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…  
God with us.

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.


Prayers of the People

For worship at the Fall Stated Meeting of the Central Florida Presbytery.

God of justice and mercy,

We come to you, fully aware that you are so far above us, so great that our words truly fail to express who you are, what you are capable of, and even what you are doing among us here today.

We give thanks for the many gifts you have given us, and for the opportunity to mirror your generosity in our own giving today. Bless these gifts and all of our siblings in Christ who will know freedom through the work of the Bail Project.

On this day of meetings and business

On this day when we remember the tragedy of terrorist attacks and the impact of hurricane Irma

On this day when the mid-Atlantic is facing down Florence and her sibling storms form off the coast of Africa

On this day when we in this room carry the weight of quotidian sorrow and pain, grief and anxiety

On this day, as we do every day, we need you.

We need your comfort
We need your wisdom
We need your hope
We need your strength

And so we come, asking, seeking, knocking. Some of us knocking awfully loud.

Not only for ourselves
Not only for our congregations
Not only for our families

But for the communities we represent.
The neighborhoods we know.
And the neighborhoods we avoid.

We come to you, asking, seeking and knocking for all who are in captivity today
Those in jails and prisons
Those trapped by addiction
Those humbled by oppression and poverty

And those of us who are unwittingly or willingly bound
by the systems and structures of privilege we enjoy

Give us strength to stand,
courage to speak,
and faith to believe that you are already where you call us to be and
will indeed be with us to the end of the age.

We pray this in the name of the One who came to set all your children free,

Living in the Light

Today’s text from the gospel of John describes John the Baptist’s response to seeing Jesus the first time. Remember this took place along the Jordan, near Bethany, where John was calling folks to repent and baptizing them. Just the day before, he had told his own disciples that he was awaiting the one who would baptize with the spirit, rather than the water John used. Listen:
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1: 29 NRSV)

And now we turn to our selection from 1 John.  We continue on from the first four verses that you read last week.  Listen again for the word of God:

1:5 This is the message we have heard from him [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (NRSV)

Sunday morning worship in the Disciples of Christ congregation that formed my faith as a child and young person was pretty similar to our presbyterian way of worshiping.  I mean- I still miss celebrating communion every time we open the church…

But there’s one I part of our order of worship that I don’t recall hearing back in the day.  Not until I started attending a Presbyterian church. And now it is – apart from communion – the portion of our worship that carries the most weight for me as a worshiper.

I remember the first time I heard a worship leader invite the congregation to pray and confess our sins together… It piqued my curiosity, for sure. Partly because they incorporated these words from 1 John:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  

Now- I’m not sure how many times I heard that invitation before I realized it was a direct quote from the Bible.  Honestly, it just sounded like deep truth about my reality… our human nature… and our need for the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Oh, how we need that grace.
Not just the saving grace that justifies us once and for all.
But the sanctifying grace that reconnects us day by day, moment by moment, thought by thought…  to the truth of God’s love for our fickle and wayward human hearts.

Given the apostle Paul’s statement that all sin and fall short of the glory of God…
And given the fact that just about every theologian since Augustine agrees that humankind is capable of great depravity…
I feel fairly confident in saying I am not the only one in this room who stands in need of that grace.  

But here’s the thing that I had to learn about these prayers of confession.
They aren’t about me. I mean, they aren’t entirely about me.
They are about us.
Even when they aren’t literally about the “us” that is currently gathered in this space.

These prayers of confession are about our connection to all of God’s children.
Those we know and love,
those we sleep with in the same house,
those we greet in this place,
those we wave to in the neighborhood.

Prayers of confession are about all God’s children… the ones who live and work and play in cities and towns and villages all over this country and around the world.

Whether they call themselves Baptists, Presbyterians, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, humanist, unitarian, or spiritual but not religious.  

All God’s children.

You see, John isn’t talking primarily about individuals confessing individual sins.
Oh, we can and must confess the sins that we commit on our own.
That is a given.

But let’s think again about what prompted this letter from John. This letter was written to a community of faith, a collective of souls.  And unlike the gospel attributed to John, which was focused on the divinity of Christ, this letter is written to a community that needed to recall the humanity of Christ.

Why?  Because Jesus – the person, the man who walked and talked and ate and slept right here on earth, wrapped up in human skin – Jesus is the way God encountered humankind. God encountered us in a particular human being at a particular time. **

Which means that the love of God, the living out of the love of God is more than a mere concept, more than a nice idea.
The love of God has been and can be fully embodied.
The Word was and can be made flesh.
Right here.
In this messy and chaotic and – yes, dark and sinful – world.

