The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

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Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

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dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

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We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

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Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

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Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

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If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

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.

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.

A Christian’s Attention

A sermon based on Matthew 6:19-34 preached on March 12th, 2017

Sermon audio

I’ve been pondering this passage all week, rolling these heavy words about treasures and eyes, light and dark, talk of worrying and lilies and God and the Kingdom of Heaven—it’s all been tumbling around in my head, like a cement mixer. These words about worry can feel preachy and demeaning. We’ve been trained to hear these words from Jesus as a piece of advice.

There was a song that was popular years back called Don’t Worry; Be Happy. And I’m afraid this passage is often whittled down to something that silly. What we hear Jesus saying is, simply drop your worry and everything will be better! But when has that advice ever helped us?

If ever I’m worried about something, the last thing I want anyone to do is pat me on the shoulder, and tell me to stop worrying because worrying is never helpful. Although that may be true, but it’s a terrible thing to say. Most likely, it’ll make me worried about the fact that I’m worrying. In the words of that annoying Bobby McFerrin song, that’ll make the worry double. It would be cruel of Jesus to preach these words if this is what He means. Jesus knows better than we do how our minds work.

We too often read this passage thinking of Jesus as some sort of self-help guru—someone with a huge smile on his face trying His best to sell us the idea that we can be free from our worry in 4 easy steps. We read this passage assuming that Jesus is scolding us for being worried, or worse, dispensing advice, for how to live a worry-free life. But, I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. Perhaps we should listen deeper. I don’t think this is Jesus patting us on the shoulder, saying,

There, there, cheer up! There’s no need to worry! Everything will be just fine!

Jesus was just as human as we are. He knew better than to say such a thing.

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Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells a story about a time when she took part in the blessing of a friend’s house. That day, many people pitched in to get this friend of hers moved in, and the plan was that by the end of the day, she would be settled enough in her new place that they all could come back that evening for a housewarming party.

Everything went off without a hitch, and that night everyone brought over a dish. They gathered in the living room in a big circle to start the party off by blessing the house. They read several passages from scripture. Some Barbara Brown Taylor had picked out. The last scripture passage was this one from Matthew’s 6th chapter. A surprising passage for an occasion like this. Why this passage to bless a house with? Why not a passage from the Gospel that was more along the lines of, “You will be warm and safe now, here in this house.” A passage like that would have made sense. But these words,

Do not worry about your life.Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will drink. Don’t worry about how you clothe your body. Living is about more than merely eating, and the body is about more than dressing up.

These words surprised everyone gathered. They fell deep inside of every houseguest and deep inside their host, too. And as they sunk in, she said,

Oh. Oh! I get it. Or at least I think I do.

Jesus preached to that new homeowner that day. And His words startled her and moved her. Through these words, Jesus was telling her she was safe.

You are safe. But, not because you have a house. You’re safe because the God who made you has made a promise never to abandon you. And that promise is your home. And it’s something no one can take away from you.

That’s what she heard that day.

And the same is true for us. Worry not! You are safe. You are home. Already. Jesus does not want worry to be our home address. Worry is a money pit of a place to live. It’ll take from us everything that we feed it. It’ll suck us dry. Like a thief, it’ll break in and steal from us everything we’ve got.

Worry is type of attention, it’s also a place we can reside. Don’t give yourself to it in either way. Don’t live there,

Jesus says.

Do not reside in its rooms. You’ll never be able to rest your head.

Worry not. You are safe.

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Jesus warns us about the split life. He tells us that we cannot serve two masters.

In older translations of this passage, Jesus says we cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon refers to a Syrian deity, a god of riches. This Syrian deity is closely related to the Greek god, Plutus, the god of wealth. They sound to me like the same god.

The Greek god Plutus was the hungriest, emptiest god there was. Plutus is the god who constantly craved the praise of the people. He demanded unending attention from his subjects. He was never satisfied. His need to be worshipped was insatiable. The word Plutomania is the excessive desire for wealth. A Plutocrat is someone whose power derives from their wealth.

