Hope in the In-Between

Primary Scripture Romans 6:1-14

In Romans 5:20, Paul wrote that where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. This leads naturally to the question which opens Romans 6.  

Honestly, I don’t know of many folks for whom this line of thinking hasn’t come up when reading the first few chapters of Romans.

Paul has just spent no small number of words on the really important idea of grace.  God’s grace – God’s amazing grace – for all of us wayward and sinful people.

We are loved enough to be forgiven by way of the self-giving death of Jesus.
We are loved enough to be shown the power of God’s love in the resurrection of Jesus.
We are loved enough to be drawn into an abiding relationship with God.

Not because we deserve it.
Not because we can ever earn it by knowing or keeping the law that was given, but because the very core of God’s being is love

And – as we will discover a bit later in this letter – there is not a thing- not one single thing –  that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Not even sin.
Why? Because all that sin is covered by all that grace.

The law? Yes- those provide crucial guidance for how to live with and love our neighbors well. But there is no need to strive for perfection in keeping it.
Grace abounds.

Our past mis-deeds? No need to stress over those, either.  Christ has made us righteous.  Jesus stood in the gap, putting us back in right relationship with God.   
Grace abounds.

God’s been all in – with us and for us – for a long time
When we were weak,
when we were spiritually sick,
when our spiritual ancestors were still completely unaware of who Jesus was
Before Jesus came into the world as our Emmanuel
God loved us.
And God loves us still.
Grace abounds.

All that grace – that is what Paul says we are to take pride in. If we are going to boast about anything in this world, it is in the way that God has rescued and will continue to rescue us.

And we may boast in the way that God’s faithfulness allows us to be people of hope…. Always. Even in the midst of our greatest trials and suffering.

God shows off, we point to God’s righteousness, and God is glorified.

So… if our sin and God’s forgiveness is the cause of the display of God’s grace, which allows more people to see and for many of them to know God’s faithfulness…
Then more sin is good?  
Or at least… not exactly bad…  right?
I mean, wouldn’t sin be doing grace a favor?

If Paul were a pre-teen, we’d be getting the massive eye-roll for that question. And possibly even the #3 combo of eyeroll with a side of DUH.

He comes pretty close, setting us up for a rhetorical eyeroll: a resounding NO. By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?

I can hear him talking this concept through with a friend, over some hummus and what, wine?  Eh… whatever they drank instead of coffee…

Paul leans in, saying, OK – hear me out.  

You and I have been baptized as Jesus-followers, right? Now, that means we have said yes to all the grace we can handle.

We’re swimming in it, like the water in the river where we got dunked. We are soaked through to the skin by this grace. In fact, it’s almost like that grace has entered us and changed our way of being so completely that we don’t even need to come up out of the water to breathe!

Cue the head tilt.  No worries… Paul will just shift metaphors, like he does in his letters.

Ok – stay with me.  Think about fish in that river.  They spend their lives swimming around, breathing and living and doing all the things that fish do in the water.  

Ever see a fish that’s accidentally jumped up out of the water into a boat?  Or onto the dock? It’s not good. They flop around and try hard to get back to the water…

Why? Because that’s where they can live.  They DIE out of the water.  
They need to swim to breathe.

But if they could just change… swap their gills for lungs like ours, they wouldn’t need to go back into the water ever again.

You and I, we are born as air breathers.  And we still need to be up here out of the water to survive. But spiritually speaking, we’ve been baptized in the river of life  and need to stay wet – swimming around in the grace.

If we find ourselves seeking out the old ways of living… drawn to those old sins that harm our relationships, we are like those fish out of water… flailing about, trying to find our way back to a state of grace, where we can breathe in God’s breath, God’s Spirit that makes us alive in Christ.

Yes, it’s an imperfect metaphor. Paul’s coffee buddy would likely have had questions… maybe a lot of questions.

The thing is, we are creatures who have been re-created.  
Not metamorphosed into something unknown or different on the outside. But our inner world, our inner being has been recreated, refined.

Our core self has been seeking after God from the very beginning, responding to God’s primary claim on our love. And in Christ we are finally united.

But the world we live in, it’s as steeped in sin as it is in love. It’s in an in-between state –

Not the world as it was before Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
And yet, not as it will be when Jesus’ reign comes to its fullness.

The Kingdom of God – God’s will done on Earth as it is in Heaven – is here. In the worship and work of God’s people… us. But in so many ways, that vision remains a hoped-for – aspirational – reality.

Sin and its consequences ripple out across relationships, across time, across generations. We reap what was sown in our own youth, or the consequences of more recent decisions.  

We reap what was sown by members of our own families, as well as the seeds sown by people we’ve never met, but whose decisions shaped the history of our city, our state or nation

But we need not despair, for our faith gives us hope. The hope that Paul described for us, the promise of God’s power, revealed through the Spirit that was mediated to us through Christ.  

Why would we choose sin over a life empowered by God’s Spirit? Why would we choose sin over the power of God that is in us and flows through us, the power of God to defeat death?

So that grace might abound still more?
Oh… no… No no no
Heavens no.

But we do continue to sin.  Even after we learn to trust God.  
Even when we know what to watch for…

And not so that God’s grace might increase.  Why?

The most honest answer I can come up with is this one…
We are recovering sinners, making our way through that in-between, now-and-not-yet world. And some days, MOST days, it gets really messy.

A recovering addict will tell you that she chooses – moment by moment- one day at a time – between staying clean and falling off the wagon.

We all make 1000s of choices every day. All of which have spiritual consequences. And that means we choose between life and death, over and over again every single day.

But unlike folks in recovery, who will introduce themselves as addicts, we can choose to leave behind our former identity. In fact, Paul exhorts us to do so.

We are no longer sinners – unworthy and condemned. We have been claimed. We are God’s children – baptized and beloved. Co-heirs with Christ.

Commentator JR Daniel Kirk reminds us that there are a several imperative verbs in this portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  These imperatives – commands – “summon us to take hold of our resurrection life and bring it to bear on the present”. What does that look like?

In verse 11, we are told to consider ourselves “as those who are alive from the dead”. And in verse 13, we are to present ourselves to God “as those alive from dead” in order to join the battle against the forces of sin and death.

Our humanity is united with a very human Jesus who died a very human death.  When Paul talks about being crucified with Christ, that old version of humanity is what died.  

Our humanity is also united with the wholly divine Jesus who was raised from death and reigns even now with God.   When Paul talks about being alive in Christ, this new version of our humanity is where our hope lives.

This new version of humanity, this new life in Christ, is how we need to see ourselves. That is the identity we must claim. And the image of God we must bear in the world.

This is also how we need to picture our gathered body, the resources and worship and energy moving through the world as Christ’s body… That is, the church. This new version of humanity, dripping with resurrection power, is a means of grace for a world in need.

Imagine that, my friends!  We, together, swimmers in the font of God’s grace, are God’s plan for ushering in the long-awaited Kingdom

On this final Sunday of Eastertide, can you take hold of hope more firmly, believing in the power of the Christ who is INDEED risen  to bring that power to bear on our lives, too?

Can you come to the table and be nourished by that promise? Then go bravely – boldly – out to proclaim the good news In word and in deed?

I invite you to take a little time to sit and listen. Perhaps asking God to help you answer these questions…

How can I make ready for resurrection power this week? How can I prepare my heart to recieve that kind of power…

And the corollary question for our community of faith: How can we make ready for resurrection power together? What can we do to prepare our collective hearts for a move of the Spirit among us?

Shaken and Rattled

For the audio version – you can click over to the First Presbyterian Church of Titusville website. It’s way more fun than reading.

That said, the text below is close… and you’ll want to note the reading from Matthew that isn’t included

1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

This is the Word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God!

