Breaking Down the Walls

Primary readings are from Ephesians 2, the Belhar Confession (as embedded below)

Ephesians 2:1-10

I want to pause here…  because this is such a beautiful distillation of the gospel.  

You were dead.
Alive in the flesh, sure, but dead in spirit
All of us once were, because all humans sin.  All fall short of the glory of God.
We were dead.

But God.  Such a phrase of promise, of hope…
But God – out of love – made us alive.
Alive in Christ and through Christ
Children of God, Siblings of Christ, worthy of sitting right there next to God at the dinner table

We were dead, but by grace we have been saved.
Made into something new.
Made for a purpose, for the work God has set before us.
Made one, because that work is more than any of us can ever do on our own.

And that is the hard part, isn’t it?  That “being one” part.
Hearing the word “You” – not as a personal encouragement or admonishment
Not as a bunch of you’s who happen to be near one another, hearing the same thing

Not you each
And not You every

You all.  All of you, together.

The same you as in “all of you” that Jesus used in almost every command he gave,
And when he said “my peace I give to you”
which is why the church must always think of you in terms of an ever-expanding we.

We are what God made us and is making us,

We are the church that was formed and reformed and is always reforming as we come to understand more and more about the height, depth, breadth and width of God’s great love for us in Christ Jesus.

We were dead

But God brought us to life, so that we might know life in the spirit, and so that through our way of living – the Jesus way of living – others might come to know the way, the truth and the life.

In Ephesus, part of the learning to live in the way of Jesus was reconciling two very different communities  into one community of faith. This is hard but sacred work, as we see in the next segment of the passage.

Ephesians 2:11-22

By the time this letter was written, there were probably more gentile Christians than those of Jewish heritage. The Jewish Christ-followers would have been accustomed to separation from their gentile peers. Gentiles were not allowed into the inner portions of the temple, so they would have remained physically separated in worship.  

Gentiles were not circumcised, so they would have been physically different as well. Not visibly in the course of most interactions, obviously, but identifiably different. The Jews had come up with a pretty inappropriate nickname based on that fact.

The truth is, gentiles were often seen as a separate group within humanity. The Gentiles were the outsiders, aliens and strangers in the land of the insiders – the Jews- the chosen ones in covenant with God.

But this Jewish-Gentile enmity wasn’t all on the Jews

Through the lenses of Gentile life and religiosity, Jews were seen as equally ignorant of God as defined by Gentile history and traditions. The separation between the two groups was not limited to theological disposition — to “belief”; it played out in very real ways in terms of human social relations.

I wouldn’t say that these groups of people had no interaction, but it is important to understand that they did not sit at the same table together; they were not interested in sharing life. They were in many ways in opposition to one another.

But God…  those words that promise good news…
But God brought these opposing groups together into one.
Even better news – God’s unification of the two groups did not mean “uniformity.” One group did not fall under the power of the more dominant group.

Instead, we see that God in Christ has made one humanity of the two. Gentiles do not become Jews; Jews do not become Gentiles. Rather, both Jews and Gentiles become united in Christ as Jew and Gentile.

In Christ, all believers are welcomed into the story of God  – a story that yes, first played out through the people of the covenant, but then was opened to all. A story in which they all play their own part in God’s continuing story of redemption.

We are separated from one another
But God, in an abundance of love, made a way for us to come together

Christ was and is in the business of knocking down the walls that divide us –
Like the great big old wall between republicans and democrats right about now.

Christ was and is knocking down walls between people who are well fed and living in homes with air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter….  And their neighbors who aren’t sure where they will sleep when rains or find their next meal.

Christ was and is knocking down the walls between immigrants and those who would prefer to see longer and higher fences on their countries’ borders.

Christ was and is knocking down the walls we keep stacking back up between us over gender identity and sexual orientation, and what all that means in the church

Christ was and is knocking down the walls that divide us by the most insidious of divisions – race.

 

I graduated high school in 1984. I remember it being yet another turbulent time in history…not unlike today.

  • US and Soviet relations were awful and the nuclear arms race had me terrified. I laid awake at night wondering who would press the button first, us or them. 
  • Indira Ghandi was assassinated
  • The AIDS virus was finally identified, but precious little was being done about it
  • The Solidarity movement was gaining power in Poland, miners strikes in England led other workers to rise up
  • Lebanon, Syria, and Nicaragua were among the countries in political upheaval
  • The famine in Ethiopia extended into a second year, prompting musicians to raise money via LiveAid concerts

And I remember the growing opposition to the system  of apartheid in South Africa.

Growing up in a fairly segregated town (even though our schools were integrated), I imagined that South Africans were separated like we were… mostly by self-selection.   After all, people tend to gather with others like themselves.

What I didn’t understand was that the political, legal and social structures in South Africa were built on the framework of Apartheid, a framework of separation and hierarchy that allowed a small white majority to assert itself over the rest of the population.  

(following facts shared from Wikipedia)

  • The leaders who developed this system determined that South Africa was not a single nation, but was made up of four distinct racial groups: white, black, coloured and Indian. These groups were further split into 13 nations or racial federations.
  • The Population Registration Act of 1950 formalized racial classification and required everyone over 18 to have  identity cards specifying their racial group. Boards were established to assign race for those people whose race was unclear. Sometimes different members of the same family were assigned different races.
  • There was a law that prohibited marriage between persons of different races, and another that made sexual relations with a person of a different race a criminal offence.  
  • The Group Areas Act put an end to diverse neighborhoods and determined where one lived according to race. The Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act  allowed the government to demolish black shanty town slums and remove residents.

We can certainly see some parallels here in the US, especially prior to the Civil Rights laws enacted in the 1960s. But bear in mind that the Apartheid structure was built to support the will of the minority in South Africa, not the majority as it is here.

That kind of rule requires even greater shows of force and power, as well as work to demoralize and separate those who – if united – might rise up to take back their freedom. It was in this millieu that the South African church found itself in the mid-1980s.   

South African churches confessed – proclaimed – the same truth that we just read today…
God, in the form of Jesus, has not only made a way for us to reconcile ourselves to our Creator – Jesus is our peace. Jesus has made all of us one – we share one baptism, one bread, one cup, one Lord, one Father, one Spirit.  Jesus has brought us from death to life so that all might live in freedom and peace, so that all might know justice

And the reality in South Africa?
No justice, no freedom, no peace.
Not for the vast majority of the people.

The church had reached a status confessionis.  A moment at which the church must stand and confess- proclaim what the church believes- to itself and to those in power over the land. In these critical moments, as in the quotidian moments, the church confesses what it needs to remember.

Each week, we confess- we affirm – the promises of God; the identity of God. We confess the actions of God. As we confess our faith, our identity is re-forged. Because… what we choose to remember and speak aloud together – in doctrine and history, in faith and belief, all serves to inform who we are.  

It was with this understanding that Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared a state of status confessionis for the church under Nazi Germany. For Bonhoeffer and others, the Nazification of the church was an issue so threatening to the truth of their confession of Christ that no compromise, no coexistence was possible.

