Sunday, January 17, 2016

Keys to the Kingdom

Matthew 16: 13-20 (NRSV) 13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Sometimes we just avoid this passage in the church, because it is connected to some difficult and rather embarrassing times in our history as the church of Jesus Christ. (under statement alert!) It is verses 18-19 of this passage that the Roman Catholic Church uses to claim authority and apostolic succession for the papacy. The doctrine of apostolic succession says that St. Peter, as Roman Catholics know him, was the first Bishop or Pope in the church and that he has been succeeded by an unbroken chain of MEN who have taken up the position of authority at the end of the reign of the one before him
In an obvious over simplification of the issues, the protestant church (that is Christians who align themselves with denominations that were formed in protest of what they believed to be abuses of authority in the Catholic church during the Reformation and beyond)…the protestant church denies papal authority and apostolic succession and understands Peter in this passage to be a stand-in for the church as a whole. The only problem with that is that there was technically no “church” at the time that Jesus is said to have made this proclamation. In addition to the different understanding of Jesus’ proclamation in this passage, Protestants have also often claimed that the apostolic succession was broken at some point during the Middle Ages.
 This disagreement, which may seem petty and inconsequential to us today, has claimed literally tens (maybe hundreds) of millions of lives in church heresy trials, crusades, inquisitions, and wars dedicated to converting the infidel to a faith that was “true”. Lest we think that we can point to “them” as the guilty ones, these events were initiated and perpetuated by both sides.
So, let that soak in for a moment. People who profess deep and life changing faith in Jesus Christ, use that profession of faith as their sole motivation to attack, maim, torture, and finally kill, other human beings who profess deep and life changing faith in Jesus Christ as represented by a different group of teachers and a different set of doctrine.
In my second grave understatement of the day, I might call this adventures in missing the point.
Even with differing views on guns, war, and national and individual defense, I hope we can all acknowledge, in an age where people wear bracelets and t-shirts with the letters WWJD (what would Jesus do) that if someone asked the question Who would Jesus Kill (WWJK)? The answer would be emphatically NO ONE. That’s another topic for another day though.
For today, let’s focus on Jesus’ question, perhaps imagining that we are the ones being asked to answer, and let’s consider the implications of our own confession of faith. Jesus knows that there are all kinds of opinions out there about who is he and what he came to do, and he asks the disciples to put aside all that other people have told them, and to answer from the depths of their own hearts “who do you say that I am”. It’s an important question, because who we say that Jesus is has everything to do with who we are willing to be at Jesus’ beckoning.
We who are a part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) likely affirm Peter’s answer, “you are the messiah (or the Christ), the son of the Living God.” That is, in fact, our only creed. Because, really, it’s enough. We don’t have to agree on anything else to be church together. There’s an old saying that has been attributed to many people in the history of the church that says “in essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, charity.” Our common affirmation that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God is our essential, and that which brings us unity. It is what calls us together to be the church and what sustains us in being church together.
If only being the church could always be easy, and we always knew the best ways to fulfill our personal and communal calling, that would be great! But the truth is that we often get lost somewhere in our own adventures in missing the point. And even when we’re not missing the point, we often get stuck trying to figure out where to go from here, especially in the midst of changing culture, shrinking budgets, and aging buildings. And sometimes, partly due to our fear of the unknown, we become paralyzed by those challenges that we can readily see, and fail to see the opportunities that lie beyond.  
Sometimes in the church, we prop up the form of the institution to the peril of it’s function.
At the very beginning of my college career, I was an architecture student. This was a short-lived and highly unsuccessful endeavor, which also is a topic for another day. But there was one concept that I learned there that has always stuck with me, and it’s an idea that seems to be in keeping with the ministry and teachings of Jesus. Form follows function.
Louis Sullivan was one of the most influential architects to come out of the Chicago School of architecture in the late 1800s. He is often called the “father of the skyscraper” and the “prophet of modern architecture” and conceived the most famous phrase ever to come out of his profession, “form follows function” (or, more accurately, “form ever follows function”). 
Sullivan was teacher and mentor to my architectural hero, Frank Lloyd Wright, who took the idea even further to suggest that, if done well, form and function are one. If Sullivan was the prophet of modern architecture, Wright was the sage of organic architecture. It sounds so 2016, but Wright first used the term in an article over a century ago in the August 1914 issue of Architectural Record. He wrote that “the ideal of an organic architecture… is a sentient, rational building that would owe its ‘style’ to the integrity with which it was individually fashioned to serve its particular purpose”
I know you didn’t come here for an architecture lesson, so bear with me for a minute and I’ll tell you why I think this matters in the church today. In fact I want to read a description of organic architecture and substitute the words architecture and building, with the word church…
·        Organic church is church appropriate to time, place, and people
·        Appropriate to time means a church that belongs to the era in which it is created, addresses contemporary life, social patterns and conditions, and employs available materials and new technological methods resourcefully and honestly.
·        Appropriate to place means a church in harmony with its natural environment—a church that in its proportions, materials and design, belongs to its site or community.
·        Appropriate to people means a humane church in human scale.
think Jesus calls us to be an organic church, ministering to the people and the situations that we find in our midst. He calls us to walk outside our walls and to look at the landscape, both natural and human made, and to respond with Good News. He calls us to walk with and not stand against. He calls us to know and love our neighbors. He calls us to adapt to the world around us without letting go of the relationship with God that calls us together in the first place. Jesus calls us to live out our confession of faith, not just in word on Sundays, but in deed, every day of the week.
And to equip us for that work, he gives to us, like he gave to Peter, the keys to the kingdom. He gives us the power to make a difference in the very world in which we live and work every day. Just having faith is powerful. Speaking out about our faith is even more powerful. But to act out of our faith is the most powerful thing we can do as believers in a living God who came to earth as one of us, and gave his life, so that all might live.
So you and I, and people all over the world who profess their faith in the living God, made known to us in Jesus; we hold the keys. They aren’t keys to a pearly gate in a faraway heaven, where the imagined task may be to decide who is in and who is out. They are the keys to a realm of God right here among us, a kingdom place, that Jesus told us was already at hand. And we get the honor of using the keys to open wide the door of the church to welcome God’s people in.
Holding the keys to the kingdom means we have an incredible amount of power. And with power comes great responsibility. Listen again to these words of Jesus…I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
That’s powerful, and a little intimidating.
What do we do with that power?
What do we do with these “keys”?
What if we, the church, believed Jesus. Not believed “in Jesus”, but believed Jesus?
What if we believed him when he said that the kingdom of heaven was among us, here, on earth, and that our task was to welcome in those who didn’t yet know they were invited?
What if we believed Jesus when he told us that we had the power to bind and loose, and that whatever we bind and loose here, is bound and loosed in heaven?
What if we could bind hunger, and loose food security?
What if we could bind sorrow, and loose joy?
What if we could bind oppression, and loose equality?
What if we could bind our self centeredness, and loose service to neighbor?
What if we could bind injustice, and loose God’s justice and righteousness?
What if we could bind violence, and loose the peace that Jesus taught?
What if we could bind guilt, and loose forgiveness?
What if we could bind spiritual apathy, and loose spiritual fulfillment in relationship with the living God?
What if we could bind fear and hate, and loose love and grace and mercy and all of those things that Jesus modeled for us?
What if we could bind darkness, and loose God’s overcoming light?
What if we could bind the sting of death, and loose the power of resurrection?
What if we believed it, when Jesus said it, and then we acted out of that belief? What a powerful force we would be for the Kingdom of God!
Jesus said it, we say we believe it, now let’s live into it!
May it be so, even today! In the name of our savior, Jesus the Christ, son of the living God. Amen!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Grace of God Has Appeared!

