Before I begin this sermon and someone accuses me of “preaching politics," let me say that gun violence - while there are political dimensions to it – is primarily a social issue. And pastors are allowed to and supposed to preach about social issues and the appropriate Christian ethical response to them. Preaching about gun violence is no different than preaching about issues such as abortion or gay rights. You can disagree with me if you want, but you are going to have a hard time finding a Presbyterian pastor who does NOT preach about gun violence today. If I did NOT preach on this today – especially after the shooting in New Zealand – then I would not be deserving of my ordination. So, here we go…
In times of tragedy. When all seems to be wrong with the world. When it feels like evil is winning. The psalms of lament give us the words we need to pray. To express our deepest pain. To release our anger and frustration at God. And also to praise God even in the face of tragedy.
Last year, the Lenten season began with the mass shooting at Marjorie Stone Douglas High School in Parkland Florida. On that Ash Wednesday, 17 teenagers were shot and killed. In all the previous mass shooting up until then, our politicians continued to respond with the same, tired, meaningless mantra of “thoughts and prayers.” But Parkland was different. The students of Parkland were filled with righteous anger. And the students of Parkland were no longer going to accept the cowardly “thoughts and prayers” of the people elected to serve them. The Parkland students started their own movement – “March for Our Lives” – as they took to the streets on a tour all across the nation to help raise awareness about gun violence and to push lawmakers to pass common sense gun legislation. They are becoming the answer to both our and their own thoughts and prayers.
This past week, the gun violence that is all too common in America reached New Zealand when a gunman entered two mosques – right as the prayers were beginning – killing 49 Muslim worshippers and injuring at least 20 others. The man’s motives were fueled by his white supremacist beliefs – his fear of those who are simply different than him.
The leaders of New Zealand responded with thoughts and prayers, but then became the answer to their own prayers. The nation is banning all automatic weapons – weapons whose sole purpose is to kill people in war – so that such mass violence will not continue. Other nations that have enacted such laws have seen a dramatic drop in deaths due to gun violence.
Now I know that many out there may make the argument, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” But as my favorite British comedian, Eddie Izzard once said, “Yes, but I think the gun helps.”
I know there are those who believe in the “good guy with a gun” theory and therefore advocate for arming teachers and even congregation members of churches. First of all, a study conducted on New York City police officers found that under controlled circumstances, highly trained police officers only hit their target 30% of the time. And during intense situations – such as a shoot out – only hit their target less than 18% of the time. So why do you think you are going to be the “good guy” whose a better shot than a highly trained police officer.
At the same time, insurance companies are beginning to refuse to cover entire school districts if they arm teachers because all their data reveals that the risks increase when you do so. And insurance companies have no political agenda. They are all about dollars and statistics. They just want to make sure they don’t have to pay out and will avoid any risks that may cost them.
Our own insurance company even told us that while they would cover us if we armed congregation members, they will require strict guidelines and our insurance premiums would go up significantly because of the increased risk associated with arming congregation members. While planning for our safety team here at Grace – following the shooting at Sandy Springs Church in Texas – we consulted with a church safety expert who was both a former police officer and personal body guard for televangelist Joyce Meyers. The FIRST thing he said was NOT to arm anyone in your congregation. And again, it was emphasized to us that doing so increases the risks that someone in the congregation would get hurt. At the same time, in the event of an incident, law enforcement would not be able to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. Teachers are taught this as well during intruder drills. They are taught NOT to pick the gun if they manage to subdue the shooter because they may be mistaken for the bad guy.
Yet, here in America, we keep using these same, tired old arguments to stop any kind of common-sense gun legislation. Legislation such as not allowing people found guilty of domestic violence to access a gun. Requiring background checks on everyone who buys a gun, including those purchased at gun shows and sold privately – which are current loopholes in the system. Not allowing people who show up on the terrorist “no fly” list to purchase guns. Not allowing people who have major mental health issues to purchase a gun. And yet, all these examples of common-sense gun legislation have been voted DOWN under the argument that second amendment rights would be violated.
Our loose and free gun laws are a deadly issue. The state with the loosest gun regulations is our own state of Missouri. And the regulations are about to get looser. Last year the state tried to push through a bill termed the “Guns Everywhere Bill” which would not allow any private business – including bars, houses of worship, private schools, and daycares – to restrict people from bringing firearms onto their premises. The law prevented public schools and universities from banning firearms from their campuses. And the law even prevented private land owners from banning people from bringing firearms onto their property, even if they posted a “no firearms allowed” sign. Basically, the law gave anyone a legal right to bring a gun anywhere and there is nothing you could do to stop it. The law, however, was defeated. But it is back again as Missouri House Bill 258. The bill is almost identical as the previous bill. I’ve included a fact sheet from “Everytown for Gun Safety” – the larger umbrella organization that Moms Demand Action falls under.
It’s important to note just how vulnerable this bill will make our children and others to gun violence. People cannot be prevented from bringing guns into bars where excessive drinking can lead to increased aggression. We recently had a man stabbed to death at the bar less than a block from here. Imagine if there was a gun used instead. How many other people may have been killed or injured? Imagine not being able to keep guns out of our sanctuary. Would you feel comfortable knowing that someone in the sanctuary is carrying a gun? Not to mention the violation of church and state separation the bill causes. Imagine people you don’t know having the freedom to conceal carry a weapon into your child’s school or daycare. How does that stop school shootings? Sounds to me like it can only serve to increase them. Finally, imagine having the right to decide who can or cannot bring a gun onto your own private property taken away. That is what this bill will do.
Personally, none of this sounds like common sense. It all sounds like an excellent way to frighten people into buying MORE guns and thus putting more money in the pockets of those in the gun industry. In America, when it comes down to common sense or money – money always wins. That’s why it says, “In God We Trust” on our money – not because we trust in God, but because money IS our God.
So the psalmist laments: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” How long are we going to tolerate this? And are we only going to sit and pray about it? The problem with “thoughts and prayers” is that we have this belief that God is going to somehow supernaturally make people change their mind if we just pray hard enough. Yet throughout scripture, we find people praying to God for help, and then going out and doing the work because God strengthens them to do it. That’s what happened at Parkland, I believe. The thoughts and prayers of the Parkland students gave them the strength to stand up and fight for their lives. And so I ask you to do the same. Don’t just offer thoughts and prayers for God to fix this – otherwise you will continue to lament “How long, O Lord?” In moments like these, you are the answer to your own prayers. God put you here for a purpose – and sometimes that purpose is to be the answer to the prayers of others, and sometimes to be the answer to your own prayers.
I’m going to have some of the Mom’s Demand Action members pass out cards to you. These are cards that will go to your local state representative. Take the time to tell them to vote “NO” on Missouri House Bill 258 because we do not want our personal property rights taken away, we do not want private business rights to be taken away, and we do not want just anybody to be able to take firearms into places where we expect our children to be safe from gun violence – such as our schools, daycares, and churches. Take the time to do that now. And as the offering plates are passed around, you can drop your card in there. And after today, take the time to call your state representative and tell them personally. Use the talking points on this handout about the bill to voice your opposition.
Between groups like Moms Demand Action and people like you and me – we can become the answer to our prayers and the prayers of others. And when we do – we will sing the final two verses of Psalm 13 –
“But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because the Lord has dealt bountifully with me.”
Or, as the old saying goes in the African-American Church tradition:
“God is good, all the time,
and all the time, God is good.”
Turn to someone near you, and offer this exchange of assurance:
“God is good, all the time
and all the time, God is good.”
Scripture Text: Romans 8:31-30
Paul is addressing the concerns of Christians suffering under the oppression of the Roman Empire. They are confused, and rightly so. Their big question being: “If I’m already saved, why does my life suck?” And it’s a very good question. Suffering can have a powerful effect on our faith. Suffering can make us feel disconnected from God, abandoned by God, unworthy of God’s love. But Paul gives a rallying cry to those who suffer because of their faith in Christ. In the earlier verses, Paul tells the Romans that even when our suffering makes us so weak that we can’t even pray – the Spirit prays for us “with sighs too deep for words.” That all those who love God – even when we feel disconnected, abandoned, or unworthy of God – are also called by God to serve God’s purposes. Because – and this is where our scripture today really bring Paul’s argument home – there is absolutely NOTHING in the world that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. And so, Paul poses a series of rhetorical questions that, for any Christian, should be meaningless –
“With God on our side like this, how can we lose?” – You won’t because you belong to God.
“And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger?”– No worries even if they do, because you are a child of God.
Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? – NO! Because you are a child of God, infinitely loved by Jesus Christ, whose Spirit is present with you even in the darkest moments of your pain and suffering.
Two weeks ago, the United Methodist Church gathered in St. Louis to do what so many other mainline denominations – including the PCUSA – has done. To make the decision about the worthiness of LGBTQIA+ persons with the church. What’s important to note is that, unlike the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church is a world-wide denomination. And even though 2/3 of the American delegates supported the full inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ Children of God in the church – including ordination and marriage – the large number of international delegates from more conservative countries in the global south where homosexuality is punishable by death – caused the most conservative proposal to pass by a 6 point margin. Now the denomination is in a period of flux, because despite passing, the conservative proposal has issues that must go before the denomination’s judiciary boards before it can be put into action. But in response to this action of regression instead of progression, United Methodist Deacons, Pastors, Bishops, lay leaders, and congregations all across the U.S. have stated that they will NOT obey the new proposal, even if it does pass the judiciary board. Congregations have hung giant rainbow flags stating things like: “All are really welcome” or “We’re not those kind of Methodists.” And these congregations and leaders are responding this way because they see their actions as a push for social justice within the Church. That to pass such a resolution is to say that there are some people who are disconnected from God, abandoned by God, unworthy of God’s love. And the LGBTQIA+ community is suffering and lamenting the actions of the greater church. The Church which raised them, baptized them, confirmed them, and taught them that God loved them, is now the Church that will not marry them to the person they love. The Church where they heard the Spirit’s call to ministry is now the Church that will not ordain them because of the person they love. The feelings of many in the LGBTQIA+ community is that the Church does not see them as a child of God. And they are pushing back, declaring themselves and all people – even those who opposed their inclusion – to be children of God, loved by God, never to be separated from God – even by actions of the Church.
For people struggling to understand the issues surrounding the exclusion and oppression of people because of their race, gender, social class, religion, etc., the argument is often – “But I’m color-blind. I don’t see color. It’s not about that." And you know what? They are right. The problem is not that we are blind to race, gender, class, religion, sexuality, etc. The problem is that we are blind to God. The problem is, we prefer to see someone for what makes them separate from us rather than what we share in common. The problem is, we prefer to see someone as the “Other” our culture made them into rather than the Child of God that God created to be. The problem is, we prefer labels over names.
Labels are easy. Labels are simple. Labels are shallow. Labels are safe. Labels don’t require you to engage with another child of God but allows you the safety and comfort of gossip, rumors, and exaggeration. Labels don’t require you to think about the individuality of another child of God but allows you the ease of thoughtless, simple stereotypes and assumptions. Labels don’t require the risk of a relationship with another child of God but allows you to rest in the safety of shallow social niceties.
