A Peaceful Thanksgiving

This is a sermon preached on November 18, 2018 at Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, MD. Isaiah 36:1-3,Isaiah 36:13-20,Isaiah 37:1-7,Isaiah 2:1-4

There has been a saying going around on social media the last few years, one that gets shared a lot this time of year. It says, “If you are more fortunate than others, build a longer table, not a higher fence.”

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I love family meals. My family still sits at the dinner table regularly for an evening meal. There’s nothing better than the two of us, the four of us, and especially the six of us gathered around the table.

There is laughter, there is conversation, there is gratitude and sharing. It’s loud and rambunctious, it’s sometimes messy, and always entertaining. This week I will extend my table and put all the leaves in. I will round up extra chairs from the house and get out my great grandmother’s dishes and my grandmother’s crystal. We will use cloth napkins and I will make a dinner of love and care, a dinner of tradition and lots of butter.

For some of us, these are the sounds of Thanksgiving’s past, perhaps even its future, but not its present. For some of us we will gather together at our family’s dinner table, extended with all its leaves filled with anxiety and dread.

What will be said, who will be there, will we be able to avoid the landmines of “differences?” “Can’t we all just get along?” we will wonder to ourselves. “Can’t we put aside this warring madness for just one day?”

There are arguments that maybe we shouldn’t, that this is our chance to “turn the other side” and “bring them over to our side”. There are arguments that we should go into thanksgiving with our guard up, ready to fight the good fight.

So I had to laugh when I opened the narrative lectionary reading for today and it was about war and peace. As I contemplated changing it for our thanksgiving service to a psalm proclaiming gratitude to God for all our abundance, then I thought otherwise.

Maybe we should talk about war and peace, it may not be the most gratitude filled text, but it may just be a practical “how-to” guide to handle the American holiday of thanksgiving! The land of Judah is in the southern part of Israel. Israel was divided into two after Solomon’s son was defeated in war.

Hezekiah is the thirteenth king of Judah living in 700-600 BCE. He lives in the capital of Jerusalem, and like his sister country Israel the Assyrians have defeated his army and lands, an unstoppable force in this time. After defeat the king of Assyria sends a messenger to mock and scold not only the people of Judah but their God as well.

The King through his messenger declares that he is mightier than all the other gods of all the other lands he had defeated, and therefore is mightier too then this God in Israel. “Where is your God now?!?!”

When Hezekiah heard this he tore his clothes and covered himself in sackcloth. In other words, he mourned and grieved. When the prophet Isaiah gets wind of this he says to the king and his priests to not be afraid, that God will help them, but it will take time. God has not abandoned them.

The narrative lectionary does an interesting thing at this point. It has us turn back to Isaiah chapter two all the way from chapter 36 to remind us how we are to respond, what was foreshadowed for the people of God for this very moment. The people are to beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore.

The representative of the king of Assyria has just mocked not only the people and their king, but their God as well. This political war isn’t just one of land and kingdoms, but of power and domination over the very souls of the people, their very religion. This is very, very personal. You didn’t just insult my official representative; you insulted my God as well. Today in America we are not at war with each other, and I think it’s important to remember that.

However, I do not think it is a far stretch in today’s political climate to draw some parallels here. Poll after poll tells us that Americans are more divided today then ever before, if there is a comparable time, it is civil war era contention. Can we ever get along? Will we ever end this warring madness?

I bet the people of Judah were wondering the same thing.

Two weeks ago SNL’s Pete Davidson mocked then Texas republican nominee for U.S. House of Representatives and former Navy Seal, Dan Crenshaw for losing an eye in “war… or whatever”.

As you can image the interwebs went crazy. In an opt-ed for the Washington Post, now member-elect Dan Crenshaw said this:

I woke up on the Sunday morning after the show to hundreds of texts about what Davidson had said. A lot of America wasn’t happy.

