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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Diving Strongly Encouraged

A sermon based on Psalm 145:10-21 and Ephesians 3:14-21 preached on July 2nd, 2017

Just last summer I jumped into a swimming pool for the very first time in my life. 38 years in. Even though growing up I always went to the neighborhood pool, not once have I ever jumped off a diving board, done a cannonball, or even a belly-flop off the edge a pool before.

I guess from my experience on land I am well-versed in the less than fine art of falling. And falling hurts. No matter which way you fall, it hurts—we can damage ourselves that way. Sometimes we hurt our bodies, but more often and more lasting, we damage our pride, our senses of independence and strength is hurt. Maybe jumping into a pool seemed to me too much like falling. Why would I ever want to do it on purpose?! So, I never did. Up until last summer.

It took me 20 minutes of standing at the deep end of the pool, toes coming closer and closer to the edge, staring down into the depths of it, before I jumped. For that 20 minutes, I was silently making a bargain with the water: If I jump, do you promise you’ll catch me?

There I stood in the sun, at the edge of the Gold’s pool. My Karen was in front of me in the pool, standing in the shallow end, gently encouraging me, never frustrated with my remarkable hesitation, at least not out loud, God bless her, but hoping I’d eventually summon enough courage to jump in. To do it, already. To trust the fall for the first time in my life. To have some faith that the pool’s liquid arms would reach out and grab hold of me.

All of that took me 20 minutes, but I did it. And once I did it, I couldn’t stop doing it.

It’s funny how these little accomplishments bring out the kid in us. I must have jumped, swam to the side, and jumped in again 30 times before I was through! All of it a celebration of my new relationship with water.

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The bulk of our passage for the day, from the middle of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, is a prayer. It’s a remarkable prayer. A prayer of encouragement. And it’s not unlike the encouragement it takes from our loved ones to jump into a swimming pool for the first time ever. So far in this letter, Paul has expressed his love to this church in Ephesus. He’s done so through words of challenge, through prayer, through teaching.

Paul the Apostle, the founder of this church and many others, ran alongside his churches, nurturing them in their new faith in Christ. Like a father running beside his daughter who, for the first time, is on a bicycle without training wheels, barely holding onto the handlebars or the back of the seat, but still right there next to us, encouraging us to go ahead and trust the two wheels and ride. Trust the water and jump in.

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These metaphors, or any other we could make, fall short of course. This is God we’re talking about after all. All our words are too small. But in order to immerse ourselves into the incomprehensible, we need handlebars, and metaphors are the best handlebars we’ve got. So let’s try another metaphor. One literally quite deeper than swimming in a pool: scuba diving.

Dive deep, Paul encourages. Know, or at least try your best to grasp, how wide and long, how high and deep the love of Christ is! Jump in! Explore the vast, immeasurable ocean of God’s love.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Here, only scuba gear will do. Here, we need oxygen tanks, because in order to explore God’s love we will need to leave the superficial behind, get beyond the surface of things, and dive deep underneath. God’s love is fathomless. In order to love this life in Christ, we must plunge its depth. No more wading in this water. No water wings or life vests. There’s no toe-dipping here. God’s love is for diving into. God’s love is fathomless, and ultimately impossible for us to comprehend, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to understand it. Diving is strongly encouraged.

It’s our business to learn as much as we can about God, His love and mercy for us, His life and the life He wants for us. This is what the Christian life is for. This is our way to maturity in Christ. Jump in. The water’s warm. Dive underneath. Plumb its depths. Get to the bottom of it. The life of faith is total immersion. In order to know—really know!—the love of God, we must know it like a fish knows water. We must swim in it and then it will start swimming in us. The way of Jesus is complete absorption in, involvement in, being occupied by, diving into, God’s love.

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The end of the passage sounds like a benediction. In fact, it’s been our benediction throughout this summer. There’s an Amen at the end of this passage, but Paul is not done. The end of chapter three/the beginning of chapter four is a hinge point in Ephesians.

It’s at this moment where Paul has said all he needs to say about how God is involved in this world and our lives in it, and now it’s time to talk about what that means for us who live together in that God-immersed reality called church. This is when Paul says,

This is how God is, and is with us, and for us. And given these Divine truths and promises, how then shall we live?

This is the challenge of a lifetime, our lifetimes: to take the vertical and put it to work in the horizontal. I don’t much like that metaphor. It seems to suggest there are only 2 dimensions. But we know better than that.

