God’s First Move

A sermon based on Psalm 85:8-13 and Ephesians 1:3-14 preached May 14th, 2017

The world is so much bigger than we think.

There’s a book by Emma Donoghue, and the tie-in movie—both entitled Room—about a young mother named Joy and her 5-year old son named Jack. Jack’s mother has been held captive inside a 12 by 12-foot garden shed for 7 years, for all of Jack’s life plus another 2 before he came along. This 12-foot square room is all that Jack has ever known. He calls it “Room.” It’s his whole world.

When young Jack began asking questions and remembering their answers, his mother Joy decided it was best to tell him there was nothing more than these four walls that surrounded them—the ceiling a few feet above their heads. There were no windows in Room. Just a skylight above that gave them nothing to look at but blue sky and white clouds. The light of the sun and the dark of night was nothing more to Jack than a one-dimensional covering that he must have imagined existed just a few feet above Room’s ceiling. Jack’s world was tiny and simple.

When Jack turned 5, his mother decided he was old enough to comprehend the bigger picture. The black and white TV in Room, she told him, projected images of real human beings—other people who existed in the world and lived hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles away. We can hear Jack asking,

What’s a mile?

Joy tried her best to tell Jack that the world is filled with billions of people who were just like them. That people had to drive cars to get from one place to another because the places they needed to go were so far away. All this was lost on Jack. He didn’t believe her. How could he? He’d never known anything bigger than the cramped and dark 144 square feet of a garden shed.

At one point in the movie, Jack refuses his mother’s big words about this immense world she is talking about. He shouts,

I want a different story!

His mother quickly replies:

No! This is the story you get!!

Jack’s mind is no bigger than what his eyes can see, his ears can hear, and all they know are the tin walls of a ramshackle shed, the static-y murmur of a black and white TV.

I won’t give away the ending. It’s a profound story you must see for yourself. But, this I will say: Room is a story that should make us wonder about the vast entirety of the world—maybe even the cosmos—and our place in it.

Throughout, questions should bubble up in our minds: This world and this life we live in it, do we believe it’s only as big as what we’ve seen and been told by others, or do we know more? Could it be that we move about this vast planet of ours in our tiny little circles so repetitively that we lose perspective? In an effort to be comfortable with our own small version and vision of things, maybe we have taken the vast dimensions of God’s immense creation and shrunk it down into our own versions of a 12 by 12-foot room.

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Just like 5-year-old Jack, in order to grow to maturity, to know the truth about creation, the God who made it, and our place in it, we must first be made aware of how large the gap is between our tiny vision of things and God’s immeasurable power and grace. What else is there but what we can see through our own skylights?

No matter what we’ve been told, no matter how far we’ve traveled or how wide our eyes are as we go along our way, what Paul wants us to know, right off the bat is that everything about God, the grace He gives, the love He has for us, the plans He’s made for us—they’re all much bigger and louder, more wondrous and glorious than we could ever know. This is Paul’s message to those first Christians in Ephesus. And it’s still an important message for us. First, we must be told that, in the grand scheme of things, the only reason why we’re significant is because God has adopted us as his family through Jesus Christ, and because of this, we do not, cannot, live in our own world. This is God’s world, and in order to know our place in it, we must hand ourselves over to God—to persistently and intentionally give ourselves over to ways of Christ Jesus.

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In the original language this whole passage, verses 3 through 14, is one huge, marvelous, run-on sentence. At 201 words, it’s the longest sentence in all of scripture.

Paul must have thought that the urgency of these words was great enough to warrant the abandonment of proper punctuation and syntax. This news is so good that even a comma would disturb the power inside of this sentence! It’s enough to give any English teacher a coronary.

But the largeness, the grammatical abandonment, of this colossal, run-on sentence should be excused, even by the most strident of grammar Nazis, because its lack of punctuation and its sheer size echoes the gracious abundance of its subject: God.

This one-sentence passage is a torrent of God-activity that refuses to pause or come up for air. It’s an avalanche of blessing that gathers size and strength with every tumbling word, all of it mirroring God’s lavish generosity. How can we keep from singing? How can we stop talking about how amazing God is?! This is the Gospel. This is Good News that will not wait!

Right away, through this torrent of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the message is clear: in order to grow into the life that God has for us, in order to grow into spiritual maturity, what last week we identified as the goal of the Christian life, we must abandon all our shallow notions of who God is, all of our tiny twelve-by-twelve, Room-sized views of things, all of our too-small perceptions of how the world works and how God works in the world, and give ourselves over to the magnificence of what God is doing through Christ Jesus—the salvation He is working within us and among us, as well as far beyond us. God is not merely a part of our lives. That’s way too small and backwards, Paul says here at the outset of Ephesians. We are a part of God’s life.

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In order to open our eyes and then our lives to all this magnificence, Paul fills his run-on sentence with seven action verbs: blessed, chose, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, and gather up.

None of these verbs have us as their subject. God’s the One doing all the action here. We are the objects of all of these verbs. We do not bless, choose, destine, bestow, lavish, make known, or gather up ourselves. God’s the One who blesses, chooses, destines, bestows, lavishes us. God is the One who makes known to us who we are, and gathers us up.

God’s the first Mover. In this salvation life, we do not begin on our own. These verbs, they’re God’s ways of jump-starting the work of salvation inside of us and among us. God has the first move. All of our action is merely a reaction to all that God has done and is doing for us in Christ Jesus, His Son and our Lord.

These words are in chapter 1 of this letter for a reason. Paul wants us to know this from the start or else all of our starts will be false ones. Let us not waste any more of our time thinking that we are the ones who make any of this happen. Let’s not live one more second of our lives—including our life together as Church—under the delusion that we’re the ones who make something of ourselves. Notions like that are just as tiny as 5-year-old Jack looking up at a tiny patch of blue through a sky light thinking he’s seen the whole world. God has made room for us to stretch our vision. To see things we have never and will never be able to see on our own.

