A Subtle Shift

Somewhere along the way, it happened. A subtle shift.

It must have been that gradual kind of subtle, because I don’t think I’d even have noticed it yesterday morning, if not for the dream.  A running dream.

Not the nightmare kind of running dream.  Lord knows, I have plenty of those that recur often enough.  Like the one that I couldn’t shake in 4th grade – we were on a field trip at a bizarre theme park, populated by famous trademark characters. For some reason, Little Sprout wanted to run away with us, which totally pissed off the Green Giant.  I would awaken in a cold sweat, having run as far and as fast as I could before being caught by the no-longer-Jolly giant.

Or the one that actually comes back once in a while during hurricane season, in which I am at a mall in a rainstorm. The lower floors begin to flood so badly that fish and other water creatures start swimming through the doors… including sharks.  Sharks that can shapeshift, grow legs, and run after you when you head up the stairs to escape.

The thing about these nightmares is that they always reflected the reality that I didn’t just dislike running, I loathed it. And always knew I was just awful at it.  In real life, I mean.

I was always the slowest.  Even when I was at my fittest, I was big and slow.  And it always felt like I was running through tar, or that my feet and legs were made of pliable lead.

This dream was different.

I met up with some friends who were at a park and we started jogging. And talking about life.  Running just happened to be the way we were moving through the world.  I was keeping up, but not sprinting magically ahead or taking half-mile strides (as happens in those crazy superhero dreams).  Running was somehow natural and nice.

And the weirdest part was that the next morning, after the usual awkward warm up part of my workout, I noticed that it wasn’t just in the dream.  Running was somehow natural and nice.  And it happened again day 2, post-dream.

Mind you, I am still slow. And still on the bigger side of average.  And I’m still liable to catch my toe on the edge of the sidewalk or dance awkwardly around the yappy dogs I encounter.

But there has been a subtle shift.

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She thought she might could…

It seems that if you run my social media posts through the standard marketing algorithms, you end up targeting a woman who supports other women, does road races, and is likely to consider items with snarky, pithy or motivational sayings.  Which means I get a lot of ads for t-shirts, wall art and jewelry with a particular saying:

She believed she could, so she did

 

I have several friends, in fact, who own the t-shirt.  And they hashtag all kinds of accomplishments, large and small, with #shebelieved.  Which is great, for them.

I just am not that woman. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever actually done anything remotely hard because I actually believed I could.  Especially not at that “go-no go” moment when the  attempt is public and real and all the “holy shit, who thought this was a good idea” chemicals start raging.

Nope.  I want the  wall art or bracelet or t-shirt that says

She thought she might could, so she gave it a try.

I mean, I can’t be the only woman who would buy it. There have to be a lot more of us out there who hesitate than who just “believe,” right?  Women who question ourselves and our preparation.  Women who still go for it – all in – but are as ready to deal with the consequences of failure as we are to celebrate every success we are fighting like hell to achieve.

I thought I might could stand in a pulpit and make sense of the scriptures for a congregation, so I gave it a try.  Several hundred tries later, I am beginning to believe that the folks who affirmed that suspicion and have encouraged me to press on just might be right.

I thought I might could finish a half-marathon, so I gave it a try.  Fully prepared to get swept by the team that closes a course, I finished strong.  Smack in the middle of the pack. Turns out that yeah,  I could!

And then I thought, I might could do it faster…

And somewhere along the way, I thought I might could mix some running into the walking.  So I gave that a try.  I never imagined, much less believed that I would run 75% of my next half.  But the idea that I might could… that was enough to make me try.

Pretty sure this is what God sees in me, too.  There are so many ways I’ve had to wade into faith, especially when the “just because” of childhood beliefs got strolled away.  Trying out areas of trust, taking risks on mystery, making space for grace that would solidify, eventually.

I might could believe that love and grace are real
I might could believe that I am enough
I might could trust the people I love to your care

It’s a start, that seed of hope.
Not full-blown belief.
But enough to make me try.
Every morning.

God Sees (With) the Heart

Psalm 51:10-14

As you read last week with Jody… Samuel was called by God to be a prophet, to speak to and lead the people of Israel.  As a matter of fact, Samuel was last of the leaders in Israel we call judges

The Judges were a series of leaders who came after Joshua, who led after Moses. God used these women and men to unify the people, get them to repent, deal with the spiritual problems of the nation, and also deal with the physical threat.

They are sometimes military leaders who know how to mobilize the nation for war against an enemy, but their real power lies in their knowledge of the Torah and ability to adjudicate Jewish law. Like Deborah and Samson before him, Samuel was a combination of prophet, judge and warrior.

In his early years, Samuel would travel the land, adjudicating the law, and giving people advice. But as happens as we humans age, there came a time he just couldn’t do it all any more. His two sons, who were meant to take over for Samuel, they were corrupt and not surprisingly -unpopular with the people.

Meanwhile, the people of Israel realized that the series of wars they were engaged in with the prior inhabitants of the Promised Land weren’t going to end any time soon.  They thought maybe things would go better if they had the same kind of political ruler that the nations around them had.

So a delegation was dispatched to ask Samuel to anoint a king instead:
And the the people said [to Samuel] “Behold, you have grown old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now set up for us a king to judge us like all the nations. And the thing was displeasing in the eyes of Samuel …” (1 Samuel, 8:5-7)

Samuel doesn’t want to do it, but God tells him to go ahead and find a king for the people.  I always imagine God saying to Samuel, something like “Yep. Bad idea. You know it, I know it, but they clearly need to see it for themselves…Let’s do it”

And so the  Time of Judges comes to a close.

Samuel functioned as a leader for 13 years, the last two of them co-leading with the first king of the Jewish people. That first king – whom Samuel grudgingly anointed- was named Saul. Saul was indeed a great warrior. And he unified the people. Saul made mostly good – but sometimes problematic – decisions.

Then he usurped Samuel’s priestly role. And he helped himself to some of the spoils of war, essentially disqualifying himself from the job. Samuel told Saul as much, but he wasn’t happy about it. So things are more than a little tense.

So to recap as we head into our passage for today (1 Samuel 16:1-13):
Israel wanted a king. God gave them one. Along with their king, Israel now has palace intrigue and a brewing violent conflict over succession.

When Saul became King there was an interesting mixed reaction. Saul himself tried to hide from all the attention, but Samuel was having none of that.  (1 Samuel 10:23-24; 26-27).

By all appearances Saul would be a great king – and he did have a good start. But those who knew him best – those who really knew him – they didn’t think so highly of him.

Yet, even when Saul failed miserably due to a lack of integrity and faithfulness, Samuel mourned the loss of his reign. But God knew it was time to move on and told Samuel as much.  God chose a new king and Samuel was sent to anoint him.

Actually, the Hebrew phrase translated “I have provided for myself” Is more directly read as “I have seen” for myself a king. God has seen, has a close eye on, the King that God wants Samuel to anoint. And now Samuel must listen closely, because his human vision stops at the surface.

Kind of like our vision can be lacking as we look around us… I ran across an interesting story along these lines. It’s about a woman named Rita Belle and a man-  Richard Walters.  They met at a senior center, a mission in downtown Phoenix for the poor and homeless where Rita worked.

Richard was more reserved, but Rita was outgoing. She spent time talking with him, and they became friends. He had never married, didn’t have children, and was estranged from his brother. He told her he had no home and slept on the grounds of the senior center. Richard ate at the hospital and used a telephone there when needed.

What Rita couldn’t see when she looked at Richard… What Rita didn’t know… was that he was a retired engineer; an honors graduate of Purdue with a Masters degree; and a Marine. In time, Richard became ill.  Rita became his nurse and ultimately the executor of his estate.

Here’s the thing… it turns out that Richard Walters was wealthy.
Very Wealthy.

He left behind 4 million dollars, which was given to places like the senior center.

Among his few possessions was a radio. If you listen to NPR, you may have heard an announcement like this:
“Support for NPR comes from the estate of Richard Leroy Walters, whose life was enriched by NPR, and whose bequest seeks to encourage others to discover public radio.”

See, Mr. Walters left close to half a million dollars to NPR. But no-one, not even Rita, would have imagined it. The way someone appears doesn’t tell the whole story. We are sometimes taken in by the appearances of others.  

As author Agatha Christie once wrote, “The human face is, after all, nothing more nor less than a mask.”

When we judge by appearance, we can give credit to those who don’t deserve it, and we can fail to acknowledge those who deserve to be encouraged. Deciding who is worthy of our love and friendship based on outward appearances is an all-too-common problem for humans.

