Joining In

A sermon based on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on June 4th, 2017

Sermon audio

Today we celebrate the many ways that God gives us new being. How we are forever and constantly invited into a life that is not ours but something given to us.

Pentecost is when we the Church realize that our life, our vitality, our meaning and purpose aren’t something that comes from within us. It all comes from somewhere else. Beyond us. We are not who we are on our own.

On the morning of that first Pentecost, the disciples were held up in a tiny room. Their minds, hearts, lives—their very purpose was gone, shrunk down and withered away. Frozen in fear. They thought they were alone. Abandoned. Orphaned. Left to themselves to make life work from here on out. Then they heard a rumble that came from the heavens.

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It is through Holy Spirit that we are given live, purpose, vitality. Holy Spirit represented by tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water.

Pentecost fire is not the sort that burns. It’s the sort that refines. Cleanses. Helps something made hard and rigid melt down into something pliable, shapeable, able to be remolded again.

Tongues of speech. Not the strange jibber-jabber heard in Holiness churches, but a new language that’s given to us so that we may understand one another and be understood by one another. We read the story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel where God confuses the languages of the people until they can no longer understand one another. What happens in Acts 2, on Pentecost, is the undoing of Babel.

Now, on this day, with the presence of the Holy Spirit with us, we have the ability to understand one another again. We borrow language that isn’t ours, and with it, we speak. We speak in the varied languages of our lives. We understand and are understood. And that’s a tremendous gift: to be understood. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit who speaks among us and between us.

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Holy Spirit comes upon us as wind, reminding us that we are born from borrowed breath. It is God’s breath that inflated Adam’s empty lungs and gave him life. The same is true of us. Until God breathes Holy Spirit into us, we have no life.

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And water. The waters of baptism are poured out upon us as a sign of this gift, the Holy Spirit. Water is another reminder that we are not our own. Without water, we wither away. It’s another life-giving gift. Something that we do not and cannot give ourselves; water is given to us. With the waters of baptism, we say that with God and with the people of God, we find ourselves. That being human is to belong. That to belong is to be human.

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Each one of these—tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water. They are all things that invite us into bigger life. Holy Spirit life.

Andrew, Brennan, Leela, nothing magical has happened today. But you did do something wondrous just now: In a world that prizes individualism—do it yourself-ism—you have just proclaimed with your presence and your voice that you will no longer live your life alone. You have in a few different ways, declared that doing life together, joining in, is the only way for you to find your purpose, your life, your shape, your language, your breath, yourself.

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The same is true for all of us. We all need to be reminded of the together-way. Life not only lived but formed and given meaning in and through the practice of Holy Spirit-community. And just like the disciples on that first Pentecost, this is just the beginning of our journey together.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

God’s First Move

A sermon based on Psalm 85:8-13 and Ephesians 1:3-14 preached May 14th, 2017

The world is so much bigger than we think.

There’s a book by Emma Donoghue, and the tie-in movie—both entitled Room—about a young mother named Joy and her 5-year old son named Jack. Jack’s mother has been held captive inside a 12 by 12-foot garden shed for 7 years, for all of Jack’s life plus another 2 before he came along. This 12-foot square room is all that Jack has ever known. He calls it “Room.” It’s his whole world.

When young Jack began asking questions and remembering their answers, his mother Joy decided it was best to tell him there was nothing more than these four walls that surrounded them—the ceiling a few feet above their heads. There were no windows in Room. Just a skylight above that gave them nothing to look at but blue sky and white clouds. The light of the sun and the dark of night was nothing more to Jack than a one-dimensional covering that he must have imagined existed just a few feet above Room’s ceiling. Jack’s world was tiny and simple.

When Jack turned 5, his mother decided he was old enough to comprehend the bigger picture. The black and white TV in Room, she told him, projected images of real human beings—other people who existed in the world and lived hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles away. We can hear Jack asking,

What’s a mile?

Joy tried her best to tell Jack that the world is filled with billions of people who were just like them. That people had to drive cars to get from one place to another because the places they needed to go were so far away. All this was lost on Jack. He didn’t believe her. How could he? He’d never known anything bigger than the cramped and dark 144 square feet of a garden shed.

At one point in the movie, Jack refuses his mother’s big words about this immense world she is talking about. He shouts,

I want a different story!

His mother quickly replies:

No! This is the story you get!!

Jack’s mind is no bigger than what his eyes can see, his ears can hear, and all they know are the tin walls of a ramshackle shed, the static-y murmur of a black and white TV.

I won’t give away the ending. It’s a profound story you must see for yourself. But, this I will say: Room is a story that should make us wonder about the vast entirety of the world—maybe even the cosmos—and our place in it.

Throughout, questions should bubble up in our minds: This world and this life we live in it, do we believe it’s only as big as what we’ve seen and been told by others, or do we know more? Could it be that we move about this vast planet of ours in our tiny little circles so repetitively that we lose perspective? In an effort to be comfortable with our own small version and vision of things, maybe we have taken the vast dimensions of God’s immense creation and shrunk it down into our own versions of a 12 by 12-foot room.

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Just like 5-year-old Jack, in order to grow to maturity, to know the truth about creation, the God who made it, and our place in it, we must first be made aware of how large the gap is between our tiny vision of things and God’s immeasurable power and grace. What else is there but what we can see through our own skylights?

No matter what we’ve been told, no matter how far we’ve traveled or how wide our eyes are as we go along our way, what Paul wants us to know, right off the bat is that everything about God, the grace He gives, the love He has for us, the plans He’s made for us—they’re all much bigger and louder, more wondrous and glorious than we could ever know. This is Paul’s message to those first Christians in Ephesus. And it’s still an important message for us. First, we must be told that, in the grand scheme of things, the only reason why we’re significant is because God has adopted us as his family through Jesus Christ, and because of this, we do not, cannot, live in our own world. This is God’s world, and in order to know our place in it, we must hand ourselves over to God—to persistently and intentionally give ourselves over to ways of Christ Jesus.

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In the original language this whole passage, verses 3 through 14, is one huge, marvelous, run-on sentence. At 201 words, it’s the longest sentence in all of scripture.