Bonhoeffer also recognized that the Nazi persecution of Jews demanded a serious response from the church. But more so, he recognized that the church was called “not only to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke into the wheel itself” and bring the engine of injustice to a halt. The resulting document was the Declaration of Barmen, which is part of our Book of Confessions

Under the leadership of Allan Boesak, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa drafted what is now known as the Belhar confession in 1982. This  “outcry of faith” and “call for faithfulness and repentance” was the church declaring that apartheid constituted a status confessionis in which the truth of the gospel was at stake.  

According to the Belhar Confession, unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church. This unity originally referred to non-segregation between Christians of different races. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church formally adopted the Belhar Confession in 1986. Belhar’s theological confrontation of the sin of racism has made possible reconciliation among Reformed churches in Southern Africa and has aided the process of reconciliation within the nation of South Africa.

We’ve used some of the words from the Belhar Confession already today, in our Call to Confession.  And we’ll read another portion in a few minutes as our Affirmation of Faith. Right now, I’d like to share with you a video that was shown at General Assembly as they were preparing to cast the final vote which added the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

You’ll hear a variety of voices reading the full text of the confession.

I believe that much of the unrest we are experiencing in our country right now is a direct result of our willingness to remain segregated.

We are ok with allowing people who are not “us” to remain very much “them.”  And sometimes, we take that willingness a step further, not just leaving people be, in hopes that they let us be.

We also allow those others to be pressed down, pushed aside or worse.

We choose not to speak on their behalf.  

We choose not to act justly, to love mercy.

We stop looking across the divide and begin to rebuild the walls that serve not only to protect us from danger, but also separate us from our siblings in Christ. We build walls so that we can’t even see the neighbors we are passing by as they lay dying in the street.

I wonder what it would take to change things just enough that we could feel safe enough to stop building walls.  

I wonder what it would take for us to feel safe enough to attempt to embody the wall-toppling Jesus that we follow…

Michael Kirby – a PCUSA pastor in Illinois was sharing some thoughts along these lines yesterday.  He asked (as part of a much longer post on Facebook)…

What if we made it a priority to create a world where fewer people could be convinced that their lives have so little value that they could only achieve “greatness” through a death that brings death to others?

What if we assessed our individual and collective economic, political, social and military policies and practices to see where we contribute to people feeling that their lives, or the lives of others, have so little value?

What if we collectively said that hate disguised as zealotry was no longer welcome in our religious, political, social and other affinity groups, even if it meant some of our most influential and/or engaged compatriots lost power?

I would love to say that I have easy answers and steps to take

But I don’t.

Loving is hard
Reconciling is hard
Trusting is hard

Confessing the fullness of the gospel, from salvation to action, is hard
Confessing the call on the church – on us – to be the good news of liberation, healing, hope and yes, salvation, for people from whom we have long considered ourselves separate?
That’s even harder.

But God…
But God, the one who started a good work in you and me and all of us together, will be faithful to complete that work, through Christ Jesus, to the glory of his name.

Amen.

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Bearing Gifts and Burdens

Primary texts Galatians 5:13-6:10  and Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 

In the weeks since Pentecost, we have focused on the work of the Holy Spirit –
The Spirit reveals to us the truth of God’s grace
The Spirit makes way for the redemptive work of Jesus
The Spirit continues the work of sanctification in our lives
And the Spirit empowers us to bear witness to all of these truths in the world.

We are bound to one another – by love – as members of the Body of Christ, members with unique Spirit-given gifts that make it possible to do more than any of us could do alone.

Looking around this room, we can point to members who embody the gifts of faith, giving, helps, and administration, and teaching. There are members who speak in the strange tongue of finances, and still others who are able to interpret reports and spreadsheets for the rest of us.   

If we expand our vision of the Body to include other congregations in the city and throughout Central Florida, we can see how the church universal is meeting the needs of individuals, families and neighborhoods through ministries that are as unique as their contexts and God-given visions.

Churches step out in faith to pursue new things, sometimes at risk of significant loss… because the Spirit has made it impossible to say “no” or “not yet,”   And as congregations take those faith steps, the Spirit equips members willing to begin the work, as well as those who support the work.  It is risky, messy business- following a Spirit that asks you to move forward without a 200-page strategic plan and fully-funded budget.

But that is the reality of faith.   

We would prefer plans, sometimes, mostly because we prefer comfort and clarity. Just as we prefer to know we’re in good hands, on the human side of the equation. We look for the “right person” to take on a challenge.  

We sometimes mistake or substitute a person’s skillset and education for their spiritual gifts. My education prepared me to be a teacher and coach, professions in which I learned how to stand in front of groups and help people understand a concept well enough to proceed on their own. That’s all good, but it’s not the same as the Spiritual gift of teaching – or preaching.

My job titles and experience in office environments has led some people to think I am administratively gifted and detail-oriented. Neither of those could be farther from the truth. But God could choose to place me in a faith community or ministry setting where administration is needed and equip me to serve.

When I look back on the ways God has used me as one member among many in the Body of Christ, I see more clearly the ways my Spiritual gifts were much more valuable than my skills, talents and training.  And I can see how – when I was focused on how to share my expertise – it had very little to do with deepening my faith and didn’t really benefit the spiritual well-being of the Body as a whole.

This can become a pattern within a congregation, or in the larger gatherings of the Body…. We turn to experts in organizational management, whether in person or in books, to find best practices and best tools to make sure the church is viable and stable.  We discern who should take the lead based on resumes and relationships, rather than listening for and trusting the prompting of the Spirit.   

A.W Tozer warned of this danger in the church when he observed that  

The average church has so established itself organizationally and financially that God is simply not necessary to it. So entrenched is its authority and so stable are the religious habits of its members that God could withdraw Himself completely from it and it could run on for years on its own momentum.” – A.W. Tozer

We can, as a body, be functionally faithless. The church walking about, mostly dead, a spiritual zombie, if you will.

How would we know?   

How can we tell whether we are faithfully pursuing a vision from God in the power of the Holy Spirit  – or if perhaps – like Wile E Coyote chasing the Roadrunner – we have followed our patterns and habits beyond the edge of the cliff on our own momentum and are oblivious to the fall that awaits us?

If we can’t measure spiritual health by the quality of a long-range plan, and it isn’t tracked by organizational activity.. then what should we look for as evidence of Spiritual life in the Body?

Remember how Paul ended his discussion of the Body of Christ and the gifts of the Spirit?  It is one of the most enticing transitional statements in all of Scripture.

… And I will show you a still more excellent way.  (1 Cor 12:31b)

That most excellent way of living is the way of Love.
Nothing we do in the service of the church.
Nothing we do in service to others.
Nothing we do as a community has value if we do not have love.

The love that binds together God as Father-Son and Spirit is the love that abides
That love will remain when everything else fails and falls.
That is the love that sets us free
Free from the bondage of our past – our sins, our shame, our sorrow
Free from the bondage of our fears – of retribution, of punishment, of pain

Christ has set us free – for freedom that is made known through love

Listen again to these words from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”   (from Gal 5)

Paul isn’t imagining a Galatians gone wild situation, creating a culture that is free from all restraint. We have been freed from the disastrous results of life without God,
of life without an indwelling Christ,
of life without a Spirit to guide and empower.  

