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.

Holy Soil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace and peace,

Paul writes.

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

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

There but for the grace of God go I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia! Amen.

A Place to Belong

A sermon based on Psalm 32 and Luke 15:11-32 preached on September 25th, 2016

Sermon audio

We all want a place to belong. Whether we realize it or not, even in our hyper-individualized world that celebrates the accomplishment of self-starters and self-doers—at heart, we human beings have been created for communion—to share life with others, to be a welcomed part of something bigger than ourselves. To belong to a family.

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At Montreat this last summer, Harper, Tatum, Andy, Karen, and I woke up way too early in the morning after going to bed way too late the night before, to make our way to worship. Each morning, we sang and danced, and prayed, and listened for another message from God.

That very first morning, the keynote preacher, Robert Alexander, hung a sign from around his neck—a big one that couldn’t be ignored. In giant, bold letters, it read Child of God. He wore it like a badge—like a gigantic nametag, each and every morning as he preached. He talked about how everywhere we go, you and I belong. We belong to a family of which everyone we see—neighbors, friends, strangers, enemies, all!—are beloved children of God.

After that first worship service, the five of us went our separate ways to gather together in our Small Groups, where among of things, we had a chance each morning to discuss what we had heard in Robert’s morning message. And I asked my small group what would it be like if everyone wore a sign around their necks that said Child of God?

Imagine that with me. What if, wherever you go, no matter in what direction you looked, everyone you encountered throughout your day wore a sign like that? How would it change things? Would we treat one another differently? How? Would we be kinder, more joyful? Would it open us up to one another more? Make us feel safer in each other’s company?

And if you were wearing the sign, too, how do you think others would treat you? Would it make you feel uncomfortable? Would it make you feel more vulnerable? Vulnerable in a bad way, or vulnerable in a good way? Would you wear the sign proudly and boldly, or would you want to tear it off or hide it somehow? Would it matter if everyone around you was wearing the same sign or if you were the only one wearing it?

The youth in my small group were quick to answer my question. They thought that if we walked around wearing a sign like that around our necks for everyone else to see, it would only cause problems. They thought that people would see the sign and ostracize them for declaring their faith so publicly. And if everyone wore the sign, then it would be just as good as if nobody at all wore one. Almost like all our Child of God signs would cancel each other out, or after a time, we would all easily overlook them, so they wouldn’t matter at all. I was disheartened by these answers. But, spoken by the mouths of teenagers, these answers hint at the honest truth about our humanity.

Being human means dealing with a host of complex and complicated relationships, sometimes—or even most of the time—within our own families. Relationships that are far from ideal. We all seem to know, at least in theory, that our relationships with others are supposed to be safe and whole and satisfying—that in a perfect world, they would be places where we would belong, exactly how we are, no exceptions. But, we all are very well aware of our imperfection and the scars in our relationships with one another, how far off from ideal things really are, both within our families and within the greater families of our friendships, our neighborhood, our community, certainly our world. We have hearts that often refuse to regard others as beloved. It’s almost as if we think that God’s love is a scarce commodity—there’s only so much of it to go around. That in order for some of us to belong, there have to be others who do not.

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I want you to find a pencil or a pen. Hopefully you find one or the other in the pew in front of you. Find the bulletin insert with this parable on it. At the top, it reads, Parable of the Lost Son. Cross out the words “Lost Son.” I want you to write this instead: “Dysfunctional Family.” Go ahead, write it: “Dysfunctional Family.” …There, that’s better. Religion Professor and Christian author, Barbara Brown Taylor, refers to this story as the Parable of the Dysfunctional Family. Thank God for that!

If ever we thought the people in the bible had it all together—or at least more together than we do—here’s a story where God’s Good News works through a family that seems to have no idea how to be in relationship with each other. The father has no backbone. For some inexplicable reason, he caves whenever his ungrateful younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, which basically means he’s wishing his father were dead. And whenever one son gets his inheritance, all the other sons in the family get their slice of the pie at the same time, too. Which leaves the father without any liquid assets at all. What was he thinking?

The older brother lives in silent resentment, perhaps long before the younger brother ever left, he had this notion that the only way to get the love of his father was to earn his way into it, as if love was ever something to earn. As if the only way to belong is to carve your own rightful spot in the family, to prove to your own father that you deserve a place in the family. The older son seems to think of family as some sort of business deal. There’s no understanding of love here at all. His relationship with his father is some sort of contractual agreement. Carl Jung would have a field day with that one!

