Joy, Long and Winding

Joy, Long and Winding | Patrick Ryan – Luke 1:46b-55 and Psalm 126 – 12/17/17

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood through human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

These are the first published words of African-American poet Langston Hughes. The first song he sings. 1921. Why sing about rivers? What’s it about rivers?

Throughout the Psalms, we hear songs like this one. They are cries the faithful make, addressed to God—the one who knows rivers and knows us. Psalm 126 is a song that the ancient Israelites sang as they wandered through the wilderness of exile in a strange land called Babylon when all they wanted was to go back home to the promised place God had given them. This psalm looks back at their time in Canaan, a time of great joy and abundance, milk and honey. This is a prayer that God might restore it all. Restore their land. Restore their hope. For us, it is here also to bring life where there is death, joy where there is sorrow, hope where there is despair. Restore our lives, it cries—our fortunes. Bring a river in this parched place!

As a black man in 1921, poet Langston Hughes had much to envy about rivers. We sing about rivers because they are free. We sing about rivers because their waters bring us back to life.


This Sunday, we take a closer look at joy. Hope, peace, joy, love. That’s the way this Advent season flows. When you hear those words—peace, joy, love—maybe like me you think of the hymn, I’ve Got Peace Like a River, that old African-American spiritual. Joy like a fountain. Love like an ocean. Each one compared to water—wild, flowing, deep, and free. And it’s time we stole back joy from those who stole it from us. To give it back its God-given meaning.

There are lots of voices telling us what joy is—especially this season. Joy, some might say, can be purchased. Joy can be bundled up and carried out to our cars in huge shopping bags. That’s at least what the department stores have to tell us about joy. And because they’ve been saying these sorts of things for so long now, we have come around to believe them. Joy is a line on a receipt. A thing with a bar code and a price tag. Something to hold or own. But of course, this is nonsense. We know better.


When we pay attention to how joy is spoken about through scripture, what we learn may surprise us. Over and over again joy is talked about as something that moves through us. Joy is something like water. Liquid joy. It flows freely—past us, through us, over us—but like liquid, it’s of a constant volume.Let’s dive into joy a little deeper. There’s no way to grab onto joy. No way to own it. It’s not something for us to take a hold of—it’s much larger than that. Trying to get your hands on joy is like trying to grab a hold of the ocean, or stop a river, or keep a spring from flowing.

We don’t hold onto water. Water holds onto us. We do not hold onto joy. It’s much more like joy is what holds onto us. Try grabbing a handful of joy and you will be empty-handed. Try possessing joy and it will elude you. Joy refuses our attempts to hold it. Instead, joy, biblically understood, is here to take hold of us.


Psalm 126 is a part of a collection of psalms called songs of ascent. These are traveling songs the faithful would sing as they made their way in pilgrimage to a holy site. Psalm 126 was written during the time when the Israelites were in exile. They sang this song because they were not where they wanted to be, and with every prayer they said and every word they sang, they asked that God might bring them back to their fruitful land and lives again—that God would restore their fortunes, take what’s parched and dry about their lives and water it back to health again. The psalmist speaks of the Negev, a riverbed that has dried up due to lack of rain. Life recedes like the banks of a river that runs low. We can become cracked, hardened. But even during these parched times, we keep going—we keep journeying just as this psalm says we should.

One of the images for us here is the sower who waters the seed she scatters with her own tears, because what’s left to do but go on carrying out our responsibilities, even in our sorrow. Hoping in time that God might step in—crack those seeds open and grow something new among us, for us, in us. They pray that their joy might be restored, but there’s not one hint in this psalm that they can do that for themselves.

Instead, they ask God to relieve what’s parched, and with a hope based upon what God has done in the past, they anticipate armfuls of harvested crops—that soon an abundance will come. A common strategy we use to find joy is to do our best to run away—far away—from what hurts. Get rid of all the pain, we think, and then we will find joy waiting for us beneath it all. Dispel all of the insecurity inside of us and things will be alright. Just forget about all that disappoints us and smile through it—then joy will come around. There isn’t a bit of that in Psalm 126. We who are faithful must listen closely for the wisdom inside these words.

Joy is not dependent on our efforts to avoid hurt, harm, or hardship. It doesn’t come after we take all measures possible to avoid pain. Joy comes not despite our suffering and hardship but in the midst of them—joy comes when we stop trying to cultivate it for ourselves. Joy is the fruit of a sure faith that God knows how to wipe away our tears and speak new life into our adversity and misfortune, our setbacks and our sorrows.  Even our tears can water something back to life again.


This Advent, we dare to discover God’s kind of joy: persistent and tenacious, deep and defiant, stubborn and abiding, long and winding like a river. This Advent, on this gow-DEH-teh (this rejoicing) Sunday, we hold up joy above the floodwaters of our current circumstances. To borrow an image from latter-day prophets Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, joy is like a bridge over the troubled waters of our lives. It has not a thing to do with our current circumstances. It has everything do with God.

As we make our way into the last half of this season, walking closer and closer to what awaits us in Bethlehem, we hold fast to this Divine promise: joy is not a thing we work for or conjure up in ourselves; it is a thing that flows through us and around us and in us because God is close.


I invite you this Advent to step into joy like you would step into a body of water, slowly at first, just to get used to the feel of it, the way it rinses over your feet. And then walk a little further into it, up to your knees, where it can refresh you. Then, slowly make your way in deeper, to your waist, where joy can steady you in its arms—in its sure and strong hands. And then farther, even deeper, until you’re wading in it at shoulder length. Here, it will cleanse you, absolve you like the waters of baptism do. Here, it will lift you up slowly and gently. Set you back down again. Over and over. And then, when you’re ready, dive in underneath, and let joy take you where it wants to. Let it keep you and carry you in its embrace.