But to name someone is different. Names are difficult. Names are complex. Names are deep. Names are risky. Naming requires you to engage with another child of God, to share a conversation with them, even when the conversation is awkward and uncomfortable – because that usually means that there is something about you that needs to change. Naming requires you to think about all the complex factors that compose the God-given identity of each individual child of God – a complex combination of their age, gender-identity, religion, race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, sexuality, family of origin, etc. – so that you can see them as more than a nameless label. Naming requires you to be vulnerable to another child of God, getting to know their soul and not the labels forced upon them by our culture of fear and anxiety. The only label that should ever apply to another person is “Child of God.” And for each person you label as a “Child of God” you then have to be able to Name Each One. Because unlike a person’s race, gender-identity, sexuality, etc. – seeing someone as a “Child of God” and being able to call them by name is a choice. If we don’t know someone’s name, it’s because we choose NOT to know them. And we make that choice over and over again, each and every time we encounter another “Child of God.” Choosing to know someone well enough to name them is one of the most important choices we must make as individual Christians and as the Church if we are to continue building the Kin-dom of God in the here and now by bringing about justice for ALL of God’s children. Because if you don’t know someone well enough to name them, then how do you know they’ve received the justice they deserve?
Imagine what our community would be like if we knew people by their names instead of their labels? Imagine what our church would be like if we all actually knew each other’s names (because there are some of us who don’t and we’ve chosen not to do that)? Imagine what the world would be like if we stopped being God-blinded and started seeing others through the eyes of Christ? We would discover that everyone we meet is a Child of God, loved by Christ, and called by the Spirit. Imagine if every Church saw all people that way? Imagine how many of us in this room – especially those of us who are white, straight, male, Christians – imagine how you would feel if someone saw you as your labels instead of knew you by your name? Imagine if they saw you as something other than a child of God? Imagine if those labels caused them to actually fear you?
Last semester, one of my World Religions students – a young, white, straight, male, good ‘ol boy from DeSoto – did an extra credit assignment by visiting the mosque in St. Louis. Here is what he wrote:
I had an experience, and it was a small one, but it made me think differently about how people perceive me and how other people are perceived. It was shortly after the Pittsburgh incident at the synagogue last year. And by shortly, I mean one or two weeks after that. I was visiting Daar-Ul-Islam, a local mosque in the St. Louis area. While I was there taking the tour, I noticed the security guard following the tour around. At first, I didn’t think anything of it. I figured he did that all the time; it’s what security is supposed to do. But I was the only one on the tour, and it just seemed weird the entire time to me. At the end of the tour I was talking to the Guide, and she said something that caught me off guard. “We were worried when we got your phone call. With what just happened in Pittsburgh, we didn’t know if we were next.” At first, I was at a loss for words. It completely caught me off guard, and I never would have expected that coming from anyone. Even if you are thinking that, you don’t say that to anyone. In fact, if you did say that to someone, that is the exact thing that would have set them off. After I left, I cooled off some in my car. I thought on it for a while and understood why they might have thought that. After it was said and done, [I realized] they handled my visit very professionally, aside from the end. But to be thinking and fearing that the guy you’re giving this tour to might be there to shoot up the entire place, yet they still treated me with the respect that they did, and tried to answer all the questions that I asked, it really shows how dedicated they are to their religion and helping inform new people about it.
Listen to that last sentence again: “to be thinking and fearing that the guy you’re giving this tour to might be there to shoot up the entire place, yet they still treated me with respect… really shows how dedicated [Muslims] are to their religion and helping inform new people about it." I wonder how many people can say that about the Church? I wonder how many churches could do the same thing? – treat someone as a child of God even in the face of the fear that they might “shoot up the place”? In our current culture of fear and anxiety, it’s becoming more and more difficult to name people as a child of God instead of labeling as something they’re not. But as Christians, we are called to be better than our culture. We are called to see everyone as a child of God, loved by Christ, and called by the Holy Spirit. And we can do that because, as scripture teaches us, we are already named as God’s beloved child in our baptism. We are already embraced by the love of Christ that will never be lost. And we are already called by the Holy Spirit to serve the world. There is nothing that will ever take any of that away. There is nothing you can do that will ever take that away. It’s just the reality of creation. And because of our identity as beloved and called children of God, we love our neighbors as ourselves no matter where they live, who they are, what they look like, how they believe, when they got here, or why they love someone. That’s not our responsibility. That’s not our authority. We are called simply to love. And in loving them, they discover that they are a beloved child of God.
It reminds me of an email an openly gay student sent me after the semester ended. In the email he wrote:
“Until I took your class, I never thought I could go to church again.
Now I know that I can when I am ready.
Thank you for helping me know that I am loved by God.”
Yes, my sibling in Christ. You are a beloved child of God.
And each and every one of you is a beloved child of God.
And to remind you of that, and to help us to name each other,
I want you to turn to someone near you,
find out their name if you don’t know it, and say this to them:
“[Kirk], you are a child of God.” Let’s us stand and do that now.
Scripture Text: Amos 5:21-24 & Psalm 51:1-17
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent – a forty day journey into the wilderness of our lives marked by disciplines of self-reflection, prayer, and various forms of fasting or spiritual disciplines in order to prepare ourselves for the anticipated celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. The journey begins with an act of repentance – which in scripture means “to turn around” or “to change your life.” Repentance does NOT mean “to say you’re sorry.” Because if you hurt someone, say you’re sorry, yet continue to commit the same actions that hurt them, you are NOT actually repentant. You’re just a jerk who’s not accepting responsibility for their actions.
That’s because we come to repentance through guilt. Guilt is something that we do not like to talk about – especially in the Church. People do not like to feel guilty – especially in the Church. As result, we’ve made guilt to be this negative, self-destructive feeling that should be avoided – especially in the Church. Yet that’s not entirely true. Sociologist, author, and speaker Dr. Brene Brown argues that guilt is actually “adaptive and helpful…” because guilt is actually the act of “holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort” as a result. In other words, guilt is not something that someone can put upon you if those values are not there to be violated. Guilt can only be experienced if the thing you have done actually goes against your own values. And guilt only goes away when we accept responsibility for betraying our own values, and repent – change our lives – so that we do not violate our values again. And so, without guilt, we would be unable to repent. We would see nothing wrong with what we’ve done and would continue living our lives as we always have – with no attempt at “turning around” or “changing.” Without guilt, we would never be able to accept responsibility for our actions, change our lives, and become better people.
Shame, on the other hand, is different. Shame is harmful and destructive. Guilt and shame are not the same thing. And often times the feeling we label “guilt” is actually “shame.” Dr. Brene Brown describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection” – with others, with ourselves, even with God. Shame labels us, erodes our identity, and redefines us according to these external labels. While guilt says, “I screwed up.” Shame says, “I am a screw up.” Guilt says, “I did something stupid.” Shame says, “I am stupid.” Guilt says, “I did something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.” It’s a subtle shift in language that makes a world of difference – especially for the sake of peace and justice in the world.
There are so many people in our world – even in this very room – who are struggling, not with guilt, but with shame. Shame about the things they have done. Shame about the things they have failed to do. Shame about their very personhood. Shame about their race, gender-identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and so forth. And that shame has nothing to do with them. Nothing to do with who they are. Shame has everything to do with how those in power define worthiness. Shame has everything to do with the way we disconnect, distance, and dismiss people as “other” simply because they do not fit our definition of “worthy.” And what’s worse is that throughout the centuries the Church has been one of the greatest perpetrators of defining the “worthiness” of others. The Church is long been guilty of saying that because someone does not fit the Church’s definition of “Christian”, because someone who does not espouse orthodox theology, possess appropriate power, belong to the accepted social class, share the same mindset, have the precise skin color, or loves the proper person, are not only labeled as unworthy of belonging to the Church, they are also labeled as unworthy of God’s love. And that is one of the greatest injustices there is. That is shame that hurts another heart, mind, body, and soul. Any theology that shames people into feeling that they are unworthy of God’s love, and therefore unworthy of the Church, is a bastardization of the gospel.
That’s why Psalm 51 – this psalm of confession and lament – speaks to our guilt without shaming us. The Psalm is assumed to be written by King David after he murdered Uriah in order kidnap and rape his wife, Bathsheba. And in this psalm David openly confesses his guilt. Openly expresses that he has done wrong. That he has violated the values that he received from God. King David accepts responsibility for his guilt and throws himself upon the mercy of God. And yet, despite the extreme sins that David has committed – murder and rape – he does not feel shame. He does not feel shame because David does not fear that what he has done makes him unworthy of God’s love. That even the darkest of human sins can not separate us from the amazing grace and generous mercy of God’s redeeming love. It just can’t happen. Because you are not defined by your actions. You are defined by God’s actions. And God’s action is to create you as a beloved child of God, worthy of infinite love and redeeming grace. That is who you are and whose you are.
Of course, many of us may think about this situation, about the injustice enacted upon Uriah and Bathsheba, and say, “But David should be ashamed. David didn’t just commit murder and rape. David IS a murderer. David IS a rapist. Where is the justice in this?” And while this is true in the context of our culture’s way of retributive justice, it is not the case in the context of God’s way of restorative justice in Jesus Christ. This is where we must recognize how truly difficult it is to be a Disciple of Christ within our culture. This is where we must recognize that God’s righteousness transcends our righteousness. This is where we must recognize that God can make beautiful things out of the dust and ashes of a horrific situation.
God brings about justice in the midst of tragedy through the actions of everyday people like you and me. These everyday people are often not experts or professionals about injustice the are challenging. They people who recognize the injustice of the event, receive the call of the Holy Spirit in the midst of that event, and respond by doing something about it. They re-cognize that they must first repent of the meaningless and passive “thoughts and prayers” approach we often take in our culture and turn towards their lives towards meaningful and active engagement with injustice – heart, mind, body, and soul. And throughout this Lenten Season, you will have the chance to hear from some of those people. People who have recognized the injustice in our community, received the Spirit’s call in the midst of the tragedy, and responded by turning away from their old life and turning towards a new life modeled after Christ’s own life of active resistance against systems of injustice within the world. A life where one speaks truth to power, stands up for the oppressed, cries out for the voiceless, embodies the liberating spirit of the gospel, and its good news of justice for all people. And these individuals have done so because they, re-cognized their gospel-centered values, accepted re-sponsibility for betraying them, and re-pented of their old lives of passive, non-paritipation.
Over the next six weeks we will hear from several different people in our area who are working for social justice. We will hear from people like Tara Meuller – a special education teacher who also heads the local Mom’s Demand Action group here in Jefferson County – a nation-wide movement that works for common sense gun safety legislation so that school children and all people can be safer from gun violence. You’ll hear from Doreen Page, Executive Director of Finding Grace Ministries – an organization that works to educate our community about human sex trafficking and how to identify it happening in your own community. She will also be giving a special presentation on April 6 here at Grace to talk about the risk factors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation of teenagers. She herself was trafficked as a child and knows this need for justice on a level no one wants to understand. We will also hear from our own Suzanne and Diane DeWitt Hall and their work towards justice and full inclusions of the LGBQTIA+ community within the Church and the wider Christian community. They will be speaking this Sunday during worship. After each speaker presents their work for social justice, I will preach briefly on connecting their work with the gospel.
Tonight, one of the ways we will respond to this call for justice will be through our support of a local organization called H.E.R.O.E.S. Care which is an acronym for Homefront Enabling Relationships, Opportunities, and Empowerment through Support. HEROES Care is an affiliation of local program partners working together to provide emergency financial aid, employment opportunities, and mental health care service and support to military families in the communities in which they live; before, during, and after deployment. So often when our soldiers return from war, they have experienced trauma and injuries that leave them disabled and scared in mind, body, and spirit. And it’s not just the soldier who suffers, but their families as well. It’s estimated that veterans make up 12% of American’s homeless population. And many more veterans struggle with food and job insecurity and limited access to mental health services for them and their family members. The organization partners with local resource organizations to help get veterans and active duty military the help they need within their own communities. So know that the money you donate to the offering tonight will benefit military families here in Jefferson County – providing them with the justice they deserve after the sacrifice they made to secure justice for others.