John is saying to his readers, and to us –
that the Word made flesh is what it looks like to love God and love our neighbors.
The Word made flesh is what it looks like to keep God’s commands.. All 10 of them.
And that we – the followers of that Word, the followers of that Jesus who was the Christ, are the embodiment of God’s love in this current age.

John wrote this letter to a community of faith, a household of siblings in Christ, whose fellowship was broken.  

They had broken fellowship with one another, and thus with God.
There was disunity in the house, and thus their joy, John’s joy, God’s joy…
all that joy was incomplete.

And so, he reminds them, there is need for confession, for forgiveness.
There is need for truth-telling.

You’ll note that there was not a call for finger-pointing
Nor was there a call for blame-laying.

But there was a call for telling the truth about ourselves.
To ourselves.

To bring into the light those things we do “in the dark.”
Those things that we’d just as soon leave hidden.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me more than a little squirmy. You know… that squirmy feeling down in your gut…  you know the one? Yeah… I’m not a fan of that feeling.

So I would just as soon not go back and look at things I’m ashamed of.  Much less take them out of their little boxes that are tucked back into those dark hidey holes of my heart and name them.

Even when we do so in silence… when it’s just between me and God. I mean, that’s why I need longer silence in our prayers of confession… so I’ve got time to work up the courage to go into those hidey holes and open those boxes.

And that’s when it’s just between me and God.
Except… it really rarely ever is just between me and God.
And that’s the whole point.

That thing about broken fellowship?
That’s not about taking God’s name in vain…
That’s about the ways we fail to love one another

That thing about broken fellowship?
Sure, it’s partly about the community that gathers here.
But it is also about many ways the church has failed to be God’s love to and for our neighbors out there in the world.

Broken fellowship is all about about not quite living in the light… in truth…
The difference between fellowship and broken fellowship?
That’s all about integrity. And the lack thereof.

That’s about living the words of scripture that we say we hold dear…
In ways that allow the world to see and believe we are followers of Jesus.

It’s about taking seriously the work God requires of us…
“to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”

Jesus prayed that the world would know his followers by our love.
Our love for God, yes,
but Jesus made clear that the would ought to know us by our love
for one another and for our neighbors.

So… how’s that going?
No really… how do we think that’s going?

Based on your faces, I know you and I could could swap some anecdotes about ways we’ve gotten it wrong.

And if we take a look at what public interest researchers like the Pew Forum and evangelical pollsters like the Barna group have to say…  You’re right… Not so great.

Year after year, a growing number of people identify as de-churched (meaning they have left church for the forseeable future). The same is true for those who have never been members of a church, or would claim a connection to God but have no desire to be part of organized religion.

Many of these folks point to what they see of the church – whether in their own communities or as represented in the media – as the problem.

There are “too many Christians doing un-Christian things”, and “organized religious groups are more divisive than uniting”. According to Pew, large numbers of these folks believe that while churches do good works, faith communities can also be too concerned with money and power, too involved in politics and too focused on rules.  

Chances are good that you know at least one or two folks, maybe even in your own family, who have opted out of church. They probably have a story to tell about why. And it likely has to do with something other than Sunday morning worship being scheduled at an inconvenient time.  

The stories I have heard from unchurched and dechurched folks are not mine to tell, but I will say this: Now, more than ever, people are watching the church.  This church and all churches.

They are watching to see how we respond to the cries of the marginalized and oppressed.  To see whether we will advocate for and serve the least of these. Because they know that this is what Jesus commanded.

They are watching.

They are watching the church, and I can assure you that they have come to trust these words from Maya Angelou:
When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

This is one reason I put on my clergy shirt, grabbed my rain jacket and headed downtown for the Families Belong Together rally yesterday.

I spotted a couple of other presbyterians there, but no other clergy in a collar or stole. Perhaps the raincoats hid them, but I made sure mine was visible, even in a downpour.  

Because people are watching.
And the church needs to be seen living in the light,
being a physical manifestation of the love of God for our neighbors.

The coalition of neighbors that organized yesterday’s rally includes groups representing the minority and immigrant communities directly affected by recent policy changes and rulings.  

Being love to our neighbors sometimes means standing in a downpour, giving away your umbrella and praying for speakers who are sharing their stories of fear and grief through tears in front of a huge crowd of strangers.  

Offering light and love to our neighbors also means thanking police officers who are out in that same rain to assure that everyone is safe.  

Loving our neighbors means showing up.
I believe this with all my heart.
Because I have seen that loving our neighbors has ripple effects we might never expect…

Which leads me to a story that Jan Edmiston shared last week.  Jan was elected co-moderator of our denomination at the 2016 General Assembly, sharing the duties with another minister, Denise Anderson.  They both participated in the protest march that took place in St. Louis.