I’ve known rivers:

Langston Hughes writes.

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the

     flow of human blood in human veins.


My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln 

     went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy 

     bosom turn all golden in the sunset.


I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Joy: Do you know this river—long and winding?

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

Alleluia! Amen.


Conjuring Voice

A sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8 preached on December 10th, 2017

Sermon audio

In order to find our way into these opening words from Mark’s gospel for this morning, I have to take you back to college—to the day when I walked into my Public Speaking classroom on the day of my first presentation in front of that class. When I walked in that morning, there was a classmate who took one look at me and told me I looked like I was about to vomit. I was in such a nervous stupor, I mindlessly replied by saying, “Thank you.”

This sort of nauseousness that came with public speaking occurred without fail.  Forget butterflies. These were Gremlins inside. If you had been able to tell me then that I’d be doing what I’m doing in front of you this morning, there’s no way I would have believed you.

Then, there was my English 050 class I had to take in my first semester of my Freshman year in college because I had failed my entrance essay. Somehow, I had graduated high school with no idea how to write a paper.

My English 050 class met twice a week in a trailer on the fringes of Old Dominion University. And the professor, through patient tutelage, taught me how to structure words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into college-worthy essays. She taught me the finer points—writing in such a way to get my readers somewhere, and she woke up something inside of me. By the time she was done, I had developed a love for it all—something that lied dormant until that 050 class came along. I didn’t know it was there, but that professor conjured it up in me—let something loose or free.

These sorts things, they come slowly. With patience and slow practice. Nothing like this comes easy. In order to wake up to what we’re good at, we must first fail and fall and then get back up again—find someone who can walk with us as we move from that place and teach us who we really are—who can tease out of us, or conjure up in us, who we shall be—that thing inside of us that lies dormant, but has been waiting to come alive. We all hope to one day find our voice.


The first written words about God’s coming in Jesus Christ come to us from Mark’s pen. These words from the earliest of the four gospels are not spoken to shepherds, angels, or wise men. They are spoken to us.

The beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

They are here for us this day in Advent, but they speak into every season of our lives—at least to those of us who have ears to hear a voice that cries out from the wilderness, addressing us with their stark and altogether confounding and compelling announcement:

Now hear this! Now, O you people of God, listen up!


John the Baptist’s father was a priest in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. We hear about him in Luke’s gospel. When he heard word from the angel Gabriel about how in their old age he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son, he doubted—more than that, he was incredulous. Unbelieving. As punishment for Zechariah’s incredulity, God took away his voice.

John grew up not wanting anything to do with work or worship in the Jerusalem temple, even though he was next in line to do so. His call led him far from the Temple, out into the wilderness. John found his place on the far side of the Jordan River, where he set up camp and called all the people to come to him and be baptized, not cleansed with water as they did in the Temple, but this fresh meaning John had given to the same act. John’s baptism was a once-and-for-all sign of repentance. John’s ministry was an invitation to the people to forget about the repetitive religious rigamarole of offering unending sacrifices and being washed over and over again to be made right with God. John’s Baptism was meant to change people’s hearts and lives. In effect, John was saying that God doesn’t want any more empty ceremony. God’s not interested in that. God wants our lives. God is interested in having our hearts.

The people had been lulled to sleep through their repetitive religious movements, and John the Baptist shows up in the middle of their slumber like an alarm clock, rude and loud, and he would not stop crying out from the wilderness until the people of God wake up from the trance of their drowsy ceremonial religion, and wake up to the living God. The God who still speaks.

God does not show up to give His people the religion they want. God comes close to give us the truth that we need. And the truth might feel at first like a wrecking ball, here to destroy everything in its wake, but then after it tears down what is false and hollow inside of us, truth sticks around to build us back up again in an entirely new way—to build us back up into Jesus-shape. At last, the truth frees us to be who God wants us to be.


With John the Baptist here at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, God is speaking into our Advent inviting us to start anew, to offer to us a new way to walk and speak and live. And we begin that process by leaving the old behind—shedding worn-out skin. We are like the crowds listening for the voice of the prophet John, seeking new direction for their future.

We, too, look for God’s definitive intervention to set things right in this world and in our own lives. And John points us to Jesus, who came so long ago but is still, this Advent approaching us, His people. As in the past, Jesus’s arrival among us may shock us. Now, just as then, He comes showing us who we really are before God, calling us back into right relationship. This is what repentance is—a conjuring. This is what the wilderness prophets, and the prophets among us, do: they come alongside us and invite us to wake up to who we really are before God. It is the prophet’s task to invite their people to come alive to the truth that God is present and working, calling us to turn around and see the God who creates us for relationship with Himself, who has been pursuing us since the foundation the the cosmos, and has been speaking compelling words to us ever since—words of peace and assurance, forgiveness and challenge, confrontation and mercy, all of which are spoken so that we might be transformed by the renewing of our hearts and minds.


According to John the Baptist and all the prophets of the one true God, Advent is no time for God’s people to be silent. There was a day when the Pastor of a church was paid by the people to be their voice in the presence of God. It used to be an unspoken assumption that all one needed to do at church was show up, sit up, shut up, and pay up. But those days are no more. Today’s pastors are called to something far more challenging: We do what we do to conjure up, tease out, encourage, and empower others to live and speak their faith—to find their God-given voice.


Friends, you know the day. This is no time to be silent. These are times for us to find our voice and raise it. I’m here to tell you that you have a voice and that God can speak through your voice. Jesus—the long-awaited One, the One we expect this Advent—can be known through you. Just as John the Baptist heralded Jesus with the power of his speech and presence, so God uses our voice, yours as well as mine, to speak Christ into this suffocated and voice-choked world.