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The older we get, the less we know. You’ve heard that before. In our younger years, we think we know it all. But as we growth into maturity, as we step out into the world, we slowly begin to realize how small we are inside of it.

It’s those moments when we stand beside the ocean, as the song goes, and find ourselves small and insignificant in the vast array of God’s creation, that we begin to realize how tiny we are and how little we know. The moment we realize this is a moment of amazing grace. It’s the instance when we abandon all those overinflated thoughts we have about ourselves, when we slowly let go of our own significance and begin to find ourselves all over again in the vast and Divine family of things. This is the first step into spiritual maturity. When in one way or another, we say,

God, this is all you and none of me

As Paul writes,

It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.

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I hope I don’t give away the ending of Room if I tell you that 5-year old Jack and his mother, Joy, are finally freed from the confines of their 12 by 12-foot world.

Once outside of Room, Jack sees the immense glory of creation—what was once a mere rumor that he refused to believe. At the end of the film, we hear Jack say:

I’ve been in the world 37 hours. I’ve seen pancakes, and stairs, and birds, and windows, and hundreds of cars. And clouds, and police, and doctors, and grandma and grandpa. But Mommy says grandma and grandpa don’t live together in the hammock house anymore. Grandma lives there with her friend Leo now. And Grandpa lives far away.

I’ve seen persons with different faces, and bigness, and smells, talking all together. The world’s like the black and white TV in Room, but it’s on, all at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen.

There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. It never stops. Plus, the world’s always changing brightness, and hotness. And there’s invisible germs floating everywhere. When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know EVERYTHING!

And the book-readers and the movie-goers and God himself laughs, and we all say:

Jack, You haven’t seen anything yet!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Holy Soil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace and peace,

Paul writes.

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

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

There but for the grace of God go I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Easter Unfolding

A sermon based on Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-35 preached on April 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

The ability to see is granted gently.

Throughout scripture, God’s very presence is described as light. The kind of light that overwhelms us, the kind our eyes are not built to withstand or make any sense of.

When God comes to His people, it’s always with a blinding truth that none of us are able to handle. Think of Moses at the burning bush. On fire but not consumed. Think of Sinai, the mountain that only Moses could ascend. He climbed into God’s radiating company. After those mountaintop conversations with God, Moses had to cover his face with a veil, or else the afterglow of God was enough to blind the Israelites.

I imagine every time he stood atop Sinai, Moses shook all over from a reverent fear—an overwhelmed and overwhelming sense of the Holy that not one of us are built to witness. Not many of us could withstand such a sight.

God knows this about us. God was careful with Moses, and God is gentle with us, too. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. That’s why Easter comes not all at once, but over all these days and weeks after Jesus’ resurrection. God unfolds the Truth of Easter slowly. One sign at a time, and only when our eyes and ears, hearts and minds are ready to see it.

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No one has ever found Emmaus. Thousands, perhaps millions, of maps have been unfolded, unearthed, and unrolled from their ancient containers, combed over with magnifying glasses in case its name has faded away, but Emmaus has never been discovered. Perhaps it was never a place—or at least no place in particular.

And Cleopas. Who’s Cleopas? We don’t know really. He wasn’t one of the Twelve, but he was a disciple of Jesus all the same. He and his unnamed traveling companion—they were walking away. Away from Jerusalem. And toward who knows where or what. Maybe they didn’t even know. All they knew was that something they had given their lives to had come to an end. It all had unraveled in the course of the last three days. Along the way to Emmaus, they recounted their time with Jesus to each other. All the places He had taken them.

Wouldn’t we like to know all they were saying to each other. They must have recounted His words. His teachings. They must have laughed at themselves for never understanding any of His parables. What was Jesus trying to say, anyway?!

They must have had conversations along the Road about all the healings they witnessed. The way Jesus talked about God as if He knew God’s own heart—or had God’s own mind. What’s not to be astonished by? How could they ever forget?

They must have recounted that last week with Jesus over and over again while they walked away. The conflict in the Temple. That last meal together. The words Jesus had spoken around that table—this is my body broken;  this is my blood poured. Those sleepy moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when their Master went off on His own to pray. The two of them must have poured over every detail of what happened next. The arrest. The chaos of it. It all happened so fast. The next time they saw Jesus, He was hanging on a cross. Then the burial. How many tears were shed along that road as these last few days unfolded again and again in their memories? How do you walk away from all that?

They were going back to their old lives. They were walking away from the last three years of following Jesus. All of it having unraveled into nothing right in front of them.

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It’s in the thick of their grief, the fog of all this loss, that Jesus comes along. Appearing to them as a fellow companion along their journey away. Anonymous. Just a stranger keeping them company. He walks with them slowly. Nobody’s in a rush here. There’s nowhere specific to go now—nothing left to do anymore, or so they thought. This is slow time along a lost and dusty road. Jesus had so much to share with them. So much to prove to them, but Jesus is patient with them. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. Jesus knows this about us.

It’s along a road like this, with stories shared like these, that the truth of Easter should strike us not as an event that occurred, but a path on which we stand. A journey we take. A direction we walk. Easter, as well as the resurrection that comes with it, they are not one-time events frozen in place along a timeline. They are a constant unfolding of truth that takes place right in front of us. Easter resurrection is a way for us to encounter Jesus no matter when or where we are.

Emmaus maybe be a lost destination so far as maps are concerned, but we know where it is, because we’ve been there before. Emmaus is all the in-between places in our lives. It’s the ground we stand on when we don’t know exactly where we stand or what we stand for. There are many Emmauses. It’s in the middle of these Emmaus moments that Jesus arrives.

What are you discussing as you walk along?

He says.

