Arrivals, Departures, and Arrivals

A sermon based on John 1:14-18 and Jeremiah 29:1, 4:14 preached on November 26th, 2017

This is high season for flying. Thanksgiving and Christmas send millions crisscrossing the skies visiting family and coming back home again. Airports are packed to the gills with anxious travelers, each of them feeling like the rigamarole of it all—checking bags, being scanned in deeply personal ways by the TSA, making their way through crowds of people, through the very narrow aisles of a aircraft and into a seat built for a size zero model—well, it’s all a bit too much. Many may wonder if traveling by plane is worth the hassle involved. And that is why no one likes airports. When we walk into an airport, we don’t intend to stay for long. We intend to go—to leave as soon as possible. They’re places designed to take us some place else. Nothing stays put in an airport. No one belongs there.

There are people who make their living in airports, though. Millions actually. You can find them if you look carefully. They’re the ones who look comfortable in a terminal. They’re the ones walking slowly down each long breezeway. And maybe, if you look even closer, you may find one who shows up to work at the airport wearing a clergy collar. Airport chaplains are still a thing. We may not notice them. These days, they can hardly be found inside airport chapels. Who goes to an airport chapel anyway? Now, they’re out and about, in the corridors and terminals, they’re riding up and down escalators, searching for travelers who look like they could use some help or encouragement.

People who go through the airport are very vulnerable, and probably at 35,000 feet, you might be the loneliest person alive. As flight delays worsen, security lines bulge, and nerves fray, chaplains at airports across the country cruise up and down concourses, casting a trained eye on the swirl of humanity in search of anybody who appears in need. The attention of a good airport chaplain may be the only personal, comforting thing a traveler comes across. Singer-songwriter, Neko Case has a line in one of her songs where she says that she thinks Heaven will smell like the airport. She may be onto something. What if God loves airports?

God has a history of hanging out in places that are no places at all. How many times in scripture do we read about people encountering God in the wilderness, for example? God has a tendency to settle down in middle spaces, settings where no one would ever think to call home.

The Reverend Mote, an Episcopal member of the interfaith chaplains’ department at Atlanta International Airport—Mote, and interesting name for an airport chaplain—was still in training when, on a hunch, she decided to check the departures board for lengthy delays. She noticed one and started heading to that gate where she met a traveler who just realized she would miss her aunt’s funeral. “I’m on the edge of panic,” the woman told her.

Chaplain Mote sat with her. Listening. Trying her best to bridge the gap over this woman’s troubled waters.

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Most of the time, the prophet Jeremiah was a lousy chaplain. Here in chapter 29, he writes a letter to his people Israel. It’s full of God’s words for them. The Israelites are in exile in Babylon, having been recently kicked out of their Promised Land by an invading army. They were beside themselves. They believed that God had abandoned them, left them for dead in a nowhere place.

So, here they are in Babylon, complaining about their displacement, holding their breath, waiting for the day, the hour, the minute when they can go back home.

Any moment now,

they thought,

God’s gonna rescue us from this in-between place, this nowhere land, and then we can get back to living again.

There was a preacher named Hananiah who was a false prophet, a good news preacher

—one we might call these days, a Prosperity Gospel preacher—who spoke up and lied to the exiles, telling the Israelites,

You won’t be here for long! Don’t unpack your suitcases. God’s going to take care of us, and before you know it, you all will be back home again.

It didn’t work out that way. God’s message to His people is much harder to swallow.

You’ll be in Babylon for a long time. So, you best unpack your bags, and find a way to call this place ‘home.’

Sometimes, the truth stings. But it must be spoken, anyway. So, the prophet goes on:

Quit sitting around feeling sorry for yourselves, you people of God! You will be in Babylon for a long time. You had better make the best of it. Don’t just survive, thrive.

Put down roots, build houses, build businesses in this place, plant gardens, have families. No, you’re not at home, but God has placed you here. That must mean He has something. God wants you to do life well right where you are, so be faithful in this strange city. Settle down here. Establish roots. Dig in.

See, the only opportunity any of us have to live by faith is in the circumstances we are experiencing right now, right here—in this house you live in, in this family you find yourself in, and in this job you’ve been given to do.

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The Israelites’ old life is dead. Now it’s their task to find new life in Babylon. This is God shouting into their ear,

Arrive, Israel, arrive! Show up in this place. Don’t just exist, do not simply graze this land. Dig in.

And these same words are for us, too: Don’t just endure in this life, flourish! Grow where you’re planted. God expects much from His people, no matter where we find ourselves. Or, as Jesus put it in His Sermon on the Mount,

Become salt and light in and for the world…wherever in the world you are.

Wherever we find ourselves, God wants His people to make the inward journey from refugee to resident, from victims to visionaries. From seeing ourselves as the defeated to living as the difference-makers. This is God’s idea of faithful living.

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These days, we the church and all of its people, are experiencing a peculiar kind of exile. Many of us are home—some of us have never left home. But the neighborhood has changed, hasn’t it? A few decades ago, churches could exist right where their building sat, and people from all over would come to us. Those days are gone. But that isn’t the problem. The problem is that we’re still waiting for people to come to our door. We keep wondering what’s taking them so long to notice we’re here. Guess what? They either no longer know or no longer care that we’re here.

Sometimes exile happens when the world around us changes. Sometimes, we experience dislocation or displacement even though we never left home! This is a change we didn’t choose, but it has happened. This is exile. We’re home, but it feels different. And just like the Israelites, we can complain all we want.  We can pine for our yesteryears when all was good and right and plentiful. But that’s not where God has placed us. So, no longer can we ask questions like “How do we get more folks in our doors?” or “What do we have to do to make church important for people again?”