This Advent, friends, there’s a conjuring, compelling voice—one that’s here to wake us up to our own lives, one that brings words of challenge and confrontation, assurance, hope, peace, joy, love, and mercy. One that conjures in us some new Word of God. One that has come close to compel us to speech—strong speech, confident and truth-telling.

Find your voice and speak of this coming Christ so that you may be transformed by the renewing of your hearts and minds. Let this be your life’s work so that others may know the Truth and the Life.

It is Advent, and it is no time to be silent.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Apocalypse Survival Kit

A sermon based on Isaiah 64:1-12 and Mark 13:24-37 preached December 3rd, 2017

I can hear you. You’re saying to yourselves, What’s Patrick doing reading this text? Does he not know it’s Advent? If I wanted to hear a fire and brimstone sermon this morning, I would have gone to another church. What’s an apocalyptic passage like this—an assigned reading for today, no less—doing here on the first Sunday in Advent?

That’s a good question.


We hear a lot in that one word: Apocalypse. One mention of it and our minds, very much steeped in centuries-long cultural messages, go in tons of directions. In words like these from Jesus, we hear the warnings of fanatical preachers condemning the world for its moral degradation, trying their best to tease the end times—to encourage God to speed up the process a bit.

We hear in these words prognostications from televangelists about the whens and hows and whys of a God who must be altogether angry—enraged, really—and is just around the corner, ready to scare the bejesus out of all of us. Who will bring an apocalypse where all the good people will be sucked up into the heavens and everyone else will be left behind. We, spared. They? Well, they’re in for it. There are those who take passages like this and treat them like evacuation routes or escape plans.

There’s a satirical cartoon that advertises a roof escape hatch. A worker will come out to your place and cut a hole in your roof, turning it into kind of vertical doggy door, so that when you get assumed up into the sky at the end of times, you won’t hit your head on the way up.

We’ve been taught too may wrong-headed, wrong-hearted things about this. And it’s all non-sense.


There’s no way around the fact that Jesus has some startling news for us in these words. There is a warning in them, and we ignore the vision given to us from the voice of our Lord to our detriment, but I’m not sure Jesus shared any of this to scare the pants off of us. Yes, these words are filled with caution and injunction, but have you noticed there’s nothing in what Jesus says here that sounds like a threat.

One telltale sign of the false messiahs and teachers of that day and the false prophets in our day too, is that they were all about showing off their own self-importance. They say what they say and do what they do to impress, because they have nothing else to offer. Jesus, on the other hand, is restrained here—as is the way he delivers these words to us. There are no scared-straight tactics here. Jesus doesn’t manipulate us like that. He never has. He does nothing to impose or compel faith. Instead, Jesus declares these things in order to get us to wake up to the present, to pay attention to what’s happening right here, right now.


The word apocalypse is from the Greek—the language of the New Testament—and it means an uncovering or a revealing. Apocalypse is a word not about the future, but about the present. It’s a word about possibilities.

Jesus is uncovering something for us in this passage. Revealing something to us. And while uncovering something that we’d just as soon keep hidden can be a frightening prospect, the point is not to scare us, but to get us to take notice of what’s happening right in front of us. To ready ourselves, to anticipate what’s already underway. To startle us alive. To shake us awake—awake to what’s really going on, awake to the possibilities of the present moment. To see and then respond to the invitation in everything.


Biblically understood, apocalypses happen every day. Whenever the earth shakes a bit under our feet or the faultiness of our lives crack open. They happen whenever we’re thrown off our center by something that happens, and it wakes us up to something that has always been, but we simply couldn’t see until that stark moment—when all the sudden, everything is laid bare in front of us.

You know these moments. You have lived these moments. Plenty of them.  Hospital stays where life as we know it comes to a screeching halt, and we are confronted by our own frailties. When the tales we tell ourselves about self-sufficiency and longevity are suddenly exposed as the myths they are. Or, how about those moments when a parent looks at their child and it dawns on them that they’ve grown up too quickly—right in front of our eyes. And it hits them like a ton of bricks.

These are moments when things are revealed for what they actually are. They happen all the time, but most of the time we’re not ready for them. Apocalypses show us what we’re not seeing. In their small way, these tiny, everyday apocalypses are an ending of the world—not in total, but as we know it. We wake up to something happening right in front of us that changes everything just a little bit.


Here at the end of Mark chapter 13, Jesus is wrapping up a warning—something along the lines of: “everything we know passes away in due time.” In this particular instance, Jesus is talking about the temple in Jerusalem. This is a recently completed, tremendously huge, and very impressive monument that King Herod the Great has built for the Jews to worship in—where they believed their God resided in.

At the beginning of Mark 13, Jesus declares that the Temple in Jerusalem will one day be destroyed. It too will pass away, He says. Every stone will be thrown down, not one will remain on another. Indeed it was destroyed in 68 AD. Jesus declares that He is the new Temple. Everything, including this great temple, comes to nothing, but He, Jesus, Son of God, will forever remain.The end of something also means the beginning of something more, something bigger, clearer, something closer to the truth.

Apocalypses are hardly welcome, but they do come to reveal things for what they actually are. We must catch ourselves up to them. God works inside of each one. The promise of Christ is not that we are saved from these apocalypses, but that we’re saved in them. Our task is to endure and keep watch. Our ability to get through each of one—big or small—has much more to do with God’s faithfulness than our wit and wisdom, our skill or ingenuity.


I’ve gathered together my own Apocalypse Survival Kit. I try my best to carry it with me wherever I go, but some days I forget. I’d like to share with you what’s in it. It contains five things—if you can call them “things”. I want to go through each of them real quick.

The first one is hope. Hope is that thing we do when we put our trust in, wait for, eagerly anticipate something or someone. We only have hope when we choose to patiently endure now because we know there will be a then, and that somewhere deep down God isn’t done with us yet.