We have been freed from the constraints of the self-centered culture in which we live, so that we might love and serve others with God’s reckless abandon.

It’s easy to turn the Works of the Flesh segment of our reading into checklist of sins to avoid, a list of all the things we look for to identify the “bad people” in the world who live in the flesh. But look at that list through the lens of Jesus’ commands to God and to love our neighbors (members of the Body and people in the larger community). We would never expect the Spirit to empower Christ-followers to be part of these works.

There is no love for God in worshiping idols or exploring sorcery. We do not love ourselves or our neighbors when we seek out relationships and experiences based solely on physical pleasure. We do not offer love when we allow rage, conflict and power to define our interactions with other people.  

When the Spirit takes root in our hearts, when we begin to live according to the law of love, people can see it in our actions, in our relationships. Our lives begin to bear the fruit of the Spirit : love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

As Paul reminds us, There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  (from Gal 5)

Instead, we are to bear one another’s burdens because

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.   (from 1 Cor 13)

The fruit of the Spirit at work in our lives is what the love of God looks like when it flows into us and through.

When we love one another enough to stick together and stick it out.
When we love others enough to stop talking ABOUT people and talk TO them, or better yet… to stop talking and just listen.
When you love enough to be aware that everyone’s got something that weighs them down, something that a word of grace from you might allow them to lay aside

Over and over and over again, God did what needed to be done on behalf of God’s people – on behalf of us. In the same way, we are to do what is needed on behalf of our neighbors. It is not easy setting aside our hopes, our timelines, our needs to care for someone else. In our very human selves, our very human bodies, we can grow weary.

A life of love needs graciousness, perseverance, a constant cheerful sowing, and a refusal to judge who is worthy of help and who is not.

A life of love requires the surrounding and infusing presence of the Holy Spirit, as well as the presence of other persons equally steeped and empowered to assist us when we falter. There is wisdom in the words that
Two people are better than one, because they can reap more benefit from their labor. For if they fall, one will help his companion up, but pity the person who falls down and has no one to help him up.  

See, the Corinthians got all bound up in which gifts and thus which people were more important. Teaching some of the people that they had little or no value

The Galatians were in conflict over the role of circumcision and the old laws in light of this new way of following God – the way of Jesus.  Ritual and behavior determined who was in, and who could stay in, thus the power of judgment was in the hands of a few. Leaving others with little or no power, understanding they had little or no value.

Paul’s response to both of these communities, which holds true across the centuries was this…

Remember who you are:
Beloved children of God,
sisters and brothers in Christ,
baptized in water and the Spirit.
Each of you and all of you.

Remember what is most important:
In a world that is still awaiting its ultimate healing and reconciliation, Love is the only law, the only measure that truly matters.

Until Christ returns, we are his body.
We reveal the nature of God’s love in the ways our faith and hope move us to act and speak.
We are God’s plan to bear the burdens of the world

May the Spirit that binds us together, the love that binds us together, empower us to bear one another’s burdens, share our warmth, extend our table to our neighbors and live fruitfully and boldly in a broken and fearful world.

Amen.

When it’s not my apology to receive…

Yesterday, I was in a day-long meeting with leaders from the ministry at which I work, along with faculty members from several Christian universities with whom we partner to help their students connect with opportunities for short and long-term missions in the States and abroad.  It was an interesting meeting, hearing the perspectives of these “outsiders” who work with college students in an academic rather than a parachurch context.

Totally unrelated to the business at hand, I got to chat with one of our visitors who was loving all the “small world” connections between his circle of friends and those of us in the room.  I talked about seminary and my current bivocational call to the church, and he asked what if our congregation had any denomination affiliation.

Because my work context is very evangelical-conservative and my denominational work/home is seen as progressive mainline, letting people know that I am ordained is enough to shut down a conversation.  Knowing the stories of some of my clergywomen friends who had completed degrees where he was on faculty, I expected a fairly swift pivot would follow.

So I tried to ease what might be awkward by laughing a bit when I said “PC(USA)… Because, they let women play there, too.”

Far from shutting down or pivoting, I got what might be the most sincere first-person apology I have ever heard from a man regarding the church’s views of women.  He apologized for women being marginalized in the church. He apologized for the way men ignored women’s gifts and leadership. He said “It is past time for the church to repent” for these sins.

I don’t know how to convey the look in this man’s eyes or the conviction in his voice, other than to offer up this testimony.  It was a powerful moment that cut right through my attempt to avoid being hurt.

I said thank you.  And that it meant a lot to me, and that I had been blessed in both of my vocations to be doing ministry among people who affirmed my gifts and call to ministry.  Which is true.

In some way, this wasn’t my apology to receive. I grew up in a church that ordained women as elders and ministers. I was surrounded by strong women in that denomination as I first discerned my call to leadership. When I found my way back into church via the PC(USA) there were so many more men supported me than were neutral or negative. I had choices. I had safe places to learn and grow and find my voice as a preacher and provider of comfort and counsel.

But having spent part of the night before reading tweets from and in response to the conference for “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” and recalling the ways that co-workers in both of my work worlds persist in subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) sexism rooted in scriptural interpretation, I wanted to let his words wash over me and cleanse some of wounds I carry.  And the wounds of my sisters in Christ.

So I stood and received that apology for the women who were told NO by the very institution at which this man has taught for 30+ years.  For the women whose male pastors made sure they quashed any move of the Holy Spirit in their churches to support women’s leadership. For the women who endured all-male classes in seminary and remain faithful in denominations and faith traditions that don’t yet recognize women as full participants in the life of the church.

There is much the church needs to confess and much repentance that is overdue. Our complicity in so many of the sins of our western culture is heartbreaking.  I am coming to believe that if I am unwilling to engage in the kind of one-on-one conversations that allow us to offer and receive apologies that are not ours alone, I am holding the kingdom of God at a distance.

My Presbyterian circles are wrestling with a proposed corporate confession and apology to our LGBTQ siblings in Christ. I am not sure where I land, having seen my friends to whom this apology is meant to be offered responding with mixed feelings as well. That is not my apology to receive, and I want to be mindful about how it is offered.

Here’s what I am fairly certain about  – I cannot expect a corporate confession alone to reconcile me and the one my words (or my church’s words) have driven away.  Not any more than my colleague expected me to feel fully welcome on his campus without knowing I had at least one friend, one person who “got it” deeply enough to say the words that invite an exploration of reconciliation.

Looking Back(star)ward

Epiphany is upon us again.

Begging a moment of meta… seriously, how have I become a person who writes “Epiphany is upon us again”?   yikes.

A year ago, I introduced the idea of Star words to FPC, a practice that I picked up via Marci and the RevGals.  No, they’re not a band, but gotta file that name away. I won’t rehash the origin story, since I’ve written that up here, where I talked about my first thoughts around that word.

I’ll be honest, I had no idea where I would find meaning in the world Liberty. And then I started paying a little more attention to the ways that I had taken a lot of freedom for granted.