Paul must have thought that the urgency of these words was great enough to warrant the abandonment of proper punctuation and syntax. This news is so good that even a comma would disturb the power inside of this sentence! It’s enough to give any English teacher a coronary.

But the largeness, the grammatical abandonment, of this colossal, run-on sentence should be excused, even by the most strident of grammar Nazis, because its lack of punctuation and its sheer size echoes the gracious abundance of its subject: God.

This one-sentence passage is a torrent of God-activity that refuses to pause or come up for air. It’s an avalanche of blessing that gathers size and strength with every tumbling word, all of it mirroring God’s lavish generosity. How can we keep from singing? How can we stop talking about how amazing God is?! This is the Gospel. This is Good News that will not wait!

Right away, through this torrent of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the message is clear: in order to grow into the life that God has for us, in order to grow into spiritual maturity, what last week we identified as the goal of the Christian life, we must abandon all our shallow notions of who God is, all of our tiny twelve-by-twelve, Room-sized views of things, all of our too-small perceptions of how the world works and how God works in the world, and give ourselves over to the magnificence of what God is doing through Christ Jesus—the salvation He is working within us and among us, as well as far beyond us. God is not merely a part of our lives. That’s way too small and backwards, Paul says here at the outset of Ephesians. We are a part of God’s life.

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In order to open our eyes and then our lives to all this magnificence, Paul fills his run-on sentence with seven action verbs: blessed, chose, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, and gather up.

None of these verbs have us as their subject. God’s the One doing all the action here. We are the objects of all of these verbs. We do not bless, choose, destine, bestow, lavish, make known, or gather up ourselves. God’s the One who blesses, chooses, destines, bestows, lavishes us. God is the One who makes known to us who we are, and gathers us up.

God’s the first Mover. In this salvation life, we do not begin on our own. These verbs, they’re God’s ways of jump-starting the work of salvation inside of us and among us. God has the first move. All of our action is merely a reaction to all that God has done and is doing for us in Christ Jesus, His Son and our Lord.

These words are in chapter 1 of this letter for a reason. Paul wants us to know this from the start or else all of our starts will be false ones. Let us not waste any more of our time thinking that we are the ones who make any of this happen. Let’s not live one more second of our lives—including our life together as Church—under the delusion that we’re the ones who make something of ourselves. Notions like that are just as tiny as 5-year-old Jack looking up at a tiny patch of blue through a sky light thinking he’s seen the whole world. God has made room for us to stretch our vision. To see things we have never and will never be able to see on our own.

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The older we get, the less we know. You’ve heard that before. In our younger years, we think we know it all. But as we growth into maturity, as we step out into the world, we slowly begin to realize how small we are inside of it.

It’s those moments when we stand beside the ocean, as the song goes, and find ourselves small and insignificant in the vast array of God’s creation, that we begin to realize how tiny we are and how little we know. The moment we realize this is a moment of amazing grace. It’s the instance when we abandon all those overinflated thoughts we have about ourselves, when we slowly let go of our own significance and begin to find ourselves all over again in the vast and Divine family of things. This is the first step into spiritual maturity. When in one way or another, we say,

God, this is all you and none of me

As Paul writes,

It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.

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I hope I don’t give away the ending of Room if I tell you that 5-year old Jack and his mother, Joy, are finally freed from the confines of their 12 by 12-foot world.

Once outside of Room, Jack sees the immense glory of creation—what was once a mere rumor that he refused to believe. At the end of the film, we hear Jack say:

I’ve been in the world 37 hours. I’ve seen pancakes, and stairs, and birds, and windows, and hundreds of cars. And clouds, and police, and doctors, and grandma and grandpa. But Mommy says grandma and grandpa don’t live together in the hammock house anymore. Grandma lives there with her friend Leo now. And Grandpa lives far away.

I’ve seen persons with different faces, and bigness, and smells, talking all together. The world’s like the black and white TV in Room, but it’s on, all at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen.

There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. It never stops. Plus, the world’s always changing brightness, and hotness. And there’s invisible germs floating everywhere. When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know EVERYTHING!

And the book-readers and the movie-goers and God himself laughs, and we all say:

Jack, You haven’t seen anything yet!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Holy Soil

A sermon based Psalm 24 and Ephesians 1:1-2 preached on May 7th, 2017

It won’t be long now that we will have a Community Gardens in Barboursville. Just a block this way, along Depot Street, the field has been tilled. The soil has been stirred. Filled again with carbon dioxide. It’s breathing again. This is how land becomes ripe for growth. When its lungs can expand.

After years of sitting there, breathless and dense—compacted—a boring, lifeless, barren field is now being readied for cultivation. Readied for life. Readied for resurrection. Resurrection is what happens when what was once buried deep in the ground—breathless—comes to life again. When what was once stuck in place, unable to move or grow, is given vitality, meaning, and purpose. What was once fallow and inconsequential becomes vibrant and dynamic and life-giving once more. Resurrection is the process of readying the soil of our hearts and minds and lives so that we can grow, cultivate something new and holy among us—with God’s help. This is the Message of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

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Today, we’re diving into this life-giving letter written to the young church in Ephesus. This letter is only six chapters long. Any one of you can read it in a space of fifteen minutes, but don’t let its short length fool you. The book of Ephesians is nothing less than a Christian Opus. It’s been compared over and over again to a piece of music that stirs the soul to life. Many have said about Ephesians that it’s the one book in all of scripture that has woken them up to Jesus-alive, God-alive. One man said about Ephesians that through reading it, studying its words,

he saw a new world…Everything was new. I had a new outlook, new experiences, new attitudes to other people. I loved God. Jesus Christ became the Center of everything…I had been quickened; I was really alive!

Ephesians was John Calvin’s favorite letter. It seems as though nobody can read Ephesians without being moved to wonder and worship. What’s more, Ephesians is, for our time, the most contemporary and relevant book in the entire Bible. Its words—the promises made inside of it—have much for us in our current context. It speaks of community in a world of disunity. It promises reconciliation in time of estrangement and hostility. All of these 1st Century notions are also 21st Century ones.