The body had been in custody for three days.

Yes, Joseph of Arimathea had requested and received permission to  take Jesus’ lifeless form.  

Yes, he had placed it in the very tomb that he had offered up as a resting place for Jesus.  

Matthew tells us that Joseph then rolled the great stone to the door and went away.  Mary Magdalene and the other Mary stay, though, sitting opposite the tomb, watching, weeping.

Unable to attend to him. Partly because the Sabbath was beginning, yes.
But – I suspect they would have delayed sabbath rituals long enough to tend to Jesus.   After all, if ever there were an advocate for doing the right thing over legalism, it was Jesus.

The larger issue was that the body had, for all intents and purposes, been taken back into custody.

Remember? The religious leaders were still concerned about Jesus and his followers. Concerned enough to go back to Pilate and ask him to secure the tomb.  Otherwise someone might steal the body and go around pretending that what Jesus said-  about coming back from the dead – was true.  

They could imagine the trouble that even rumors of his resurrection might bring…

So Pilate said to these leaders “You have a guard of soldiers. Go and make it as secure as you can.”

Which is what they did.
They made it as secure as they could.
They posted guards
They checked the great stone and sealed it.
Then they waited.

I suppose the plan was to wait 4 days, re-open the tomb, parade enough witnesses past the still-dead “King of the Jews” to prove him wrong, then go back to life as it was pre-Jesus of Nazareth.

The tomb was, indeed, “as secure as they could make it”
It was secure enough to keep troublemakers and pranksters at bay

But the God who spoke all creation into being?
Not so much.

When the time had come – not one day early, not one day late, God showed up and shook things up a little bit. I should say, God showed back up to shake things up a little bit.

The earth shook
The angel appeared, looking for all the world like lightning
The sealed – supposedly immobile – stone was rolled back.
And the men who represented the strength of the Empire?
They fainted dead away.

And do you know who was still there?  
Still sitting, waiting, watching?
And not fainting, by the way… Yes.  The women.

They may have been holding one another in wonder and fear,
but they were there.
Where they thought Jesus was.
Where everyone thought Jesus was.

To their great surprise and joy – they were wrong!
Alleluia!  
He is risen!  HE IS RISEN INDEED

Come and see, the angel said…
And then go and tell…

All that drama for such a simple and clear message.
Come and see,
Go and tell…

Come and see that there is NOT a THING to see here!
And then go.
Go and tell the others.

Come and see that Jesus is risen, HE IS RISEN INDEED
Come and see that Jesus is out and about, just as he said!
And then go tell the others that he will meet you in Galilee.

They came and saw.
They left… quickly…  hurrying to tell what they had seen
Feeling both joyful and frightened.
Rejoicing at this strange news, but uncertain of what it all meant

And as if they hadn’t hit their quota of confusion and surprise for they day…
There is Jesus.  
Right there with them.
Right there in front of them.
Greeting them.

I mean… come on…
“Greetings,”  Seems awfully generic Matthew…  
But it was enough.  
Seeing him standing, alive, breathing, speaking.
It was enough.

And it was too much.
All of the fear and joy
All of the sorrow and surprise and
All the hope and love and gratitude…
all of it came pouring out as they fell to his feet in worship.

They came and saw.
They went to tell.
And then they well and truly saw the truth.
In the flesh.

God is faithful.
God is powerful.
God is with us.

Even in unfamiliar territory
Even in uncertain times
Even when you’re not sure how folks will react to what you’re about to tell them

God is with us.
Blasting open all the boxes that would entomb us
Breaking apart all the chains that would enslave us
Crashing through anything and everything that seems fixed and immovable.
Including stone-cold hearts

See, the resurrection is not simply a demonstration of God’s power.
I mean, it is that. In all its teeth-rattling, earth-shaking, soldier-stunning glory.

But more important than all that is this:
Love.

The resurrection is an act of love.
It is an act of love on the part of God who refuses to abandon Jesus to the grave. And will not abandon us to sin, or to death, or to despair.

It is an act of love on the part of Jesus, who took on flesh and lived among us so that we might know God. And who then willingly laid down his life for our sakes.  

It is an act of love that God, in Jesus, endured the worst of humanity’s violence and brutality and refused to respond in kind. Instead of retribution, God chose resurrection, re-creation.   
God chose life.

God chose to make all things new.
All.  Things.
All. People.
All.  Of. Us.

That’s how big this love is
That’s how wide and deep and broad this love is.
That’s how powerful this love is.

No wall of stone is large enough to keep Jesus in the tomb.
No show of force could stop his departure.
Not even an entire army would have been powerful enough.

And when we allow the perfect love of Christ to drive out our fears, whether of people or of ideas or of some shadow part of ourselves, we become unstoppable, too.

Oh, it’s easy to lose sight of this fact… so very easy…
Even on this highest of high holy days

True story- I decided yesterday afternoon that I wanted to come over to the coast for the sunrise.

Now – I am much more of a sunset person, but I can get myself up and out the door early. It’s just not something that comes naturally.  In fact, I’ve always joked that sunrise services would be a deal-breaker if a church wanted to call me.

So, when I felt this weird prompting to be up and singing hymns – even on my own – at dawn, it seemed like something I needed to pay attention to.

So, I checked the time for sunrise, figured out the timing to get to a spot over by the bridge, set out my things and got to bed at a not-unreasonable hour.

And then morning came, with the realization that I needed to sneak into mom’s room to get her keys to move her car out from behind mine.

And when I walked outside, I realized that my definition of sunrise was not the same as the technical definition the weather app uses.  It was already getting light outside… 30 minutes before my perfectly timed “Sunrise” by the bridge!

So I hurried a bit getting my things to the car.    
A bit too much, perhaps… because I was 10 minutes down the road before I realized I had left my phone, which doubles as my camera, at home
Oh well, I could use my iPad.  

And then I’ll stop for some coffee… except my phone case is also my wallet.
No debit card. No cash. No coffee.

Oh well, I’ll just drive on over to the church… without my ID?
SIGH.

By the time I got back to highway 50 after that return trip to the house, it was 15 minutes to “Sunrise” and I was still a good 30-minute drive away.

As Matthew might say, there was groaning and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  And sighing in resignation to the fact that I had just wasted a perfectly good hour of potential sleep on this wild goose chase.  

But I was up and out. May as well turn on my Sunday morning music playlist, set it to random, and sing hymns in the car. Pretty soon I was also praying through my list of preacher friends who were launching into their Easter mornings.

And that’s when God started showing off…

I am going through Christmas (on Easter- ha!) and can see this golden glow off to my left, as if the entire sky was in flames. And as I’m watching the light shift through the trees, I realize there are more yellows and oranges than even the paint companies have names for.

And I’m singing along to the modern hymn – In Christ Alone. The second verse, I think…

In Christ alone! – who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe.
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live.

I’m about to make the curve in the highway that puts me facing due east, and that sky… still glowing.

There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain:

Suddenly, I am facing the clearest sky and the most incredible burning ball of light I’ve seen, right as I’m singing…

Then bursting forth in glorious day
Up from the grave He rose again

No – for real… You cannot make this stuff up…
I literally snapped a picture as I was driving.

Sunrise over Highway 50 on Easter Sunday 2019

See, I wanted to capture that moment in a photo because I never ever want to forget the power of that moment to captivate my heart.

The power of God’s ineffable love in that moment.

God insists on showing me – over and over again in moments like these-
that Yes.  I matter.
That my heart matters,
That your heart matters.
That our hearts matter to God.