Ocean breadth, length, height, depth. God moves—and God moves in us—in all directions, in every dimension.

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More about this astounding prayer Paul prays. It’s a prayer for us. For all who have ears to listen. Eyes to see.

Before he writes a word of it, Paul says he kneels before God with these words. Those are words that don’t catch us by surprise, because kneeling and prayer go together for us, but for Paul’s time, this is remarkable. People prayed standing up in his time. Kneeling was unusual. It suggests an exceptional degree of earnestness. Paul really means this prayer. Here, at the hinge of his letter to the Ephesians, he takes a knee.

I’ve taken you this far. This is as far as I can go,

he seems to say.

With this prayer, with the Amen at the end of it, I now hand you over to God. The rest I have to say is something only God can do for you.

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In her book, Waiting for God, French philosopher and Christian ethicist, Simone Weil, writes this:

That we may strive after goodness with an effort of our will is one of the lies invented by the mediocre part of ourselves in its fear of being destroyed…There are people who try to raise their souls like a man continually taking jumps in the hopes that, if he jumps higher every day, a time may come when he will no longer fall back to earth but go right up to the sky. Thus occupied, he cannot look at the sky. We cannot take a single step toward heaven. It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction. If, however, we look heavenward for a very long time, God comes and takes us up.He raises us easily.

Poet Robert Browning put it a different way when he wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

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When Paul wants to put the church to work, he doesn’t tell us to get to work. He doesn’t give us jobs to do. Assigning specific roles to specific people. This prayer he prays is no pep rally. No job description, no technique to get something going. It’s prayer, pure and simple. Paul leaves all the inner workings of our life together as Church up to prayerful attention to God.

First and foremost, prayer. Prayer at all times. Prayer is what forms and informs the Church—the people of God in Jesus Christ. This prayer for the Church leaves one thing clear: Church is not some effort we make. Church doesn’t happen under our own power. Church happens because God brings it to life and God sustains its life. The Church must learn to rely upon God, not itself.

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What does that look like?

Well, Pauls says it himself. First and foremost—right from the outset—we kneel. We surrender our own power. We say something to ourselves that’s similar to what Paul said to himself at the hinge point in his letter to this church: We’ve taken ourselves this far. And no, we haven’t done it on our own. God has always been a part of this journey of ours. But God wants more. More for us. Not from us, but for us. And that means we stop and let God lead the way from here. Leading us into the fathomless reaches—how wide, how high up and long, how deep down they are!

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This is the point at which we stop gasping for our own breath, and we strap on our oxygen tanks; stop trying to see for ourselves and put on our dive masks. We stop walking under our own power and we give ourselves to a completely different power. A power that upholds us, cradles us like the ocean does a diver. Committed together, as Church—Christ’s church—to growing daily, praying and living our way toward the fullness of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Here, swimming together in the depths of God’s love, diving deep is strongly encouraged. And then plunge the depths, lengths, and heights all around us. Completely immersed. Prayer and praise are our oxygen that fills us with the fullness of God.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Joining In

A sermon based on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on June 4th, 2017

Sermon audio

Today we celebrate the many ways that God gives us new being. How we are forever and constantly invited into a life that is not ours but something given to us.

Pentecost is when we the Church realize that our life, our vitality, our meaning and purpose aren’t something that comes from within us. It all comes from somewhere else. Beyond us. We are not who we are on our own.

On the morning of that first Pentecost, the disciples were held up in a tiny room. Their minds, hearts, lives—their very purpose was gone, shrunk down and withered away. Frozen in fear. They thought they were alone. Abandoned. Orphaned. Left to themselves to make life work from here on out. Then they heard a rumble that came from the heavens.

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It is through Holy Spirit that we are given live, purpose, vitality. Holy Spirit represented by tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water.

Pentecost fire is not the sort that burns. It’s the sort that refines. Cleanses. Helps something made hard and rigid melt down into something pliable, shapeable, able to be remolded again.

Tongues of speech. Not the strange jibber-jabber heard in Holiness churches, but a new language that’s given to us so that we may understand one another and be understood by one another. We read the story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel where God confuses the languages of the people until they can no longer understand one another. What happens in Acts 2, on Pentecost, is the undoing of Babel.

Now, on this day, with the presence of the Holy Spirit with us, we have the ability to understand one another again. We borrow language that isn’t ours, and with it, we speak. We speak in the varied languages of our lives. We understand and are understood. And that’s a tremendous gift: to be understood. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit who speaks among us and between us.