And the younger son. How selfish and ungrateful could you be! He seems to answer that question in one fail swoop! If Jesus was right, that your heart is always where your treasure is, it’s clear where the younger son’s heart is. What a jerk! But then again, as far as that goes, isn’t his older brother giving him a run for his money?!

And where’s the mother in all this? Had she passed away? Was she upstairs completely oblivious to what’s happening here? Why didn’t she have a say in the matter? Since her husband just handed their two sons their inherence, when he dies, there’s nothing left for her to survive on. This is an astoundingly broken family! Secrets and schemes abound!

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In order to understand what Jesus is trying say by all this, we have to back up to the first 3 verses of Luke chapter 15. They serve as the context for last week’s two, small parables as well as this one.

Jesus was inviting to dinner all these folks of dubious and doubtful reputations. Prostitutes, tax collectors, who knows who else. Riff-raff. They were the scum of the earth. The Pharisees and Sadducees saw them hanging out with Jesus—he invited them to breakfast, lunch, and dinner—treating them with kindness and respect, as if they deserved such treatment. They saw this, and they were furious! Certainly God doesn’t approve of these sorts of people, the Pharisees and Sadducees believed! God loves the folks who make more of themselves, who at least make an effort to behave and live reasonably! God helps those who help themselves, does He not? Apparently it’s not that simple.

There are two different reactions to the grace of God. The first reaction is utter surprise and joy, because you have an acute sense that you’re completely unworthy of God’s favor. That happens when you’re down and out and you’re well-aware of it. The second reaction to the grace of God is resentment and bitterness. That happens when you’ve worked your tail off all your life, understanding that your hard work and devotion should earn you a leg-up with God. And whenever we witness another being welcomed so joyfully and thoroughly into God’s family despite living a life of questionable or downright offensive character, we come off looking a whole lot like the older brother. We throw up our hands and say, “What about me? Don’t I deserve more?” I wonder, Do we really want God’s grace to be amazing?

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The truth is, of course, both sons are lost. There’s one who strayed off for miles and miles and years and years, and then there’s the other who stayed close by but whose heart grew too bitter and resentful for him to ever feel like he still belonged.

This is the Parable of the Dysfunctional Family. Both sons, in drastically different way, had fallen out of relationship with their father. Both had burned their bridges in one way or another. But by the end of Jesus’ story, the father does something remarkable. He sees both of his sons in their brokenness. He comes running after both of them, across all of their burnt bridges. He embraces both of them, and reaffirms their place in the family. The father restores them both to full relationship. Calls them both “Son.”

See, friends, there are no burnt bridges in the Kingdom of God. Whether, like the younger son, we’ve wasted opportunity after opportunity or whether we’ve always played it safe (maybe all of us are both at different times), God’s arms are always outstretched to welcome us back into full relationship, restoring to us a place in the family of things, showing us that we belong. And it’s all—every bit of it—a gift. Entirely unearned. Completely undeserved.

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The opportunity for us, as we all stand unworthy but still completely immersed inside, of God’s gift of grace, is to turn outward. To spread out our arms in gratitude and openness in response to the grace of God, and in turn, welcome in the prodigal and the messy among us—those, who like the younger son, think they can do it all on their own, but are failing, dirty and tired, hungry and spent. And those out there who, like the older son, are also failing in their individual efforts to live impressive lives, who have no notion of grace. Who are lost in their own pride, unable to trust in anyone but themselves—and are exhausted, but can’t find a safe place to exhale, a place to be imperfect; who have no idea how loved they are by God, not for what they do, but simply for who they are: a child who belongs to a God who will always run out to welcome us home!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Faith, Untangled

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

Sermon audio

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

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

he said.

Church!

she cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friends, that’s grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia! Amen!

Through Ananias’ Eyes

A sermon based on Psalm 30 and Acts 9:1-20a preached on May 8th, 2016

Sermon audio

What else is there but the tug inside your heart? That feeling of being pulled in a direction that surprises everyone you know—most of all yourself. That’s all Ananias could say about it.

Ananias was a follower of the Way—what people now call a Christian. He knew that when Jesus came tugging at his heart, it was something he couldn’t ignore. Jesus is kind and patient, but also unrelenting and tenacious.

Ananias knew that the first thing Jesus does to a person—or at least what He did to him—is He injects them with a strong dose of humility. That’s what Jesus does to a heart. He calms it. Reduces it. Jesus announces your place in the family of things. When Jesus grabs of hold of somebody, that somebody becomes both smaller and bigger all at once. That is to say, all the world becomes bigger, and you become smaller, and all the sudden, the world isn’t yours anymore—it’s God’s and you’re just a little part of it. This was hard for Ananias to describe to anyone who asked, but it was true.