Our hearts matter because our trust in God matters…
Our trust in God’s capacity to take our smallest disappointments
And life’s greatest tragedies
And make them into something beautiful…

Maybe it only takes a moment…
Or thirty minutes in the car…
Sometimes we don’t see it until years of mourning and wandering…
Or maybe after sitting across from the tomb for three days…

But when we do see it…
When our world is rocked and our hearts are filled with awe,
we are compelled to GO AND TELL our friends
Heck – we want the world to experience it!

That right there is the power of the resurrection, my friends
The power to turn us – annoyed, distracted, regular folk like us-
into determined, even fearfully courageous messengers.

People who will go and tell everyone of the wonders they have seen.
Who will bear witness to what God has done in and for them.
The little moments and the big miracles alike.

We call upon that resurrection power today as beloved children of God, Who worship with tears of joy and gratitude
Who worship with shouts of alleluia
Who will leave this place and worship the Lord with acts of faithful obedience in every facet of our lives

We call upon that power today,
Trusting God to make us courageous messengers who proclaim the saving death of our risen Lord in the breaking of the bread
And in the breaking down of walls.

But as we call upon God’s resurrection power today
Get ready to be shaken
And rattled
By the unfathomable power of God’s redeeming love.

Christ is Risen!!   He is risen, indeed!

Good Friday Reflection – 2019

I had the joy of participating in a shared worship this afternoon. The Episcopal church in Titusville is celebrating its 150th anniversary, and the priest wanted to have churches founded in that same era represented at the “Seven Last Words” service they host each year.

My congregation celebrated that milestone recently, so I was among those invited to do one of the meditations. My assignment: Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.” It is the third of seven sayings.

Not having been part of this service before, I had no idea how my colleagues would approach their assigned texts. There would be another Presby-Gal (the only other woman, in fact). The others ministers were from UMC, Baptist, and AME congregations.

The service was held in a lovely historic building that has been minimally updated. By that I mean… no air conditioning, and they still use ancient wooden benches and outdoor plumbing. It was hot in our robes, to be sure. I may have leveled up on my fan waving.

Here’s a pretty close approximation to what I shared:

This word comes from John’s gospel. He tells us that his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene were all near the cross. As was the disciple Jesus loved.

You know the other time John writes about Mary? At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry… at the wedding in Cana. That’s when Mary – being the mom that she was – forced the kid’s hand.  

John says that “the mother of Jesus was there.”  and that Jesus and his disciples had also been invited. Seems like Mary was the more important of the guests, doesn’t it.

Anyway, the wine runs out, and Mary says to Jesus, “They have no wine.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

I can’t help but imagine them now, their eyes locked and the silence becoming awkward, until Mary says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

It was his first miracle…  and I’d venture to say partly hers.
Regardless, she was there for it… and for him.    
She would have been there, even if that first miracle had been anywhere else. Just as she was there for his first steps.
His first snot-slinging cold.

I want that gospel, to be honest. The Good News for moms… (and dads, for that matter). The one that tells of our fully divine-fully human savior with smelly diapers,
who learned to say “NO” back to mom and dad in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek,
who kept them awake during their travels to and from Egypt, almost as much and as reliably, as their fear of Herod.

I want that gospel because I want to read and revel in the ways Mary and Joseph experienced the great joys and deep sorrows that being a parent has brought to every generation.

But even without an entire book, these two little vignettes make clear that Jesus knew what it meant to be Mary’s son,
Just as Jesus knew what it meant to be God’s son.

And I suspect both of those relationships are why Jesus knew what Mary would need following this time of terror and grief for both of them.

You see, this third word from Jesus tells us a lot about Mary and Jesus –
they loved each other.
Deeply.  
Mutually.

In that beautifully reciprocal way that God and Jesus love one another.
In the beautifully reciprocal way Jesus invites us to experience a relationship with God – abiding in him as he abides in us.  

In John 14, Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches, and goes on to say:
9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

That right there is what we witness at the foot of the cross.
Mary was there for her son.
And he was – miraculously – still there for her,
just as he was for his aunt, and the other Marys.
Just as he had been there for his friend Lazarus,
Jesus was there for the beloved disciple.

Now, as his earthly life was ending, he knew Mary needed a place to be.
She needed the kind of place that relationship offers.
The space that love affords…
She needed a place to abide.
As did the disciple.

And so Jesus – even from the cross – is teaching us what love looks like
Not just God’s love for us, but our love for others…

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.

Assuming she could take her eyes off of her own son, on the cross,
laying down his life for the sake of THE WORLD,
Mary could understand from Jesus’ tone, from his eyes, perhaps a nod of the head…
The disciple was the one she would now love like a son,
The one who would now love her, as if she were his mother

Woman, here is your son…
Here is your Mother
Here is love.  
Abide in it.
Abide in me.  
Amen.

Of Gates and Grace

We continue to move ahead in time, though we remain in the Southern Kingdom, such as it is.  Jeremiah was born in 650 BCE, about 100 years or so after the events we read about Isaiah last week.  

He was born in Anathoth, a small town just north of Jerusalem. He belonged to a priestly family, probably the same one that cared for the Ark of the Covenant after its return from Egypt, and the family to which the high priest Eli had belonged.

If we had time to read all of Jeremiah, we would actually get a pretty good idea of what his life was like.  We would also see that he had a tender heart that longed for peace and rest for himself and for his people. This longing must have made his call and his message all the more difficult.  The first portion of our reading today is from the opening of the book of Jeremiah, in which he hears what the Lord wants from him.

We’ll start at Chapter 1, verse 4 Listen for the Word of the Lord:

1:4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, “I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Jeremiah indeed started his prophetic work when we was very young, while under the reign of Josiah.  He generally spoke to the men on the streets, while his relative Hulda spoke to the women, and his teacher Zephaniah preached in the synagogue.  

As we turn to the next portion of our reading, at the start of Chapter 7, we see one of his key teachings, a call to return to true worship, not only in the synagogue but as a way of living under the covenant with God. Again, let us approach the Word of God in expectation….

7:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah,  you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place.

4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” 5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.

8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.

—————-

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you”

When I read those words about God’s relationship with Jeremiah, I can’t help but hear echoes of the psalmist’s words…
For it was you who formed my inward parts; 
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

And as God continues, I can’t help but recall the assurances God gave to the other fearful, reluctant, fallible, and often young women and men. People like Moses, Gideon, Miriam, Deborah, Joshua. Like Mary, Joseph…
All of whom needed to hear…
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.

Jesus offered similar words to his disciples…
My peace I give to you.  My peace I leave with you.
As you are going into the world, making disciples and baptizing them…  
I will be with you.  

Paul, who was not with them to hear these words… he got it, too.  The God in Christ who knocked sense into Paul on the road to Damascus would be with him in every journey to come.

In fact Paul’s letters to the earliest communities of Christ-followers were full of assurances that the Spirit of the Lord was with them.
That Paul’s prayers are with them.
And that Jesus the Christ was praying for them.

And in Ephesians, we get a sense of how this Pharisee among Pharisees understands the work that all of us are called to in light of Christ’s work in us. Which is not altogether different from Jeremiah’s word…
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. We need first to look at what Jeremiah was dealing with in his own context

Jeremiah was needed in a particular time and place. He was called to speak words of truth and wisdom to the people of Israel.  From his mother’s first birth pains onward, Jeremiah existed for more than himself, more than his family.

In the same way, from God’s earliest promises to Abram and Sarai, Israel was called to be a people and a nation who would exist for more than themselves.

Generations of prophets had been speaking truth to power, seeking to help Israel live into that vision. And now it was Jeremiah’s turn.  And would be for some forty years, in fact.

Josiah, one of the few good kings in the late history of Judah, was a reformer.  He heard Jeremiah’s words and sought to bring true worship back to the temple. Unfortunately, not all of his other decisions were as wise. And then Johiakim and Zedekiah were completely off the rails.