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Holy Spirit comes upon us as wind, reminding us that we are born from borrowed breath. It is God’s breath that inflated Adam’s empty lungs and gave him life. The same is true of us. Until God breathes Holy Spirit into us, we have no life.

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And water. The waters of baptism are poured out upon us as a sign of this gift, the Holy Spirit. Water is another reminder that we are not our own. Without water, we wither away. It’s another life-giving gift. Something that we do not and cannot give ourselves; water is given to us. With the waters of baptism, we say that with God and with the people of God, we find ourselves. That being human is to belong. That to belong is to be human.

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Each one of these—tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water. They are all things that invite us into bigger life. Holy Spirit life.

Andrew, Brennan, Leela, nothing magical has happened today. But you did do something wondrous just now: In a world that prizes individualism—do it yourself-ism—you have just proclaimed with your presence and your voice that you will no longer live your life alone. You have in a few different ways, declared that doing life together, joining in, is the only way for you to find your purpose, your life, your shape, your language, your breath, yourself.

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The same is true for all of us. We all need to be reminded of the together-way. Life not only lived but formed and given meaning in and through the practice of Holy Spirit-community. And just like the disciples on that first Pentecost, this is just the beginning of our journey together.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Hello, My Name Is…

A sermon based on Luke 3:21-22 and Isaiah 43:1-7 preached on January 10th, 2016

Sermon audio

What’s in a name? Perhaps when I ask a question like that, your mind goes directly to Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.

What’s Montague? It is nor hand, or foot, nor arm, nor face…O! be some other name: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!

That’s Juliet struggling with her identity as a Capulet and Romeo a Montague, and the very real significance of those two names. What is it about names?

I remember coming home from school—my brother and I were latchkey kids—before ever stepping into the house, I would run to the mailbox and sort through each piece of mail. Rare were the days there was a piece of mail for me, but everyday I hoped there was. On those rare days, though! It was so exciting to flip through all the junk and find an envelope with my name on it! What kid doesn’t like to see their name spelled out in big huge letters?! It means that someone out there, whether they had any idea who you were or not, took a moment to type or write your very own name out onto a piece of paper. “Someone out there knows I exist! That I’m a person with an identity all my own.”  It’s a rite of passage, and it is like magic, too!

What is it about our names?

The Bible is full of stories about people who are called by their names—chosen out of a crowd for some special reason. People like Abram and Sarai in Genesis who were wandering the desert as nomads—two unknowns who kept to themselves, more or less, anonymous—then that moment when all of that changed. A voice rose up from somewhere—who knows where, really—and spoke their names.  “Abram, Sarai.” And from that moment on, their lives changed. No longer anonymous desert wanderers, God said that Abram and Sarai would now be called Abraham and Sara, the Father and Mother of nations.

We only have to flip a few more pages to Gen 32 where Jacob wrestles with a strange presence who feels a whole lot like God to him. And God asks Jacob his name, and Jacob grunts it out while he’s still wrestling with this presence, and God says,

No more. Now you will be called Israel…he who wrestles with God.”

There are many more stories like this in between, but perhaps the most notable name change in the New Testament comes when Saul, the Pharisee and Christian-killer, powerful and noteworthy among the leadership of his day is blinded by light along the Damascus Road. The book of Acts tells the story. His eyes were so damaged by this light that scales developed over them, and it took 3 days for them to fall away, but when they did, he was a brand new man, a different person. He was immediately baptized, and God gives him a new name. “Paul,” which means small or humble. When you meet Jesus, you’re no longer the same. Your name may or may not change, but your entire identity does.

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In all these cases and more, when we are called by our name, it affirms that we are known, and all of us want to be known. More than anything else in the world, we want to be known.

And then we have the story of Jesus’ baptism, where once Jesus is lifted out of the water, there’s that voice again, from who-knows-where exactly. And this time it says: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in You I find happiness.” Beautiful, affirming words! Words of validation and blessing. Which one of us doesn’t need to hear these words, or ones like them, spoken to us by others?

And then the words for today from Isaiah, from that voice again:

Don’t fear; I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine…You are precious in my eyes, honored, and I love you.

With words like that, God gives us identity and value, gives us a place to belong, affirms us as His own.

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Luke doesn’t take long to tell us the story of Jesus’ baptism. Just these two short verses. But in them is something that all the other Gospels don’t have. We have this little, wondrous sentence right at the beginning:

When everyone was being baptized, Jesus was also baptized.

