Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Resurrection Perspective -- Easter Sunday

Matthew 28:1-10
April 16, 2017

            “Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing. And heaven and nature sing. And heaven, and heaven and nature sing!”
            When I was in my first church as a solo pastor and preparing for my first Easter Sunday as a solo pastor, I read an article in some homiletics journal about different ways to approach Easter worship. The author suggested that in order to remind your parishioners of the intrinsic connection between Christmas and Easter it was completely appropriate to sing “Joy to the World.” After all, are we not joyful this morning? Should we not be shouting our praises from hilltop to hilltop, and making the valleys echo with the sound of our voices singing out,
“Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!”
All this may be true, but a few members of the congregation did not get the memo. And they made sure that I knew that. They were lovely, forgiving people who gave me a lot of room to try new things, but singing a Christmas carol on Easter Sunday was just too much. It was jarring and felt wrong. It shook them up, and they were not prepared for the shaking.
We are not going to sing “Joy to the World” this morning. You won’t hear anymore of it than what I just sang. But even though we are leaving the Christmas carols to Christmas, we cannot avoid the shaking that comes with Easter.
Just as a quake shook the earth at the moment of Jesus’ death, a second quake rocked the earth as the angel descended from heaven and rolled away the stone to the tomb. Sitting on the stone, the angel, with his lighting bright, dazzling appearance, must have been both splendid and terrifying all at the same time. It is easy for me to understand how the soldiers sent to guard the tomb must have fainted away in the face of this awful and awesome angelic presence. Yet, how ironic that in this moment of LIFE, the guards fall down as though dead; they could not bear the shaking.
Surely Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were equally as thrown by the descent of the angel as were the soldiers. But they saw the angel through a different lens, a different perspective. The angel’s descent did not send them into a dead faint. They were not overcome by fear, but seemed to take the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid” to heart. They heard the good news about their Teacher, and understood that the promises of God were now fulfilled. Everything was different. The shaking did not make the women fall. Instead, it gave them swift feet.
We may not be having an earthquake at this moment – although we here in Oklahoma know a little bit about that – but the ground is still shaking and quaking, rocking and rolling beneath our feet. Easter is that earthquake. A seismic event signaled the announcement of an empty tomb, and Easter is a cosmic event that signals that God is not done. God is not done – not done with us, not done with the world. Everything is shaken up. Everything is different and changed and new. Easter is here, He is risen, and the ground beneath our feet is shaking, rolling over and over, because the Lord is come. Joy to the world!
Joy to the world is wonderful, but I don’t think the world knows it is supposed to be joyful. The struggle I have every Easter, and every Christmas for that matter, is that I feel joyful and exuberant in here. I am overflowing with love and hope in here, in this place. But I cannot stay in this place. I have to go out there. And out there is still so broken. There is still so much pain, so much turmoil, so much hatred and hurting and killing and death. There is still so much death. If Easter is the earthquake, shaking the world to its very foundations, spinning even the cosmos into new patterns of glory, then the world seems not to have noticed. Nothing seems to have changed … and yet everything is changed because we are changed. How can we not be changed by that empty tomb? How can we not be changed by the knowledge that this day was and is about God? God resurrected Jesus not for Jesus’ sake alone, but for ours. A colleague once said that he can understand why God would resurrect Jesus, but us? And yet that’s what God did. That is what God is doing, resurrecting us from our old ways of living and being and seeing the world. Resurrection is not just a one-time event; it is a new perspective, a new way of seeing not just the world but the people who inhabit it.
Resurrection is a new perspective. It is like old eyes being made new. Easter may not seem to change anything, but we see differently. Resurrection is not something reserved for the last day or the end of time; it is a new perspective now. We see differently now. We have been given new eyes to see God working in this world, a new heart to feel God’s presence in this world, and new mind to understand God creating and re-creating in this world. We have been given a new perspective, a resurrection perspective.
Yesterday, Brent and I watched a video of a family gathering centered on their grandfather. The grandpa was color blind. The gift his family gave him was a special pair of sunglasses. When he put them on, he saw color for the first time. He saw the green of the grass and the blue of his ball cap. Those lenses gave him the gift of color. They gave him the gift of a new perspective. Easter is a new pair of glasses that allow us to see a glimpse of the world as it was created to be. It gives us new eyes, new lenses, new perspective.
When the women ran from the tomb, filled with both great fear and great joy, they met Jesus, the risen Christ. The New Revised Standard Version we read from translates his first word to the women as “Greetings.” But this is not a great translation. Put it into modern vernacular, and we hear Jesus welcoming the women with ‘Hi there!” But a better translation is “Rejoice.” Jesus meets the women and tells them, “Rejoice!” The women’s response was to fall before him and take his feet. He repeated the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid.”
Rejoice! Do not be afraid. These are the new lenses Easter gives us. These are the frames of our resurrection perspective. Rejoice! Do not be afraid. We know that the world is still caught in darkness. Harm is still done. Danger still lurks. Resurrection does not magically fix that which is broken, waving a wand of wonder over creation. But we are able to see beyond the dark’s long shadows. We are able to see the wholeness lying just beneath the broken places. We are able to see the ongoing presence of the risen Christ. We are able to see God everywhere, in every place, in every person.
Easter shakes the ground we walk on. Because of it we see with new eyes. We see with a new perspective: a resurrection perspective. And now that we see, we are also called to go, to tell others, to share the good news, to witness that we too have seen the Lord!
Rejoice! Do not be afraid. Rejoice! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


