The Ragamuffin Gospel

A sermon based on Jeremiah 7:21-28 and Ephesians 4:17-5:2 preached on July 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s been a few weeks since we’ve spent time reflecting on Ephesians, so a little bit of a refresher for us may be in order.

We’re a little more than half way through. With the end of Chapter 3 and the beginning of Chapter 4, we talked about how Paul shifts the discussion. The first half of this letter is full of big words, ideas about God and what God has done, and is still doing, through Jesus Christ. Paul wows us with Divine ideas that are as deep and wide as eternity itself.

Paul is inviting us into a new way of seeing absolutely everything through and in Christ Jesus. He’s telling us that we have been invited into nothing less than the immensity and mystery of a God who is beyond our reach or knowledge, and every bit of our comprehension. And the only way we can ever properly respond to a God this big, an invitation to enter this vast Divine life, is to worship. To stand in awe. To stop right where we are, to cease being distracted by all the small things that take up most of our time, and look up into the heavens with eyes and ears and minds wide open, and start paying attention to something—Someone—much bigger than ourselves. Our tiny little lives and everything that takes up space inside of them are not what we’re made to live for. We are made for so much more. This is news that should startle us awake. Push and pull on our hearts and minds. Throw us out of our ruts.

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The back half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is all about how to properly respond to this immense invitation to live bigger lives. Here’s when Paul’s words get a whole lot more specific. Ephesians chapters 4-6 are all about what it looks like when heaven comes crashing down to earth. What it looks like when the ways of God begin to change the ways we live and relate to one another.

If you’re of the sort who prefers practical advice and instruction about what to do, what to say, how to act in ways that are faithful and responsive to God’s call upon our lives, this is the part where you can start paying attention. All the sudden, Paul is done speaking in poetry. Our passage for the morning is full of  specifics. Short, instructional, no nonsense directives:

Take off your former way of life,

he writes.

Take a fresh breath and let God renew your attitude and spirit.Put on your new self (ok, that’s poetry). Speak truth. Work honestly with your hands. Share with anyone who has a need. Offer only words that build up. Take all the words that are used to tear others down and yank them out of your vocabulary. They have no place in this new life we’re given. Communicate grace, be kind, compassionate. Forgive one another. And, in so doing, you will do nothing less than imitate God—living all your life in all of God’s love!

Easy for him to say. Much harder for us to do. But in the very center of what Paul is saying is a word of grace. This is not so much a list of things to do or attitudes to adopt as it is how our lives, our relationships, our hearts will change as we take off our old self—our conventional attitudes and ways of seeing and engaging everything—and dress up in the life God has for us in Christ Jesus. We don’t do any of this. This—all this—is what God does in us as we put Him on, clothe ourselves in Him.

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This is The Ragamuffin Gospel. This book has changed a lot of lives. And like any good book, it’s also made a lot of others furious. It’s written by a former Franciscan Priest whose name is Brennan Manning. The entire book is a testimony to the goodness and grace of God.

Father Manning, for all appearances, had it all together. He was well-revered by his fellow Priests. He lived a contemplative life among the poor in France. At one point, he spent six months in a cave in the middle of no man’s land as a desert mystic—living in silence and prayer. After that, he became a campus minister at Broward Community College in Florida. It was there that he became an alcoholic. When he failed to find the affirmation he craved through his work—some notion of God-belovedness—he medicated himself with booze. He lost himself inside the bottle. He left the priesthood and got married. He went into a six-month addiction treatment, and in the years that followed, he had two relapses. After 18 years, his marriage ended—a casualty of his alcoholism. And then one day it hit him: Alcohol wasn’t the real problem. It was the thing that he used to cover up the problem. Brennan realized that the problem was this terrible life-long, effort-filled, exhausting, graceless pursuit of God—he had always tried his best to prove himself worthy to God.

All the sudden he found out that in an effort to find God, he has lost himself. This is why he was a broken man. Then, the grace of God invaded him. One of the greatest regrets of his life, Manning says, is all the time he wasted in shame, guilt, remorse, and self-condemnation.

This is what he writes in his Preface to his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel:

The Ragamuffin Gospel is not for the super-spiritual. It is not for muscular Christians who have made John Wayne, and not Jesus, their hero. It is not for academics who would imprison Jesus in the ivory tower of biblical scholarship. It is not for noisy, feel-good folks who manipulate Christianity into a naked appeal to emotion. It is not for hooded mystics who want magic in their religion. It is not for Alleluia Christians who live only on the mountaintop and have never visited the valley of desolation.