John the Baptist was a popular guy, people stood in line for hours to be baptized by him. When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming, he didn’t move Him to the front of the line. There’s no VIP passes for Jesus here. Jesus is just one of many in and among the masses that day. He stood in line and waited for His turn just like everyone else did. The browbeaten and the sick, the forgotten and the disenfranchised, they formed lines in the hopes of being restored through the waters of baptism, hoping there could be a new beginning for them, and Jesus joined them. The line was long and it moved slowly because John the Baptist took his time with each and every one of them. I imagine he asked them their names and then he repeated each name, lifting it up so God would hear it and affirm it. Then he immersed them.

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Hello, my name is Patrick. I have tough days and I have good days. On the tough days, my legs don’t work for me. And on those days, walking from here to there might as well be a trek through the Himalayas. I walk around with a funny gate, a bit slouchy. Sometimes, I have curled wrists and fingers that get stuck. I have no control over the toes on my left foot, and most of the time my muscles are tenser then an angry German army sergeant. I have to hold onto something or lean against something in order to stand at all, and because that hasn’t always been the case for me, I get really frustrated by that. But I am loved, and I am confident in this love even in my awkward movements and all those times I wished my body worked better for me. I am made in God’s image, and this body I have, although complicated and cranky, tells a beautiful story of suffering and difficulty, challenge and determination, defeat and victory—it tells a story of a tough road walked. And I am still walking.

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And all of us, we are husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters; coupled, single, divorced, widows and widowers, both whole and broken at the same time, each one of us with a story not so different than mine, perhaps. Full of both victories and defeats, triumphs and regrets, happy times and sad ones, too.

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Notice the words in our passage from Isaiah this morning.

When you pass through the waters…when you walk through the rivers…when you walk through fire.

Not “if, “ “when.”

God doesn’t give us free passes. There will be raging fire and troublesome waters. Hills and valleys. Darkness and light. They will happen over and again throughout our lives. God’s presence doesn’t assure us escape from any of these things. God only promises to endure them with us.

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One of the scariest words in the English language is “perfect.” I think we should vote perfect out of office. I wonder if you’re with me on this?

Perfect has been in charge for way too long apefectnd has spent its time in office ceaselessly and easily convincing us of way too many lies. Lies about this world and how it works. Lies about ourselves. What we need to be and have and do. Perfect has kept us scrambling. Perfect has kept our terror alert on high for years. We have bowed down to Perfect before. We have let Perfect into our homes. It has sat along side of us on our couches. Perfect has spoken into the little ears of our children, way too young to hear what it has to say.

Perfect has been on billboards and on the covers of magazines. In movies and on TV. Perfect is everywhere. What Perfect says, we repeat. What Perfect wears, we wear. What Perfect eats, we eat. Perfect intimidates us. Perfect has us between its fingers. And we may even be addicted to Perfect. But Perfect has been oppressing us for way too long. It’s time for a new administration. It’s time we said goodbye to Perfect. The idea of Perfect is one of our culture’s most dangerous traits. We chase after it, but it’s always two steps ahead of us. There’s no catching Perfect. But still we chase.

It’s time to do Perfect in. Let’s put something more realistic in its place.  How about Acceptance?  Wouldn’t it be nice to stop chasing Perfect, to stop where we are to catch our breath, finally, and turn around to see that Acceptance was standing by our side all along, smiling with its arms out, eager to embrace us, saying to each of us, “I like you, just the way you are!”

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In the gospel according to Matthew, we hear Jesus use the word “perfect.”

Be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect.

But back when Jesus used the word, it meant something entirely different than what it means to us now. When Jesus urges us to be perfect, he’s asking us to be whole, entire; be complete; be mature and full-grown. God doesn’t ask us to do the impossible.  God encourages us to become fuller versions of ourselves. That’s God’s definition of perfect.

And we find God’s sort of perfect as we are raised up out of the waters of baptism, as we hear that voice that says to each us, “You are my daughters and sons. You are dearly loved—more than you could ever know; and in You, I find happiness.” Friends, we are loved, and we are—each and every one of us—children of God.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Part of a People

A sermon based on Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 preached on January 11th, 2015.

Sermon audio

Today, we’re taking the moment together in worship to renew and reclaim our baptismal vows.

It doesn’t matter if your parents brought you to the waters as an infant and had you baptized before you knew it or if you came to the water as an adult and proclaimed with your own voice your faith in Jesus Christ, we are all invited today to proclaim once again our identity as daughters and sons of God, and to reaffirm our intentions to live our lives as faithful and willing and active disciples of Jesus.