God wants us to have a new conversation—to change the way we talk. The church’s life isn’t over, not is it slowly slipping away. It’s moving. This is hard news for we the church to hear, just as Jeremiah’s words were hard for the ancient Israelites. Everything is displaced. God is not calling us back to where we once were. God is inviting us to show up in the place where we now find ourselves. To invest ourselves and our ministry in this new context, to sing a new song in this strange land. This is not something we’ve chosen, but we can no longer resist the change we see. Denying it is futile. Instead, we must find a way to live faithfully in this new landscape God has us in. The new and faithful question for us is: Now that God has us here, in this place, among this people, how do we show up and become a faithful people in it? How do we become salt and light in and for the world…wherever in the world we are?

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And we would do well not to come up with an answer to those questions all by ourselves, but to look to the One who is the Answer to all of our questions.

We are a week away from Advent, the season when we ready ourselves—try our best to make a place for—the arrival of another both within us and among us. This is the season where every heart is invited to prepare Him room, because in the fullness of time, God became one of us in Christ Jesus. As the first words from John’s gospel for the morning declares,

The Word became flesh and made His home among us.

In other words, God moved into our neighborhood. Now, He lives among His people. He’s out and about, strolling the corridors and breezeways, the sidewalks and front porches, searching for travelers who look like they could use some help or encouragement. We have a God who is out and about. Who in Christ now called this place Home. Who has arrived, who has never departed, and promises to arrive again. Who, throughout history, has met us right where we are, and says to us,

You are never in the wrong place to serve God.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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The Sound of Silence

A sermon based on John 7:37-44 and Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-24 preached on November 12th, 2017

Sermon audio

How hard is it to come across someone who tells the truth about themselves—however hard that truth may be! These days, truth is an endangered species. Most of the time, we do not expect to encounter it, and whatever remains of it must be valued, protected. There has been a spate of sexual harassment scandals in these recent months and weeks. A torrent of accusations has been made. In the vast majority of cases, the charges have been denied. We’ve heard celebrities, their lawyers, and spokespeople use words no one else ever uses: words like “categorically,” phrases like “patently false,” or “unequivocally denied.” This is the sort of language that’s used by someone who most likely has something to hide. Most of us can see right through words like these. We know the difference between the rhetoric of lawyers and the straightforwardness of honesty. We feel the difference between the truth and a lie.

Then, most recently came these words from comedian Louis C.K., another celebrity condemned for sexual impropriety, about the claims from his accusers:

These stories are true.

Wow. That’s almost shocking to hear from a public figure faced with an accusation.

Their stories are true. Every bit of them.

Louis C.K.’s behavior is still despicable and troubling, but we can also imagine how much weight can now fall C.K.’s shoulders because he has chosen to tell the truth about himself. As undignified his actions have been, he has responded to his accusers with some scrap of dignity.

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There’s something about justice—biblical justice—that we fail to understand. Before we go further into these tough words handed to us from the lips of one of God’s prophets, we must get this straight. The world’s version of justice is called retributive justice. You take something from me, and I’ll take something from you. This is the sort of justice we know best. The court system and the criminal justice system works according to this worldly version—retributive justice. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are parts of scripture that describe this sort of justice, but far more often the Bible describes another sort of justice: restorative justice.

Restorative justice means making whole what’s been broken, changing social structures to make things fair for all of us. Lifting up those who have fallen or been trampled underfoot. Remembering those who have been forgotten. Restorative justice—God’s idea of justice—demands that we start telling the truth to ourselves and to one another about how we live in a way and make systematic decisions that lift up some and throw others down.

This restorative justice is what the prophet Amos is interested in. He brings God’s word to God’s people—God is a just God in that He’s relentlessly interested in making whole what’s been broken, changing social structures to make things fair for all of us. Restorative justice is the sort that’s interested in having one human being see another as equal in value, and worthy of the same respect and dignity as any other. God’s justice leaves no one behind—forgets no one.

Restorative justice—spoken of throughout the new and the old testaments, by Moses, Amos, Isaiah, and Jesus—demands that we start telling the truth to ourselves and to one another about how we live in a way, and make systematic decisions, that lift up some and leave the rest behind and disregarded. It takes no sides. This is a holy justice is not interested in political maneuvering, the excuses we make for our own behaviors. And it requires much of us. It demands that we face up to ourselves, and with dignity and humility and eyes wide open, admit our complicity in the unjust systems of our days.

Biblically, injustice is a sin because it ignores the dignity of others.This is what Amos confronts his own people with, but they do not want to face up to it. They stand silent in the face of the truth-telling words of the prophet.

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Amos was the first of the four eighth-century prophets. He was a no-name man from a podunk town no one had ever heard of. He lived a simple life—he was a shepherd. He didn’t think of himself as a prophet of God. He knew of some prophets, but it seems he didn’t want to be grouped in with the likes of them. Amos just sort of did his own thing. But, when he heard God’s Word to him, he spoke up. And he didn’t hold back. Not one bit.

The book of Amos is nine chapters long. You can read it in one sitting, but put your seatbelts on before you do, because Amos was a straight shooter. He doesn’t mince words. Amos spoke against the superficial religious institutions of his day, and like anyone who tells the truth to a nation of people who don’t want to hear the truth about themselves, Amos didn’t last long. In Amos’ day, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few ruling elites who controlled the government. Amos witnessed wealth flowing from the working, peasant class to support the luxurious lifestyle of a few politically powerful elites. The rich became richer, and the poor became poorer.

During the reign of King Jeroboam II, an increasing number of people lost their jobs. These people were squeezed out of the peasant class into a permanent underclass of “expendables,” who found themselves in debt slavery and who had no claim to their own lives. In this social context, only two to three percent of the population could afford the luxury of literacy, and higher education was the property of the privileged.

Furthermore, vast amounts of Israel’s resources that could have been allocated toward humanitarian concerns, such as education, were siphoned away to wage King Jeroboam’s ill-conceived war against Damascus—a war where Amos would see entire communities destroyed. It was into this context that Amos spoke.