Pre-judging someone has a name – prejudice. We often think of prejudice as primarily about race, but we can find ourselves discriminating or facing exclusion based on gender, primary language or an accent, jewelry or headgear that expresses religious beliefs differing from ours, or body shape, age, or even the way we dress.

We know not it’s not right to judge a book by its cover, but I do it anyway…
Anyone else in that boat with me?

Sometimes, we get to know someone just a little… and after learning one fact or hearing one story….we paint an entire picture of who we think they are…Never really seeing, much less getting to know, the real person within.

That’s not the way that God sees you.
That’s not the way that God sees me.
And that is very good news.

That’s also not the way that God saw David

God looks on the heart.
And God being a God of relationships, looks
with the heart.

God saw in David’s heart the makings of a king:
He was not the oldest
He was not the tallest or strongest
He was young and ruddy and the last person Samuel would have chosen, even if David had come through earlier in the parade of sons.

This is why God needed Samuel to stop mourning Saul and listen closely.

It was time to stop looking backwards, to the past…
God was ready to do a new thing. Again.

For Samuel to get this right, he was going to need to connect with God’s heart.
To hear God’s voice over his own internal dialogue

This required the prophet to do the same work we must do in our hearts.
To connect to our hearts to God’s and hear God’s voice more clearly,
We must cultivate the habits of confession…
Of confessing our awareness of our own habits and sin
Of confessing our earnest desire to clear away the clutter that threatens to separate us from God.

We must cultivate an attitude of prayer that comes from faith, not fear

We must cultivate a life of prayer that flows out of a deep trust in the God who created us, and who loves us best.

Because when we can open our hearts to God, leaving them fully open to God’s love and grace, then we can live fully into the people God made us to be

Our work is offering God open and honest confession, seeking to be free
God’s work is beautifully described in our Psalm reading for today

God creates in each of us a new heart
God puts in us a new and right Spirit
God does the work of renewal, renovation and restoration.
God brings us into relationship and brings us back… over and over again.  

We see this more clearly… more tangibly… in the descriptions we have been given in the gospels of the way Jesus lived and moved among people. Even after his reputation grew and crowds began to follow him or to come out to meet him in the villages and towns he visited, Jesus’ ministry was all about powerful encounters with individual men and women.

He would see or hear someone
He would call them out of the crowd
He would look them in the eye

Jesus could be so aggressively personal as to be invasive.  And… his personal interaction was never restricted by human societal expectations of which people a good Jewish rabbi should be around

He saw people.  

I’m sure the fully human side saw the lepers’ sores, the twisted forms of the paralytics and epileptics, the hard lines of pain etching into the faces of the women forced into difficult labor or selling their bodies to survive.

And, I would imagine, there was a part of him that recoiled, a fully human part of him that wanted to look away or pull back and look at the crowd as a sea of indistinguishable faces.

But the divine in him?
No, the divine in Jesus always looked beyond the outward appearance
Beyond the human reasons to turn away, to exclude and to deny

The divine heart that beat within Jesus Christ looked to each of their faces and then looked at their hearts, and he saw in every single one of them the heart of a beautiful and beloved child of his own father God.

He ate with them
Drank with them
Mourned and partied with them

Jesus saw their sorrows, their pain, their needs
He heard their desires
He gave them hope
He restored and renewed those broken hearts
He made a way for each of them to rejoin the community

He loved them.
In the same ineffable, undeniable, indefatigable way that you and I are loved.  

And then he commanded us to do likewise.
Doggone that Jesus.
He commanded us to do that very same thing.
That very hard, very personal thing.

To LOVE

Not theoretically, but tangibly
And profligately…
Regardless of what our neighbors look or smell or sound like.

But remember, it’s more than just the outward appearance…

What we think we know about someone can shape the way we see them, too. An article circulated a while back about an experiment that Canon – the camera manufacturers – conducted.

They wanted to explore the  power of perspective in portrait photography. So they enlisted the help of 6 photographers and asked them each to independently shoot portraits of a man named Michael.

But as in every experiment, there was a variable.  A twist: each photographer was told something different about Michael’s background.  The photographers were told that Michael was: a self-made millionaire, someone who has saved a life, an ex-inmate, a commercial fisherman, a self-proclaimed psychic, or a recovering alcoholic.

Meanwhile, Michael, an actor, did his best to take on some of  the personality of each character. Enough to make it believable.

They shot their photos in the same studio with the same props, but the six sittings produced radically different results.  The choices made by the photographers – poses, angles, lighting, even their interaction with Michael –  had at least as much impact on the images as the actor and his physical being.

They thought they knew who they were seeing in front of them, but that knowledge was incomplete. The photographers had just enough information to put Michael into a category or stereotype. Their decisions were based on a surface understanding of who he was, almost like a label.   

In a culture that would break us into demographic segments competing for resources and attention, power and influence, we are called to look beyond those outward labels, beyond the markers that separate US and THEM

We are called to look beyond
Left and Right
Blue and Red
Old and Young
Traditional and Emergent
North and South
Black and White
Right and Wrong

We who call ourselves Christians must live into this truth:
We are made in the image of God, who looked past the outward appearance to the heart.

We are made in the image of God in Christ, who humbled himself, setting aside a comfortable seat in power, and taking on the form of an infant, became vulnerable:
Became the target of ethnic cleansing
Became a refugee
Became a poor carpenter in a minority enclave

And he obediently modeled and taught the way of love that eventually meant his death at the hands of the Empire.

We are made in the image of God…
And we are made in the very human image of the Son of God…
Who felt the tug of a hand at the edge of his robe even while the crowd pressed in all around him
Who saw Zacchaeus up in the trees and joined the little tax collector for dinner
Who told the woman at the well every little detail about her life because he knew her heart was thirsty for living water

We are – each of us- image-bearers.
And we are – together as the church – the embodiment of Christ- the ultimate image of God.

Each and all of us are called to see more than skin deep, to look beyond the labels
We are called to see and restore and defend the dignity and humanity of each of God’s beloved children

And we are called to trust that sometimes, God will surprise us,
Pointing us to people we least expect
Speaking through those we would choose to ignore
Leading through those we would prefer not to follow

We are called to look beyond the outward appearance and using the hearts that God graciously, consistently and patiently cleans restores and renews within us,

We are commanded to follow in Christ’s way of love.

 

Old friend

I can’t remember why
or even when
not exactly

It has been so very long now…

More years have passed
than I even imagined I would live

Now more old
than old friends
after half a lifetime
creating lives, growing up
chasing dreams, making do

Almost forgetting
just how tightly
laughter and music
the energy of shared joy
can bind the hearts
of the young at play.

Was it because I moved?
And then you moved?

It has been so very long now…

And all that time
Like a loose thread in my pocket
that I only notice when it gets caught between coins
you have been along for the ride

Just there enough
that I knew you
after all these years

Just there enough
that the laughter and singing
come easily
and joy
can’t help but follow
after all these years

I can’t remember why
or even when
Not that it matters, old friend.

Charley, Harvey, Irma and Me

Today, we are waiting for Irma.
We’ve been waiting and watching for the last few days.  And I’ll be honest, I have alternated between being ok and being scared shitless.

I am not, by nature, prone to worry or anxiety. And I’m pretty highly skilled at diverting nervous energy and/or ignoring any fears that are creeping in so that I can focus and work a plan.  But I have some physical manifestations of stress that let me know when I need to pay attention to that inner world a little more.

I want to sleep.  A lot.  And when it’s really bad, I get a rash on my ribs that is almost like shingles. That rash popped up yesterday. And so it was time to name what’s going on.

Back in the summer of 2004, we decided to sell our first Florida house and build a newer home that was big enough for Mom to move out from Texas and join us. We were scheduled to close mid-August and house-sit for a friend until the new house was finished around the first of October.  That meant packing for a move and an extended stay, making all the decisions that come with building a new home, and staying in communication with Mom about all of it from half a continent away. Stressful enough.

But then, the week that we closed and moved into our temporary summer home, Hurricane Charley ripped right across Central Florida.  Right over the house.  And while Charley was much smaller than many of the storms we have seen since, the rain and wind was intense and lasted most of the night.

It doesn’t take effort at all to remember exactly how I felt that night.
And how it felt to wonder when the power would come back on.
And how hard it was to keep our kiddo from freaking out when we experienced two more direct hits, moved into the new house, and started attending a new school (between storm breaks).

By the time Hurricane Season was over, I was a wreck- emotionally and physically. But we had to get back to work and keep moving forward.  It has been quiet here since, until last year when Matthew gave us a scare. But he wobbled out to sea enough that we were spared all but a couple of hours of wind and a few lost shingles.