From our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service, a response to Titus 2:11-14. Perhaps it will resonate with some of you. 

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.         Titus 2:11-14 NRSV

The Grace of God has appeared. 
I didn't deserve it. I didn't expect it. I didn't even believe it. 
But it came. 
It came freely. It came like a mighty rushing wave. It came in a breath, a smile, a note.
It came like a mother's reassuring glance. 
She told me I was enough. I was beautiful. I was worthy. I was loved. 
And that I was going to make it.
The grace of God has appeared. She brought salvation.
Freedom. Liberation. Wholeness. Salvation.
Peace. Love. Joy. Hope. 
Blessed Hope. 
God puts on human skin and my humanity dances with the divine. 
Manifestation of God's great glory. 
Jesus. Me. You. Us. 
Divine and human all mixed up in this beautiful mess we call life. 
We get it right. 
We get it wrong. 
And over and over, 
the grace of God appears. 
Thanks be to God!

Sunday, October 25, 2015


Reflection on Change given at the Regional Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Mid-America, Broadway Christian Church, Columbia, MO 10/24/15


Isn’t it ironic that an institution that holds transformation as its primary mission would be so resistant to change?

It occurs to me that we approach change from 2 basic standpoints.

One is that we resist it, desperately wanting to hold on to what we know and what is comfortable (even when deep down we know that things could be better).

And the second (which represents most of the people that I do ministry with) is that what we know is that we have never been comfortable to begin with and we hope and pray with all of our hearts that something, anything, will change.

I grew up in a church that taught me to love Jesus and obey God. It also taught me that God didn’t call women to be pastors. After sharing my sense of call with my pastor and being laughed at, I ventured out to another church home that was more than willing to ordain a woman, but of course, not one who loved another woman (which, by the way, was as much a surprise to me as it was to them). As God’s revelation of who I was and what I was supposed to become continued to unfold in my life over several years, I became ever more comfortable in my own skin.  I became the whole person that I had never been before, and I was able to move forward, with the winds of God’s spirit blowing to guide me. I distinctly remember a conversation with God (one of millions), where I heard god’s voice loud and clear. The message was simply this. “Jesus gave everything for you, I expect you to give all of yourself for me and my people.” And so I knew in that moment, that my call was to enter into ministry with all of myself, embracing all of who I am and serving from that place of wholeness.  And to the church where I was taught to listen for God’s voice and to heed God’s call, exactly the things I was finally learning to practice, I became an abomination, an outsider, a heretic, apostate. What a heartbreaking and eye opening reality that was (and is). But in the words of Sam Cooke in the great civil rights song, I believe a change is gonna come.