And, as it would turn out, Saul—yes, THE Saul, the one who went around murdering Christians—Saul, of all people(!), would be the next person to realize how Jesus does all that. Also, as it would turn out, Ananias would be the one chosen by Jesus himself to nurture Christ in Saul—help him make sense of what Jesus does to a person whenever He enters into their heart. The best way Ananias knew how to describe it is it’s a sense of being pulled in a brand new and completely surprising direction.

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You have to excuse Ananias for being fearful of what Jesus asked him to do. For all these years, he and his follow Jesus followers would flee in the other direction whenever they heard Saul was headed their way. Saul was a tornado of a man, reckless and powerful, he was by all accounts a Christian-killer, a murderous man who breathed threats against Jesus’ church. He was hell-bent on exterminating every Christian he could round up.

So when Ananias heard from the Lord in a vision that THE very same Saul was now a converted Jesus-follower, it was like telling a black man to go to the house of the Grand Dragon Wizard of the KKK and knock on his door, promising him that everything after that would go smoothly for him. It was almost impossible for Ananias to believe! But Ananias trusted the voice he heard. He trusted that it belonged to Jesus, and Jesus would never lead him astray, so out Ananias went to find a house along Straight Street. It was the home of a fellow Christian whose name was Judas (not THAT Judas, mind you, but another one), and there Saul would be. The Spirit of Jesus told Ananias that Saul was blinded by a bright light and something like scales covered his eyes. Ananias hadn’t heard of anything like that before, but all of this sounded strange, so what did it matter anyway? It’s important to mention that Ananias was at first dubious, to say the least. He talked back to the Lord, which was something only brave people do, but what Jesus was asking Ananias to do sounded like crazy talk to him, so he put up a fight. But we all know who won that fight. Jesus did. So Ananias packed his things and went!

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Flannery O’Connor once wrote of Saul,

I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him straight off his horse.

See, some people need something drastic to happen to them to change their hearts and minds about things.

Most of us who call ourselves Christians experience something much less violent than that, though. We aren’t so much knocked off a horse, or dragged to the ground by Jesus kicking and screaming like Saul was. Jesus comes inside much more slowly—over time. So you can be excused if the way Jesus came into your life is nothing like what Saul experienced. Saul’s conversion experience is way out of the ordinary, but that man needed something big to happen to him—to get his attention all at once! Jesus had to throw that man down to the ground, blind him with something like scales over his eyes, and yell at him to get his attention. For the rest of us, though, Jesus doesn’t do anything quite that drastic; He doesn’t come violently rushing into our lives like that. It’s more like Jesus sweetens our lives like honey does a cup of hot tea, if you’ll allow a metaphor. He drizzles in, little by little, He blends Himself in, until the whole cup of tea tastes and smells like Him.

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When Ananias arrived at Judas’ home on Straight Street, he got right to work. It was clear that Jesus was serious about him nursing Saul back to health again—getting him trained up and taught all about Jesus.

Jesus came into Saul’s life so fast, it hurt. Saul didn’t even know who he was anymore, and that made sense, because, like I said before, when Jesus comes in, He changes around everything. And with one look at Saul, Ananias knew that Saul had no idea which way was up.

For one, the old Saul couldn’t keep his mouth shut. The old Saul was full of vile words, and he spit whenever he said them. He was a force no one cared to reckon with. But now it was different. The person Ananias met was silent, confused, tired—not even able to get up out of bed. You might even say he was even meek and helpless. Ananias hoped that meant that even when Saul regained his strength, he’d still be like that. God can do those sort of things, you know! God can knock all the nonsense out of anyone if He wants to!

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Well, the days passed slowly, but after 3 of them, those things that looked like scales over Saul’s eyes fell off, and he could see again. He stopped mumbling too so Ananias could finally understand what he was saying. Ananias would never forget the first clear words out of his mouth,

I want to be baptized.

You know how whenever you baptize someone, you say their name out loud? Well, Ananias took Saul down to the river, gathered some water in his hand, all ready to baptize Saul, said his name, and all at once, Saul cut him off and said,

My name’s not Saul anymore. I’m a new man now. God has done something wonderful to me. Please, call me ‘Paul.’

So that’s what Ananias did. He said,

Paul, child of God. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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More time passed.