It is not for the fearless and tearless. It is not for red-hot zealots who boast with the rich young ruler of the Gospels, ‘All these commandments I have kept from my youth.’ It is not for the complacent who hoist over their shoulders a tote bag of honors, diplomas, and good works, actually believing they have it made. It is not for legalists who would rather surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus.

Manning continues,

The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out. It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting their heavy suitcase from one hand to the other. It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker. It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.

It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay. It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God. It is for smart people who know they are stupid, and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags. The Ragamuffin Gospel is a book I wrote for myself and anyone who has grown weary and discouraged along the Way.

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Take your former way of life,

Paul writes, your crumpled old self—the version of you that used to devote itself to worthless pursuits, dead ends, sensual, greedy, appetite-driven, reckless living…and put on your

your crumpled old self—the version of you that used to devote itself to worthless pursuits, dead ends, sensual, greedy, appetite-driven, reckless living…and put on your new self: truthful, righteous, holy.

The old way has to go.

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In our reading from Jeremiah this morning, we hear God speak words of frustration to the young prophet. Jeremiah has a tough job to do. Here, God asks him to hold nothing back, to relay to the Israelites how God feels about their actions. They have not listened to God. They have not followed God. Instead, they have chosen their own way, and in so doing, they have not moved forward. They have slid backwards.

Speak to the people, Jeremiah. But they won’t hear you. This is a people who have refused to be taught.

Words like these occur throughout scripture. Even the most faithful among us have a tendency to trust our own wit and wisdom to make it through our days—to live our lives under our own power. To practice this self-help-centered Gospel, a life that, as Brennan Manning would say has much more to do with John Wayne than Jesus. No more of that, God says!

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It’s remarkable that in a letter all about spiritual maturity, we have these words: Stop trying. Even among all the imperatives in their passage, it should be clear to us that it is not we who do the work. It is not we who make the effort to arrive or achieve anything. All Paul is asking us to do is take off all that covers up and keeps us from sharing life with God and to put on something new and renewing. The way into new life starts with simply say Yes to God, letting him dress us with Himself, with truth, and righteousness, and holiness.

Stop trying to catch up to God—that’s the former way of life: trying to be your own God under your our effort, like Brennan Manning was doing. He destroyed himself from the inside out living that way.

All the effort here is God’s. We simply stop and let God catch up to us—take us over. Form us. Renew us. Change us. This is grace. So that we might not be filled with our own fullness, but be emptied of ourselves and then filled with the fullness of God.

The Christian life doesn’t start with us. It doesn’t even continue with us. It’s all God. Living the Ragamuffin Gospel means continuously growing into the truth that I am who I am, you are who you are, because Jesus is who Jesus is. We don’t become good in order to get to God. We are made good because God gets to us.

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The Jesus life isn’t about what we can accomplish for God. It’s about what God can accomplish in and through us when we stop trying to matter to God. So, let’s get out of the way of what God is doing in and among us.

This is the Ragamuffin Gospel.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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Together, Together, Together

A sermon based on Jeremiah 23:1-8 and Ephesians 3:1-13 preached on June 25th, 2017

Sermon audio

“It’s all a mystery,” we say.

“Everyone likes a good mystery.” We say that, too.

“I think the butler did it,” one says.

“No way!” says another, “It’s the cook in the kitchen. She’s the one with all the knives!”

Most mysteries can be solved. All we need is time and a bit of detective work. Some snooping around.

Most are solved within the sixty minutes of a TV show. Before we get to the bottom of our gigantic bucket of popcorn in a movie theater. By the last page of a book.

Most things we call “mysteries” simply take careful discernment. The combing over of evidence left behind or gathered together. Facts will be collected. Lies will be dispelled. Stories will be set straight. Fingerprints will be lifted, but the truth will be reached. Solving these sorts of mysteries is not only possible but likely. Most times, we can be confident that with the right help we’ll figure it all out. It might take a while, but we’ll get there.

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Then there are those mysteries without end. The ones that cannot, by definition or essence, be sorted through. Mysteries without answers. These sorts of mysteries are not the kind we solve. They’re the kind we live. Fathomless. Their very incomprehension is the thing that draws us in.

