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.

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.

Touchdown Jesus

A sermon based on Psalm 25:1-10 and Philippians 2:1-13 preached on October 16th, 2016

Sermon audio

There’s a reason why today’s Super Bowls have been played either in warm weather climates or indoor stadiums. Perhaps the best reason took place on December 31st, 1967. That was the day of the NFL Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys. The temperature in Green Bay, Wisconsin that New Year’s Eve was 16 degrees below zero. The wind chill made it feel like minus 57. It’s still the coldest football game on record. Players said it felt like they were playing in a meat locker.

After the first play, a recovered fumble, the referee blew his whistle and the metal stuck to his lip. He had to rip it off his mouth. His lip started bleeding and the blood immediately froze. From that moment, not another whistle was used in that game. If you care to, you can watch video of the game on YouTube. You’ll see players sliding out of bounds, skidding 20 feet over top of icy grass and rock solid earth. Players were dropping to the ground like the game was being played on a hockey rink.

In temperatures like that that, every hit stings. Your hands and your feet don’t even feel like they’re yours, but for those players that day, they had to work anyway. So they dug down deep and gave it everything they had. With time running out, the Packers put together a drive that ended with quarterback Bart Starr diving headfirst into a pile of Cowboys and over the goal line to score the game-ending winning touchdown.

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In the fullness of time, God took His first careful steps upon the earth. This is the mystery and the miracle that we profess: That in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s bare feet touched ground, that He dove headfirst into the pile of humanity.

In all other religions, God is that Holy Other, the One who is entirely well past anything anyone could ever think of or imagine. Completely unknowable and incomprehensible. But we who call ourselves Christians believe something different. We believe that God was one of us. We believe that God has a face. Eyes we could peer into. A voice we could hear with our own ears as easily as you and I can hear one another. That, in Jesus Christ, God came close and became acquainted with the muck and the mire of our everyday, earthbound existence. This is what Paul declares, when he shares with the believers in Philippi that Jesus emptied himself. What he means is that Jesus forsook his safe position at the right side of God—the one he’s had since the very beginning of creation—that Jesus chose for our sake to abandon His throne and touch down to earth—to become one of us. To share in this dirty, earthbound existence of ours.

Touchdown Jesus.

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But the story of Jesus’ incarnation is really not so much about what God gave up to become one of us. It’s really more about what He took on. He took on flesh. He took on sin. He took on humanity. True humanity. When we look at Jesus, we see the face of God, but not only that. We also see what true humanity looks like. God is the most human of us all—and Jesus, who is God with skin on, is the most human being who has ever lived.

According to God, human beings are at their best when they reflect Him, and Jesus spent every second of His earthly existence reflecting God because by His perfect human nature, Jesus gave Himself over to a life of service, truth, humility. By His every word and action, Jesus reflected the glory of God to us by showing how big God’s love really is, and how far God is willing to go to show us how fully we are loved. With who He is and all of what He does, Jesus is the Imago Dei, the very image of God, and therefore the truest human, the most humane of all. And from the moment of his first touch-down in a manger in Bethlehem 2,020 years ago right on up to now, Jesus has invited all of us to reflect the Imago Dei, the image of Christ in our own lives—to slowly but surely become human, to practice kindness and compassion. To take up a life of service and truth and humility that mirrors (however dimly) the image of Christ, who is the most human being who has ever lived.

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In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, he encourages that community to practice being church. If we take Paul at his word, being church happens when people come together and are of the same mind, have the same love, and are in full accord with one another. Now, this doesn’t mean that Paul is suggesting that Christians should all believe the same things, agree on every issue out there, or that every church should strive to be ideologically identical. Far from it. This isn’t a plea for cookie-cutter Christianity. Rather, Paul coaxes us all to adopt a similar attitude, the attitude of Christ. To orient ourselves in the same direction. To face towards Jesus, and to nurture within our community a willingness to bear one another’s burdens, encourage each other, journey along the way beside each other, share in mutual love and heartfelt affection, and to live in right relationship. In short, to practice being church with and for one another, by reflecting Jesus in everything we say, think, and do. And the hope is, if we’re all willing to take up that burden, to give ourselves fully to that project, God will be at work here and we will see our salvation being worked out day by day, week by week, year by year. Because a community that shows Christ to each other has Christ at its center.