Jesus companions with us in these places, but He doesn’t reveal himself—not at first, not in any obvious way—because He knows that our faith cannot yet handle a revelation. We aren’t yet ready for that. Faith cannot be forced upon us. It cannot be coerced. Faith—that is, having eyes to see and ears to hear Jesus—does not come all at once. It must be gradually unfolded in front of us. We are brought to sight slowly. As poet Denise Levertov puts it, every step we take is a sort of arrival. God is patient with His people.

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There are moments in our lives when we feel like we’re headed in no specific direction at all. When we lose sight of our purpose and our path. So, we walk away. Away from life as we knew it before. In our grief and hurt, we think that every step forward—away from a life that once was—will distance us from our past.

Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. That first question He asks the two along the road is Jesus’ way of reminding them of who they are and whose they are. In effect, Jesus comes along and says,

Let me re-tell you your story. It’s God’s story, too.

Jesus won’t let them walk away. God’s story is the biblical story, and we have been a part of it from the very beginning. Jesus won’t let them walk away because first and foremost, this is a story of a God who relentlessly pursues us. Who will not let us go. Who will not let us forget our story. And that’s when Jesus takes over. He tells the two everything that God has been doing. He starts with Moses—all that God has done for His people as God guided them away from slavery in Egypt and into the freedom and abundance of the Promised Land.

Jesus didn’t stop there. He told them about all the prophets who came along after that to guide God’s people in the right direction. Throughout history, those who lose their hope in God—who forget their salvation story—they walk away. But over and over again, God pursued them, retaught them their own story, and set them back on right paths again.

Along the road to Emmaus, as Jesus unfolds God’s story for the two disciples, their hearts are kindled inside of them. Brought to flame. And with each one of Jesus’ words, the two disciples begin piecing back together what they thought was forever broken. Maybe the Jesus story does have a future. Who are we to say that God’s story has an ending? Maybe there’s more.

Easter slowly unfolds in front of these two disciples along the Emmaus road. They start gaining eyes to see some vague notion of a future for themselves. Their hearts are brought to flame as the Holy Spirit speaking into them. But they needed more nudging. We all do. Our eyes are never opened fully. The Easter news of resurrection is too big for us to see all at once. There’s always more that needs revealing. It was only when they stopped and gathered around table, as Jesus broke bread with the two, that something in them was shaken awake.

How many times had they gathered around table with Jesus and shared bread with him? How many times had Jesus hosted a meal with them, inviting the hungry and the lost to be nourished, to recover who they are while sitting around table? This happens over and over again. Countless times. It was around table that their eyes were opened. When bread is shared, all heaven breaks loose.

They recognize Jesus right then. In table fellowship. This should remind us of Communion, of course, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that Luke intends here. After all, it was the two disciples who invited Jesus to stay and eat with them. Jesus was their guest. With hearts burning inside of them, they couldn’t yet let go of this mysterious traveler. They wanted more time with Him. Having been invited to their table, though, Jesus quickly becomes their Heavenly Host, taking bread and breaking it in front of them. It was then, in that moment when Jesus took bread and broke it, that their burning hearts were broken open and they could see!

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Friends, Easter is still unfolding right in front of us. There is no end to God’s story. Salvation is still working itself out right in front us, with every step we take along the Way. Emmaus is nowhere in particular. Emmaus is everywhere. Emmaus always happens. Easter is always unfolding in front of us. In all of our journeys, do we have eyes to see Jesus with us?

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

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Way

A sermon based on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 7:13-20 preached March 26th, 2017

Sermon audio

I learned a new word yesterday: Funambulist.

A man named Jean-Francios Gravelet, born in 1825, was perhaps the greatest of them: he was a tight-rope walker. His most spectacular feat was walking a three-inch thick tightrope across a 1,000-foot chasm over Niagara Falls.

Newspapers from all across the country followed him to the Falls that day—most of them speculating how bad his inevitable plunge into the raging water would be. It was a vertical drop of 165 feet. Right before he began his 1,000-foot dare-devil walk, he offered to carry a volunteer over on his back. Surprisingly, no one took him up on it.

He made it across. The walk took him a little over 17 minutes. He stopped to rest at one point. He also decided it would be fun to stand on one leg for a bit, which drew cheers from the gathered crowd. It was almost as if he was playing around out there. Loving every minute of it. Like what he was doing wasn’t a matter of life and death, but more like child’s play. As he was planning his walk, he said once that he considered it an easy task. By all accounts, he made it look easy, too.

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As we make our way through Matthew chapter 7, the final chapter of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, let’s not forget where we started.

That first step we took, those first words we heard from Jesus. The Beatitudes, that series of blesseds, spell out a decisively new way of walking. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is a fleshing out of the bones that are the Beatitudes. Since we’re weeks and weeks along now, with only the closing words left to go, it would be very easy for us to divorce these words about wide and narrow gates, false prophets, and good and bad fruit from good and bad trees, from the very first words of the Sermon, the ones about meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and how we should be glad when the rest of the world persecutes and insults us for not living in the world’s ways.

We started our sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount on a fifth Sunday. We were gathered in the Chapel that morning, and we went from one Beatitude to the next. And when we got to that last one: Blessed are you who are insulted and persecuted, I said that this last beatitude doesn’t really apply to us because we don’t suffer persecution for our faith. But, I think I might want to change my mind. Or at least respond to it in a more nuanced way.

It’s easy being Christian in America. The word not only doesn’t get any of us in trouble. It actually makes our way easier. We trust a Christian. All a politician needs to do is call them self a Christian, and all the sudden we stop asking hard questions about what they believe and how and why it matters to them. Being a Christian is easy. But following Jesus—that another matter entirely.

