Holy Soil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace and peace,

Paul writes.

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

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

There but for the grace of God go I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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Birthmarks

A sermon based on 1 Peter 1:3-10 and John 20:19-29 preached on April 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s Easter evening. The disciples are huddled together in a room too small for them. They’re sweating because the air is stagnant. They’re fearful for lack of courage or purpose. Three days ago, their courage and purpose had been crucified on a cross just outside Jerusalem. His name was Jesus.

Yes, there were rumors about. Earlier that morning, the two Marys had run back to the locked room they were huddled in. Out of breath from running, but also from whatever it is that happens to us when fear mixes with joy, they told the disciples that Jesus was alive. Walking, talking, breathing. Having conversations with them. But, for those first disciples, rumors and stories, conjecture and hearsay were good for nothing. How can anyone believe that Jesus is alive without first having seen Him? That’s the deep Easter question we have, isn’t it, friends?

Sometimes faith is easy. There are moments, perhaps many of them, when believing in that which we have not seen with our own two eyes comes effortlessly. But there are also moments when our faith lacks the strength to carry us very far—out of our own locked rooms.

There they were—Jesus’ disciples, who knows how many of them—certainly more than 11—hiding behind locked doors, whispering to each other out of fear of being discovered, certain that if they made too much noise or emerged out of the cubbyhole of a room they were in, they’d end up on a cross just like their Master had.

It’s a wonder that the Jesus movement was birthed at all. For their faith to take on life, those first disciples had to emerge from the grave of that small, locked room. In a sense, they had already buried themselves inside those 4 walls. They had barred the door shut—it was locked from the inside—that door was like a tombstone they had rolled in front of their own grave. All indications would lead us to think that they were calling it quits.

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Whenever we read this passage in worship or in Sunday School class, or a bible study, the word doubt inevitably becomes a part of our conversation.

But there’s something much more sinister at play here. Doubt we can handle. We can live with doubt. In fact, it’s hard for us not to. But hope. Hope is something that none of us can survive without. If all we see wherever we look are walls, barriers, locked doors that keep us in, that hold us prisoner—especially when those doors are locked from the inside—then we’ve given up hope. And what else is there if we do not have hope?

Whenever fear takes up more space in our lives than hope, death wins. Life grows smaller. The walls around us get thicker, they move in closer. And there we are, cramped with fear. As good as dead. We all know what it’s like to be stuck in place; it feels like dying—or at least a sort of smaller death.

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It is right in the middle of this cramped space, this room filled with fear and death and hopelessness, that we hear a voice we recognize:

Peace be with you!

Jesus says. Heads turn. Mouths fall open. The women were right! Jesus is standing among them. He speaks real words from His real mouth. Looking at the disciples through His real eyes. There He is standing among them in the middle of that cubbyhole of a room. And whether it actually happened or it just felt like it, the walls of that room retreated. The space inside grew bigger, fuller. And suddenly, the disciples could breathe again. In that tiny space, life quickly replaced death.

Peace be with you!

And after saying those words, Jesus breathed on them, inflating their lungs again, reviving their hopelessness, giving new energy—God-energy to their bodies worn down and failing, bringing new birth to their dying spirits. In that moment, everything seemed to expand. Walls. Eyes. Lungs.

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Let’s dive a little deeper.

Did you ever notice how many times Jesus’ hands and side are mentioned in this passage? Three. Three times in 11 short verses. This should get our attention.

The first and last time, it’s Jesus who brings up these scars of His. The second time Jesus’ scars are mentioned, it’s Thomas who brushes aside the witness of his fellow disciples. They have told him that they had seen the Lord, and in his stubbornness, the first thing that Thomas brings up is that he needs to see those scars—the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, the lash marks in his side. That’s a curious thing! Have we ever thought about that? What’s so important about Jesus’ marks—these scars He had—that they’re the first thing Thomas says he needs to see, the first thing Jesus shows to His disciples, and the first thing that Jesus shows to Thomas a week later?