I’m not talking about the way “freedom isn’t free” gets tossed around to remind us that people fought (and fight) in wars and serve as first responders and such to assure that I can feel free to live as I do.

I’m talking about the way that my freedom to live as I like is so very contingent upon my being white, educated, upper middle class, straight and American. And the way that all of that has been placed in sharp relief as the Black Lives Matter movement, the Tamir Rice killing (and lack of indictment), the Charleston tragedy, the dysfunctional conversations around the Civil War and flags and naming of buildings, and the anti-Muslim rhetoric have each in their turn shaken the core of how I’ve understood my culture and country to operate.

I’m talking about the reality that the LGBTQ people I love  – who have seen great strides in their freedom to marry and live as open about their home lives as I do – are still (rightly) concerned that all they have gained in the past decade could be stripped away with the wrong election results.  Which, of course, I don’t  have to worry about.

I’m talking about the freedoms we Americans have (albeit in unequal measure) that my friends in Cuba do not.

I’m more and more aware of the privilege that undergirds my liberty.

I’m also more and more aware that my privilege means I am free AND bound to speak up about the systemic racism, classism, sexism and other -isms that keep all but the most privileged out of power.

I am free AND bound by the law of love to assure that all God’s children have access to food, water, shelter, love and hope. And in a country that claims to understand that law of love, even more-so.

I would hope that I would be as awake to these realities in 2015, heading into 2016 had I not been given Liberty as my star word.  But I am thankful for the way that it caused me not only to take note of these things, but to take them to heart.

And it makes me all the more curious what God has in store for me going For(star)ward.

A Dickens of An Advent

This summer, after the excitement of finally being ordained and before we kicked off the Narrative Lectionary this fall, I was feeling pretty good about mapping out a sermon series for July and August.  And then, some clever folks who’ve been at this pastoring business way longer than me started talking about planning ahead for advent. Not all of my pastor friends, mind you. But enough that the ideation part of my brain kicked into gear.

This is when I decided to release my inner lit nerd and actually attempt the Advent Series I’ve been wishing someone would do – journey through advent with Ebenezer Scrooge by reading A Christmas Carol together.

Why A Christmas Carol?

  1. It’s definitely seasonally appropriate
  2. The basic story is familiar to most age groups via some adaptation, if not the novella itself
  3. Books are easily accessible to borrow or buy
  4. The parallels between Dickens’ London and the contemporary US are easily described
  5. There is a clear connection to the redemptive work of God in our lives
  6. There is a clear call to justice in Dickens’ understanding of what a redeemed person is meant to be doing

To make sure everyone had access to a book, I ordered a batch of cheap paperbacks on Ebay. Anyone who needed a copy could take one as an advent gift from Pastor Laura. We also did a “movie night” so that folks who aren’t readers would have a chance to refresh their memories of the story.  I chose the Muppet Christmas Carol because it appeals across generations.

With 5 staves (chapters), I broke it down to one per week, starting with Advent 1 and ending on Christmas 1, then identified appropriate scriptures based on the themes of each Stave, plus key visual elements to evoke in the worship space.  My music director/co-conspirator actually owns a whole Dickens Village set-up, so we were able to include appropriate buildings and characters each week, as well. Here’s a rough outline and a link to the sermons for each.

Stave 1– To set up the work of the Spirits and Scrooge’s ultimate repentance and redemption, I started with Marley’s Ghost in parallel with Nathan. Marley’s chains provided inspiration for visual elements as well as some interactive prayer for the congregation.  I spray-painted plastic chains to make them look metallic, then added some lock-boxes, mortgages, ledgers and skeleton keys (from supplies at the local craft store). This hung as a garland from the pulpit in place of the usual paraments and  wound down around the communion table. The first week’s interactive prayer was to add links to the chain, each one naming a corporate sin (or personal) of which the church or our nation needs to repent.

IMG_2773

Stave 2 – Scrooge’s past invoked the joy and hope we find in community and right relationships, as well as the pain and sorrow of isolation. Isaiah speaks to the hope for the end of exile and a time of reconciliation among the people of Israel and between them and God. I added a paper chain of Gingerbread men connected by hearts to represent the church as a community based on faith, hope and love. Paper snowmen were added with prayers for the relationships that bring us joy and those that are in need of reconciliation.

Stave 3 – The ghost of Christmas Present paired nicely with Luke’s blessings and woes, as Scrooge sees how rich Bob Cratchett and others of meager means actually are in terms of relationships and love. We added greenery around the meal set on the communion table and shared in a responsive Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.

Chains and Greens before we set for communion

Chains and Greens before we set for communion

Advent 3 Table

Stave 4 – This is the walk through the valley of the shadow of death for Scrooge. It pairs nicely with John the Baptist’s call to repentance as the messiah comes to separate the wheat and the chaff. What do we have to do if we are to live as people of God? What does Scrooge have to do if he is to change his future, Tiny Tim’s future? The congregation had green holly leaves on which to write the work of love, justice and mercy they committed to in the coming weeks.

Stave 5  – Nothing is impossible for God. We can believe the miracles of Christmas, the miracle of redemption, the miracles of sanctification. This requires child-like faith that allows us to continue seeing the world not as it is, but as it should be – the Kingdom of God.  The holly leaves have transformed the chains (our sins) into something new and living.  The good news of Christ’s redemptive, transformative power is ours to live and proclaim.   Each person was encouraged to listen during the service for the Good News they would proclaim, then write it on an angel cut out. Rather than keeping them in the sanctuary, they took the angels home to remind them to be messengers, bearers of good news.

Angels that will carry Good News

Angels that will carry Good News

Creche with transformed links from the chains

Creche with transformed links from the chains

NOTE:
Since we are a small congregation without a ton of various in attendance most Sundays, it seemed wise to make Christmas Eve a stand-alone. Otherwise, I’d have to adjust or back up to make sense of the whole for visitors coming in on the very end of the series.

Christmas Eve Posadas

Back in September the worship committee agreed it was time to think outside the box rather than do another “Sunday Morning on Christmas Eve” service.  While I was in Cuba, I started giving serious thought to what it might look like to introduce our congregation to Las Posadas.  There are some great resources online – most still moving people from place to place, maybe ending up in the sanctuary.  That was not going to work for my not-so-mobile congregation.  So… I borrowed and adapted some material from a few resources (links at the bottom), pulled some scripture from The Message and wrote a bunch of new stuff to create a Christmas Eve Posadas worship experience.

I wrote this for two voices: one male (italics), one female (plain).  It could easily be split to add a narrator/liturgist.  The congregational responses are in bold face.

Welcome and lighting of Advent Candles

Introduce the Concept of Las Posadas
I talked a bit about how I was introduced to Las Posadas growing up, what I experienced and the history.   

I split the congregation into “pilgrims and innkeepers” but invited everyone to sing as much as they liked. I chose to teach the melody using a little “call to worship” that both pilgrims and innkeepers would sing together. I also included a disclaimer about singing a translation – the syllables weren’t always going to line up nicely, so aim for joyful noise with meaningful words over musical perfection. We went with simple instrumentation – just guitar and piano.