Some mysteries are meant to be immersed inside of, rather than figured out, enjoyed instead of scrutinized. The miracle of birth. The ways of the human brain or heart. What the soul is and what it is made of and where it resides. Why ice cream tastes so good.

Some things are best left unscrutinized. Untouched. It’s best to hold them up—behold them—lose ourselves inside of. Wonder about. And getting to the bottom of them, if we ever tried, would drain the beauty, the sensation, the miracle out of them. This is the type of mystery Paul mentions in these verses.

In English, the word mystery means “dark,” “obscure,” secretive,” “puzzling.” But in Paul’s language, Greek, the word mystery is used to talk about a truth into which someone is initiated. It’s God-language. Jesus-language. Mystery is what we’re invited into. Led to see. Become included in. Grow eyes for.

And we’re not brought in, as investigators are, in order to figure it out. No, we are brought into mystery in order to live our lives inside of it. Traverse it. Explore all its parts. Enjoy its landscape. Have our eyes opened further the deeper we go.

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Paul is under house arrest. There areRoman guards standing at his front door 24/7. He has not a window to look out of. In ancient times, only the rich had windows. Paul was not of the lackadaisical sort. One could make an argument that by this time, he had logged more miles than Caesar. He was no homebody. We can easily imagine Paul restless as he wrote this letter to the church in Ephesus while under the custody of Rome.

If you want to get into technicalities, Paul was a prisoner of Nero, the Roman Emporer from 54 to 68 AD. Nero was ruthless. He had it out for Christians. Nero considered this small group of believers a great threat to his power. Nero was the one who fed Christians to lions inside of Roman colosseums. But as Paul gets personal here in this passage, explaining his current situation as a prisoner under house arrest, nowhere do we find the name Nero. Paul refuses to use it. As he saw it, No Nero, no Caesar had the final say about him. Only Jesus did.

Throughout his letters, Paul refers to himself as a prisoner of Jesus, because Jesus was the only one he belonged to. Paul was evidently a tiny man. Small in stature and in voice, but he was large in spirit. Imprisoned often, there was no containing him. His essence belonged and resided in the wide open and hope-filled landscapes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That was the only way he allowed himself or others to define him. A prisoner of Jesus Christ. In this way, though often bound in chains, Paul was nonetheless free. That frustrated his captors to no end.

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This vast and wide-open mystery is ours, too. This Jesus-life. This boundless, eternal purpose. We have been invited into it. We have been let in on it. Some still, small voice has whispered something into our ears, and we woke up. This mystery is too big for us to handle. No mind or heart can fathom it. No fence can hold it in or keep it out. This is a revelation that includes us and all who hear it.

There’s no room for barriers or boundaries here. This mystery is like a treasure each and every one of us is invited into. A mystery as big as the cosmos. There’s room here for all of us. No matter what room he was quarantined inside of, jail cell he was thrown into, Paul never felt cut off from it, alone, hopeless, anxious, forgotten. And the same should be true of us, too. Despite our current circumstances, we are a part of an eternal purpose, heirs together, in on a mystery and a promise together, members together, sharers together. In Christ Jesus, we are together, together, together.

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Paul knew why the caged bird sings. That’s an image given to us by the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. It’s from a poem called Sympathy.

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing

    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;

For he must fly back to his perch and cling

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars

And they pulse again with a keener sting—

I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

Source: Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2004)

Never alone. Always connected. Always together.

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This shouldn’t be a surprise. We are made in the the image of God, after all. God is, in Himself, community. That’s another mystery we’ve been invited into. The mystery of the Truine God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s hinted at but left unnamed in these verses. Verse 6: Together, together, together. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Holy, holy, holy! Trinity. This is who God is. Not one or the other at different times in different places, but always and everywhere one. Don’t ask me to explain it.

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There are many things I can’t explain. The list is too exhaustive to read off right now, but here are the first to come to mind: The art of Salvador Dali. The reason why The Bachelor is still on the air. Why people suffer and good men die too soon.

There are many things we simply must wonder about. Including this one. God is one. God is three. Both at the same time. Not one of these—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are ever separate from one another. This too is a mystery not for us to solve. That’s been tried before to no avail. It is one to hold onto, be invited inside of. This is a holy mystery, so it’s not the sort we gaze at with our head cocked to the side and with sqinty eyes. It’s not the kind where we throw up our hands and say, “I don’t get it—the numbers just don’t add up!”