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But, what makes the letter to the Ephesians so important for us—for we who call ourselves the Church of Jesus Christ—is that it doesn’t just offer us words of comfort and hope. It doesn’t simply encourage us to endure in this life, to hunker down in prayer and keep on believing. Instead, Ephesians gives the Church an action plan. It’s here to encourage us to become movers and shakers, to get in on the project of God. Pastor Eugene Peterson call this holy endeavor “Practicing Resurrection.” In a sense, Ephesians tells us what to do with Easter. Its main point is nothing less than the entire point of our Christian faith. Where all this walking in the Way of Jesus leads us. We practice our faith for a purpose. The point of it all is to grow into Christian maturity.

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I’ve been going to church since the day I was born. Maybe you have too. I can’t think of a Sunday when my family was in town and we didn’t go to church. When I wasn’t encouraged to attend Logos or Vacation Bible School, Youth Group, Sunday School. But have you ever wondered why? This thing called Church—why do we do this? Or maybe that’s the wrong question.

All this being Church—attending worship and spaghetti luncheons—where’s it all taking us? Where is all of this going? What’s the point of this? Is it all repetition for repetition’s sake? We are Church, but why and to what end? Ephesians answers this question: the point of all this is to grow into Christian maturity.

Much like the journey of physical maturity, however treacherous it is, spiritual maturity is about growing up in God. But Paul doesn’t just say that and assume we know what he’s talking about. He goes on to tell us what growing to Christian maturity looks like. Just like physical maturity, the right conditions for growing into a mature faith requires much care, the right kind of nourishment, guidance. So, we’re going to spend these summer months slowly combing through this letter to the church in Ephesus. It’s written to encourage us to grow into the full stature of Christ Jesus, right here in the holy soil into which we have been planted.

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I hope to a certain extent that the idea of spiritual maturity in Christ is a new one to you. It’s relatively new to me, also.

I bet that if you asked the average Christian what the goal of the Christian life was, he or she would say something about getting into heaven at life’s end. I think that’s a fine hope. I share in that hope, too. But there’s many a Christian who spend their life holding their breath, waiting for their reward in the afterlife, because it’s never occurred to them that there’s purpose for living this life too, and it has nothing to do with waiting for what comes next.

Hoping for a distant tomorrow seems like a lousy way to live your life today. God has something for us right where we are. On earth as it is in heaven, as Jesus prayed. Eternal life starts right here and right now—in the holy soil of earth. This is where Church starts. When a family of the faithful begins to realize together that living this Christian life is about practicing heaven on earth together—helping each other grow up together into the full stature of our living Lord, Jesus Christ.

Practicing resurrection, holding each other in the holy soil of Easter, all the while prayerfully encouraging one another toward full spiritual maturity—it happens with feet firmly planted on earth. Church is how we all get grafted into God’s salvation story. Church is the community garden of Christian growth. What others have called the Colony of Heaven.

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These first two verses of Ephesians are short, but they contain multitudes. They get us thinking about all that matters as we set out to grow into the full stature of Christ with and for each other. Growing into full Christian maturity takes one part grace as well as one part peace.

Grace and peace,

Paul writes.

This mention of grace and peace is a whole lot more than a greeting that Paul uses. With these two words, he’s laying out the landscape of our growth. It is first through grace, and then through peace, that we will mature into the full stature of Christ Jesus.

This summer, as we move from one passage of Ephesians to the next, we will have the very welcome opportunity to think more deeply about these two Divine promises, grace and peace. But for now, it’s important to talk a bit about them here at the beginning. Too often, we think and speak about God’s grace as if it’s an end in itself. We say things like,

There but for the grace of God go I.

Most of the time when we use the word, it’s too often the end, and not the beginning, of our conversations.

Grace too easily degenerates into the notion that being a Christian means simply believing in Jesus Christ and that’s it. It’s too often spoken of as our excuse for never growing in our faith—for staying in place in our faith—for our never being interested growing. Grace too often is mis-used as a means to inactivity. We see it as a good reason to sit back on our heels in our life of faith. There’s no reason to do more or be more because God’s grace holds us. It’s not that this isn’t true, but it’s hardly what scripture has to say about grace. If we listen closely to what Ephesians has to tell us—even what the second verse here has to say—grace starts to look more like the beginning of the salvation story instead of its end.

“Grace and peace,” Paul says. In that order, too. Grace is the beginning of our faith. It’s the first word God speaks to us through Christ in the lifelong conversation that God wants to have with us! Paul wants us to think of grace as the seed that’s sown into the holy soil of our lives—right at the beginning. And it is by grace that this seed grows. Becomes something living and breathing.

Author and teacher Stephen Rankin writes that grace, properly understood, is “the enabling power” through which we can make our way to Christian maturity. Grace is the fuel that powers our spiritual development. It’s the vitamin and the mineral in the holy soil of our faith that starts us off in our story of our growth and into the full stature of Christ.

In a similar way, peace—this second word Paul uses here—is another vital element in our growing into Christ-likeness. Peace is the foundation, the stability of ground that our faith needs to grow safely. Grace and peace. We need both. Neither of them are ends in themselves. As we will learn as we move forward in Ephesians, the end of our faith is full spiritual maturity.

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As we move through this letter to the church in Ephesus, I think it will become clear to us that it is also a letter to us, the church in Barboursville, West Virginia. Easter resurrection, Christian maturity, and growth into the full stature of Christ happens in the holy soil beneath the feet of wherever Christ’s people gather—as we practice being church with and for one another. Together, we use the fuel of God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to nurture each other in this holy soil of Easter life.

Our whole purpose for existing is to practice resurrection together. To infuse the living promise of Easter into each other’s blood and bones, minds and hearts. That’s church in essence: The groundwork of God’s salvation. Holy soil. A people on our way to maturity in the world of God-alive, Jesus-alive!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Birthmarks

A sermon based on 1 Peter 1:3-10 and John 20:19-29 preached on April 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s Easter evening. The disciples are huddled together in a room too small for them. They’re sweating because the air is stagnant. They’re fearful for lack of courage or purpose. Three days ago, their courage and purpose had been crucified on a cross just outside Jerusalem. His name was Jesus.

