’t always trust they won’t pass it around. So if I do talk to them about private things, I only do it, like, face to face, and not on the phone.” The adult leading the conversation was confused: “Do you mean you think they might be recording your conversations?” The girls looked at the adult like she had three heads and legitimately had no idea how to respond. As I started to understand what was going on, I said, “Ainsley, when you say ‘talk’ to your friends, you mean texting, don’t you?” To which Ainsley, “Yeah. What else would I mean?” It never occurred to Ainsley that “talking on the phone” would be with her voice and it never occurred to my adult leader (who was not all that old—in her late 30’s) that “talking on the phone” would mean texting. Things become lost in translation, but it is important to bridge the language gap because coming together enriches lives.

On Pentecost, we welcome seven of our newest members into our congregation. As part of the service, as we are welcoming our newest members as they make their public professions of faith, I anointed each of them with oil and said to each, “know that the Holy Spirit is at work in you!” Indeed, our youth have a beautiful language to speak that the world needs to hear, even if they speak differently or see the world differently from previous generations. As they traveled together through their commissioning journey each youth expressed his or her faith through words, art, or songs. Listen to just small pieces of how the Holy Spirit is at work in each youth’s life:

Several youth really identified with Lauren Daigle’s song, ‘You say,’ “You say I am loved when I don’t feel a thing. You say I am strong when I say I am weak. You say I am held when I am falling short. When I don’t belong, you say I am yours.” “The Church is not in its best state right now, I know we can be better at being kind, respectful, helpful, and good stewards of the earth.” “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail or forsake you.” “God is there through it all, standing by our side.” “You don’t just see God in heavenly miracles, but also in the miracle of love and the hard working spirit of members of the church.” “I have faith in His promises.” The Holy Spirit is truly at work in the lives of our youth. Friends, what wondrous faith statements and what beautiful reminders of what the Holy Spirit can do!  *Members of 2019 Commissioning Class*

It is appropriate that we welcome the youth of our commissioning class as new members on Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is a joyous celebration of what the Holy Spirit can do, Pentecost celebrates the birthday of the Christian church, a church which is continuously being made new through the incredible power of the Holy Spirit. Our text this morning depicts a crowd drawn in around their confusion and amazement as they hear Galileans speaking in languages all people could understand. Each person heard the Galileans speaking in various languages and each asked, how can we understand them speaking in our mother language? Imagine the surprise of the crowd made up of different cultures as they heard their own language.  I love the artist works visualizing the events of the coming of the Holy Spirit, the diversity and imagery show the mysterious but all-inclusive work of the Holy Spirit. Some of the mystified observers were amazed and moved to accept Christ, others did not recognize the work of the Holy Spirit and claimed people were having too much wine. Things sometimes get lost in translation.

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.” In the face of differences, the Holy Spirit compels people to engage. From Day One of the church, which we celebrate at Pentecost, the call was to press in, linger, listen, and listen some more. Our call is to be intoxicated with the Spirit, and lead to do crazy and foolish things like follow a crucified 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, we should make 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. The Holy Spirit helps interprets God’s language to language each of us can understand.

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. Listen. Slow down. So how is the Holy Spirit at work? Sometimes, we may be like the listeners in our scripture text, we may be blind to how the Spirit is at work around us, calling others “drunk” with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s work might get lost in translation, or mystify us. Other times we are fully in step with the Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is at work all the time even when we don’t fully understand the spirit. Imagine a remarkable way in which the Holy Spirit is active and alive. The spirit is at work, if we just pay attention. The Holy Spirit meets us where we are.

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.

It is the Holy Spirit who meets us in the waters of baptism. It is the Holy Spirit who guides our lives as we grow in our faith and as we profess our faith. It is the Holy Spirit who beckons to us and welcomes all of us and all to the table of Christ, and it is the Holy Spirit who meets us at God’s holy and inclusive table during the sacrament of communion. Friends, the Holy Spirit is at work in each of you…. pay attention, be astonished, and be open to all the incredible work which the Spirit can do. Amen.

Unity

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*Image from “God’s Dreams” illustrated by LeUyen Pham.*

Scripture Text: John 17:20-26

Over the past few Sundays, we have taken a closer look at Jesus’ final teachings to his disciples, we’ve looked at the heart of what is really important to Christ. All the teaching points that deeply matter to Christ, all which he wanted to stress once more before his death. On the night of his arrest, Jesus shares with the divided and anxious disciples several challenges; to love one another, and to remember the peace which Christ gives to all. At this point in John’s gospel, Jesus then prays. What does Jesus pray for? What is Jesus’ dream for his followers?