It is through these waters that God has invited us to become a part of a greater whole.

The waters of baptism are adoption waters. They are a sign and a symbol that God has claimed as God’s own.

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There’s a few things that baptism is not.

Baptism isn’t a ticket to the afterlife, it’s more like an envelope handed to us by a travel agent—a letter sent to you in the mail from God. We are the ones who have to open that envelope, and we are the ones who embark upon the journey.

Baptism isn’t an end in itself, it’s more like the very start of new relationship.

And thirdly, baptism doesn’t enhance sacredness, it acknowledges it. We are already blessed as God’s sons and daughters. But it is through our baptism that we seek to find out what that blessing is for.

It is because of the call of our baptism that we take the time to participate in the life of the Church—faithfully gathering, knowing that as we gather regularly as a faith community, God will shape us into who God wants us to be.

There’s one word we can use to sum all of that up: “belong”.

We are not just baptized. We are baptized into something. Through these waters, we become a part of something bigger than ourselves. With the waters of baptism we claim that we belong to God and to community.

And it is here we gather today on Baptism of our Lord Sunday, around these waters to bless each other as daughters and sons of the living God, and to pledge to one another our intentions to be a part of a people–to embark together on a journey—faithfully gathering together along the way, supporting one another in the life of faith, and to recommit ourselves, body, mind, heart, and soul, and presence, to the faithful pursuit of discipleship.

Come, and be a part. Let us come to the waters.

 Reaffirming Our Baptism

Litany of Scripture

1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 17

Just as one body has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

For in the one Spirit we are all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Deuteronomy 7:9

Know that the Lord your God is God,

the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love God and keep God’s commandments.

Ephesians 4:1-3

Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Statement about Baptism

Profession of Faith

Do you renounce evil and the powers in the world which defy God’s righteousness and love?

I renounce them.

Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?

I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?

I do.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, following his Word and showing his love, to your life’s end?

I will, with God’s help.

Will you rededicate yourself to the mission and ministry of this church, faithfully and regularly attending worship and actively pursuing opportunities for service, mission, and discipleship here at Kuhn Memorial?

I will.                                                                                                                        

Confession of Faith Using the Words of the Apostles’ Creed 

With the whole Church, let us confess our faith. Do you believe in God the Father?

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving for Baptism

Invitation to the Waters

Coming to the Waters

You’re invited to:

  • Dip Your Hand in the Waters

As music is played, you will be invited to walk up to the table at the front of the sanctuary to dip your hand in the waters to remember your baptism and to renew your commitment to discipleship. 

  • Take a River Stone

You are invited to take a stone from either the bottom of the bowl or from the cup of stones next to it. This stone signifies for you that you are God’s own and you have been called through your baptism to be a part of God’s church here at Kuhn Memorial and in and for the world.

  • Light a Tea Light

You are invited to light a tea light to signify the Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus and upon you at your baptism. It still burns within us who have been baptized. 

As we process, we will sing Down to the River to Pray – Insert

Faithing

A sermon based on Psalm 105:1-6 and Matthew 14:22-33 preached on September 7th, 2014.

Sermon audio

This story is iconic. Whether you’ve ever opened a bible or heard a sermon preached on it, been in a bible study or Sunday school lesson about it—this story is a familiar one.

The phrase “walking on water” has made its way into our culture’s common vernacular. The phrase is used for the kind of people who we look up to—who do the miraculous and make it look easy—who regularly and effortlessly accomplish the impossible. Our mothers walk on water, social workers walk on water, so do nurses, and teachers—or at least the best of them.

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I’ve mentioned before that Mythbusters is one of my favorite TV shows. The Mythbusters are a bunch of scientists and special effects artists who try to recreate the stuff that happens in movies to see if they’re possible in real life. They also take common phrases like this one and test them out too.

In one episode, the Mythbusters tested out whether in any circumstance walking on water was scientifically possible. They strapped floatation devices to their feet and stepped out onto the surface of a pool—and they toppled over.

They went to a lake and thought that maybe if they got a running start, they would hit the water so fast they’d be able to glide across the surface like a skipping stone. When that didn’t work, they got a track and field Olympic medal winner to try it—and she sank into the lake just as fast as they did.

The myth was busted, they declared. It doesn’t matter what clever tricks you have up your sleeve, despite our best efforts, no one can walk on water. It’s scientifically impossible. Quite a surprise, huh?