So many of us think that Paul was struck dumb and blind, was dragged into some house on Straight Street, got cured of his blindness, and all the sudden knew everything he needed to know about how to go out and talk to the world about Jesus. The account of all this that you can read in the book of Acts makes it sound that way, but that’s not how it went at all. In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul writes it down himself, saying that it took something like 14 years in all to be raised up in Jesus. Paul sat with Ananias for a few of those years. Each and every day, Ananias would share more stories about Jesus with him.

Later, Paul traveled long distances to meet up with other Christian leaders like Cephas and Barnabas, and he studied and prayed under their care. Raising up a Christian isn’t anything that happens all at once. I’m sure you know that. It takes years of study and dedication. It takes parents and teachers and mentors. It also takes a hunger to learn from all those parents and teachers and mentors. But through all that teaching, and studying, and worship, and prayer, Jesus sinks in, deeper and deeper, into our hearts and minds, and changes us from the inside out. That’s what you could see in Paul. All that anger and rage was left behind, and each day, Ananias and his other teachers recognized the wonder and awe and joy starting to take him over. That’s how Jesus works! The fancy word for that is transformation if you care to know, but most people just like to call it God’s grace.

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So, what does this all have to do with you and me? It has to do plenty with all of us sitting here today all these years later. See, this story isn’t really about Paul. This story is about God. This is how God works in all of us.

That’s not to say we’ll ever be thrown down to the ground and struck blind like Paul was. God approaches us like we need him to. And God help him, Paul needed to be confronted in the way he was. Hopefully Jesus won’t ever have to do that to any one of us! But just the same, Jesus changes lives. He interrupts us and makes house calls! Jesus comes knocking on the door of our hearts and minds, and once He starts, He doesn’t stop until we let him in! Jesus is stubborn that way! But the truth is, we’re all stubborn, too! Much more stubborn sometimes than Jesus is! Sometimes we don’t even know He’s knocking. Other times, we just ignore the knocks, because we like to do it all without Him inside bothering us—and the one thing Jesus will always do, once he’s inside, is bother us! Jesus refuses to be ignored once he’s made His way through the door! Most of the time, we’d just rather Him shut up, but Jesus never stops talking to us. It’s just us who stop listening to Him.

My advice, if you want it? Don’t ever stop listening for Jesus!

The faithful task—and I call it that because it’s hard work!—is to try your level best to keep yourself open to everything that Jesus is doing in you and around you. That’s the truth of it all—seen through Ananias’ eyes, anyway.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Be Fed

A sermon based on Psalm 63:1-8 and Isaiah 55:1-13 preached on World Communion Sunday, October 4th, 2015

Sermon Audio

The changing of the seasons is a wondrous thing. Just a few weeks ago we were in our bathing suits, diving into pools to cool ourselves down, and now all the sudden cold rain is falling from the sky, and we find ourselves fighting the temptation to turn on the heat in our houses just because it feels too early to give in to the colder weather, as if our stubborn resistance to the inevitable changing of the seasons will somehow keep the warm weather among us for a bit longer.

Even if we invite the change of Summer into Fall, each and every year still the same, this abrupt changing of seasons takes us all by surprise. The lavish growing season is past and now among us is the Harvest, where we gather in what we need to last the upcoming winter. It’s in these colder seasons that our traveling circles grow smaller. We stay closer to home. We take out the extra blankets from our closets and drape them over our beds and our sofas. We huddle in closer to one another. We rely on one another a little more to get through the unkind weather that awaits us. Such is the signal that Autumn sends out.

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Last November in New York City, about 500 people gathered at Saint Bartholomew’s Church the day after Thanksgiving to eat together. The meal was catered, and guests were served roasted turkey, buttered mashed potatoes, red velvet cake, and pumpkin cheese cake, among other fine foods provided by some of the greatest chefs in Manhattan. Each table was adorned with red table cloths and candles. The guests were serenaded by piano and saxophone. Some well-off residents paid $100 for a place at this great banquet. Others there paid nothing. Nothing at all. But each were invited to the feast, anyway. See, this was a holiday dinner for the homeless, and each $100 ticket paid for 2, maybe even 3 plates. Some of Manhattan’s most well-off residents paid the bill in exchange for the honor of eating side-by-side with some of their worst-off neighbors. There in that hallowed space of Saint Bartholomew’s Church, a wonderful, sacred thing happened—something with the power to change everyone who gathered around table that day.

The host that day said he was encouraged that only 2 of 167 people who bought dinners asked not to be seated with the more than 250 homeless people there. At each table, there was a host assigned to foster conversations between the well-to-do and the homeless—to make everyone there feel at ease—and the night was a smashing success. They hope to do it again this year. They also hope that it becomes a nation-wide trend.