God called us to start Table of Grace and to extend unconditional love and grace to others, all others, without expectation or exclusion. These others are LGBT, they’re homeless, they’re without sight or hearing, they’re destitute, they’re addicted, they’re single parents raising beautiful children with autism spectrum disorders and many other challenges, and they’re the people committed to God’s love and justice for all people. They’re all hungry, some physically and all spiritually. And the thing that brings them to our table together is their common experience of not belonging in the very places where everybody should belong. And even though they’ve sworn off God and church at some point in the past, now they come, because they believe a change is gonna come.

One of those “others” came to Table of Grace, skeptical, having walked away from God and his faith when his church failed to affirm him for who he was. A 26 year old high school dropout, struggling with addiction, walked up to the piano after his first service and began to play. He immediately began to serve our church with his gift of music, even before he was convinced that we could really love him without judgment and condemnation. 3 years later, Matt became one of the first residents in the NBA Xplor program and began college this fall at Eureka College on a full Disciples Leadership scholarship. The young man who said to me not too long ago, “right now I kinda think the Bible is a bunch of BS”, is at the top of his Hebrew Scriptures class and dreaming about where he’ll go to seminary. Matt believes a change is gonna come.

Here in the Christian Church in Mid-America, we’ve seen our fair share of change over these last couple of years. Some of us have entered into this time of transition willingly and some begrudgingly. But here we are, a region transformed and transforming. Some of us, myself included, can get stuck in our desire to hold on to what we have known. But God beckons us to come see what lies beyond our view.

On a practical level, I’ve recently had this conversation with myself regarding the rather expensive purchase of school pictures. I should preface this by saying that my wife is an amazing photographer and we have no shortage of beautiful photos of our girls in our own home and that we share with our family.

I don’t have to buy the picture of my hastily posed child, who spent a grand total of 1.5 minutes with the photographer in front of the ugly grey background. But I do. Why? Well, because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

I have year after year of school and sports photos in their original envelopes, never having given a single one to a family member or friend. What a complete waste of my time, energy and resources. Meanwhile, a whole world of photographic imagination and creativity swirls around me.

When will I stop being afraid to buck the system, and just say I’m not going to play this silly game anymore? When will I open myself up to the opportunities and possibilities that come with my willingness to take a risk, or even a leap of faith?

And so it is with us, the church, presented over and over with the choice to grow or to stagnate. To stay where we are, doing what we have always done, or to give our whole selves to God’s mission in the world, granting permission to our creator to keep making us a new creation of God’s beautiful handiwork.

What if the mark of the church in the future is not that we have held so tightly onto traditions, rituals, and structures with the death grip of fear; but that we have moved boldly into unknown and unfamiliar spaces, fully willing to experience God anew in our lives, our faith communities and in the kingdom of God that surrounds us, holding on to the traditions and rituals that ground us in our faith, and learning to experience them in ways that speak to new generations of Jesus followers.

I believe a change is gonna come. I hope WE believe a change is gonna come. Thanks be to God for the invitation to be a part of it.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Hometown Heroes without Honor

Mark 6:1-6 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Have you ever wondered what happened between verse 2, where the people are astounded, remarking about Jesus’ wisdom and his power; and verse 3, where they start to tear him down?

I have a theory. I imagine the conversation to go something like this: (except without the American names…)

Hey Joe, have you heard this guy preach? He’s amazing. He just gets it. In all the years I’ve been coming to this synagogue, I’ve never heard anyone tell the story quite like that! And a healer too? Fred hasn’t been up out of that wheelchair in 8 years, and this Jesus tells him to get up and walk and up he goes. I really think he could change some things around here. A few more weeks of this and we might just be different people altogether! Why, I think he may be a hero!

Now wait a minute, Charlie. It’s fine to have some smooth talker come up here every once in a while and make us wonder if there isn’t something better out there. That Rabbi from over at Capernaum has done that a time or two, but you’re getting a little too worked up. And what do you mean change some things? Why would we want to change anything? We’re just fine doing things the way we’ve always done it.

And so it begins. Joe convinces Charlie that it wasn’t conviction he just felt in his heart, and that nothing needs to change. Rather than focus on what God may have been trying to speak into their community, they invested their time trying to tear down the messenger.
Not this local kid, we know too much about him. Not a woman again. He’s too old, she’s too young, he’s got a tattoo, she’s a little too loud. Too much Jesus, not enough Jesus, the music’s too loud, to slow, too fast, I can’t even hear it. Don’t bring that projector in here and put the songs on the wall. These hymnals are old and outdated, and they smell bad. Wafers, bread, wine, grape juice? She’s so far to the right, could he be any more of a liberal? So many possibilities for offense!