Thank God that our world today is nothing like what it was back then. Thank God we’ve gotten rid of the distinctions between the haves and have nots—that we no longer have social problems like a lack of education or illiteracy like they did back then. Thank God we’re no longer war-addicted people. Nothing changes under the sun, does it? History has a tendency to repeat itself.

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The prophet’s words are tough for us to hear. Appropriately so. If we’re entirely comforted by scripture then we’re not paying close enough attention. God has demands for His people.

And here, Amos brings word that God doesn’t want ceremony; God wants justice. God is not satisfied with “Thoughts and Prayers.” God wants his people to love and insist upon restorative justice. With these words, Amos sets it out as plain as it comes: God is not interested in any of our worship if we’re not interested in restoring justice in our nations.

If we’re not interested in taking our faith and with it, restoring the dignity of those the world has undignified, then God is not interested in our prayers or our songs. We’re wasting our time and our breath in worship. At the center of a worshipful life is our effort out there to make whole what’s been broken, changing social structures to make things fair for all of us. Speaking truth even when, or especially when, no one wants to hear it.

God wants us—we who call ourselves his people—to have a reputation for telling the truth to ourselves and the world, and working to pick up those who the rest of our culture throws down. God is calling us to be a voice for those the world tries its best to silence. But we know the terrible sound of silence in the face of injustice. Silence like a cancer grows.

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The message from God’s biblical prophets: Speak up. We can sing our songs and shout our praises to God until we’re blue in the face, but as long as we keep silence when others suffer, we are not worshipping. Real worship insists upon justice to roll on like a river, like a never-failing torrent, one that washes away our apathy, our disregard for others. What God wants most from our lips is not our ceremonious songs, our sanctimonious displays of worship, but our refusal to turn away from the suffering of others.

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There is another who did not turn away from suffering. It was in the fullness of time that Jesus faced the cross—a Roman torture machine. He spoke truth to people who had no appetite or tolerance for truth. In an expression of utmost injustice, he was sentenced to death by crucifixion.

Jesus knew what he was up against: A world that wasn’t interested in truth. He went to the cross to change that. Even though he had what it took to turn away from the suffering imposed upon him by the powerful people of his day, He did not turn away. And neither can we.

The sound of Christ’s silence upon the cross split the night and still shakes the world with its volume. May we who call ourselves His speak up and tell the truth, also.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Guiding Hands

A sermon based on Psalm 34:1-10, 22 and 1 John 2:24-3:3 preached on November 5th, 2107

This morning, we remember and celebrate the life of the beloved. We gather together this Sunday—in fact, every Sunday—to declare what is always true about each and every one of us: We are indeed God’s children. We are the Church, the people who first and foremost love one another—who have been called to go to uncommon lengths to show one another, to put on display for the sake of one another, God’s great love for each of us. Most of the time, we walk through a world that asks us—perhaps demands of us—that we prove our worth.

Most of the time, we feel like we must do something relevant, spectacular, remarkable, to earn our place, to garner the respect of others. But here, no such effort is required. Here in this place, here with each other, we remember together that our worth is not earned or garnered. Here we come to listen deeper to that voice that says,

From the beginning, I have called you by name. You are mine and I am yours. You are my beloved. My favor rests upon you. There is nothing you can do to ever gain my favor, nor is there anything you can do to ever lose it.

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In order to gain some grasp of how big God’s love for us is, our writer, John, goes to great lengths to get to the heart of God’s heart. He says

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!

I repeat these words whenever I baptize someone. I learned them from a mentor of mine, Charlie Berthoud, who was once one of my Pastors, and he learned those words from one of his mentors, another Pastor.

I say these words no matter whether I baptize an infant, a toddler, a teenager, or an adult, because they are always true. I have a feeling that whenever he first wrote these words down, John intended to startle us with their truth. To be called children of God is no superficial thing. It’s meant to take our breath away—to amaze us. And in response, we should be left asking ourselves, “What sort of love is this?”

This is a love that the world does not and cannot know. The Greek word John uses here really means “of what country does this love come?” This divine love that we encounter in the promises of Christ is something completely surprising, altogether foreign. This is a love that bewilders. It’s a love that we’re not used to because we’ve spent so much of our time trying to earn and keep to love that’s been given to us. This love we’re talking about—celebrating here, today—is unearthly and completely unconditional.

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In our scripture passage from 1 John for this morning, there’s lots of talk about remaining. The word is mentioned four times in this short passage, so we should pay close attention to that word—what John means when he uses it. Some might use the word abide instead of remain, which invites into something even more meaningful. These words should remind us of one particular promise given to us from the lips of our Lord when He said,

I am the vine and you are the branches…If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you, but apart from me, you can do nothing.

See that these things remain in you, and see that you remain in Him.

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This morning we mark All Saints Day. We are all saints, by the way. Today we remember those who have got before us—who have shaped us into who we are, who have shaped our church into what it is—and we also hold each other up as God’s beloved, remember and celebrate the ones we love who are present here in our lives who continue shaping us into faithfulness. We remain and abide in one another in the same way we remain and abide in Christ. We gather with one another and we remember those who have gone before us, and give thanks for those who will come after us. We are all inextricably linked, grafted onto one another like branches, through our faith in the One who called Himself the Vine.

Who has guided you along the way? Who has reached out to you, grafting you into the life of Christ—this vine life?

What words have come from lips of the saints among us and before us that have brought you into the life of Christ? Whose hands have reached out to you and shown you your way? Guided you along straight paths? Shown you God’s great love? And to who can you reach out with your own hands, you saints of the Lord?! Who are you being called to guide in a good and right and loving direction? Who can you be a saint to show forth the Way to?

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We are surrounded by hands. Each one with a name of a beloved saint written upon them. If you haven’t had the chance to come up to write upon a hand, there’s plenty of opportunity left to do so.

Come up during the Morning Prayer or sometime during the closing hymn to commemorate the ones who have reached out a guiding hand to you. These hands are grafted onto strings to serve as reminders for us about how each one of us is connected together through our shared faith and our common life in the family of God.