There seems to be no question about it: Jesus’ disciples were waiting to see the marks. It’s the most important detail of Jesus’ identity now—that His body now has scars. If we ever had the notion that the body of the resurrected Jesus would be blemish-free—glowing in radiance, white with light, healed by God, then we are assuming too much. In fact, we’d be assuming the opposite of what those first disciples assumed. The resurrected Jesus—the One high and lifted up—the One who is with us now in the power of the Holy Spirit—is perfect, but even in His perfection, He has scars. And these scars aren’t just something left over from His life on earth; these marks He has make Him our Lord and our God.

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Our bodies bear witness to the brutalities of this all-too-human life of ours. They’re marked up all over. Our skin tells our stories for us. Our bodies are our best diaries. Written upon them is every bit of our past. Over the landscape of our own bodies we encounter the countless moments of our lives. Our bodies are living signposts marking where we have been and what we have accomplished. They remember where we have stumbled, but they insist on getting back up onto our feet to try again—which in a way is its own tiny resurrection, or if that’s too much, it’s at least resilience, our hope becoming stronger than our fear. Our bodies are living testaments to the God-filled conviction that says: no matter what this world throws at us, we have within us completely resilient spirits. Our marks—physical, spiritual, emotional—do not make us less than human; they are the very things that show forth God’s power to bring us to new birth.

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Friends, we belong to a Wounded Healer. Jesus’ scars—the ones in His hands and sides—are not incidental. They are the story He has to tell. They are God’s story.

Jesus isn’t our Lord without those wounds. What He endured for us on the cross shall not be erased. We do not forget his crucifixion, because without Good Friday, there is no Easter. Without the marks, we would not be here. Without the holes in His hands and sides, we would not be whole. The Church was birthed by those marks on Jesus’ resurrected body. And without them, the Church would have died before it ever came to life.

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Do you know what this means, friends? It means that our faith is birthed from Jesus’ marks. So, the only way to be Church—to live our lives authentically and in witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ—is to bear our marks. To go out from this place, and into all our places, and show the wounds in our hands and sides. By so doing, we show others that Jesus’ church is far from being a group of people who celebrate their own perfection or holiness. Instead, we are people who are willing to roll up our sleeves and show others the side of ourselves that’s filled with wounds—wounds of body, heart, spirit, and soul. They will know we are Christians by our marks. Our marks make us fully alive! God-alive, Jesus-alive, Easter-alive!

And if we do that—if we are willing to be as vulnerable as Jesus was when He entered into that room appearing to his people, wounds and all, then we will bring light to darkened hearts, hope to fear-filled souls, life to people living their lives half-dead, and maybe, hopefully, lead them to recognize Jesus in much the same way that Thomas did that evening.

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Thomas’ eyes were opened when he saw Jesus. And from his mouth came the most profound statement of faith that we have in any of the gospels:

My Lord and my God!

he said.

The Church was given birth that night with those words from Thomas. It is with that declaration of faith along with the breath that Jesus breathed into those disciples—both, bringing them to life—that the Church still has its life.

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Friends, we still have limited vision and blinding doubts. We’re often crippled by the same kind of fear that those first disciples had, and that fear causes us to do the same thing it did to them: to keep all held up inside, to keep our faith hidden by these four walls, to hesitate to take the Good News of Jesus-alive out with us—to share it and wear it. To live our days, hours, minutes in witness to our resurrected Lord. It is into our anxiety—that thing that tells us over and over again that our faith is a private thing—that Jesus speaks those same words He did to those first disciples:

Peace be with you.

Jesus says it over and over again. Three times in this passage, and many more times to us. And he’ll continue speaking peace to us until we finally understand what He’s trying to tell us. Christ’s peace is a whole lot more than something that calms our fears. This is Shalom. This is a peace that empowers us and drags us into maturity, wholeness, completeness. Jesus breathes this peace into us. With His breath, Jesus gives us life—He births the Church in the same way God brought creation to life when His Spirit swept over the waters and stirred the cosmos to life.