God desired unity with us so much God became one of us. Our scripture records a piece of Jesus’ heartfelt, outpouring words of prayer in the garden right before he is arrested, taken away, put on trial, and put to death. In a moment of angst and despair Jesus prays for all his followers- not just the current group- but also those who would believe in the future. On this last Sunday of Eastertide season, we look at what and who really matters to Christ. On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus prayed for all of us, each and every one of us, everyone who is a beloved child of God. Every. Single. One. Of us. Jesus prayed and dreamed- prayed for us then, and Jesus continuously prays for us now- as we strive to be Christians in such a divided world. Friends, this remains our comfort. Christ prays for us. Christ prays, “that we may be one.”

Though I’m guessing as the disciples shared what would be their final meal with their Lord and teacher (although they did not know exactly what this looked like at the time), as the disciples fell asleep in the garden, and as they argued among themselves, they did not feel like one. The disciples probably didn’t feel united. Writer, Karoline Lewis describes the disciples at this moment in scripture by saying: “They were no doubt frightened, uncertain, insecure, scrappy, and squabbling. Peter was petulant, Judas plotting, and James and John were probably still jockeying for promotions.” Did this change much after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension? Probably not.

The book of Acts records squabbles the disciples had as they figured out what Christianity looked like and they weren’t always a united front. This posture of division over unity more often than not, describes many of the churches I have been a part of. Many are far from being described as one. In a world that is more polarized as we ever have been, unity is hard. As one of our youth who is going through commissioning observed in their faith statement the church could do better. I strongly agree with such a statement- we are not being as loving and as united as we could be.

But how might we do better? We can take baby steps and start honestly considering hard questions. Who are you not willing to “be one” with? Friends, I confess that there are people I do not wish to be united with. Those who abuse power, those abuse children, those abuse animals or the elderly. Those who bully. Those who believe their ways are so right, that they cannot and will not see another person’s point of view. Those who create conflict for the sake of conflict. Those who spread the lies of hatred in the name of Christ. Those who treat people as less than human in order to build up their own egos.  Those who do not believe that women can become pastors. My guess is all of us here today can add to this list.

Another take away from our text is that Jesus prays earnestly for us to be in community. Friends, Christianity cannot be practiced as solitary religion. It is with God’s help that we can live into that oneness. Within that community the prayer Jesus prays is for unity, that all may be one. Does that mean we all have to get along all the time? Does that mean we all have to agree all the time? If you have been a part of a family, church, or a community, you know that within that love and unity there can be disagreements and squabbles. We don’t have to agree. Even though I wholeheartedly do not agree with my brothers and sisters in Christ who think that women have no business being pastors, I still am called to acknowledge that like it or not, we are united in Christ. If we think more in ontological terms then Jesus’ prayer, “that they all may be one,” becomes more about who we are, more about the nature of our very beings. We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not. We are made one in Christ whether we like another or not. To be part of Christ is to become part of the community, part of the oneness. Christianity is all about community. Our “oneness” is to be a sign to the world of God’s love for us in Christ. Oneness and unity is all about love.

The prayer of Christ is that our unity and love may become visible. That in unity of Christ, brothers and sisters in Christ will pray together, eat together, laugh together, mourn together, welcome others to Christ’s radically inclusive table together, love together. Because Christ is one with us, we are also made one with one another. Unity, according to the Confession of Belhar is, “both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it (unity) is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain.” In this confession we also reject any doctrines or beliefs which: “profess that this spiritual unity is truly being maintained in the bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of reconciliation.”  Friends, we have work to do.

During the years 1978-1985, apartheid and racial segregation plagued the country of South Africa. Desmond Tutu, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, played an active role in non- violent opposition to racial segregation. During one of his speeches he referenced all of the people in the crowd, despite their thoughts on the issue, as “the rainbow people of God,” focusing on what united the crowd rather than what caused separation within the crowd. A few years ago, in 2008, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a book entitled, “God’s Dreams.”  We have a copy of the book in church library, I’d encourage you to look at illustrations either after service or in library. Illustrator LeUyen Pham does a phenomenal job capturing the children of God. Though a children’s book, I think the story reminds us of our call to be part of the family of Christ, to focus on what connects us instead of what divides us.  Listen now to the story, “God’s Dreams,” by Desmond Tutu:

“Dear Child of God, what do you dream about in your loveliest of dreams? Do you dream about flying high or rainbows reaching across the sky?

Do you dream about being free to do what your heart desires? Or about being treated like a full person no matter how young you might be?