Which meant for most of those 40 years, Jeremiah was preaching a hard word.  One that the people needed, but didn’t necessarily want to hear.
A word that he knew was going to be mostly ignored.
One that we need to hear, if I’m honest.
Especially if we hope to live into the vision of being the Kingdom of God. And I do mean us…
as in all of us…

One of the things you’ll hear from me on a regular basis is this: the word YOU in God’s conversations and commands are almost always the plural YOU.  As in YOU ALL or Y’ALL

Even the most accurate translations can’t overcome the fact that You (singular) and You (plural) look and sound just alike.


Or the fact that our culture is MUCH more individualistic than the Jewish culture in which our holy texts were written. So…we need to listen extra carefully to God’s commands and promises.  

For instance, God will be with Jeremiah, absolutely. In fact, his story is filled with ways that God intervenes when enemies plot to kill the prophet. But I will be with you isn’t solely about Jeremiah.  It’s about Jeremiah in the context of the people of Israel. I will be with you AND y’all.  

Now, to say this is a tumultuous time for Judah would be an understatement. Assyria’s power has waned; the Babylonian Empire is on the rise. Other mid-sized nations are taking advantage of this opportunity to stretch and pillage a bit.

In other words, there isn’t a lot of good news for the people of Israel. And – SPOILER ALERT – by the end of Jeremiah’s story, the inhabitants of Jerusalem will be taken into exile.

Which leads me to a second important idea:
I will be with you is not the same as it’s all good.
God’s presence is not a security blanket
God’s presence is not a magic wand
God’s presence is not a talisman against bad things happening.

So Jeremiah, who longs to offer a word of hope and peace, is called to tell the people that the world is an awful, dangerous, messy place.
That yes, God’s here with us, but not because we’ve doing anything right.
Not because we have the right liturgy or the best musicians.
In fact, we’ve pretty well mucked it all up.

Standing at the Gates of the Temple, watching the people file in, Jeremiah is torn.  He knows that worship offers a sense of God’s presence.
It offers some comfort.

But he also knows that it’s not enough.
The people have lost sight of what it means to love God…
All day, every day.  
In spirit and truth.  
In word and deed.  

He knows that a word of Grace is not what they need.  
And so right there in the courtyard, Jeremiah speaks God’s judgment, which makes some sense of all those verbs God used to describe Jeremiah’s call.

There are religious and civil structures that need to be torn down and destroyed.
There are habits and rituals that need plucking out
There are actions and perhaps priests that must be pruned.

Not by dropping fire from heaven  (which God is certainly capable of)
Not by sending invading hordes- They’ve made that choice on their own.

God sends Jeremiah to remind the people that if they are not experiencing God’s presence in their households,
their worship,
their communities,
it’s not because God has left.

The people themselves have have chosen to live and lead and even worship as if God is not necessary.
They’ve got it covered.
They are so sure of themselves, their wisdom, their words, their ways of doing worship that there is no room for God.

I can’t even say that this time of year without thinking about Mary and Joseph.  There wasn’t room in people’s homes when God came to be with us and instead found their welcome among the animals.  

But that’s over 600 years away yet… Jeremiah needs the king and the people to get reoriented right now. Like Micah and Isaiah before him, Jeremiah reminds the people what God expects of them… what God expects of us:

Full participation in covenant life.
They need to step it up and live like they know that God is the God of justice.

And so he reminds them of the commandments that all of their laws were based on…
Don’t be fooled any more, Jeremiah says…
Don’t be fooled by these false leaders…
God wants you.  
All of you… your heart, soul, mind and strength
God wants your loyalty.
When you are at God’s house and when you’re out about.
Your lives should be dripping with honesty, generosity, compassion, love.

Step it up…  
Take care of the widow, the orphan and the immigrant.
Don’t hurt innocent people
And don’t pretend you’re following God when you’re offering praise and sacrifices to other gods. You can’t do both.

God is tired of hearing you talk about this place as a safe haven, a sanctuary
And then seeing you go out to lie, cheat and murder.
Or going out and give your time and adoration to idols.
This place has become more like a hiding place for criminals and thieves who use God’s name as a shield for their misdeeds

Don’t be fooled any more, Jeremiah says…
God wants you.  
All of you… your heart, soul, mind and strength
All day.  
Every day.

Because that is how living in a covenant as a community works
As siblings in the family of God, loving others as themselves, the people of Israel can again develop bonds of faith, hope and love

Bonds that can withstand invasion, exile and oppression
Bonds that can withstand all the pressures of the ancient world
Bonds that can withstand all the pressures of our modern world

The love that makes that kind of bond possible is in each of us and all of us.  That love is, in fact, the very core of our being,
made as we are in the image of the God who is three and one.
God of the covenant
God of the cross
God of pentecost
Creator, Savior, Comforter
Father, Son, Spirit

God with us.  Always
As individuals and as all the WE’s we can imagine
With us as households
As a community of faith
As a denomination
As the church universal
As children of Abraham
And even as beloved sheep who don’t yet know they have a shepherd

God With us.  Always
And always intimately acquainted with our strengths and weaknesses,
Our gifts and deficits
Our fears and our hopes

God is with us.  Always.
At the gates
Calling us out of our false worship and self-sufficiency
And into the sanctuary that is God’s grace
Into the fierce grip of God’s love

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

In this week between Thanksgiving and Advent, as we are bombarded with opportunities to worship at the altars of spending and shopping
As tension ramps up between family traditions and inevitable change  
As calendars fill and the idea of autopilot sounds really good….

Remember what we await and celebrate the coming of Christ our King…  
Jesus
Emmanuel
God with us.
Always

Sending us back out through the gates
Restored. Redeemed. Remade.
Together.  The body of Christ,
Created for a purpose

Hear the good news that Jeremiah was called to give.
God loves you.   All. Y’all.
God wants you.   All. Y’all.
God needs you – All.  Y’all.  

God love, wants and needs US to be focused and clear-eyed.   
All of us… our combined hearts of love
All of the faith, creativity, hope, and strength we can muster
All day.  
Every day.
It’s what WE are made for.

It’s Been a Minute… or three

It’s been a while since I had time to sit and post stuff.  I’ve been writing, of course. Those Sunday sermons don’t just happen. 

And I’ve been journaling. Actually scribbling by hand in an actual paper journal. And I find that, while it is super helpful for capturing what is happening in many of the realms of my life, journaling is less helpful for blogging. 

Once it’s on the page, it’s out of my head.  Not into the world, mind you.  But somehow, those pages feel like they are done, and the stories feel told, and I feel free to move on. 

I’ve also been trying to find my way into a new rhythm of work and life.

My new congregation is different, and the expectations are different (at least as much as I can tell so far).  My new commute is different, and the office is open different hours… and my day off has shifted.  Meanwhile, the time change happened, but we’re still in that late Florida summer weather pattern.

Even as I continue doing many of the things I did in my previous ministry context, and as I continue to train for the triathlon and running events I have on the calendar, I’m trying to add a couple of new spiritual practices into the good habits pile. 

I like change, so these differences in and of themselves aren’t an issue.  I’m just in that operational problem-solving stage.  What are the moving parts in my weekly calendar? When and where do they need to happen?  What’s the best time of day for my brain and/or heart to engage with this? What needs to be pruned? What needs to be tweaked? What am I forgetting? 

The Tetris part comes next.  And then the living into it with my customary “make it work… and then make it fun” approach.  I’d like to think I could enter the new year with a plan(-ish), rather than vague/hopeful resolve.

Meanwhile- here are 3 things I need to post about… coming soon, I hope!

  • My amazing visit to FALL in Michigan
  • My latest adventure in running (also in Michigan)
  • Some things I am loving about this new ministry setting. 