The Triune God is the sort of mystery in whose presence we lift up our hands in praise. With awe and reverence, we give ourselves to it. God is a mystery we participate in. Trinity is a way of God revealing Himself to us that says,

You cannot know Me as some impersonal abstraction, as some nameless force, some warm and fuzzy thought, some new age aura swirling around, so don’t even try! Neither can you reduce Me to something you use, or understand, or need for your own bidding, on your terms.

God refuses that, too. Trinity says that God will not and cannot be known on our own. Under your own power, or mine. With our own wits. Solitary isolation is forbidden. The Truine God, the Holy, Holy, Holy, Himself lives in community. So, we, who are created in His image do not try to live on our own. In so doing, we will destroy ourselves. We will uncreate ourselves. Unravel.

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The manifold wisdom of God plays out when we are together, together, together.

So, it’s not a stretch for Paul to declare that of course the Gentiles, those who for centuries upon centuries have been understood as not a part, not a people, have always belonged. This isn’t God doing something new, re-drawing the circle wider. This is God’s people realizing that God’s love for every bit of His creation has always been this big. So, of course, come in! You are a part. We are a part. In fact, we’re all nothing if we’re not a part! We all have always been a part. Sorry it took so long for us to realize this about you, O God, O neighbor, O stranger! But, now we know.

Isn’t that how it has always worked, friends? History is full of moments when suddenly we are let in on the truth that is always been right in front of us. We only needed to grow eyes big enough to see it. The mystery is no secret. It’s God grace for God’s creatures.Each one of us, each one of them, loved beyond reason. Until love is enough to get rid of those words: Us and Them.

Then, all of us will be able to see one another for exactly what we are: each one of us heirs together, members together, sharers together. Together, together, together. What a marvelous plan! Holy, holy, holy!

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.

A Cheerful Sacrifice

A sermon based on Micah 6:1-8 and 1 Timothy 6:56-19 preached on October 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

There’s a comedian and column-writer for Esquire Magazine whose name is A.J. Jacobs, who one day had nothing better to do, so he got this crazy notion to live a year of his life following the Bible as literally as possible.

Jacobs is Jewish, but he says he’s Jewish in the same way that Olive Garden is an Italian Restaurant. He refers to himself as agnostic, so this idea of living biblically for a year didn’t come from his devotion to anything. At least at first, his desire to try to live an entire 365 days attempting to follow all 614 of the Old Testament’s commandments was born purely out of his curiosity. It was a stunt. At first, he thrived on the absurdity of it. After just a handful of days, as his beard grew out, his diet, his wardrobe, and so many other things about his life began to change, he wondered if this was even possible. He began to realize both the blessings and the curses of having to constantly think about what scripture has to say about the smallest little details of his life. After several weeks a remarkable thing happened. He started to notice the subtle blessings and the simple wisdom inside of having to pay close attention to absolutely every aspect of his life, how he dressed and what he ate, how he spent his money, and how he treated others.

Trying to follow the Bible as literally as possible was hard, and sometimes it was more than he could manage, but he realized relatively early on that there was a sacred intelligence beneath all the rules—that all of it together led him into something wonderful and freeing. What A.J. Jacob’s first though was going to be an absurd journey into something ancient and irrelevant quickly became an invitation into joyful living.

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We who are suspect of rules—we who often scoff at anything that seems on the surface, at least, to take away our freedom of choice—might be surprised by what would happen if we gave ourselves over to scripture’s invitation to practice a life of devotion and sacrifice to God.

What if we too made our decisions using more than just our own habits or preferences? What if we trusted that God has something life-giving hidden behind what appeared to be a suffocating commandment? What if we trusted that there was freedom hiding behind something that seemed altogether confining? We might be surprised to know that there is often blessing inside of sacrifice.

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Author Anne Lamott found herself sitting on an airplane next to Jewish man. She noticed he was wearing a yarmulke, and she being the curious sort, struck up a conversation with him. As they were talking, a stewardess stopped by and asked them if they’d like the chicken or the fish for their in-flight meal, and the man asked if either of them were Kosher. The stewardess had no idea, but she promised to find out. Anne Lamott asked him,

Isn’t it a huge pain to be restricted to a Kosher diet?