We will take these strings of guiding hands downstairs for all to see this evening we gather together for our Annual Stewardship Dinner at 5:30. There we will celebrate the work of one another’s hands by doing our own Kuhn Memorial Presbyterian Church Art Crawl! The Fellowship Hall is decorated beautifully! You should come and see it! There and then you will have the opportunity to take the fruit of the work of your own hands—your talents, tithes, and offerings—and help shape the future of your church.

By making a pledge to your church, you join hands with all of those among and before us—a long line of saints—who have given of their time, talents, and treasures—even of their lives—to ensure that we, their children, would continue in Christ, that we too would know of God’s great love for us, His children. By giving to your church, you in turn, will give the same gift you have been given by your forebears.By pledging, you will reach out your hands to the next ones to come along—guiding them, grafting them as branches, onto the Vine that is Christ. See what great love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called the children of God! That is exactly what we are!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Our Daily Bread

Sermon based on Exodus 16:1-35 preached on October 15th, 2017

Sermon audio

Is God enough?

When a friend betrays us, is God enough?

When you or I have a health scare, and we suddenly figure out that our bodies are much more vulnerable, and our lives more finite than we ever realized before, is God enough? When we’re struggling professionally, or we’re not sure we’ve put away enough for retirement, is God enough?

When we don’t recognize our own value, is God enough? When the circumstances of our lives change dramatically—maybe through flood or wildfire—our homes washed away or burned to the ground, is God enough?

We ask these sorts of questions in one way or another all the time. They are not unlike what the ancient Israelites were asking aloud about their present circumstance. Here they are in the wilderness. Their leader, Moses, the one whom God had called to draw His people out of slavery in Egypt, has wrestled them out from under the crushing, oppressive grasp of Pharaoh. They are now free people.

For 400 years, the Israelites woke up each morning and went to bed each night when Pharaoh told them so. They slaved under the desert sun, making bricks and building pyramids because he told them so. They lived according to every word uttered from Pharaoh’s lips. That’s all they knew. So we cannot blame them for not knowing that there is a high cost to their newfound freedom. Here in the wilderness, on the other side of the Red Sea—the one God split in two so that they could be rescued—here, in this barren wilderness, they had a hard time imagining how God was enough.

“If only we turn back now, we could eat all the food we want…If only we had died…”

If only.

The word Manna comes from a question: Mannhu?, What is it? No one had ever seen this substance before.

The appearance and taste of this manna was unlike anything they knew of or had experienced. They thought they had seen it all, but here, God surprises them. This is God’s new food for them. And God promises to provide it every day. Every morning, except on Sundays, they will wake up to manna. God will give His people their daily bread. This is unexpected and unknown provision. It seems to materialize out of the clear blue sky. God provides in ways that we cannot expect, foresee, or can ever anticipate.

In the midst of the Israelites’ need and all of their questioning, God provides. But He doesn’t do so in any way they could have expected. The Israelites were not provided for by being sent back to Egypt—the only way out of scarcity they could imagine. God gave them more, right where they were. Daily bread to carry them through each one of their future days. God still does this for his people.

We must get used to this. God gives us exactly what we need for the moment—for this season of our lives. For the wandering Israelites, it was Manna, completely unanticipated and unexpected. An abundance they had no notion of until God gave it to them. And it was enough. More than enough.

That makes me wonder: Is there an abundance among us that we have no notion of?

Here’s what we must know about this story: God gives on God’s terms and not on our terms. If the Israelites got their way, if God would have relented to their desires, if God delivered them in the way they desired to be delivered, then God would have either sent them back into Egyptian slavery or He would have lifted them up out of the wilderness altogether and set them down gently into the Land He had for them. No painful waiting involved. Instant deliverance! Instant gratification!

But God didn’t do that. God’s people didn’t get that. When we rely upon God, we get what God gives us and we develop and adjust our expectations around it.

But we don’t like that. It wouldn’t be long until the Israelites would begin complaining about how gross manna tasted—how having it every day was a drag. They wanted a bigger menu. And they remembered what the buffet was like back in Egypt, and they actually entertained the thought of voluntarily giving themselves back into slavery to the Egyptians. Evidently, slavery is a small price to pay for a full belly. That sounds crazy, but that’s where their minds were. Back there in the past. They were willing to sacrifice their present freedom and the promised abundance of their tomorrows for a chance to return to the bondage of their past, because at least it was safe there, at least in Egypt they knew what to expect. They were willing to trade the promised plenty and the wide open spaces of their tomorrows because they could not let go of the nostalgia that chained them to their past. Because at least then, they knew what to expect.

There’s lots of talk in churches these days about what’s missing. About what once was. The yesteryears were great, we say. They were filled with plenty! We look back and we see abundance, and we want to go back. Back to the way things were. At least then, we knew what to expect.

Just like the Israelites, it seems like some of us would easily trade our futures for our past if we could. We cannot see God ahead of us because so often, we’re too busy looking back over our shoulders at the places and experiences of our yesteryears. Our nostalgia can keep us from recognizing the enoughness that is right in front of us and is promised for our tomorrows. Is there an abundance among us and for our tomorrows that we have no notion of? And if there is, mannhu? What is it?

Last Sunday, we kicked off our Stewardship season. Our theme this year is Growing Our Faith Through Generosity. In order to be freed for generosity, we must remind ourselves of a few things—a few biblical truths, the very substance of our faith. We can only be freed to live generously when we know that our daily dependence does not come from our own frantic and anxious efforts to gather enough.

Let’s learn that lesson from the Israelites: The ones who gathered too much manna—who attempted to hoard it—saw it spoil. They were given Daily Bread, and they tried to keep a part of it for the next day. When they woke up the next morning, the leftover part was spoiled and it began to smell. So, the people had to learn to trust, not in their own anxious efforts to gather more but in God’s promise that each new day, enough would be provided.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Stewardship is the practice of trusting in God’s daily provision—in God’s enoughness. This is faith: To rely not upon our own ability to keep what we have stowed away for tomorrow but to trust in God’s promise of daily provision and in that, find our abundance.