Do you know what God dreams about? If you close your eyes and look with your heart, I am sure, dear child, that you will find out.

God dreams about people sharing. God dreams about people caring.

God dreams that we reach out and hold one another’s hands and play one another’s games and laugh with one another’s hearts. But God does not force us to be friends or to love one another.

Dear Child of God, it does happen that we get angry and hurt one another. Soon we start to feel sad and so very alone.

Sometimes we cry, and God cries with us. But when we say we’re sorry and forgive one another, we wipe away our tears and God’s tears too.

Each of us carries a piece of God’s heart within us. And when we love one another, the pieces of God’s heart are made whole.

God dreams that every one of us will see that we are all brothers and sisters- yes, even you and me- even if we have different mommies or daddies, or live in different faraway lands.

Even if we speak different languages or have different ways of talking to God. Even if we have different eyes or different skin. Even if you are taller and I am smaller. Even if your nose is little and mine is large.

Dear Child of God, do you know how to make God’s dream come true? It is really quite easy.

As easy as sharing, loving, caring. As easy as holding, playing, laughing. As easy as knowing we are family because we are all God’s children.

Will you help God’s dream come true? Let me tell you a secret……God smiles like a rainbow when you do.”

Friends, unity is hard. In the unity Christ is speaking of, we are called out of ourselves and into unity with Christ and our brothers and sisters in Christ. How can we better realize that in Christ, we all are made one? Friends, what steps might we all take this week with God’s help to help God’s dream of unity come true? What steps, even if they are just baby steps, might we all take to see those who we are not willing to “be one” with, as beloved, treasured children of God, who need God’s grace and mercy just as much as we do.  Let us with God’s help, begin taking those small baby steps, because friends, God knows how much our world needs those baby steps. Amen.

 

 

Peace

 

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23 Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate,[a] the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Single- mother, Allison is exasperated. She hears her six month child, who should be napping, screaming in the background while she is at home trying to meet a deadline for work. She sits at her kitchen table which is bombarded with papers stacked a mile high. Amidst the noisiness of her current state, Allison murmurs under her breathe, “can’t I please just get some peace?”  Chances are everyone here today has cried out at one point or another, ‘can’t I just get some peace?!’  What does peace look like to you and where do you go to find peace in your life? Maybe you find peace in the quiet moments of drinking the first cup of coffee in the morning. Perhaps, maybe you find peace and most feel at peace when out in nature around a stream, ocean, forest, or out in God’s beautiful creation.  Some may find peace out on the golf course or at a football game.  Others may find peace in dancing or art. Maybe most of you are thinking, who are you kidding? I’m lucky if I get any peace at all during the day!  Whether we feel like we get peace or not, peace is something we all long for. Today’s scripture speaks of a more permanent, yet un-explainable peace. A peace which surpasses our understanding. What does the peace of Christ look like?

When Jesus knew that his time on earth was coming to a close; when he knew his life and teachings were leading him to the cross, he gathered with his closest friends and shared these words. He knew that when he was gone, there would be much pain, much sadness, and much confusion. Christ promises the coming of an advocate, the coming of the Holy Spirit (who we will talk more about as we celebrate Pentecost in two weeks!) The Holy Spirit, who sustains us and remind followers of his teachings. Knowing he would soon be taken away Jesus gives his disciples this promise of peace, not as the world gives, but as he gives.

 Jesus’ peace is different from the world’s peace. Living in the days of the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, the idea of Jesus not giving peace to his disciples as the world gives peace would resonate. During Pax Romana, political rulers promised and assured people that peace which started under Caesar Augustus, would continue into the future. The Pax Romana, however ended up being more of an awkward silence between wars. This still happens today, we are tempted to place our hope for peace on a leader or person, a peace that seems shaky and despite even the best efforts, seems temporary, distant, or non-existent. But God’s peace for us looks different from the peace the world offers us. This indescribable peace offered because of Christ is not an absence of conflict or trouble, but as we abide in Christ, He offers us his peace. A peace even in spite of times of trouble.  The peace of Jesus is “all-embracing” A total well-being which comes from God alone. A peace which no political ruler, country, circumstance, or human being can offer us.