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We miss the point of this story when we focus on what’s possible about it and what isn’t. “How did Jesus walk on water?” is not the question we should be asking ourselves as we read this story —his ability to walk on water is not the point.

The question we should ask starts with a “What” instead: “What does this story have to teach us about living out our faith in Jesus?”

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A common image the early church used to describe itself was as a boat—a boat out at sea. Many of the original disciples were fisherman. They knew boats well—they lived their lives on boats—spent their days on them, both before and after Jesus.

The image of a sailboat full of your fellow believers, blown by the wind of the Holy Spirit, was very commonly used to describe the early church. The very early church was a boat. So, those in Matthew’s congregation, this story’s first hearers, knew right away that is was more than a nautical tale involving 12 disciples and Jesus.

This was Matthew’s way of sending his congregation a bigger message and telling them a more significant story. A story about them. Matthew’s church was a persecuted people. Matthew wrote his gospel to a church in the throws of martyrdom. Followers of Jesus hid out, they needed to keep quiet about their faith because those who didn’t stay quiet were fed to lions in Roman stadiums—one of only a multitude of ways early followers of Jesus were being persecuted. If the 1st Century church was a boat, it was one caught in the middle of a storm, surrounded by threats.

In verse 24, our text says the boat was being battered by the waves and a strong headwind. The Greek word there is much stronger than “battered”—a better translation would be “persecuted.” The early Church was a boatful of believers caught in the chaos of martyrdom. On ever side, their lives were in danger. In over their heads and afraid, these early Christians wondered where Jesus was in the midst of their suffering.

This is a story about how Jesus comes to all of his disciples—the original 12 as well as the billions around the world today, in the middle of threatening seas, to speak words of peace and strength:

Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid!

No matter where we are or what we’re facing, Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, and he comes speaking words of assurance and peace.

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Notice, though, what doesn’t happen in this story. Nowhere in this passage does Jesus calm the wind and waves.

There’s another story very similar to this one in chapter 8 were Jesus was already in a boat with the disciples. He falls asleep, and the disciples wake him up because there was a storm and it was too much them. There, Jesus orders the wind and waves to die down.

But in this story, there is no word from Jesus that calms the wind and the waves. Jesus does not deliver the disciples from the battering sea. He doesn’t come promising to stop their persecution. Jesus does not still any storms here.

All that Jesus offers is his presence, and all the disciples get is Jesus’ encouragement. It’s the promise of Jesus’ presence that gives the disciples hope even though the wind and the waves continue battering their boat.

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Throughout the Gospels, Peter comes off as a blockhead. He puts the “duh” in “disciple”. Peter’s the one who acts before he thinks. He’s the giddy one who blurts out everything that crosses his mind. He never holds back a thing. But in this story, Peter’s eagerness leads to one of the most memorable moments in the whole bible. Peter steps out of the boat. He may even take a few steps on the water. A strong headwind comes along and we all know what happens. It’s the same thing that happened on Mythbusters. He starts to sink.

“What was Peter thinking?” we say to ourselves. Did he really think he could walk on water? Maybe he should have just stayed in the boat. This is Peter being a blowhard, again!

But when all the other disciples, with all the torment of the wind and persecution of the waves building up all around them, stayed in the safety of the boat, it was Peter who stood up and walked into the chaos, to be closer to Jesus. It was Peter who stepped outside of the comfort of that boat and risked his life, putting all of his trust into the hands of Jesus, summoning up the courage to take the first step outside. Risk, courage, trust—Peter shows us that these things are the stuff of true faith. What Peter shows us is that faith is a verb.

This isn’t Peter being an idiot. This is Peter being a disciple. This is Peter turning faith into action.

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See, we’re comfortable keeping faith a noun. Faith is something we have rather than something we do. We think of faith as believing certain things. It’s something we carry around with us as we would a possession. Faith, we think, is something we have. It stays inside of us, in the safety of the boat. Away from the waves.

But, what if faith is also a verb? What if it’s not only something we have but it’s something do?

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This story is full of action. Jesus sending the disciples away. The boat fighting a strong headwind, being battered by waves, Jesus walking toward the disciples, Peter getting out of the boat and walking toward Jesus. In this story, Peter’s faith is another verb. Peter doesn’t so much have faith as much as he faiths.