In order to grow in our faith, we must be generous. And in order to be generous, we must put our trust in someone other than ourselves—something other than our own ability—to provide. This is the one way forward. In order to give generously, we must be freed from our mistaken notions of tomorrow’s scarcity. We must trust that God will give us manna for tomorrow, and it will be enough for us.

So let me ask you, What do you rely upon? And what are you expecting? When you peer into your tomorrows and this church’s tomorrows, what do you see?

Is God’s daily provision a part of your vision? Are you okay walking into the future God has for us not knowing exactly where it will lead, but confident that the way forward will bring us to a place filled with milk and honey? Do you believe that? Can you believe that?

I know that when you look around, all you can see is a lack of what you had back there, back then. But would you believe it if I told you that what’s up ahead is even better? Can I challenge you to raise your expectations? God will see us through.

Let us live with the courage, confidence, and the conviction that there is enough for today and that there will be enough for tomorrow. There is abundance ahead.

There is abundance ahead.

Can you believe it?

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Chasing Scoundrels

A sermon based on Genesis 27:1-23 and Genesis 28:10-17 preached September 24th, 2107

Sermon audio

If God was the CEO of a company, in business to bring to the world some sort of decency, some moral order that would get His creation off to a booming start, picking all the right people along the way to represent him—if God was out to recruit the cream of the crop, the upstanding among us—than by now, at this point in Genesis 27 and 28, we could safely consider His tenure as CEO a complete disaster. By any standard measure of success, God is not off to a good start. We should wonder if God knew what He was doing when He spoke the world into being with those first words,

Let there be…

By every measure, God has failed. Adam and Eve have two boys, Cain and Abel. One murders the other. And a few chapters later, God comes off as a Creator who has lost complete control of His creation. He’s created a monster that can no longer be reigned back in again, so God picks one family—the best one of the bunch—and a flood comes of the earth and drowns all the rest of them. Noah and his ark. We know the story. It’s not a children’s tale. It’s a troublesome narrative of a God who needs to go back to the drawing board, erase away this first attempt, thinking it’s a good idea to start creation all over again—take two! He does so by washing away all but one small family and using them to start all over again. This is terrifying. By the end of Chapter 11 of Genesis, we should wonder if God has any clue what He’s got Himself into.

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Then, Chapter 12.

God seems to have a new idea. Instead of hoping that the next generation of human beings is entirely capable all on their own of figuring out how to treat each other and this world with some smidgen of respect and decency, what if God does something a whole lot more direct?

And so it goes. God will not leave this world to its own devices. Things quickly spiral out of control that way.

For God, there will be no more of this ‘letting us go and hoping for the best.’ God enters into relationship with His creation. He chooses now, beginning with the 12th chapter of scripture, to guide us from here on out. To enter into deep relationship with His people. One based on a promise to stick by His people no matter how rough the ride gets. There will be no more of this letting His children find their own way. We are much too clueless to figure out this life and how to live it all on our own. We need God’s help—and daily, too!

God picks out a family. We talked about this last week. In Genesis 12, God calls a wilderness wanderer and his wife, Abraham and Sarah. Out of every family of the earth, why them? We don’t know. Neither did Abraham and Sarah know. God commits Himself to this family. And so goes the rest of God’s story. All of scripture is about this one family. God says to Abraham that his offspring will become more plentiful than all the stars in the sky. God will take these regular people—completely unimpressive and unremarkable—and from them, build his future, start His story. Let that soak in: God will stake His claim and risk His reputation on this one family.

Here we are in Genesis 27. Isaac, the son Abraham nearly sacrifices, is now a blind old man. As far as we can tell, Isaac, as important as he is to God’s story, has lived a bland life. And by all indications from our first reading for this morning, he has a complete mess of a family. They’re as dysfunctional as you can get. Mother Rebekah does what no mother should do and picks a favorite out of her two sons, going so far as ensuring that Jacob—the youngest, her favorite—successfully steals out from under Esau, her oldest, his father’s birthright and blessing.

Lifetime makes made-for-TV movies like this!

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Much of this talk about a father bestowing his birthright and blessing on his child before he dies is a completely foreign thing to us. So, we need to take a moment to realize what’s at stake here.

This blessing that Jacob steals from his older brother Esau by deceiving his father is no empty gesture. There’s more than meets the eye here. In ancient culture, words shaped lives. The same words could end lives, too.

Father Isaac unwittingly gives his blessing away to the wrong son, and these spoken words cannot be taken back. Once spoken, this ancient birthright and blessing must be honored. Jacob steals this birthright and blessing from his father and his older brother. These words of blessing from Isaac’s mouth are as real and as official as if he had signed his name on the dotted line of a contract.

Jacob knows what he has done. He seems almost surprised that it worked. He also knows it’s just a matter of time before his brother Esau will come back home expecting his father to give him this stolen blessing, so Jacob runs far away, out into the wilderness where no one will ever find him.

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By all accounts, God has another mess on His hands. This is the family—the one family—God has chosen. From this wreck of a family will come God’s people, God’s salvation. God has made a covenant with this family that He cannot break. And now the future of this covenant is in the hands of a thief. God’s story—and our story, too—begins this way. With a fugitive on the run from his own family. Even his name, Jacob, means deceiver—he came out of his mother’s womb grasping the ankle of his brother, Esau! From the very start, he took a hold of what was not his to have. Jacob has never earned a thing. Everything he ever owned and enjoyed was taken from someone else. Jacob is a scoundrel. But he’s who God has to work with. We would expect God to take Jacob—this shoplifter, this swindler—and punish him, chastise him, disown him. God cannot stake his reputation on a rascal like this! But, that’s not what happens. God does not chastise Jacob. Instead, He blesses him.