The second thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Peace. Biblical peace is so much more than the absence of war. God’s peace means wholeness, completeness. It comes from a Hebrew word we know: Shalom. It does not come from us. It does not happen simply when all is calm and bright. Peace happens when God is the source of every one of our longings.

May you see where I’m going.

The third item in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Joy. Author C.S. Lewis thought that joy must be sharply distinguished from happiness or pleasure. I think he’s right. Biblical joy is a by-product of a life with God. It’s not a feeling but a perspective we adopt that’s more constant and more enduring than adverse circumstances.

The fourth thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Love. Love is the greatest of these four, only to be outdone by the fifth. Author Frederick Buechner asserts that the first stage is to believe there is only one kind of love, the middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love, and the last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. Love, if we’re going to understand it in any way close to how God does, is an act of the will. We love our neighbors by working for their well-being, even if it means sacrificing our own well-being in the process. Love is a decision we make over and over again.

And the last thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Christ. The greatest of these five is Christ, because in Him we find the perfect image of the first four. In Him we find our way, our truth, and our life. He is God come near this Advent, over and over again surprising us, confronting us, comforting us, waking us up to what it means to really live this life, to what it means to be human. On the cross, He showed us what it means to live completely—to love even if it does us in, and in whose Advent, was God come down. In Him, and still because of Him, heaven keeps invading earth.


Carry these five things close in an Apocalypse Survival Kit of your own. And this Advent, keep watch with me.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Arrivals, Departures, and Arrivals

A sermon based on John 1:14-18 and Jeremiah 29:1, 4:14 preached on November 26th, 2017

This is high season for flying. Thanksgiving and Christmas send millions crisscrossing the skies visiting family and coming back home again. Airports are packed to the gills with anxious travelers, each of them feeling like the rigamarole of it all—checking bags, being scanned in deeply personal ways by the TSA, making their way through crowds of people, through the very narrow aisles of a aircraft and into a seat built for a size zero model—well, it’s all a bit too much. Many may wonder if traveling by plane is worth the hassle involved. And that is why no one likes airports. When we walk into an airport, we don’t intend to stay for long. We intend to go—to leave as soon as possible. They’re places designed to take us some place else. Nothing stays put in an airport. No one belongs there.

There are people who make their living in airports, though. Millions actually. You can find them if you look carefully. They’re the ones who look comfortable in a terminal. They’re the ones walking slowly down each long breezeway. And maybe, if you look even closer, you may find one who shows up to work at the airport wearing a clergy collar. Airport chaplains are still a thing. We may not notice them. These days, they can hardly be found inside airport chapels. Who goes to an airport chapel anyway? Now, they’re out and about, in the corridors and terminals, they’re riding up and down escalators, searching for travelers who look like they could use some help or encouragement.

People who go through the airport are very vulnerable, and probably at 35,000 feet, you might be the loneliest person alive. As flight delays worsen, security lines bulge, and nerves fray, chaplains at airports across the country cruise up and down concourses, casting a trained eye on the swirl of humanity in search of anybody who appears in need. The attention of a good airport chaplain may be the only personal, comforting thing a traveler comes across. Singer-songwriter, Neko Case has a line in one of her songs where she says that she thinks Heaven will smell like the airport. She may be onto something. What if God loves airports?

God has a history of hanging out in places that are no places at all. How many times in scripture do we read about people encountering God in the wilderness, for example? God has a tendency to settle down in middle spaces, settings where no one would ever think to call home.

The Reverend Mote, an Episcopal member of the interfaith chaplains’ department at Atlanta International Airport—Mote, and interesting name for an airport chaplain—was still in training when, on a hunch, she decided to check the departures board for lengthy delays. She noticed one and started heading to that gate where she met a traveler who just realized she would miss her aunt’s funeral. “I’m on the edge of panic,” the woman told her.

Chaplain Mote sat with her. Listening. Trying her best to bridge the gap over this woman’s troubled waters.


Most of the time, the prophet Jeremiah was a lousy chaplain. Here in chapter 29, he writes a letter to his people Israel. It’s full of God’s words for them. The Israelites are in exile in Babylon, having been recently kicked out of their Promised Land by an invading army. They were beside themselves. They believed that God had abandoned them, left them for dead in a nowhere place.

So, here they are in Babylon, complaining about their displacement, holding their breath, waiting for the day, the hour, the minute when they can go back home.

Any moment now,

they thought,

God’s gonna rescue us from this in-between place, this nowhere land, and then we can get back to living again.

There was a preacher named Hananiah who was a false prophet, a good news preacher

—one we might call these days, a Prosperity Gospel preacher—who spoke up and lied to the exiles, telling the Israelites,

You won’t be here for long! Don’t unpack your suitcases. God’s going to take care of us, and before you know it, you all will be back home again.

It didn’t work out that way. God’s message to His people is much harder to swallow.

You’ll be in Babylon for a long time. So, you best unpack your bags, and find a way to call this place ‘home.’

Sometimes, the truth stings. But it must be spoken, anyway. So, the prophet goes on:

Quit sitting around feeling sorry for yourselves, you people of God! You will be in Babylon for a long time. You had better make the best of it. Don’t just survive, thrive.

Put down roots, build houses, build businesses in this place, plant gardens, have families. No, you’re not at home, but God has placed you here. That must mean He has something. God wants you to do life well right where you are, so be faithful in this strange city. Settle down here. Establish roots. Dig in.

See, the only opportunity any of us have to live by faith is in the circumstances we are experiencing right now, right here—in this house you live in, in this family you find yourself in, and in this job you’ve been given to do.


The Israelites’ old life is dead. Now it’s their task to find new life in Babylon. This is God shouting into their ear,

Arrive, Israel, arrive! Show up in this place. Don’t just exist, do not simply graze this land. Dig in.