            This morning as I was driving my son to the high school, we were stopped for a moment in front of the elementary school around the corner from our house. The crossing guard, with her bright orange vest and brighter red sign, halted traffic to let a little boy wearing a backpack almost as big as him cross the street. As the flow of traffic began to move again, I noticed his mother still standing at the spot where he left her. I instinctively knew that she would stand there until the doors of the school closed behind him. She would not stop watching until her son was inside and safe. Then I began to cry.
            If my son noticed my tears, he kindly did not say anything. Why did this maternal act by someone I don't know release this intense emotion in me? Because isn’t that what every mother and every father wants for their children? We just want them to be safe. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we live, the appearance of our skin, the religion we adhere to, the creeds we confess, the politics we uphold. We just want our children to be safe. I am a mom of two teenagers; one drives and the other is learning. They are both busy, not just with school and extracurricular activities, but with creating their own lives – lives that are taking them slowly but surely away from me. This is how it is supposed to be. I know that there is so much that I cannot control. I know that I can never fully keep them safe. But for every potential danger I can imagine that might happen, them being attacked by their own government with chemical weapons or being starved to death by famine – I do not and cannot imagine that. Yet it happens to other children. It happened yesterday in Syria, and the famine in parts of Africa grows more intense.
            I am a coward. I cannot look at the pictures of little ones being asphyxiated. I cannot bear to see the pictures of babies so emaciated they cannot cry. But my heart breaks nonetheless. I know that with this terrible attack in Syria yesterday that there will be much posturing by politicians and others about the evils of Islam. This latest atrocity will become new fodder for those who seek a 21st century religious crusade. Yet it seems to me that inhumanity begins at home. The truth is the least of these, the poor and the vulnerable, are not safe and never will be as long as those in power, regardless of religion, see other humans as disposable and as pawns in their ongoing game of dominance and political wins.
            But here’s the thing, I believe that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Does that mean that the God I worship just took on a human shell? I don’t think so. I don’t believe it. I believe that God became flesh because God values flesh. God values these frail, fragile bodies of ours. Whatever you may believe or not believe, the man Jesus spoke hard truths to the powerful, and loved the people who were most marginalized in his society and context. He called the powerful out for their hypocrisy and their willingness to exploit those who had no voice. And his righteous ire was aimed at the religious leaders first. Well I’m one of them. I’m a religious leader, and this morning I feel his indignation most acutely. I have remained silent in the face of power.
            I love my two sweet children so dearly. I would do anything for them. But those babies in Syria are also my children. The children here who are hungry and afraid are my children. They are our children. How can I claim to be a person of faith and not feel that? I cannot. If my heart were not breaking wide open with grief at the suffering of the world’s children, then something would be wrong with me. I do not know what to do to help. This is an attempt to write through my deep sense of helplessness. I just know that I cannot remain silent. I cannot remain silent, because like every parent I just want our children to be safe.  