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To ask the question of whether or not God blesses Jacob because he deserves a blessing is to misunderstand God and all that’s happening here. The relationship between Jacob’s dishonesty and God’s blessing of him is not cause-and-effect. God doesn’t seem to care about what Jacob deserves here. This story is one we still read today because it tells us about a God who is unlike us—who is always surprising us. Our God is a God who blesses us despite our own actions. It even seems like God doubles-down on the worst among us. We belong to a God who calls the craziest ones among us and uses them to accomplish His purposes.

This story speaks, all these thousands of years later, because it tells us of a God who continues to bless even when we don’t deserve it. Most spectacularly, though, God refuses to let us destroy ourselves. He will not leave us to our own devices. He will not leave this world to its own devices. God has and will—always and forever—pursue us—chase us down, even when we try our best to run away into our wildernesses, where we’re sure no one could ever find us, and shows us what we need to see to change our hearts and lives. To re-direct our purposes. God still chases scoundrels.

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By the time Jacob ran far enough away to feel sure that no one could find him, he was exhausted. So exhausted that he finds the nearest rock and makes it his pillow for the night. Even in his anxiousness, he gets some sleep. And Jacob dreams a big dream. Maybe this is the only way God can catch up to this weasel of a man—pursue him in his sleep. Here, Jacob’s helpless. Here, he has his guard down. Here, he can’t run away like he always has.

Jacob is as spiritually blind as his father was physically blind. This is a rare instance for God to grab the attention of this frantic and inattentive, thoughtless, self-absorbed man, and get him to see. In his dream, Jacob has a vision of heaven and earth becoming one, connected by a vast stairway.

This is no ladder. Think instead a ramp joining together the space between where we are and where God is. Heaven and earth are no longer so far from one another. This is the first glimpse we get in scripture of God’s great project to merge the heavens and the earth into one. This is the first notion we get of the Kingdom of God that, later, Jesus will usher in and spend all of his time talking about. This joker, Jacob, is the first to witness God’s tireless and eternal effort to restore heaven back to earth. What the rest of scripture, and we today, call salvation. Earth has to do with heaven. Heaven has to do with earth.

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It would be great if I could tell you that from here on out Jacob was through being a jerk. It would be even better if I could tell you that after a few failed generations, God finally figured out a sure-fire way of getting people’s attention, setting them on the right course, following right paths. But we know this is not true. We are, all of us—at some time or another just as bone-headed, self-absorbed, and self-interested as Jacob. We have to settle for less.

Here, Jacob has seen a bit of God in a bit of him. He’s woken up to a sliver of heaven come crumbling down to earth, but even the grandeur of the heavens is not enough to lift us out from our all-too-earthy ways.

God is patient with us still, tirelessly chasing His hard-headed, hard-hearted people—you and me—hoping, one day, even the scoundrels might see.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

The Thresholds of Faith

A sermon based on Deuteronomy 11:18-21 and Ephesians 6:1-9 preached on August 27th, 2017

Sermon audio

As we’ve slowly made our way through Ephesians—passage by passage, instruction by instruction—we’ve seen how serious Paul is about getting the life of God—the large, eternal, infinite life of God—inside of us. The letter to the Ephesians is Paul’s attempt to get us to notice all the ways that God is inviting us through Christ to participate in resurrection living.

Throughout our summer’s exploration of Ephesians, we’ve heard one message said a dozen different ways: practice Jesus. In everything you do, in every place you find yourself—practice Jesus. His is the only life large enough for us. Everywhere else is cramped space. We have been invited into the resurrection life of Christ, and it’s a wide-open space. Only in Christ is there enough room for us to grow into the people God has created us and wishes for us to be.

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These are big ideas from a big God. We can easily be overwhelmed by it all.

The first few chapters of Ephesians contains multitudes. They’re here to wow us. To get us interested in becoming a part of something big and beyond us. Paul speaks in Ephesians chapter 1 of a divine mystery—something given to us by God that not one of us will ever be able to comprehend or conjure up for ourselves, on our own. But in order to get in on this divine mystery, in order to begin this vast resurrection life that Christ invites us into, we must give up our own ways of going about life in general, we need to sacrifice life on our terms. The Christian way is first and foremost life on God’s terms. Our ways need changing. The particulars of our lives, especially our relationships, take on new form. Jesus-form, servant-form, cross-form. That’s why halfway through Ephesians, Paul shifts his perspective from telescopic to microscopic, as if to say,

Now that you know about the infinite holiness of this God, this is how the mundane particulars of your minutes and hours and days, and every one of your relationships will be different.

Think eternally; act locally. Start practicing resurrection right where you are! Once we got to Chapter 3, we take the big vision we glance at through our telescopes, and we let it inform and shape what we see when we look into our microscopes.

In every next chapter of Ephesians, Paul has us focusing on ever smaller layers of our lives. First, Paul makes sure we know that we Gentiles have been incorporated into the covenant of God. We are part of the ancient promise given to Abraham and Sarah. The circle of salvation grows to include all of us. Then, Paul takes us to church—talks about the body of Christ, tells us how to live out the eternal promises of our infinite God as we gather together inside of these four walls.

Then, turning the dials on the microscope even closer, he gives us instructions for how to behave and treat one another—what our lives will look like as we practice Christ together. Then, when he’s done addressing life in church community, he focuses in even closer. Now, Paul wants us to pay attention to what happens at home. How spouses are to regard one another. No longer with an attitude of dismissiveness as if we own each other, but with reverence. No longer is it okay for women to be talked down to. Now we are to look at one another in equal measure, and search for Christ inside of each other.