We live in a time when being a Christian and following Jesus are two different things. Anybody can call themselves whatever they want, but like Jesus declares in another translation of this passage, even wolves can dress themselves up in sheep costumes. You can dress yourself up as a healthy tree, but it’s the quality of the fruit you bear that will give you away. Calling ourselves Christians—that’s easy. Following Jesus is hard.

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Some people talk about a flash moment in their lives when all the sudden they were saved. A moment when time split into two—before Christ and after Christ. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a conversion like this. I have a story that goes a bit like that. Maybe you do, too. But if these words from Jesus have anything to do with it, a moment is not what matters. There may or may not be a moment in your life when you became Christian, but these words from the latter part of the Sermon on the Mount put much more emphasis on what happens after that. How we follow is much more important to Jesus than anything we call ourselves.

Following Jesus isn’t a one-time choice. It isn’t an event. It’s a movement along a path. It’s a step forward, and then another, and then a million more after that. And each step is a choice—a choice about how we will walk through this world, this life, this hour, this minute. It’s a call to look at the right things while we take this journey. A choice about what we will carry in our hearts, in our minds, in our mouths along the way. The words we use, we direction we move. And at the heart of this journey, this constant following after Jesus, step by step, is holy discernment. This is what separates followers of Jesus from those who merely call themselves Christians and leave it at that.

Being Christian takes a decal for the back of your car. Following Jesus takes discernment. The way of discipleship—the Jesus Way—is narrow. It’s a 1,000 foot walk across a tightrope. Every step a measured one, a prayer-filled one. According to Jesus, the Way isn’t safe. It’ll be treacherous, and hard, and confounding. You might lose your balance and fall down and have to get back up again, but maybe falling is exactly how you know you’re on it—because walking this Way is not easy.

If Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as He calls Himself in another part of scripture, and if the Way is narrow, then it cannot be up to us to walk it. If we choose to give ourselves to the Way—a way of speaking and thinking, imagining and praying—we cannot follow Jesus any which way we like. There are many ways to walk these days. Lots of paths to give ourselves to. Is the route we take, the way we talk, the way we treat each other—the way we do everything—is it congruent with the Way of Jesus?

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Deuteronomy is one of the greatest books of the bible. All thirty chapters of it is Moses, Israel’s leader, preaching his last sermon to his people.

Moses brought them out from the way of slavery in Egypt and then through the desert, and now to the Promised Land. Their way had been difficult. At many moments, the Israelites—thirsty, hungry, and tired—wanted to give up, go back to Egypt, willingly give themselves back to the way of slavery. If it hadn’t been for Moses, they might have done so. Deuteronomy is Moses’s last moments with his people. His time has come to an end. He will ascend a mountain, look out at the vista of the Land God has promised, and die. But before that, Moses reiterates the Way. He says to the Israelites,

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. Choose.

Choose not once, but over and over again. If your hearts turn away, if you leave the narrow Way, destruction is certain. So, pick your way carefully.

The wide way, according to Moses, is a way filled with death and curses, but it’s more enticing, and it’s certainly easier to walk. But don’t do it. You might not get lost, but you’ll certainly lose yourselves in it. Instead, hold fast to God. Love the Lord your God. Listen to His voice. Hold on for dear life to the narrow way. Prayerfully discern each and every step forward.

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Friends, we can find salvation anywhere. It’s offered to us a million times a day in a million different ways. One thousand new religions bloom every day. But all of them are a part of the wide way—the way leading to destruction. If we give ourselves to those ways, those voices, we will quickly get lost, but the dangerous thing is we’ll never know we’re lost. We might even think we’re found. That we’ve figured out salvation. But really, we’ll be far from it.

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So, how do we know where we are? Which way is the right way—the narrow way—and how do we find it? For that, we should turn to 1 John chapter 4.

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and even now is already in the world.

The author of 1 John goes on to say that most people speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them, and they listen to the world. This is the wide way.

Test each and every spirit, discern everything you hear, everything you say, everything others say and do—compare it to the Way of Jesus. Hold it up to the Way of Jesus, and if it doesn’t fit, if it isn’t cross-shaped, reject it. Run far away from it. Do not give yourselves to it. Not only will it be a waste of your time; it will also lie to you, unravel you, bully you into conforming to its ways. And its ways may be far different than the Way of Jesus.

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The way of Jesus has certain qualities to it. We need to know those qualities in order to discern our way—to test the spirits.

The litmus test to it all is the Cross. The cross is the way of Jesus We are to walk the way of the cross. This is the Way of death that leads to real life. Death to self leads to life in Christ. It’s completely counter-cultural and lop-sided, but the Way of Jesus is the way of servanthood and humility, that will lead us to true freedom. Freedom in Christ.

Try convincing your next-door neighbor of that one!

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The truth is we will constantly mistake the wide way for the narrow way—life on our terms is much easier than life on God’s terms.

But for every one of our missteps on this high wire act of walking the Way, may God’s grace be there like a net below us to catch us, make the landing a soft one, and set us back on the Jesus Way.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Embodied Gratitude

A sermon based on Psalm 119:137-144 and Luke 19:1-10 preached October 30th, 2016

Sermon audio

As it turns out, we have Zacchaeus all wrong. The little man has gotten a bad rap for centuries. We thought we knew the story. Zacchaeus is a greedy, crooked, little tax-collector. He’s no better than a Wall Street CEO. The kind of person whose entire life revolves around shamelessly taking money from the most vulnerable among us, and padding his already bulging bank account. We think this story is about the moment when Jesus, on behalf of the crowd, confronts this slime-ball of a tax-collector. And upon seeing Jesus, Zacchaeus confesses how greedy he’s always been, and at once promises to change his ways by divesting half of his wealth. But that’s not at all what this story is about. It turns out, Zacchaeus is a better guy than we or anyone in the crowds that day thought he was. It turns out we have completely misunderstood Zacchaeus. 