So as you come forward to receive your ashes today, do so with a repentant heart – a heart that may experience guilt because of your sins, but seeks to turn towards a new and fuller life in the way of Christ. At the same time, receive your ashes knowing that Christ liberates you from the painful labels and fear of unworthiness caused by shame. Despite the dust of injustice left behind by your sins, God will make something beautiful from it. Justice will spring up from the dirt. And these ashes are a reminder of the transcendent justice and generous love of God – of which we are always worthy. AMEN.
Scripture Text: Matthew 17:1-9 & Exodus 24:12-18
Here we are at the end of a long season of Epiphany. The season where we celebrate the revelation of God’s saving grace for all peoples of the world. The Season of Epiphany is bookended by two other church holidays – with Baptism of the Lord Sunday at the beginning and Transfiguration Sunday at the end. Both days recall events in the life of Jesus – his baptism and his transfiguration. Both days are marked by the voice of God declaring Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. And, if you look carefully – you’ll discover that both days are also Easter stories – stories about death and resurrection.
In the Easter story, we learn how Jesus is executed by the state for treason, is buried, and three days later, resurrects in full body. Jesus’ body is the same, yet he is different. Jesus is made new. And through his resurrection, Jesus is making all things new.
Baptism of the Lord is also conveys death and resurrection motifs. Jesus tells John to baptize him. When Jesus goes under the water, his private, one-dimensional identity as a carpenter from Nazareth, as the son of Joseph – that identity dies. And when he comes up out of the water, his true identity as the beloved, the Son of God is revealed publicly by the voice of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit. This was the early church’s theology of what happened to people during their baptism. It wasn’t just re-enacting the baptism of Jesus, it was also re-presenting our own death and resurrection. In taking your baptismal vows, you promise to turn from all that you’ve ever known in the world and turn towards the way of Jesus. To sacrifice your old life and embrace a new way of life. Going under the watery tomb, your old life dies – is sacrificed. Rising up out of the water, the tomb is opened, and you are resurrected to new life in Christ. You are transformed into a new creation. Still in the same body, but new in mind, soul, spirit, and purpose.
Then there is the Transfiguration. Where Jesus lights up, Moses and Elijah appear, God speaks again, and then Jesus moves on like nothing ever happened. Jesus doesn’t seem to die or resurrect. Yes, Elijah and Moses appear, but if you remember your Old Testament, Elijah never died either – he was taken up into heaven by God. So, what’s going on here? How does this story speak to death and resurrection? And what does this say to us about our own transformation?
As always, I love looking at the original Greek of scripture because it gives us such a richer understanding of what’s happening than our limited English translations. And in the very first verse, we find a word that has more than one layer of meaning. The NRSV text says, “…Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.” The Greek word for “led them up” can also mean “to lift up” or “to sacrifice.” And where did most religions in this time and place offer their sacrifices – on the top of high mountains. In fact, we have a similar story in the Old Testament where Abraham took his son Isaac and “led him up” a mountain because God said to sacrifice him. In fact, when the early Rabbis translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek – a translation called The Septuagint – they used this Greek work to translate the Hebrew word for “sacrifice.” So right from the start, we could also read this sentence as “…Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John, by themselves, and offered them as sacrifice.” But what KIND of sacrifice was Jesus making of them? And doesn’t sacrifice imply that things have to die? And where is the resurrection?
By the second verse, we get the revealing of what I like to call, “Disco Ball Jesus” and the appearance of Moses and Elijah. And despite how amazing and mystical this experience is, Peter does the only thing he knows to do with such a supernatural experience – make religion out of it. Instead of simply immersing himself in this divine experience, Peter wants to trap it, memorialize it, and ritualize it. And so he interrupts this divine moment by saying, “Lord, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain – one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?” But before Peter can finish speaking – God interrupts him,“This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. LISTEN to him.” It’s the same words God proclaims at Jesus’ baptism. But this time, God adds a direct instruction, “LISTEN to him.”
That’s when Peter and his fellow Disciples realize that Peter went too far. And so all three of them fall flat on their faces, absolutely terrified. There goes Peter running his big mouth again, and now he’s going to get us all killed by the Almighty. This is it. We’re done for. All they can do is make themselves as small as possible before God and hope that God spares them for Peter’s ignorance and impulsiveness. But, instead of being struck by lightning, they are touched by Jesus. Jesus goes to them, touches them, and says, “Get up. And do not be afraid.” And that’s where Greek helps us see the resurrection in this story. The Greek word translated “get up” is the same word used in the Easter story for Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus is literally telling them “Resurrect! And do not fear.” And then Jesus immediately heads back down the mountain towards Jerusalem – towards the place where Jesus will actually die and resurrect.
So in the Transfiguration, it’s not Jesus that is sacrificed and resurrected – it’s the Disciples. But dying to what? And resurrecting to what? The answer to that lies in understanding what Jews like Peter, James, and John would have believed about such an experience. During this time there was a lot of Jewish apocalyptic literature being written. Now when we say “apocalypse” we tend to think “end of the world.” But in the context of first century Judaism, apocalypse literally means “to unveil” or “to reveal” what God is doing. And one piece of apocalyptic literature at that time – the Apocalypse of Baruch which was written around the same time as Matthew’s Gospel – describes the transfiguration as something that is given to the righteous after they are resurrected. The text says,“The appearances of their faces will be transformed into radiant beauty…Then will the glory of the righteous be greater than that of the angels.” But in the Gospel, we see Jesus receive the transfiguration before he is resurrected. What is promised to the righteous in the next world already happens to Jesus in this world.
The only other times the word “transfigured” shows up in the New Testament is twice in Paul’s writings. And in this context, Paul is using the idea of “transfiguration” to describe the invisible process within Christians of conforming themselves into the image of Christ, which takes place over their entire lives. Paul describes transfiguration not as a single, autonomous, earthly, mystical moment, but the Spirit-driven process of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God into our lives and our world in the here and now – not later. Transfiguration begins within, but it always moves outward – calling us to follow Jesus wherever he goes. And transfiguration is a life-long process because we will constantly wrestle with the tension between this world and the Kingdom. Because the Kingdom is both “already” here and “not yet” here. And so Transfiguration is an ongoing process of turning away (or “repenting”) from the ways of life in this world and turning towards the way of life in the Kingdom. It’s about dying to your old way of life and resurrecting in the life of Jesus. Transfiguration is about Discipleship. About how are you growing as a Disciple of Jesus Christ. How you are becoming more and more like Jesus. How you are merging your identity with Jesus’ identity as a Child of God. And God tells the Disciples how to do that, “Listen to him.” Listen to Jesus. And then, keep moving forward.
Despite all the time Peter, James, and John have spent with Jesus, despite how much they believe in Jesus, they have NOT truly listened to Jesus. Jesus tells them before the transfiguration that he will have to suffer and die. Yet they don’t seem to get it. Peter even rejects it. And Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan,” for trying to convince Jesus to define his identity by glory and power instead of suffering and weakness. Because the glory is already there. That glory is already given to Jesus. And that glory is revealed to Peter in the transfiguration.
Yet Peter still doesn’t listen. Peter wants to take all this glory, this experience of God, and trap it in a memorial. Doesn’t that just sound like something the church does? Take an experience of God’s glory and trap it in monuments, buildings, and memorial plaques? We even engrave them with “To the Glory of God.” The church even tries to trap the glory of God in worship services, rituals, and theology – where we believe we can actually control God by singing the right songs, doing the right gestures, and reciting the right words. And deep down, that’s why we get so upset when things change in our worship services. We may say it’s because we are uncomfortable with change, but it’s not change itself that makes us uncomfortable. What makes us uncomfortable is that if we change the way we do our worship and rituals, if we change the way we’ve always “done church,” if we change our interpretation of scripture to be more open and inclusive of others, then we fear that we may lose God’s glory.
But if God’s silencing of Peter and Jesus’ immediate march towards Jerusalem teaches us anything, it’s that God is NOT a God of “the way it’s always been.” God is a God of transformation, of transfiguration. God is a God of change. And if we stop moving forward, Jesus is going to leave us behind on the mountaintop with our meaningless monuments, empty buildings, forgotten memorials, wooden worship, rigid rituals, and fossilized theologies. Because Jesus has work to do. Jesus doesn’t have time for you to build monuments, buildings, and memorials. Jesus doesn’t have time for you to rehash irrelevant worship or trudge up tired theologies. Because Jesus is about resurrecting dead things to new life – even the Church. Through death and resurrection Jesus transfigures the Church into a gathering of the Children of God sent out to serve the Mission of God so that all people are transfigured into the Image of God! And Jesus needs you, the church, to willingly sacrifice what you once were so that he can resurrect you and transfigure you into who you are.
Up on the mountain that day, Peter, James, and John became who they are. They sacrificed their former, self-righteous, ritualistic, religious lives in order to be resurrected to a new life of fearlessly and faithfully following Jesus. A way of life and faith that is glorious, but ALWAYS leads to the cross. And Jesus’ transfiguration reveals not only the glory of God within him, but also the glory of God found within us – within ALL Disciples as they follow the way of Jesus. And if we wish to share in Jesus’ glory – both now and in the future – we must also be prepared to come down from the safety of our static mountaintop religions and follow Christ’s way of dynamic sacrificial faith for the sake of others. And you can do that by allowing yourself to be transfigured – by allowing yourself to grow as a Disciple of Christ. And then proclaiming your transformation to others.
And so at this time, we are going to proclaim that transformation. Over the last 9 week’s many of you had a Star Word that I asked you to place somewhere you could regularly see it to reflect daily on your life during this season. And we’ve had a few conversations about our Star Words on Facebook in our Grace Presbyterian Community group. But now I want people to share their testimony of how they’ve seen themselves transform over this epiphany season.
(Members of Grace Presbyterian share their reflections from their Star Words over the Epiphany Season.)
Scripture Text: Matthew 5:13-20 & Isaiah 58:1-12
About a year ago, Rev. Landon Whitsitt, Executive Presbyter of the Synod of Mid-America, released a YouTube video about successful churches (see video below). In the video he references a business article about what most business people believe makes for a great business startup. The article describes what is known as “The Startup Trifecta”: 1) Doing your homework about your target marketplace, 2) Gaining the right investors, and 3) Hiring great talent to work for you.
And Rev. Whitsitt points out that we think the same way in the church. We believe that if we have “The Ministry Trifecta” then we will have a “successful” church. And, like a business start up, that trifecta includes: 1) Researching the demographics around the church to find out who’s in your community and what ministry opportunities there are – which no church actually uses when developing ministries, 2) Attracting the “Right Group” of people – which typically means upper-middle class young families who are believed will in cash, and 3) Hiring the “Perfect Pastor” – which typically means someone young which the church believes will attract these young families and save the church – an idea that has never proven to be true in the last 30 years.