So I didn’t really realize how much I had shoved aside and not dealt with until I started seeing my friends post about their experiences as Harvey rolled into Southeast Texas.  I literally couldn’t read about the sound of wind or the water coming in, or even how worried they were, without my own heart rate rising. I had to limit my engagement until the storm stopped and the (horrible) extent of the damage was clear.

And now, here we are, waiting for Irma. Right now, for as ginormous as she is, we’re in a pretty good place. We’ll have some serious winds and a fair amount of rain, but not for nearly as long as our neighbors in South Florida or on the gulf coast.

So…a year older and maybe slightly wiser, what am I going to do differently this time?

First, I’m doing something Brene Brown calls “embracing the suck”.  Actually feeling the feelings that I don’t want to feel, rather than running past them. When I sit with the feelings, I can untangle what they really are.  Then I can deal with the concerns and fears I can actually do something about, and I am aware of the (yes, totally reasonable) fears that will only go away once the storm is past.

Second, I went running. Not walking, but running.  Yesterday, I did my usual interval workout- a shorter walk interspersed with running. Today, I was just going to do a short walk, since it looked like rain was about to start.

At about half a mile, though, I felt like a little running, so I thought maybe I’d do another interval run. But as I ran the back half of that first mile, I knew that today was different.

I needed to keep running.
I needed to see how long I could sustain a pace that was faster than usual.
I needed to know that I could persevere, not just physically but mentally.
And so 1 mile became 2 miles.
And 2 miles became 3.
And three miles became 3.6.

I ran a full 3.1 miles (a 5K) after that half-mile walk.
Because I could.
Because I have transformed my body over the last 18 months.
Because I have transformed my mind over the last 18 months.

Yes, I am stronger and leaner and more fit than I have been in decades. My running intervals added up to just under half of the 10-mile race I completed last weekend. But the hardest part of getting stronger and leaner has been mental – taking on the habits and lies that used to keep me in bed or on the couch.

I ran a full 3.1 miles (a 5K) after that half-mile walk.
Because I believed I could.

I know today that I am mentally strong enough to push toward big goals,
to believe that yesterday’s personal best doesn’t dictate today’s
to face challenges that have nothing to do with running, walking, biking or swimming.

I can do the hard things – like lead my congregation, face conflicts head on, make decisions I’d rather ignore.
And wait for Irma.
I will be ok this afternoon, tonight and tomorrow, when the worst of the storm is here.
I won’t like it (because who would???)
I’ll be scared.
But I will be ok.

A handful of things

It really stinks sometimes, being the kind of person who needs lots of words to find her way to the thing she wants to say.  I mean, most days, I don’t get around to that kind of writing because I’m busy getting announcements and sermons and newsletter articles and emails and other time-sensitive stuff out the door.

So, rather than wait for the “Now I can get that whole post out of my head” moment, here are some things I am thinking about, experiencing and… now… sharing.

I was alone on eclipse day, staring up at the sun with my safety glasses on, thrilled to be able to see even the 80-whatver percent coverage we got. I finally hunted someone down so that we could “wow!” at it together as we shared the specs.  A couple of days later, I was driving across town, listening to the RadioLab podcast that had audio recordings of people as totality occurred.  And I realized just how much we need events like this to connect us to one another in moments of awe.  I literally wept as these people I didn’t know described an event I couldn’t see… because they were so overcome by what they saw that you could hear it in their voices. Young and old, all over the country.  Awe is contagious and evocative.

 


 

Yesterday, I stopped to pick up some coffee on the way to work.  A group of people walked into the shop as I was leaving and the last guy stopped to hold the door and let me out.  I said thanks, to which he replied “No problem, have a great day.”

I smiled again, “You, too,” and I walked on toward my car.  Can I just tell you how much it made my day for him to call after me, “You look beautiful today”?  Not because I had dressed up (because I hadn’t).  Not because he’d ever seen me to make a distinction about yesterday’s level of beauty (he was a total stranger).   It was just a random kindness.  The world can use more of that, for sure.


Does anyone else ever have the problem of their ears folding over in their sleep?  Clearly a side-sleeper issue, the ear between my head and pillow sometimes gets tucked in on itself and the pain will actually wake me up.  Weird.


A couple of folks lately have described me as Type A, which sits kind of funny.  I’ve never seen myself as “driven” so much as determined. That’s a good thing, mostly, since it keeps me from giving up on hard stuff (or boring stuff). But it’s got me thinking I need to explore the way my overdeveloped sense of responsibility interacts with the athlete in me who learned you “leave everything on the court”.

 


 

I have other thoughts on Harvey, the Nashville statement, and big stuff in the world, but I’m fighting my allergies and have a church newsletter to get out the door. So… this will have to do for now.

Meanwhile, what kinds of things are you thinking about these days?

Living Generously

This week and next, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the meaning of stewardship in our lives as followers of Jesus and in our shared life as a community of faith. Before we dive in, though, I want to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Or maybe the herd of elephants in the room. 

It’s no secret that our American culture is steeped in capitalism. And as consumers, we are trained to measure our success by comparing our stuff (clothes, car, electronics, jewelry… toys of all sorts) with others.

We may or may not measure up to some, but we can usually find at least one person to place ourselves above. And even as we make clear how much we have, we tend to want to keep how much we make and how much we give a secret.  We go well beyond privacy about money and giving…We flat out don’t want to talk about it…

And that paradoxical thinking about money that most of us grow into means the mere mention of stewardship can cause even the most mature Christians to reflexively cover their wallets and hold their purses a little closer.

That reflex has led many churches to instruct their pastors NOT to speak about money and generosity and how those relate to a life of faith… except when the church needs to ask for money.  And then, because we don’t like to talk about money, we need to cushion the blow by including an out.  Usually in the form of giving of our time and talents.

It’s getting a little crowded in here, but let me add another elephant to the herd…

We pastors are not immune to the money paradox. And we get to add a layer of awkward to the whole thing, given that a good chunk of any church’s budget goes toward …yep… the pastor’s salary.  

Oh, and then there’s the pressure not to preach about anything remotely controversial or uncomfortable for a few weeks before or after talking about the budget and giving… so that people don’t protest by withholding their tithe.

So, here we are, approaching the fall, the time of year when the session puts together the budget for next year, the time of year when my contract needs to be reviewed… the time of year when it would really help for us to know what folks anticipate giving.

Which means it is definitely the time of year when all of us would really just like to talk about something else.
Anything else.
Like the start of football season.
Or the Nelson’s new dog.
Or pretty much anything but money and what God wants us to do with it.

It really doesn’t have to be that way.
No really, it doesn’t.

In fact, I suspect Jesus would be mightily surprised at the church’s squeamishness over stewardship, given the number of references to money we have in the gospel accounts of his teachings and his conversations with the disciples. And the story of the early church, as well as the letters we read from Paul and other early church leaders indicate that finances were anything but a taboo topic.

So… why not just take a leap of faith and join them?

Let’s all breathe deeply and offer up a prayer before we read our scripture lessons for the day…   We’re going to start with a portion of Paul’s letter to Timothy.  1 Timothy 6:6-19

And now we’ll turn to a brief snippet of Luke’s gospel.  A scene with Jesus and his disciples that should sound familiar from earlier this year. Luke 20:45-21:4

—-

If ever the word of God was a rejoinder against a pastor standing in her pulpit wearing a long robe asking her parishioners to give until it hurts… so that she might live all the more comfortably… there it is.

To be honest, this passage makes me think of my grandmother, who gave generously to her church, but then would set aside change in a jar that eventually went to at least one of the evangelists she watched on tv. All of whom had more than enough money for their ministries, for their homes and for their sometimes bizarre projects. In the meantime, my grandmother had no choice but to live quite frugally until she died.

To this day there are plenty of famous ministry leaders or pastors we can point to who fly around in jets and live in mansions. It’s not difficult to find stories – even right here in Central Florida – of ministers worth millions whose parishioners give above their means in the hopes that God will bless them with the same sort of prosperity they see their leaders enjoying.

Let’s just say that you will never see this pastor in a Lear jet.  Or making promises that increasing your giving to the church will lead to an unexpected cash windfall for you. That’s not the way God works and it is certainly not what Jesus taught.

Now, Jesus did say at one point that we must be willing to give away all we possess if we want to truly follow. He told the rich young ruler to do just that… and the man couldn’t. Few of us could.