One of the paying guests had this to say:

How many parties do you go to with people of the same socio-economic status and you’re bored to tears? It’s good to mix it up.

One homeless man declared to his fellow tablemates with a smile upon his face and a good amount of dignity in his voice,

Tonight, I’m not homeless.

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Today we gather for a Feast around the Lord’s Table. On this World Wide Communion Sunday, we share in a meal with countless Christians in many different places who gather around the same table because, just like us, they have been invited to come—to be reminded that wherever a community gathers together in God’s name, there everyone will have a place at the Table—will be fed, nourished, sustained, and upheld.

There’s no A- or B-list here. No qualifications needed, no reservations required. No labels like homeless or well-to-do. We all come to this table with empty hands. In fact, that’s the only way to come. We must come knowing that no matter what we could bring, it would never be enough. We must come only with our hunger and our thirst, nothing more. In fact, if we brought anything else to this table, it would only show our distrust of God’s powerful ability to sustain us. All we’re told to bring is our emptiness, asking that God may fill it at this meal. God is our host–out Heavenly Host–as we gather around this Table. It is here that we are reminded of God’s great love for us. Here, we are astounded that we have a God who ardently and zealously seeks and finds us, calls us His own, and ushers us in and says to us, “come, accept, delight, and be fed!”

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There are so many empty things in our lives. So many questions we’d like answered. So many relationships we’d like healed. Most of us have made mistakes that we regret making, some of which may have changed the course of our lives in one way or another. We have all said cruel things to others. Thought even more cruel things about others. We have valued things that weren’t worth valuing, people who weren’t worth our time and effort; and we have too easily dismissed other things and other people who we wish we had valued more. God knows about all of these things—our brokenness, our failures, our mistakes and shortcomings—and invites us to the banquet, not despite them, but because of them. Because we who are hungry and undernourished and broken need to be fed with the right things.

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It’s at this Table where we will find, as Isaiah suggests, what’s truly valuable, worth partaking in, worth giving ourselves to. He exclaims in verse 2,

Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy?

We hear voices all over the place, no matter where we go, that do a great job convincing us of what we need to buy, and be, and do, and accomplish. Most of them are offers to spend our money, our effort, and our time, our devotion. And don’t we realize, after buying in, that whatever it was they were selling wasn’t worth buying in the first place? It never really delivered on its promise to fill a missing need of ours. We find out that, whatever it is, it was wasn’t made to satisfy us, but only to appease us temporarily.

This message from Isaiah isn’t only an invitation to a meal. It’s an invitation to assess what’s important and what will truly satisfy. That’s what stewardship is. At its heart, stewardship is earnest reflection upon those things in our lives that have true value and worth. It’s the practice of setting our hearts in the right place, so that we can do all we do—live or entire lives, time, talent, treasure, and all—giving ourselves to those things that truly build us up and nourish us—and our whole being to things that satisfy. The rest are empty calories, junk food for the heart, mind, body, and soul. God wants us to be satisfied, but only with the right things.

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We’re entering Stewardship season. Next week and for the rest of October, we will hear from each of our Committee chairs about what we have done this last year, and what we hope, with God’s help and direction, to accomplish in the coming year. Stewardship season too easily gets whittled down to money. There are, indeed, important questions and considerations we will focus upon this next month that have to do with money, but stewardship is bigger than that.

This month, there will be a time for you and your loved ones to consider how much to give to the the mission and ministry of your church, and we will talk about that, but stewardship season is also a time to ask ourselves bigger questions—far greater questions, like:

How much time and energy do I spend simply sustaining my existence—the existence of my family—rather than celebrating a Divinely-inspired life?

That question is printed on a slip of paper right in front of you. And this one, too:

How can each of my days be lived as if I am the one invited to a lavish banquet of God’s grace?

Keep this slip of paper. These questions are for you. They are your preparation for this Stewardship season.

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And here’s the most important thing about the Stewardship season: It starts here. At the Lord’s Table. With God as our Host—our Heavenly Host—treating us to feast. Without money. At no cost at all. Here’s the thing about what happens at this Table that you’ll never see anywhere else: In a world of self-service, scarcity, stinginess, and empty calories; when we gather together for this feast, we don’t feed ourselves. Instead, we are fed. Here, we rely not upon our own own devices, our own worthiness, our ability to afford this meal: We cannot afford it. It’s simply impossible to afford it. It is instead given to us, lavished upon us, because God is gracious and merciful to us. Come, and be fed!

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

Alleluia! Amen.