With this Shalom, we catch our breath and are made into new beings. This is the breath that marks us for second birth. And once we catch Jesus’ breath, once we’re birthed by the Holy Spirit—given our vitality and our mission—we go out from this place and bear witness to our Lord by bearing His marks in all we say, and in all we do.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Practicing Hope

Practicing Hope | Patrick Ryan – Psalm 72:1-8, 16-19 and Isaiah 11:1-10 – 11/29/15

Sermon audio

The book of Isaiah begins with a stomach growl. It’s full of longing—hunger pangs. Isaiah looks around at his fellow Israelite people, across the landscape of his nation and he hears their cries for something wondrous and unexpected to happen.

The beginning of the book of Isaiah was formed as the Jewish people were being threatened off of their land by stronger armies. The people were shouting out for God to come to their rescue—to save them from the darkness that was mounting all around them. And Isaiah speaks up on his peoples’ behalf, and asks God to do something new and miraculous for them. Isaiah knows that the hunger pangs of his people can only be satisfied by divine intervention. It is God alone who can take the violence that is swelling up on every side, and bring peace and healing to the warring nations.

Isaiah is often called the 5th gospel. The word “gospel” means good news, and Isaiah is the first person in the bible to use the word. In Isaiah 40, Isaiah hears God speak to him. God says,

Go upon a high mountain and shout! Raise your voice, messenger! Raise it, and don’t be afraid. Say to the cities of Jerusalem, ‘Here is your God!’

And amid all the rumors of wars being waged nearby, threats mounting up all around them, getting closer and closer, the people of Israel are starving for good news, for Gospel. And so are we.

Aren’t we also world-weary right now, intimidated by the violence we see all around us? We turn on our TV sets only to find out what we need to be scared of next. We ask exasperated and hopeless questions like, “What’s this world coming to?” because all that’s brought to our attention is the bad news. We wonder if there’s any good news out there. There is, in fact, much good news out there, much more good news than bad; we just need to seek it out. Good news is never brought to us. We have to hunt it down, but it’s there.

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Once again, we enter Advent well aware of how broken our world is. We’re well-aware of its darkness, and we long to see bright spots. We long for a world that is kinder and more peaceful. We hope for a safer place for our children and their children, too. But there’s a weariness to that hope. But there’s also a challenge to that hope. It isn’t a let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya kind of hope. Isaiah’s brand of hope—scripture’s kind of hope— doesn’t sound like a beauty pageant contestant wishing for world peace some day and then smiling real big. It’s a patient hope, a hope that knows failure and heartache, disappointment and many setbacks. Advent is a season full of juxtapositions just like that: anticipation and fear, hope and disappointment, darkness and light.

Hope isn’t a wish made upon a star, it’s more like a growling in your stomach—a hunger pang that will only go away if it’s nourished morning, afternoon, and evening—day after day after day, year after year after year. Hope is something tended to. Hope is something practiced. And Advent is the season where we practice hope tenaciously, where we dare to walk forward into the darkness up ahead of us, just like those astrologers did as they set off on their journey to find Jesus. They saw a faint light up ahead, but it meant walking through many long nights of darkness first.

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The cedars of Lebanon were mighty trees. Strong and tall. They could grow up to 130 feet tall and up to 8 feet in diameter. They were used by the Phoenicians to build military-grade ships. They were used by Egyptians to mummify Pharaohs with its resin, and by the ancient Israelites to built King Solomon’s Temple and other holy structures throughout their history.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of the cedars of Lebanon as a metaphor for national pride. Their strength signified Israel’s strength among the nations. But here those mighty trees have all been cut down into stumps. They have been made into firewood for other nations to enjoy.

The stump of Jesse—all of Israel’s pride—has been leveled to the ground. There is no future left for the people. But in the middle of this devastation, Isaiah speaks up and says that out from the dead stump of all that Israel once was will grow a shoot. A sprig. Out of something that appears lifeless and hopeless, dead and spent and left-behind, a tiny little green thing will begin to grow. Something small, fragile, yet tenacious. That’s what hope is. Just a tiny little fragile thing that blows in the wind, withers in the snow, but pops back to life anyway.