In spite of everything he knows about what’s outside of the boat, the chaos of the water, the wind throwing the boat wherever it wants to, Peter steps out and risks his life to walk with Jesus. Peter doesn’t simply have faith, he practices faith. He turns all that he thinks and believes into a verb and acts on in. And for a moment—just a split second—in the midst of all the wind and waves battering the boat—Peter walks. And, yeah, he starts sinking immediately and needs his Lord to reach out his hand to rescue him, but at least he took the risk to step out in the first place.

So, when Jesus says to Peter,

You of weak faith,

he’s not telling Peter that he his faith is too small, but that he didn’t faith enough.

Peter, next time, faith more, Jesus is saying.

While all the rest of the disciples were just fine staying in the boat—safe, away from all that threatened them out there—not faithing at all, at least Peter took the chance. At least Peter took his faith and turned it into a verb and did something with it—stepping out and putting it all in Jesus’ hands.

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There’s a book out there—it’s become a very popular one, called, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be Christian? Really? Is this the approach to take? A faith that just eeks by? Does Jesus ask us to play it safe? To put only parts of ourself into this venture called discipleship.

Maybe I’ll just dip my toes into the water and test out how things feel.

No. That’s not faithing. That’s staying in the boat with our life vests on. Both Peter and Jesus would scoff at the idea. Following Jesus is never safe, never halfway, never measuring out our devotion to God.

True discipleship knows nothing about moderation. Following Jesus is an all-in, full plunge into deep waters. Taking strides out onto the waves, just like Peter did, trusting that Jesus is there if we start sinking.

The question of discipleship is this: Am I willing to move outside of myself and trust Jesus—even if it means stepping out into uncertain and chaotic waters?

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Was Peter crazy? Yeah, he was to think he could walk on water. Maybe we should all be the same kind of crazy. Maybe we should take the same risk he did and step out, confident that Jesus is out there and doesn’t want us to stay inside the safety zone of our little boat.

Peter walked toward Jesus, like every disciple should do—stepping out in faith, risking our own safety—even our own lives, to be closer to Jesus, knowing that even if we fail at faithing and begin to sink, Jesus is right there reaching out for us and will pull us right back up again.

Possessing faith is just fine. Lots of people have faith, but they never use it outside their little boats. The real work of the Gospel happens we when we take the faith we have and turn it into a verb.

Let’s step out and start faithing.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Who’s Thirsty?

A sermon on Exodus 17:1-7 and John 4:4-29 preached on March 23rd, 2014.

 Sermon audio

Jesus does something very dangerous. It isn’t the first time he breaks age-old rules in an attempt to get to know the hurt and the disenfranchised among him—to offer them healing and new life simply by being in their presence.

Jesus approaches people who have been deemed by law or by social convention unapproachable, he reaches out to heal those who are considered un-healable. He speaks to people who he should not speak to. And this time it’s a woman, not only that: a Samaritan woman.

The social and religious boundaries in place during Jesus’ time never kept him from connecting with the wounded and the humiliated. And here we have the deepest example of Jesus’ compassion. Here, Jesus ignores so many different taboos by speaking to this woman at the well. Among all 4 gospels, this is the longest conversation that Jesus has with anyone, including his disciples. And if he cared at all about the social and religious rules of his day, he wouldn’t have had this conversation at all.

Jesus is going through Samaria. No, there’s a better way to say that. John, this gospel’s writer, says it like this, and I wonder if you heard it:

Jesus had to go through Samaria.

Jesus is well into his journey to Jerusalem. And Samaria was in the way. John says it like it’s the worst place in the world, there’s so many other nicer ways to put it than this: “Jesus had to go through Samaria.” What a terrible place filled with even worse people—those Samaritans!

In Samaria there was a well. Jacob’s Well. Both the Israelites and the Samaritans claimed this ancient well as their own. And, for both, it was a holy place. This well in the middle of this contested land was the very same one that Jacob and his 12 sons—the sons whose decedents became the 12 tribes of Israel—drank from. Jacob was the father of Israel and of Samaria. And this water was still flowing through this ancient well just as it did thousands of years ago. It still gave water to the parched people who traveled to it everyday. Women hiked up its hill with their jars in tow, gathering enough water in their jars to keep their family hydrated—a little to cook and clean with, too.

This is no place for a man to be. It was the women who fetched their family’s water, and a man going up to a well when he knows he will encounter a woman. Not a smart idea. Husbands jealously claimed their wives as their own, and there was no good reason for any man to approach a strange woman—and it was even worse for a man to put himself in a situation where he was all alone with one. Jesus knew better. But up to this well he climbed anyway.