I do know of a few Christian monastic communities that have been founded in the last several years.  One is called the Simple Way, and each of its members take a vow of poverty. They have a common purse, into which any earnings go, and from which all their needs are met. And then the rest is given away. While I admire that level of faith and community, it’s hard to imagine taking on that call myself. And I honestly don’t know that all believers are called to that kind of living.

So I have to believe that somewhere in between running after wealth in the name of a God of Prosperity and running toward poverty in the name of the God who had compassion on the poor… surely we can find a sweet spot… a faithful way of living in relation to money?

That, actually, is where our conversation around stewardship needs to start.  As followers of Jesus, what is our relationship with money meant to look like?  

There are a couple of commonalities between Paul’s words to Timothy and Jesus’ observation about the widow.

The first is that our relationship with money is rarely neutral.  Money – wealth – can be used for good or evil. It has utility…  particularly in a market-based economy.

As I mentioned before, our society teaches us from an early age that our level of success or failure is in large part judged on how rich and/or how powerful you can become.  Just look at the most powerful people – in politics, in business… they are the ones with the money.

Yes – we can point to some exceptions…. But think about the influence of people who own billion-dollar corporations. And now think about the influence of people who work in the minimum wage jobs.

Still not sure this is true?

In July, Forbes Magazine estimated that the members of the President’s cabinet had a combined worth of at least 4.3 billion dollars…
Yes, I said billion.  With a B.

Fewer than 20 people in that room, all sitting around a table, holding the power to change the nation’s laws and to shape the policy direction of every government agency.
For good or for evil.
And they got there because of their wealth.

In the United States in 2017, clearly, money is power.

And yet, we are here to worship a man who never had his own home. We have gathered to worship a man who never even took up a collection, unless it was food to feed the people around him.

So it makes sense that the Christian tradition would have us reframe this notion that money IS power.
Our tradition points to the truth that money HAS power.
And thus, that money can have power over us.

When we allow money to take a place higher than its proper order, it begins to define us, it begins to shape who and what we value, and we can begin to measure our own self worth based on our possessions in ways that are really unhealthy. Our relationships are affected, including our relationship to God.

Our possessions can come to possess us.

In the end, stewardship is less about managing our money… Less about being wise about spending and investing… And more about understanding our relationship with money.

Like any relationship, this one needs tending and awareness. I mean, if the love of money is, indeed the root of all kinds of evil, it makes sense that we need to pay attention.
Really close attention.

And not just personally…  As a body of believers, we must tend to our relationship with our gathered money.

In what ways might spending or saving or tracking or investing our money distract us from our other relationships?

Does anxiety and conflict over finances come between couples?
I’ve seen it… in my own house.  

Or between members of the church?
I’ve seen that too, in more than one house of God.

Can we have conversations about money without fear of fighting, and if conflict happens, without the threat of someone leaving?

These are important questions… And the answers help us to understand our unspoken priorities.

Priorities that need to be spoken aloud.
Honestly and openly.

See, we need to be honest about our priorities because… any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol, breaking the very first and greatest commandment.

And any relationship that keeps us from loving our neighbors… Well, that would be the second half of the law of love broken.

Whether we’re talking about a relationship with food, a person, sex, sports, some other possession,  or money, any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol.

And because of its connection to power and influence, even within the sacred community of a church, our relationship with money is the one most likely to get out of alignment.  The root of all kinds of evil, indeed.

Thankfully, Paul provided Timothy with some relationship advice for people who have money.   Let’s look again at the end of that passage, starting at verse 17:   

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

Step 1….
Make sure your trust is where it ought to be. Not in money, but in God.
God has and always will provide for us.

This idea runs against our culture, which tells us to place our trust in the goods and systems and financial reserves that we’ve created.  But even as we trust them, we know in our hearts they can fail us.  We don’t have to look back but a few years to see the widespread consequences of systems crashing.

So what do we do?  We worry and work to amass even more, so that we might feel safe again. So that we might trust the numbers in our account statements and investment portfolios to cover our needs.

In a recent essay on trust in God as a key to stewardship Marcia Shetler wrote,
Trusting in God is part of our responsibility as followers of Jesus. It allows us to joyfully and generously let go of what we think is ours and release it for God’s use. Those acts of generosity are our witness to the world, sharing God’s abundance as channels of God’s love.

She went on to share a few examples from scripture….
Elijah asked the widow of Zarephath to be generous by sharing her last meal and trust that she and her son would not go hungry. …A small boy gave his lunch of five loaves and two fish, [trusting he would not be left hungry] and more than 5,000 people were fed. Moses’ mother trusted God with her son’s life. Twice.

The first time she placed his life in God’s hands when she put him in a basket in a river, Moses was returned to her and she was able to raise and love her son while he was young. Later, she gave him up again, and Moses ultimately fulfilled God’s call as leader of the Hebrews.

And then Ms. Shetler turns to the widow’s coin, saying
…there have been numerous interpretations of this incident. But perhaps what was most important was not only the widow’s ability to give to God totally, but to trust God completely.

Truly, the only explanation for the widow’s generosity is that complete trust.  She had faith that the God who had faithfully provided for her in the past would continue to do so.

When we truly trust God to provide for us, we are free to give as lavishly and generously as God. Not because by giving we have earned a prize, but because God has promised to care for us, and we believe – we trust – that God is faithful.

In verses 18 and 19, Paul encourages Timothy to see all that God provides, not simply as the means by which we survive, but the means for us to do good in the world.  Speaking of those who have money, Paul says
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

This is the sort of giving that moves us beyond a transactional, quid pro quo understanding of stewardship into a life that is marked by generosity.  

When God gives to us, when God provides for us, and when we acknowledge the gift, there is no transfer of ownership. No paperwork to be completed and filed and accounted for. Instead a link, a bond is established between us. Gifts connect the giver and the receiver.

This bond is what makes a really good gift, really special. And why a really bad gift can make you question a relationship.  I mean, think for a second… I bet you’ve gotten a gift that made you scratch your head more than a little. 

INSERT STORY ABOUT REALLY BAD GIFT….

It made me want to ask… Do you even KNOW me?  Why would you think I would enjoy/want that??

But think about a time someone gave you the perfect gift.
You know… something that was exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time.  

That kind of gift makes you feel known, loved, truly cared for by the one who gave it. 

Theologian Miroslav Wolf reminds us that no object on its own is a gift.  Not until the act of the object being chosen and given. Like this pen.  It’s just a pen.  Until I look at it and think, you know who could use this even more than me?  R.  

Here, R, I want you to have this…

Now the pen is a gift. I gave it to R and now he has something he needed because I saw that need and met it. The pen, now a gift, is also a social relation, an event between us.

This happens to us regularly, as God continues to offer the gifts of grace, of life, of air and all that we see around us. The more aware we are of these gifts, the more aware we are of the bond those gifts create between us and the God who loves us.

Wolf says it this way – “To live in sync with who we truly are means to recognize that we are dependent on God for our very breath and are graced with many good things; it means to be grateful to the giver and attentive to the purpose for which the gifts are given.”  

In other words, God gives to us, not only so that WE might enjoy God’s gifts, but so that we might know the joy of giving as we pass them on to others. As people who have received from God, we need to give to others. It is vital to our identity as humans. It is at the core of our identity as image-bearers of a gift-giving God.

Living a generous life requires an awareness of all that God is doing in our lives, all that God is providing.  Thus generosity begins with a heart of gratitude for a relationship that is not contingent upon us  and our ability to reciprocate God’s perfect love.

Generosity begins with a heart filled with gratitude for grace. Gratitude which leads us to love and serve and give in return. It leads us to live the life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.

Generosity leads us to use the spiritual gifts, the skills and talents and passions within us – all to the glory of God wherever we go… at work, in the community and in our homes… and at church.

Living generously means sharing from our abundance and even from our scarcity with those who are in need. It means taking the time to care for our own bodies and minds, taking a Sabbath rest away from the busyness our society worships.

Living generously and boldly as a church requires taking time as a body to look around, to take a fresh inventory of all that God has given to us.

Living generously and boldly as a church requires being grateful for the past and trusting God for a future.  And then following Jesus out into a world that needs the gifts we’ve been given to share.

Living generously requires us to receive new gifts with open hearts and open hands… courageously letting go of those things we’ve protected by holding them tightly…  So that our hands are able to gather up today’s blessings with gratitude and joy, offering them in turn to whomever might need them.

Living generously and boldly means trusting God enough to hold today’s blessings loosely so that we might open our hands and hearts to receive and give away God’s gifts again tomorrow…. and the next day… and the next.

Until one day we realize that our receiving and giving are a single inseparable stream, a river of life and love and grace flowing into and through us.