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Living Starts Now -- Fifth Sunday in Lent

Ezekiel 37:1-14 
April 2, 2017

            It must have been so quiet, this valley of death. No sound; no terrible squawks from birds of prey or grunts from stalking predators come to feed. Nothing left to feed upon. It must have been so quiet, this valley of death. No whisper of wind or breath of breeze. There were just bones; dry, dead, whitewashed bones, growing whiter still in the glare and heat of the relentless sun.
            Brought by God’s hand, God’s Spirit, Ezekiel stood in that valley, in the midst of those dry bones and stared into the burning silence. God’s question broke the quiet,
            “Mortal, can these bones live?”
            Ezekiel understood that was up to God. He responded,
            “O Lord, God, you know.”
            God did know. God does know. God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy to those dry, dead bones. Prophesy to those dry bones, and tell them to hear the Word of the Lord. Tell those dead, dry bones that the Lord will give them breath again and they shall live. Prophesy to those dry bones that the Lord will knit them together with sinew, cover them with flesh, fill them with breath and they shall live.
            Ezekiel prophesied. He preached to the dead, dry bones. He spoke God’s Word, and even before every word had left his lips, the bones began to shake and move. It must have been a powerful noise. The dead silence of the valley replaced with a deafening din of rattling bones resurrecting, reconnecting, rejoining one to another.
            Just as God said, the bones became skeletons and the skeletons took on flesh and shape and form. But still there was no life in those bones. There was no breath in those bones.
            So God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. Prophesy to the ruah, the same breath, wind, spirit that in the beginning God breathed on that formlessness and void, that chaos, and called creation into being. Prophesy to the breath, call the breath to come from the four winds and breathe on these bones, these slain bones. Fill them with breath so that they might live.
            Ezekiel prophesied to the breath and the ruah, and the breath flooded the valley and filled the bones with its life, and people, living, breathing people, stood in that valley. Dry bones lived. Dead bones lived. People, children of God, lived again in that valley of death now valley of the living.
            “Mortal, can these bones live?”
            These were not just any dry, dead bones brought to life. The Lord told Ezekiel that this valley of dry bones was Israel; Israel, the children of God who had turned away from God again and again. This valley of dry bones was Israel; the people of God who had been defeated by the Babylonians, seen Jerusalem reduced to smoking ruins, and had been exiled, scattered north, south, east and west. Many must have been killed in the process. And those that were not physically dead were dead in their hearts and souls. You see this valley of death that the Lord brought Ezekiel to see was not just about death, it was about despair. Israel felt cut off from God. They were lost. They despaired.
            But as surely as those dry, dead bones were brought back to life, created again as children of God, then Israel would be brought back to life, resurrected from death into new life.
            It might seem strange that two weeks before Easter, the Day of Resurrection, we are reading and hearing stories about resurrection. They are not stories about Jesus being resurrected, true, but they are still stories of resurrection; of life resurrected from what was dead. The bones in that valley were really, really dead. Lazarus had been in the tomb four days. He too was really, really dead. Yet in both stories, the dead lived. And in two weeks we will hear again the stories of Jesus being crucified, really, really dead, and living again.
            So why talk about resurrection now? Why not wait until Easter? I think we, perhaps unwittingly, reserve resurrection for Easter Sunday. Yet, it is clear from these two passages and from so many others that we find in scripture, that new life happened at any time and in any place. New life happens at any time and in any place. I believe this. This is the good news of the gospel that I proclaim and preach. I write about it. I talk about it. The problem is, though, that I’m not very good about living it.
            I think about new life in future terms. The resurrection will happen at the last day. When I die I will be reunited with the people I have loved who have gone before me. I may wish that dead bones could be brought back to life right now, as they did in Ezekiel’s vision, but I know that sometime in the future, I will see those dead bones live again.
            But dry, dead bones are not just what are left of a physical body. There have been times in my life when I have felt, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, as dry and dead as those bones in that valley. There have been times when I have been so lost, so despairing, that I may as well have been nothing more than a skeleton in some desert. God told Ezekiel that those dead bones were more than just forgotten skeletons too. They were the children of Israel. They were the Israelites who were alive, but not living. They were filled with breath, but not with the Spirit of God. They were walking and talking, but were dead to hope because of despair.
            Yet God will not let our despair win. God will not let our dry, dead bones stay that way. We may look at those dead bones and see nothing more than that. But God looked at those bones and saw life. We may look at ourselves, our lives, our church, and see only dead bones. But God sees more. God sees life.
            And that new life is happening now. Resurrection is not limited to one day of the year. Resurrection is happening now, starting now. The living, the new living, is starting now. New life happens, new life starts, when we are able to look at our lives and this world with hope. It happens when we trust that God is acting in our lives, whether we see that action or not. New life happens when we let go of despair – that thing which surely makes us dead before we die – and  remember the One who called us into being. The living starts now when we remember that we are being shaped and formed and re-created by the Spirit again and again and again.
            God can breathe new life into dry, dead bones. God can breathe new life into us, into hearts and souls that may feel dry and dead as well. God can breathe new life into our congregation. When we believe that, when we trust God, when we give into hopefulness and let go of despair, we can live new lives. Right now. This moment. We are resurrected – not in two weeks, but right now. The living, our living, starts now.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Monday, March 27, 2017