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We often decide too soon where things can grow, what things will never have a chance to survive. We have a tendency to overlook and dismiss the small and fragile things that come to life all around us.

Advent is that season where we’re invited to look closer, slower, so we will notice even the tiniest expressions of hope and good news among us. They’re out there—fragile, meek, yet tenacious. The Gospel says that even the smallest things can grow into a new beginning for us. That’s how to practice hope. To slow down enough to see how, over and over and over again, God uses to tiniest bits of things and does remarkable things with them: Mustard seeds. 2 loaves and 4 fish. A Christian-hating, death-dealing Pharisee named Paul. A man named Moses who can’t string two words together without stuttering. You. And me.

Hope says that no one’s story is over. Hope knows what it is to fail and fall, but hope always gets back up on its feet and tries again and again. It’s got bumps and bruises all over, but it stumbles forward anyway. Hope knows what it doesn’t yet have, and it won’t stop until it finds it. It knows failure and longing, but it also knows that both the failures and the longings are precious and holy. Hope inevitably meets disappointment, but it walks straight through it. And the most impressive thing about hope is that it is patient. It knows about roadblocks and long lines and doing without, but it still has faith that it will one day get to where it’s going.

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Advent is full of precious longings, stumbling onward, fragile yet tenacious steps forward. All of it holy.

This Advent season, we are charged and challenged to practice hope. It’s not something you have, it’s something you find. Hope is a visible, shared yearning for new growth when everything else has been cut down.

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Isaiah’s vision seems crazy, and fantastical, and utopian. He mentions children going out to play by themselves without the danger of being bitten by snakes. Calves cuddling up with lions, bears becoming vegetarians and grazing next to cows. It’s a world without fear or terror or anxiety.

According to the magazine Atlantic Monthly, the world is actually a much safer place for our children to grow up in then it was when you and I were young. Crime is down, kidnappings are down, instances of violence are all down. The difference between today and a generation or two ago is that because of the media, we all become instantly aware of these sort of threats whenever and wherever they take place, and it freaks us out. These days, if we want good news and perspective, we have to go searching for it. We have to practice it, because no one listening to the endless voices on our TVs will ever know what hope sounds like, let alone be taught how to practice it.

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Precious longings. Steps taken forward. Noticing tiny reminders of life that grow all around us, fragile yet tenacious. That’s what Advent is made of.

Advent is not about nostalgia. It’s not about going back to simpler and better and more decent times. It isn’t about coffee cups with images of snow flakes or Santa Clauses on them, scoffing at people who say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. All those say more about our fondness for cultural Christmas nostalgia then they do about our faith in Christ.

Advent hope is never nostalgic. Never backwards-looking. It’s always forward-facing. Always “eyes ahead” to see that star shining far out in front of us—the Light who has come among us full of grace and truth. Advent hope is about finding light even through the vast amounts of darkness surrounding us. It’s about preparing ourselves for the newness that Isaiah declares has sprouted to life among us—this tender, fragile shoot. This infant who will be born among us, wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger.

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I mentioned the wise men last week. We will be following them this Advent as they make their journey towards the Christ-child, Emmanuel, God-With-Us. If we want to find good news, we, like those ancient astrologers, have to go searching for it. We have to go scampering and stumbling through the dark, because once we saw a dim but constant light up ahead and we want to know more, we want to see more, we want to hope more.

And on our journey we should think and meditate upon many things, but first and foremost, we should ask ourselves these questions: If God can take these old, dead, and chopped-down dreams of ours and grow something new from them, then shouldn’t we prepare ourselves to encounter something new and even better up ahead of us? Shouldn’t we too hunger for something more, long for something greater, and expect to be awed by its goodness, its wonder, its majesty? And with this little child as our King and our Prince of Peace, shouldn’t we expect a day when our hunger pangs—for righteousness and justice—are no more?