Village wells were the water coolers of their day. Women congregated at Jacob’s Well in the early morning before sun made the day unbearable. They brought their jars and the latest gossip and up at the top of the hill they stayed, kibitzing, commiserating, and socializing. Being a woman in Samaria was oppressive, and time spent away from husbands and fathers—time spent with other women was as refreshing as the water they had come to fetch. It must have been something all the women of the village looked forward to each day. But that was in the morning and maybe later in the evening after the sun went down. It was high noon in Samaria when Jesus came trekking up the hill to ask for a drink. It could be that Jesus thought they’re wouldn’t be anyone up there that time of day. It was way too hot. But there she was.

This one Samaritan woman must have been an outcast among all the rest of the women in her village.

We don’t know why, but if she was up at Jacob’s Well at the hottest part of the day, then she knew she would be there well after all the other women had left. She may have been banished from their presence. Unaccepted by all the rest. But whatever the problem was, it was bad enough that she came to the well when she knew she would be there all by herself.

Jesus approaches her and asks for a drink. The woman at the well (notice we never learn her name) must have felt nervous. This was not the situation any woman of her day wants to be in. Frankly, she probably just wants to be left alone.

Jesus is thirsty and asks her for a drink. But as this conversation unfolds, we find that there is more than one person on the hilltop who needs their thirst quenched.

This Samaritan woman thirsts for something that this water has never satisfied. She doesn’t even know what can quench her thirst—this unmet need she has. All this scrambling everyday—trudging up to the top of this well in the scorching sun. Something to fill more than her jar. Something to fill the parched places inside of her. Maybe she’s been looking for something like living water all of her life. Those parts of her that thirst for something deeper—that need to be brought to life again.

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This woman has been married 5 times and is now living with another man.

Whenever we read this story, we think that Jesus is calling out this woman for doing something sinful: for getting divorced 5 times. But as we learned a couple weeks ago when we were going through the Sermon on the Mount, that’s not what’s happening here at all. You’ll remember that women had no control over their divorces in Jesus’ time.

Husbands were well within their rights to hand their wives divorce papers and send them out of their house whenever they wanted and for whatever reason they wanted. Wives in this day were completely disposable. So when Jesus tells this woman her own story—that she has been divorced 5 times—Jesus isn’t trying to humiliate her by bringing up something she’s ashamed about, Jesus is saying that he knows how unfairly she has been treated by others. He is being compassionate to her and telling her that he understands the hardship that she has been through.

Can you hear her sense of frustration? Her disillusionment? Do you see the drudgework assigned to her? Can you feel the weight of her life hoisted upon her shoulders—dropped like a ton of bricks onto her chest?

Jesus seems to know that this woman carries something a whole lot heavier than this water jar by her side. There’s a heaviness to her being. She is seeking deep relief. Jesus knows that she has had enough hardship and disappointment in her life—that she has been treated unjustly for far too long and that she thirsts for something more. Deeper relationship. Something trustworthy and reliable. Something that would bring her more life.

This is a story of transformation and liberation. There are so many who live parched lives—who seek to be refreshed and restored by a different sort of water: a kind of water that revitalizes our spirits.

Yes, Jesus knows we thirst—and what we thirst for, and Jesus has a selfless and insatiable thirst to restore us all to wholeness and to free us from our burdens.

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And that water jar. Everyday she trudged along with that heavy thing. That was one of the weights this Samaritan woman carried. Walking back and forth across her village—up and down that hill where Jacob’s Well stood.

That jar was her burden. One of many. Maybe that heavy water jar was a symbol of all the things she carried inside of her. Its load was just a sliver of the entire load she carried in her heart and in her soul. All those broken relationships. Her husbands who threw her out on the street. Those other women who congregated every morning at Jacob’s Well—the ones she used to get along with.

Yes, the weight of that water jar represented the weight of every burden she every carried.

Did you catch the part where she left her water jar behind? Up there on that hill on that particular day, this woman was freed from what brought her down for so long, and she ran down into her village—the very village full of people she was estranged from, and she said to those same people, “Come see!”

Come see a man who has told me everything I’ve ever done!

Presbyterian pastor Anna Carter Florence stops us there and suggests there is more hidden inside these words from the Samaritan woman…

Come see a man who has told me everything I’ve ever done…and loved me anyway!

Jesus is the One who finds us where we are—in the bone-dry places where we have for too long carried our too heavy loads.

Jesus finds us there and offers us living water.

All praises to the One who frees us. Who loves us just as we are…who made it all and finds it beautiful.

Alleluia! Amen.