Yes, there were rumors about. Earlier that morning, the two Marys had run back to the locked room they were huddled in. Out of breath from running, but also from whatever it is that happens to us when fear mixes with joy, they told the disciples that Jesus was alive. Walking, talking, breathing. Having conversations with them. But, for those first disciples, rumors and stories, conjecture and hearsay were good for nothing. How can anyone believe that Jesus is alive without first having seen Him? That’s the deep Easter question we have, isn’t it, friends?

Sometimes faith is easy. There are moments, perhaps many of them, when believing in that which we have not seen with our own two eyes comes effortlessly. But there are also moments when our faith lacks the strength to carry us very far—out of our own locked rooms.

There they were—Jesus’ disciples, who knows how many of them—certainly more than 11—hiding behind locked doors, whispering to each other out of fear of being discovered, certain that if they made too much noise or emerged out of the cubbyhole of a room they were in, they’d end up on a cross just like their Master had.

It’s a wonder that the Jesus movement was birthed at all. For their faith to take on life, those first disciples had to emerge from the grave of that small, locked room. In a sense, they had already buried themselves inside those 4 walls. They had barred the door shut—it was locked from the inside—that door was like a tombstone they had rolled in front of their own grave. All indications would lead us to think that they were calling it quits.

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Whenever we read this passage in worship or in Sunday School class, or a bible study, the word doubt inevitably becomes a part of our conversation.

But there’s something much more sinister at play here. Doubt we can handle. We can live with doubt. In fact, it’s hard for us not to. But hope. Hope is something that none of us can survive without. If all we see wherever we look are walls, barriers, locked doors that keep us in, that hold us prisoner—especially when those doors are locked from the inside—then we’ve given up hope. And what else is there if we do not have hope?

Whenever fear takes up more space in our lives than hope, death wins. Life grows smaller. The walls around us get thicker, they move in closer. And there we are, cramped with fear. As good as dead. We all know what it’s like to be stuck in place; it feels like dying—or at least a sort of smaller death.

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It is right in the middle of this cramped space, this room filled with fear and death and hopelessness, that we hear a voice we recognize:

Peace be with you!

Jesus says. Heads turn. Mouths fall open. The women were right! Jesus is standing among them. He speaks real words from His real mouth. Looking at the disciples through His real eyes. There He is standing among them in the middle of that cubbyhole of a room. And whether it actually happened or it just felt like it, the walls of that room retreated. The space inside grew bigger, fuller. And suddenly, the disciples could breathe again. In that tiny space, life quickly replaced death.

Peace be with you!

And after saying those words, Jesus breathed on them, inflating their lungs again, reviving their hopelessness, giving new energy—God-energy to their bodies worn down and failing, bringing new birth to their dying spirits. In that moment, everything seemed to expand. Walls. Eyes. Lungs.

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Let’s dive a little deeper.

Did you ever notice how many times Jesus’ hands and side are mentioned in this passage? Three. Three times in 11 short verses. This should get our attention.

The first and last time, it’s Jesus who brings up these scars of His. The second time Jesus’ scars are mentioned, it’s Thomas who brushes aside the witness of his fellow disciples. They have told him that they had seen the Lord, and in his stubbornness, the first thing that Thomas brings up is that he needs to see those scars—the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, the lash marks in his side. That’s a curious thing! Have we ever thought about that? What’s so important about Jesus’ marks—these scars He had—that they’re the first thing Thomas says he needs to see, the first thing Jesus shows to His disciples, and the first thing that Jesus shows to Thomas a week later?

There seems to be no question about it: Jesus’ disciples were waiting to see the marks. It’s the most important detail of Jesus’ identity now—that His body now has scars. If we ever had the notion that the body of the resurrected Jesus would be blemish-free—glowing in radiance, white with light, healed by God, then we are assuming too much. In fact, we’d be assuming the opposite of what those first disciples assumed. The resurrected Jesus—the One high and lifted up—the One who is with us now in the power of the Holy Spirit—is perfect, but even in His perfection, He has scars. And these scars aren’t just something left over from His life on earth; these marks He has make Him our Lord and our God.

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Our bodies bear witness to the brutalities of this all-too-human life of ours. They’re marked up all over. Our skin tells our stories for us. Our bodies are our best diaries. Written upon them is every bit of our past. Over the landscape of our own bodies we encounter the countless moments of our lives. Our bodies are living signposts marking where we have been and what we have accomplished. They remember where we have stumbled, but they insist on getting back up onto our feet to try again—which in a way is its own tiny resurrection, or if that’s too much, it’s at least resilience, our hope becoming stronger than our fear. Our bodies are living testaments to the God-filled conviction that says: no matter what this world throws at us, we have within us completely resilient spirits. Our marks—physical, spiritual, emotional—do not make us less than human; they are the very things that show forth God’s power to bring us to new birth.

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Friends, we belong to a Wounded Healer. Jesus’ scars—the ones in His hands and sides—are not incidental. They are the story He has to tell. They are God’s story.

Jesus isn’t our Lord without those wounds. What He endured for us on the cross shall not be erased. We do not forget his crucifixion, because without Good Friday, there is no Easter. Without the marks, we would not be here. Without the holes in His hands and sides, we would not be whole. The Church was birthed by those marks on Jesus’ resurrected body. And without them, the Church would have died before it ever came to life.

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Do you know what this means, friends? It means that our faith is birthed from Jesus’ marks. So, the only way to be Church—to live our lives authentically and in witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ—is to bear our marks. To go out from this place, and into all our places, and show the wounds in our hands and sides. By so doing, we show others that Jesus’ church is far from being a group of people who celebrate their own perfection or holiness. Instead, we are people who are willing to roll up our sleeves and show others the side of ourselves that’s filled with wounds—wounds of body, heart, spirit, and soul. They will know we are Christians by our marks. Our marks make us fully alive! God-alive, Jesus-alive, Easter-alive!

And if we do that—if we are willing to be as vulnerable as Jesus was when He entered into that room appearing to his people, wounds and all, then we will bring light to darkened hearts, hope to fear-filled souls, life to people living their lives half-dead, and maybe, hopefully, lead them to recognize Jesus in much the same way that Thomas did that evening.