I agreed. But I also could not help but note that this was another chapter in a phenomenon that has taken complete control of the national discourse: outrage culture. It seems like every not-so-carefully-worded public misstep must be punished to the fullest extent, replete with soapbox lectures and demands for apologies. Anyone who doesn’t show the expected level of outrage will be labeled a coward or an apologist for bad behavior.

I get the feeling that … Americans sigh with exhaustion — daily.

Was I really outraged by SNL? Really offended? Or did I just think the comment about losing my eye was offensive? There is a difference, after all. So I didn’t demand an apology and I didn’t call for anyone to be fired. That doesn’t mean the “war . . . or whatever” line was acceptable, but I didn’t have to fan the flames of outrage, either.

SNL reached for with an invitation for Mr. Crenshaw to appear on the show and on November 10 he did alongside the man who insulted him, Pete Davidson. Pete apologized and Mr. Crenshaw said they agreed that certain things, like Veteran’s wounds were off limits. As I read the article and watched the video this week I couldn’t help but hear Isaiah’s words echo in my head. “turn swords into plowshares”.

Turn a weapon of war into a tool for peace.

Why is a gardening tool a tool for peace is a wonderful and very long discussion for another day and one I very much enjoy having.

They are both made from metal, metal mined from the same mines, thrown into the same fires, the difference is how they are molded and shaped. To turn a sword into a plowshare will take time and energy.

It will take literal transformation but it can be done. In a time and place where our words can seem like war- I ask you, what would it take for you to show up at Thanksgiving dinner with a plowshare instead of a sword?

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What would it take to meet your families with compassion instead of condemnation? Mr. Crenshaw continues in his opt-ed:

How, then, do we live together in this world of differing ideas? For starters, let’s agree that the ideas are fair game. If you think my idea is awful, you should say as much.

…People too often attack not just an idea but also the supposed intent behind an idea. That raises the emotional level of the debate and might seem like it strengthens the attacker’s side, but it’s a terrible way to make a point.

Assuming the worst about your opponents’ intentions has the effect of demonizing their ideas, removing the need for sound counter-reasoning and fact-based argument. That’s not a good environment for the exchange of ideas.

When all else fails, try asking for forgiveness, or granting it.

Friends, we all have a choice to make, not just this week, but every day. We can show up with swords ready to fight, ready to tear down and destroy the other, or we can turn those swords into plowshares, ready to do the hard work of peace and prosperity for all.

May it be so for you and for me.

To listen to the audio recording you may do so here.

Mr. Rogers and No Partiality

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This sermon was preached at Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, Maryland on July 22, 2018. It is part of the Worship Series “The Gospel According to Mr. Rogers”.

Acts 10

When we talk about racism and the church, we in mainline Christianity have a lot to apologize for. When slave owners first introduced Christianity they did so exclusively through white preachers using scripture to justify slavery, the harsh conditions of their lives, and pushed themes of submission to their Lord and Masters.

But this was not the first time racism was used in Christianity, in fact, it has been an issue since it’s inception. It didn’t begin as black and white, but as Jew and Gentile.

It started with Jesus, when speaking to the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). This foreign gentile (meaning non Jewish woman) asked Jesus to help her daughter who was processed by a demon. This issue was not that Jesus couldn’t do it, the issue was she was not of Jewish descent. Listen to the interaction:

24 Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

(Yep. Jesus called the people of Israel hungry children, and her daughter a dog, but she was not having it)

27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

As you have heard me preach before from this text, Jesus listens to the woman, and learns his own prejudice. But racism and pre-justice is a lesson that is passed down and integrated into, yes, into our religions.

After Christ’s death and resurrection, Simon, also known as Peter, was left as the head of the church, or the soon to be forming church, until a man named Saul, had a conversion to Paul.

Both were of Jewish descent, but in Paul’s conversation he had a revelation that Jesus’s message was for all people, not simply the people of Israel. So he spent his time planting churches, and telling people about Jesus who were gentiles, while Peter, focused on the people of Israel, until… Acts 10.