Next week, we will talk in more detail about some of those other aspects of our lives that are gifts from God which allow us to live and to love generously. And in the coming weeks, we will be talking about budgets and our household contributions to our shared life as a church.  

I ask that you would join me and our church officers in prayer for wisdom and clear guidance for our church as a whole and for each household…  That we would discern together what God is calling us to do with the gifts God has already given and those we trust God will give in the years to come.

Let us pray.   

Stay Thirsty- Sermon on Communion

Primary texts –  1 Samuel 21:1-9 and  Mark 14:10-31
The assigned Old Testament reading this week is obviously quite- well, interesting.  And as much as I enjoy taking time to give context to our scriptures…  I really just want to point out a couple of things about this odd episode in the life of David, which happened as he was running from Saul.

First,  the bread of Presence mentioned in the story isn’t quite the equivalent of communion bread.  The Holiness code called for what is sometimes translated as showbread to be kept on the altar. It is described as twelve cakes or loaves baked from fine flour, and arranged in two rows or piles on a table standing before God.

Each loaf was baked with specific ingredients by the Kohathite clan. They were  stacked along with the frankincense on the altar, in a way that seems reminiscent of the stacks of stones left in various locations as memorials to moments when God was uniquely engaged with humankind.  

The bread would only be left on the table for a week, replaced with new fresh loaves each Sabbath.  The priests were allowed to each the bread once they were removed, as long as they did so in a holy place. After all, this was holy bread.  Set apart for a purpose

And so, when David seeks to take the bread with him, he is asking for the priest to bend the rules, perhaps break a few. Ahimelech did help David and his friends, providing 5 loaves.  He was later summoned into Saul’s presence, and accused of disloyalty for assisting David, based on the information of Doeg the Edomite.

This is a complicated story – as most stories involving David are…He was not a priest… and yet, he was set apart. He was chosen by God. He needed bread, but he lied… he wasn’t sent by Saul. He was there because he was on the run and he was hungry

The only food that was present at the tabernacle was the bread of the Presence. There was nothing in the letter of the Law that allowed the bread to be given to anyone else, and Ahimelech was- as a priest aware of every letter, every jot and every tittle of the law. Ahimelech also knew the Law was given to further life, and that the spirit of the Law demanded that feeding the needy must be put ahead of ritual if the two ever seem to conflict.

Jesus later appealed to this incident to justify His practice of ignoring the Pharisaic traditions that put preserving religious ritual above helping the hungry. Following such traditions leads only to bondage to sin rather than leading to freedom according to the law of love.

I think that is part of what happened the night Jesus was betrayed.

Everyone was familiar with the words to be spoken.
The order of the questions.
The answers.
The foods they would eat.
It was passover.

And passover is all about family.
And being family for those who are far from home or whose family is no longer with them.
It was comforting and familiar to recite the story together
To eat the symbolic foods
To drink the symbolic wine

The middle portion of our reading from Mark is familiar.  They are one version of what we call the “Words of institution”  The words that recall how this sacrament was instituted, came into being.  If I had my way, I’d change that nomenclature…

—  Tell story of attempting to memorize WOI for Dr. Shaffer’s class —

The assignment – memorize and demonstrate for the prof… Struggling to get the words right.  All week, I would try to get it right and forget/freeze every time.  It’s not like I hadn’t heard them hundreds of times in my church-going life, should have been easy…  But there I was, standing in front of classmates in an unfamiliar church, hot dog bun in hand.  Hopelessly stuck.  Finally Dr. Shaffer says to me.  It’s ok.  Just tell the story.

Because that’s what the words of institution are – the story.
The story of that night when they were gathered together.
The story as remembered by Mark. And Matthew. And Luke.

The story that Peter and the others must have told Paul – Or perhaps he heard it while he was blind and the Lord spoke directly to his heart… But Paul gives us in his letter to Corinth a testimony of what had been passed on to him, so that those who heard the letter might bear witness, too.

I added a few verses this morning… before and after. The part of the story in which Judas betrays him.And the part in which Jesus warns Peter that he, too, will fall away…

You see, it’s important to understand the human context in which this divine promise, this new covenant as Luke and Paul describe it, is being made.  Jesus is 100% aware of the betrayal and denial that is coming. He cannot and will not stop them, any more than he would avoid the pain and death that is looming.  

This is the world in which he lived.
This is the world in which we live.
Sinful, broken, not-yet-God’s Kingdom,
Not yet fully reconciled and awaiting an upgrade to the Resurrection Operating System

But Jesus loved those people gathered at the table.
Loved them like family.

And because he offers forgiveness in his broken body
BREAK THE BREAD

And because he offers forgiveness in his spilled blood
POUR THE JUICE

We are one family.
Claimed and adopted by God

Baptised into one church
Sharing one communion
Proclaiming his saving life, death and resurrection until he comes again.

Knowing that very night that some of his family would fail him, Jesus still bears witness to God being with us – all of us.

I could talk at length about the myriad ways theologians have argued and written about the sacrament….

There were the reformation era debates about Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation or just plain memorial.  Is Jesus really in the bread, in the room? How do we square that with his being ascended???  

For the record – Jean Calvin’s response is the one most Presby’s cling to: It’s a mystery, but we can trust that the HS is in us and with us. And that power allows our hearts to be in the presence of Christ as we celebrate the sacrament  

Argue over who can preside.
For us – generally an ordained MOWAS

Argue over who can partake and when.
Baptized… or at least being raised in the community of faith 
and learning what it means to participate. There’s that whole letter vs Spirit of the law thing again

I could talk about the way coming back to the table again and again is like sanctification, whereas baptism reminds us of justification – once and done.

But I want to talk about what it means for our hearts, for our lives
The how then shall we live part.

It starts by thinking about what a family meal means.
Gathering- family, bonus family (guests)
Remembering – meals past, people here and gone, good/bad convos
Celebrate- holidays with rituals and traditions
Nourish – eat, feel full hearts and bellies

Have people who brought dishes tell their stories…
Prompt Questions

  1. What did you bring?
  2. Who taught you how to make it (maybe you just watched)?
  3. What memories does it bring to mind…
    • who do you think of?  
    • What table does it remind you of?
  4. With whom do you most want to share this?

Food – especially comfort food…  It’s all about Love
Family
Coming together
Being nourished heart soul mind strength

Tell story about Pork Pie becoming part of my history when married into New England family.

Take bread to everyone as tell story about Monkey Bread, Mary Helen, hospitality, love.

Talk about the Smell of Grape Juice

  • Takes me back to family filling all the communion cups in the vestibule
  • First communion
  • Watching the Table –  the men and women who helped raise me along with parents standing, praying, telling the story in those words
  • Tell the story of Sarah Bell – frail, ravaged by stroke, barely able to swallow… but when she tasted and smelled communion… countenance changed, face relaxed, mouth formed words “Our Father”…

She was, in those moments truly present. With us, with God.
I was, in those moments, in the presence of God.
And when I stand at the table and smell the bread and the juice…
I remember… I am with the saints from my past and present.
I am loved…  I am thankful.
I am in the presence of God.

As the cup is passed, smell the juice, dip the bread, allow yourself to experience the mystery of the presence of Christ for you.   TAKE CUP TO PEWS FOR INTINCTION

That is what this table should mean… to us.
We should walk in, see the bread and the juice and stomachs growl
Because we are hungry for that company, fellowship
Because we are thirsty for the stories that remind us who we are
Belonging to one another – blood relatives, thanks to the blood of Christ.

Stay hungry, dear ones.
Stay thirsty.

Stay Wet – a sermon on baptism

This week and next, we’re going to take some time to talk about the sacraments that are central to our lives as a community of faith: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Today, I’d like us to start by reading Psalm 46 – a glorious reminder that God is not just with us. And not just for us. God’s presence is so powerful it is akin to a place – a safe place in which we find refuge from all that is evil.   Psalm 46

And now we will turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans, a church that apparently needed a strong reminder about what it means to live in a complicated world in light of the lavish grace of God. In the selection we read today, he addresses one of the questions that we still wrestle with…

If God’s grace is so big, so healing, so cleansing…  What does that mean about following the law?  Or following Jesus? If, as Paul says, where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, should we just keep on sinning and leave the forgiveness up to God?

Listen for the Word of God from Romans 6:1-11

Like Psalms 23 and 91, also psalms of assurance and confidence in the Lord, we don’t hear a guarantee in Psalm 46 that life will be easy just  because God is with us.  Rather, God promises to remain with us, no matter how dark the valley gets or how difficult the troubles that surround us. The writer of this Psalm has clearly been there… experienced that… and has earned faith enough to share this truth.