The Story In Song                                                                      Las Posadas
We Are A People Who Follow

From the earliest of ancestors of our faith, we have been a people who wander. Not aimlessly, mind you, but on the move. Listen to these words from Genesis 12:

God told Abram: Leave your country, your family, and your parents’ home for a land that I will show you. I’ll make you a great nation and bless you… all families of the Earth will be blessed through you.

So Abram left, just as God said. And Lot left with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.  Centuries later, Abraham’s descendants, who had sojourned to Egypt to escape a famine, were held as captive slaves. God called Moses to lead them to a new and promised land of freedom. God led them through the wilderness for decades, providing shelter, food and direction along the way.

For generations after Moses, the nation of Israel rarely knew times of settled security. Kingdoms rose and fell. Foreign empires invaded and occupied the land. But God spoke through prophets.  Prophets who promised the One would come to bring everlasting peace and security.

A messiah, a savior would be born who would create a realm of Justice and peace, where there would be no fear or enemies

Where lions and lambs, wolves and calves, children and snakes would play together

Let us journey together to that kingdom.  We’ll start by singing the first verse together

Come long-awaited Messiah,
Your people long for your presence
Our hearts and minds are on you
As we remember your birth

Please join me in our first responsive reading:

Like our ancestors, we see the darkness around us
And so we come, seeking light, seeking hope, seeking love
Like our ancestors, we follow God by faith
Not because we have answers,
but because we trust God has them
Like our ancestors we await the birth of the Messiah
Come Lord Jesus, light up our night.

**Light a Tall Candle on the Table

The faith of our ancestors, the hope they carried in their hearts, was to be rewarded in the time of Caesar Augustus.  It was then that a census was ordered that required everyone to travel to their own home town to be registered.

This meant Joseph was to travel from his home in Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mary came along with him, even though it was almost time for her to give birth….as in, any day now.  Because of the census, the town was really crowded. Perhaps if they had arrived earlier, someone would have welcomed them.  But by the time they arrived and started asking around, they had very little luck

We Are A People Who Believe
Las Posadas (Verses 2 & 3)

Pilgrims
In the name of heaven
I ask you for shelter,
for my beloved wife
can go no farther.

Innkeepers
This is not an inn
Get on away from here,
I cannot open the door,
For you just might be a robber.

Pligrims
Please do not be inhuman,
Please show some charity,
And our God in heaven
will reward you here

Innkeepers
You may go away now
don’t bother us anymore
because if I get angry
I tell you I will beat you

It had been such a long journey for Mary. The roads were dusty and the air was dry, which made her even thirstier. What had been soothing and sweet movements in her belly had suddenly seemed heavier, stronger, almost as if someone were taking over her body from the inside. Of course, she knew it was the child.

But not having any experience at being pregnant, she wondered if hers was different. If carrying a child of God was different from carrying a regular baby.  Maybe it was silly, but it seemed like a fair question. Perhaps if that messenger made another appearance, she would ask.

She would never forget that encounter. She’d replayed it in her head so many times.  She’d been minding her own business when it happened. The light, the voice… the fear. Starting with the prickles on the back of her neck, then the shiver that ran up from her calves to her shoulders and right back down again. And then…  that feeling of complete and utter trust that what this person(?) was saying was true.  And the certainty that the only possible answer to God’s request was “yes.”

Yes, of course, I will carry the child of the God of Abraham and Isaac, of Sarah and Rebekah, of Hannah and Deborah, of my mother and her mother and her mother’s mother before her.  God has been faithful to my people, no matter how often and how far we have strayed. God has loved me since the moment I was formed. I am God’s servant, so yes.

In that moment, her world had changed. And yet, nothing had changed. She was still a young woman from a nowhere sort of place. She was still poor, as was her family. She was  engaged to a carpenter named Joseph and… she just had to trust that God would make a way for him to understand.

How God would convince the world of what she knew… that this baby was the Son of God most high. Well… maybe if?  No… she had no idea. But she kept her promise to welcome the baby into her womb, into her home, into her future, for the sake of her people.

Mary kept her promise because she trusted that God would make a way, because nothing is impossible for God.

Like Mary, we see the darkness around us
And so we come, seeking light, seeking hope, seeking love
Like Mary, we follow God by faith
Not because we can imagine the outcome,
but because we trust that God can do the impossible.
Like Mary, we await the birth of the Messiah
Come Lord Jesus, light up our night.

**Light a Second Tall Candle on the Table

Mary’s faith and the hope she carried in her heart far exceeded anything most of us can imagine. A young girl, entrusted with carrying the greatest treasure God might offer to humankind.   A young girl, entrusted to a man would had to make sense of a crazy story.

We Are A People Who Trust
Las Posadas (Verses 4 & 5)

Pilgrims
We request lodging tonight,
We really won’t take up much room
Even for only one night
Then we will leave you alone.

Innkeepers
Why are you out late at night?
Don’t you have family to stay with?
It is not wise to wander
Out in the streets all alone.

Pilgrims
We are worn out from walking
all the way from Bethlehem
I am a carpenter
And my name is Joseph.

Innkeepers
Never mind your name,
Go on and let me sleep,
I’ve told you, I tell you again
We won’t open the door.

How hard can it be to find someplace to stay in a town this size?  Surely someone has an extra room that isn’t already filled with family.  You’d think having a pregnant wife might make someone at least a little more willing… whatever happened to good, old-fashioned Jewish hospitality?

I honestly thought this would be easier than being in Nazareth. I get so very tired of the way people look at me.  There goes poor Joseph. Stuck with crazy Mary. At least they’ve stopped saying it out loud.  Along with the other accusation they were whispering just loud enough to be overheard.  

But yes, I had thought that at first, too. Women just don’t turn up pregnant…  

And then to claim it was by way of the Spirit of God… that’s just not the way it works.  Not for most people. But with Mary, nothing ever seems outside the realm of possibilities.  Maybe that’s why God chose her. She has more faith, more trust, more courage than any 5 men I know.  Her heart was so open to the will of the Lord.

I wish I could say I trusted her from the beginning. It took a vision – a dream, really – for God to turn my heart around. I don’t know if it was the same messenger that God sent to Mary, but by the time I woke up… my heart was so filled with love for God and for the woman we had both chosen…  I had to tell her that I would stand by her no matter what.  I just hope I am ready for whatever that turns out to be, ready to go wherever God calls us to go.  Lord, please let this next door be the one that opens with welcome for us.

Joseph welcomed Mary and her strange good news – against all common wisdom – because he trusted God. He trusted God to make a way for them as a family, to make a way for their people.

Like Joseph, we see the darkness around us
And so we come, seeking light, seeking hope, seeking love
Like Joseph, we follow God by faith
Not because we are sure where the road goes,
but because we can trust that God sees beyond the horizon
Like Joseph, we await the birth of the Messiah
Come Lord Jesus, light up our night.