And these same words are for us, too: Don’t just endure in this life, flourish! Grow where you’re planted. God expects much from His people, no matter where we find ourselves. Or, as Jesus put it in His Sermon on the Mount,

Become salt and light in and for the world…wherever in the world you are.

Wherever we find ourselves, God wants His people to make the inward journey from refugee to resident, from victims to visionaries. From seeing ourselves as the defeated to living as the difference-makers. This is God’s idea of faithful living.


These days, we the church and all of its people, are experiencing a peculiar kind of exile. Many of us are home—some of us have never left home. But the neighborhood has changed, hasn’t it? A few decades ago, churches could exist right where their building sat, and people from all over would come to us. Those days are gone. But that isn’t the problem. The problem is that we’re still waiting for people to come to our door. We keep wondering what’s taking them so long to notice we’re here. Guess what? They either no longer know or no longer care that we’re here.

Sometimes exile happens when the world around us changes. Sometimes, we experience dislocation or displacement even though we never left home! This is a change we didn’t choose, but it has happened. This is exile. We’re home, but it feels different. And just like the Israelites, we can complain all we want.  We can pine for our yesteryears when all was good and right and plentiful. But that’s not where God has placed us. So, no longer can we ask questions like “How do we get more folks in our doors?” or “What do we have to do to make church important for people again?”

God wants us to have a new conversation—to change the way we talk. The church’s life isn’t over, not is it slowly slipping away. It’s moving. This is hard news for we the church to hear, just as Jeremiah’s words were hard for the ancient Israelites. Everything is displaced. God is not calling us back to where we once were. God is inviting us to show up in the place where we now find ourselves. To invest ourselves and our ministry in this new context, to sing a new song in this strange land. This is not something we’ve chosen, but we can no longer resist the change we see. Denying it is futile. Instead, we must find a way to live faithfully in this new landscape God has us in. The new and faithful question for us is: Now that God has us here, in this place, among this people, how do we show up and become a faithful people in it? How do we become salt and light in and for the world…wherever in the world we are?


And we would do well not to come up with an answer to those questions all by ourselves, but to look to the One who is the Answer to all of our questions.

We are a week away from Advent, the season when we ready ourselves—try our best to make a place for—the arrival of another both within us and among us. This is the season where every heart is invited to prepare Him room, because in the fullness of time, God became one of us in Christ Jesus. As the first words from John’s gospel for the morning declares,

The Word became flesh and made His home among us.

In other words, God moved into our neighborhood. Now, He lives among His people. He’s out and about, strolling the corridors and breezeways, the sidewalks and front porches, searching for travelers who look like they could use some help or encouragement. We have a God who is out and about. Who in Christ now called this place Home. Who has arrived, who has never departed, and promises to arrive again. Who, throughout history, has met us right where we are, and says to us,

You are never in the wrong place to serve God.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

All Blessings Flow

A sermon based on Philippians 4:4-9 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11 preached on October 22nd, 2017

Sermon audio

This morning, I got up out of bed, a mattress put together in New Jersey by a factory full of workers. I picked out clothes, probably stitched together by a couple of underpaid ladies in China, and purchased from a salesman at Men’s Wearhouse who didn’t seem to mind taking the measurement of my inseam right after we introduced ourselves to each other. The hot shower I took was brought to me by a water heater assembled in Missouri, probably by a couple of employees in some factory just trying to put food on the table for their families.

I sat at a kitchen table handed down to me by Roger and Pam Nicholson, a retired Presbyterian minister and his wife who were moving back to Richmond after years of pastoring a church in Seattle. While I sat at that table, I ate 4 slices of bacon, provided to me by a pig farmer in Iowa. I also had a glass of kefir, made from the milk of a farm full of cows in California, delivered to our local grocery store by at least seven different refrigerated trucks all with drivers who spend weeks away from their families in order to keep up with their kids’ college tuition, or maybe to pay for their 7-year-old’s ballerina classes.

I turned on the TV and watched a couple of anchors who all got up probably around 4 this morning, maybe earlier, to get to work on time to go on air and give me the fantasy football insights I expect to hear whenever I tune into ESPN. By the time I left the house this morning, I had depended on 100’s, maybe even thousands of people who work hard, every day of their lives to provide me with the stuff of my livelihood. Food to eat, clothes to wear, clean water in which to bathe, a way to entertain myself. And that’s just the in the first two and a half hours of my day. Our lives are not our own. They are woven together in this huge web of interdependence. We do indeed belong to each other.


These days, this world, and our hours in it, are busy. More than ever before, really. And sometimes we forget among the anxiousness of it all what we’re all so busy for. What’s the fruit of all this running around we do? And is the fruit good? That should be a question we ask ourselves often. It’s super easy to stay busy, maybe even exhausted, but why and what for? Is all the busyness and exhaustion worth it?

One of the worlds that will forever astound me is the one that takes place inside a hive. Most of us are unaware that bees were one of the early symbols of the Christian Church. The fervent activity of the beehive suggesting the church, hibernation suggesting the resurrection, and the honey offering a symbol of the abundant new life in Christ.

Bees are a symbol for ourselves as Christ’s people. Let’s give ourselves to that metaphor for a second. Bees—they’re not self-made creatures. They busy themselves gathering from the earth. They take from what’s already among them, given to them day in a day out. Nectar is collected from the earth. Bees trust it’s there, but they work to find it. Nectar is gleaned and gathered from an earth that is much bigger than they are. But then they work together to make something new out of it. Something sweet and nourishing, rich and satisfying.