However, both the article’s conclusions and Whitsitt’s own experience with hundreds of churches across the Midwest finds that any business or church can have all three parts of the trifecta in place and still fail. Having the trifecta is not an indicator of whether the business or church will be successful. In fact, both the article and Rev. Whitsett finds that the only thing successful businesses and “successful” churches had in common is: “they simply want it more.” They want it so much more, they don’t let little problems get in the way. The churches that “simply want it more” don’t let a less than ideal location, a weak giving base, or lack of rock-star staff and volunteers keep them from making an impact in their community. These are churches that are known in their communities. They are known as the light and salt of their communities. And as the expression goes, “anything worth its salt has a parking problem.”
The prophet Isaiah is confronted by people lamenting over why they are not growing as they believe they should. After all, they’ve been doing everything right – they practice their worship and fasting the right way; they humble themselves before God the right way – yet they are still struggling. God seems to be ignoring them. “What’s the right thing to do?” they ask Isaiah. And God’s response through the prophet is a hard pill to swallow. “The bottom line of your worship is profit…you worship, but at the same time you bicker and fight…The kind of worship you do won’t get your prayers off the ground!...the kind of worship I’m after [is] to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, [and] cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, [and] being available to your own families.”
God does not hold any punches in addressing the people’s deeper issues and hypocrisy. They worship a God of love, mercy, and grace yet do not attempt to do the same in their daily lives with those around them or even with those among them. They have compartmentalized their faith – reserved it only for certain aspects of their lives instead of integrating it throughout their whole lives. Their worship has become nothing more than a public expression of social piety. And as a result, they have no integrity before God. They are light under a basket. Salt that is diluted and degraded.
And then Jesus comes along and reminds the people – both then, and us now – why we are here. Why God created us. What we are called to be. Who we are. “You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth…You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.” Jesus is NOT saying that these are ideals to try and achieve. Jesus is saying that this is already WHO you are! You are already salt and light. Just as the Beatitudes tell you that you are already blessed to be a blessing, Jesus is saying that you are already salt meant to bring out and enhance the God-flavors of life that are already there. Jesus says you are already light meant to illuminate the beauty within others. That’s just the way it is. The way it will be. Period. To say that you are not talented enough, not smart enough, don’t know enough, or not experienced enough to follow the call to God’s mission in the world is to deny that you are a Disciple of Christ. To deny that you are a Christian. It is to hide your light under a basket. To dilute your saltiness with water. You’re not going to be denied access to the future Kingdom because of this, but you will miss the opportunity to experience the Kingdom in the here and now. And why would you want to wait for that?
Like the Israelites that Isaiah addresses, those who hide their light or dilute their saltiness are more focused on personal religion than living out their faith with others. They want their religious life to be about attending the right church, with the right form of worship, at the right time, with the right sort of people, giving the right amount of money, and paying the right type of pastor, to do things the right way. And often, the “right sort of people” and the “right pastor” means – the sort that they are comfortable being around, that don’t challenge them, or at least they can politely ignore as long as they do things the right way, provide the right amount of money, and their religion stays personal to them.
Yet when things stop being done the “right way”. When worship takes new forms. When the “wrong sort” of people start attending and don’t give the right amount of money. When the pastor doesn’t seem quite right and does things all the wrong way. When the church makes religion about fully living out your faith in community with others – complete with the ugliness, awkwardness, and discomfort that comes with authentic community – instead of religion being only about your comfort – we start to lament. We start to cry out that God must be ignoring us. We try and rationalize all the reasons why these things can’t happen: All these new people make me feel disconnected. We don’t have enough money in the budget to feed the children in the community. We’ve got to make sure that no one is taking advantage of our charity. We’re too old to do that. We don’t have anyone with the knowledge or skills to do that mission. We don’t know enough about the bible to teach that. We have to take care of our members first. We are not comfortable going to that side of town. etc., etc., etc. And we do this because we refuse to admit that we simply do not want it. We hide our light. Dilute our saltiness. So much that we forget not only who we are, but whose we are. We get so caught up in playing “Church”, we forget that we are called to be Disciples of Christ, claimed by God, empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a shiny, salty presence in the community where God has placed us.
Meanwhile, the churches that make an impact in their community – the churches who know they are light to illuminate their neighbors and salt to bring out the God-flavors of their communities – those are churches who – according to Rev. Whitsett’s research – simply care more about their communities than themselves. They do not fight over the “way we’ve always done things.” They have no need even to try and preserve themselves because, like Christ, they have a strong sense of sacrificial action. They have people eager to be leaders because they understand that the only requirement to be a leader in the Church is to love like Jesus loves. You don’t have to be a great theologian, biblical scholar, or have a certain skill set. You don’t even have to get it right all the time. You just have to be willing to try to love like Jesus.
Author Isak Denisen – known for the books Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast – once wrote: “The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.” And the cure for the “failing church” – at least in the biblical sense – is salt and light as well. As the Prophet Isaiah points out, a “successful” church is prophetic church – one that shines a light within the dark places of injustice, poverty, and suffering that surrounds it – and then takes salty action to heal it and make it healthier. A prophetic church puts salt in the wounds of its community – which hurts at first – but eventually, the salt brings about healing and better health to both itself and the community around it. A prophetic church causes salty tears to flow as we recognize our own inner flaws, failings, and infighting – which is upsetting when we first confront it – but eventually the salt of our tears brings about healing and better health both within ourselves and our relationships with others. A prophetic church is formed by the sweat of our brow – hard work that causes a lot of aches and pains at first – but eventually we become stronger and healthier, and the hard work feels easier. A prophetic church also knows the importance of selfcare for its leaders – because they can’t care for the community if they are not caring for themselves. And nothing soothes tired, achy muscles like a nice soak in a warm salt water bath – such as the ocean.
A prophetic church is a healthy church. And, having been a biology teacher, I know that one of the basics of life is that healthy things always grow, though the growth is often slow and unsteady – with both peaks and valleys along the way. And in order to grow, you must first prepare the environment for healthy growth, which includes removing things that interfere with the organism’s health. The only thing that grows fast and uncontrolled is cancer – and left to its own devices, cancer will eventually kill the organism.
A healthy church also has biblical integrity. And something that has integrity is stable – all the parts supporting the whole mission of God to be salt and light in the world. All the various ministries and members of the church working together to support the church’s single, unified mission – “To welcome ALL people to experience God’s grace by worshiping, sharing, and serving together.” And having biblical integrity, means that we engage all three aspects of that mission. And while we’re always concerned about that first aspect – worshiping – what about sharing and serving? Because sharing and serving are what God views as worship with integrity.
My concern is that most of the congregation’s concern and most of the Seasonal Teams’ planning, is primarily focused on worship. The majority of this congregation’s attention is upon one hour each week. So much so that sharing and serving – our Christian Education programs, children’s ministry, small groups, and missional outreach – are often an afterthought. And yet, those are the aspects of our mission that will get us to better health and greater growth. Those are the aspects of our mission where we live into our identity of being “salt and light” for the community. Those are the aspects of our mission where we learn discipleship and engage in evangelism – both of which are necessary for church growth. Worship is to us to them. Otherwise, we end up like the Israelites complaining to Isaiah about how our worship isn’t giving us what we want. And if all we are doing for our religion is attending worship, then we are diluting the saltiness of our souls, dimming-down the light of our faith, and making our religion all about the perception of social piety.
And so I wonder. I wonder what will happen when we reclaim our Christ-given identity as salt and light again? I wonder what will happen when we take the words of Isaiah to heart? I wonder what will happen when we stop practicing the worship we desire and start engaging in worship that God desires – “to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, [and] cancel debts.” I wonder what will happen when we all agree to stop lamenting the church that was, and start embracing the church that is becoming? A church that is a light to ALL people in the community. I wonder what will happen when we stop playing it safe and start doing something salty, risky, even sacrificial, for the sake of our community – for the sake of God’s mission in our community? I wonder what will happen when we stop worrying about the “right way” of doing things and start doing things “Christ’s way?” For example: I wonder what will happen if we start having weekly dinners where we invite the whole community to eat a free meal, share conversation, and make new friendships? I wonder what will happen if we build a community garden in our park and donate the fresh produce to local food pantries? I wonder what will happen if we put out a little free food pantry in our park where people who need food can take what they need? I wonder what will happen if we hosted a community-wide arts festival to welcome artists from across the county to show off their talents for others who might not see them otherwise? I wonder what will happen if we hosted an event to raise money and awareness about issues such as breast cancer, human trafficking, and homeless youth that affect our community at an exceptionally high rate? I wonder what will happen when our life as a congregation is one where we – “share our food with the hungry, invite the homeless poor into our homes, put clothes on the shivering ill-clad, [and] are available to be…” with each other in times of need? Because sharing and serving within our community is what God views as worship with integrity.
The question is not – “Can we do it?” – because Jesus says you are already salt and light. You are already blessed by God with what you need to serve God’s mission. So we can do it. The question is not – “Do we have the ministry trifecta to make it happen?” – because research and experience shows that none of that stuff matters. So, we can do it. The real, difficult question we must answer is – “How much do we want it?” How much do we – Grace Presbyterian Church – want to grow? Not as a congregation – but as Disciples of Christ? How much do you – as individuals – want to grow in your sharing and serving? In your discipleship and evangelism? And therefore worship God with integrity? How much do we – as a congregation – actually care about those outside of us in this community? We say we do, until we have to sacrifice something important to us. So, how much are we willing to sacrifice in order to free our community of injustice, poverty, and suffering? How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to free ourselves from pride, greed, and nostalgia for the past?
Would we sacrifice our Wednesday lunches to provide a meal for other senior citizens in the community? Would we sacrifice our pristine park to provide a playground for children in Old Town who still don’t have a viable playground? Would we change the time of our worship service so that people living at Colonial House across the street would be able to worship with us every Sunday? Would we sacrifice our building and move to a rental space so that the money could feed children in our community or put a roof over a homeless teenager’s head at night? How much do you want to be a Disciple of Christ in every aspect of your life? How much do you want to embrace your saltiness and your lights? How much do we want to be a congregation who worships with biblical integrity – where we stop doing church and start being church?
Do you want to be bland and dull?
Or do you want to be salty and shiny?
How much do you want it?
The answer lies in knowing:
Who you are
and whose you are?
Scripture Text: Matthew 5:1-12 & Micah 6:1-8
We tend to throw around the name “God” a lot. So much so, I’m not sure that we always know what we mean when we say the name “God”. Does the name “God” mean what it originally intended, or is it so loaded with cultural, religious, and political baggage that the name “God” is disconnected from the Ultimate Reality to which the name points? This past week, I read a book by American theologian, John Caputo, entitled The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event. This challenging book is helping me to shape by own personal theology of God, and it also helped me to understand the Beatitudes in a new light.
In The Weakness of God, John Caputo argues that “God” is actually a “name” for an “event” and that our interpretation of that “event” is what we call theology. And that the purpose of theology is to separate the “event” from the “name”, otherwise worldly forces will attempt to prevent the “event” of God from happening. Caputo argues that when we give a name to something – like “God” – it “…can accumulate historical power and worldly prestige and have very powerful institutions erected in or under [its] name…” And throughout history, the name “God” has developed a powerful influence, enabled by powerful theological beliefs, political organizations, and religious institutions such as the Church. As such, these beliefs, organizations, and institutions use the power attributed to the “name” of God to push their own worldly agendas instead of building God’s Kingdom.