What if we thwart the power of God to transform our lives because we pick apart the messenger or the prophet that God has sent to us?

Note that in Marks version of this story, the text says that Jesus “COULD do no deed of power there”. The writer of Matthew’s gospel softens it to say that Jesus “DID not do many deeds of power there”.

Either way, whether Jesus couldn’t do it, or didn’t do it, the fact remains that God had work to do in Nazareth and the intended instruments of that work were Jesus and the disciples. People’s lives were supposed to be transformed, but instead, they scoffed at him, and they set out on a fault finding mission.

Surely this man can’t be worthy to have such power. He’s just one of us. Surely this illegitimate child, born out of wedlock, has no wisdom or moral code that is greater than our own. And with each spoken doubt or accusation, the accuser takes one more step away from the truth that God was trying to show him (or her) about themselves.

Oh, what a fabulous technique it is to ignore our own issues and make some up about someone else instead! It’s the age old diversion tactic known as fault-finding!

Fred Van Amburgh says of fault-finding, “It requires no thought, no consideration, no character, no talent to be a fault-finder...It is much easier to find fault than to find ways to help. How easy to be critical and how hard to be correct. How easy to find fault with others and how hard to mend our own ways.”  (

We, the people, need to spend a whole lot less time being offended, and a whole lot more time being astounded at the power of God at work right in front of us!

Oh, but we live in a world now where offense is lurking around every corner. The public discourse is so polarized and social media gives otherwise reasonable people a platform to spout off things they would never say to a person face to face. And if all else fails, there’s always the option to unfriend.

All of us have been in situations in our lives where the people around us didn’t appreciate us the way they should have. Whether it was a family member, an old teacher, or the kid whose girlfriend you stole in 8th grade. It’s easy for us to relate to Jesus in this narrative. We’ve been there. What does it take to get a little respect, right?

What if we consider the times that we’ve been more like the scoffers in the synagogue than we are like Jesus? I’ll give you a minute to think about it… If you’re like me, you won’t need long. It was just yesterday, and last Wednesday, and a month ago.

You see, God is forever trying to do something in my life that I’m not ready for, or don’t recall signing up for. And I would always rather point out to God, and anyone else that will listen, that there is someone in much greater need of redemption, and God and I should both focus our energies there.

And God laughs.

And what if the scope of this message is even bigger than the church, which it surely is?

Who are the other hometown heroes without honor?

Local police officers (probably not where you live, of course) but in other places, who are the butt of all manner of donut shop jokes and called all sorts of derogatory names.

The football player who had a bad game the day your team lost, and whose name is used in conjunction with all sorts of curse words and insults, as if somehow the armchair quarterback doing the criticizing might have played better.

Any elected official, who immediately upon taking office, is seen as worthless and incompetent, and inevitably fails in the eyes of even the ones who voted him or her into the office.

We have a tendency to use people up and throw them away, both in the church, and in our society.

Consider for a moment 300,000 homeless veterans.

300,000 homeless veterans.

How does a bright, outgoing 17 year old go from the high school cafeteria to homeless vet before he’s 25? Let me tell you how, because I’ve seen it happen so many times, it makes my stomach turn to think about it.

Military recruiters, often perceived as cool by high school students are granted access to our public high schools and often spend time in the cafeteria wooing possible recruits. Potential recruits are promised a cash bonus of more money than many of their parents make in a year as soon as they complete their training. It’s a great opportunity to get out of the place where they may feel stuck and they take it. (please note that this is not a statement against military service, but a concern over the moral implications of sending kids who are barely driving and have never even lived on their own to make the very adult decision to take a human life, and then to fail to offer the psychological care required to deal with the aftermath of such a decision)

In an environment of sustained, simultaneous wars, they are sure to be sent “over there”. Some of them come home in a box. Others come home bearing scars, physical and emotional, that will never heal. Sometimes they have their enlistments or their deployments involuntarily extended. And when they come home, they are different. They’ve seen things that no human being should ever have to see. They don’t know how to relate to their people, and their people don’t know how to relate to them.

Unresolved PTSD or moral injury lurks inside them, and life as they knew it is no more. And far too often, the kid in the cafeteria with the bright future becomes the twenty-something homeless vet, searching the streets for a place to fit in and a group of people with whom she or he can connect.

And we ask, what did he do to end up here? He should have had plenty of money when he came home, he didn’t have any way to spend it over there. He must have made some really bad decisions. Must be drugs or alcohol, or maybe gambling. Whatever it was, he made his bed and now he has to lay in it.

Except that he has no bed.

And why is the question always what he did to get himself in this situation and never: why am I not in this same situation? Because I’ve made some really bad decisions, and I’ll bet you have, too. And maybe, just maybe, that shift in our thinking would drum up some compassion.

Less offense. More compassion. Less judging. More loving.

Luke’s version of this story gives us a little more detail about just what it was that Jesus said that incited such anger: He dared to put himself in the long line of Hebrew prophets calling for God’s justice in the land. Reading from Isaiah, he claimed the words as his own mission: “The spirit of the lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Mic drop.