What is our world coming to? Let’s walk toward this bright star ahead of us and see for ourselves!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Bound

A sermon based on Psalm 93 and Ephesians 4:1-16 preached on May 17th, 2015.

 Sermon audio

About this time, 52 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. found himself on the wrong side of a set of jail bars in Birmingham, Alabama in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Being the tireless worker of justice that he was, he decided to write about a matter that he otherwise had very little time to reflect on. So on April 16, 1963, bound by the bars of a jail cell, Martin Luther King Jr took the time to write his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

King had been told by many church leaders that now was not the right time to fight for the civil liberties of black Americans. He wrote his letter to his fellow clergymen, urging them to reconsider their claim to wait for a better time, saying that there will never be a better time than right now to do the work of justice.

King urged his fellow clergypeople to take on the voice of Amos and Jesus himself and be “extremists for love,” and to work for unity both in and outside the Church, and to do so in the name of the one who wants us to love even our enemies.

Martin Luther King Jr. never stopped working for his dream of what he called “The Beloved Community”, even when he was bound behind the bars of a jail cell in Birmingham.

We come to the letter written to the church in Ephesus, and right away we find the early church to be in the middle of a critical circumstance. Paul is in prison—probably somewhere in Rome. This passage calls Paul a prisoner of the Lord. And he too is bound behind bars for an unjust reason. He too thrown in jail for acting out his God-given call to proclaim the Gospel.

We’re pretty sure that the author of this letter to the Ephesians was not Paul, but possibly someone who was commissioned and empowered by Paul to write for him—in his voice—to the Ephesians and to other churches he ministered to. And perhaps channeling Paul’s circumstance of being bound in prison by the Roman authorities, this passage urges these early Christians in Ephesus to be bound in peace to one another and to continue carrying out their calling to be held together in unity.

Have you ever imagined what Paul was like as a prisoner? What would you be like, how would you act, what would you say if you were arrested and thrown in jail for an unjust reason—for doing nothing but acting out your calling to serve others in name of Christ, like Paul or Martin Luther King, Jr? I can’t say I’d hold it together all too well. And I can definitely say that I would have a hard time finding a way to continue doing the work of ministry as he did.

Paul was certain that the Church was capable of carrying on without his presence. Paul had built up his churches and taught them all they would need to know to be people of the Way, even if he was not there to walk with them.

In the book of Acts, we have a passage where Paul is bound up behind the bars of a prison cell and he’s singing the early churches’ songs, teaching those songs to his fellow prisoners, until they knew every word of them and began singing along with him. Singing hymns in jail. Even while bound behind bars, Paul continued to reflect the light of Jesus Christ to others.

There is one body, and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Those words are almost hymn-like. There’s a sweetness to them, and there’s no doubt that they stand out as a simple and profound witness to the Oneness of God and how through Jesus the Son, we have been engrafted in—bound together in one faith and called to share in one Spirit. The Spirit of God that is everywhere above all, and everywhere through all, and everywhere in all.

The author of these words begs the young Christians in Ephesus to take the Oneness of God and to see in it a model of how to be in unity amongst themselves—to confess how we are bound together into one body.

We do not call ourselves Church because we have created unity or because we will ever create unity. We call ourselves Church because we have been called to come together to confess our unity. The author goes on to list a few roles that we undertake as the Body of Christ. Some of us are apostles. Some others prophets. Some teachers. Some pastors. Some evangelists. Each role given to each by the God who has also bound us together in oneness. Each role, therefore, is no more important than any other. Not one of these roles should be regarded as more special or higher than any other role. Our gifts are given to the church in equal measure and through the giving of these gifts, we are building up the Body of Christ as one.

I’m no good at dancing. Really. I know every guy says they’re no good at dancing, but I want to confess to you right off the bat that I really mean it when I say I’m no good at dancing. I’ve actually been asked to stop dancing before.