Yet while a “name” can be held captive to beliefs, organizations, and institutions, an “event” cannot. Because an “event” is not something we do; it is something done TO us. While we can instill a “name” with all kinds of meaning and power, an “event” is out of our control. And even when we try to contain an “event” by giving it a “name” – the “event” always breaks free. The name “Christmas” can NOT contain ALL the meaning and depth and influence of the event that is Christmas. Therefore, God will always be bigger and beyond the “name” and attributes humans apply to God. God is an “event” that happens to us and is out of our control, no matter how much we try to box God in with “names”, theology, and institutions.
And when such a God “event” happens to us, we are required to respond to it. The event elicits a response, not because it is the cause or because it is present – but because the God event calls us to respond or rather, provokes us to respond. The God event calls us to bring about the appearance of the Kingdom NOT through powerful, strong forces – like through violence or political actions enacted in the “name” of God – but through weak forces, through the weakness of God. As Caputo says, “The kingdom of God is the rule of weak forces like patience and forgiveness, which, instead of forcibly exacting payment for an offense, release and let go… The kingdom is a way of living, not in eternity, but in time…living for the day…as opposed to mastering and programming time, calculating the future, [or] containing and managing risk.” And as I look at both of our scripture texts today, I can see what Caputo is talking about when it comes to this God event, to this inability to contain God, to this call to respond to the event, to this kingdom of weak forces. And this God event calls us to embody a way of life built on the beatitudes.
In the prophet Micah, we find a biblical text so well-known that it is regularly tattooed on people’s bodies, memed on social media, and quoted as a show of Christian righteousness. But we must keep this scripture in context. It’s not just a moral exhortation. It’s not a just show of piety. It’s a cry of God against God’s own people who forgot the “event” of God in the past and, instead, tried to domesticate God to their own advantage. To a people who tried to manipulate power in the “name” of God rather than respond to the “event” of God throughout their history. And so, God calls the people into court, demanding they testify to their recent injustices against the poor and outcast among them. Yet, before they can speak, God testifies against them – recalling all the events in which God saved them from destruction – starting from the Exodus. God upheld God’s end of the covenant, yet Israel failed through their unjust actions towards the least among them. Israel acknowledges its guilt and asks what it can do to make themselves right before God again: Bring burnt offerings? Sacrifice a thousand rams? Offer rivers of olive oil? Sacrifice their first born to atone for their sins? But Israel still doesn’t get it. The people still don’t understand what God is calling them to. God doesn’t want a show of religious power. God can’t be manipulated by a ritual or act of worship. God is not concerned about your religion as much as God is concerned with how you live – particularly how you treat those who can do nothing for you in return. And so God simply replies back: I’ve already made it plain and simple how it is you are to live: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously. Doing justice? Love kindness? Walk humbly with God? Those are acts of power and strength. Those are signs of weakness – benefitting the weakest among them. Why should people in power do that? Why should they act in a way that the world sees as weak?
And yet, Jesus teaches the same in the Beatitudes – the beginning of his famous Sermon on the Mount. But the problem with the way we often read the Beatitudes, is that we read them from a “name” of God perspective instead of an “event” of God perspective. Read through the power-affirming “name” of God perspective, the Beatitudes are a seen as series of moral actions and attitudes through which you can earn the power of God’s blessing. The problem is, Jesus is NOT saying, “Do these things and then you will be blessed.” Jesus is saying, “You are already blessed by God because of these events in your life, and there is hope for you in the future completion of the kingdom.” You just have to recognize the blessing of God within those events – events such as mourning and hunger and mercy.
For God is the event that calls you to bring about the Kingdom of God, not through strong forces, but through weak forces. Weak forces that make your heart restless and provoke you to go beyond yourself into unknown places you once thought you would never go. God is that churning in the pit of your stomach that motivates you to finally do something about the things in the world that cause you to mourn, that make you hungry for justice, that urge you to show mercy to others, and that inspires you to work for peace even when people ridicule you and tell you it’s all too big, that you’ll never make a difference. That deep calling from within is the God event. And you are already blessed with events that are calling you to become the Disciple you are born to be. And when you finally answer the call from the God event, you experience transformation. And your actions in response are the weakness of God which is counter to the power the world selfishly manipulates in God’s name.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus lifts up these weak forces as signs of the Kingdom and the object of ridicule by the world. Weaknesses like, feeling “you’re at the end of your rope” (or “poor in spirit”), which blesses you with a constant, humble dependence on God that continues on into the completion of the kingdom. Suffering the loss of “what is most dear to you” (or “those who mourn”) blesses you with knowing the world is not as it should be, and in the event, you are comforted by God’s call to do something about it. Being “content with just who you are” (or “the meek”) blesses you with discovering your worth in God, not in this world, and you are called to show others they’re worth in God too. That gut-wrenching, “good appetite for God” (or “hunger and thirst for justice”) blesses you with a desire for more than fleeting human justice – you desire the radical, upside-down, eternal justice of God’s kingdom to be manifest in this world, by working together, accomplishing one act of God’s justice at a time. “Caring” for others, (or “being merciful”) blesses you with both compassion and forgiveness, action over attitude, in response to the call to imitate God in the Christ event which offered you undeserved compassion and forgiveness and continues to do so even now. Getting “your inside world – your heart and your mind – put right” (or “the pure of heart”) blesses you with freedom from attachments to money and material things – so that you are so fully devoted to God that you see the face of God in all the events of the world – good and bad – just as you will see God’s face in the fulfillment of the kingdom. Showing “people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight” (or “the peacemakers”) blesses you with the event of God’s peace – of God’s shalom – and calls to enact it by helping people cooperate for the welfare of ALL people – building bridges of understanding instead of walls of fear – no matter how futile or nonsensical your efforts appear to the world. Committing “to God” and “provok[ing] persecution” by people who “put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you” blesses you because the God events in your life revealed to you the vision the Kingdom, and so you push that vision forward no matter how difficult, unpleasant, or unpopular it is – knowing that many before you have done the same despite what the powers of the world have done to them, even in the name of God.
That is the blessed kingdom of the weakness of God that Jesus teaches. It’s “…a domain in which weakness ‘reigns’… not the weakness that lacks the power of faith or the courage for action, but the provocative and uplifting weakness of God…that…should not be underestimated because it is a divine force. [Because]…whenever powerlessness exerts its force, whenever the high and mighty are displaced by the least among us…[when]…whatever first is last, whatever is out is in, whatever is lost is saved…[whatever] confounds the dynamics of strong forces…mocking the business-as-usual of the powers that be…” the event of the kingdom of God is occurring. And the Beatitudes are more than a description of that event. The Beatitudes are also both a blessing and a call – a blessing of the weakness of God already working within you and a call to use that weakness so that God’s “kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
For throughout the history of the world, it has been those weaker forces that have brought about the most momentous and long-lasting changes. The British Empire was brought down in India, NOT by using violent force, but by the weakness of non-violent protests. The initial goals of the Civil Rights Movement were accomplished, not by a show of political power, but by the weakness of the powerless. For it is the weak forces that, over time, outlast the strong forces of this world, and completely overcome the powers that be.
Even in your own lives, it is the weakness of God that brings about your transformation. It is the weakness of God throughout life events of – hitting rock bottom, mourning your losses, learning humility, crying out for justice, being forgiven, confronting your inner issues, making peace with your enemies, and suffering ridicule for your authenticity – it’s those events of weakness that eventually overtakes, overturns, uproots, and unhinges you until you are left hanging by a prayer where all you can do is respond to the call of God to participate in the next event. And when you do that, when you finally respond to God’s provocation – then you embodying beatitude living. A life where being blessed means being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, and pure in heart NOT wealthy, powerful, famous, successful, or beautiful. Those are the ways of the world that Jesus warns against. And when you know you are already blessed, you seek to build a better world so ALL people can be blessed. A world called the Kingdom of God. A world that works according to the grace, mercy, and peace of the Beatitudes rather than the punishment, vengeance, and competition of this world. A world where you are blessed – not because you earned it – but so that you can be a blessing to others.
And if this is the way of the Kingdom, then it should also be the way of the Church. Imagine a church that shunned all the ways of power and prestige that the world promotes, and embraced the weakness and humility of God, as seen in the event of Christ Jesus. Imagine a church built around Beatitude living – showing people they are already blessed so that they can be a blessing to others – rather than commodified living – meeting the members’ needs simply to promote their own wealth, image, power, and success. Imagine church members who are less reliant on their own prosperity and more fully reliant on God. Imagine a church that takes its tears over injustice of the world and uses them to make things right, even just in its own community. Imagine a church humble enough to welcome all who it encounters with gentleness and humility – even those other churches reject, even those who can contribute nothing to the church financially or socially. Imagine a church where all the members share life together in such a way that no one among them ever goes without the basic necessities of life. Image a church where mercy isn’t just something the church prays for but is an action the church takes towards those in their community. Imagine a church where members spend time on deep, self-reflection so they can heal from their inner wounds and truly learn to love themselves – because if you can’t love yourself, how can love your neighbor as yourself? Imagine a church where instead of avoiding or gossiping when they disagree or hurt each other, the church members talk to each other – no matter how uncomfortable it is – and work towards reconciliation rather than plotting revenge. Imagine a church that speaks the eternal truth of God’s unconditional love even when it upsets others, even when it’s unpopular in the community. Because I guarantee you, there are people out there looking for a church like that. A church that embodies beatitude living, unashamed of its weakness, blesses others with its blessings, authentic in its relationships, and boldly proclaims the truth of God’s unconditional love. That’s a church that we can be. That’s the church that we are on our way to becoming. A church that embodies the beatitudes. And it all begins by embracing our blessings. AMEN.
Scripture Text: Matthew 4:12-23 & Isaiah 9:1-4
Typically, the Pastor’s annual report is a written account of all the things that the pastor has “done.” The work that has been “completed.” Looking at my report from last year, I did just that – listed off all the things I had done and that we had done together as a church. And while it may seem like a list of tasks – it is a reflection of something greater. It is a reflection of a deeper change within us – both as individuals and as a congregation. Because something is happening among us here at Grace. Something new is taking shape. Something new is growing and developing. And that something new is that we are starting to claim our vocation as a congregation and growing more into Disciples of Christ. And so, for my annual report this year, I want to point out the ways we are growing.
Churches always have mission statements. But mission statements mean nothing if it goes right into the file cabinet after it’s written. Mission statements mean nothing if you never use it to guide the direction and future of the church as the Body of Christ. Our current mission statement, developed by the Session at the end of 2016 and approved by the congregation at the beginning of 2017 is “Welcoming ALL people to experience God’s grace by worshiping, sharing, and serving together.” Sounds nice doesn’t it? It flows well. Has alliteration. And yet it is just words. Just something nice to say. A mission statement is supposed to change the direction of the institution. But if we are only talking about turning – but not actually turning – then our mission statement is a big, bold, lie! In other words, you don’t get to just “approve” a mission statement, and then do nothing. You must make a conscious decision, a choice, to transform the mission statement into mission action. It doesn’t truly become the church’s mission until the congregation chooses to make it the church’s mission. And your choice is exhibited by your actions or lack thereof.