See, back then crowds loved to hate tax-collectors. They’re the people who steal from the poor to line their own pockets. They were hated more than any IRS agent is hated these days. But Zacchaeus is not your average tax-collector.

Zaccheaus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord, I give (not ‘I will give’, future tense, but present tense) I give half of my possessions to the poor…and if I have cheated anyone, I repay (again present tense) them four times as much.

He doesn’t say,

I’ll start giving as of this moment.

Zacchaeus says,

I’m already giving. I have been giving for all this time! In fact, I make a habit of it! I make a practice of giving half of what I have to the poor. And if ever I find out I’ve cheated someone, I have always (and will continue to) repay four times as much.

Zacchaeus stands in front of Jesus and the crowds, not confessing greed or repenting for something he’s done wrong. He’s defending himself against a crowd of haters, and he’s trying to set the record straight.

“Look,” he says. “You have good reason to hate all those other tax collectors, but you’ve got to understand: You’ve got me all wrong. I’m not like them! I’m following the Law. I’m one of the good guys!”

And as it turns out, this little verbal mistake translators have always made changes the entire meaning of the story! So, our task this morning is to meet Zacchaeus again as if for the first time, and find out what this story, now rightly understood, has for us, especially in the season where we’re focusing on God’s call upon our lives to be faithful stewards of all of our resources.

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For the last few weeks now, we’ve been talking about the right use of money. How we earn, save, spend, and regard our money is a mirror into our hearts. We are how we use our money.

The people who were attracted to Jesus in New Testament times were the poor. Jesus was pretty much the only one around who had Good News for the down and out. That day, the crowd surrounding Jesus as he entered Jericho was mostly peasants. They knew, or at least had heard, that Jesus’s main message was for them—that the Kingdom of God favored those who had no earthly comforts.

It was into this crowd that Zacchaeus entered, and each and every one of those peasants hated the man. They knew what he did for a living, and that’s all they wanted to know about him. In their minds, Zacchaeus, no matter the facts, was automatically lumped in with all of the scoundrel tax collectors out there. It didn’t matter what the truth was. They had their minds made up already.

Imagine then the crowds’ dismay when Jesus, champion of the poor and forgotten, vindicator of the disregarded and trampled-upon, speaks up only to address Zacchaeus! No words of encouragement for anyone else, no healing of the sick, no reassuring the impoverished. None of that. Jesus solely focuses upon the short little tax collector. According to the crowd, Zacchaeus is the last person needing Jesus’ attention that day, but here Jesus is buddying up to the little guy! Jesus even invites himself into Zacchaeus’ house. Is this a joke! We can imagine the crowd whispering to one another or even shouting out loud for everyone to hear:

Jesus, I thought You were on our side!

But that’s a slippery slope! No matter what side you’re on, that’s a very dangerous thing to convince yourself of. And, if that’s what you think, surely Jesus will surprise and disappoint you every single time. Jesus doesn’t come strolling into town to take your side. Never expect Jesus to prove you right and your enemies wrong! Jesus is much bigger and a whole lot more unpredictable than that! God’s not here to take sides. When God shows up, God takes over! When Jesus walks in to our lives, he’ll slay every sacred cow we’ve got, and he’ll leave us questioning all those pre-existing notions we have of Him. Jesus is unpredictable and unsafe like that!

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In the chapter before this, Luke tells the story of a rich ruler who wants to know what he has to do to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells him he needs to sell everything he’s got and give the money to the poor. It’s a familiar story. The rich ruler walks away because selling all of his possessions is way too much to ask of him. He’s too tied to his wealth. That rich ruler is the only person in the Gospels who walks away from one of Jesus’ invitations. Jesus watches the man walk away, and then turns around and says to his disciples,

How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Camels don’t have an easy time squeezing through the eye of a needle. What Jesus is saying is, as long as that man likes the idea of being rich better than he likes the idea of aligning his heart and his life with God’s heart and life, as long as he puts more trust in his fortune than he puts in God, then he stands a just as much of a chance of understanding and entering into the Kingdom of God as a camel’s got squeezing through the eye of a needle. Jesus tells his disciples that it’s not impossible for that to happen, but it is very unlikely. But here it happened! In this story! This is the story of the day when a camel passed through the eye of a needle. They said it couldn’t be done, but they were wrong! Zacchaeus is proof that even the largest of camels—a ruler among tax-collectors, the head hauncho of tax-collectors—gets it! He understands the Kingdom of God, and He lives his life practicing God’s ways!

Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor (that, by the way, is four times the amount the Law requires of him.) And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much (that’s twice the amount the Law requires of him).

Zacchaeus understands the huge claims the Kingdom of God makes upon his life, that they cost him dearly (both financially and spiritually), but he follows through with it, because he knows that it’s much better to live his life God’s way than it is to live his life his own way. He knows that the blessings of living faithfully for God make him far richer than all the money in the world could make him!

The story of the rich ruler and camels passing through the eye of a needle isn’t about who’s in and who’s out of heaven. It’s about who understands how the Kingdom of God works, and who doesn’t! And as it turns out, Zacchaeus understands how the Kingdom of God works. He’s living proof that even the wealthiest among us can still be faithful to God if they’re generous and willing to share their wealth with others. Jesus proclaims, much to the dismay of the crowd,

Today salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house, and he too is a part of God’s family!

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Zacchaeus’ commitment to go above and beyond the requirements of giving has a lot to teach us this stewardship season. This passage has a whole lot of action in it. Zacchaeus is all over the place in this story. He’s peering over shoulders, climbing up and down trees. I can see him heartily welcoming Jesus into his home and excitedly introducing Jesus to his family.