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Thomas’ eyes were opened when he saw Jesus. And from his mouth came the most profound statement of faith that we have in any of the gospels:

My Lord and my God!

he said.

The Church was given birth that night with those words from Thomas. It is with that declaration of faith along with the breath that Jesus breathed into those disciples—both, bringing them to life—that the Church still has its life.

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Friends, we still have limited vision and blinding doubts. We’re often crippled by the same kind of fear that those first disciples had, and that fear causes us to do the same thing it did to them: to keep all held up inside, to keep our faith hidden by these four walls, to hesitate to take the Good News of Jesus-alive out with us—to share it and wear it. To live our days, hours, minutes in witness to our resurrected Lord. It is into our anxiety—that thing that tells us over and over again that our faith is a private thing—that Jesus speaks those same words He did to those first disciples:

Peace be with you.

Jesus says it over and over again. Three times in this passage, and many more times to us. And he’ll continue speaking peace to us until we finally understand what He’s trying to tell us. Christ’s peace is a whole lot more than something that calms our fears. This is Shalom. This is a peace that empowers us and drags us into maturity, wholeness, completeness. Jesus breathes this peace into us. With His breath, Jesus gives us life—He births the Church in the same way God brought creation to life when His Spirit swept over the waters and stirred the cosmos to life.

With this Shalom, we catch our breath and are made into new beings. This is the breath that marks us for second birth. And once we catch Jesus’ breath, once we’re birthed by the Holy Spirit—given our vitality and our mission—we go out from this place and bear witness to our Lord by bearing His marks in all we say, and in all we do.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Faith, Untangled

A sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Luke 13:10-17 preached on August 21, 2016

Sermon audio

Journalist and author Philip Yancey starts his book about the grace of God by sharing the story of a prostitute. She came to one of Yancey’s friends in a bad shape. She was homeless and sick, addicted to drugs, unable to afford food for her 2-year old daughter. Yancey’s friend said he had no idea what to do for her, no idea what to say.

Have you ever thought of going to a church for help?

he said.

Church!

she cried.

Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!

A comment like that is a stunning indictment on the Church. When others look at us, they don’t see the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. They see a finger pointed and wagging at them in judgment. They see a bunch of people who couldn’t care less about the down and out, because we’re too busy convincing ourselves of how much God loves us. Instead of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable like Jesus did, there are far too many churches that further afflict the already afflicted, and further comfort the already comfortable.

It’s fair to look at the Church and ask, “Where has God’s grace gone?” Haven’t we overlooked it and focused more on improving our own efforts to live upright and moral lives? When did the Christian faith get so tangled up in rules? When did we start thinking that our own efforts and upright behavior bring us closer to God, and that grace is only the backup system we’ll use if our good behavior isn’t enough to get us there? All this is to say that there are many Christian who know of grace but do not know grace. Who do not want to rely upon it. As C.S. Lewis has written,

To some of us grace is only a word; a nice idea, the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, or news from a country we have not yet visited.

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Imagine what life was like for the woman in our story. For 18 years, she’s been hunched over, staring at the ground. Only able to look into the eyes of her son or daughter if they were kind enough to crouch down to her level or if she strained her neck upwards to meet their gaze. But most of the time she stared down at her own feet. Bent over—living on a lower level than anyone else around her. Everyone in her town knew of her, but because they never could see her eyes, what her face looked like, her smile, she quickly became invisible to them. And nobody ever looks in the direction of an invisible person.

For 18 years, her body has been tangled up and twisted in a knot—that’s at least what it felt like to her, and the words “crooked,” “crippled,” and “contorted” don’t just describe what her body felt like; they were also good words to describe how everybody else regarded her. And after almost 2 decades of that, it’s not hard to imagine how she began to regard herself the same way. As hard as it was to walk around in public this way, she braved the journey anyhow. It was the Sabbath, and she made her way slowly but surely to the Temple for worship. “Church!” We can imagine her crying, “Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!” But she went anyway. That day, she hobbled into the Temple just as she did thousands of times before. And as she made her way into the crowd gathered there on that Sabbath day, there was a man teaching whom she had never seen before. Little did she know, she had staggered her way into the very presence of God.

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In the BBC movie, The Mission, Robert De Niro’s character, a mercenary and slave-catcher named Rodrigo Mendoza, makes his living kidnapping natives of the Guarani and other tribes who live along the Amazon River in South America in the 1750’s. Mendoza takes those he’s kidnapped to Spain and sells them to plantation owners. Mendoza comes home from one of these trips to find a man in bed with his fiancée, and kills him. Although acquitted for the murder, during the time Mendoza spends in prison, all the weight of his murderous ways catches up to him and he spirals into a deep despair. The only way Mendoza can see his way out of the darkness of his past is by changing his ways. A priest, whose name is Father Gabriel, visits Mendoza in prison and challenges him to undertake a suitable penance—a punishment to atone for his past. Father Gabriel takes Mendoza out to the Guarani tribe, the very tribe whom he killed and maimed and captured his last slaves from. But this time Mendoza would go the them as a missionary—to live life with them, to share meals with them, to understand their culture.

As a part of his penance, Mendoza has to make the long journey by boat and by foot carrying all of his old armor, artillery, and swords. He carries them in a net he drags behind him, the weight of it tied around his waist. He drags it up the side of huge waterfalls, literally bearing the heaviness of his past behind him with each and every step upwards. Mendoza does this for the 100’s of miles of their journey through the Amazon rainforests.

In a poignant scene in the movie, as the missionary team make their way into the territory of the Guarani tribe. They had just climbed up the rocks of a waterfall, and they are met by some of the tribes’ elders. Mendoza slowly hoists his way up onto dry ground, his net full of his past hanging over the side behind him. He recognizes the very natives whose family members he had stolen away from them.

One of the elders of the tribe comes up to Mendoza, who’s curled up on the ground in exhaustion. He holds a machete up to Mendoza—but instead of cutting him with it, the elder takes the rope tied around Mendoza’s waist, and slices through it, freeing Mendoza once and for all from the weight and burden he had been lugging around for all these miles and all these years. And once freed from that heaviness, Mendoza begins to weep.

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Friends, that’s grace.