It all sounds good until the folks in the room start to wonder what happens to their own status when all of these “others” get lifted to honorable status. The answer of course, is nothing, others don’t need to be dishonored for our honor to mean something. In God’s economy, there is enough honor to envelope every single child of God. But the perceived threat is great.

And so it begins. Dislike the message, discredit the messenger.

Again..."It requires no thought, no consideration, no character, no talent to be a fault-finder...It is much easier to find fault than to find ways to help. How easy to be critical and how hard to be correct. How easy to find fault with others and how hard to mend our own ways." 

Thanks be to God that our redemption draweth nigh. May we open our hearts and minds to the transformation that God is offering. Amen.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Gift of Baptism

Sermon: The Gift of Baptism, January 11, 2015
Text: Mark 1:4-11

As we come together this weekend to remember and celebrate the baptism of Jesus, we are extended an opportunity to spend some time in reflection on our own baptism. We are invited to consider just what baptism is to us, and how it has transformed our lives.

Baptism is…

Affirmation, only deeper, more like unconditional acceptance. We need to be accepted just as we are. Affirmation is that release of endorphins that we feel when we posted something on Facebook 30 seconds ago and somebody likes it. And then as we sit and watch the number grow. It’s that feeling that our young people know when they see how many followers they have on Instagram. Our need for affirmation in some cases is so heightened in our world of social media, that a lack of instant affirmation throws us into the realm of anxiety, depression, self-loathing, wondering what is wrong with us and/or the picture we just posted, that nobody has liked it. And to make matters worse, now we can see who saw it, but didn’t choose to click like. I personally have a theory that the founder of Facebook, that Zuckerberg guy, is in cahoots with the national association of therapists or something. Maybe not though, come to think of it, because when we go into a deep self-doubt hole, we rarely seek professional help to speak rationality to us, rather we often act out in passive aggression, refusing to like other people’s things, or just flat out berating them on how they could have the nerve to look at our thing, but not like our thing. I could go on about this, but I won’t.

Because I say all of this to say that we are created for relationship, and we crave the acceptance that comes when someone loves us as we are, where we are, for who we are. God does that with us. Sometimes one or two humans get it right too, but we should first seek it from the one who never fails. Remember at the moment that Jesus came up from the waters of his own baptism, he and those around him heard God’s voice of affirmation, acceptance, and blessing. “You are my son, in whom I am well pleased” Wrapped up in those words are identity, worth, and unwavering acceptance. Our baptism gives us the opportunity to re-enact the baptism of our Lord, and hear for ourselves those same words of love.

It is an initiation, into something much larger than ourselves. When we are baptized, we are actually initiated into many communities. One of those is the group of candidates that we are baptized with. In many protestant denominations, baptismal candidates spend several months meeting together in a pastor’s class. Imagine being an impressionable youth and spending time each week with a group of your peers who are held together by common faith, thinking of how you will live out faith in each of your lives, and what it will mean to take this next step on your spiritual journey. The bonds that are formed in those groups are strong and long lasting.

The next community that you are initiated into is the local church. While it may seem that baptism is an individual act between the pastor, the candidate, and God. It really is much more than that, and I would argue that it was always meant to be more than that. Look at the baptism of Jesus…Jesus was intentional about aligning himself with Jewish community, but not just any Jewish community. He could have, and probably did on many occasions, go and dip himself in the cleansing pools outside the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. But he chose instead to find John the Baptist and his followers out in the wilderness, and wade into the Jordan River for his baptism.

Think about that for a minute…sterile pools in town, at the door of the temple, or a river, an ever flowing stream, that as far as they can see, never begins and never ends. There, readily available for anyone to wade into, the elements of nature integrated into the experience. It was everything that organized religion and civilized society would frown upon. And yet it was chosen, by our Lord, to be the place where he received his blessing and accepted his calling.

And we become connected to Jesus and every other baptized person through our shared experience. We often sing a song at Table of Grace, by Christopher Grundy called Stepping In. Part of it says “There is a prayer, like a wide river, it never ends, does not begin, around the world, it’s always flowing, and I am stepping in, we are stepping in. That’s what happens when we are baptized. We step into a stream touched by all who have gone before us and all who will come after us.

It is surrender. It’s a giving up of the old and grabbing hold of the new. Admitting that we can’t and don’t want to live this life on our own, and that we want to walk with God and our faith community through all of the milestones in our lives, good and bad. Imagine with me, if you will, your dust covered body, about to wade into the flowing stream. Each particle of dust represents a sin, a regret, or some burden that you have carried for way too long. As you are dipped into the water, your toxins, the dust particles, remain at the top. They aren’t strong enough to penetrate the flow of the water, and so they float away, downstream. And as you come up out of the water, you can feel the newness of God’s love and redemption, clinging to your body like a glove. So it is with our baptism, we enter those waters with sin and death clinging to us with all their might, but the purity of strength of God’s love are too much, and they wash us clean. The old life has been surrendered, and we come out ready to experience the new. Thanks be to God!