I love this! I love this because this movement from eternal to specific confronts us every time. We have an increasing tendency to think of God in ethereal, new-agey ways. Those who call themselves spiritual but not religious love to talk about how spending time with other human beings inside of religious community is unnecessary when they can just get up every morning and see God in the sunrise, or in the birds soaring through the sky, in the crisp cool air, or the quiet sound of wind rustling through the leaves. They say these things as if no one else witnesses God in these ways—like they’re in on something new. But Paul will have none of that. The farther we go in his letter to the Ephesians, the more Paul insists that God is found in and by those who gather together in sacred community with others on a regular basis. God becomes flesh and blood this way—something more than some transcendent idea, Someone real and present, calling us to say no to all the ways our culture is disconnecting from what’s real and personal. All of scripture, and Jesus Himself, points to a God who insists on being found in flesh and blood relationships with our fellow human beings.

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Place these words inside your hearts. Get them deep inside you.

Those are the first words from our passage in Deuteronomy for this morning. Deuteronomy is all about the particulars. It’s Moses’ last sermon before he passes away, and after he’s gone, he needs the Israelite people to remember how God has changed their life. And just like Paul does in Ephesians, Moses drills down to the specifics in Deuteronomy. And the most specific layer of our lives—the closest our microscopes can focus down upon, is what happens at home.

Inscribe these words…on the doorposts of your houses. Teach them to your children. Do all of this on the soil that God has promised to give you. Get all this deep inside of you.

God is not happy being left outside of anything. It’s not enough to find Him in sunrises and sunsets or in crisp, cool mountain breezes, in the sound of crashing waves, or the soaring of seagulls. God wants into our houses! Our kitchens and bedrooms. Our living and dining rooms. This is ground zero for our faith: what happens at home. It turns out that the biggest thresholds of our faith are the ones we step through every morning and evening as we leave and return home. Home is where it all begins, where faith is formed and then matures.

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When my parents first told my brother and I they had decided to sell the house we grew up in, I found myself surprised that I wasn’t at all sad. There was no grief there. The only thing I questioned was why I wasn’t grieving it. I talked to my brother about this, and I found out that he wasn’t grieving either. This made me feel better.

As the days went on after this news from my parents, as the house went on the market, memories of life in that house began to surface. The front yard of this home was the one my brother and I and all the neighborhood kids tore up playing baseball. Ghost man on first and third. And what about the pile of unused bricks—the ones that sat in the same place in the backyard for 30 years? The ones we used to build forts with or hide behind whenever we played outside. And then there was the panel of unfinished drywall in the garage with pencil etchings all up and down it, where my parents measured our height every few months with the dates scrawled next to each marker. What would happen to that?

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Our lives are lived, and we are formed, in-house. Nowhere else is it more important to live out our faith than in the space behind our front door. Everything begins at home, and everything about who we are and how we are, mirrors home. I am who I am, and you are who you are, because of what home is like.

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As your Pastor, I can lose my voice and my breath teaching Christ to you. I could take crowds of kids to places like Montreat and Bluestone. I could run around all week long, and still I wouldn’t have as much an impact over your child’s or grandchild’s faith, your family’s faith, as you do. Study after study proves this: the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of children and adolescents is their parents. This sanctuary is not the space within which faith is formed. It is merely the place in which it is celebrated. As it turns out, our faith is born, instilled, grown, and brought to maturity in the same space we are born, grow, and brought to maturity—in our kitchens and dining rooms, in our living rooms and bedrooms. The primary responsibility of fostering Christ in our children resides with you, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents.

Parents, you are painting a portrait of God for your children. What does that picture look like? What happens at home?

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Fathers and mothers, take your children by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.

The thresholds around the front doors, side doors, back doors of your homes—they’re also the thresholds of faith. This shouldn’t be surprising. Jesus did most of His earthly ministry around tables—the ones inside of other people’s homes—sharing food and drink with friends and enemies, outcasts and the well-connected.

We believe in a God who was born into a family. In a stable that was adjacent to a house. That is to say, we have an incarnational faith. A home-faith. A flesh and blood faith. A God-in-house faith. In the opening words of the Gospel according to John, in Jesus Christ, God has pitched a tent and moved into our neighborhood. God is born and still resides with us! In house. Teach your children well.

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The invitation and challenge we’re given as we enter the last chapter of Ephesians is to live a specific faith in a specific space. Speak no more flighty, five syllable words! No more floaty theological conjectures will do! God is not some concept or notion. God is a person who longs to take up residence among us.

So, what happens at home? I urge you to keep asking yourself that question.

As it turns out, faith is shaped inside of the havens of our homes. As it turns out, it’s the soil in which we have been planted that we grow—grow strong and mature in body, in mind, in heart…in Christ.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Diving Strongly Encouraged

A sermon based on Psalm 145:10-21 and Ephesians 3:14-21 preached on July 2nd, 2017

Just last summer I jumped into a swimming pool for the very first time in my life. 38 years in. Even though growing up I always went to the neighborhood pool, not once have I ever jumped off a diving board, done a cannonball, or even a belly-flop off the edge a pool before.

I guess from my experience on land I am well-versed in the less than fine art of falling. And falling hurts. No matter which way you fall, it hurts—we can damage ourselves that way. Sometimes we hurt our bodies, but more often and more lasting, we damage our pride, our senses of independence and strength is hurt. Maybe jumping into a pool seemed to me too much like falling. Why would I ever want to do it on purpose?! So, I never did. Up until last summer.

It took me 20 minutes of standing at the deep end of the pool, toes coming closer and closer to the edge, staring down into the depths of it, before I jumped. For that 20 minutes, I was silently making a bargain with the water: If I jump, do you promise you’ll catch me?

There I stood in the sun, at the edge of the Gold’s pool. My Karen was in front of me in the pool, standing in the shallow end, gently encouraging me, never frustrated with my remarkable hesitation, at least not out loud, God bless her, but hoping I’d eventually summon enough courage to jump in. To do it, already. To trust the fall for the first time in my life. To have some faith that the pool’s liquid arms would reach out and grab hold of me.

All of that took me 20 minutes, but I did it. And once I did it, I couldn’t stop doing it.