Honey was the early church’s symbol of the abundant new life in Christ. Milk, honey, and first fruits are all metaphors for God’s grace because they are not ours—they were never ours. They are gleaned from the abundance of God’s good creation. We eat and are satisfied from what is not ours—what is never ours. Bees were also a symbol of the early Christian church because their day to day work was done unceasingly for the common good. St. John of Chrysostom said it this way in a 12th Century sermon:

The bee is more honored than other animals, not because it labors, but because it labors for others

We do the work we do, inside and outside the hive of church with an unceasing faith and commitment to the church, to each other, and to God’s purposes and intentions and promises to and for the world. Church is a hive who works and shares life together to produce the sweetness of God’s grace and mercy—from whom all blessings flow.


We are in Deuteronomy. The verb Give is used seven times in these eleven verses. Last week we looked at the story of God’s gracious provision to His hungry people when He provided daily manna—daily bread for the journey into the Promised Land. And here we are at the end of their time in the wilderness. It has been 40 years. A generation.

Those who will soon enter into this long-awaited and long-promised land flowing with milk and honey are the sons and daughters of those who were delivered from Egyptian slavery. They are the ones who have never known anything but desert living. Manna and quail are all their tongues have ever tasted. For them, milk and honey was nothing but a rumor—some dream of plenty, a kind of abundance they had yet to experience. But now, at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is readying this new generation for what they will see. There they will live in bounty. There they will know lavishness.

Their future will be full of abundance and Moses knows there’s a danger in abundance. Abundance breeds amnesia. There’s a point at which we all forget—individually and collectively—that the profusion of resources surrounding us is a gift. And when we forget this, we begin to call it all ours. These gifts lose their giftedness in our eyes and they become resources we consume. We begin to think we have afforded them because we’ve worked hard to get them, and that’s when an attitude of entitlement erodes us.

We’ve been living in a world full of commodities available to us—not resources gleaned from and entrusted to our faithful use, but products wholly consumed, having convinced ourselves that we have earned them all on our own.

This is the delusion of autonomy, and Moses tells his people and all of us who are a part of the future generations of the people of God, that we have been designed by God to live in worshipful dependence and in humble interdependent community with other people. Our self-sufficiency is a delusion, but it’s a powerful one—one we have to fight off in ourselves ever single day just as Moses urges the Israelite people to do. As busy and hardworking as bees are, there’s one thing they are never, and that’s autonomous. Their one existence is community-based. That’s why they are the perfect illustration for us who call ourselves Church.

If there is a Creator and if we are His creatures, the work of his hands, the beneficiaries of His promises, the ones who have been delivered into life abundant by His hand and by His sacrifice on the cross, then there is no such thing as autonomy. So, we give back. We give back to the One who gave everything to us, for us. Who went to the cross with no notion and in no manner of self-sufficiency or self-preservation, no delusion of autonomy. And so must we. We give because in Christ, God has first given everything for us. And the only reason we have is because God gives.


We have a promised land, and too often we take this as a sign of a special blessing from God, rather than a sign of special responsibility. We who call ourselves Church have been freed to give not in drips or trickles, as an afterthought from what’s left when all the rest of our life has already made its financial, emotional, and time demands upon us, but from our first-fruits. Before everything else takes, we give to the One from whom all blessings flow.


I ask that you would find your Scripture insert.

God knows that when a people forget their past, they lose their present and future. So God has given us words we can use to remind ourselves of where we have come from, who we are, and what our responsibilities to God are.

Please, let us confess who we are by reading together from our passage of Deuteronomy, starting at verse 5 and reading through the end of that middle paragraph:

Then you should solemnly state before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous.

‘The Egyptians treated us terribly, oppressing us and forcing hard labor on us. So we cried out for help to the Lord, our ancestors’ God. The Lord heard our call. God saw our misery, our trouble, and our oppression.

‘The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land—a land full of milk and honey. So now I am bringing the early produce of the fertile ground that you, Lord, have given me.’

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Our Daily Bread

Sermon based on Exodus 16:1-35 preached on October 15th, 2017

Sermon audio

Is God enough?

When a friend betrays us, is God enough?

When you or I have a health scare, and we suddenly figure out that our bodies are much more vulnerable, and our lives more finite than we ever realized before, is God enough? When we’re struggling professionally, or we’re not sure we’ve put away enough for retirement, is God enough?

When we don’t recognize our own value, is God enough? When the circumstances of our lives change dramatically—maybe through flood or wildfire—our homes washed away or burned to the ground, is God enough?

We ask these sorts of questions in one way or another all the time. They are not unlike what the ancient Israelites were asking aloud about their present circumstance. Here they are in the wilderness. Their leader, Moses, the one whom God had called to draw His people out of slavery in Egypt, has wrestled them out from under the crushing, oppressive grasp of Pharaoh. They are now free people.

For 400 years, the Israelites woke up each morning and went to bed each night when Pharaoh told them so. They slaved under the desert sun, making bricks and building pyramids because he told them so. They lived according to every word uttered from Pharaoh’s lips. That’s all they knew. So we cannot blame them for not knowing that there is a high cost to their newfound freedom. Here in the wilderness, on the other side of the Red Sea—the one God split in two so that they could be rescued—here, in this barren wilderness, they had a hard time imagining how God was enough.

“If only we turn back now, we could eat all the food we want…If only we had died…”

If only.

The word Manna comes from a question: Mannhu?, What is it? No one had ever seen this substance before.

The appearance and taste of this manna was unlike anything they knew of or had experienced. They thought they had seen it all, but here, God surprises them. This is God’s new food for them. And God promises to provide it every day. Every morning, except on Sundays, they will wake up to manna. God will give His people their daily bread. This is unexpected and unknown provision. It seems to materialize out of the clear blue sky. God provides in ways that we cannot expect, foresee, or can ever anticipate.

In the midst of the Israelites’ need and all of their questioning, God provides. But He doesn’t do so in any way they could have expected. The Israelites were not provided for by being sent back to Egypt—the only way out of scarcity they could imagine. God gave them more, right where they were. Daily bread to carry them through each one of their future days. God still does this for his people.