And sometimes the act of following the mission – of claiming the vocation that God gives us – can be drastic and dramatic. The calling of the Disciples is a story you may have heard several times. How Jesus simply walks up, says “Follow me.” and the Disciples drop their nets and follow. The problem is, the way that the Disciples are often portrayed, we are made to feel as though they had nothing to lose in following Jesus. But nothing could be further from the truth. The Disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus. They were not poor. A fisherman was not a poor man’s job. At worst, they were small, family-business owners. To be a fisherman at the time meant you had to be able to afford the equipment to catch the fish, pay taxes on your catch, process and transport the fish, have a place to sell the fish, and even have employees (mostly family) to work on the boat and at the market. These Disciples were NOT poor and destitute and had nothing to lose. They had EVERYTHING to lose. And they gave it all up. Gave up their businesses. Gave up their family. Gave up all they ever knew and understood.
And they gave all this up for a man they had never even met before. Jesus just arrived in Capernaum. He hadn’t performed any great miracles or healings yet. He was simply picking up here John the Baptist left off – telling people to “Change your life. God’s Kingdom is here.” He was just another crazy, wannabe prophet like John. And yet, Jesus walks up to these fishermen, and orders to them to follow him. Jesus doesn’t lovingly invite them. Jesus doesn’t try to persuade or manipulate them into following him. Jesus orders them to quit the one calling they’d been preparing for their entire life and begin this new calling that they knew nothing about. Jesus just tells them to do it. And these young fishermen drop everything – the business they’ve built, the money they’ve earned, the skills that they’ve learned, even the families that they love – leaving their father in the boat by himself. They drop everything to follow Jesus. They drop everything to follow this unknown Rabbi. And in so doing, they help fulfill the mission of God and discover who they are – Disciples of Jesus Christ.
Discovering who you are is not a mental exercise. It takes work. It requires you to make a leap of faith and do something unexpected, uncharacteristic, and uncomfortable. There was a time when this church knew who it was. But times have changed. And this church’s old identity isn’t true anymore. And so this Church must re-discover what it is all about. This church must re-discover its identity. This church must ask itself: “Who Are We?” And the answer to that question can’t be achieved by Sunday worship and personal prayer alone. Jesus didn’t call the Disciples just to worship and personal prayer. Jesus called them to a way of life that included worshiping, sharing, and serving. The mission of God includes all three. Claiming your vocation requires all three. Knowing who you are, requires all three.
And that’s why things are changing dramatically here at Grace Presbyterian – especially within the last year. Things are changing dramatically because – like the first disciples – we are finally dropping our nets and leaving behind everything we ever knew. Following Jesus in a direction that is unexpected. Following Jesus to do things that were once uncharacteristic. Following Jesus to places that are uncomfortable. Because that’s what discipleship is all about. Just look at what we’ve managed to do in 2018 in response to this calling to Discipleship.
We completed a full year of our Seasonal Team program which has been excellent for getting more people engaged in the mission and ministry of the church. Because while serving on a Seasonal Team is a LOT of work, unlike our traditional committees – which are an all-year commitment – you know that there is an end to your time on a Seasonal Team. And so people kept coming back to serve AGAIN on another Seasonal Team. And so many fresh and creative approaches to worshiping, sharing, and serving together grew out of the collaborative efforts of our Seasonal Teams.
(WORSHIPING) We worshiped in new and different ways that helped us to worship God with all of our heart, mind, body, and soul, including:
(SERVING) We served together in fresh, new ways through original mission and community outreach opportunities including:
These are just the BRAND NEW things that we did this year to follow Jesus as we served our community together. There are also the things that we have done in years past that also had a great impact upon us and our community. When I try to think about the number of lives touched by these new missions – I’m not sure how to count them! (Maybe that’s something we need to encourage our Seasonal Teams to try and do this year – to count the people affected by their mission programs.) And many of our new mission programs were more than just making donations – they also involved hands and feet. They also involved meeting our community face-to-face. And that is what has had the greatest impact upon us – getting to know our community again. Getting to know each other on a deeper, more vulnerable level. Dropping our safety nets of “Sunday Worship” and following Jesus into places that for us are often unexpected, uncharacteristic, and uncomfortable. And for those of you who did the unexpected, who did something uncharacteristic, who step into something uncomfortable – you are the ones I have seen grow the most in your faith. You are the ones I have seen flourish over this past year. You are the ones I have seen get more and more excited about everything happening here at Grace. And it’s all because you made the decision to drop your safety net and do something you’ve never done before. All because you made the decision not just to say you are Christian, but to also take action to follow the Mission of God and pursue the call to become a Disciple of Jesus Christ. And through it all you discovered gifts and talents you never even thought you had. Through it all you found joy in places you never expected. Through it all, you built new relationships that have supported you along this journey we call faith.
And in 2019 – we are going to go even further! In 2019 we are going to become even MORE involved in our community and build even DEEPER relationships with one another. On the page 44 of the annual report you have the new 2019 Goals and Benchmarks for our congregation. Session discerned these during their retreat this past September. And they intentionally decided to keep our goals to only three so that we can truly put our energy into these goals.
Our first goal is Marketing and Social Media. Our goal is to have daily posting on social media and weekly updating of our website. In particular, posting content that is engaging – that has people discussing and interacting about their faith throughout the week. All the research shows that this is how you first engage younger generations. Your social media feed is your new front door. Many people will engage with your social media for weeks or months before they ever actually attend a worship service. So we are going to put more energy and time into building this up. Because if we don’t, then we are never going to bring in the next generation. And you can support this by not only “liking” our posts, but also “sharing” our posts. You can’t just share the things that you personally like on the church website – you’ve got to share it all. In this day and age – where we are experiencing the greatest communication shift in the last 500 years – this is a new form of discipleship and evangelism that even Presbyterians can do. You don’t have to “know enough” or be “skilled enough” to share the church’s content. If you know how to share your grandkid’s pictures or the latest inspirational meme, you can share Grace’s Facebook content. Yet the day when I asked everyone to take out their phones and share the trailer for our Christmas services, only four people actually shared it. I can see how many times it is shared and the name of everyone who shares it. I know who actually helps our social media outreach and who doesn’t. Refusing to share our social media outreach is not going to help you or your church. So please, just share. It literally takes a second to do so.
Secondly, we are going to encourage each Seasonal team to provide a local mission program that all generations can participate in. Whether it’s kids and adults working together to collect canned food items or making hygiene product bags – we must continue building our intergenerational relationships while simultaneously serving our community. ALL the research on church growth and youth ministry shows that congregation members building relationships with children and youth in the church is one of the best indicators of whether or not those kids will continue going to church as teenagers and adults. At the same time, being out in our community more has dramatically improved our image in the community – with more people asking me about the outreach programs we are doing and how they can be involved. They aren’t asking to come to worship. They are asking to be involved in serving their community. Unlike in the past where worship attendance drove engagement – today, engagement drives worship attendance. The more we are active in our community and invite the community to participate in serving their community, the more likely they will come and worship with us as well. The more we provide these opportunities for our community, the more our church will grow.
Third, we are going to work on building deeper relationships with one another. To move beyond our old cliques and Sunday morning, social niceties. We are going to start asking people to form different types of small groups, including: Affinity Groups (built around activities you enjoy doing), Discipleship groups (for those who want to learn more about their faith and scripture), and Covenant Groups (for those who want to engage in mutual sharing, prayer, and support of one another). Some of these groups will be short-term and organized by Seasonal Teams, and some of them will be long-term and independent. Small groups can drive church growth because it is often easier to invite someone to attend a small group at your house than to invite them to worship at your church. People – especially young people – are desperately looking for real, authentic, community. Small groups can provide that. Plus, the next step for those who engage on social media is often a small group and then worship. So the formation of small groups is vital to the growth of our church. And you are going to have to be the person who steps up and lead them. (Yes, I’m talking to you.)
So that is where we’ve been. And that is where we are going. I know that it’s been difficult, even painful, at times. In Isaiah’s prophecy, the promised land is conquered by the Babylonians and left in darkness and destruction which God allowed to happen. Yet, the prophet also tells them that now is the time to hope because, “the time is coming when he’ll make that whole area glorious.” The entire nation is about to be resurrected. God is about to “repopulate the nation…expand its joy…The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings.” For some of you, things may seem bleak and dark right now and that’s because resurrection is always preceded by death. Easter is always preceded by Good Friday. But there is hope for “The people who walk in darkness” There is a light at the end of the tomb. Resurrection is on the way. But resurrection is messy. And the resurrected body is different from the previous body. I highly doubt that Jesus arose from the grave pristinely clean, in a glowing white robe, and perfect hair. I imagine he arose stained with blood, with dirt under his nails, and his hair all matted. And Jesus’ resurrected body could move through locked doors and suddenly appear in rooms – even though it could also still eat and drink. So just hold on – resurrection is happening – it’s just a messy process.
At the same time, I highly doubt that the family and friends of the first Disciples were okay with them dropping everything to follow around a total stranger. I’m sure that their family relationships were strained. And we know that these Disciples struggled for the rest of their lives. Struggled physically, emotionally, spiritually, in pursuing their vocation as Disciples of Christ. We know that only ONE of them died of old age. The rest were executed. But their discipleship not only helped them grow in their faith and push through their struggles, it also grew the Church even in the midst of Roman oppression.
And you can do the same. In 2019, you can make this church grow by leaps and bounds. But you first have to make the conscious decision to grow as a Disciple of Jesus Christ yourself. You have to take action by doing that which is unexpected of you, uncharacteristic of you, and uncomfortable for you. To only do what’s expected, to only be a caricature of a Christian, to stay in your comfort zone will only cause your spirit to shrivel and die. But life in Christ shuns safety and risks everything for the fullness of life found in the Kingdom of God that is already here. You are graciously invited to come and follow Jesus and to continue his work as a Disciple – to claim your vocation and serve God’s mission here in our community.
In 2019, join us in welcoming all people to experience God’s grace by worshiping, sharing, and serving together.
Scripture Text: Matthew 3:13-17 & Isaiah 42:1-9
In 1922, author Margery Williams published her first book called, The Velveteen Rabbit, subtitled: How Toys Become Real. In the story, a boy receives a simple, stuffed toy rabbit made of cheap, velveteen fabric for Christmas. When the Velveteen Rabbit arrives in the nursery, the mechanical and more expensive nursery toys look down on him because they are more “real” than him, because they are worth more than him. Yet the Velveteen Rabbit becomes the boy’s most beloved toy. And as the boy drags his beloved rabbit around through the woods and wilderness behind his house, the beloved toy becomes more and more worn, torn, and shabby. But the Velveteen Rabbit doesn’t mind because he knows that he is the boy’s beloved.
When the boy comes down with scarlet fever, the Velveteen Rabbit snuggles with the boy until he is well again. But the doctor orders that the Velveteen Rabbit and all the other toys in the nursery be burned in order to disinfect it. As the Velveteen Rabbit is placed upon the burn pile of toys, blankets, and books, he remembers a conversation he had with the Skin Horse – the oldest toy in the nursery. The Skin Horse told him, “Real isn’t how you are made…[i]t’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” In remembering that he is the boy’s beloved toy, the Velveteen Rabbit cries a real tear – calling forth the magic Fairy of the Nursery who carries him out to the woods, kisses him, then tells him to run and play. And with that kiss, the Velveteen Rabbit becomes a real rabbit – made real through the boy’s unconditional love.
One of the things that we long for, that we desire, that we need in order to survive is to know we are loved and to offer love in return. Unfortunately, many of us have learned – through our culture, our personal experiences, even our families – that love is earned. That love is not guaranteed. That love is conditional. As a result, we come to believe that love is equated with making others happy, proud, or pleased. That if we upset, disappoint, or displease someone, we can cause them to love us less or even stop loving us at all. And many of us learned this as children from our own parents. And if we are taught that a parent’s love is conditional, that a parent’s love depends upon being “good enough,” then we’ll struggle our entire lives feeling not “good enough”, feeling undeserving of love in future relationships – with our friends, our family, our spouses and partners. We will even feel we are undeserving of God’s love.