Moments of Grace

Life is always slightly chaotic, but with a lot of transition happening, things feel really bonkers.  So I’ve been trying to be more mindful of moments of grace.  Those moments when people or the universe in general offer kindness and love with no expectations.

Like the morning I walked into the church building to find a single rose in front of my office door in a gas station soda cup.  It was a glorious yellow-orange… a beautifully unique color.  Taped to the cup was a note to tell me that it was a “Good as Gold” rose.  The note went on to say “which you are, too.”

The truth is, the dear lady who left me the rose has supplied me with so many cups of roses over the past 3-4 years. I have used them to make arrangements for the chancel and the office; one year, I saved enough petals to make small sachets of potpourri for the whole congregation as Christmas gifts.

But this little note.  And this single rose. Grace.

—-

Or like the end of worship two Sundays ago now, my penultimate Sunday leading worship for this congregation. Because I am not anything near perfectionist enough to make it happen, I’ve spent the last four years chasing the dream that we would have one Sunday on which the paper and projected bulletin elements would be 100% correct.

We were SOOOO close.  Somehow, the file contained the wrong lyric slides for the last hymn.  Of course, it was not in the pew hymnals, My musician paused after realizing that he and I were the only ones singing the first verse. I asked if he wanted to continue as a duet so the congregation could at least hear the text of the hymn that really was the perfect close for what had been a very meaningful service.

And in his “Yes” and the singing, and the deep listening, there was grace.

—-

Post Script… this week, both bulletins were correct.  It just took 4 years and 200-odd tries. Which, I suppose, is another kind of grace.

All In

Good news!  Today’s reading requires very little set-up. Maybe slightly less good news… It’s kind of long. Partly because the reading itself includes the sort of summary I usually give you.  

So, I’ll set the scene and then let Joshua do the heavy lifting.

After much wandering and fussing in the wilderness, Moses finally brought the Hebrew people to the very edge of the promised land.  On the banks of the Jordan River, Moses assembled the tribes. After recalling their wanderings he delivered God’s laws by which they must live in the land, sang a song of praise and pronounced a blessing on the people. Moses then passed his authority to Joshua, under whom they would possess the land. And then he  went up Mount Nebo, looked over the promised land that he would never enjoy, and died.

Our reading today takes place at the end of Joshua’s time as leader, near the end of his life, in fact. He also chooses to address the people, challenging them to be faithful and to renew their part of the covenant with their ever-faithful God.

Listen now to the Word of God as recorded in Joshua 24:1-26

I actually like this passage of scripture.  Perhaps because it is provides a great synopsis of what God’s been up to. It is always so much easier to see God’s work in retrospect.

It was true for Joshua and Moses and the Hebrew people, too… looking back and chronicling the faithfulness of God was easier than seeing God’s presence moment by moment… perhaps with the exception of that pillar of fire at night. That had to be pretty obvious.

Now that they are established in the land that was promised so many years ago, they are entering into another time of transition.  The kind of situation that the brilliant prophet Fred Rogers described this way…

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”

The something that is ending is known. Knowable.
We may or may not like the situation we’re in.  But we can at least describe it.
And we can do an even better job describing all the when’s and who’s and what’s that  brought us to this place.

The something that is beginning?  That’s the unknown.
Which can be exciting.  Or it can make us anxious.  

This is why we tend to lean into the past. It’s way more comfortable.
Joshua gets this.  

And maybe because he saw Moses help the people move forward by remembering.
He knows that this is what he and God need to do in this moment, too. Restore their faith to renew the covenant.

See, here’s the thing… faith isn’t about actually knowing.
It is about remaining true and faithful when we can’t see around the corner

Faith isn’t the promise of hearing God’s voice up on the mountain
Or seeing the presence of God – even the back side of the God’s presence as Moses did… Though hearing and seeing God that way would sure make living and believing way easier.

No… Faith is more like a random Tuesday afternoon.
A random Tuesday afternoon when someone asks you “Where did you see God today?”
And all you have to offer are observations about humidity, traffic and the fact that having a full pantry and fridge with plenty of food doesn’t mean you can create a coherent meal.  

And yet… even on a random Tuesday, when you pause to reflect… you do see God… right there… in the heart of the person who cared enough about your heart to ask the question.

Faith is trusting that the God who cared for you in the past,
The God who kept those old promises for those ancestors of ours
That this God is with you now, and will be with you in the future.

So Joshua leans into the past.
And then he calls the people back into the reality of the present.

See, if his time leading through a time of war and conflict taught Joshua anything… it was to be present to God. To be in the present with God.

Joshua knows how tempting it is to “take back control” of what is God’s work to do.
He knows the temptation toward pride… of thinking we know better than God
He knows the temptation that other gods offer… the promise of a harvest, of a quick solution, or of prosperity in return for the right prayer.

He knows this because he’s seen it in himself
And Joshua knows this about his people.

Which is why he says to the people… “No… you can’t”

Ok- what he said was… “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.”

But I’m pretty sure what that meant was…  “You stand here and say to me, Yes Joshua!  My household, my people and I will be all in for God, too. But you haven’t been faithful.  You’ve rarely been all in for more than a day at a time. What makes you think today is different?  And do you understand what will happen when your fickle hearts get distracted again?  God is NOT going to be happy…”

Joshua wants the best for them.  He wants for them to be the kind of people who respond wholeheartedly, not just in the moment, but for a lifetime.

He wants them to understand that the relationship they are talking about is not just with God.  It is with one another.

As the beloved people, they must always be striving to be a beloved community, to be the builders of the kingdom of God.

Their lives together must bear witness to this commitment… Because their lives will be their sworn testimony, Joshua says.

And they again tell him Yes.  

We are ALL IN.  We will serve the Lord.

And you know what? I believe them.  

I believe that they believed that they would be as faithful as any people could be.
As faithful as we ever are.  

I mean, their future is our past, so we already know where their story headed.  And as we read on past judges into the days of the kings and prophets, and exile…
we see more failure than we do success.

But in that moment, in that moment with Joshua, right on on the cusp between the known past and the unknown future, they had the presence of mind to cast their lot with God.

You know…  if Joshua were a good Presbyterian.
Yes, it’s a crazy thought, but…
If Joshua were a good presbyterian with access to the Book of Order or the Book of Common Worship, he might have approached the challenge a little differently.

He might have asked his people the questions we ask of members as they enter the community by baptism or when we renew our baptismal vows…or when we take on the mantle of ordered ministry.  

We ask people, Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
To which they answer…  I do.

Then we ask Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?
Again they answer… I do.

Then we ask this one… the one that Joshua was asking, just using God instead of Jesus language. Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?

And the answer is slightly different: I will, with God’s help.

See, the people might very well have said to Joshua
We will…
We will be God’s faithful and faith-filled people.
We will remember the words God gave to us through Moses.
We will love God with all that we have and all that we are.
We will show God’s love to our own households, to our neighbors and to the  strangers and refugees who come among us.
We will… with God’s help.

With God, all things are possible.

You know, part of my work these past weeks as I wind down my time among you is to reflect on our history together.  To remember and to report the ways God has been at work among us. Here are just a few of the things I’ve recalled

God brought brought us several new members, some by transfer and others by affirmation of faith.

God even blessed us with the opportunity to baptize little Reid, and Charlie, Tory and Joel.

God took home several beloved saints among us… including Myrt, Gerry, Sandy, Beth, John…

God brought opportunities to host Girl Scout events and the Blessing of the Animals.

God spared us from major hurricane damage and then brought together volunteers to help clear out and prepare for worship the next week.

God has continued to provide in miraculous ways so that neighbors who are experiencing homelessness or food insecurity or other financial woes can eat a hot meal on Fridays.