It is tradition, with meaning. It’s not a tradition like Uncle Joe getting drunk on Thanksgiving and knocking over the dessert table every year. But a tradition more like your grandmother handing down her wedding ring because there was so much love in her relationship with your grandfather that she wants to share that with her children and their children and so on. It should bless us to know that we get to experience the same sacrament as Jesus, the disciples, and so many heroes of our faith over the last 2000 years. And it blesses us equally to know that this rich and beautiful tradition will be shared by our grandchildren, and great-great-great grandchildren, along so many others who will live beautiful, God centered lives, connected to our own through Baptism.

Baptism isn’t incidental, it’s foundational. David Lose, one of my heroes in the profession of preaching and teaching about Jesus writes “Jesus’ baptism isn’t preamble to all that comes later in his life, it’s the highpoint and climax of the story in a nutshell. Again and again, as Jesus casts out unclean spirits, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and welcomes the outcast, he will only do to others what has already been done to him, telling them via word and deed that they, too, are beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased. And the darkest moment of the story when Jesus feels absolutely abandoned is followed immediately by the story of resurrection, where the messenger testifies that God has kept God’s baptismal promise and continues to accept and honor Jesus as God’s own beloved Son. So also, at our low moments, we might remember that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same one who promised in baptism to never abandon us and to love and accept us always and still as beloved children, even and especially when we have a hard time loving and accepting ourselves.”*

It isn’t an end, but a beginning. Being initiated into such a community of believers, filled with the affirmation and unconditional acceptance of our creator, in the tradition of those who have informed our lives, having surrendered that which separates us from God, symbolically once, but knowing that we will continue a lifetime of surrender, empowered to give to others what has been given to us, we go forth from the waters of our baptism having been made new. Ready to be an agent of God’s love, grace and mercy in a world that needs it so badly. Thanks be to God for the gift of new life, given anytime we ask, and for the sacrament of Baptism to stand as the ever present reminder that our lives are not our own.

Remember now your own baptism. Dip your toes or your fingers into some of water, eyes closed, feeling God as close to you as the water to your pores, and know that you are loved, and that God is calling you to walk in God’s light, giving to others the gifts of love and healing that have been given to you. And if, by chance, you haven’t been baptized, that’s okay! Know that the gift of baptism is for you too, if you desire to step into the stream and surrender. I or any other pastor will be happy to talk with you about your decision.

Blessings my friends, may you all be renewed in your spirits as you consider the gift of baptism, and all that it means for your life. Amen.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

2015: The Year of Embodiment

Today I had the honor of filling the pulpit at Community Christian Church in Jefferson City. It's a beautiful worship space, and also the place where I baptized my oldest child. It was a blessing to be there! Below is the sermon that I preached.

Sermon: New Year, New Us!
Community Christian Church, Jefferson City, MO, 1/4/15
Text: Jeremiah 31:10-14 and John 1:16-18

There is just something extra special about worship services that mark the beginning or the end of something. And here today, the air is still full of the wonder of Christmas, God born anew into our world, and the opportunity and possibilities of a blank canvass heading into this new year.

Some of you are likely happy that 2014 is gone. Perhaps you muttered the tired line “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” as the year came to a close. Some of you may be sad to see it go, clinging to some victory, joy, or celebration brought to you by 2014.

However we look at it though, 2014 is gone, and 2015 has snuck right in. There are two ways that I know for sure that we’ve moved into a new year. One is that I write the date incorrectly on a check, and the second is that I almost print the church bulletins with last year’s date. I’ve done both of those this week, so it’s official. So given the fact that it’s here and there’s nothing we can do about it, it seems like a good idea to think a bit about how we’ll handle it. Hence, today’s sermon, New Year, New Us!

By now I’m sure that you’ve already been inundated with offers to create a new you in this new year. Scrolling through my email inbox on January 2 after a couple of days of being unplugged allowed me to get the full effect of the end of year/beginning of year mash-up. January 31 brings all the last minute offers I can handle, suggesting that there are many places that I could get rid of any pesky money that might still be lying around after Christmas. And then comes the onslaught of New You emails on January 1. They suggest that I need an overhaul in every aspect of my life. My weight, my health, my career, my finances, my spiritual journey; and I wonder, have these people all been spying on me? How do they know that I’m in such bad shape, and such well-rounded bad shape at that? Do you wonder these things?

Well, yes, they have been watching our every move; our purchases, our google searches, our Facebook likes and our tweets will provide most any marketing expert all the information they need to make us their next target. More importantly though, they know we’re human, and that more often than not, we fall short of where we had hoped to be at this point, sometimes due to our own bad decisions, and sometimes due to unfortunate circumstances beyond our control.

The writers of today’s texts knew a few things about bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances…

Jeremiah prophecies to the remnants of a decimated Northern Kingdom, the 30 chapters leading up to this one relentlessly suggest that the destruction they have experienced is largely due to their unfaithfulness to the God who has sustained them up to this point. Chaos reigns, but one thing is clear: they will never again experience God’s presence in the places and the ways that they were accustomed to. Jeremiah’s words are hanging somewhere between exile and restoration, between judgment and mercy.