All children should believe that a fundamental reality of life is that your parents love you unconditionally. And parents should teach this unconditional love – both through our words and our actions. Something I tell my own children is, “There is nothing that you can ever do that will make me love you less. There is nothing that you can ever do that will make me love you more. My love for you is not based upon what you can accomplish, how happy or proud you can make me, or even what you do for me. My love for you simply is. I love you just because you are.” I tell them this because I want my children to know that their worth is independent of another’s opinion of them or what they can do for someone else. That their self-worth, their belovedness, is simply part of their existence.
Now, do my actions always line up with my words? No. Like everyone else, like every single person in this room, I screw up time and time again. I too cause pain and hurt and suffering upon the people with whom I have relationships. But since love can only exist within relationships – and no relationship is perfect – love will always come with pain and hurt and suffering that, in the end, will leave you feeling (and often times even looking) like the Velveteen Rabbit – worn, torn, and shabby. But unconditional love also comes with grace, forgiveness, and mercy. When you discover you are loved unconditionally, when you finally connect to your belovedness, that is when you become Real. And you want others to connect to their belovedness as well – no matter how worn, torn, and shabby they are.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we find Jesus approaching John to be baptized. But John doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand why in the world Jesus would need to be baptized. John is preaching for people to repent – to change their lives – and to be baptized – to make a public profession of that life change. Yet John knows that Jesus’ life is already turned towards God’s will. There is no reason for Jesus to be baptized nor is John deserving to baptize Jesus. But Jesus insists, saying, “Do it. God’s work of putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So, John baptizes Jesus. And when Jesus rises out of the waters, the Greek tells us that the heavens are literally “torn apart” and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove and lands upon Jesus. Then a voice speaks, saying: “This is my Son, chosen and marked as my beloved, delight of my life.” In his baptism, Jesus publicly declares what was once privately known. That Jesus is a child of God. Beloved of God. In whom God delights. And that belovedness is so great that God will tear apart the heavens to proclaim it.
Matthew describes Jesus’ baptism this way NOT to say that Jesus’ baptism is unique. NOT to say that the church baptizes because Jesus was baptized. Instead, Jesus says, in his baptism, we see the coming together of “God’s work of putting things rights all these centuries.” So what Matthew IS saying is that what happens in Jesus’ baptism, happens in ALL our baptisms. That when you are baptized, you are making public what was once private: That each and every one of you is a child of God. Beloved of God. In whom God delights.
Do you ever think about that? Have you ever realized that? Not only are you a child of God. Not only are you beloved of God. But that God delights in your very existence. And the very fact that infants and children are baptized before they can even know God, also means that you are beloved just because you exist. Not because you deserve it. Not because you earned it. Not because you are good enough for it. Not because you said the “magic words.” You are beloved of God just because you exist. And you are so beloved of God, that God is willing to be torn apart in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so that you can know and connect to your belovedness.
And you have been beloved of God for a very long time. Longer than you can possibly comprehend. You’ve been beloved of God since before the creation of the world. And just like the Velveteen Rabbit, you are made Real – you come into existence – because of this powerful, unconditional, and infinite belovedness.
Yet so many of us go through life feeling unloved – of not knowing that we are beloved. So many of us – like the mechanical and more expensive toys in the nursery – assume “false” personas and “mechanical” religious practices just to get through life. Why is that? It’s because we are so fearful of the pain and the hurt and the suffering that comes with being beloved. So much so, that we would rather to live as someone we’re not or avoid love altogether.
The Skin Horse tells the Velveteen Rabbit: “Real isn’t how you are made,…It’s a thing that happens to you…”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” [the Rabbit] asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
How many of you “break easily” without others to tell you of your worth, to tell you who you are? How many of you are defined by your “sharp edges” because you refuse to risk the pain of rejection again? How many of you are physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted because you work so hard at appearing “carefully kept” on the outside, that no one knows just how worn, torn, and shabby you are on the inside? And so many of us do this that even though we are together, here in this congregation – we are all alone. Together. Strangers to one another.
And that’s because you are not yet your true, authentic self. You are not yet Real. To become real, you have to connect to your belovedness. And your belovedness is something you can’t achieve, become good enough for, or even deserve. You are beloved because you exist and God delights in your existence. And once you know within yourself that you are beloved – it doesn’t matter if others see how worn, torn, and shabby you are on the outside. Because your worth no longer depends on that.
The Skin Horse tells the Velveteen Rabbit, and us, that this realness, “…doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time.” And the same is true of your baptism. Your baptism doesn’t happen all at once either. The day of your baptism is when you are first told: “This is my child, chosen and marked as my beloved, delight of my life.” But your baptism isn’t over in that moment. It begins a process. A process of continually connecting to your belovedness. “You become. It takes a long time.” In fact, your baptism isn’t complete until the day you die. In the Church we call this process “discipleship” or “Spiritual formation.” And your baptism is the beginning of this life-long process where growth happens NOT by listening to feel good sermons, staying in your comfort zone, or avoiding vulnerability. You grow in your discipleship, you live into your baptism, you mature in your faith by taking the unknown, uncomfortable wilderness journey alongside other unknown, broken, and lost people, forming loving relationships with them – complete with the hurt, pain, and suffering that comes with it – and supporting one another with grace, forgiveness, and mercy along the way. In doing so, you become vulnerable to each other, and together discover your belovedness. Together, discover not only WHO you are, but WHOSE you are. There is no other way to live into your baptism.
As New Testament Professor Dr. Karoline Lewis says, “Baptism assumes the wilderness – not to test our loyalty – not to tempt God’s commitment – not to get us to turn on the Spirit… the wilderness is part of what it means to be the People of God…We are reminded that with baptism comes wilderness and that wilderness is not an individual affair. The Israelites were not in the wilderness alone. They had each other. Jesus was not in the wilderness alone. He had the Spirit and the promise of God’s declaration. We are never in the wilderness alone. Our baptism propels us into community and if ever we rely on baptism as only that which safeguards our own individual security, [then] we have misinterpreted [Jesus’ own baptism].”
As soon as the Israelites pass through the waters of the Red Sea, they travel the wilderness together for 40 years so that they forget what it means to be a slave and connect to their belovedness as the children of God they’ve always been. As soon as Jesus passes through the waters of baptism, he enters the wilderness for 40 days. And when Jesus comes out of the wilderness, he begins his work, his calling, his ministry – of helping others connect to their belovedness by walking their wilderness journey alongside them, regardless of their appearance, their past, their religion, their gender, their political affiliation, their education, or their job. And Jesus does his ministry NOT to earn God’s love, NOT to feel good about himself, NOT to look good in front of others, but because he already knows what it feels like to be beloved of God. And Jesus wants others to experience their belovedness too.
Baptism is NOT an individual act. Baptism is a communal act of the entire congregation. Both those being baptized and those witnessing the baptism take vows. Vows to love and support one another on the wilderness journey. Vows to be in Christian relationship with one another – with both the good and the bad. The baptism of one among us has consequences for all of us. Baptism pushes against American ideologies of independence and personal responsibility and reminds us that we are interdependent – that we are responsible for one another. As a Rabbi once put it, “Cain asked God, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ And God’s response is the rest of the bible, which teaches: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Baptism is also NOT about your individual security – your individual salvation. Baptism is about the Kin-dom of God. (I say Kin-dom because in baptism we become siblings in Christ, therefore, we are all kin.) And as such, in our baptism we are marked, called, and ordained to the priesthood of all believers. And as a priest of the kin-dom, each of you is called to share the Gospel in such a way that those OUTSIDE the church can also connect to their belovedness. This is a minimal expectation of discipleship, of spiritual formation, of growing in your faith. Jesus never told his disciples – “Just stay here. Listen to my sermons. Say your prayers. Take care of each other and forget everybody else.” Jesus actually leaves them all behind and places the entire responsibility for his ministry on the Disciples. Commissioning them to: “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism…[and] instruct[ing] them in the practice of all I have commanded you.” But of course, the Disciples run and hide in fear – because it’s scary to share the Gospel. So, God sends the Holy Spirit to set their tongues on fire and chase them out into the streets – where they proclaim the Gospel to everyone present. (We call that event Pentecost.) And that commission that was given to the Disciples is also given to each and every one of you at your baptism. That commission is meant for ALL of Jesus’ followers. We are ALL meant to connect with our belovedness, and in response walk the wilderness journey with others so they can connect with their belovedness.
Imagine what the world would be like… maybe the world is too big. Imagine what just this congregation will be like, when we – every single person in this church – makes the intentional effort to connect with our belovedness daily. When each one of us makes an intentional effort to help just ONE other person OUTSIDE this congregation to connect with their belovedness. Imagine what will happen when we stop depending upon the affirmations and opinions of others to know our self-worth and accept the fact that we are already worthy. When we stop avoiding getting to know new people out of our own fear of rejection, and enter into deep, vulnerable relationships with them. When we stop worrying about appearing perfect and pristine and honestly let our shabbiness show, just a little. Or, as a 90’s reality show once put it, “What would happen when we stop being nice and start being Real?” As Real as God loves us to be.
It’s not easy. It’s really uncomfortable. And it will be messy at times. But you know what? – Not only will we become Real as individuals, our relationships will become Real. Our relationships will be less about shallow, socialized, one-sided politeness and more about deep, authentic, mutual vulnerability. We will really know each other. And because of that, we will become less fearful. Because when we truly know each other, and learn just how worn, torn, and shabby we all are, we quickly discover that we are not alone in the wilderness of this world.
Whether we realize it or not, we vow to do this – to walk the wilderness together, to support one another, to build these deep, vulnerable relationships with each other – at every baptism. Today, as we baptize Jayden, Kole, and Raelynn, as we officially welcome Courtnie into our shared ministry and mission, we make vows – to both them and to God – “to guide and nurture [them] by word and deed, with love and prayer” and to “encourage them to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.” All of us vow to be in deep, authentic, vulnerable relationship with them. We vow to travel the wilderness of life with them. And if you cannot or will no do that, then I ask you to be honest with yourself and with God, and NOT take those vows.
You will also reaffirm your vow to “devote yourself to the church’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers, and through your study and service, share in the church’s worship and mission and fulfill your calling to be a Disciple of Jesus Christ.” Nowhere in that vow do you promise to be happy, to be comfortable, or to be safe. You vow to fulfill your calling to become a Disciple of Christ. And almost all the original disciples were executed because of their calling. Jesus was crucified for it. Do not be fooled. There is nothing easy, comfortable, or safe about truly being a Disciple of Christ.
Do you trust enough in your belovedness to fulfill those vows with more than just words, but also with actions, so that you live into your calling to be a Disciple of Christ? So that you become Real?
Or will you allow fear to consume your belovedness and fall back into your false pristine persona that says, “I can’t do that. I don’t know enough about the bible. I’m not comfortable with that. I’ll help but I won’t be in charge.”? All of which feel safer – but all of which keeps you from connecting to your belovedness.
Are you willing to receive your belovedness that already exists – complete with wilderness relationships and all the pain and hurt and suffering that comes with them?
Or will you keep trying to achieve something that isn’t real, that simply doesn’t exist – defining yourself by other’s opinions, your sharp edges, and your external appearances?