It was said that the god Plutus always left faster than he came. Isn’t that true for money, too?! The love of money and the excessive desire for wealth take everything from us but they never leave us satisfied. They demand everything from us, but give nothing in return. They give us very little satisfaction, and leave us chasing after nothing. We might wonder what the wealthiest among us have to worry about, but it turns out that it’s the rich who worry most about money. It’s proven time and time again that the super-rich are also the super anxious.

We have a planet—or maybe it’s a moon—named after this empty god, Plutus. Pluto is the tiniest planet out there. Completely void of atmosphere. It’s a remote place to be. No way to breathe. Our airways would be constricted there. It’s an empty planet. Empty of life and any life-giving substance. By referring to money as Mammon, Jesus is telling us,

Don’t live there.

Life out there is hollow. Making a life that way will take everything from you, and give nothing to you. It will empty you. The life dedicated to serving Mammon is a far-flung life on a far-flung planet. Don’t live that way, because you’ll find yourself frozen, way out in space, far away from God. Cold and all alone. Almost out of orbit. Pay no attention to those things that will take you so far away from God. And certainly, don’t try to make your home out of those things. They will make for a very inhospitable place. There’s no room to breathe there.

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In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking about where, and to what, we’re to give our attention. He starts out saying,

Do not give your attention to treasures on earth. Focus instead on those heavenly treasures.

Pay attention to eternal things. Then He moves to talk about where our eyes are focused. Don’t give yourself to the dark. Darkness is empty. There’s evil in there. You’ll lose yourself if you stare too long.

Instead, pay attention to, give your life to, what gives light. Move into those spaces. Then he finishes up by telling us,

Don’t give your attention to worry, because it too is corroded by rust and moth-ridden. It too is all darkness. Don’t live in that room called worry. It will swallow you.

In verse 31, Jesus declares, ‘Do not consume (or perhaps, ‘Be consumed by’) questions like ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’

Don’t fear those things. Fear is the ugliest way of paying attention. We give ourselves away when we worry, when we grow anxious, when we fear. The only thing we should fear isn’t a thing. It’s a person. Fear God. Fearing God is the only type of fear that doesn’t cost us, that doesn’t pull us away from ourselves. Fearing God means paying attention to the one right thing. The only thing that’s worth giving our whole selves to. A Christian’s attention belongs only to God. Earthly treasures, dark, worry. Those are lesser things. Don’t give yourselves away to them. We are what we pay most of our attention to. We also worship what we pay attention to. So, first and foremost, pay attention to God.

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I’ve called Lent a disappearing act. Here we are, two weeks in. During Lent, we practice disappearing so that God appear in and around us. God wants to move into the most central place inside of us.

Most of the time, if we’re honest, we assume the central place in our own life. We live our days at the center of our own universe. Most days, we attend to ourselves, and that’s how we get by. Preoccupied. The rooms of our hearts and minds are filled with our own efforts and questions about how we will eat, pay the bills, how we will get by today and tomorrow. The day after that, too. But, in what ways do our lives end up owning us? How much of our day are we giving ourselves to that greedy god, Plutus? Giving ourselves away to that thing inside of us that feeds on worry and is never satisfied?

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Lent is the season of enough. It’s an invitation to practice enoughness. To confess that God is enough, satisfying, sufficient. Until we rest ourselves in Him, we will spend this life, each and every one of our days, and every one of our efforts paying homage not to God, but to minor gods like Plutus. Lent is when we let go of the empty notion that we have it in us to be our own answer to the question of what will ultimately satisfy.

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If we let it, Lent can move into the rooms of our hearts and minds, and drive out the Plutomania. If we let Lent do its work in us, it can throw us into a new orbit. One where God becomes our Center—the Center of our lives, the Center of all our days, hours, and minutes. And the Center of our attention. And this God wants nothing more than to be all those things for us. Than to call Him ‘Home.’ No matter where we find ourselves.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

A Louder Inauguration Address

A sermon based on Psalm 19 and Luke 4:14-30 preached January 15th, 2017

Sermon audio

There’s a parable that comes from both the Buddhist and Jewish faith traditions that goes a bit like this:

Several disciples went to their teacher and said,

Sir, there are living here in this village many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute, some saying that the world is infinite and eternal, and others that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?