This is a people profoundly changed by their experiences of loss and of exile. It is a lost and vulnerable people being gathered by their God, much like a people, hopeless in so many ways, gathered at the manger of the newborn King, shepherds and kings alike, looking for new life and a fresh start. John writes to a community some 700 years after Jeremiah, who also struggle with their circumstances AND their belief! Their struggle is different, but no less real, and the need for God to intervene and correct our course had not then, and still has not gone away!

The Jeremiah passage shows us that out of death and destruction, God creates new life. The gospel passage shows us that out of nothing, God creates new life. Most of us fall somewhere on that spectrum right now, between death and destruction, and just a blank canvass. I wonder how there can be any question for us, whether God can create new life for us too? And yet, we’re just not sure.

As we ponder what a new us might look like in 2015, we have to look back at the old us of 2014. It seems clear that 2014 revealed to us a disheartening level of brokenness in our world. Some of which we may have thought was long gone, and some of it new, thanks to the barrage of polarizing and sensationalized information that is served up to us 24/7 via the media, social and otherwise.

Slate magazine dubbed 2014 “the Year of Outrage”, noting that “following the news in 2014 is a bit like flying a kite in flat country during tornado season. Every so often, a whirlwind of outrage touches down, sowing destruction and chaos before disappearing into the sky.”1

Outrage seems to have become a way of life for us. “It rises from our disappointment.”2 Out of the ashes of broken dreams, failed ventures, tainted relationships, and shattered hopes; outrage is like the smoke that wafts through the air, lingering, waiting to hitch a ride on some unsuspecting host. It is a natural, and even honorable response to the things that happen to us and to others in a broken world. The problem comes when outrage becomes our destination, rather than a stop on our journey to something better.

Perhaps that something better is something akin to incarnation, that which we celebrate when we honor the baby Jesus at Christmas. Jesus was God incarnate, putting on human flesh to be present among us and show us the way. The life and teachings of Jesus give us the opportunity to bridge the human/divine gap too. When we, who are human flesh, put on ourselves the attributes of God, wisdom, faithfulness, steadfast love, grace and mercy, we might call that embodiment. What if 360 days from now, we were able to look back and point to the ways that 2015 was the year of embodiment? Where the people of God spoke words that honored God and God’s people, where they (we actually) acted like we believe the truths that we proclaim, and where followers of Jesus emulated his selfless actions?

Jesus himself expressed outrage, most notably remembered in the episode that we call “Jesus cleansing the temple”. He is angered by the exploitation that he sees taking place by people in power at the temple, taking advantage of those who had little to spare, and turning sacred space into a marketplace. He was so angry that he made a whip out of cords and ran them all out, overturning their tables as he went. There are, for sure, some institutions today that need a good cleansing and would benefit from the removal of some money-changers, but that’s a topic for another day. The point today is that even after expressing deep outrage at what was going on, Jesus didn’t stay there. He went on to heal, and teach, and grant new life. The text says “many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name”.

Outrage makes way for incarnation. Rev. John Allen writes about our embodiment of the divine will in terms of “incarnational intention”. I think he’s onto something. He writes:

“God’s incarnational intention is that God’s story gets lived out in recognizable ways in the world. Not only over some grand cosmic saga, but also in the way we engage the specific broken places in our communities and even in the forgettable interactions we have with our neighbors.

God’s incarnational intention is that God’s presence becomes unmistakable in our midst because the faithful have put their bodies, and not just their language, into effect for what they believe to be true.

God’s incarnational intention is that the faithful enact our hope in liturgy AND life. That we embody God’s justice and love in the world, not just by speaking it, but by living it out. Not through testing philosophical edicts against the long arc of history, but by showing up in the world we have, as the people we are, to make God into flesh once again.”3

Thanks be to God for the gift of Christmas, pure love, wisdom, grace, and mercy, wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger; sent to us in hopes that we might apply the gifts to our own lives. May we who call ourselves God’s children, receive and embody the gift in 2015. New year, new us! Amen.

1&2. Slate Magazine, The Year of Outrage

3. Rev John Allen, The Politics of Incarnation.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

When Christmas Hurts

Tonight at Table of Grace, we held our annual Blue Christmas service. It’s something that we’ve done every year since we started the church, and even though it is always attended by somewhere between 1 and 8 people, I believe it is one of the most important services that we do. I borrowed a new name for the service this year from an Episcopalian colleague, who calls her Blue Christmas service “When Christmas Hurts”. Sometimes, it’s not just that folks are a little extra down or lonely during the Christmas season, sometimes Christmas, and the reminders of what we no longer have, hurts, badly.