It’s funny how these little accomplishments bring out the kid in us. I must have jumped, swam to the side, and jumped in again 30 times before I was through! All of it a celebration of my new relationship with water.

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The bulk of our passage for the day, from the middle of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, is a prayer. It’s a remarkable prayer. A prayer of encouragement. And it’s not unlike the encouragement it takes from our loved ones to jump into a swimming pool for the first time ever. So far in this letter, Paul has expressed his love to this church in Ephesus. He’s done so through words of challenge, through prayer, through teaching.

Paul the Apostle, the founder of this church and many others, ran alongside his churches, nurturing them in their new faith in Christ. Like a father running beside his daughter who, for the first time, is on a bicycle without training wheels, barely holding onto the handlebars or the back of the seat, but still right there next to us, encouraging us to go ahead and trust the two wheels and ride. Trust the water and jump in.

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These metaphors, or any other we could make, fall short of course. This is God we’re talking about after all. All our words are too small. But in order to immerse ourselves into the incomprehensible, we need handlebars, and metaphors are the best handlebars we’ve got. So let’s try another metaphor. One literally quite deeper than swimming in a pool: scuba diving.

Dive deep, Paul encourages. Know, or at least try your best to grasp, how wide and long, how high and deep the love of Christ is! Jump in! Explore the vast, immeasurable ocean of God’s love.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Here, only scuba gear will do. Here, we need oxygen tanks, because in order to explore God’s love we will need to leave the superficial behind, get beyond the surface of things, and dive deep underneath. God’s love is fathomless. In order to love this life in Christ, we must plunge its depth. No more wading in this water. No water wings or life vests. There’s no toe-dipping here. God’s love is for diving into. God’s love is fathomless, and ultimately impossible for us to comprehend, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to understand it. Diving is strongly encouraged.

It’s our business to learn as much as we can about God, His love and mercy for us, His life and the life He wants for us. This is what the Christian life is for. This is our way to maturity in Christ. Jump in. The water’s warm. Dive underneath. Plumb its depths. Get to the bottom of it. The life of faith is total immersion. In order to know—really know!—the love of God, we must know it like a fish knows water. We must swim in it and then it will start swimming in us. The way of Jesus is complete absorption in, involvement in, being occupied by, diving into, God’s love.

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The end of the passage sounds like a benediction. In fact, it’s been our benediction throughout this summer. There’s an Amen at the end of this passage, but Paul is not done. The end of chapter three/the beginning of chapter four is a hinge point in Ephesians.

It’s at this moment where Paul has said all he needs to say about how God is involved in this world and our lives in it, and now it’s time to talk about what that means for us who live together in that God-immersed reality called church. This is when Paul says,

This is how God is, and is with us, and for us. And given these Divine truths and promises, how then shall we live?

This is the challenge of a lifetime, our lifetimes: to take the vertical and put it to work in the horizontal. I don’t much like that metaphor. It seems to suggest there are only 2 dimensions. But we know better than that.

Ocean breadth, length, height, depth. God moves—and God moves in us—in all directions, in every dimension.

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More about this astounding prayer Paul prays. It’s a prayer for us. For all who have ears to listen. Eyes to see.

Before he writes a word of it, Paul says he kneels before God with these words. Those are words that don’t catch us by surprise, because kneeling and prayer go together for us, but for Paul’s time, this is remarkable. People prayed standing up in his time. Kneeling was unusual. It suggests an exceptional degree of earnestness. Paul really means this prayer. Here, at the hinge of his letter to the Ephesians, he takes a knee.

I’ve taken you this far. This is as far as I can go,

he seems to say.

With this prayer, with the Amen at the end of it, I now hand you over to God. The rest I have to say is something only God can do for you.

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In her book, Waiting for God, French philosopher and Christian ethicist, Simone Weil, writes this:

That we may strive after goodness with an effort of our will is one of the lies invented by the mediocre part of ourselves in its fear of being destroyed…There are people who try to raise their souls like a man continually taking jumps in the hopes that, if he jumps higher every day, a time may come when he will no longer fall back to earth but go right up to the sky. Thus occupied, he cannot look at the sky. We cannot take a single step toward heaven. It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction. If, however, we look heavenward for a very long time, God comes and takes us up.He raises us easily.

Poet Robert Browning put it a different way when he wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

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When Paul wants to put the church to work, he doesn’t tell us to get to work. He doesn’t give us jobs to do. Assigning specific roles to specific people. This prayer he prays is no pep rally. No job description, no technique to get something going. It’s prayer, pure and simple. Paul leaves all the inner workings of our life together as Church up to prayerful attention to God.

First and foremost, prayer. Prayer at all times. Prayer is what forms and informs the Church—the people of God in Jesus Christ. This prayer for the Church leaves one thing clear: Church is not some effort we make. Church doesn’t happen under our own power. Church happens because God brings it to life and God sustains its life. The Church must learn to rely upon God, not itself.

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What does that look like?

Well, Pauls says it himself. First and foremost—right from the outset—we kneel. We surrender our own power. We say something to ourselves that’s similar to what Paul said to himself at the hinge point in his letter to this church: We’ve taken ourselves this far. And no, we haven’t done it on our own. God has always been a part of this journey of ours. But God wants more. More for us. Not from us, but for us. And that means we stop and let God lead the way from here. Leading us into the fathomless reaches—how wide, how high up and long, how deep down they are!

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This is the point at which we stop gasping for our own breath, and we strap on our oxygen tanks; stop trying to see for ourselves and put on our dive masks. We stop walking under our own power and we give ourselves to a completely different power. A power that upholds us, cradles us like the ocean does a diver. Committed together, as Church—Christ’s church—to growing daily, praying and living our way toward the fullness of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Here, swimming together in the depths of God’s love, diving deep is strongly encouraged. And then plunge the depths, lengths, and heights all around us. Completely immersed. Prayer and praise are our oxygen that fills us with the fullness of God.

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

Alleluia! Amen.