We must get used to this. God gives us exactly what we need for the moment—for this season of our lives. For the wandering Israelites, it was Manna, completely unanticipated and unexpected. An abundance they had no notion of until God gave it to them. And it was enough. More than enough.

That makes me wonder: Is there an abundance among us that we have no notion of?

Here’s what we must know about this story: God gives on God’s terms and not on our terms. If the Israelites got their way, if God would have relented to their desires, if God delivered them in the way they desired to be delivered, then God would have either sent them back into Egyptian slavery or He would have lifted them up out of the wilderness altogether and set them down gently into the Land He had for them. No painful waiting involved. Instant deliverance! Instant gratification!

But God didn’t do that. God’s people didn’t get that. When we rely upon God, we get what God gives us and we develop and adjust our expectations around it.

But we don’t like that. It wouldn’t be long until the Israelites would begin complaining about how gross manna tasted—how having it every day was a drag. They wanted a bigger menu. And they remembered what the buffet was like back in Egypt, and they actually entertained the thought of voluntarily giving themselves back into slavery to the Egyptians. Evidently, slavery is a small price to pay for a full belly. That sounds crazy, but that’s where their minds were. Back there in the past. They were willing to sacrifice their present freedom and the promised abundance of their tomorrows for a chance to return to the bondage of their past, because at least it was safe there, at least in Egypt they knew what to expect. They were willing to trade the promised plenty and the wide open spaces of their tomorrows because they could not let go of the nostalgia that chained them to their past. Because at least then, they knew what to expect.

There’s lots of talk in churches these days about what’s missing. About what once was. The yesteryears were great, we say. They were filled with plenty! We look back and we see abundance, and we want to go back. Back to the way things were. At least then, we knew what to expect.

Just like the Israelites, it seems like some of us would easily trade our futures for our past if we could. We cannot see God ahead of us because so often, we’re too busy looking back over our shoulders at the places and experiences of our yesteryears. Our nostalgia can keep us from recognizing the enoughness that is right in front of us and is promised for our tomorrows. Is there an abundance among us and for our tomorrows that we have no notion of? And if there is, mannhu? What is it?

Last Sunday, we kicked off our Stewardship season. Our theme this year is Growing Our Faith Through Generosity. In order to be freed for generosity, we must remind ourselves of a few things—a few biblical truths, the very substance of our faith. We can only be freed to live generously when we know that our daily dependence does not come from our own frantic and anxious efforts to gather enough.

Let’s learn that lesson from the Israelites: The ones who gathered too much manna—who attempted to hoard it—saw it spoil. They were given Daily Bread, and they tried to keep a part of it for the next day. When they woke up the next morning, the leftover part was spoiled and it began to smell. So, the people had to learn to trust, not in their own anxious efforts to gather more but in God’s promise that each new day, enough would be provided.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Stewardship is the practice of trusting in God’s daily provision—in God’s enoughness. This is faith: To rely not upon our own ability to keep what we have stowed away for tomorrow but to trust in God’s promise of daily provision and in that, find our abundance.

In order to grow in our faith, we must be generous. And in order to be generous, we must put our trust in someone other than ourselves—something other than our own ability—to provide. This is the one way forward. In order to give generously, we must be freed from our mistaken notions of tomorrow’s scarcity. We must trust that God will give us manna for tomorrow, and it will be enough for us.

So let me ask you, What do you rely upon? And what are you expecting? When you peer into your tomorrows and this church’s tomorrows, what do you see?

Is God’s daily provision a part of your vision? Are you okay walking into the future God has for us not knowing exactly where it will lead, but confident that the way forward will bring us to a place filled with milk and honey? Do you believe that? Can you believe that?

I know that when you look around, all you can see is a lack of what you had back there, back then. But would you believe it if I told you that what’s up ahead is even better? Can I challenge you to raise your expectations? God will see us through.

Let us live with the courage, confidence, and the conviction that there is enough for today and that there will be enough for tomorrow. There is abundance ahead.

There is abundance ahead.

Can you believe it?

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Chasing Scoundrels

A sermon based on Genesis 27:1-23 and Genesis 28:10-17 preached September 24th, 2107

Sermon audio

If God was the CEO of a company, in business to bring to the world some sort of decency, some moral order that would get His creation off to a booming start, picking all the right people along the way to represent him—if God was out to recruit the cream of the crop, the upstanding among us—than by now, at this point in Genesis 27 and 28, we could safely consider His tenure as CEO a complete disaster. By any standard measure of success, God is not off to a good start. We should wonder if God knew what He was doing when He spoke the world into being with those first words,

Let there be…

By every measure, God has failed. Adam and Eve have two boys, Cain and Abel. One murders the other. And a few chapters later, God comes off as a Creator who has lost complete control of His creation. He’s created a monster that can no longer be reigned back in again, so God picks one family—the best one of the bunch—and a flood comes of the earth and drowns all the rest of them. Noah and his ark. We know the story. It’s not a children’s tale. It’s a troublesome narrative of a God who needs to go back to the drawing board, erase away this first attempt, thinking it’s a good idea to start creation all over again—take two! He does so by washing away all but one small family and using them to start all over again. This is terrifying. By the end of Chapter 11 of Genesis, we should wonder if God has any clue what He’s got Himself into.


Then, Chapter 12.

God seems to have a new idea. Instead of hoping that the next generation of human beings is entirely capable all on their own of figuring out how to treat each other and this world with some smidgen of respect and decency, what if God does something a whole lot more direct?

And so it goes. God will not leave this world to its own devices. Things quickly spiral out of control that way.