The teacher answered,

Once upon a time, there was a certain King who called to his servant and said,

‘Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of the village who were born blind, and show them an elephant.’

Very good, sire,

replied the servant. And he did as he was told. Once the elephant and all the blind men were gathered in one place, the King said to the blind men,

Here is an elephant.

To one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.

When the blind men had felt the elephant, the King went to each of them and said to each, ‘Well, blind man, tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?’

The blind man who was presented with the head answered,

Sire, an elephant is like a pot.

The blind man who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ The one who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. He who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle; the tuft of the tail, a brush.

Then they began to quarrel, shouting, ‘An elephant is like this, not that!’

‘Yes, it’s like that!’

and so on, till they came to blows over the matter. The king was delighted with the scene.

Then the teacher said,

Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing. In their ignorance, they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, from their own small point of view, each of them maintain that reality is thus and thus.

Then the teacher rendered this meaning:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim

For preacher and monk the honored name!

For, quarreling, each to his own view they cling.

Such folk see only one side of a thing.

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This week, there will not only be elephants gathering together in DC. There will also be donkeys. Red and blue, and every color in between. Democrat and Republican, and every other kind of political creature. If Washington DC wasn’t already a veritable zoo, it will be this week. On Friday, we will inaugurate a new President. And next weekend, and not so far away in the same city, millions of women and their significant others will gather together for the Women’s March on Washington. Some of our own will be a part of that assembly.

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Since we’re coming up on such a politically loaded week in such a politically charged time in our country’s history, I began to wonder what kind of approach Jesus would take to all of this.

We live in such a noisy nation, and it’s right for us to ponder where our voice should be in all the cacophony, what we who call ourselves Christian should be saying and doing in and among the chaos of it all. Where in all of this commotion and confusion can we find Jesus speaking and God working? And what is the Holy Spirit saying?

That’s our vocation as disciples, by the way. To listen for another voice—to pay attention in a different way than most everyone else does. To search for God’s Word in whatever situation we find ourselves.

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There’s a theory that many New Testament scholars have about Judas Iscariot. Judas was, of course, the disciple who betrayed Jesus—who ratted Him out to the Roman officials who arrested and ultimately crucified Him.

It could be that Judas turned Jesus into the occupying government intending to force Jesus into a scenario where there would be a clash of Kingdoms. The Kingdom of Rome meets the Kingdom of God. It could be that Judas betrayed Jesus into the hands of the power players of the day, expecting Jesus to put up a fight, to finally become the Messiah that Judas and every other Jewish person expected the Messiah to be—someone who would take up sword and armor, and confront the oppressive Kingdoms of the day with His own political might, finally bringing the reign of God upon the earth.

Of course, that didn’t happen. To Judas’ dismay, this theory goes, Jesus never put up a fight. In fact, if you’ll remember that moment when the Roman soldiers raided the Garden of Gethsemane and arrested Jesus, one of Jesus followers—never named in any Gospel account—took out a sword and lopped off an ear of one of the High Priest’s servants. Jesus scolded this follower, saying

Put your sword back in its place. For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.

Jesus was not the Messiah anyone expected.

Yes, Jesus confronted the injustice of His day. Yes, kingdom’s clashed in that moment—the Kingdom of God and kingdoms of this world went head to head that first Good Friday, but not in the way that anyone ever expected. God refuses every expectation we have of Him. Just ask Judas. God stubbornly refuses to be what we want or need Him to be. God is much bigger than any of our notions or desires or categories. Judas wanted Jesus to be the kind of Messiah that Jesus was never meant to be. And anyone who tells you that God is on their side—on their side of the aisle or on their side of history—has exchanged the God of the Bible with a lower-case g god of their own making. Just as Judas found out 2,000 years ago: our God is too big for sides.

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At the end of our story this morning, the crowds who gathered in the synagogue that Sabbath day became angry with Jesus. After having read from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus gave them an 11-word sermon, declaring,

Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it,

in effect, declaring himself to be the long-awaited Messiah. This was Jesus’ inaugural address.