I seem to be reminded of this harsh reality even more this year than in years past. I think it’s because our youngest, Morgan, is an 11 year old sixth grader, just like I was when my world came crashing down around me. It was on this night 32 years ago, that I went to bed, a little bummed that I wouldn’t be enjoying the day before Christmas break celebrations at school the next day, due to the fact that I had chicken pox. Little did I know that chicken pox would be the least of my heartbreaks that Christmas. When I woke up the next morning, I woke with a terrible headache. I remember walking into the kitchen in my underwear and t-shirt that I had slept in, and feeling a little awkward when I saw that our kitchen was full of people. They all sat around the table as if they had been there for hours while I slept. 

I don’t remember any of the words, just that it was too light in the kitchen, it hurt my head. And there were too many people, and I was in my underwear. And they said he was gone. My brother. My hero. Gone. Something about Christmas shopping and dark and windy roads, and sleeping and driving, or not, and a wreck, and gone. 21 years old and gone. In my young mind, and with his wild nature, it seemed somehow inevitable that it would be a car wreck, someday. But now? This soon and this close to Christmas?

It wasn’t my first taste of death. I believe it was in the spring of that same year when I awoke to the news that one of my best friends had died of some fluke illness, and just like that, she was gone. Funny, I remember something about underwear and a headache that day, too. The difference, of course, is that Kendra’s house was the one that had too many people in the kitchen for a weekday morning, and her sister was asking “what happened” and “how” and “why so soon”.

Even though it wasn’t my first experience with death, it was my first experience with hating Christmas. I carried that with me for a couple of decades. I don’t remember anything that I got for Christmas that year, except the thing that made me hate it. It was a little ceramic thing, a knick-knack. They told me that he bought it for me. I never really understood the story, and I had questions. Did he buy it on a previous shopping trip? What 21 year old man buys his kid sister a gift in advance? Where had he kept it? Had he wrapped it himself? Did he buy it that night? Did someone find it in the wrecked car? If so, how did they know he bought it for me? So many questions, though none that I would ask. Instead, I would just let them rumble around inside me, fueling my anger and my newfound dislike of Christmas. Years later, I would find a Christmas gift, still wrapped, in a file cabinet at my grandparents’ house, with a tag that said: To Grandpa From Roger. I wondered if he had the same questions. I didn’t ask.

I’m not sure when I got over hating Christmas. As I grew into an adult, I had all sorts of excuses. I owned a retail store, and worked ridiculous hours through the Christmas season, right up to Christmas Eve. Somewhere along the line, I had to get away to pick up gifts for everyone else for multiple family celebrations that would take place, often beginning that very night. People were demanding, rude, and thankless; and deep down I knew that even with a successful Christmas, we’d be right back in the red within a couple of months, pinning our hopes to the next Black Friday to Christmas Eve cycle. Maybe it was when I got out of the jewelry business, maybe it was when the joy of seeing my kids excited on Christmas morning became greater than the pain of dashed hopes and shattered dreams. Maybe it was when I realized that Christmas was about new birth, and sixty-fifth chances, and God breaking into the harsh reality of my life to say “I am here, will you stop being so damn stubborn and walk with me?” And yes, I think God would say damn, among other things that we’ve been taught not to say out loud.

Whenever it happened, I bet I wasn’t ready. I wouldn’t have made the choice myself to move forward and to begin to see the beauty of the season again. Thankfully, God doesn’t usually ask if we’re ready. In our Blue Christmas service tonight, I read an adaptation of a passage from Madeleine L’Engle’s “First Coming”. I’d like to share it with you.

“God did not wait until the world was ready, till the nations were at peace. God came when the heavens were unsteady and prisoners cried for release. God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great. God dined with sinners in all their grime. God did not wait until the hearts were pure.  In JOY God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt. To a world of anguish and shame. God came in JOY, and his light never goes out. God came to a world which did not mesh; to heal its ill, and shield its scorn.  In the mystery of the Word made flesh, the maker of the stars were born. We cannot wait until the world is whole, to raise our songs with joyful voice, to share our grief, to touch our pain. God came in grace, with love. Rejoice!”

God knows that right now our need is deep and great, that we live in a world of anguish and shame, and that we still don’t mesh. Thank God it doesn’t matter! God breaks in anyway. God shines light in all the dark places of our hearts, our souls, our world; and as hard as the darkness tries to fend off the light, it can’t. John 1:5 tells us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Thank. You. Jesus. Thank you for coming into this broken world and especially into this broken heart. Thank you for your assurance that joy comes in the morning.

Tonight also happens to be the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. As part of our Blue Christmas service, we share a “Blessing for the Longest Night”, which ends with these words: “So when this blessing comes, take its hand. Get up. Set out on the road you cannot see. This is the night when you can trust that any direction you go, you will be walking toward the dawn.”

And so I’ll walk. I’ll walk blindly forward in the darkness of a world filled with love and hate, violence and peace, justice and grave injustice. I’ll walk in trust, knowing that even as God’s light shines in the darkness of my own heart, it does so in the hearts of billions of others as well. And I’ll believe that there will be a dawn. I hope that you’ll believe with me.

We closed our service tonight with this song from the Indigo Girls.

Listen, sing, watch, and believe. There’s still our joy. Christmas Blessings to you, my friends. May you experience anew the magic of God born into our midst; even when Christmas hurts.