For God, there will be no more of this ‘letting us go and hoping for the best.’ God enters into relationship with His creation. He chooses now, beginning with the 12th chapter of scripture, to guide us from here on out. To enter into deep relationship with His people. One based on a promise to stick by His people no matter how rough the ride gets. There will be no more of this letting His children find their own way. We are much too clueless to figure out this life and how to live it all on our own. We need God’s help—and daily, too!

God picks out a family. We talked about this last week. In Genesis 12, God calls a wilderness wanderer and his wife, Abraham and Sarah. Out of every family of the earth, why them? We don’t know. Neither did Abraham and Sarah know. God commits Himself to this family. And so goes the rest of God’s story. All of scripture is about this one family. God says to Abraham that his offspring will become more plentiful than all the stars in the sky. God will take these regular people—completely unimpressive and unremarkable—and from them, build his future, start His story. Let that soak in: God will stake His claim and risk His reputation on this one family.

Here we are in Genesis 27. Isaac, the son Abraham nearly sacrifices, is now a blind old man. As far as we can tell, Isaac, as important as he is to God’s story, has lived a bland life. And by all indications from our first reading for this morning, he has a complete mess of a family. They’re as dysfunctional as you can get. Mother Rebekah does what no mother should do and picks a favorite out of her two sons, going so far as ensuring that Jacob—the youngest, her favorite—successfully steals out from under Esau, her oldest, his father’s birthright and blessing.

Lifetime makes made-for-TV movies like this!


Much of this talk about a father bestowing his birthright and blessing on his child before he dies is a completely foreign thing to us. So, we need to take a moment to realize what’s at stake here.

This blessing that Jacob steals from his older brother Esau by deceiving his father is no empty gesture. There’s more than meets the eye here. In ancient culture, words shaped lives. The same words could end lives, too.

Father Isaac unwittingly gives his blessing away to the wrong son, and these spoken words cannot be taken back. Once spoken, this ancient birthright and blessing must be honored. Jacob steals this birthright and blessing from his father and his older brother. These words of blessing from Isaac’s mouth are as real and as official as if he had signed his name on the dotted line of a contract.

Jacob knows what he has done. He seems almost surprised that it worked. He also knows it’s just a matter of time before his brother Esau will come back home expecting his father to give him this stolen blessing, so Jacob runs far away, out into the wilderness where no one will ever find him.


By all accounts, God has another mess on His hands. This is the family—the one family—God has chosen. From this wreck of a family will come God’s people, God’s salvation. God has made a covenant with this family that He cannot break. And now the future of this covenant is in the hands of a thief. God’s story—and our story, too—begins this way. With a fugitive on the run from his own family. Even his name, Jacob, means deceiver—he came out of his mother’s womb grasping the ankle of his brother, Esau! From the very start, he took a hold of what was not his to have. Jacob has never earned a thing. Everything he ever owned and enjoyed was taken from someone else. Jacob is a scoundrel. But he’s who God has to work with. We would expect God to take Jacob—this shoplifter, this swindler—and punish him, chastise him, disown him. God cannot stake his reputation on a rascal like this! But, that’s not what happens. God does not chastise Jacob. Instead, He blesses him.


To ask the question of whether or not God blesses Jacob because he deserves a blessing is to misunderstand God and all that’s happening here. The relationship between Jacob’s dishonesty and God’s blessing of him is not cause-and-effect. God doesn’t seem to care about what Jacob deserves here. This story is one we still read today because it tells us about a God who is unlike us—who is always surprising us. Our God is a God who blesses us despite our own actions. It even seems like God doubles-down on the worst among us. We belong to a God who calls the craziest ones among us and uses them to accomplish His purposes.

This story speaks, all these thousands of years later, because it tells us of a God who continues to bless even when we don’t deserve it. Most spectacularly, though, God refuses to let us destroy ourselves. He will not leave us to our own devices. He will not leave this world to its own devices. God has and will—always and forever—pursue us—chase us down, even when we try our best to run away into our wildernesses, where we’re sure no one could ever find us, and shows us what we need to see to change our hearts and lives. To re-direct our purposes. God still chases scoundrels.


By the time Jacob ran far enough away to feel sure that no one could find him, he was exhausted. So exhausted that he finds the nearest rock and makes it his pillow for the night. Even in his anxiousness, he gets some sleep. And Jacob dreams a big dream. Maybe this is the only way God can catch up to this weasel of a man—pursue him in his sleep. Here, Jacob’s helpless. Here, he has his guard down. Here, he can’t run away like he always has.

Jacob is as spiritually blind as his father was physically blind. This is a rare instance for God to grab the attention of this frantic and inattentive, thoughtless, self-absorbed man, and get him to see. In his dream, Jacob has a vision of heaven and earth becoming one, connected by a vast stairway.

This is no ladder. Think instead a ramp joining together the space between where we are and where God is. Heaven and earth are no longer so far from one another. This is the first glimpse we get in scripture of God’s great project to merge the heavens and the earth into one. This is the first notion we get of the Kingdom of God that, later, Jesus will usher in and spend all of his time talking about. This joker, Jacob, is the first to witness God’s tireless and eternal effort to restore heaven back to earth. What the rest of scripture, and we today, call salvation. Earth has to do with heaven. Heaven has to do with earth.


It would be great if I could tell you that from here on out Jacob was through being a jerk. It would be even better if I could tell you that after a few failed generations, God finally figured out a sure-fire way of getting people’s attention, setting them on the right course, following right paths. But we know this is not true. We are, all of us—at some time or another just as bone-headed, self-absorbed, and self-interested as Jacob. We have to settle for less.

Here, Jacob has seen a bit of God in a bit of him. He’s woken up to a sliver of heaven come crumbling down to earth, but even the grandeur of the heavens is not enough to lift us out from our all-too-earthy ways.

God is patient with us still, tirelessly chasing His hard-headed, hard-hearted people—you and me—hoping, one day, even the scoundrels might see.

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

Alleluia! Amen.