Back in Zacchaeus’ day, kinda like ours, grown men didn’t climb trees. That’s only something little kids did, but don’t tell that to Pete Nelson and his crew. Pete Nelson is the founder of Nelson Treehouse and Supply. Tree House Masters is a show on Animal Planet that documents Pete and his team of carpenters and designers as they design and build huge, extravagant treehouses for adults. The treehouses they build are big enough to live in, and they’re the best quality treehouses money can buy. And it’s such a joy to watch that show, because you can tell that Pete Nelson is bonkers about trees! He has the energy level of an over-caffeinated hummingbird. The moment he finds just the right place to build a treehouse for his clients, he can barely contain himself. That’s what I imagine Zacchaeus, a tree-climber in his own right, was like! Joyful. And joy is a natural byproduct of having an attitude of gratitude.

Just like Pete Nelson who can’t stop thinking about trees, or tiny little Zacchaeus who will just about do anything he needs to do—including climbing a sycamore—to get a view of Jesus passing by, God loves when joy comes together with serious commitment! When you have a mixture like that, God is glorified! Joy and serious commitment.  Let’s call it the recipe for embodied gratitude. Embodied gratitude happens when we not only say thank you to the God who has given us everything, not only when we know where all our gifts come from, but when we—just like Zacchaeus—put them back right where they came from, right back into the hands of God. It happens when we take our gratitude and we turn it around to practice the right use of all of our actions, our time, and our money so that they come right back around again to glorify the Source of it all!

Embodied gratitude.

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I bet that Zacchaeus wondered every so often if he was a fool to give half of what he had to the poor, or what he could do if he didn’t stick to his tall promise to repay four times the amount to anyone he’s cheated. A second house in Maui? A higher pair of shoes so he didn’t have to climb a tree every time a crowd gathered around him? I bet he had those moments. But I also bet that he was content right where he was—that he thought life was good and right. That giving back was good and right. And that giving back more than he had to was even better!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Human Again

A sermon based on Psalms 42 and 42 and Luke 8:26-39 preached on June 19th, 2016

This isn’t a sermon about the shooting in Orlando. But, then again, maybe it is. This is really a sermon about all of us. About how or why we unravel from time to time. And why life is messy and complicated, and why it hurts sometimes to be human—why there are moments that occur way too often when life just stops making sense to us. When we wonder who’s really in control here.

We need only to unfold our morning papers or open our laptops to check for current events—switch on the TV—to be reminded over and over again that things come undone, that we human beings can’t seem to find a way to stop hurting one another. Whenever things like that happen, most of us don’t have a problem calling them evil. But since they happen over and over again, we would do well to wonder if it goes deeper than that—if evil is more than just something that happens in instances. What is it inside of us and among us that makes the taking of life—death in all its forms (from physical or emotional or spiritual death, or the death of relationship) an everyday thing for us? There seems to be forces out there that keep us from living our God-given and God-blessed lives in full ways. From the very start of our story, there was something that lured us out of relationship with God.

What was it that made Adam and Eve hide from God—the very God who stitched them together and called them His own and gave them purpose, and wanted to share in full relationship with Him and each other? What was that voice that spoke to them, assuring them that is was okay to eat from the one tree that God told them to keep their hands off of?

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We don’t talk about the devil much. We’re Presbyterians after all. I’d take a guess and say that most of us here this morning don’t believe in a being called Satan. But that presents us with a problem. The problem is that Jesus talked about the devil often, and if Jesus talked about the devil over and over again, and if we believe that Jesus knew what he was talking about, then maybe we should take the devil more seriously, also. I don’t care whether you think a literal devil exists or not. We could have that conversation for days. But you and I cannot deny that there’s something out there—something very real—that stands in resistance to the Kingdom of God, something death-dealing, some out there that’s destructive.

In his book Reviving Old Scratch, author Richard Beck puts it this way: He says there’s something pushing against the life-giving power of God. Whether you personify it or not, give it a proper name or not, is up to you, but there’s some kind of pervasive force in and among us that seems hell-bent on unraveling all that is good and right. In the words of the father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, something out there that threatens to undo us, and in order to confront it and push back against it, we first have to admit it’s real. Throughout scripture, we read of a force called Satan. Satan is not so much the name of a being or a person as much as it is a description of a relationship—something that confronts us in an antagonistic or adversarial way.

Scripture says that Satan is the personification of all of those forces that stand in the way of us being able to experience life in its God-given fullness. In that sense, author Richard Beck says,

Hate is the satan of love, exclusion is the satan of inclusion, war is the satan of peace, oppression is the satan of justice, tearing down is the satan of building up, competition is the satan of cooperation, revenge is the satan of mercy, harm is the satan of care, hostility the satan of reconciliation.

Whatever is it that keeps us from living perfect and whole life with God and one another, whatever is it that strips us of our God-given humanity—call it whatever you will, but Jesus called it Satan.

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The man in our passage for today is full of voices that are not his own. He’s possessed by many demons that have crowded him out of his own humanity. He’s a man occupied by an army of demonic presences. The most heartbreaking part of this story is when Jesus approaches this man and asks him his name, and instead of a response that speaks to his humanity—like Fred, or Joe, or Matthew, or Jonah—the man says his name is Legion. Legion is a roman military term meaning an army of up to 50,000 soldiers.

This man isn’t so much possessed by demons as he’s being occupied by them. Just like Rome occupied the whole Palestinian region in Jesus’s day, this man was occupied by demons, and they have stripped him of his identity. This man has been invaded by so many oppositional forces that he’s ceased to be human. Everything about him speaks of death rather than life: he lives in a cemetery, makes his home among the tombs; he’s naked and homeless; he’s had to be restrained in leg irons and chains, and place under guard for his own safety and that of others. He’s scarcely human, and he begs Jesus to leave him alone. More than anything he wants to be left alone. It’s isolation that most affectively robs us of our humanity.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t even ask the man whether or not he wants to be healed. Jesus skips that part to contend instead with the Legion of demons that has occupied the man. The demons speak back to Jesus, begging for their life to be spared. He casts them out into a herd of pigs, and just as uncontrollably as they lived within the man, they occupy the pigs and send the pigs hurtling recklessly off a cliff and drowning to their death. And with that, after who knows how many years or even decades, he comes back to himself restored—fully dressed and completely sane.