Luke says the crowd revolted against Jesus. His claim to be Messiah angered them enough that they wanted to throw him off a nearby cliff. But, somehow, Jesus alluded their grasp and passed through the crowd and went on His way. God refuses our attempts to take a firm hold of Him. God alludes every one of our efforts to hold Him captive. And on that first Easter morning, Jesus defied human grasp in the most definitive of ways: by escaping the hold of death itself, showing the entire world once and for all that there’s no container, no box, no category, no tomb big enough, and no stone heavy enough to hold onto Him.

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And if Jesus’s words sound politically loaded to you, perhaps that’s because they are. Even though Jesus wasn’t here to be the sort of political Messiah His people longed for, He still had an agenda. Jesus spent His earthly ministry confronting the hypocrisy and social injustice built into the political systems of the day. He spent His life speaking truth to power. Indeed, He was the Truth, come to show the world what God cares about most. And these words from Luke 4 encapsulate that.

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If we take the Gospel seriously, there’s no way around it: our role—the role of the church—is to speak prophetically, just as Jesus did here in His first sermon, confronting any unjust system of power in place among us, and speaking up for anyone who suffers injustice. And in order to see the injustices of our political systems as clearly as Jesus saw the injustices within the political system of His day, we have to take a big step back so we can see the entire elephant for what it is, so we can see all sides of the thing.

We who call ourselves Christians are called to dismiss the false dichotomies among us: Democrat/Republican, conservative/liberal, black/white, or any other false dichotomy that the loudest voices in our nation try to sell to us. God is not part and parcel with any of them, and God’s truth will never be found entirely in any one of them. Instead, we are called to devote ourselves to looking at everything in the Third Way. And the Third Way has always been and will always be suspicious of any one ideology or perspective, any voice that wants to tell us how things are.

Instead, we who call ourselves followers of Christ must concern ourselves with finding, speaking, practicing, and being truth. This means living in such a way that no matter who’s in power, we give ourselves over to the task of bearing Christ’s image into the world by lifting up the overlooked, the oppressed, the forgotten, and the discarded among us. By preaching Good News to the poor, proclaiming release to those held captive, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming God’s favor to those who are too often trampled underfoot.

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Ultimately, we shouldn’t depend on any government to carry out justice. At times it will, usually it won’t. But, no matter who’s in charge, God calls us to the holy work of looking out for the common good of all—of creating spaces for our fellow human beings to live full and dignified lives.

Through these words from Luke, Jesus’ first sermon, we are given our Kingdom task. Jesus’ vocation is also ours. And we have lots of work to do.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

 

Endings and Beginnings

A sermon based on Isaiah 61:10-62:3 and Luke 2:21-40 preached on January 1, 2017

Sermon audio

Simeon was a patient man. As patient as God has ever made them. He was observant, too. And faithful. He lived his years slowly, watching and waiting and learning. Above all, Simeon was a wise man. Even before his beard turned to grey, Simeon was wise. His eyes were deep. In that way, Simeon lived into his name. His name meant One who hears. Simeon’s ears had been covered by a mane of gray, wiry hair for most of his life, and a robe covered his head whenever he ventured out into the bright sunlight, but Simeon was always listening, observing, ears ready to hear, and always on the look-out.

It was hard for Simeon to explain it, but he was on a mission from God. Years ago, Simeon heard—or maybe felt—God speaking to him. It was impossible to explain, really, but somehow in some way, Simeon was met by God one memorable day, for one memorable moment, and he heard God whisper something into his ear. Something about a Son—a long-awaited message will be delivered to the world. An infant Messiah. And this Messiah would bring a new beginning. He would be a sign that God has started over. Begun again.

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Simeon looked around the temple. He was at the temple most days. He watched the people going in and out, day by day, year by year. He recognized most of them. Everyone was a regular at the Temple. By law, the Jewish people made routine visits where they made routine sacrifices. It was almost like the Temple had become a factory for forgiveness. People showed up in the same old way they always have, sacrificed the same old animals just like they had the year before.

It all seemed to Simeon like rote religion. Mindless. These Temple sacrifices had come to mean very little to the Jewish people. There was nothing worshipful about them. Simeon lamented this. This meaningless sense of duty. Isn’t God a person who wants most of all to be in relationship with His people?! All this business of Temple sacrifices was just that: business—a transaction made with an impersonal God. In comes a deposit of an animal sacrifice at the Temple; and for it, God withdrawals our sin. That’s not relationship. That’s a business deal—it’s dead religion. Simeon mourned that.