The man responded,

It’s not a pain at all. And it’s not a restriction. It’s a blessing because every time I eat, God’s a part of my choice.

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The practice of stewardship is just like that. Stewardship is a more-than-daily way of involving God in every single choice we make. It’s the more-than-daily intention of including the “capital S” Somebody into every one of our decisions. A life of stewardship is a life lived in gratitude and freedom because we are at each and every turn, we’re reminded that God is the Source of every bit of it.

The invitation of Stewardship is to practice a sacred mindfulness where we’re asked to consider the right use of all we have and all we are! And just like A.J. Jacobs or Anne Lamott, it is inside a life practice of stewardship that we can discover the blessing and the freedom that secretly reside inside what we first thought are just a bunch of rules for us to follow.

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We need not approach Paul’s words in this passage in a legalistic or moralistic way. Many have used this passage to shame those who are rich. Some others have, for better or for worse, given away everything they possess to live a life of poverty. Some have used this passage to preach the evils of money itself, as if having a few thousand dollars tucked away in a savings account is some sort of affront to God. This, of course, is a grave misuse and a dangerous misunderstanding of this passage. Instead we should see this passage as an invitation into fuller life, to let its wisdom redirect our steps—to let it reorient us until all that we are and all that we have are match up with who God is and what God desires for us. Until our own desires fall in line with God’s desires. Until God takes all that is disordered about our loves, and rearranges us until our lives reflect the life of Jesus.

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If you took a bible and cut out all the places where money (and its right use) is mentioned, you would have a very holey bible. Throughout scripture, money is spoken of as a rival love. Jesus warns us of this over and over again. Money, more than anything else in our life, has the power to pull us away from our relationship with God and others. That’s because we have a tendency to place money and our pursuit of it above everything else. We lose ourselves in our quest for more of it.

The love of money is called the root of all evil because a disordered desire for more of it is the most destructive power there is. Our over-focus on it will wreck us. God knows that we are what we do with our money. And how we acquire, regard, manage, spend, and talk about money is a window into our hearts. There’s almost nothing that reveals a person’s character more than this.

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There’s nothing more biblical than a budget. The way we spend our financial resources is another opportunity to be a part of the work of God. I encourage you to sit down this week with your family. Every one of you, kids included. Gather around and have a family discussion about finances. Bring it all out into the open.

Studies show that arguments over money are by far the top predictor of divorce. Many couples get married before they even say a word to one another about money. We tend to be too quiet about money and its important role in our everyday lives. I think most of us have a precarious and overly tenuous relationship with money because we don’t like to talk or think about it in the first place.

We mismanage money because most of us didn’t grow up inside of a family that was transparent about its finances. Whenever I log into my online bank account, I do it with one eye closed, because I have a contentious relationship with money. I didn’t grow up in a household where all these things were shared aloud. So when I started earning for myself, I didn’t have a heathy way to talk or even think about money. That’s when mistakes and mismanagement happens. So, I encourage you to sit your family down and talk to each other about you household finances—what comes in and what goes out. What does being a disciple of Jesus Christ mean financially? Have a conversation about what the faithful use of money looks like. Talk about contentment and what that has to do with money. Then ask each other what it would be like to live below your means as a spiritual practice? There’s nothing more biblical than a budget.

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This week, you received a letter in the mail from our Stewardship and Mission Committee. Inside of it, you received a pledge card. On the back of that pledge card, there’s a chart that will help your family discern how much to pledge to our church for 2017. I invite you to make your pledge to our church a part of your family discussion. And before you fill out that card, may I encourage you to ask a few questions aloud:

The first question is meant to change your perspective on giving. We are the relatively affluent, so the proper question isn’t so much What do I need to give? so much as it is, What do I have the right to keep?

Second question: What organizations other than church have our hearts and minds, and what might a faithful gift to them look like?

Third question: How much might we pledge to the church that represents a cheerful sacrifice? A cheerful sacrifice is an odd phrase. You might ask What can be cheerful about a sacrifice? But those two words together are meant to usher us into a biblical sweet spot. The idea of Cheerful Sacrifice is meant to give you twin guidelines for your giving.

When A.J. Jacobs was seeking out advice at the beginning of his year of living biblically, he asked a pastor about whether he should tithe his income before- or after-taxes. The pastor replied,

You shouldn’t get too legalistic with it. Give what you can afford. And then give some more on top of that. It should feel like a sacrifice.