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All this, I hope you know, is called stewardship. Stewardship is ultimately about adopting a Christlike attitude. It’s about living our way into the Way of Jesus. Just as Jesus did nothing from selfish ambition, we who are His church live our way into the right practice of stewardship by taking up that same selfless attitude. God’s idea of good stewardship happens when each and every one of us make it our primary vocation to reflect the Imago Dei, the image of Christ, with, for and to one another, and then out into the world.

We often think of stewardship in private ways, especially when it comes to time and money. We’re not accustomed to other folks telling us how we should spend our time and our money. And anybody who challenges our choices in these matters is rude, and more than likely, crossing a boundary. If we had our way, we’d like to keep both how we spend our money and how we spend our time private matters. That’s at least what the world says. It’s no business of yours. But we who gather as Church believe something different.

To paraphrase Martin Luther, our nature is so deeply curved in on ourselves that it not only bends the gifts of God inward toward ourselves, but also it fails to realize that we seek all things, even God, for own sake. As we gather together as Church, part of what we do is admit to one another and to God how deeply curved in toward ourselves we are, how reluctant we are to share these inward parts of ourselves with each other. We’re here as church to encourage one another, to help each other regain and reclaim our human shape—to take on the shape of Christ, the most human being there ever was. And that happens when we take the chance to curve our lives outward, so that we can begin reflecting and projecting the Good News of the Gospel out into the world. Mirrors curved inward reflect their images upside down. Paul writes,

Do nothing from selfish ambition…look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Mirrors curved outward reflect their images right-side up. That’s the character of Christ and the shape of stewardship! Curved outward. How we spend our time and our money are biblical issues.

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We best reflect the image of the God whose feet touched down to earth by hitting the turf ourselves. Lives curved outward in stewardship are lives given in service to one another, to neighbors, and to community. That’s why we group Stewardship and Mission together into one committee here at Kuhn Memorial. A Church curved outward in stewardship is a church sent outward in mission!

When we give ourselves in mission to our neighbors and to our community, we make footprints upon the earth just like God has done in Jesus Christ. We’re taking the ever-outward lunge forward that our forever-outward-lunging God takes. When we are faithful, we make our way headfirst into humanity. When we do that we reflect the image of our touchdown Jesus. Whenever we lunge forward like that, putting foot to pavement; whenever we walk closer to be with and assist our neighbors in mission, our presence with them and care for them thaws out the frozen ground beneath their feet, so when a brother or sister among us falls down on hard times, the fall doesn’t hurt so bad.

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This Stewardship season, one question to ask ourselves is “Can the world see Jesus is us?” How can we better practice mutual love, heartfelt affection, and right relationship? We do it by projecting and reflecting the Imago Dei, the image of Christ, into each and every one of our relationships. We do it by trading in selfish ambition for the interests of others. We do it by encouraging one another in the faith and regarding others as better than ourselves. We do it by celebrating and paying attention to how God is at work in each and every one of us. In short, we do it by dedicating ourselves to the task of stewardship.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

In the Hands of the Clay-Worker

A sermon based on Psalm 139:1-6 and Jeremiah 18:1-11 preached on September 4th, 2016

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Sermon audio

I love to watch an artist at work. The start from nothingness and how, inside the silence of it all, with a few strokes of a brush or a pencil, a keyboard or a sewing needle, all the sudden, somethingness emerges from that nothingness.

I love those moments when you can see the spark in the artist’s eyes, and you know the boom is coming—when a few brush strokes make a mark on a blank canvas, and you can see something there, but for those first few moments, you’re left to wonder. The guesswork of it all! Something will come out of this nothingness, but what? Does the artist even know? Then the second dab of the paintbrush into paint, the second line of stitches sown, the next sentence coming into being on the computer screen. And little by little, stroke by stroke, a work of art is created.

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Every time that happens, it’s like a little Genesis again. We are the creatures made in the image of a Divine Creator. Because even creatures bear the image of their Creator, we too have the ability to create. The imagination, the initiative, and the ingenuity it takes to make something out of raw material. Thread, canvas, wood, or ink.

Genesis begins with God making something out of nothing. Tohu-vavohu. That words is Hebrew for chaos and nothingness. God sees nothing and he touches it, declares something to it, and all the sudden, something—the chaos and emptiness turns into order and fullness. In the Creation story of Genesis, God the Artist takes a step back from His creative work at the end of each day and He calls it all Good.