Dancing is not one of my spiritual gifts. The writer of Ephesians 4 mentions bodies and how they are knit together with ligaments and my body is not knit together for dancing. As bad as I know I am at dancing, I have to say that if someone promised to hold my hand while I danced with them, I’d step out onto the dance floor with them and slowly but surely start dancing along. I can’t promise I’d like it and I certainly can’t promise that I’d start dancing well, but I would dance nonetheless.

There’s something about being upheld and encouraged by others that makes it easier to step onto the floor and start dancing. Holding on and being held while dancing together would give me the strength to do what I normally would not do on my own.

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Perichoresis or The Divine Dance

Perhaps this is the best way to talk about our unity in Christ. Our Unity as the people of Christ’s church is best described as a holy dance where we each carry out our role but we do it together. No one of our roles is any more important than the other—that we dance together on the same level—and as we hold each other in prayer and in unity, we bind ourselves together as one body, the body of Christ, and we carry out this holy dance of discipleship together. And as we dance, it’s hard to find the one who’s leading because none of us are leading. We are all in service and unity to the other. We the church so often misunderstand the way Jesus leads. And in turn, we get leadership wrong.

Pastors and elders sign up to go to church conferences on leadership taught not by fellow pastors and elders, but by the most successful CEOs and business people in the country—many of whom have never attended church themselves. Pastors fervently take notes about what it is to be a leader and they learn how to be successful in a business sense. And they take all these ideas back to their congregations and they create business plans and models, confident that’s what their churches need to grow bigger and become better.

Even if we church leaders never attend these high-powered conference that want to entice us to think about running church as if it’s a business, we sometimes get the sense that churches should become more business-like in order to become more successful. And it is a mistake to think that. When we go back to scripture, it is clear what the Church needs and what Jesus has called us all to be in and for the world. Rather than leaders, what the church needs is faithful followers of Christ—people who are willing to hand over their lives to others—to live their lives of discipleship out loud and in front of others.

In Matthew 23, we hear Jesus speak to the crowds of people gathered around him, and he says,

But you are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in Heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant.

See, Jesus changed the world in this way. He flattened all the hierarchical ideas that the world lives by and functions with. He forbade separators and titles and rank. There are no ladders to climb in the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls us all to operate according to a different manual.

In his book, “Unleader”, Pastor Lance Ford says that leadership in the Church should be seen as a spiritual gift rather than as a position of power. And he urges us to re-imagine leadership in the Church. He wants us to see that being a disciple—a follower of Christ—is the most faithful way to lead.

It is when we carry out our roll as disciples of Jesus that we are leading the Church in the way that Jesus led his disciples. And we, the disciples of Christ are being faithful to Jesus when we are bound together in unity, letting God build us up together into one Body, where we collaborate in one dance together—let’s call it the dance of discipleship. Jesus is the only one leading this holy dance that we all are a part of. Jesus, the one who also led by serving.

The writer of this letter to the Ephesians no doubt writes to them about unity because they were struggling with being united. There were Jewish Christians and gentile Christians and neither knew exactly how to live together and understand and honor one another from the places they came before they started following in the way of Jesus. They were asking themselves questions that we no longer ask: Should gentiles eat non-kosher foods in the presence of their Jewish brothers and sisters? Should the gentile Christians be circumcised? These two factions of Christians were trying to be faithful to the call of living and worshipping together in one church, but they were bound to clash over some things.

Just like the church in Ephesus, we all have a ways to go, in the words of this passage, to grow in the full stature of Christ.

Sometimes we the Church come off as horrible dancers. We step on a lot of toes and we fall short of modeling the full stature of Christ to the rest of the world. We fall short of displaying the peace and unity of our God to others. We have yet to realize the Beloved Community that Dr. King envisioned one day coming into being. But we are bound together in the Way of Jesus. And in the beautiful words of this passage, when each part of the Body of Christ is working properly, it promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. And if we continue walking in the way of this Jesus, we too may begin to see in both friend and stranger, and maybe even enemy—the one face of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There is one body and one Spirit. One Lord, one faith, and one baptism that binds us together to be the Body of Christ. One Church knit together to be the hands and feet of Christ in and for the world. And with God’s call upon us, the power of Christ in us, and the Holy Spirit moving through us, we have the strength we need to build each other and this world up in Christ’s abounding love.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Tuning Our Hearts

A sermon based on Psalm 122 and Isaiah 2:1-5 preached on 12/1/13.