Later on, Jacobs said about giving that he does it with a mixture of God’s pleasure and his own pain. If your giving is not a sacrifice, you’re probably not giving enough. On the other hand, if you’re not giving cheerfully, then perhaps you’re giving too much. Find the sweet spot. The cheerful sacrifice. Keep in mind that God works in the hearts of those who give an amount that stings a little.

Another consideration: Sometimes we need to be proactive in our giving. We need to give what we think we should give rather than what we want to give. So the next question I’d like you to ask as a family is, If I were the sort of person I would really like to be, then what would I give?

We can direct our hearts where we want them to go by asking questions like that. Sometimes giving is our best way into living.

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We are what we do with our money.

May our lives—all we say and do, and all that we are—be a faithful expression of our commitment to the practice and challenge of stewardship. And in our giving, may we find life that really is life!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

How to Start a Fire

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

Sermon audio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia! Amen.

The World-Shaping Word

A sermon based on Psalm 15 and James 1:17-27 preached on August 30th, 2015

Sermon audio

The news will break your heart, and this week it did. There was the shooting in Roanoke where yet another individual with mental disorders and a gun has killed the innocent. And also the news that 37 million wives got this week when their husbands’ names came to light after an infidelity website was hacked. We don’t have to leave our houses to find that our world is full of disordered and broken relationships—that there are people out there who don’t know how to regard others, even their loved ones, with dignity and respect.

It’s in moments like these—in the wake of senseless shootings and reminders of our tendency to destroy relationships by physically and emotionally hurting one another—that these words from James can speak to us and teach us something about whole and redeeming relationship, and how to confront in a Christ-like way all the images of marred relationship we encounter as we stare out into the world—watching our TV sets or opening our morning paper.

On the lighter side of the news this week was the 12 year-old Taiwanese boy who was strolling through an art gallery with a drink in his hand. If you haven’t seen the video, the boy stumbles over a platform in front of a 350-year-old Paolo Porpora oil painting called Flowers, valued at $1.5 million, falls over the rope divider, and punches a hole in the painting—a fist-sized gash in the lower center of the masterpiece—it’s news of a completely different marring of image, but a marring nonetheless.

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The epistle of James takes the Gospel and gives it legs. This letter from James stands out as the active news of God given to the world through Jesus Christ. Much of the New Testament is filled with Paul’s thoughts and letters that are more descriptive—they’re full of adjectives—ways to describe who Jesus is, why God sent him to us, and who we should be because of Jesus. The apostle James, though, is more about verbs. James would say that we can spend all of our time talking about the good news of Jesus—we could, if we wanted to, gather into circles and wax theological all we want—but that’s not what God wants from us.

James would say that you could take the time to memorize verses from the bible, you could show up to church every Sunday from the day you were born to the day you die, you could say your prayers morning, noon, and night, and any time in between, but it doesn’t matter at all if we never act out our faith by practicing kindness, seeking out justice, and caring for the most vulnerable among us. James wants our lives and the way we live them to be shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh who still dwells among us, and he urges us to shape the world with this Word, with this Good News, by devoting ourselves hands and feet and mind and heart to the work of shaping the world with the Word—the Word who is Jesus.

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Words are a dime a dozen these days. They’re spilled or spewed in our direction everywhere and at all times. 24-hour news, radio, websites, you name it. We are inundated with information and it’s so easy for us to lose ourselves in it. And it’s only gonna get worse now that we have about 300 men and women running for President. They’re going to spend the next 14 months shouting words at each other, everyone of them with microphones, and we’re going to know about every single thing they say. It will be our task, as it is every day, to sift through the phony jargon and try our best to discern where the truth lies. Most of the words we will hear from these candidates will be destructive words—their words will be like wrecking balls hurled in each other’s direction, meant to clobber one another so, in the end, the only one left standing can be declared winner. Such is the way of the world.

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James has something to say about the danger of loose words. It’s surprising to me how important the words we say to one another is to James. In verse 19, he writes,

Know this, my dear brothers and sisters.

With those words our ears perk up, we sit straighter in our chairs—we think he’s about to share a major point, drop some huge eternal truth on us that will leave us in awe of his wisdom and insight. But what comes next isn’t like that at all. It actually seems quite ordinary, even. He writes,

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.