Both Rodrigo Mendoza and the woman in our story from Luke 13 would tell you that grace is that amazing gift of having all of the weight of our own past—all that we’ve been dragging behind us for years and years, for miles and miles—suddenly cut away from us, and dropped for good. They and thousands of others like them would tell you from their own experience that God’s grace is that straightening of all that once bent us over or dragged along with us, so that we can be freed to walk forward, loosed from bondage, made it a new person—no more burdens crippling our journey.

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I wonder what the woman saw once Jesus placed His hands upon her back. It was at that moment that she could straighten up. Consider how her entire perspective changed. What did her first few breaths feel like now that her lungs could fully expand in her chest? For the first time in almost two decades, she could look straight into the eyes of a friend. She could hug her husband and her children. Imagine her staring up into the sky, taking in the clouds. Feeling the rain fall upon her face. Untangled, finally, standing tall and facing the world directly, this woman took the world in and enjoy it!

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I wonder, though, who are the ones in bondage here? Whose sight was really obscured? Wasn’t it really the Pharisees who are the ones bent out of shape? Weren’t they the ones unable to recognize Jesus for who he is? The ones unable to see what’s happening right in front of them?

The Pharisees had no notion of grace. According to them, God’s favor was all tangled up with their own efforts to make good with God. The way they saw it, it was up to them to impress God. Climb your way up the waterfall all on your own and God will notice how great you are and will reward you in spades for all the back-breaking work you do! The Pharisees thought holiness is what happens when you put rules of purity and goodness at the center. Jesus’ idea of holiness is what happens when God’s mercy comes first.

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Lest we think it’s those other people, like the Pharisees, who don’t understand grace, we need to turn our gaze inward and pay attention to our own tendencies. We get tangled up in this, too.

Today, it’s something called moralism that trips us up. Moralism is the notion—all too pervasive these days—that good Christian faith can be reduced to improvements in our behavior. Moralism says that God will love us if we behave, act right, and shape up. It’s the rigid obedience to rules that says above all else, our faith is about moral instruction and moral obedience, and as long as way behave, follow all the rules, we stay on God’s good side. Straighten up, fly right, be nice, and God will love and reward you for it.

We find this message in churches, we hear it in political rhetoric, on the radio, in advice columns of our newspapers. Moralism is so pervasive today that most people who call themselves Christian are actually moralists. We’ve traded in our Gospel faith for a lesser model. The apostle Paul said to the Christians in Galatia that He was amazed that they were so quickly deserting the God who called you by the grace of Christ for a different and lesser gospel. Moralism is one of those different and lesser Gospels. We should know by now, through Gospel stories like this one, that rigid obedience to rules blind us to God’s reign in the world.

Moralism isn’t Gospel; it’s just a new sort of Pharisaism; just another tangled mess of our own making that has us convinced that God is happy with us when we do all the right things. And it makes a mockery of the grace-filled message of Jesus Christ. God loves us not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but because of who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ.

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It is only when we know—profoundly and deeply know—that the grace that God has brought to us is far more powerful than anything we could ever bring to God, that we can stand up straight in God’s presence, be unbound, untangled, and freed to celebrate all the extraordinary ways that Christ is moving in our midst and setting us free to live full lives!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen!

How to Start a Fire

A sermon based on Exodus 13:17-22 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on May 15th, 2016

Sermon audio

If you believe author Elizabeth Gilbert, ideas are living beings. That is, she says, they exist outside of us and they survive in spite of us. Here’s what she means by that. Years ago, Elizabeth had an idea for a novel—a very specific idea: It was a story set in the 1960’s about a middle-aged spinster from Minnesota who’s secretly been in love with her boss for years. He gets involved in a harebrained business scheme down in the Amazon jungle. A bunch of money goes missing, and the main character gets sent down there to solve the problem.

Her editor liked the plot and told Elizabeth to write her novel, but she got sidetracked by the stuff of life, and after years of sitting on the idea, she conceded that the novel would never be written, and the idea slowly floated away.

Fast forward a few years later, Elizabeth Gilbert sees a good writer friend of hers named Anna who happened to be in town, and they meet up for lunch. They hadn’t talked to one another for a decade or maybe more. And over lunch, they ask each other what sort of writing projects each are working on, and Elizabeth shares the plot of her novel that would never be. And after Elizabeth was finished sharing, Ana looks her in the eyes and says,

You’ve got to be kidding me! I just finished a novel that set in the 1960’s, and it’s about a spinster from Minnesota who’s been quietly in love with her boss and when her boss goes down to the Amazon jungle, he gets caught up in a wild pharmaceutical scheme, and she has to go down there to solve things.

Now, there are lots of books out there that built out of all the same stuff—millions of murder mysteries or a vampire romances, for instance, but this was something entirely different! Nobody writes a novel about the Amazon jungle at all, and here are two authors with eerily similar book ideas—all the way down to the small details.

Elizabeth Gilbert reflects upon this happenstance in her book Big Magic, except she doesn’t believe it was happenstance at all. She believes that ideas are alive—that they move from one person to the next, trying to find a human collaborator. She thinks that ideas have a conscious, that they move from one soul to another, until they find someone who’s ready to take that yet-to-be manifested idea and turn it into something! And if an idea finds a person who’s unwilling to bring it into being, the idea will move on and find a different host. And an idea, she believes, will do that over and over again until it finds someone with the bravery and the drive to make something real out of it!

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Now this sounds like a far-out idea—something conjured up by someone with too much time on their hands, but Elizabeth Gilbert knows how ideas spark inside of her, how they come and how they go. And, I wonder if her idea about ideas has something to teach us on this Pentecost Sunday—this day when we remember the moment when the first Apostles catch wind of a brand new thing that happens upon them, something they can only describe as Holy Spirit.

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That first Pentecost day was not unlike the day before it or the one before that, but sometime in the morning a presence happened upon them, and they just didn’t know how to describe it. Whatever or whoever this was came like wind and like fire. And even though they were surprised and overcome by its arrival, the Holy Spirit did something to them that they just could not ignore—something real and new and undeniable struck them that morning, and they let whatever or whoever this was happen to them—they said Yes to it and they allowed it to take them over.