To See or Not to See -- Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 9:1-41
March 26, 2017

            When I was first living in Richmond, Virginia back in the late 1980’s, I received a catalog in the mail from a store I’d never heard of. The catalog was colorful and well done. The furniture and goods it was selling looked cool and relatively inexpensive, and along with the name of the store there was a Swedish flag displayed! Being of Swedish descent, this intrigued me. It turned out there was a physical store next to another magical place called Potomac Mills Outlet Mall. If you have not already figured it out, the store was IKEA. The catalog came on a Saturday, and the next Monday I took the catalog to work with me. I asked the other folks in my office about it, and I was told that Potomac Mills was a huge outlet mall in Northern Virginia. IKEA was located right next to it. Finding Potomac Mills and IKEA was no problem at all. Just get on I-95 and drive north for almost two hours. I would reach the outlet mall before I reached Washington, DC.
            I had nothing planned for the next Saturday, so I hopped in my car, drove north on I-95, took the exit that boldly declared Potomac Mills Outlet Mall, and there, in Swedish blue and yellow glory, stood IKEA. I had never seen anything like IKEA. Here was this huge, amazing store, filled not just with furniture but so many, many, many things. And it was Swedish! It even had a café. When I was ready for lunch, I ordered Swedish meatballs. It felt like Christmas at my parents’ house.
            That was my introduction to IKEA. I was so excited at finding it, and I wanted to introduce my parents to this delightful place as well. The next time they drove from Nashville to visit me, I showed them the catalog and suggested that we drive up there. We got in my car, and once again I headed north on I-95. We took the Potomac Mills exit and there was IKEA. My parents were as impressed and excited about this store as I was. It was in the late fall, and they were able to get some Christmas shopping out of the way which made them happy. They even found that year’s Christmas gifts for my dad’s office staff – something they put a lot of thought and time into every year. I don’t remember if I bought anything on that particular trip. It was just fun to walk around the store with them. As I had on my first visit, we ordered Swedish meatballs at the café. While we were eating, my dad asked me how I managed to find this place. I told them the story about getting the catalog, asking the people at my office, getting directions, driving my car north on I-95, and discovering a Swedish home goods haven.
            On the way back to Richmond, Dad asked me the same question,
How did you find this place?”
            I repeated the story a second time. Then a little while later, he asked me a third time. “How did you find this place?” I told him: catalog, colleagues, car, I-95, IKEA. He didn’t seem to believe me. I finally asked him,
“Dad, what part of this story do you not understand?”
            Perhaps my parents did not believe me when I told them about IKEA, or think that it was as cool as I described. But I took them there, so it was obvious that the store was real and not just a figment of my imagination. They liked it as much as did, so I was not exaggerating its coolness. I showed them the catalog. We drove in my car. They noted the exit number. Everything I told them was true. It wasn’t true just because I said so, but because it was demonstrably true. But my dad just couldn’t seem to grasp that I had found this store.
            My dad generally believed the things I told him, so I was surprised and confused that he seemed to have such a hard time believing what I was telling him them. Although he never explained his astonishment, I don’t think it was a matter of disbelief. I think I surprised him. Maybe he didn’t expect me to just hop in my car and drive somewhere new all by myself. Maybe he was still amazed that I had just packed up and left my life in Nashville to move to Richmond. Maybe it was not IKEA which surprised him, maybe it was me. Perhaps I did not seem to be the person I used to be.
The man born blind was not the person he used to be either. He was born blind, no sight, no vision at all. But one encounter with Jesus and he was no longer blind. He could see! Today we understand that blindness is not a consequence of sin. But as we read in our story, sin and sinfulness were considered the root causes of someone being born blind. So when Jesus and the disciples came upon this man born blind, the disciples responded to his condition with the question, “Who sinned?” Was this man the sinner? Was it his sinfulness that was the cause of his blindness, or was it the sinfulness of his parents? It must be one or the other. Blindness was the result of sinfulness. So, who sinned?
            Although Jesus’ response sounds straightforward, it bears repeating that every story in John’s gospel is couched in metaphor and has layers of meaning. It stands to reason, then, that Jesus’ response to the disciples is the same.
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
            Does this mean that Jesus was saying God afflicted the man with blindness so that someday when he was an adult, he could be used as an object lesson for other people? I don’t think so. I think a deeper, more accurate understanding is that the man’s blindness was just that, a sad but random happening. But Jesus knew that through this man God’s glory could and would be revealed. When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, he spoke to her not just of water she could carry in her buckets, but of living water that would revive her soul. Jesus told Nicodemus that it was his birth, his forming and shaping, in and by the Spirit that would give him salvation and new life.  So too, this blind man would see. He would see not just the physical world around him, but he would see and recognize the revelation of God’s glory. 
            As one commentator noted, Jesus’ actions take on a baptismal quality. He spit on the ground, made mud, and spread the mud on the man’s eyes. He told the man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. When the mud was washed away, he returned able to see, both the world around him and God’s glory. 