God has consistently raised up women and men willing to serve as deacons, elders and trustees.

In the midst of all that God has done, we have been contentious and political.
We have been angry and stubborn; we have been compassionate and forgiving.
We have been joyful and encouraging.  

And we have displayed all the other very lovely and very awful things that we very human Christ-followers can experience.  All of them.

The truth is, we can be an awful lot like the Israelites and the Pharisees. We get caught up in the anxiety of not knowing and forget to trust. Or we spend more time and energy on re-reading the rules than we do on the relationships they are meant to support.  

It’s not hard for me to look back and describe our shared history, and with your help, I could describe a more complete and far-reaching past.

And I’m pretty sure that would be a more comfortable and lively conversation than one about the future of the church.  The denomination, the church in general… but especially the future of this particular congregation.

Friends, I have no idea what the future holds for First Apopka.   I can’t know, really.
Not any more than I can know what the future holds for First Titusville.
I mean, I don’t even know what the future holds for me and my family.
But I know this.  

I am all in.
I am all in with God on wherever this grand adventure leads.

Because I know that there isn’t any place I can go that God isn’t already there.
I am all in – because I know there isn’t any place in the world that doesn’t need a goober who loves Jesus and is willing to put her energy, intelligence, imagination and love into prayer and action.

And what I want, more than anything, is for you to be ALL IN, too.
For you to bring all the energy, imagination, intelligence and love you have… to this place.  Where all of that is desperately needed.

I long to hear stories that bear witness… the stories that are your living testimony to the love you have for God, and for the people God places in your lives.

You are beloved of God, my friends,
God has claimed and reclaimed us, again and again…
For a purpose.  Beyond salvation. Beyond membership.

Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of the beginning of Ephesians 2 in The Message brilliantly describes what that requires of us…

It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish!

We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving.

He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

All of us, we countless children of Abraham…
Gathered and scattered
Hopeful and frightened
Sitting at the end of something and the beginning of something else.
All of us have work we had better be doing.

What does that work look like?  Well, I started to get all Jesus on you, but really what it looks like to me is at the end of the movie Lilo and Stitch.  

Stitch is this crazy looking alien that crash lands in Hawaii and does what it is made to do… destroy stuff and create mayhem. He ends up being “adopted” by Lilo, a little girl whose family has come undone. Her parents died and she’s living with her sister who is overwhelmed.  Basically, they are a hot mess, and this little destructive creature doesn’t help.

By the end of the movie though, when some other aliens come to take Stitch back someplace where the universe will be safe from his mayhem, something has changed. Stitch sees that he really does belong.

He says they are a family… little and broken, but good.  And he uses the word he’s learned… Ohana.  

Now I don’t know if it’s the real definition or just a Disney thing, but he says Ohana means family.  And family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.

When I run races with friends, if I am the one who finishes first, I don’t just stop. I go back.  I go back and find them, and bring them to the finish.   One time I went back a mile to get Amy, and I started calling it the Ohana mile.

See… that’s the work I think we were made for.
Making sure no one is left behind or forgotten.  Going the extra mile.
For family…
For our families of origin.
For family we choose.
For the ones who don’t know yet that they can be part of God’s family.

Because that is what we are.
That is who we are.
That is what we are called to be and do.
To be All in- until all are in.

Treasured

Today’s passage moves us a little farther along in the story of the Hebrew people… which is actually the story of God’s work to bring humankind back into right relationship with nature, with one another and ultimately with God.

God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still being worked out, but we are already seeing God’s faithfulness in that progress. No longer a single family unit, but not yet innumerable as the stars, Israel is made up of hundreds of extended families or tribal units.  

There are multiple generations in each household and they have been blessed with a leader – Moses –who will continue to lead them toward the land that was promised.

They have been a blessing to others, even when others have not blessed them.  

And God has intervened on their behalf, staying present and making a way for them… through the sea and the wilderness.

And now, God is again ready to speak to the people through Moses. Listen for the Word of God from Exodus 19:3-7 and then 20:1-17

—–

I suspect, as you have come to know me over the last 3-4 years, you have noticed I am a bit of a nerd.  Or geek. Whichever of those terms you would care to use –hopefully with affection – for someone who has an abiding interest in a very specific topic.

Interestingly enough, we don’t use those terms for folks who yell at their televisions or travel weekly to various stadiums. People who get really deep into football are mostly called fans.

But we “geek out” about other sorts of things… like my new Wonder Woman stole.
Or the latest rumors about the next Avengers movie
Or when the new Book of Common Worship arrived!
Seriously… it is lovely…

Even more timely, my Running Nerd Club friends and I have been counting down…
The GLOBAL premiere of the new season of Doctor Who is at 12:45pm. Today.  Like in 45 minutes

Yes, friends, I am risking all the spoilers in the universe and putting tremendous faith in my DVR so that I can stay here and moderate the congregational meeting  today…

Now, if you’re still with me at all, you’ve got to be wondering what in the world any of this has to do with God and the people of Israel and the 10 commandments.

There really is a connection.  

Since we’ll be talking time travel when we get to the Doctor, it feels right to back up our own calendars a bit… to this summer when we actually spent a few weeks digging pretty deeply into the 10 Commandments. And some of what we’ve hit since then.

The covenants we’ve reviewed set the stage for today’s readings.

God’s promise to Noah and all creation… to find another way to solve the problem of our propensity for evil. Total destruction was off the table.    

Chapter 12, when we were introduced to Abraham and Sarah,  was a hinge point in as we brought the focus in on one man and his family as God’s means of blessing, teaching, changing our hearts.

In much the same way, we talked this summer about Chapter 19 as a hinge point.   We begin to see more clearly how God will use Abraham’s descendants to bless all the families of the world God’s words to them at this moment, at this point in their relationship, are crucial in their developing an identity as God’s people.

Remember, in the Jewish tradition, these 10 commandments are known as the “10 words”
Not because there are literally 10 words, but 10 concepts, ideas…

God has words for the Israelites.
God will be speaking to them – mostly through Moses- but God will continue to speak.
Because God is with them and God is for them.
For generations to come. All the way up to ours.

Commentator and preacher David Lose sums up “the relationship between “law”and “gospel” in the Ten Commandments by saying, “Nineteen comes before Twenty.”

The point is that the relationship God establishes with the chosen people comes first — it is literally primary. The law, with its ethical demands on our behavior, comes second — it is literally secondary.

In Exodus 19 God says, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples… you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”(19:3b-6a).

And the people say yes.
Yes- we will listen and we will do what you say.
By faith, they respond. By faith they commit.
And we know the rest of the story.
They fail… just as we all fall short of the glory of God.
But they said yes to this relationship. Yes to being God’s people

Because God is a covenant making and covenant keeping God, they can trust that God’s not going anywhere.
And on their best days, they do.
Kind of like we do.

But the truth is, for years… generations, in fact… they haven’t needed to do much work relationally. I mean, they had families and some specific roles within the community. But mostly, they related to the Egyptians and the Hebrew overseers.  

Imagine how strange it would have been to wake up in the wilderness and realize all of the structure that captivity had provided was gone.  All the security of knowing what came next… ? Gone.
Get up, make bricks, run out of straw, keep making bricks, maybe eat a meal, sleep, get up and start over.

Oh sure, there would have been question about how much food. How badly might they be beaten.  There would have been some praying in there. Definitely some crying out to God. I’m not sure if or when they would have been allowed to gather and pray, especially as Pharoah began to see them as a threat, rather than a blessing.

But they would have known exactly what to expect.
And what was expected of them.
Day in. Day out.

So now, as free people, how are they meant to do life? How are they meant to relate to one another? How are they meant to relate to this amazing God who hears?