But this Holy Spirit, this isn’t a mere idea or some notion that fell upon them, it’s not an idea at all, it’s not even an “it.” The Holy Spirit is a being. Not an idea or a mindset or a notion, but the personal presence of God in Christ that storms into our presence like wind and fire storm through a house!

I think the phrase Holy Spirit is a terrible name for the 3rd person of the Trinity. Holy Ghost isn’t any better either. The word used in the New Testament is paraclete, which means Advocate or Helper. The Holy Spirit is not the leftover idea of Jesus’ presence, she’s not some spiritual feeling that we have once in a while that falls upon us and then leaves. The Holy Spirit is an everywhere presence who speaks to us and for us, who like an Advocate, emboldens and empowers us to live as Christ would have us live.

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This is how you start a fire: you gather heat, along with oxygen and an ignition source. This is how the Church was birthed, when a person-like presence came to them like wind and flame, and began sparking! If all we do is keep our faith to ourselves, all of us held inside a cold, dark room somewhere, anywhere, Jesus stays a mere idea, a lifeless “it” of our devotion, a mere relic or notion instead of a “who”—a real being who lives and breathes and calls us outward, who wants us to be agents of real change for His sake and for the sake of God’s world.

God’s Holy Spirit is the presence who comes in and resides among us, and She sets holy fires in Her people so that the whole world will one day be set ablaze with the Good News of the Gospel.

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Saint Catherine of Sienna was a 14th Century pyromaniac. In a time when women weren’t allowed to challenge men, it was Catherine who sent a letter to Pope Gregory XI, confronting him about, and eventually convincing him, to move the papacy from France back to Rome.

In all her dealings, Catherine of Sienna was forthright but never rude. She cared not a bit about the restraints her culture and time placed on her as a woman. She told the hard truth, but she always did it with love. And she never paid attention to those around her who told her to keep her mouth shut. Indeed, it was because she refused to keep her mouth shut that we remember her to this day as someone who set the world on fire. St. Catherine kept journals, many of which you can read to this day. They’re filled with Spirit-filled prayers that still speak life into their readers.

In one of her journal entries she gave a piece of advice that still echoes through the centuries. She wrote,

Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire!

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We’ve been moving back and forth through the Book of Acts for the last few Sundays, and you’ve been invited to read through Acts on your own this month. The Book of Acts in general is a story filled with fire starters. From Peter, who speaks up in today’s passage to declare that the words of Joel the prophet have finally come to pass—that our sons and daughters would prophecy, that our young would see visions and our old will dream dreams—that the Holy Spirit is here for everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from.

It was at that first Pentecost that heaven would begin crumbling down into earth, and from ever onward, the two would never be the same. But in order to recognize what God is doing, we’ll have to see with different eyes and hear with different ears, for it is only by the Holy Spirit that we will see how earth is being infused with heaven.

There were people there that day who saw the wind and flame blow among the people, who saw them acting up, speaking in languages that were not theirs to speak, and out of their shortsightedness and their lack of holy imagination, and in their distrust of what God was up to, they assumed that the people had too much to drink. In their minds, that was the only feasible thing that could make anyone behave that way. Their assumption was not only wrong, it was unfaithful, and unimaginative. They were unwilling to believe what God could do. They were unwilling to see in a different way, and with their narrow eyesight, they looked upon the people filled with the Holy Spirit and could only see a bunch of drunkards.

We too live in a world that severely lacks in imagination—especially holy imagination. Ours is a world void of wonder, but those of us who call ourselves Christians are called and challenged by the Holy Spirit to see everything differently, to pay close attention to the presence and mystery of God, but not only that, to join in on what God is doing in and among His world and in and among His people. We are called to be God’s storytellers and God’s fire starters! We are called to take flint and tinder, and with the breath of our own words, and the fuel of our holy imagination, set fire in the hearts of others!

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Garrison Keillor, the host of A Prairie Home Companion on American Public Radio, was once asked to choose what he considered to be the 5 most important books of all time. Keillor is a very well-read man and an author of many books of his own, so any list of books he’d make would be held in high regard by many. So, readers were probably surprised to find that he ranked the Book of Acts at the very top of his list. When asked to describe the Book of Acts, Keillor said in his trademark concise but image-rich way:

The flames lit on their little heads, and bravely and dangerously went they onward.

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Pentecost is that ever-repeating moment when all of us who call ourselves disciples stop sitting around tables inside our tightly enclosed upper rooms, and begin trusting not in our own power or ideas, not in our own imagination or initiative, but give ourselves over to a greater power, to be swept up and outward by a higher calling, and adopt a holy imagination. But, it’s only when and if we bravely and dangerously go onward with the Holy Spirit that God can do amazing things with us and through us!

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This and every Pentecost, God wants us to take that tongue of flame and bravely and dangerously start holy fires with it so that others may see by their light who our God is. And if we do that, we too will give birth to the Church.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Rerouted and Uprooted

A sermon based on verses from Proverbs and Acts 16:1-5 preached on May 1st, 2016

Sermon audio

Everyone had their bags packed, their passports in hand, and their itinerary all laid out. They knew exactly how long it would take to get to where they wanted to go.

Paul’s routes spread like roots and branches all around the Mediterranean Sea. He and his travel companions would make their way up North and a bit to the West. The plan was to make their way up through Syria and then head West when they get into Cilicia, which is on the North-East coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and then head Northwest to the Western tip of Asia to a place called Bithynia in what is now modern day Turkey. But as we know, even our best travel plans blow up in our faces. Something held Paul and his travel companions from going East into Bithynia. We’re not sure what, and maybe they didn’t either, but it was so strong that the only thing it could have been was the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit of Jesus disrupted all their carefully laid-out plans. Perhaps they didn’t know what to call it at the time, maybe it took a long while to figure out what or who was nudging them in the very opposite direction then they planned on going, but whatever it was they sensed, it was strong enough to make them ditch their maps and venture out into unknown territory.

Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever had to throw out your plans, crumpled up your maps and tossed them over your shoulder into the back seat, and let the wind take you wherever it blew? Even our best-made plans need to be scrapped once in a while.