            Upon his return, the neighbors and others who knew him before took notice. “Wait a minute, isn’t this the guy who was blind?  Isn’t this the one we knew as a beggar; the one who’s been blind since birth?” 
            Some of the people believed that it really was him. But others said, “No that’s not that guy. It looks like him, but it’s not him.”
            Yet the man kept insisting that he was the one who was blind but could now see. He said, “I am the man.” A commentary noted that this man is the only other person to use the phrase, “I am” except Jesus. I am the man. So the neighbors asked him, “How did this happen? How did you receive your sight?”
            He told them exactly what Jesus did. He spat on the ground, made mud, spread the mud on my eyes, told me to go wash. I did and now I see.
            But it was suspicious. No one is born blind then given sight. The man was brought before the Pharisees, the religious authorities. An investigation ensued. The Pharisees, like the neighbors, asked the man how he received his sight. He repeated the story: Jesus, mud, wash, sight. Yet rather than rejoice in this miraculous healing, the Pharisees became more concerned about the timing. This happened on the Sabbath. Obviously, Jesus was not “from God” because he willingly broke the Law. No one who was truly from God would do that. But the man stuck to his story. He told the Pharisees exactly what he told the other people. He was blind, but Jesus gave him sight. He was blind, but now he could see.
            John tells us that the Pharisees are divided in their response. Jesus broke the Law, so he must be a sinner. Yet how could a sinner perform such signs? This man born blind could see. The Pharisees then questioned the man about Jesus. What does he say about him? After all, he’s the one who was given sight by Jesus. All the man will say about Jesus’ identity is that he is a prophet.
            The Jews – John is speaking of the Jewish religious authorities, not Jews in general – decided that it wasn’t possible that this man was actually born blind. So they tracked down his parents. They questioned them. “Is this your son and was he born blind?”
            The parents were afraid.  They were afraid of being forced out of the synagogue, out of the community and its fellowship. It was already known that anyone who gave credence to Jesus would suffer those consequences. So out of fear, they handed over their own son.
“We know that this is our son. We know that he was born blind. But we don’t know how he’s seeing now and we don’t know who made him see. Look, don’t bother us anymore. He’s of age. Ask him.”
            One more time the religious authorities called the man in for questioning. This repeated interrogation would be funny if it were not so annoying and so sad.
“Give glory to God,” they told him, “we know that this man is a sinner.”
This wasn’t an invitation to praise God for what Jesus had done. It was not a true call to give glory to God. It was a warning. This Jesus, this sinner must be denied, and any authority he might have, undermined. But the man refused to back down.   
            “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 
            To me this is the crux of the passage. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. The man would not let them take that away from him. He would not let his experience of moving from blindness to sight be hijacked to accommodate the power driven agendas of others. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.
            The Pharisees could not accept this. They reviled the man. They accused him of being a disciple of Jesus, a sinner, while they, the good and righteous people, were disciples of Moses. 
            The man didn’t take their bait. He even took them to task for their lack of understanding. 
            “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to the one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
            That was the final straw. They responded,
“You were born entirely in sin, and are you trying to teach us?”
The Pharisees made good on their threats. They drove him out of the synagogue and out of the fellowship of the worshipping community. Jesus returned to the scene. We don’t know where he was during this lengthy interrogation, but when he heard that the man was driven out of the synagogue, Jesus went looking for the man who could see. Jesus asked the man one question,
“Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
The man born blind wanted to know the identity of the Son of Man, so that he may worship him. Jesus answered,
“You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” With that, the man believed.  
            The man born blind could see. He could see Jesus standing before him. But he could also see the truth of Jesus and his identity. The man who could now see also could see. To see in John’s gospel is to have faith, to believe. He recognized and believed that Jesus was the Son of Man. He could see with his eyes. He could see with his heart. He could see with faith. To see or not to see; to borrow from the Bard, that is the question. Jesus gave this man a miracle, and he gave him a call. You can see the world around you, but do you now see who I am? Do you see me, really see me?  I came into the world to be the Light of the World. You were blind, but now you see. Yet those who see, or think they see, are blind.
The Pharisees did not trust what their eyes, their minds or their hearts told them. How often am I like them? How often do I not trust what my eyes, my mind and my heart tells me because the truth of what I am seeing may be a truth I don’ like? How often do I make the choice not to see – not to see Jesus in the others around me, not to see the grace and mercy that covers me, not to see the Light because the darkness is easier to bear? How often do I choose not to see?
In this season of Lent and always, we are reminded that we are called to see – to see God’s glory in his Son, to see God’s abundant grace and love, and to see that we are called to share that love, to witness to it, to testify to the hurt and brokenness in the world with our own stories, our own experiences of God’s grace and love. To repeat the good news, over and over again. Look, look! I was blind, but now I see!
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