**Light a Third Tall Candle on the Table

And while they were there, the time came for Mary to give birth.  She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She swaddled him in a blanket and then laid him in a manger, because the only place they could find was the room they shared with the animals of the house.

It was cozy there, and actually felt a little bit like home. But they were alone and far from home. They had just welcomed a child full of promise, full of the Spirit of God, full of the wonders of the universe. They had just welcomed a child that would need feeding and changing, lullabies and burping. They had just welcomed the Messiah.

Welcome the Christ Child (Away in a Manger)

We Are A People Who Welcome

There were, of course, shepherds out on the hills nearby with their flocks.  As they did most nights, they took turns watching and dozing. It seemed like just another night, right up to the moment when everything changed.

Las Posadas (Verse 6)

Pilgrims
My wife is Mary.
she is the Queen of Heaven,
she will be mother
to the Divine Word.

Inside
Is that you Joseph?
Your wife is Mary?
Enter holy pilgrims
I did not recognize you.

Mary and Joseph settled into their first night as parents in their makeshift housing. There would would be no settling in for the shepherds. Out of nowhere, there was this blazing light – kind of like a fire, but not hot – just thrilling and terrifying and surrounding them. That’s when they noticed the angel, the source of all that blazing, glorious light. They were terrified! And rightfully so.

Don’t be afraid.

Um. ok. The youngest of the shepherds took a deep breath, swallowed hard and gave it a good try. He looked around to see if he was the only one still afraid. The faces of the older men made clear his heart was not the only one beating like a war drum.

I have come to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, all the people of the world: A Savior has just been born in Bethlehem – the town of David’s descendants. This Savior is the Messiah and Master.  This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises:
(both readers) Glory to God in the heavenly heights!
Peace to all men and women on earth who please him!

As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the stunned shepherds blinked and shook their heads. They reached a consensus faster than they ever agreed on anything.

“Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.”

They left, running through the streets of town until they found Mary and Joseph. And of course, the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing.  They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child.  They might have told Mary and Joseph more than once in their excitement.  Everyone who heard them was impressed.

The shepherds returned to the hills and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!

Like those in the houses, we see the darkness around us
And so we come, seeking light, seeking hope, seeking love
Like the shepherds, we follow God by faith
Not because we totally understand the message,
but because we can trust that God still speaks.
Like the angels, we celebrate the birth of the Messiah
Come Lord Jesus, light up our night.

**Light the Fourth Tall Candle on the Table

Scripture tells us that Mary kept all these things in her heart, holding them dear, deep within herself.  As she grew older, these memories must have helped her understand the words her son – God’s son – spoke to those who would follow him:

Welcome the stranger with kindness and love
Seek help when you need it, allowing others to bless you
Welcome God into every room, even the messy ones
Be ready to worship when God reveals his glory

As we sing the final verse of the Posadas, let’s all be pilgrims and innkeepers  (Verse 7)

May the Lord reward you
May God bless and keep you
and may the sky be filled
with light and songs of joy.

May the Lord forgive us,
when we are slow to see
people in whom Christ is dwelling,
and angels bringing good news!

Litany of Confession and Faith
This litany was a cobbling together of multiple Christmas prayers I found online which ultimately spoke to what we believe, where we fall short, what we hope to be in the new year

Carrying The Light to the World
The tradition here has been to light up the sanctuary by forming a circle around the edges and sharing the light of the candles while singing Silent Night. To underscore the need to be light and warmth beyond those already in our midst, the candles were lit as we walked outside to sign and form a circle of light visible to those passing by.   

Helpful resources for Las Posadas (including chords and sheet music) can be found here, here, here (this one downloads) and here and of course by googling.

Liturgical Nerds Need Only Apply

NaBloPoMo Day 19 (a day late): Best liturgical holiday

I think I’ll cheat and do a Top 5 list.

5.  Maundy Thursday – the music always breaks my heart exactly as it needs to be broken with just that touch of grace that points to Easter.

4. Christmas Eve – there is a poignancy to the multi-generational worship    that welcomes the Christ child, even in congregations with not many children on a regular Sunday.

3.  Baptism of Christ – because we all need to remember why we get wet and why we need to stay wet.

2.  Epiphany – John 1.  Light. Stars.

1.  Pentecost – The story, the symbols, the colors, the get out there an go-ness of it all.

 

Going off the Grid

NaBloPoMo while Off the Grid

Today is the day.

Well, kind of.  I am sitting at the keyboard on Sunday, but through the magic of scheduled posts, I get to be a little timey-wimey in my imaginary Tardis and make this post appear on Wednesday.  Which is the day.

If all has gone according to expectations, at 4am eastern time, I will have gathered with 27 other intrepid Presbyterians to head from Tampa to Santa Clara, Cuba.

We’ll be in the central part of Cuba for a week, where we will not be using cell phones or laptops or any of the devices that I have become accustomed to having at my beck and call.  I actually got a camera and a watch to take with me.  I can’t remember the last time I wore a watch. Or carried a camera that wasn’t part of my phone. But I digress…

For the next 7 days, our group will be meeting with pastors and lay leaders of the churches in Central Cuba. My fellow PresbApopkaterian and I will visit two different churches, where we will learn how they are connecting with their communities, serving the people who are not yet members and how they move people into membership.  It’s much more complicated than our American model of church-shopping and church-joining.  But I get a sense that the barriers the churches are required to overcome are actually problems we face for very different reasons.  I suspect we have much to learn from our neighbors.

Since we’re off the grid, I’ll have to post pics and stories after the fact.   Which is probably just as well. The idea of being fully present on this trip is getting more and more appealing.

In the meantime, I’ve managed to get a handful of posts pre-loaded. Because you know, getting ready to leave the household and both jobs for a week while doing both jobs leaves so much time for writing bonus blog posts.  New Procrastination Level unlocked.

If you’re the praying type, I’d sure appreciate them – here are some specifics:

  • Safe travel today, during the week and during our return flight next Wednesday
  • No travel tummy or other health issues among the team members
  • Some recovery of all that Spanish I took in HS and College
  •  That we would be able to rest in strange surroundings
  • No drama on the home front for the Hubs and the Yaya
  • That we would indeed learn from our hosts and discern whether these are places we can partner for the long term.

In the Beginning

Sunday, yes… Sermon, no!

Today was a no-sermon Sunday (which I’ll explain here).  But yesterday, I led the Presbyterian Women in Central Florida’s Bible Study Retreat. The assignment was to introduce this year’s Horizon Bible Study “Come to the Water” but also make the day meaningful for the 30% of the attendees who would not be using the study.

So, as I am wont to do, I deconstructed and synthesized the study. I took the main themes that the author used to create 9 lessons as the inspiration for 3 segments. I facilitated a combination of individual reflection, sharing in pairs and triads, conversations in tables of 8 and full 120-ish group talk-backs.  In between, I did a little teaching, presided over communion, invited the women remember their baptism… and at one point I share this reflection on the connection between creation, chaos, and faith formation.

In the beginning…
In the chaos and the water
In the darkness
In the great mess that was the time before time and the place before place
In the midst of all that…  was love.

Love so amazing, so divine…
Love that would one day take on flesh…
But not yet.