Several years ago, an art gallery sponsored a contest for artists to depict what peace looks like through the eyes of the artist. Countless tranquil painting of forest, oceans, mountains, and other peaceful scenic sights were submitted, but the winner painter Jack Dawson won with a hidden peace theme.  At first glance, Jack Dawson’s winning painting illustrates a scene which appears to be anything but peaceful. The scene shows an ocean shoreline during a violent storm. The sky is pitch black and ominous, horrendous bolts of lightning cut violently across the sky. The chaotic waves crash repetitively into the rock walls of the jagged shore cliffs. Where was the peace in such a scene? Amidst the stormy chaos, you have to look closely and possibly a couple times to understand and find the peace in the painting. About halfway up the storm battered cliff, sits a small birds’ nest tucked into a tiny hollow in the rock, protected from the raging storm. In the nest sits a mother bird with her little babies tucked underneath her wings, sleeping soundly. There is the peace!

The peace Christ offers is not always the absence of a storm, but a nurturing presence, and protectiveness in the middle of the storm. The indescribable peace of Christ guards our hearts and minds like a mother bird guards her babies from the raging storms. It is an un-explainable relief which comes over us when we feel a sense of calmness despite our trying life circumstances.

The peace of Christ, is a peace which surpasses all understanding, all reason, and all knowledge. A peace that cannot be explained by putting together any stream of words from Webster’s dictionary. A peace, unlike the peace the world gives; a peace which is not conditional, nor transactional. A peace that sits with us as we are struggling with confusion and depression or grieving the loss of a loved one. A peace which comforts us in our moments of deepest need, a peace that we may not even recognize until we are able to see scenes of our lives played back in the rear-view mirror.  A peace which washes over us when we see a sunrise or God’s peace at work in the world. A Peace that even though unexplainable and hard to understand, brings stillness to our moments of chaos, and light to our deepest darkness. A peace which gathers us in, ever so closely, in the arms of the Almighty who hears our every prayer, concern, praise, and cry. A peace that can only be found in and through Christ.

So often even though we are trying to look for, accept, and abide in the peace of Christ, the world can be so noisy, so complicated, and such a chaotic place. Often times the noise can drown out God beckoning us towards a peace only Christ can give. So before we close, let’s take a few minutes to engage scripture through lectio divina, or holy reading. I’m going to read a small portion of our passage again but before I read, I’ll prompt you to think about a question before I read the passage. If it is helpful and you feel comfortable, I invite you to close your eyes.

As I read through a portion of passage again think about question. What does the peace of Christ mean to you? Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  (1 minute)

As I read through portion of passage once more think about question.  Where do you most need the peace of Christ in your life? Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  (1 minute)

Our world has so much noise, so many worries that tempt us and distract us from the peace Christ desires for us. Our challenge this week is to take two minutes each day to sit in peace, to rest in the peace of Christ. To leave all our worries and anxieties at the foot of the cross. Friends, let us accept the peace of Christ and remember that Jesus calls out to us, saying, “I love you, and abide in my peace.” amen.

What Really Matters….

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Sermon Text: John 13:31-35

What really matters in life? How do you want to leave your mark and legacy on the world? Today we celebrate Graduate Sunday—graduates, this may be a question you ask yourselves when considering the future, and if you do, you most certainly are not alone.  Many attempt to answer these questions in various ways.  Years ago, the Chicago Tribute printed a column which eventually became adapted as song, “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)”- also known as the “sunscreen song.”  The piece, written by columnist Mary Schmich, touches on life’s nuggets of wisdom and what really matters in life while dispensing advice to graduates. Here’s just a few pieces from the column/song:

“Ladies and gentleman of the class of (99) 2019, wear sunscreen, if I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it—whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.

Don’t worry about the future, or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy; sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind…. the race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Remember the compliments you receive, forget the insults, if you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life…the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40-year-old I know still don’t.

Get to know your parents your parents, you never know when they’ll be gone for good.

Be nice to your siblings. They are the best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that friends come and go, but for the precious few you should hold on, work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle because the older you get the more you need the people you knew when you were young.

Travel.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply advice. Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than its worth—but trust me on the sunscreen.”

You might be able to add additional nuggets of wisdom. What cherished hope or dream would you share with others?

So what really matters to Christ? More specifically, what really matters to Jesus towards the end of his ministry at the night of his arrest? What last wisdom did he wish to bestow to a group of anxious disciples, who were all about to be challenged in ways they couldn’t even imagine? What did he say to those closest to him, all of which, he addressed lovingly as, “little children?”  Perhaps, if Jesus had one message he most desired to get across to his followers, one message that really matters, it might be in the love commandment.

Placement and context are both so important in our passage today. You may remember hearing the text at Maundy Thursday. Jesus is gathered in the room with his disciples, sharing their last meal together before Jesus is betrayed, arrested, and crucified. This context makes Jesus’ call and challenge for his followers to remember his infinite and sacrificial love and to love one another even more powerful. Because before what we call the “Love Commandment” is the betrayal of Judas. Immediately after is the prediction of Peter’s denial.