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What occupies us? What gets in the way of us being truly ourselves? What forces exist out there that threaten to occupy and undo us?

Like this man who had no other name but Legion, are we also, at least sometimes, defined not by what God made us to be, but by what occupies us, holds us captive, pulling us away from all that is good and holy and whole and life-giving? And what about our world or our culture? What forces are at work out there that seem hell-bent on tearing our world to shreds, pushing love out of our world, robbing us of our humanity?

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So, maybe this is a sermon about the shooting in Orlando after all. We know now that the shooter was a terrorist, connected to ISIS. That means he lived under the weight of a very violent and very strict set of codes. He had been brainwashed to believe that anyone who didn’t live like and believe in all the oppressive and demanding ways that ISIS commanded, didn’t deserve to live at all. We also know that the shooter was gay, and because of the strict set of codes placed upon him by his militant beliefs, he fought against his own sexuality—even had a wife. He tried his best to live like a straight man, but there was always that struggle, this coercion—this battle waging inside of him.

This man was possessed by voices that stripped him of his identity, that told him his real sexual orientation was not permissible and needed to be denied no matter what. And anyone who fights so hard to be something different than what and who they are will inevitably come undone, unraveled.

In this case, the man was so confused, so full of his own demons, that somehow it made sense for him to target a nightclub full of people who most reminded him of who he was so fearful of being himself. And in his killing of those innocent people, he was, in essence, seeking to destroy that thing inside of him that he hated most of all. Killing 50 plus people and injuring even more, before taking his own life.

This man was so occupied by his own demons and so afraid of his own identity, so lost among all the evil that possessed him that he ceased being human, and he made himself into a machine made for killing.

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This passage from scripture tells the story about how we become human again. The demon-possessed man is a reminder for us that there are many powers and principalities that seek to claim and contort us, to pull us in all their different directions all at once, and away from God’s shape and purpose and intention for us, and in doing so, dragging us away from all that makes us human.

Maybe it’s that God is the most human being of all—and it is only when we seek to live our lives in God’s image that we become fully human ourselves. Maybe becoming truly human means being delivered from all that is not life, and being claimed, called, and adopted into God’s holy life.

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The world wants us to be so many different things. There’s a legion of voices we can become so easily occupied by. Our culture is great at carrying us away from ourselves, heaping upon us an infinite number of names and expectations. And when that happens, we become undone by it all. There’s so much that invades us, accosts us—steals us away from our God-given and God-blessed humanity.

This story is also about salvation. Maybe salvation isn’t only about getting to heaven. Maybe salvation is about being delivered from all that is not life, and being claimed and adopted into God’s holy life. When Jesus delivered this man from all his demons, the man ran home and told the story of what God had done for him—proclaiming the Good News of God’s salvation.

Maybe salvation is that journey away from all that holds us captive and attempts to tear us apart, robbing us of our divine purpose. Maybe salvation is that slow and intentional walk towards our God-ordained purpose and identity—every step along the way taking us a bit closer to becoming truly human again.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Coloring Outside the Lines

A sermon based on Psalm 148 and Acts 11:1-18 preached on April 17th, 2016

Sermon audio

On April 25th, 2014, German astronaut Alexander Gerst had a rare view outside his window. Across the many miles of space, he looked down at the bright blue ball of earth. It was like a marble hung from an invisible string—just floating there in its place—somehow both fragile-looking and resilient at the same time. Gerst commented at length about this moment, this astonishing and rare perspective.

He said,

Some things that on Earth we see in the news every day and thus almost tend to accept as a given, appear very different from an astronaut’s perspective. We do not see any borders from space. We just see a unique planet with a thin, fragile atmosphere, suspended in a vast and hostile darkness. From up here it is crystal clear that on Earth we are one humanity, we eventually all share the same fate.

From a bigger point of view, there are no lines drawn between countries. No borders or boundaries are visible from way up there. All any astronaut can see are the ripples of our planet’s biggest mountain ranges, the blue of water, and the green of earth. But that day, as Alexander Gerst stared down at our planet, he could also see the tiny poofs of bombs exploding up and down the Gaza Strip and how they continue to scar the land and its people.

Gerst said,

What came to my mind at the time was, if we ever will be visited by another species from somewhere in the universe, how would we explain to them what they might see as the very first thing when they look at our planet? How would we explain to them the way we humans treat not only each other but also our fragile, blue planet, the only home we have? I do not have an answer for that.

We human beings are great at subdividing what was once whole. We’re also good at making enemies out of those who live on the other side of those imaginary divisions.

This is where I wish we had a projector and screen in the sanctuary. If we did, I’d go to Google.com and type in the beginning of a phrase: “Why are Christians so…”

Once I typed that, suggestions for how to finish that question would come up, and those suggestions would be based on all the different ways millions and millions of Google users have finished typing that question, trying their best to get an answer for it. Here are some of the most frequently asked of them: Why are Christians so… mean? Why are Christians so… obnoxious? Why are Christians so… stupid, judgmental, ignorant, hateful, intolerant, narrow-minded, hypocritical, annoying, crazy? If you backspace a bit and type “Why are Buddhists so…” the first result you get is, “happy.”

This is the way people view us Christians. Yes, its makes them sound a bit cynical and jaded, but you have to imagine they finished the sentence “Why are Christians so…<whatever>” in the way they did because they’ve had terrible experiences with Christians who have acted in all those ways.