Right then, love just WAS

In the beginning there was love and joy, there was Spirit and Word
In the beginning there was water
And the chaos of the water and darkness was not a satisfying place for love
Not what the Creator had in mind.

So the Word spoke and the Spirit hovered
And the Creator laughed with joy to see order beginning to take shape

The water and the darkness gave way to Light
And the light was good

Some of the water went up above the dome of the sky
And that was good

And the waters still below the sky were gathered revealing land
And the earth was good, and so were all the plants that grew on this land…
between the seas and rivers and lakes and streams

And lights were placed in the sky to rule over night and day,
the waters of the seas began to roll and sway, pulled and pushed
by moon and the wind that still hovered near

Living creatures were called forth, spoken into being by the Creator-
creatures swimming and splashing, flying and soaring-
and they were beautiful and blessed and good

More living creatures were spoken into being, this time on land,
Creeping and crawling, grazing and glorious.
And then came one last living creature –
humankind

The one made in God’s image.


God looked out over the water and the land
Over the swimming and flying and walking and creeping creatures
And God commanded the human beings to care for them
To care for the land and the plants that would feed all the creatures
To care for the water that refreshed and restored.
To care for one another.

It was good. It was meant to always be good.
On this sixth day, work had shifted from creating to commissioning
And on the seventh day, God modeled what it looks like to rest.

This is our beginning.

God spoke into the chaos
And God spoke again, and again and again…
until everything was in place and the time was right
Then God made us as image bearer.
We create, we speak,
we love, we care,
we seek out relationship with our creator and with creation

The air that our first ancestors breathed…
The water they first drank and bathed in…
How amazing to think that the cycle of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, storage…
over and over for eons and millennia means
that the Holy Spirit who breathes life into us today,
hovered over this water-
in the beginning

And some of the molecules in this water could connect us back to the disciples –
The waters they fished
The waves tossed up by the storms that frightened them
The waves that Jesus walked on.. and Peter almost managed to walk on
The water that washed their feet
The water that they used to baptize the families who came to the way of Jesus through their preaching and teaching and healing 

There’s a reason that storms make a great metaphor for difficulties in life.
Somewhere in our deepest core, maybe in those water molecules,
there is a memory of that chaos made of water and darkness, of wildness and wind

Like those bad rainstorms as I drive on the highway-
wipers full tilt, lights on –
I still can’t see the lane markers.
I Find myself wondering what else I can’t see

I feel much the same way when I find myself in the middle of confusion, pain, grief, anger…
I can’t see. I can’t trust my vision of where I’m supposed to be
I’m easily blown off course.
I listen to the lies from that voice that tells me I’m alone in the world, alone in my fears,

But then, God is there.
In the face or voice or email or text or hug of a friend
In the word of wisdom from a sermon
In the words of the psalms
In the way that circumstance change that can only be explained as an act of God.

Those acts of love are an act of creation
Because in the same way that water transforms and builds the landscape,
we are transformed as we grow in faith

God is in the actions and words of our friends
God is in the word proclaimed and read
God is right there, in the storm with us, ready for us to look up and say

Help me, I’m sinking

God is with us and for us
And when we see this truth for ourselves, over and over and over again
Our faith that God will be with us, is with us, is built up.

One of my instructors in college once told us (and I don’t know where he got it):
Knowing is fun.  Learning is hard.
He was right. I like the knowing part. Especially when God is teaching me.
The storms and trials that are part of the learning?
Not so much

But the beauty and blessing of each bit of hard-earned faith and growth
make the storms of learning
totally worth it.   

To Tell the Truth

Preaching the Great Ends of the Church – The Preservation of the Truth
Primary Text: John 18:28-38a

I heard the other day that, earlier this summer, ABC actually filmed a short season of the game show To Tell the Truth. Most of us have been around long enough to have seen one of its many iterations. Sorry, young people…

In case you aren’t familiar, or have forgotten, the game works like this:
Three people are introduced, all claiming to be the same “mystery guest”. The would host typically ask each contestant, as they stood side by side, “What is your name, please?” Each player then stated the same thing, “My name is [the mystery person’s name].”

Four celebrity panelists then had some time to ask questions of all the players. The imposters could be truthful or make up answers. The actual person was sworn to tell the truth. The game ended when the host requested that “the real mystery person please stand up.” The truth was revealed.

In our passage today, Jesus is the only contestant. But it seems that between the leaders of the temple and Pilate, there are plenty of questions about who Jesus claims to be, who the people claim he is and the truth about his identity.

Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus is depicted as both pastoral and political. Marcus Borg describes him as a “social prophet” who criticized the economic, political and religious elite. Borg writes that Jesus advocated for an alternative social vision, and was regularly in conflict with the authorities.

He was put on trial for acts of compassion and justice – for pointing to a realm (a kingdom of heaven) where everyone has what is needed to survive. Jesus’ political activism called for a kingdom where no one is superior due to status or privilege. And as the messiah, the son of God, that kingdom would be his to reign.

Pilate goes through the motions, though Jesus’ fate was sealed from the beginning. The Jewish leaders had the desire, but not the authority to be rid of him. Thus, they handed him over to Pilate, who would hand him over to be executed.

But not before Jesus said these words…
“You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate then asks “What is truth?”

It’s hard to know precisely what Pilate was asking. Perhaps it was snark. Perhaps it was philosophical. I don’t know. But it always makes me wonder if we humans can ever really know the answer or know truth.

And yet… Jesus gives us the answer. Already gave the answer, in fact. Perhaps Pilate was playing the first ever round of Jeopardy.  I’ll take “Identifying the Jewish Messiah for 1000,” Alex.

If we back up a bit to chapter 10, you recall that Jesus describes himself as “the shepherd of the sheep. The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. He goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

What did Jesus tell Pilate? Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Then In chapter 14 of John’s gospel, when he was speaking to the disciples about going to prepare a place for them (and us), Thomas asked how they would know the way, how they would be able to  follow Jesus to where he was going.

And Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

I have come to testify to the truth…
to bear witness to the truth…
to point to the truth…

What is truth? Jesus says I am truth
I am God’s promise.
I am God’s continued presence in this world.
I am God’s plan for salvation.

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection bears witness to the truth that  God’s greatest desire has always been for humanity to return to the beauty and intimacy of our first love, for the complete reconciliation between  creator and created.

The truth of that love has been preserved across millenia in the sacred stories passed down through our spiritual ancestors in this Book. The first stories come from the Hebrew scriptures, recounting God’s faithfulness and generosity, God’s continued hope for humanity to become what we were created to be – a clear reflection of God, true image-bearers.

Evidence of God’s mercy is there in the beginning:

It was not good for Adam to be alone, and so when all of creation wasn’t enough, God made Eve to be his partner.

God showed great tenderness and care for Adam and Eve as they left the garden to begin again, clothing them and keeping watch. The Lord stayed near, even as humankind struggled and fought and passed down their brokenness from one generation to the next. God watched for and blessed those who honored God’s ways and sought peace.