When he writes about mountains shaking such that the seas roar and foam, the reference is less about natural disasters than the cosmic forces that would seek to tear God’s creation apart. Forces that – because God is present – we need not fear.

The writer knows what it looks like when political powers and principalities are doing the shaking, seeking to unseat rulers and nations. To bring chaos. In our time, he might have written about terrorist threats and actions.  

Whatever the turmoil, we are told, God offers a point of stability that shall not be moved.
God is our help.

The writer knows the folly of placing one’s faith in any power but the Lord’s.  God’s presence is the genuine source of refuge, of strength, of comfort.
Of salvation.

God’s presence is the source of restorative waters… rivers that offer joy and gladness. Rivers, that in the person of Jesus, will be called living waters, waters that assure that we never thirst.

The psalmist tells us that it is in the city of God where the rivers and streams make the hearts glad.  The city of God  is where the baptized are gathered. Not a literal city, so much as, well… a church.

Where the baptized are gathered, the Spirit of God is present.
And thus  the church- the gathered body -is also a place of healing and hope.
A place of refuge.

Over and over again, from creation to the new Jerusalem described in Revelation, images of water evoke God’s care and God’s presence. It is no wonder then that approaching the waters of baptism requires more than instructions for completing a ritual.

Understood more fully, and more communally, baptism is not simply something that is done, it, too is a place.  A refuge to which all are called. A refuge to which all are re-called

And as we noted in our reading through Ephesians, there is but one baptism.  There is no special baptism for those who had been near, and no alternate baptism for those who had been far off…

One baptism for all….
Jews and Gentiles, enslaved and free, men and women, old and young.
All.

All who hear and whose hearts respond to the news of God’s great love for them.
All who believe that God’s grace is greater than any sin.
All who belong to the family of God are invited to repent and be baptized.

And then, from the moment we are baptized into a community of faith, we are called and equipped by God in the Holy Spirit to walk in the way of Christ, to live worthy of the calling to which we were called.  

I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that the early church, including those meeting in Rome and Ephesus were dunking churches.  OK – technically, that would be baptism by immersion. But you know what I mean.

I grew up in a tradition that required full immersion, as opposed to the way we baptize from the font here. Which is still more splash than sprinkle, but not all the way in…

Anyway, chances are good that like John the Baptist, other Jewish prophets and rabbis would have used a river or lake to baptize. The person would walk into the water, repenting of their sins, receive a blessing and be immersed into the water.

Down into the water
Down into death
Up into the air
Up into new life.
Into the water dry and dignified
Out of the water looking like a drowned rat.

And in that baptism moment, they were changed.
Not just outwardly in their dripping robes; they were no longer who they had been.

Paul would like us to see this as a direct comparison to what Jesus experiences in the time between Good Friday and Easter morning.  Jesus went into and through death to life.
Resurrection life.

Because of that journey, the power of resurrection becomes evident in the body of Christ in two ways: Baptized followers of Christ celebrate his victory over death. We trust that we will live with him forever. And baptized followers of Christ share in his victory over sin. We can and will live holy lives right now.  In this world.   

That is the power of resurrection: the power of grace for the individual, the community and the world.

In Paul’s view, it is the power of resurrection that makes the idea of a sinful baptized person a laughable oxymoron. It is a silly contradiction in terms.  Paul essentially says,  “You are dead to sin.  Stop acting as if you are even capable of sin.  Live like you know who you are.”

Perhaps you have experienced one of those moments when a friend or neighbor or even family member has said or done something awful… Told an egregious lie, destroyed a relationship… Committed a crime and was arrested…

And because that act was so out of character, all you could think to say in your shock was “That is not like him at all.”  Or “she’s a better person than that…”  

Confronting them directly, you might ask… “Who are you?” or “I don’t think I know you any more…”  

Well – a baptized person is a whole new person.  A person that the powers of darkness no longer recognize. And a baptized body of believers looks nothing like the rest of the world.

This is true for all of us, no matter how long ago or how early in our lives that baptism happened.  Even if you can’t remember the water touching your skin or who was there, you can remember your baptism. At least in the way that is most important to our community of faith being a refuge from a sinful world.

You can remember your baptism by remembering that you belong to God, you are adopted into God’s household.  

No longer enslaved by sin, no longer enlivened by sin’s power, you and I are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  We are empowered – for all of life – by the Holy Spirit.

Let me say that again – through the waters of baptism you and I are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  And that is very good news indeed!

What do you think of when you hear those words.. Dead to sin?

At one point, I thought maybe it meant being a perfectly sinless human.  Which of course, I was completely unable to pursue. For one thing, I am not a very good perfectionist, and being perfectly sinless would require me to make the right decision on how to think and act and speak and move through life a bajillion times a day.
Seriously.
Never going to happen.

But I think now that Paul is really talking more about an operating system. Like the underlying software that allow our phones and computers and other digital tools – to function properly.

So, my old operating system – the old human part – was really glitchy. It was an old version that was created with all good intentions but became corrupted somehow.  That old human OS was a mess and caused me to experience the world – and thus respond and move through the world – in ways that failed to honor God. The hate and fear that leaked out of me was more a reflection of sin than faith, hope or love.

New life in Christ – living as a baptised follower of Jesus –  is like getting a whole new operating system installed.

In this OS, there is no spirit of fear, only the Holy Spirit.  There is no darkness, no hate.  No glitches.  Just a solid platform because there is grace… so much grace. Grace in such abundance that it leaks out of me, leaving a trail of joy and generosity and kindness and love.

When I function using that operating system, and that system alone, the one that runs on grace… my experience of life and the world is changed completely:

I can trust that God is with me, that God’s Spirit indwells me.  

I have entered a whole new Kingdom in which Christ is King and I am living in him.  

And… because we are not baptized into a one to one relationship with God, but into a huge pre-existing family, a giant network of followers of Jesus, we experience that new Kingdom in community.  

Together.

Like the Israelites passing through the river into the promised land, you and I have passed through the waters into a promised life of abundance.
A place of refuge.
A place where we can stay wet…
Practically swimming in God’s grace.
Together.

All that grace? Paul doesn’t really think it’s an invitation to moral anarchy – where we sin more and more and more so that we might experience greater and greater depths of grace.

No… Paul is all about the kind of transformation that comes when we know who we are and who we belong to.  The kind of transformation he experienced and then witnessed in countless others.  

But here’s the thing… understanding baptism as participating in the death of Jesus means that there is a lot of resurrection life to participate in as a baptized believer.

It won’t be perfect… After all, we live in anticipation of the resurrection of Christ.  Rather than erasing our capacity to sin completely, our baptism OS puts sin in check.

The ongoing work of the Holy Spirit allows us to create and maintain boundaries, so that our lives reflect the Law of Love: Love for God and love for neighbors.  All of our neighbors.  And access to resurrection power means we have the capacity to get better at living as a community that exhibits faith hope and love to the world.

In that sense, baptism is a process, a journey toward Christlikeness.

A life that is grounded, shaped and formed by the death and resurrection of Jesus is motivated by and directed by that same Jesus.  Who has defeated sin forever. So, our new way of operating and experiencing the world means we can no longer tolerate, much less cooperate, with sin.

In other words, our faith provides an understanding that new life with Christ is an assurance of salvation beyond death. AND an understanding that this assurance is lived out in discipleship… a life that is dedicated to God in this time and this place.

That means giving all of our lives over to God.
Day after day after day.
Moment by moment by moment.
Facet by facet.

And even with a shiny new operating system… that can be hard.

C. was telling us in a session meeting last month about a baptism story in the book he was reading  about stewardship.  The author was writing about how we sometimes hold back a part of our lives, a portion of our resources, and pretend that it isn’t God’s- that we’ve somehow earned it on our own and can reserve it.  

That might mean holding back a certain percentage of our income we don’t want to give, a particular behavior pattern that we don’t want to change, or a grudge we don’t want to stop holding… you get the idea.

How is that related to baptism?  Well, the author points back to this story from the era of Charlemagne.

You may or may not recall that Charlemagne was the most powerful European ruler in the Middle Ages, leading the Franks to rule most of Europe. He converted to Christianity, which was the beginning of what church historians would call an era of Christendom.

Perhaps as a means of assuring God was on the side of the Empire, Charlemagne expected his soldiers to convert and be baptized into the church.  The soldiers would go down to the river en masse to do just that.  

But by some reports the baptisms were a little unusual.