When Mohandas Gandhi met a Christian pastor from England, they struck up a conversation about Jesus, and Gandhi told him,

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

Scathing words spoken from people on the outside looking on! We’d do best to listen to them and honor them so that we can learn how better to represent the kindness and love of Christ—especially to those who have been burnt to a crisp by some of our fellow Christians.

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The big controversy in the Church in Peter’s day is written about all throughout the New Testament. They couldn’t escape it no matter how hard they tried: Can Gentiles be a part of the Church? Did God love the Gentiles? Were they inside or outside God’s circle of salvation?

From Abraham and Sarah on, it was the Jews who were God’s chosen people. All the way through the times of Moses and Aaron, then Joshua and David, Isaiah and Jeremiah, there was no question about it: the Israelites were God’s chosen people. And now, all the sudden, Gentiles were coming to Peter and the other leaders of the early Christian church, asking to be baptized—to become a part of their Jesus movement, and no one knew quite what to do about this. Some said that any Gentile who wanted to become Christian must first become Jewish; get circumcised, and then become Christian! That’s the way they’ve always done it, so they thought it must be the only way to do it. Some others said,

There’s no reason for that—let’s not overthink this!—if a Gentile professes faith in Christ and wants to follow in His way, then let’s not get in the way! Who are we to argue with God about this?! Let’s baptize them and make them a part of Christ’s church!

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The more I study history, the more I’m convinced that there’s nothing new under the sun. This ancient question of whether the Gentiles are “in” or “out” just takes on a different form today. Just substitute “Gentiles” for any group out there: homosexuals, immigrants, Mexicans—go right ahead and chose any other group of people if you’d like, but those are the most popular “Us vs. Them’s” of the day.

We’re still hung up on who’s on God’s good side and who’s not. And most likely, all of us think that we’re “in” and those others over there who are different than us in whatever way, are “out.” We’re always bumping up against the borders and boundaries of our own understanding of who God loves and welcomes in. And most of us are pretty sure of ourselves when it comes to these sorts of things! We very easily convince ourselves that our opinions are also God’s opinions, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else sees it differently. And that’s why Peter’s comment in verse 17 is so refreshing to see! Listen to what he says—remember, this is the first leader of the church talking here!:

If God gave them (in Peter’s case the Gentiles; in our case, fill in the blank), If God gave them the same gift He gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ (the gift Peter’s talking about is the Holy Spirit), then who am I—WHO AM I—to stand in God’s way?

Peter shares his dream (and it’s a wacky one) of a sheet with all these different non-kosher animals that Jews aren’t supposed to touch with a 10-foot pole, and he hears God’s voice.

Kill and eat!

God says.

Peter objects because there’s 1,000’s of years’ worth of rules against eating any of this stuff. And God says to Peter,

Never consider unclean what God has made pure.

What God says right there should make all of us stop in our tracks and ask ourselves a few question: What, these days, do we consider unclean and impure? What or who these days do we consider out of bounds? And just like those who disagreed with Peter about who’s in and who’s out, could it be that we have something new to learn about God’s grace and how surprising and expansive it is? Maybe God’s circle of inclusion is much bigger than we have ever thought or imagined it to be. Maybe what or who we have always considered “unclean” has always been pure and acceptable in God’s eyes, it’s just that our own rules and small fears get in the way of seeing how big God’s arms are? We might be scared to color outside these lines, but God isn’t. God doesn’t even see lines!

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I think back to the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr and his fellow protesters had been working tirelessly to gain the right to vote for every black American. And the movement came to a head in Selma, Alabama. Those who risked their lives marching for equality were few in number. Most black and white folks stayed inside. They refused to become involved in any way whatsoever. But they watched from their TV screens on the night of March 7th, 1965 as the news broke into their regularly-scheduled programming and aired footage of black men and women and some of their white allies being beaten with clubs and stepped on by horses. It was a wretched scene that would wake up anyone from their ambivalence. If you watched that footage, you were either cheering or were made sick by it.

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See, it’s one thing to have a political stance based on an ideology or principle or platform or an –ism, whether its racism or any other kind of –ism. It’s another thing entirely to witness personally how others suffer because of that -ism. The moment we’re able to put a face to all those abstract –isms. That’s when we see that real lives are affected by all these political stances and abstract ideologies we hold, that’s when politics gets personal.

Rules, principles, and ideologies are cold and calculated and separated from the people they affect, and that makes it very easy for us to overlook and stay disconnected. But stories and images of suffering and poverty and oppression—those are harder to ignore. Knowing that there are poor people out there because you’ve seen statistics in a newspaper is one thing. Spending slow time with a poor single mother as she tells you her story over a cup of coffee is something entirely different. Knowing racism exists is one thing, but sitting down with a black man at a lunch table and listening to him as he shares what his everyday life is like makes it personal and real.

That’s exactly what happened to Peter. He was met along the road by a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who told Peter his story and then asked that he be baptized. And that’s when all the old rules, borders, and boundaries that held Peter to his narrow grasp of God’s grace started to crumble apart. That’s when God started coloring outside all the lines that Peter and so many of his fellow Jewish Christians had drawn in their own minds. Our adherence to abstract, person-less rules have a tendency to shrink our compassion and patience. But when we look a person in the eyes and take time to listen to their stories, that’s when these things take on flesh and become more than ideas. And God is much more interested in people than He is in principles. He’s much more interested in real relationships than He is in rules, and God wants that to be true of us, too. That’s what Peter realized that day.

God pries open the narrowness of our long-held rules and wants to introduce us to real people who put a face to all those faceless rules and regulations that are in place. But that can only happen when we’re willing to take the risk of surrounding ourselves with those who are unlike us—when we become willing to sit down with them and listen to their stories. And in that sharing, in that holy space, we will come to recognize their humanity—that there really are no borders or boundaries between us, that they too are a beloved child of God. And who are we to stand in God’s way?

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

Alleluia! Amen.