What are they supposed to do with the stuff they have, those riches that the Egyptians gave them on the way out?

God knows.  And so God gives them the basics.
Starting with who they are… in relation to God.  

At the start of Chapter 20, God again says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”(Exodus 20:2).

That word… that reminder of who God is and how much God has done… that is a word of grace.

God has already saved them.
And God will continue to save them, if they… if we… can manage in our fallible way, to trust and follow God’s direction.

This is a relationship God treasures, this relationship with humankind, with these particular humans. And it is only after God clarifies that very point, that God makes a claim on our behavior.

This should make clear that God never intended the law to be seen as a means to salvation.

Using the law to earn salvation, to win your soul’s way into heaven, would be like trying to build a faster-than-the-speed-of-light spaceship out of plywood.
It’s just not going to happen.  

God does not give the law as A WAY TO ESTABLISH relationship with the people.
That work had already been done.
God established the relationship and THEN gave the law.
And the means to remain in and return to that relationship when we humans manage to muck it all up.

And that, my friends is the beauty of grace.
Grace that is abundant well before Jesus enters the story,
Grace that abounds even to me, even to you.

Which also means we need to consider the possibility that the next words God spoke, the next 10 words, as well as all the other laws and rules and instructions in the Old Testament—
We need to consider the possibility that they were meant as a gift to God’s people.

Perhaps the God who spoke all creation into being was now speaking a way of life into being. A way of loving into being.

In the same way that a good writer creates a fictional world or universe that makes sense, that gives shape to the lives of the characters.  In our very real world, God gave us the parameters in which everyone can experience love, freedom and grace.

God was creating again the universe in which we are meant to live and move and have our being.   God was giving us the means by which we could and would co-create God’s Kingdom right here on earth….

And in those words were reminders of God’s covenant,
reminders that God’s promises remained intact.

I will be with you.
I will make you a priestly nation
Through you, all the nations will be blessed.
I was with you.
I am with you.
I will always be with you.

It was the always have been, always will be aspect of God’s presence that made my ears perk up this week. It was right in the middle of a Doctor Who episode that I’d seen many times.

Now – The Doctor is a Time Lord.  Time Lords come from the planet Gallifrey, which is  somewhere in another part of the universe. You don’t need all 50-odd years worth of backstory… but you do need to know that Time Lords are able to travel through time and space.  They live a really long time because they can regenerate (which feels a little bit like resurrection, to this theologian). They follow specific rules about when and how to intervene, and  they don’t do well traveling alone.  They are meant to have companions.

The Time Lord we follow throughout the series is called “The Doctor”. The Doctor and his companion Clara started this particular episode at a big manor house, someplace in the UK in around 1974.

They met a man and a woman at the house who were attempting to contact a spirit who lived there, a ghost, using what was pretty impressive technology for the 70s. The Doctor decides to investigate in a different way…

He and Clara took the TARDIS  (the machine that allow for time and space travel) and a camera back in time to when the earth was just beginning to form.  And then they went forward in time… to when the earth was about to end in flames.  

And all along the timeline between, they stopped to take pictures in the spot where the manor house would be or was or used to be.  

Just before he stepped out to take the last photos, the Doctor gave Clara a set of instructions.  Just a few words… and then she watched him on a monitor. She was never truly alone, he was just feet away from her outside.

But it was clear that she was deeply saddened by something.  The Doctor noticed.  And asked what was wrong.

Clara asked him… “Have we just watched the entire life cycle of Earth? Birth to death?”
The Doctor: Yes.

Clara: And you’re okay with that?
The Doctor: Yes.

Clara: How can you be?
The Doctor: The TARDIS. She’s…time. We… vortex and so on.
Clara: That’s not what I mean.

The Doctor isn’t sure what she’s talking about, after all, this is not the first adventure in time and space they’ve had together.  But he listens closely as Clara goes on.

Clara: I mean, one minute you’re in 1974, looking for ghosts, but all you have to do is open your eyes and talk to whoever’s standing there. To you, I haven’t been born yet, and to you I’ve been dead a hundred billion years.

She looks again at the ruined Earth of the distant future displayed on the TARDIS scanner, and asks, “Is my body out there somewhere? In the ground?”

The Doctor: …Yes, I suppose is it.
Clara: But here we are, talking. So I am a ghost. To you, I’m a ghost.
We’re all ghosts to you. We must be nothing.

The Doctor: No…no. you’re not that.
Clara: Then what are we? What can we possibly be?

The Doctor: You are…the only mystery worth solving.

And in that moment, I thought “yeah…   we are.”

We could be like ghosts to God.  Scripture even says we are like grass that withers and fades.   We came from dust. We return to dust.
Who are we, to an eternal God?

We seem to be, somehow, a mystery to God.
Something about the agency and creativity,
Something about our capacity for good and for evil.
It infuriates God, even though God made us this way.  

And yet, something about our need for God
and God’s need for companionship, for Relationship,
keeps God from giving up on us.

And it keeps us from giving up on the mystery that is God.

The truth is we are treasured.  You and I.
We are desired.

We are, when we do our dead level best to love God back, the apple of God’s eye.
Not because we’re doing a great job,
But because we’ve heard God’s call echoing in our bones,
We’ve turned our hearts toward God’s
And we’ve said, “YES, I am yours”

And with every halting step
With every stiff-necked complaint
With every act of willful defiance
We feel the tension of the mystery:

Why would God love us still?

It’s because God always has that God always will.
It’s because every time we say aloud to one another –
“Hear and believe the Good news- in Jesus Christ you are forgiven,”
we can begin to believe that we are worthy of that love.

So hear and believe this good news my friends
We are beloved.
We are treasured.

As are the Baptists who come over to the pavilion and give away food on Mondays
As are the Episcopalians and Catholics we sing and read scriptures with every Advent
As are the Methodists, Nazarenes, and all the other others who prepare and give away hundreds of hot meals in our kitchen every month.

So hear and believe this good news!
We are beloved.
We are the treasured ones of God.

As are the other foundations and churches that support Loaves and Fishes
As are the volunteers who repair and refurbish bikes for Recyclery
As are the leaders building out the Community Resource Network in Apopka and across Central Florida.

So hear and believe this very good news!
We are beloved.
We are treasured by God.

Not because we are good people
Not because we could ever be justified by following God’s Law
Certainly not because we are so adept at judging others by the law.

We are beloved and treasured because we are God’s.
God has loved us
God has freed us from the need to measure up
and the need to measure others.

God has freed us to look in the mirror
And to look across the room with eyes of love and compassion
And acceptance.

God has made us holy.
God has set us apart as a kingdom, not in an earthly sense,
But as God’s priestly kingdom on earth

God has known us from the beginning of time.
God can see what will become of us…
What will become of this beautiful earth we inhabit.
God can see beyond the edges of the universe we’ve only begun to map.

And rather than see us as insignificant, unimportant.
God honors us, blesses us, by giving us work to do
Work with eternal significance

Love God first and foremost
Then Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
So that others might see and know that God is good.

On this day when we celebrate communion alongside sister churches around the world,
I give thanks that the Kingdom of God is open to all.
I give thanks that the holy nation God created has no borders along which walls and guards can be placed.
I give thanks that we have been invited to the joyous feast
and that we are expected to bring all our friends along.

I give thanks for God’s enduring love.
Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Now and always.
Amen.

Even There. Even Then.

Today’s reading drops us into the middle of Joseph’s story, one of the longest sustained stories in the OId Testament. Definitely the longest in the Book of Genesis.

One of the longest sermons I ever heard was the one in which an elder decided to retell ALL OF Joseph’s story… all 12 chapters worth.  THEN he launched into a extended interpretation of the story.