Simeon knew a different God, a God who speaks to His people. Who goes to endless lengths to make Himself known to us. Who has always and will forevermore pursue us. And as long as we listen, we can have a relationship with this living God. Simeon thought that religion was that smaller thing that people settle for because they didn’t have the time or the desire to listen up or look out for God. Religion, he thought, was that thing that too often replaces relationship with our living and breathing God. The Temple was a place that reminded Simeon of how hungry we all are for something more, but how difficult it is for us to name it—so instead, we settle for less. Less relationship. Less God.

Simeon feared that religion—all these mindless and repetitive activities done in an around the Temple—was a sign that the people’s story with God was coming to an end. The only hope He had was that whisper he heard years ago. He remembered it like it happened yesterday. It was certainly a Divine whisper. It spoke of a new beginning for God and His people. God was up to something new. But, Simeon knew not what. He didn’t dare to imagine what God might be up to, but Simeon couldn’t help but hope that God was coming to His people in a new way. That the long-awaited Messiah was on His way to His people in flesh and blood. That this Messiah would knock God’s people awake. No more rote religion, but a real relationship with a God-made-human-being who would lead the people out from their snow-blind, God-blind ways, and into a flesh-and-blood relationship.

Simeon knew God had promised him that all this would come about before he breathed his last breath. Simeon took God at his word, and every day, He hoped to see this long-awaited Messiah with his own eyes. Maybe he would even get a chance to hold this Christ. Stare into God’s eyes. One of these days. Whichever day that would be, it would be a strange and glorious one. It would be both an ending and a beginning of sorts. Simeon’s long life would come to an end the day He saw this Christ. God had told him so. But he also believed with every bit of who he was, that this Christ—this Messiah—was the beginning of new life. New life for the world. A Holy Spirit-infused beginning. God’s people could now rest in full relationship with their God. No more mechanical Temple religion. Through this Messiah, God was gonna chase after people’s hearts and lives. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. And, the way Simeon saw it, God’s exhausted people needed a new beginning.

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We’re at an ending and a beginning, too. We’ve come to worship this New Year’s Day. Some of us, like Simeon, come with the weight of our years piled upon our shoulders. For however wise those years have made us, they have also made us tired, weary.

Or maybe you’ve come to worship this morning hopeful. Like Simeon, you have a confidence that God is up to something big in your life. Maybe you know what that is, or maybe like Simeon, you’re not quite sure what it all means, but somehow or another, you know that God is awake and alive and that He’s up to something new. Maybe you’re like Anna, the prophetess that is mentioned at the end of our story this morning. Maybe you’ve come to church hoping to see God move among you—to show up one of these days and speak and breathe new life into old things. Maybe, just like Anna, you’ve had your share of suffering and now you’re hoping for redemption—for God to sweep in and revive what’s tired, or renew what’s worn out.

Maybe you’ve come this New Year’s Day not expecting to see much at all. Maybe today’s just another Sunday to come to the Temple just like you always have, to do something you’ve always done. Maybe you’re here out of rote habit because it sounded right to go to church simply because it’s Sunday morning. I bet that Simeon and Anna both came to the Temple like that—not expecting to encounter anything at all. We all have those days where we just do what we do because we’ve always done it that way. And in a sense, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s power and meaning in the habits we create for ourselves. Most days Simeon and Anna spent all the daylight hours in and around the Temple in Jerusalem and saw and heard nothing. But they went anyway, because who knows, maybe this day would be the day they heard God’s voice speaking.

Maybe you’re one of those who expects much out of the New Year’s. It could be that once the calendar turns to 1-1 a whole new world of opportunity and chance opens up to you, and you’re ready and excited to live into it all. Maybe 2016 wasn’t so hot, so you’re gonna make effort to start 2017 off on the right foot.