And yet, Jesus welcomes both to the table. Jesus washes the feet of both. Jesus shares a meal with and feeds both. And then tells us to do the same. Yet, weeks out after Easter, we are once again reminded love is never without sacrifice. Love is never without hearts hurting. Even still, no matter how imperfect Judas’ love for Jesus was, no matter what Judas was going to do, Christ still humbly and lovingly washed Judas’ feet. Jesus lovingly provides encouragement to followers, showing them the unfathomable extent of his love- so he gets right to the point, no parables, no room for confusion, just the commandment. LOVE. And the promise, perhaps warning, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples- if you love one another.

This is what really matters to Jesus. Loving one another. Loving, welcoming, and accepting others in such a way that people will know and see we are followers of Christ. Can I take a second to point out what Jesus doesn’t say? When Jesus is about to be taken away from his disciples, and he has a mere few hours to communicate the heart of his message, Jesus doesn’t say we always had to have all the answers, worship a certain way, or attend a church every Sunday. He doesn’t say make sure you maintain doctrinal purity. He implores his followers to love one another. All of Christianity distilled and made simple, the core of Christianity in one statement, so maybe we will pause long enough to hear. Love one another.

So what does this mean for us? Friends, Jesus says, “This is my commandment” Jesus doesn’t say this is a suggestion or open for our own personal preferences. He says, “Love as I have loved you”. An authentic love, not love stimulated for our own agendas, not loving through rolling eyes and gritted teeth, but real authentic and deeply rooted love. The radical love that washes the feet of the one who would betray him, the feet of the one who denied him, the feet of his friends who scatter during his darkest moments. The radical and all-encompassing love that throws open doors and windows and every nook and cranny and tells the misfits, outcasts, poor, lonely, hated, hateful, different, depressed, and EVERYONE come in- you are welcomed, here’s your seat at the table and you are loved. That’s the kind of love Jesus reminds his followers in the upper room to love like. That is the desired legacy. God wants every one of God’s children to feel loved. Not shamed, not punished, not judged, not isolated, but loved.

So, “love one another,” an easy mission statement to memorize, but so very hard to put into practice. Biblical teacher D.A Carson observes, “This new command is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, and it is profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice.” Love is never easy.

I can relate to the way Pastor Debi Thomas opens up and why following this commandment is so hard. She writes, “Love is vulnerable-making, and I’d rather not be vulnerable. Love requires trust, and I’m naturally suspicious. Love spills over margins and boundaries, and I feel safer and holier policing my borders. Love takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation…and I’m just so darn busy.” The type of love we are called to thinks outside the lines of who is on the inside and who is on the outside. The commandment which may appear simple at first glance, pushes us beyond the bounds of comfort and moves our generic love past just our lips and challenges action.

Writer David Lose writes, “Jesus reminding us of just how much he loves us—and of how much God loved and loves us through Jesus—that we might be empowered to love others, extending God’s love through word and deed, and in this way love others as Jesus loves us. We don’t have to do this perfectly to do it meaningfully, of course. Indeed, even as we remember those who have loved us, we probably acknowledge that while their love was not perfect, it was nevertheless, powerful.” We won’t also get love perfect, more often than not we will mess it up.

However, the good news is we have help. We are all beckoned to abide in the holy places where love originates—to abide with Christ and abide in Christ’s love—the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence. And Christ shows us how to love. Weep with those who weep. Laugh with those who laugh. Welcome all in Christ’s name. Touch the untouchables. Tell each other the truth in love. Extend grace to those who hurt us. Through his examples, Christ helps us answer our call as Christ followers to go out into the world living into the radical transformation of whole and equality, justice and mercy that God desires.

What is one thing important enough for Jesus to remind his followers of the night of his arrest? What really matters to Jesus? Love. So here’s where the rubber meets the road. I invite us all to stop and think for a moment. What is one way you can love those you encounter this week to show others you are a follower of Christ? What is the one action step you can take to show God’s love to someone? What would it look like for us to love another on Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons and Thursday evenings? What would it look like in our workplaces, neighborhoods, at our schools, in traffic, on the streets or at the ball fields?

God’s love and the love that God calls each and every one of us to is always radical, especially when we put actions behind our words. Rachel Held Evans, “What makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in.” I would piggyback off of Rachel’s statement and continue by adding: what makes God’s love so radical isn’t who it leaves out, because God’s love does not exclude, what makes God’s love so radical is that all are included.  All are loved, invited, and there is always room. Love- this is what really matters to Christ. Amen.