It’s the difference between having a deep, messy, faith or a shallow, superficial, religion.
Which do you want?
Who are you?
Text: Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12
This season the Epiphany Team chose the theme “Who Are You?” And this is an excellent question to ask at the beginning of a new year. In fact, it is THE question we ask ourselves at the beginning of every new year – “Who Are You?” Because we must ask that question of ourselves BEFORE we can make our New Year’s resolutions. Because New Year’s resolutions are statements about change. Statements about transformation. Statements where we acknowledge just how short we have fallen – from society’s expectations, family’s expectations, our own expectations. We make these resolutions because we asked ourselves, “Who are you?” – and got an answer we didn’t like. And so we resolve – we promise – we vow – that this year is going to be different. This year is the year of the new me. This is the year that I make all things new – at least about myself.
The website statista.com lists the top New Year’s resolutions that Americans made last year. 53% of those surveyed stated that their New Year’s resolution was to “save more money.” 45% resolved to “lose weight or get into shape.” And 25% of Americans surveyed resolved to “have more sex.” And yet, according to an article in Forbes magazine, just 8% of people keep their New Year’s resolution by the year’s end. And according to U.S. News and World Report, 80% of those New Year’s resolutions fail by February. So, I guess that Americans are not “saving more money”, “getting into shape”, or “having more sex” as we would like. Perhaps that attributes to the high levels of stress, anxiety, and frustration within our country.
And the biggest reason why we don’t keep our New Year’s resolutions is because resolutions are about change. Resolutions are about transformation. Resolutions are about acknowledging that how we are living isn’t the way we should be living. That we have failings, issues, and sins that are a part of who we are. And the truth is, most of us have become either accustom to or satisfied with being that way. So much so, that we no longer see these things as failings, issues, and sins. We no longer feel the need to be self-reflective – to know ourselves. We are happy just the way we are. And yet – and yet – deep down, we are miserable. And most of all, we are fearful. Fearful of what we might discover if we truly reflected on the question, “Who are you?”
John Calvin – who is the father of the Presbyterian tradition – began his theological treatise, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, by writing “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.” In other words, you can’t know yourself until you know who God is. And that you can’t know WHOSE you are until you know WHO you are. The knowledge of self and the knowledge of God are inextricably linked to one another. And so when we refuse to be self-reflective. When we reject the suggestion that there might be something we need to change about ourselves. When we resist any movement towards addressing our deeper, inner fears and anxieties – then we are also refusing, rejecting, and resisting to know who God is. And in doing so, we also refuse, reject, and resist the salvation that God offers us in Jesus Christ. And we refuse, reject, and resist our salvation because it means having to go into that deep, dark place within ourselves that is terrifying.
Our text today is one that is familiar to us all. The arrival of the Magi, or the Three Kings, or the Wise Men, or – if you are from New Jersey – the Three Wise Guys. It’s a story that we love to see enacted over and over again in children’s Christmas pageants. And the typical interpretation of this text, given by most preachers, is to ask the congregation, “What gift can you give to Jesus this year?” Now while we may like this interpretation of the story, because it’s easy, requires little self-reflection, and is made popular in songs such as “The Little Drummer Boy” or “In the Bleak Midwinter” – if we are self-reflective, if we are seeking to know ourselves and God better, then there is a deeper, darker, more frightening element to this story that we must dive into. One that forces us to ask ourselves the question – “Who are you?”
There is a key verse in the Matthew text that tells us exactly how Jesus’ birth was received by those in power, by those who desire to maintain the status quo, by those who refuse to change. When the Magi come to King Herod and ask “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”, the gospel tells us that, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Listen to that text again, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Did you catch that? Jesus’ birth insights fear – not just in King Herod but “all Jerusalem with him.” Jesus’ birth is a frightening, terrifying event, to not only the current “King of the Jews” but to the entire city, the entire establishment of Jerusalem. And so, Herod commands the Magi, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Yet, we all know that Herod does not plan to give a gift. Herod merely wants the threat to his throne dead. Because unlike Jesus, unlike many of the Israelite kings before him, Herod rules NOT to serve, but to BE served. Herod desires his own, shallow self-interests. And Herod is not interested in having anything about that change.
The birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Magi insights fear because it means that everything we’ve ever understood about the world isn’t GOING to change – it’s already changing, and changing dramatically. Nothing we ever understood about the world will be the same once the Messiah arrives. Even the categories of “insiders” and “outsiders” are being torn down by Jesus’ birth. Despite our use of the term “Three Kings”, the Magi are NOT rulers from another land. The Magi were priests in the Zoroastrian religion – the oldest monotheistic religion in the world. And if foreign priests of another religion are being included in God’s story of salvation – then that means the dividing lines between race, nationality, ethnicity, and even religion are being dissolved by the birth of Christ. And if that happens, then there’s no telling who else God will include through Jesus. Where will this radical inclusion end? Who else will Jesus include? Women? Prostitutes? Tax collectors? Zealots? Sinners? And if all the dividing lines are erased, then so will the fear that keeps people separate from each other. The fear that allows people to keep one another in their socially designated places. How can Herod rule over a people with no boundaries? Over a people with no fear of each other?
Fear is a powerful thing socially, politically, and religiously. Using fear, any leader can manipulate an entire nation of people into believing that the true cause of their suffering is those outside of them. By labeling those of a different race, nationality, gender, sexuality, or religion as “other” as “those people” as “them” you can frighten people into submission. You can frighten people into committing horrible atrocities. Just look at Hitler and Nazi Germany and the way it “othered” Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and anyone else who wasn’t considered a part of “the master race.” And so, those who lead by fear keep redrawing dividing lines, keep rebuilding boxes to cage in and categorize people who are different. To give them a label so that they lose their humanity and become the scapegoats for the sins of self-interested leaders and their fearful followers.
In Nazi Germany, such fear and “othering” lead to the “Final Solution” of the Holocaust of 6 million Jews. At the time of the Magi, this fear led Herod to order the murder of thousands of Jewish toddlers a biblical event known as “The Murder of the Innocents.” Because those who lead by fear will do anything to stay in power – even allow children to die in our streets, in our schools, and even in camps – all while convincing us that the fault is the “other” instead of their own self-interests.
But leaders with a servant-heart, like Jesus, do not need fear because they lead with love. In 1 John 4:18, we are told that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” Love and fear are biblical opposites. If you fear someone, you cannot love them. And if you cannot love them, then you have broken the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and have therefore sinned against BOTH your neighbor and God. To fear another is to fail to love your neighbor. To fear another is to sin.
So, you must repent. However, we must remember that the word “repent” in the scripture does NOT mean, “to say you’re sorry.” To repent means that you must ask yourself, “Who are you?” To repent means that you must be self-reflective enough, know yourself well enough to discover this fear, this lack of love within you. And once you’ve acknowledged that lack of love, once you’ve named that fear and discovered its causes, you must resolve to change who you are. Because to repent means to change your life. To turn your life around. To live differently from how you live right now. And if you do not change your life in such a way that you no longer fear that other person. If you do not live your life differently so that those you once rejected, you now welcome – then you are an unrepentant sinner.
Now if I was an evangelical, I would go on to say that unrepentant sinners are condemned to Hell. But I’m not an evangelical. I don’t even believe in Hell – at least I don’t believe in Hell in the sense of an afterlife of eternal, conscious torment. I do believe, however, that we create our own Living Hell here on earth. And most of the time, that Living Hell – that living, conscious torment – is caused by our constant desire to label ourselves and others with certain classes, categories, and achievements. Because those classes, categories, and achievements are created out of fear. And that perpetual state of fear, that constant state of anxiety and worry, is our own Living Hell.
It can be our desire to labeled as part of certain socio-economic class by having the right kind of car, clothes, or colleagues – because we’ve all seen, and even been guilty of, the way our society views the poor as lazy and sinful and the rich as hardworking and virtuous. And so we strive to avoid the label of “poor” because of the fear of what our society means by that label.
It can be our need to categorize people as Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Liberal, Christian or Atheist, Native or Foreign, Black or White, Male or Female, Gay or Straight because it sets us apart from those that are different from us. But it also allows us to attach additional labels to those categories like “normal and weird,” “strong and weak”, “good and evil.”
It can be our need to achieve all the things that society, our family, or even we believe we are “supposed” to achieve – such as the American Dream. Yet, we quickly learn that as soon as we achieve something, the bar gets bumped a little bit higher, just out of reach. And so we are constantly fearful that we will never be “enough” – for society, for others, and even for ourselves. And so, all that these classes, categories, and achievements do is put us in a constant state of anxiety. A constant state of fear of becoming the “other” you are taught to fear. And that, my friends, is a living Hell.
But the Good News is, Jesus came to save us from all of it.
Jesus came to save us from the Hell we create for ourselves.
And freedom from Hell means freedom from classes, categories, and achievements.
And freedom from classes, categories, and achievements means freedom from fear.
And freedom from fear means freedom to love.
Being free to love means there are only Children of God, loved by God
Being free to love and be loved means there are no more “thems.”
No more “those people.”
No more “others.”
No more “insiders” and “outsiders.”
No more “church members” and “non-members”
Being free to love and be loved means, as Paul said to the Galatian church, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Because Jesus is the Light of the World that illuminates the Hell we are in. Jesus is our Epiphany, our realization, of the truth that the Hell we create is also the Hell we can escape.
That’s where the evangelicals ALMOST get it right. It’s not that unrepentant sinners will GO TO HELL, it’s that unrepentant dinners simply continue in a LIVING HELL! Unrepentant sinners are those who refuse to be self-reflective enough to change their lives and free themselves of the classes, categories, and achievements that trap them in a state of perpetual fear.
And until you “Arise, shine.” Until you “wake up” to the deep, dark reality within you. Until you have the Epiphany, the realization, that “your light has come and [that] the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” to reveal the Hell of your own making. Until you can receive the Light of Christ to illuminate – the classes, categories, and achievements that trap you in a constant state of fear. Until you are willing to follow your star and let its light reveal the presence of Christ in the midst of your deepest, darkest Hell, you will never free yourself from it. You will never know WHO you are – much less WHOSE you are.
And so today, instead of thinking about what gift you can give Jesus, I want you to receive the gift your star – quite literally. In this bag are 150 stars, each with a different word on it. A “Star Word.” You will reach in and take a star at random. You don’t get to pick your Star Word. Your Star Word picks you. Some of you will look at your Star Word and know right away what it means to you. And others will look at it and be completely baffled by it. But give it time – because even those who THINK you know what it means may come to discover something different later in 2019. Because I want you to place this Star Word somewhere you will see it regularly – on your fridge, your bathroom mirror, in your Bible, your laptop, or (better yet) your cell phone. I want you to follow your Star Word throughout 2019. And by “follow your Star Word” I mean take a moment of every day to look at this word, meditate on it, reflect inwardly as to what this Star Word can help you learn about yourself. About your joys and sorrows. Your triumphs and failures. Your gains and your losses. About your faith and your doubts as you go through this year.
As you follow your Star Word, pay attention to the categories and classes you see breaking down around you? The dividing lines and labels being erased within you. What is changing, is transforming within you so that you begin living on love instead of living in Hell?
And if you do this, like the Magi, as you follow your Star, you’ll find yourself getting closer and closer to Christ.
I look forward to hearing what you discover
– both about yourself and about Christ
– as 2019 progresses.