Sermon Audio

Happy New Year!

I forgot my cardboard party hat and my spinny noisemaker—I’ll leave those for January 1st, but today is the first Sunday in Advent and the first day of the Christian year. Just as we have all these built-up expectations at New Years and as we use each January 1st as a way to clean the slate, the beginning of Advent is a time for us who follow Jesus to start again, to expect God to show up—to come among us, to approach not only our hearts, but to lay upon our community a fresh promise of renewal and hope.

Advent is my very favorite time of year. In a way, Advent is an invitation for us who follow Jesus to press the reset button. Advent is a time for us to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ coming. To remember that the God of grace and hope chose to come among us in Jesus Christ.

Advent is also a time of anticipation. Not only anticipating Christmas, but anticipating and waiting for God’s promise to do something new among us. So, we wait for the Christ child.

Hasn’t Jesus already come? Good question. Yes, Jesus has already come. What we do during Advent is peculiar, and as much as I love the message of hopeful expectation and the preparing of our hearts for the infant Jesus to reside among us as Christmas moves closer, there’s also this sense that we’ve done this before.

Don’t we do this every year? How do we think this year will be any different than the last, or the one before that? What fresh Word does God have for us after all these years?

I guess we have the same built-up expectations at the beginning of a calendar year too. Even if our New Year’s resolution is to have no New Year’s resolutions, there’s still this idea that each January 1st invites us to shed old skin, to leave behind what’s broken, and to hope for a fresh start.

It’s an odd thing we do. We take the change of a season and we make meaning out of it. And sometimes I wonder if our hopes are too fantastic this time of year.

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This word from the prophet Isaiah seems too fantastic also. Isaiah envisions a time in the days to come when all the inhabitance of the world will converge—even more that that, be drawn to, one place.  Isaiah speaks about a mountain on which will sit a Temple—the Lord’s house—and it will be higher in elevation than anything else. This will be the place, literal or metaphorical, who knows, where all the peoples of the world will come together to finally practice peace.

As every person converges on this mountain of God, Isaiah says, their hearts will be changed. The nations will put away violence—people will beat their instruments of war into instruments to cultivate the land—swords will once and for all be beaten back into ploughshares.

There’s a garden outside the United Nations in New York City, and in that garden is a collection of sculptures and statues that have been donated by different countries.

One of these is of a man with a hammer raised above his head, he’s taking a sword and bending it—beating it into a plowshare. An instrument used to kill and strike down is being bent—hammer strike by hammer strike—into a farming tool used to cultivate, to till the ground, and to nourish the people.

This sound of hammer striking metal is the first sound we hear in the church’s new year. We who follow Christ see in his teaching of the peaceable Kingdom of God a bright vision laid out before us by him, where there is no longer need for militant force or confusing theories of just war. Jesus’ kingdom is one where we use broken swords, shaped now into tools used to give life.

But all this talk of world peace and nations laying down armaments is crazy talk. We can’t read a passage like this and say we’re believers in Isaiah’s vision. His opening words are “In the days to come.” Clearly he thought that this transformation from unending conflict and division to unending unity and peace would one day actually happen within history.

What wishful thinking! How in the world can we expect this radical and universal vision of unity and peace among the nations to someday come true? And isn’t every nation of the world still, 3,000 years later, in some sort of military conflict with one another.

How many peace treaties have been broken since Isaiah proclaimed that this day would one day come? How many ploughshares have we beaten back into swords? Haven’t we waited long enough for our God of peace to make an actual difference in the way the world works?

Isaiah’s vision sounds fantastical and absurd.