After the Flood, God even promised not to destroy everyone if we needed another re-boot. So when the tower near Babel rose too high, God kept that promise and scattered the people into different tribes and tongues, hoping that another re-set might help.

When Moses was doing his best to communicate God’s plan to the people of Israel, and it became clear that they needed to know God’s presence, He sent word with instructions to build the tabernacle. All so that God might be among the people as they wandered in the wilderness. God not only led them to the land across the Jordan, it was, as promised, a place of plenty, evidence of God’s provision.

God made and kept covenants with Abraham and Sarah; God never forgot Hagar, Hannah or their children. God provided a family and a future for Ruth and Naomi, gave Nathan courage to speak to David, gifted Solomon with wisdom, and sent prophet after prophet to teach and warn the people when they strayed. Even in exile, God sent words of comfort and hope for a messiah.

John wrote those memorable words about God sending Jesus, because God loved the world so much…

The truth is God sent Jesus as an embodiment not just of the deep deep love God has for creation,  but as the personification of all the hope… of all the faithfulness… of all the longing for reconciliation that had been building from the day that God send Adam and Eve out of Eden.

And so when we tell the whole story- from its very start to now- we preserve the truth of God’s grace and mercy and humanity’s great need for both.

Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, the light.”  True to his word, Jesus makes a way for us to experience God in as true a form as our humanity allows. Jesus lights a path from the darkness of sin into the truth of God’s grace.

An important part of the work of the church is The Preservation of the Truth. It is, in fact, the last of the Great Ends of the church that we’ll discuss. I struggled a bit with this one, to be honest. Perhaps because I struggle with the idea that there is but one understanding of the truth for us to preserve.

Our presbyterian tradition honors the fact that no one approaches scripture without baggage, agenda and/or an interpretive slant. And we honestly welcome a diversity of faithful voices in hopes that we can together reflect the fullness of God’s image and creativity.

In a time when arguing has replaced hard conversation and respectful listening, and when certainty of position borders on stubbornness, I wonder if the Preservation of the Truth is too easily co-opted and morphed into Preservation of Self.

I don’t think it’s our job to protect God or Jesus or even the Bible from the world. I’m pretty sure the God who created the universe with a word and could destroy it with another is not really in need of our protection.

So for the sake of this conversation, here’s how I would like to define our part in the Preservation of the Truth:

The church is called to remember and proclaim the truth of God as revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

God sent Jesus so that the world might know life and love and hope. Jesus sent his disciples – just as Jesus sends us today- so that the world might know life and love and hope.

Or as the prophet Micah said to our forebears: all that the Lord God requires of us is to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. When we do these things, we embody the truth of God’s covenant relationship with creation.

Certainly we are the hands and feet of Christ, the embodiment of the work he started on this earth. But we are also the voice of Christ. Doing justice in this age, in this time and place between Christ’s ascension and his ultimate return, doing justice requires speaking up and speaking out.  

Doing justice requires taking a stand against classism, sexism, ageism and racism. Against oppression in every form. Against corruption in every form.  Loving mercy means speaking truth to power, which means we need to understand clearly what and whose truth we are speaking. We need to remember the difference between the Kingdom of Heaven (that we talked about last week) and the powers of this earth.

We looked at the way Jesus flipped the script in the sermon the mount – honoring those at the bottom of the social structures. The concentration of power on earth – then and now –  is found at the top, wrapped up in human institutions

Today, in the United States,  we can point to various levels of government and to the corporations and financial institutions, which are inextricably intertwined. Power in our culture is a network of influence and leverage, moved primarily by way of funding.

Great concentrations of wealth mean that fewer people than ever have the means by which to influence decisions that affect the whole of our population and the lives of peoples in other countries around the world.

There is a golden rule that would be funny if it weren’t so true – The ones with the gold make the rules.

More troubling than the concentration of power is the disconnect between those with power and the reality that their decisions create for the powerless.

I was just reading about an appeals court decision indicating that people had a constitutional right to sleep. Why would we need a court to weigh in on something at once so ludicrous and so obvious?

Governments and agencies have chosen not to fund services and programs that help assure everyone has a place to sleep – whether through affordable housing programs or assuring sufficient beds are available in  shelters. The problem is, fewer spaces than ever are available for a growing population of people who are experiencing homelessness. Meanwhile, local ordinances and laws get passed that make it illegal to set up camps within city or county limits. No tents.

Imagine for a moment that you have no car, and you’ve run out of friends with a couch to sleep on, and you are exhausted. You fall asleep sitting on a sidewalk or a bench near a bus stop. A deputy walks up and says you have to move along. It’s illegal to sleep in public here.

Chances are good that none of the people in power were attempting to make it impossible for people to get the rest they need in order to function. They were working to solve a series of problems, unaware of the challenges they were adding to the lives of one set of constituents while responding to the concerns of another.

The court spoke to the truth of a physical need. I am thankful for that common sense decision.

But the church is called to speak as well, to speak spiritual truth into the situation… because the church is called to remember and proclaim the truth of God as revealed in the person and work of Christ.

This means that Church, and all of its members,  cannot stay silent in the face of any power that threatens to erase the truth that every human being is a child of God, each one worthy of life, love and dignity.

If there are laws or decisions on the table that turn people into nothing more than data points or line items in a budget, our voices must cry out. The church must call upon those with financial clout and political influence to do more than react to worries of investors and shareholders.

What does that looks like on a daily basis, in our own homes? It can mean shopping at stores that choose to deal fairly not only with the vendors but with the migrant workers that harvest and hourly workers in the factories and the people who transport those products.

Preserving the truth of God’s care for all people means advocating for and amplifying the voices of those wh are not usually heard and stepping in to stop conversations that demean or dehumanize others, even the ones we don’t particularly like. And it means telling our friends why we are speaking up, what truth we seek to tell.

We must speak to the truth that God doesn’t bless us because we make good choices and wise investments. God blesses us so that we might be a blessing to others.

God offers us grace and love, so that we might do likewise. God gives us influence and power so that we might use both to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the wounded and set free the captives… all as we bear witness to the one truest and greatest love in all of creation.

The pattern of aggregating  human power at the top is nothing new, even if the scale of inequality is more extreme than during most of history. But remember this so that you can proclaim it…

The subversive power of God is nothing new, either. It has been on display since the young shepherd named David slung a rock at a giant. And since a young woman named Esther dared to speak truth to the king about the evil being perpetrated in his court, thus saving her people.

And God’s subversive power became clearer still in the faith-filled obedience of the woman who reminded us that with God all things are possible as she said “yes” to becoming the mother of the One who would save us all. The one who humbled himself, even to death on a cross, so that the resurrection power of God would be on full display as a promise…
As a promise for the reconciliation and redemption of all people, all of creation, in the Kingdom to come.
As a promise of the power that is within our grasp as we call upon the Lord.

The truth we must continue to remember and proclaim- and thus preserve for future generations- is that God can and will give us eyes to see, voices to raise and power to wield as we humble ourselves, listen for direction, and walk in in the way of Christ.

May we live in that power, may we preserve and proclaim that truth, this day and always. Amen.