I Confess

Minister's Corner, Shawnee News Star
March 25, 2017

Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, 
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are,
 and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will
and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.
Book of Common Worship, ©1993, Westminster/John Knox Press

            Whenever I get to teach a confirmation class – a group of young people who are working towards “confirming” the vows made at their baptisms and joining the church in full, active membership – I work with them to understand what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a Presbyterian.

As I am sure it is for most denominations, central to our Presbyterian expression of faith is our worship. Our worship is our response to God – to God’s love, mercy, grace, justice, righteousness, etc. Worship is our human expression of love and gratitude in response to the divine expression of life, creation, and sacrificial love. As Presbyterians we do many other things – we participate in mission, in outreach, in service – but worship is central. Worship is fundamental. If Presbyterianism is a wheel, then worship is its hub. The spokes are all the other things we do; they flow from that hub and return to that hub. In other words, worship is it.

Our worship, our response to God, also has a center point, and that point is hearing God’s Word and Proclaiming God’s Word. Everything before builds to the Word, and everything after is response to God’s Word. Right about now you’re probably thinking, “Great, Amy, but get to the point!” Here’s my point: one critical aspect of our preparing ourselves to hear God’s Word, and for me as pastor to proclaim it, is confession. In our worship we pray a corporate prayer of confession.

Why confess? Most of us probably get the idea of personal confession. During a time of confession, we consider and reflect on the ways we have personally sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But in my denomination we put an emphasis on corporate confession – praying together a larger confession of sin and falling away. The prayer of confession does not always state something that I have done in particular. Yet, I still pray it, because I know that in a bigger sense I am connected to all of God’s children, both directly and indirectly. My actions or lack thereof affect others. Perhaps I don’t exploit children in unsafe labor conditions, but what about the clothes I buy and wear? Where are they made? Who makes them? If I buy a shirt that was made by poor children in a poor country, forced to work in terrible conditions because they have no other choice, is that loving my neighbor?

My answer is “no.” I also realize that saying that does not mean that my consumerism will be perfect. No matter how much I try to avoid it, I will probably purchase something else made at the expense of someone else. Praying the prayer of confession does not give me a free pass when it comes to sin. But it reminds me that I am called to be in relationship with God and with other people. Our weekly, corporate prayer of confession compels me to look at my life and my living in a different way, through a different lens. I may love the neighbor right next door, but other people in other places are also my neighbors. How have I loved them?

So I pray. I confess. I continually seek God’s mercy and grace, and I continually seek God’s help in amending who I have been and directing who I shall be. I do this, not just in own private time of prayer and confession, but alongside sisters and brothers in Christ in my congregation and around the world.

Forgive me, God. Help me be more fully the person you created me to be, so that I may truly and completely love your children, and more truly and completely walk in your holy and wonderful ways. Amen and amen.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Broken Hearts -- Ecumenical Lenten Service