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I’m a little harsh with my words about what I see Christmas turning into. I sound curmudgeonly whenever I talk about the over-commercialization of Christmas. I find a lot of reasons to complain about it and sometimes I get so busy complaining that I forget to recognize that there is hope and joy in the Advent season and in Christmas too. I worked retail for 8 years and I was always there to see Christmas from the other side. Hours and hours of dealing with crazy and frustrated Christmas shoppers left me a bit disillusioned and sometimes very frustrated by the entire season. Humbug!!

Could it be that behind our tendency to shop and shop, spend and spend, our willingness to stand in miles-long lines and fend off rival shoppers and boldly grab parking spaces from one another, there lies something much deeper?

Perhaps celebrating Christmas as our culture does is a confused way of enacting and remembering the spiritual experiences of our past. That we have a desire to gather around the messages of the season but we don’t know how to celebrate in a way that brings us more satisfaction and joy, so Christmas is instead mis-celebrated with the overspending and overcommercialism that we all see.

We each come to this season with a deep longing—whether it’s a longing for reliving the Christmas’s of the past or to give our children and grandchildren the sort of Christmases we remember having.

Every year, we’re reminded again that the joy of Christmas has nothing much to do with giving or receiving products but enjoying time together around food, to decorate the tree and sing songs together. But even those things only last for so long. Then we put Christmas away into boxes for another year.

Perhaps in all our scrambling to buy and decorate and shop—all these cultural messages we are barraged with in December—maybe over and above, or really underneath them all, resides a much more profound desire.

Maybe through all the clutter of Christmas what we’re seeking is for our hearts to be tuned into much greater promises.  Maybe this season is really about tuning our hearts to the notes of God’s peace. To noel. To good news of great joy.

Perhaps what we’re really seeking at Christmas are glimpses of a world with no fear, a world full of people who one day may be able to see eye to eye, able to recognize in each other more of what’s similar in each other than what’s different. And instead of pointing weapons at one another and reacting out of fear, we would begin walking toward each other and see how peace is possible.

But these are big ideas, they’re the stuff of fantasy and hippies and utopia—these things are much too big for our minds and much too delirious to ever be true.

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This Advent season, there’s a deep and profound hope, a desire for every longing heart as we await the birth of our Messiah. And as impossible as it sounds, we too hope, just like Isaiah, for the day to come when God will gather all together, when swords are once and for all beaten into ploughshares and all will be shown paths of peace.

But if we read this message thinking that Isaiah’s message of a greater way is something that will just start happening one day, then we’re misunderstanding Isaiah.

Wars just don’t end on their own and peace is not the absence of war, peace is life lived in the presence of God, and that is possible only after we do the work of tuning our hearts to the ways of God.

The ways of war need to be unlearned, and that takes imagining peace in ways we’ve never done before. Neither do swords beat themselves into ploughshares. We have to do that work before these words from Isaiah would ever be possible.

This is not a hopeful wishing that one day weapons would just simply disappear and people would all the sudden begin hugging instead of fighting. Isaiah is not a wishful thinker but a prophet who spoke to his people, confronting them, challenging them to live their lives differently.

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During this first week of Advent, we come once again to the beginning of a journey and we once again hear of God’s promise of a coming hope.

This Advent we pay attention to the ways that God is calling us to get up and walk in the direction of the light of Christ. The light that shines up ahead. In this first week of Advent, these words from Isaiah confront us and challenge us to learn the ways of peace. Until all the world gathers together on the mountain of God and begins walking in the paths of God. Until that day when we all take tools that destroy and beat them into tools that help us sow seeds of peace, unity, justice, and nourishment. Until that day when we cultivate a consciousness that one day includes all.

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The Jesuit chapel at St Louis University is creatively lit. When you look up during worship services, you see that the light fixtures are made with twentieth-century cannon shells.

Now emptied of their lethal contents, these cannon shells are used to shed light for people to worship by. Just as these cannon shells have been transformed from instruments of war into instruments for worship, let us pray and live and work for a day when more light is shed into dark places and we all fashion our weapons into tools that illuminate God’s presence in the world.

O God, tune our hearts this Advent and craft us into instruments of your peace.

Alleluia! Amen.