I’m not going to subject you to that.  I promise. But because that context is helpful, I went looking for a video that might do the heavy lifting for us.  The shortest one I could find is a little over 3 minutes Let’s take a look, and then we’ll dig a little deeper into a slice of Joseph’s story.  

You can go watch this Joseph video on YouTube, then come back

That’s the basic arc of the story.  Now, let’s back up and take a closer look at our assigned portion of the story…  Genesis 39:1-23 (NRSV)

You may have noticed that the video was a much more vague about the details of how Joseph wound up in jail than the reading.   That’s not terribly surprising, since that clip was created for children’s ministry.

And that interaction between Potiphar’s wife and Joseph… well, it’s safe to say that a lot of Sunday School teachers would hesitate before discussing what “lie with me” means with their young pupils.

And, based on some of the conversations I observed among pastors who use the narrative lectionary, a lot of preachers had a hard time with it, too. There was much debate about how to approach this story.

Some questioned why this particular section of Joseph’s story was chosen, in light of the advent of the #MeToo movement seeking to debunk victim blaming. And with the potential for the conversation sounding political, given current conversations about jailing of immigrants, human trafficking and sexual impropriety.  

But this lectionary was developed several years ago. Which means this passage was selected for this spot in this year of the lectionary cycle without any knowledge of what we’d be talking about over coffee.  

But honestly, WHY THIS SEGMENT? is the right question to ask.  And the answer flows out of the promises we explored last week.

Remember that three-fold promise to Abraham?
That he and Sarah would have descendants…  more than they could imagine.
That those descendants would have land – a home.
That the holy nation which would begin with their children would be blessed, and that this nation would bless the families of the world.

God reiterated those promises to their son, Isaac.
And to his son, Jacob.

And in both cases, God added an important promise to the covenant.
I will be with you.
I will always be with you.
I will be with you and yours…
I will be with your family, with your descendants.

So when Jacob had all those boys, the covenant held true for all of them.
Including Joseph.

God was with Joseph during the entire roller coaster ride that was his life.
While he gaining favor with his father and being despised by his brothers
God was there.

While he was being trafficked not once but twice and while earning more and more of Potiphar’s trust.
God was there.

When he stood with integrity and refused Potiphar’s wife and when he was tossed into jail.
Yes, God was there.  Even then.

God is now four generations into this covenant relationship, and Abraham’s family is still waiting. They’ve got a start on “as many as there are stars in the sky” fruitfulness, but they are far from being a nation. They are still not at home, not in any permanent way. And they have not yet done a whole lot of blessing…

And yet, we can see that God is at work.

God is engaged in their lives, redeeming and working good out of all manner of bad situations.  Not because Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Joseph deserved this redemption.  Not any more than we earn our own salvation…or any kind of blessing.

Remember – God redeems our messes and our lives because God longs for us to overcome the human heart’s inclination toward evil and corruption… The heart disease that God diagnosed back in the days of Noah.

God longs to reconnect humankind to its true identity, as beloved children.
God longs to reconnect us to our first and most intimate relationship, with our creator.  

And so, rather than destroy the world, God’s plan is to bless the world.
God’s plan is to bless the world by teaching a family… a nation how to do just that.
And so God sticks close.
First with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and now Joseph.

Four times in this passage, our storyteller reminds us that “The Lord was with Joseph” Theologian Walter Brueggemann points out that this phrase is not that “with God, everything will work out.”  God’s presence was not some sort of good luck charm, but something very different.

Verse 2 notes that Joseph was “successful” meaning that he was making progress… and indeed he was.  He ended up as the personal attendant of Potiphar and the guy in charge of the day-to-day handling of Potiphar’s house.

Throughout these early verses of chapter 39, we find that God is continually looking out for Joseph and even blessed those who treat Joseph kindly.  

Of course, that list does not include Potiphar’s wife. Her persistence was undeniable, but so is Joseph’s integrity. And it was this very integrity that put Joseph in a real pickle.  

See, he was meant to obey the wife of Potiphar, as she had the authority to give him commands.  ANd you’ll have noticed that she wasn’t requesting his presence. “Lie with me” is definitely a command.

But Joseph knew he was entrusted to look after Potiphar’s household, and he was well aware of his family’s covenant with God, and how greatly God had blessed them… including himself.

What else could he say, but “How could I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”

Joseph’s choice – and her retaliation – meant that he would lose everything. Including the trust of Potiphar…  and possibly his life.

But even then, God was with Joseph. The common punishment for rape in that time was death, not imprisonment.  And yet, Potiphar chose not to have Joseph executed.

Still, Joseph is back at square one.  He went from running the house of one of the most powerful men in Egypt to being jailed like a common criminal.  But then there’s that phrase again: the Lord was with Joseph.

Even there.  

Wherever Joseph goes, God is there.
When Joseph is part of the slave caravan, God was there.
When he is in Potiphar’s house, God is there.
When he is thrown into prison, God is there.

Surely, seeing all of this, we can begin to believe that God’s promise is true for Joseph.
And thus we can begin to believe that God’s promise is also true for us.

Wherever we go.
Wherever life takes us… God is present.

The Psalmist sings of this presence, this inescapable presence of God, in Psalm 139 (NRSV):

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

God knows, there was and is such darkness in the human heart…

Joseph’s own brothers showed we are capable of wishing siblings dead and selling one another into slavery.

Our history book may downplay its horrors, but the evils of the system of chattel slavery built much of the wealth of the British Empire, and the colonies that became the United States  

And we are still selling human bodies.

You may remember meeting Jill Bolander Cohen, the founder of the Lifeboat Project. Her organization works with survivors of human trafficking, giving them space to heal and find their way back into safe and productive lives.

Jill was called away from the most recent Presbytery meeting.  Literally… the sheriff’s office called, saying they needed her to come and find housing for yet another young woman who had been freed from her traffickers.  

Yes, we are still selling human bodies.
But God is with Jill as she meets the most vulnerable among us.
Blessing her to be a blessing.
Even there.   

Potiphar’s wife reminds us that people have always been willing to use positions of power to coerce others into inappropriate relationships or activities.  And then to use that power to threaten and silence the victims.

Her actions call to mind the all-too-familiar stories of clergy, coaches, and civic leaders who victimize children, athletes or other vulnerable people, and then shame them – or worse.  

God is with them when they are courageous enough to decline.
God is with them when they face the fury of their attacker again.
God is present.
Even then.

In the darkest revelations of humankind’s brokenness.
In the darkest moments of our sorrows and struggles

God is with us.

Because even the darkness is not dark to God;
The midnight of our despair is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to God.

This is God’s faithfulness.
This is God’s promise.
This is the power of God’s love, the light God’s grace.

Remember, dear ones…
In the beginning was the Word.
The Word that was God and was with God.
The Word that brought all things into being.
What has come into being in him… was life.
And the life was the light of all people.

The Light of the World was and is God’s blessing for all the world’s families
That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not – will not – overcome it.

God is with us.

And God is in us as we shine – however tentatively – with the light of Christ.
Because God with us – Emmanuel – is at work among us and through us.
Even to the very end of the age.

Let us Run

A prayer for Sunday Worship on the road.

As the sun rises and the crowd gathers, let us run

Let us run with the joy of toddlers whose feet are learning to explore

Let us run with the abandon of children not yet frightened by what-ifs

Let us run with the courage born of trials overcome and injuries healed

Let us run with the confidence of preparation

Let us run with with the knowledge that you are here in the very air we breathe
and in the water that refreshes along the way.

You are here in the voice of the random stranger and the familiar voice in our heads

You are here in the high fives and posters and “Almost there”

Let us run until we finish,
whether first, last or middle of the pack

And then let us rest in the knowledge that you are in the resting, too

Amen