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I recall a time where I was re-routed. Before my 2nd trip to Honduras with my church, I felt like a veteran. I had done this before, so I thought I knew what to expect. So, a few weeks before the second go-around, I wrote a list of all the things I wanted to learn and encounter while I was there. I can’t recall a thing on that list now, but it was like a spiritual itinerary that I mapped out for myself. I promised myself that I was going to get to know God better in some very specific ways, and it became important to me that I stick to my script all the way through this trip.

Well, the trip didn’t quite go the way I had pictured it. Nothing at all bad happened. In fact, something good happened. I made friends with our host and travel companion, Gladys, who was a native of Honduras. She spoke English, and she and I got along famously, and I enjoyed her company and guidance throughout the trip. She even helped me hone my terribly insufficient grasp of the Spanish language. About halfway through the trip, it dawned on me that this unforeseen friendship that we struck up had completely thrown me off of my carefully laid out plans for the trip. Guys have a tendency to be distracted by these sorts of things, but now it was time to focus on what God wanted for me on this trip. I expressed this frustration of mine to my pastor one afternoon, and he said

What if making friends with Gladys is part of God’s plans for you?

Nah,

I said,

That can’t be!

Why not?

Charlie said.

I thought more about that idea for the rest of the afternoon until I decided he might be right. Who was I to say my own tiny plans were God’s plans, too? Wasn’t the thought that I knew the way this trip was all going to go and what and who I was going to encounter along the way—wasn’t that just some super-inflated notion that I knew the future that God had for me? Who was I to think that way? See, we have small plans. God has big plans—ones we cannot know or anticipate, prepare ourselves for, or even imagine. Whatever great things we have in mind, what God has in mind in even greater!

I threw away my list that afternoon, and immediately felt a freedom to explore all the new things placed in front of me. Suddenly, I could see everything that trip had for me. It was like taking a blindfold off and inviting in whatever I lay my eyes upon. God’s world and all that’s in it is so much more wondrous and strange and captivating than anything we could ever dream up ourselves. So, maybe the most faithful thing we could ever do is ditch the itinerary and all our carefully-made plans, and let ourselves be re-routed by the Spirit of Jesus!

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I wonder what that means for us as a church. Most of the time when a church wants to dream of its own future, or discern what God is doing, we first form a committee. We name it something like “The Vision-Casting Committee,” then we give it an acronym: “VCC,” and we get to work. And what usually happens is this VCC creates for itself some sort of structure to manage itself with. They do everything in logical steps, and they come up with a “strategic plan.” How inspiring does the phrase “strategic plan” sound to you? The word inspirational comes from the same word that Spirit and breathing in comes from.

We’re just a few weeks from Pentecost, when the first Christians would breathe in the Holy Spirit and become changed people—re-routed and uprooted themselves. Sent out into the world to do God’s work and use their own breath to give breath and voice to the peoples of all nations in the name of Jesus. And before the Holy Sprit, the breath of God, came upon them, they had no notion of where it would take them. We can plan ourselves to kingdom come, but we might find out at some point that the only voice we’re really listen for is our own. And if we do that, we’ll start walking East when the Spirit of Jesus wants us to go West.

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After a few days of walking through the city of Philippi, Paul and his fellow travelers walk away from the noise in the center of the town, outside the gates, and toward the river. The busyness of the last few days in the city had them wanting something quieter. They walked out toward the river, thinking they might find a place of prayer—some community of people who listened more then they talked, some community who knew that the best way to discern what God was doing in and amongst them was to gather themselves together in prayer and listen for God to speak to them. Prayer is where we discern God’s next move for us. It’s a way of opening ourselves up to hear the inner promptings and feel the nudges of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is the greatest way for us to be receptive.

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Paul and his fellow sojourners had been re-routed to this place by the Spirit of Jesus, but they hadn’t yet figured out why, and it’s telling that their search for a place to pray, and their desire to enter into prayer, led them to the very person God wanted them to meet. Paul had a vision that a man from Macedonia urged them to come and help them. Trusting that vision, he and his fellow travelers walked in that direction, open to anything God had to show them.

It turns out that this “man from Macedonia” was actually a woman whose name was Lydia. Lydia was a Gentile, a citizen of Rome. Like most others in Philippi, she was polytheistic. She worshipped many gods, one of whom was the God of Hebrew scripture. She was a wealthy woman. She had it all, really. She was an independent business woman, a dealer in purple cloth, which was reserved for royalty. She had all she ever needed, but something inside of her craved something more. Something deeper than all that.

Long before Paul and his companions show up, Lydia is being nudged in God’s direction. Uprooted from her comfortable life. God had been working in her heart—doing something new. She just couldn’t figure it out. Our story says that she listened as Paul shared the message of Jesus with her and others from her household. As as he spoke, Lydia recognized that this was what God was drawing her towards all this time. God prepares us ahead of time for these encounters. We might not ever recognize it, but God’s plans for us are bigger and more wonderful than we could ever imagine for ourselves.

I found that out in Honduras, Paul and his fellow travelers found that out as they gathered together for prayer, and Lydia found that out as Paul’s words cracked open her heart so that the Spirit of Jesus could come flooding in! I imagine that it was at that moment that Paul and his fellow companions recognized what all this journeying in the other direction was for. They had been re-routed for Lydia.

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The experts look at this passage of scripture and wonder who the “we” is at the beginning of verse 11 and all the way through to verse 15. Up until that point, the tale is told in the third person. Then all the sudden it shifts, and the author of Acts supposedly becomes a part of the journey. We sailed. We went to Philippi. We stayed for several days. We sat down with a woman named Lydia. Almost like the author is inviting all of us into the story—along for the journey, as they wind their way through the city and closer to Lydia. As if all of us are being led—or at least have the capacity to be led—by the Spirit of Jesus wherever and whenever we find ourselves. Maybe as the church in the 21st Century, we too are a part of this journey. Maybe we too are being re-routed away from all our own carefully made plans and travel itineraries, to ditch all of it and instead become receptive to the ways that God is calling us in new directions.

Our plans are not God’s plans. When we have our eyes fixed to the East, toward Bithynia, maybe God wants us to go West towards Macedonia instead. But how would we ever know if we don’t take time to listen to any other voice than our own?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.