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When we watch an artist at work, we can learn something about God. Whenever you have the chance to make your way to Tamarack or the Dogwood Arts and Crafts Festival, or to Mountain Stage in Charleston to hear musicians play, to watch what comes about, pay attention to, and ask questions about how it all took shape in the first place, it’s a tiny echo of the first Creation.

When you spend time noticing how a woodworker takes a chisel and carves out of it until an image appears, that’s another tiny echo. Or on a stage paying attention to a violin having a conversation with a cello until a song is born on stage. Every time little things like that happen, Genesis 1 starts all over again in tinier way. The Creation story, with its refrains of And God said…, and It was evening, it was morning, the next day as well as God saw that it was good, is the song of an artist—the Divine Artist in his studio, taking His hands and creating something out of nothing. It’s poetry. There’s no talk of science in the first chapter of Genesis. No chemical interactions to speak of. As far as scripture is concerned, creation is no laboratory experiment. The authors had no interest in telling God’s story like that. The story they chose to share with us was, instead, the one about God, the Divine Artist, using his divine imagination and infinite creativity to bring the cosmos about!

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And here is the prophet Jeremiah, daring to ask this Eternal God, the Artists of all artists, how He works. God answers Jeremiah,

There’s no need to tell you how I work when I can show you how I work. If you want to understand my ways, go visit the artist in residence. Head down to the potter’s house. Then you’ll see!

And with eyes wide open, young Jeremiah goes. He watches the potter spin his wheel, pumping a pedal to make it go ‘round and around. The potter starts with some water. He shapes a moistened, 3-pound pile of clay into a ball, and throws in at the center of his wheel. Jeremiah watches as each and every way the potter’s hands move, little by little, they form clay into vessels, bowls, plates. “This is how I work.” God says to his prophet.

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Making pottery is all in the hands. Unless you hold your hands just so, the clay will escape you. Clay has a mind of its own. It does what it wants to do, and only a potter’s touch can help it take shape. Take your hand off for just a second, and the piece will collapse under the inertia of the spinning wheel and fly right off, wet clay splattered onto walls, and you’ll have a terrible mess on your hands. But these mistakes happen, even to the best craftsmen. The good news is that you can start over. Get the wheel going again, add a little more water to the clay, and press it back down into a ball. Clay is flexible. It moves in whatever ways the potter’s hands tell it to. Wet clay will yield to its creator.

Another thing about making pottery. It takes just the right amount of force to shape the walls of a vase or a bowl. A vessel is molded into shape only when the potter applies pressure to it, and without a good amount pressure, clay resists being shaped at all.

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God is the Potter, and we are His handiwork. We are the clay He uses, and God is shaping us still. And just like clay, we too resist change. We do not want to be reshaped. We like our shape. We see nothing wrong with the shape we’re in. But God wants to make something new out of us.

The question for us is, are we willing to yield ourselves to the shaping hands of the Divine Potter? Are we still pliable and flexible enough to be reshaped in the first place?

Dried out, brittle, rigid clay is no good to the Potter. It’s only good for the trash can, because it already knows it’s final shape. It’s uncooperative; it refuses to be remade. Are we like that, or our are hearts and lives, bodies and spirits pliable—willing to be recreated, to undergo reshaping—to be molded into something new—by the careful yet unyielding, loving yet steadfast hands of God? Are we flexible enough to be remade?

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Ask any church if they like change, and you’ll see a few hands go up. Ask the same church if they’d like to change and all the hands will go down again. Just like clay in a potter’s hands, we have the tendency to resist change. Being cast into something different, being reshaped into a brand new vessel, is often too threatening. But on the other hand, to think we shape ourselves, or to assume that we have the imagination and creativity it takes to re-build ourselves into something useful for God is to refuse the Potter’s hands altogether. To insist on our own ability to form and re-form ourselves is to give up on God, to be the piece of clay that says to the Potter,

You know, I don’t think I need your hands to shape me. I got this.

We who are clay forget that without the Potter’s involvement we’re lifeless, breathless. Unable or unwilling to change. And when that happens, the church dries out. And dry, unyielding clay is only good for the trash can.

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The challenge of this text, the question it forces us to ask is,

Are we willing to be destroyed in order to be remade? Are we willing to let go of what we think our shape should be and give ourselves to the reshaping of the Divine Potter’s hands?