We expect a lot out of endings and beginnings, don’t we? And it’s not because we’re superstitious. That’s not it, really. It’s more so because we’re hopeful. But no matter how it is you come this day or this year. No matter how it is you greet 2017, we all have something to learn from Simeon and Anna about how to live our days well. Simeon and Anna expected to encounter Jesus. They knew he was close. They knew that God would be born among them. That he was Emmanuel: God with us. So with ears and eyes peeled, they showed up expecting, anticipating something from God. And they got it.

If we go through our days expecting to see God at work, then we probably will. But we must have the patience, the tenacity, and the holy attention of Simeon. We must carry inside of us the hope that filled Anna—that kept her in that temple, hoping one day to find among all the busyness and business inside of it—that even in the middle of all that dead religion on display—that there was some small sign that God was still alive and among, still working in the world.

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Neither Simeon nor Anna lived long enough to see who this Jesus would grow up to become. Odds are, neither of them had a clue what kind of Messiah this Jesus would grow up to be.

But we, we stand here on the other side of history. We know the wonder and majesty of this baby. We know the strong and eternal hope that this weak and finite-looking infant would grow to become. And we too hope, even in the midst of our darkness and the darkness of the world all around us, that this Christ—this baby born into the world—is both ending and a beginning. An ending to the darkness and the beginning of a promise, that because of this Jesus, we have light and life and hope.

May we spend 2017 paying prayerful and holy attention to this Jesus, born among us to live and reign in our lives—in yours and mine—that we too, like Simeon and Anna, may keep our eyes peeled for, recognize and worship this Christ, hold onto and keep close to us this Christ, give ourselves over to, and put every bit of ourselves into devoting ourselves to finding and being in the presence of this Christ. And may we do so each and every one of our days.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Come By Here

Come By Here | Patrick Ryan – Psalm 27 and John 1:1-18 – 12/4/16

Sermon audio

We’re singing during the sermon this morning. If you would open your hymnals to #338, we will sing one verse at a time at different times during the sermon. The hymn is Kum By Yah, but we’re gonna sing it this morning with one little tweak. Kum By Yah, translated into English, means Come By Here, so I invite you with each verse to sing the words Come By Here with me.

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There are 3 birth narratives recorded in the Gospels. We know, of course, about two of them. We read them every Christmas. They’re the ones every Christmas Pageant and every nativity set is based on: the Maji from Matthew—gold, frankincense, and myrrh; the shepherds kneeling and the cattle lowing come from Luke’s version of the story. But John’s gospel has a birth narrative, too. But the birth story that John is most interested isn’t Jesus’—it’s ours!

Verse 9:

The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.

That’s it. That’s all that John has to say about Jesus birth. Only 13 words.

Let’s look at the next 4 verses, 10-13:

The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God.

None of that has anything to say about Jesus’ birth. But it has everything to do with our birth.

In the person of Jesus Christ, we can be born in a spiritual way, so that we have eyes to see the world in a different way—that God’s presence and fingerprints are all over this world, that God has come to give us second birth so that we may really live. We are born not from blood or from human desire or passion (those are all way to describe our normal conception and birth), but instead we are born from God, and it is in that spiritual birth that we have and live a new life in Christ. That’s the kind of birth John is most interested in this Advent. Not Jesus’, but ours. With this Jesus, God has come close so that we may become something new. God becomes human so we can have a newly-birthed vision.

That’s the miracle and message of Advent. In Jesus, God has come by here.

Join me in singing verse 1 of Come By Here.

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Advent also means making space for God to arrive. This is a season to move around the furniture of— and remove all the clutter in—our hearts, our minds, our lives, so that God has space to arrive—to be Emmanuel, God with us and for us. But the greatest news of all is that God is up to something much bigger than that. Christmas isn’t so much about Christ being born inside us as it is about the coming of Christ into the world. As I mentioned last week, Advent is an invasion. It’s the time for God to take over. And God doesn’t merely want to move into the room we make inside of ourselves. That’s way too small an idea—and way too small a space for our infinite and immeasurable God. God wants to take over the earth! In the Message translation of v.14, Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson, puts it this way:

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.

Christmas is God ringing the front door bell, dropping His luggage on the front porch of the world, and telling every single one of us that he’s not here to visit. He’s here to move in. For good! So we better make space for him. Advent is God telling us to skootch over on the couch a bit so there’s a spot for Him right next to us! Advent is the world’s chance—every heart’s chance—to prepare Him room.