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
March 9, 2017

            I am the mother of two teenagers. I’ll be accepting your condolences after worship. Actually, I’m fortunate and extremely blessed to have two great kids. But because they are teenagers, they are doing what teenagers do – namely dating and experiencing the rush of first loves. But we who lived a few years longer then they have know that with love comes the potential for heartbreak.
            When my kids were little, they would come to me with some sort of owie and all it really took for me to fix it was a kiss. But one of the hardest lessons I am learning as a parent is that there are some owies I cannot fix. While I thought that being a mom when they were little and needed me 24/7 was hard, being a mom and having to step back and let them make mistakes and get hurt and have life happen to them, has been infinitely more difficult and painful. Nothing hurts more than seeing your child hurt. And broken hearts hurt.
            Broken hearts hurt, and I reckon most of us would do anything we could to avoid them. It seems strange, then, that the prophet Joel declares that God wants the people of God to rend their hearts.
            “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
            Rend your hearts and not your clothing. A sign of penitence was to tear one’s clothes, and put on sackcloth and ashes. But God does not want that. God wants them – and us – to rend our hearts. This is not a new message or one that is unique to Joel. We hear this repeatedly from the prophets. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.
            What does rend mean exactly? Rend means to break, to tear, to rip. When Jesus breathed his last, the curtain of the temple was rendered into two. It was torn, ripped. To rend something not only means to break that object, there is the implication of violence. Clothes are not just taken off and neatly folded. They are ripped. They are torn.
            But God does not want torn clothing. God wants torn hearts, broken hearts. Why would God want such a thing? One of the ways I understand God is seeing God as my heavenly parent. We pray to our heavenly Father. I know as a parent that the last thing I want is for my children to hurt. When their hearts are broken, my heart is broken. Their broken hearts make me long for the days when I could just kiss away any hurts, any owies they might have. Surely, God our Father, our parent, must hurt when we hurt. God loves us so much, God willing to take on our flesh and blood so that we could find our way back to him.
            Yet Joel and the other prophets tell us that God wants our hearts to be rendered, to be broken. Return to God, mourning, weeping and with broken hearts. It seems to me that if you really want to love someone, I mean really love someone, you have to be willing to have your heart broken wide open. That’s what love does. It makes you vulnerable – not weak – vulnerable. The great risk of loving is that you might get your heart rendered in two. But whoever said that loving God, following God, living a life faithful to God, was without risk?
            Whatever our denomination, and I know that there are many denominations represented here today, we share one faith, and that faith is a risky one. Being faithful implies risk, because being faithful calls us to love. We are called to love God. We are called to love each other. This isn’t some safe, easy, cautious kind of love either. Loving God and loving other people is risky. This love is not a fleeting emotion; this is love with its work boots on. Maybe in order to be truly faithful, to truly love God and others, we have to let our hearts be broken. We have to rend our hearts wide open. We have to be vulnerable and willing to give all that we have and are for the sake of God and God’s children.
            This isn’t a feel good sermon, is it? How could it be when we are talking about broken hearts? Broken hearts hurt. It would seem that God wants our hearts to break, because when they are broken, rendered, completely open, then God can fill them and us with God’s abundance, with God’s light and joy and hope and love. So let us rend our hearts. Let’s break them wide open and turn again and again to God, trusting that God’s love, grace and mercy will fill our hearts with God’s love and make them, and us, whole.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.” 