The Apostle Paul talks about dying to ourselves so that we can live for God. That hardly makes sense until you start thinking about it alongside a text like this. What Paul means is,

Are we willing to do away with our own sense of identity and our own will to be, so that we can start living our individual lives, as well as our life together as Church, in the shaping hands of our God?

It will only be when we say Yes to that question—that challenge—that we can be rebuilt into something useful—useful to God, useful to our neighbors, useful to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God among us. Until with all faith and confidence, we can say,

God, we hand ourselves and this church over to you. With your hands, change our shape!! Recast us into the vessels you intend for us to be!!

So, what kind of shape are we in? Can we truly say to God…

Take the clay of our lives and shape it to love. Take the clay of this church and shape it to grace. Take the clay of the world and shape it to peace. Take the clay of today and shape it to hope. And then breathe your spirit into us again.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Footprints of a Mighty God

A sermon based on Psalm 89:1-8 and Colossians 1:15-29

Sermon audio

From 1495 to 1498, Leonardo Da Vinci was a single-minded artist. It was during those three years that the crowning achievement of his entire career began taking shape. The painting was The Last Supper. It measured an enormous 15 feet by 29 feet. It’s an oil on canvas masterpiece that today covers a wall in the dining hall of a monastery in Milan, Italy.

Throughout those 3 years, Da Vinci would change the smallest little details of The Last Supper, caking layer upon layer of paint until it was just right—until he felt it was something worthy of his legacy. And throughout these changes, both small and large, he would invite in his friends—artists whose opinions and eye for the artistic he respected the most. One of these friends went on and on about how extravagant the painting was. This friend said his favorite part of the painting was the chalice Da Vinci had painted in Jesus’ hand. This chalice captivated his friend. He called it “especially beautiful.”

After his friend left, Da Vinci quickly picked up his paint board and brush and began painting right over that chalice in Jesus’ hands. He didn’t stop until all signs of it were gone—until he re-painted Jesus’ hands outstretched and empty.

His friend came back a few weeks later to see the progress Da Vinci had made on this emerging masterpiece, only to find that his favorite part of the painting was gone. He demanded an explanation from Da Vinci.

Why would you paint over that chalice? It was the very best part!

Da Vinci replied,

Nothing—nothing at all—must distract from the figure of Christ!

And so it is that the final version of Da Vinci’s crowning work has Jesus at the very center, His hands generously opened.

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Christ is the Center. The Center of God’s heart, the central expression of who God is. And God wants our minds, our hearts and lives centered on Christ. Everything else is distraction—something for us to get rid of, push out of the way, paint right over.

We live in a world of distractions. There are many ways for us to lose our focus on what’s most important. Most of our days, we find ourselves paying attention to lesser things. We even get so focused on all the lesser things and they get the best of us. We forget the greater things. And when we do that, our lives get knocked off center.

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Colossians is small on chapters but big on Jesus. It’s only 4 chapters long, but it contains some of the most profound words about Jesus in the entire New Testament. It’s theme? Jesus is bigger than any of us could have ever imagined.

The writer of Colossians declares that Jesus Christ is the voice of God. That when Jesus speaks, it’s nothing less than God speaking to us. That when we look Jesus in the face, we behold nothing less than the face of God. The writer of Colossians says that Jesus is our All in All—the very image of God. Christ is the language that God speaks. When God wants to say something, God says it through Jesus Christ!

United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton says it this way: If you want to know what’s essentially true about who God is and what God thinks, look at Jesus. Christ is like a colander that we can use to filter out everything around us that doesn’t have God’s best interests in mind. The way to do that is to take all that we hear and compare it God’s Gospel of love that was made manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and if anything we hear doesn’t fit God’s Gospel of love, then spit it out, because it’s garbage.

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Imagine if you will an author sitting down in her office sitting down to write a new chapter of a novel she’s working on. Her office is tucked away in the corner of her loft in Brooklyn, New York. But her novel is set in a faraway place: Kenny Lake, Alaska. She’s a few chapters into her story, and the characters are numerous. They lead lives that are far different than hers. Living in Brooklyn, she’s surrounded by much more than she could ever need. There’s food markets and drugstores and fancy restaurants all around her. But, the characters she has created live far away from any of those conveniences—life in Kenny Lake, Alaska is completely different from life in Brooklyn, New York.