When it came time to be immersed, they would hold one hand up out of the water, so that it would remain dry.  Yes- it was their sword hand, the hand they wanted to be able to use in battle to kill as needed. As if to say.. I’ll let you change every part of me, I’ll give over all me… except that part…

Now, I’m not entirely sure that’s solid ground, theologically speaking. But I can see how that logic works.  And if I’m honest with myself, search my heart a little, I must confess there are things that I have left dry.  Or perhaps allowed to dry out.

Rogue apps, connecting back to that old operating system.   

There are sins that this faithful believer can’t seem to shake, still needs to confess, still hasn’t trusted God enough to transform.

Shall I go on with those sins, so that grace for me might increase?
No… and here’s why.

I am not alone.
You and I belong to each other, just as surely as we belong to God.  Just as surely as the aches and pains of my little toe matter to my digestive system, my sin affects you.

Not just each of you, but all of you.
And our life together in Christ.
Our health and witness as the Body of Christ.

And the reverse is true.
Your sins matter to me.
And my health.

And it goes far beyond these walls…
Far beyond the membership rolls we keep.

The sins of all who claim membership in the body of Christ,
All who are brothers and sisters adopted into God’s family,
All who are baptized…  no matter how wet or dry they seem to be…

Their sins matter to us, too.
Because we all belong to each other.

The events that unfolded this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, even as I was putting these words to the page, made it really hard for me to claim some of our brothers and sisters. I watched and wept and wondered… 

How much of your heart do you have to hold out of the water to be able to spew such hatred for the Jewish community?

How much of your heart must stay dry to consider people less than human because their skin is brown or black?

How much must of your heart must one give over to hatred to openly choose symbols of intimidation and death used by the Nazi party and the KKK?  I mean… these folks didn’t feel a need to cover their faces! 

And how are we to respond?  

Knowing that yes, there is grace enough, even to cover sins so proudly displayed by torchlight…

How are we to faithfully respond?

I have to start by remembering that those hate-spewing protesters matter to God.
Just as dearly as the Jews matter to God.
Just as dearly as African Americans and immigrants and women and all of us matter to God…
Despite their evil, sin-filled chants.  

And because my operating system is grace-powered, they all must matter to me, too.
The ones spewing hate and the ones they despise.

All of them matter.
All of them belong.
All of them are a part of us.

And – against all logic- I want to invite them back into the waters…

I want to go up and ask…
Do you remember who you are?
Do you remember whose you are?
Do you honestly believe that this is the calling to which you were called? 

That’s when an uncomfortable truth hits me…
I, too, desperately I need the waters of baptism.

My sins are no less harmful to my relationship with God, no less harmful to my relationships with you and others in the Body.

And so I long to be back in the water.
Not just a little damp, but soaking wet.
Holding back NOTHING.
Nothing of mine, nothing of ours.
ALL IN.

Which of course, makes me think of Peter… in that moment when Jesus was teaching the disciples what it meant to be a servant by washing their feet.

And Peter – God bless him- He was having none of it. He knew it would have been much more appropriate for him to kneel down.  For him to be washing his rabbi’s feet. Because in his heart, Peter knew that Jesus was so much more than a teacher or friend.

But Jesus made clear that wasn’t the way it was going to happen.
And Peter relented.  
And then, in his own inimitable, always passionate way,
Peter took it even further: 

Wash all of me, then, Lord.  Not just my feet… all of me.
Wash the dust off my feet, sure.
But there is all the dirt and muck that my heart has picked up along the way.
The words I’ve spoken that soil my mouth.
The silence I’ve kept when your children needed an advocate.
The selfishness and self-centeredness that leads me to treat others as less than. 

Like Peter, I cry out in these difficult times, Wash all of me!
That I might be a better servant
Wash all of your children… Head to toe
That we might be more faithful followers
That we might make a difference in the building of your kingdom

And then that OS kicks in, reminding me that the waves of grace have already washed over us. That Christ has already done the work.

I remember who I belong to.
I remember that God is and will be my refuge and my strength.
I remember my baptism and am thankful.

Remember, dear ones.
Remember your baptism.
Remember who you are.
Remember who we are.
Together.

And be thankful.

Armed and Ready

A final sermon in a series in Ephesians.  Hat tips to MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s conversations about Wonder Woman and the gospel on the Blue Room Blog and Teri Peterson‘s description of the Roman soldiers’ shield and her listing of the church’s calls to action. 

From about the mid-point of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul has been talking about what it looks like to live a life that is “worthy of the calling to which we are called.”   How to live in a way that honors our adoption into the family of God and builds up the community of saints, all so that we might be part of God’s work of reconciling all people and all of creation.  

In this discussion, he moves from a reminder of our unity being an outflow of our shared identity in Christ to some more specific guidelines for this new way of being God’s people, of being church. But instead of pointing to the myriad rules and rituals of the law, the law that he had once pursued as a Jew, Paul keeps it simple.

You’ve been made into new people… Live like it!
Speak truthfully… you can’t be connected if you can’t trust each other.
It’s fine to get angry, but don’t hold onto that anger – not even overnight.
Our words should build each other up and offer each other grace.
I love the bit about thieves no longer stealing. It’s not just about honesty for Paul…
he says…  
let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. (4:28) Which tells those of us who would not be considered thieves that a portion of our work and resources ought to be shared, as well.

Basically, he says, we are to be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (5:1-2)

In addition to these instructions for us as a church, members together in the Body of Christ, Paul makes clear that the same ideas apply within our own households.  The mutual love and respect, care and love, the mutual sharing of grace and building each other up  that reflects God’s triune nature in a healthy church…

All of that ought to be on display at home, too.

That goes for Parents and children, husbands and wives, slaves and masters (let’s translate to bosses and employees)… And Paul could easily have included teachers and students, officers and enlisted soldiers, leaders of all sorts and their committees or teams.

Our work lives, our home lives, our religious and recreational lives… no matter what aspect of our day to day living you can think of… all of it should reflect our call- our identity in Christ – before any other label we might claim. Because every facet of our daily lives is a portion of our calling- loving people into relationship with God and one another. Assuring that all people experience the salvation they need… here and now.

And then, before signing off, Paul has one last set of instructions.
Listen for the Word of God from
Ephesians 6:10-20

It probably won’t surprise many of you that I went to see Wonder Woman the first opportunity I had.  I’ve been a fan of most of the comic book movies released in the last several years.  But this one was special. It wasn’t until Wonder Woman that a woman superhero was the lead character.  

It was amazing to see this character on the big screen, especially how long it’s been since she was featured in the TV series starring Lynda Carter. Or the Justice League cartoon that I grew up watching.

I promise, this isn’t just about comic book stuff… I’m coming back to Paul’s instructions to us.  But before we go there, I want to give those of you who aren’t familiar  just a bit of Wonder Woman’s backstory… At least the movie’s version.

Wonder Woman begins her story as Diana, a princess raised by a tribe of Amazons on the island of Themyscira. She is taught that their mission is to fight on behalf of humanity. In fact, the Amazons believe that Ares, the god of war, has ensnared humankind in endless conflict, and that when Ares is defeated once and for all, an era of peace will reign. And that defeat will happen at the hands of an Amazon.

Fate brings Steve Trevor, an American soldier who’s been spying on the Germans during World War I, to the shores of Themyscira, as well as a few of the Germans who were trying to kill him. After he is rescued then captured by the Amazons, he is questioned.  About his identity and the war.    

When Steve describes the conflict as “the war to end all wars,” that’s all the invitation Diana needs to leave the safety of her island and take on Ares— and thus, she believes, to defeat war itself.

And maybe it’s an occupational hazard, but this pastor couldn’t help but think about this passage from Ephesians as our heroine gathered the various tools she would need as she left her home to live into her calling.  

See, even great warriors like the Amazons need more than a mission and determination. Diana’s warrior armor includes has a breastplate and belt, a shield, some serious combat boots, bracelets that are indestructible, the lasso of truth and a sword that is sharp enough to cut even atomic particles into smaller pieces.  

—-

Paul and the Gentile readers of his letter to the Ephesians would have been really familiar with the armor worn by Roman soldiers. After all, as newly welcomed members of a minority sect of Judaism, they were a minority among minorities in the Roman empire. And because they were now living in the way of Jesus, their choices were counter-cultural enough to be obvious. And, as you may recall from Paul’s own pre-conversion story, some Jews were willing to persecute members of the early church.  Sometimes by turning them over to the Romans.