I was also among the several hundred of our commissioners joined with local activists and pastors in their efforts to end an unjust cash bail and work house system in the city. While GA offerings typically will go to support a local cause, this was the first time we added voice, hands and feet to the effort. And we were quite noisy walking from the Convention Center to the courthouse.

But that isn’t the story I want to share… just the background. Listen to what Jan wrote on her blog about her ride to the airport:

I took a Lyft to the airport last Friday, leaving General Assembly early for a wedding in Philadelphia. It had been a great week for a long list of reasons and I was staring into space and relishing the memories when this conversation happened:

Lyft Driver Kevin:  Were you here for a conference?

Jan:  Yes, the Presbyterian Church USA.  You might have seen us on the news Tuesday night.  We were on the local Fox channel.

LDK: Why were you on the news?

Jan:  We marched from the Convention Center to the Courthouse with $47,000 to bail out some people who couldn’t pay their cash bail.  It was our worship offering from Saturday.

LDK:  Your church did that?

Jan:  Well, it’s not just my church.  But yes, we did that. We paid the bail to release about 3 dozen non-violent offenders.  It was pretty great.

We got to the airport, pulled over, and when we went to his trunk to retrieve my luggage, Kevin said, “I feel like I’ve met a friend today. That’s the best thing the Church has ever done.”  

And he hugged me good-bye.

This is what the world is looking for, my friends:  less talking, more concrete ministry that helps those in need here and now.  It wasn’t the very best thing the Church has ever done, but – like I said to Kevin – it was pretty great.

It was pretty great because the church was being the church.  And I can assure you that among that crowd of commissioners and delegates marching, there was a lot of diversity of opinion.  When we got back to our meetings, there was plenty of debate and plenty of contested votes. But trusting that Jesus would have us fight this injustice, were were out there- together- being love for God’s children in the city.

Living in the light, building koinonia.

It was a really just a drop in the bucket, when you look at all the work that our siblings in Christ are doing up there.

Much like Orlando, St. Louis proper is fairly small, with lots of cities and municipalities squished up against each other.  There is a lot of history there, much like there is here, some of which has remained unconfessed, unrepented and unresolved.

The events surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson – no farther from the Saint Louis convention center than this church is from downtown Orlando-  those events laid bare some of that history, some of the sin that needs confessing by our churches and the civic structures that Jesus followers have been part of.

And so much has happened since… in Baltimore, Dallas, Baton Rouge, New York, Detroit… even here in Orlando.

A lot of folks would like to pretend that racial injustice doesn’t exist.
That strongly held religious beliefs are fine reasons for refusing to treat all people with the same dignity.
That talking about loving everyone
is all that Jesus requires of us.  

But when I read this first letter from John, I see a call to the church that says exactly the opposite.

I see a call to integrity.
A call to a life in which our words and actions are a coherent whole.
A call to make sure that people really can know us by our love…
Because they see us doing exactly that – loving.  

I hear in this letter a call to community,
A community of relationships in which we confess and trust that we are forgiven… and not only by the one who embodied the amazing grace of God by taking on flesh.
We are also called to be a community in which WE are the embodiment of that grace and love for one another. Right here in the flesh.

Becoming that community – that church… living in the light together?
That is walking into hard stuff… making yourself vulnerable stuff.

Because what we’re talking about is the kind of work that requires spiritual courage and maturity.

Confessing the sins that have held us captive:
Sins of our own and those who came before us
Sins of commission and omission

Approaching those who have been sources of pain,
Opening up about wounds kept hidden and fighting the urge to lash out.   

Listening to those who were wronged.
Listening with hearts that are open to confession and repentance,
even as we fight the urge to reframe or tuck our sins back into those dark hidey holes.

We’re talking about a pathway to letting go of the past and
trusting God for a future in which we are truly being the Body of Christ

It can be hard work, learning to live in light.
No… not can be.
It is hard work, learning to live in the light and persisting against all the ways that the world would have us go back to old patterns.  

But it is only when we commit to that hard work that we can experience the truth of this invitation:

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  (Matthew 11:28-29, NRSV)

What a paradox:
Committing to the hard work of living in the light of Christ… That is where we will find rest

Laying down the burden of sin, our shared sin, our common separation from God’s love and from the depth of love we can offer one another.
Laying down the burden of conflict.
Laying down the burden of shame.

That is where we will find rest

Living in fellowship – community – family – that is built on a foundation
Of mutual care,
Of Confession and forgiveness

That is where we find rest, dear friends.
Rest for our souls, weary with trying to find our way in this present darkness…

Let us pray…  

** I am deeply grateful for the written commentaries and podcast for the 1 John series posted at Working Preacher for articulating some of these big themes with great clarity.

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.


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.


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.


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

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)

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

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

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

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)

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

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.

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

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)

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

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.