In the person of Jesus, God has—and still does—come by here!

Join me in singing verse 2 of Come By Here.

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Advent is when we ask for God to come close, and Christmas is the rude invasion of the Divine into our neighborhoods! But our making space for God to dive headfirst into our lives means that God takes a huge risk.

Advent exists because our Creator God risks becoming a part of His own creation. It’s when God, the Divine Artist, dives into His own painting. Christmas is when the Infinite becomes finite. When the Immutable becomes vulnerable. When the One who is Eternal Life finds out what it’s like to be mortal. When the Invisible One takes on skin—sees through watery eyes and hears with fleshy ears.

Christmas means God becomes an infant who cries, needs His mother to feed Him from her body. This infant will grow into a man who will shed salty tears when his best friend Lazarus dies. He will shed more of them when those He called His friends betray Him. Later, He will shed blood when cross and crown splinter the surface of his skin. God knows life and He knows death, and in His being born and in His dying, God through Christ walks with us through this life. Right by our side. Come hell or high water. He’s never run away from trouble. He’ll never leave our side.

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I have a friend who has displayed this Divine truth to me—this kind of hell or high water faithfulness. This “stick-by-you-no matter-what-edness” that we’re talking about. But in order to tell that story, I need to back up a bit to my elementary school days. We’d go on field trips—to the park, the Capitol building in Richmond, even DC. Let’s say I was in the 4th grade. Maybe three foot ten on tip-toes. On field trips like these, there’s a ton of walking involved, and even though I was supposed to be buddied-up for safety, my buddy would always grow impatient with my short and slow steps, so he was always ahead of me. I could never keep up with my schoolmates or my teachers. I got used to walking far behind others. That’s just the way it was. Patrick’s pulling up the rear again!

Fast-forward to high school. My best friend’s name was Erica. She was here two weeks ago for the wedding. On a trip to Montreat our Freshman year—with a lot of walking and a lot of mountains!—she and I would walk together from one place to another, and she noticed my tendency to walk behind her, even when we weren’t walking all that fast, even when there was plenty of room for me right beside her, I stayed in back of her.

At the end of our week together, she bought me a gift. It was a little plastic card, something I could carry with me in my wallet. It said,

Do not walk ahead of me. Do not walk behind me. Walk beside me, and be my friend.

And in that moment, and for many years after that, through her presence, Erica would show me what the presence of God was like—it was like a best friend who wants me to walk right beside her! In Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God walks with us, beside us, stride for stride. With him, we will never walk alone. In the person of Jesus, God has—and still does—come beside us!

Join me in singing verse 3 of Come By Here.

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As we sing our songs this Advent, we praise God for all the ways He has become fully known to us. The heavens were full of angel song that first Christmas, and they still are. Advent is when we take time to pay attention to the way all of creation both sings and echoes God’s praise. If anything is true about the first song that John the gospel writer sings, it’s that Christ was God’s first song. That Christ existed in the heart of God from the very start.

It’s no accident that the first three words of John’s gospel are “In the beginning,” the same three words than begin the book of Genesis. With those words, the 4th gospel declares two cosmic truths at once—that Christ was with God before the very first word that brought creation into being, and that with the coming of Christ to earth in the person of Jesus, God renews creation, starts over again—breathes life into all things now just as He did at the very beginning of time.

With the incarnation of Jesus, God declares to us that every aspect of our human lives matter to God because He has lived this human life with us. Its ups and downs, its hardships and victories, in all of its confinements and confoundments, God promises to be Emmanuel, and that God declares that there is no worry too small and no challenge too great.

This is the Good News of Advent: that God in the person of Christ lives it all with us, right by our side, sharing life with us, stride for stride. Advent is that song we hear and the heavens echo that promises us that our lives and our prayers are heard and understood by a God who has ears—ears that were once shaped just like ours, that God listens intently because God loves us and understands us intimately. And with Him here as our Emmanuel, we will never walk alone.

Join me in singing verse 4 of Come By Here.

In the person of Jesus, God has—and still does—come by here!

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

Alleluia! Amen.