So, when Paul begins to describe armor… the full armor of God as he calls it, they know exactly what he is describing and why a soldier would need each piece.
The belt holds up the toga so the soldier can move unencumbered by cloth.
The breastplate covers the core of the body.
Shoes provide more protection from weapons and terrain than the sandals typically worn
The shield is defense against flaming arrows.
And then, of course, the helmet to protect the head. But is also provides an easy way to identify a soldier’s rank, function and unit.

Outfitted in armor like that, the Gentiles would be armed and ready for most any kind of battle. But as people who are resurrection people… people who are empowered by a Spirit of love and called to a life of reconciliation in the service of God…Paul wants them and us to be ready for a different sort of battle.  

We’re not talking about a war against flesh and blood warriors…   

We are talking about a war against the principalities and powers that keep this world from being as it should be.

We’re talking about the forces of sin, the reality of our separation from the Holy One.

We’re talking about our own desires for what does not feed or nourish God’s creation, including our own well-being.

There might well be times we are fighting for our lives, but the battle Paul envisions is the battle for our hearts, our souls, our minds, our strength.

We’re talking about fighting against those things that cause division and pain and sorrow within the body. As well as those wounds that the Body of Christ inflicts upon the world beyond our walls  

The enemy Paul describes in verse 12 as  “the rulers… the authorities… the cosmic powers of this present darkness… the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” That enemy threatens from within and outside of ourselves.

Just imagine taking on and defeating that enemy!

If we can be prepared for war with that enemy…  then we would be set for the daily battle against all that opposes God’s desire that  “the mystery of the gospel” give joy on Earth.

We would be fighting on the side of God’s will being done… On earth as it is in Heaven.

Now we’re talking about a war to end all wars.

—–

When Diana first meets Steve Trevor, he explains why he is fighting: “My father told me once, he said, ‘If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something.’ And I already tried nothing.”

That seems like a throw-away line. A cliche way to keep a character from sounding too noble.

But then Diana and Steve head toward Europe and the front lines of the war. Along the way, they come to a village being held captive. Everyone is suffering, including the women and children. Diana desperately wants to help, but it appears hopeless.  

The space between the German and the British soldiers has become a No Man’s Land… a battle-scarred stretch of land between long trenches filled with men shooting cannons, rifles and machine guns at the other side.  It was too dangerous to try to cross, but the land was too valuable for either side to abandon.

They were in a stalemate.

Steve and the others in their team tell Diana that they must keep moving. After all, they have a mission to pursue, a specific and important contribution to make to the war effort.  And she was looking for Ares.

“Let’s stay focused” they say. “We can’t save everyone.”

But Diana refuses. She can either do nothing (even if just for the moment).
Or she can do something.  

And so she steps out of that trench and steps into her own power. No longer wearing the cape that has covered her armor, Diana becomes Wonder Woman— she becomes worthy of the calling to which she has been called.

Bearing only her armor and shield, she steps out onto the field. She draws all kinds of enemy fire. But her armor can withstand it. And as she stands firm in the middle of the field, putting herself on the line, the others behind her take heart. First Steve and their team follow her and begin to fight. Then the other soldiers finally see there REALLY IS HOPE. And they storm the field.  Soon they are able to claim No Man’s Land and retake the village, extending that hope to the civilians.

Diana had the courage to stand firm behind the armor she had been provided.
This selfless act was enough to turn the tide.  

—-

It’s interesting that the armor Paul describes is designed to help regular folk like us to stand firm. It’s not armor for aggressive action.

In fact, coming right after those household codes calling for mutual care and love, it should be clear that standing firm does not require a person to hurt a neighbor – or a sibling in Christ – in any way.

The armor is meant to empower believers to withstand (stand firm against) the evils surrounding and threatening us. And to stand firm against the presence of sin and evil that we carry within us. It empowers us by providing coverage.

Its very nature is defensive.  Believers are girded in truth, faith and peace, the Spirit through the word, and finally in prayer for their defence and strength.

While none of us are superheroes or demigods from mystical islands, we all have access to the greatest power in all creation:
The Power of the Creator.
The Power of the Savior
The Power of the Holy Spirit.

As we persevere in prayer, we are connected to God’s resurrection power.

You might have noticed I’ve used a lot of WE language here.  That’s because Paul’s words calling upon believers to stand firm… they are plural. All of y’all… stand firm.

Unlike Wonder Woman taking on the whole line of Germans in No Man’s Land, or Don Quixote tilting at all of his windmills… we do not take our sword and shield out into the world alone.

Paul’s original readers would have known something about those Roman shields that I didn’t know until recently. The shields of the Roman army were one-and-a-half people wide. So when the army stood together there was no break in the line, because each person was holding a shield that covered themselves and their neighbor. And together, they become impenetrable.

As long as the whole body stands fast and holds the line together, all of us are shielded by the faith of others, as well as our own.

Did you notice that there was no armor for the back or sides… just the breast plate? That’s because turning back is not an option, the only option to stand firm.
Together.

And that is not the same thing as doing nothing.

It is the big picture version of turning the other cheek, which was a nonviolent way of resisting the powers that be, by forcing them to back down or to acknowledge your equality and treat you accordingly.

We wear these gifts together. We “stand therefore” shoulder to shoulder as Roman soldiers would do, or as today’s riot police do: an impenetrable wall of strength.

And stand firm we must.

When the powers call for violence, the church must stand together for peace.

When the powers call for silence, the church must stand together and speak for those who are voiceless.

When the powers call for ignoring the plight of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant, the church must stand firm for justice.

When the powers call for going along to get along, for endless expansion at the expense of creation, for using people for our own profits, the church must stand firm against them and insist on a more excellent way.

Together.  As a body.

I don’t know if you saw the story in the news about a month ago…it happened at Panama City Beach

Six members of the same family, including a grandmother who had a heart attack, were rescued after getting caught in a riptide. Three other people who had attempted to help were saved as well.

They weren’t saved by one heroic person.
Or even by a couple of super-skilled lifeguards.

Dozens of people on the beach created a human chain… linking arms and holding tight…  so that they could reach almost 100 yards into the surf in the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s how the Guardian reported the incident:
Derek Simmons, an Alabama native who recently moved to PCB, quickly organised the chain and swam with his wife Jessica to rescue the stranded group. Simmons said he was enjoying a family picnic on the beach when they noticed people in a group on the sand close to the pier, some pointing into the water.

“We thought it was a shark; we have a ton of those,” said Simmons.

“We walked down to see what was going on and I asked the guy furthest out if everything was OK. He said: ‘No, those people out there are drowning, I can’t get to them because the current’s too strong.’

“I said to the guy: ‘Let’s try to get as many people as we can to form a human chain.’ If you know about ants, you know when one’s in trouble they form a chain to help it. My theory was, let’s get enough people, we’ll get out there and pull them in and everybody can finish having a good rest of the evening.”

At first, he said, people appeared reluctant, fearing they would be caught in the same riptide.

“We were yelling at the beach, we need more people,” he said.

Then more beachgoers raced to join the chain, allowing Simmons, 26, and his 29-year-old wife to swim further out on their body boards and reach the group, which included a young family with two small boys and the grandmother, who were attempting to keep afloat but gulping in seawater.

The couple first handed the children, Stephen Ursrey, 8, and his 11-year-old brother Noah, to the end of the chain, which by then had grown to about 80 people, and returned to help their mother Roberta, 34.

“She looked the most in trouble when we first got there,” Simmons said. “So that was the third one in, then the fourth and fifth.”

After about an hour in the water, he said, they were exhausted but able to rescue the last of the group, a nephew of the Ursrey family and an unidentified couple.

And do you know what Mr. Simmons said afterward?  

“It was a wave of humanity that brings some things back into focus, that maybe we haven’t lost all hope in this world,”

Faith, hope and love abide.  And were on beautiful display that day.

Over 80 people, most of them strangers… standing in the waves.

If any one of them had decided to do nothing… or just quit at any point during that hour or so it took to bring those people back to shore… Things might have turned out differently.

I’d be willing to bet almost all of them were praying in some fashion or other… sending out thoughts of encouragement and hope.

This passage about armor – all of Ephesians really – is a call to prayer – shared, corporate prayer that is passionate and articulate in its desire to see the world transformed
To see lives saved.
To experience hope.

And this letter is a call for embodied, corporate resistance to evil whenever and wherever it is revealed.

This letter is a call calls for us to be church… to be the Body of Christ

This letter is a call to be ready for the power of God to be unleashed, and to be the hands, feet, voice, face and heart of Christ…
in a world that is drowning.
In a world that hungers and thirsts for the love and grace we are called to proclaim.

May we answer that call on this day.
And every day.
Armed and ready.