The God We Know -- Second Sunday in Lent

John 3:1-17
March 12, 2017

            I must admit something that may shock you. I am a pastor. That’s not what I’m admitting, but it must be said in relationship to what I am about to admit. I am a pastor, but I am terrible at remembering chapters and verses of scripture. I remember the stories. I remember the themes. I know the difference between the proverbs and the psalms. I can generally tell you in what book a story is found or in what epistle a particular theme or idea can be located. But I am lousy at remembering specific verses. My parents, however, can spout Bible verses with ease; my dad especially. One of the things they had to do as children was memorize verses. They had Bible drills. They would be called upon to find a book, chapter and verse in the Bible as quickly as possible. They also had to memorize and recite verse after verse after verse. When it came to memorization, my parents and their generation knew specific scriptures much better than my generation does. At least my parents know it better than I do. This rote memorization of scripture was out of favor when I was in seminary. What good is memorization if there is no interpretation or understanding along with it? But I think there is probably a both/and to be found here. I’ve often thought that I should take up memorization of verses as a discipline, but it can’t be just about memorizing. There has to be some interpretation and digging into the verse as well.
            Now that I’ve confessed that I am not a prize student when it comes to memorizing verses, there is one verse that I know so well I could say it forwards and backwards. I can say it in King James:
            “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
            And I can say it in New Revised Standard:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
My guess is that just about everyone here – if not every single person – can recite this verse as easily and readily as I do. Even if you didn’t participate in Bible drills like my parents did, just attending church on a regular basis means that you’ve probably heard this verse more than once. Actually, I suspect that you wouldn’t have to attend church at all to at least have an inkling about this verse from John’s gospel, because this is one verse of the Bible that we see everywhere. It is displayed at sporting events. You see it on bumper stickers and billboards. John 3:16 is everywhere. But we only read 3: 16. I was an adult before I realized that verse 16 was part of the larger story of Nicodemus and Jesus’ words about being born from above. There’s a lot more going on here than one verse, even this most beloved of verses, can encapsulate.
I love this verse. I love this story. But I’ve grown to dread its appearance in the lectionary readings. Because dealing with this story means I have to deal with the idea of being born again. I do not relish addressing this particular concept; at least not American Christianity’s understanding of being born again. I say it that way because I’m learning that American Christianity has its own peculiar flavor in contrast to Christianity in other parts of the world.
I am into my fourth year of co-leading the ecumenical Bible study at the YMCA. It is an ecumenical study in the sense that we who sit around the table represent different denominations. But it is not so ecumenical in that just about everyone around the table interprets scripture through a more literal, evangelical lens. And then there’s me.
I do not see or interpret scripture through that particular lens. So when this story is brought to the table for study, or when the idea of being born again comes up, I struggle with how to be in community with people who see it so differently from the way I do. I would say that every person who attends the study regularly would call themselves born again. They all have a moment, a date, a time and place, when they can say that they accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and were saved. That is the moment when they were born again.
I don’t have a moment like that. I have some profound moments when I entered into a deeper relationship, more profound relationship with God; moments when my understanding of God’s working in my life was enlarged. I was raised a Southern Baptist. I was baptized as a believer. I went forward in an altar call. But even that was not a moment where I consider myself saved. No, I do not have that kind of born again moment. Because of this, I suspect that my friends at that table, who love me and value me, also wonder if I really am saved or not. So I dread that conversation. I don’t just dread it, I get my back up about it. I become Amy DeNiro Pacino.
“Are you talking to me? Are you looking at me? Do you think I’m not saved cause I’m not born again? Do you think my kids are not saved because I baptized them as babies? Do you think I’m not a real Christian cause I don’t interpret Scripture literally? Are you talking to me?”
One of the problems I have with the idea of being born again is that it puts the world into two distinct camps – those who are and those who are not. But is that what Jesus was saying? Is that what John was implying in the way he told this story? The story we have before us goes all the way to verse 17. God loved the world so much that God sent his Son into it to save it. In fact, God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved. God loved and loves the world. God loved and loves everyone in the world. The world and its inhabitants – all of them – matter to God. The world was to be saved, not just the ones who claim a moment as their moment of salvation.
Here’s a second problem I have with our modern concept of being born again. Saying that you are born again seems to say that you do the saving. I accept Jesus Christ as my Savior, therefore I am saved. I make the choice. I make it happen. No, God makes it happen. God does the saving. So back to verse 17. God sent his Son into the world so that the world might not be condemned, but be saved. That isn’t just referencing individuals. Jesus was speaking about the whole world. The. Whole. World.
The Greek word for world is kosmos. As Dr. David Lose pointed out in his piece on this chapter, throughout his gospel John used the word kosmos to refer to “an entity that hates God.” The world hates God, so the world will hate anyone who comes in God’s name. God didn’t just love the world, God so loved the God-hating world. God so loved the world that rejected God, despised God, hated God.
This world might hate God, but God does not hate it in return. God loves it. God loves us. And God doesn’t just love us from a distance, God loves us up close and personal. God loves us intimately. God loves us so much that the way God sent his Son was through the very messy, very human process of being born. That’s how much God loves us and God loves this world. Even though the world might hate God in return, God loves the world. That is the God we know; the God who loves God’s creation, the God who loves us.
We can’t talk about verses 16 and 17 without also talking about the verses that were left off in today’s reading; verses 18 though 21. God loved the world. God sent his Son into the world to save it, not condemn it. But, if someone rejects the Son, if someone rejects belief in the Son, than that person is condemned. Does that mean that God banishes the person to hell? Or does it mean that the person banishes God from his or her life, from his or her heart? Rejecting God is about rejecting the light. The light came into the world, but those who reject God choose darkness over light.
The God we know is the God of love. This isn’t some easy, peazy, happy-go-lucky love. God’s love demands something of us. It demands us. God’s love demands our response of service and sacrifice. God’s love means that we matter. God’s love is for us whether we say we are born again or not. God is about love not condemnation. Our God is about grace and mercy. Our God is about judgment, but judgment that goes hand-in-hand with righteousness. Our God is about love, love for the world, love for us – all of us. It is not about born again versus not born again. It is not about us versus them. It is about all of us being loved by God, who wants us to live in the light of his Son. All of us. That is the God we know.

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.