The author sips her coffee and stares at her computer screen. She wonders why these first few chapters have been so hard for her to write. It takes her way too long to figure out the reason for her difficulty: In all her life, she’s never been to Kenny Lake, Alaska. And how can she write another word of this story until she makes her way there, steps foot in Alaska, learns firsthand, in person, what living there feels like, sounds like? What Kenny Lake, Alaska smells like, and how the people talk, and how they make a living for themselves.

Sure, she could figure some of that out by making a few phone calls to the folks who live there or doing a few Google searches of Kenny Lake, but nothing could ever be as good as going there and making her own footprints in the Alaskan snow, seeing it through her own eyes, experiencing it all for herself.

Friends, God is the author of our story, and He too needed to know what it was like to set foot on the same ground we walk on—to make footprints alongside our own.

So, in Jesus Christ, God jumped inside His own creation and became a part of it. God wrote himself into His own story—inside of history—and became one of us. In the words of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, God would take the very form of a human being and humble himself, subject himself not only to life as it’s lived in all of its limitations and all of its sufferings, but God would also subject Himself to death—and not just any sort of death, but the worst kind imaginable: death on a cross.

In Jesus Christ, our Mighty God, the Author of Life itself, made footprints in all the dirty, muddy, filthy spaces that make up our own lives. And on the cross, with arms outstretched to embrace the world, God grabs a hold of each and every one of us and draws us in close!

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The Christian life is about living our lives in the company of this God who has become a part of our story. Who now in Christ walks with us through our days and our nights, through our mountains and our valleys, through good times and bad.

God has a human face. That of Jesus Christ. And the Christian life is the practice of living in such a way that we reflect the face of Christ so all those around us can see what God looks like. The Christian walk is that journey we make every time we step outside and go about the busyness of our lives, because whether we like it or not, everywhere we go and in everything we do and say, we are the reflection that Jesus makes onto the world.

So, the question to ask yourself is, What kind of reflection are you making? What kind of footprint are you leaving? Is it that of Jesus?

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In our passage, the Apostle Paul hopes for a day when everything that is created becomes a reflection of God’s goodness and love shown in Jesus Christ. He dreams of a day when Jesus will become All in All; and everything and everybody, and all powers whether visible or invisible, would know who their Maker is and will finally recognize the love and goodness of the God in whose image they were established…and then start acting like it!

In a world that likes to lift up its leaders to the loftiest of heights—that puts them in the very center of the painting—attributing to them ultimate power and authority, we who follow Jesus see that none of the plans these worldly leaders make, none of the laws they institute, should ever be confused with the plans or dreams of God! Thrones, dominions, earthly powers, and all of our rulers come to nothing because we place our hope not in anything that they can do. Instead, we are asked to set our gaze much higher than that. Our gaze is pointed to the Center of it all, who is Christ.

The challenge of the Christian life is never to confuse the platforms and promises of human beings with the power and promises of God given through Jesus Christ and the hope that he brings to our lives.

The reason why we call Jesus King and Lord is because nobody else but He is King and nobody else but He is Lord. Not any king or Caesar, prime minister, prince, or president should ever have our allegiance. Our allegiance belongs not to any earthly ruler, to no political party, to no purpose other than the loving purposes of God through Christ. Our ultimate allegiance will not be placed in anyone other than the One who opens His hands to us and calls us His own. This, by the way, is what scripture means by having our citizenship in heaven. The phrase means a whole lot more than where we will be after we die. It means giving ourselves to Christ right now, on earth just as it is in heaven, and seeing our identity in Christ as far more important than anything else about ourselves, be it our political affiliation, our ethnicity, class, gender, nationality, or any other category the world loves to assign to us. All of those are lesser things. First and foremost, we are Christians, and we live, move, have our being, and walk in the footprints of a Mighty God!

May nothing we call ourselves ever be more important to us than what God calls us through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for in Him, we are named sons and daughters of God. And may nothing—nothing at all—distract from the figure of Christ who stands at the Center of the cosmos, the One who is the Author of our story, who is the very Center of God’s heart, and who wants more than anything to be the very Center of our lives!

All praise 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.

Rerouted and Uprooted

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

Sermon audio

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nah,

I said,

That can’t be!

Why not?

Charlie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia! Amen.