That’s it. According to James, that’s our purpose as Christians. Less talking. More listening. Keep calm. James knows the power of words. He knows they have the constructive potential to build up and devastating potential to tear down. The thing about words is that they’re so easy to say. Sometimes, they leak from our lips before we know it or can help it, and it’s impossible to unsay them. Speech is so easy, so immediate, so hard to control. So mighty. The words we say shape us. And the words other folks hear from us go a long way to tell them about who we are. We are what comes out of our mouths. As ancient Sufi poet, Hafiz has written:

The words you speak become the house you live in.

Words matter deeply. They shape our reality.

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James also knew that we have a tendency to speak more than we listen, and this too separates us from one another, causes divisions among us, and lends itself to misunderstandings between us. If James had his way, we would practice our faith in Christ by doing a lot less talking and a whole lot more listening.

Think back to the last time you felt truly listened to? When someone else just simply sat beside you and let you speak whatever it was that was on your mind and heart. When is the last time you felt like someone afforded you the safe space to say whatever you needed to say, and you knew the only agenda they had was to simply listen to you? It’s a rare occurrence. There’s really nothing more empowering than those moments when we know we’re being heard and honored—when we know that we’re being understood by another.

The God who created the world with words has given us the gift of speech and the gift of listening to others as they speak, and both in our speaking and in our hearing, we create worlds for one another. We have that potential—that capacity—to become world-creators, world-shapers for others. We also have the capacity, on the other hand, to be world-destroyers. And that happens, James would say, when we’re slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to anger. We are the architects of our relationships. We need to take responsibility for the constructive and destructive potential of our words and our actions.

James goes on to talk about anger. He says an angry person doesn’t produce righteousness. I think there is healthy anger—anger that demands justice and wants truth. So, rather than dismissing anger outright, I imagine what he means is that whoever acts on their anger can do nothing good. Acting on our anger never makes things right. As Presbyterian peace activist, David LaMotte has written in his book Worldchanging 101,

Anger is an important place to visit from time to time, but a pretty rotten place to live.

No one’s ever solved a thing by lashing out in anger. It only creates more problems. Destructive acts can never be the means of God’s presence, and they cannot produce God’s righteousness. This is the way we practice our faith. Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. That’s the scaffolding we need to build up for ourselves a faith that honors God and one another, for we are the architects of our relationships. And these small acts of paying attention to—practicing good relationship—are the bricks and mortar of the Christian life: they come together to be the house we live in.

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James wants us to be builders of our faith—to take our hands and use them, to flesh-out the Kingdom of God with our lives—to make it known to others with our words and through our actions.

We are enticed to treat our faith like a pricey painting hanging on the wall. It’s something nice to look at, observe, admire once in a while, to gather around God’s Word and hear it only. As if simply in its hearing and understanding we are doing what God wants. There are some who think of faith as a series of truth claims—something conceptual—limited to their heads. To that, James says no. Our faith is not like an art museum we stroll through—with ropes and platforms dividing us from it, to keep us from touching it, interacting with it. Faith like that is just mere theory—a museum exhibit of ancient artifacts. Faith like that is nothing but a head trip.

James would say that our faith is more like a pottery workshop. We create our faith by spinning it around, sculpting out every side of it with the touch of our hands. It takes its shape only when we give it some elbow grease—leaning into it with our bodies and coming up with something that we can use for and in the world, in our everyday lives. Our faith is nothing if we don’t create something with it—if we don’t do something with it.

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The word Christian, means little Christ. That’s what you are. That’s what I am. We’re little Christs running everywhere, going where others are going, encountering strangers, neighbors, family, and friends right where they are. Words shape worlds. Names shape us. The word Christian not only identifies our faith, it names who we are. We’re little Christs everywhere we go. Jesus wants you and I to be Christ to others—not merely a representative of Jesus, not just an image of him, not just a 1-dimensional painting on the wall that make others think of him, but something they can reach out to, touch, grab a hold of, share themselves with.

May we do our Lord the honor of bringing him to life in us so that others may know who He is. May we be quick to listen, and listen to others well, when they speak so they may feel heard and understood.

May we be slow to speak (and whenever we do speak, to speak with kindness) so that others may feel important, honored, and uplifted. And may we be slow to anger, so that others may know that we are safe space—that our desire is never to tear down but always to build up. That, my friends, is the how the Word will transform the world.

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

Alleluia! Amen.