“For Luke, this moment is significant well beyond Peter’s life. This story is a powerful symbol of a promise prominent from the beginning of Luke’s gospel and throughout Acts, a promise represented most powerfully in the resurrection of Jesus. Without question, God’s spirit is moving. The only question is whether Peter, as well as the church, will sense the winds of change and follow God’s lead.

Though Peter finally comes to this insight in the dramatic story of Cornelius and his household, Luke has long been heralding this inclusive impulse.

After all, Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8 declares that geographical bounds would not constrain the gospel. Peter himself proclaims anew the prophecy of Joel that the Spirit would dawn upon “all flesh” (Acts 2:17).

An Ethiopian eunuch has already received baptism (Acts 8:26-40). Even more, these promises began with the opening of Luke’s gospel. Simeon declares that Jesus would be both “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

Jesus’ first sermon ends rather inauspiciously when he reminds his neighbors that Elijah shared the goodness of God beyond the bounds of Israel. In other words, the Spirit long preceded Peter’s realization. Peter only came to realize the radical scope of this movement well after the Spirit had begun working.

Luke portrays this as a monumental speech. His thesis is a brief but powerful theological insight: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (cf. Romans 2:11).

No matter our place of origin, the same God reaches out to us; the same gospel calls us home. Social boundaries and ethnic differences are no obstacle to the gospel.[i]

As we have been traveling through our series on The Gospel According to Mr. Rogers, inclusion has been a big theme. Mostly the inclusion of children in their concerns and feelings about and for the world.

In today’s clip, we see Mr. Rogers living the gospel of inclusion in an obvious, but life changing way. Let’s watch…

In 1969, while Jim Crow laws were still in effect, a quiet Presbyterian minister and an African-American police officer show the world how to integrate swimming pools. Rogers invites; Clemmons accepts. As Clemmons slips his feet into the pool, the camera holds the shot for several seconds, as if to make the point clear: a pair of brown feet and a pair of white feet can share a swimming pool.

The clip we saw, was nearly 25 years later. A much older Rogers and Clemmons sit with their feet in a similar blue wading pool talking about the many different ways that children and adults say “I Love You”–from singing to cleaning up a room to drawing special pictures to making plays. As the scene ends, Rogers takes a towel and helps Clemmons dry his feet with a simple, “Here, let me help you.”

Cornelius was a Godly man; his Alms to the poor were recognized by God as a “memorial offering”, despite his being a gentile. Peter heard through his vision “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”.

Mr. Rogers reenacted this gospel through a foot washing on public television for the world to see. He put to life the word Paul brought to the Galatians “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This is the gospel of Christ, it may be a lesson sometimes hard to learn in the worlds in which we live, consistently trying to separate us, but we know, what Mr. Roger’s knew, we are all children of God, and special in God’s sight.

May it be so… Amen.

[i] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1261

Taking Time to Say Thank You

This sermon was preached at Ashland Presbyterian Church on July 1, 2018 as part of the worship series, “The Gospel According to Mr. Rogers.”

Hebrews 12:1-2 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 

Fred Rogers awoke every morning to a swim, weighting himself (which we will learn more about later), and silent prayer.

“Taking Time” was a gospel Mr. Rogers preached almost as much as “you are special”. He believed God was to be found in the silence. He believed the thing that was wrong with modern society was that we don’t take time. We need to slow down, to remember those who have helped us, we need to listen for God.

Now we’re about to watch a video which is a very similar speech the one Fred Rogers gave at every award he received and I would like you to pretend you are in the audience and that he is speaking to you, let’s watch:

Who has helped you to love the good within in you?

Who has wanted the best of you? Who has helped you to become who you are?

When you came in you were given a thank you note. We’re going to take a few moments together and write notes to the person you thought of. If they are in heaven, then maybe there is a relative you could send it to who would love to hear about how their loved one helped you, or you can leave it at a place of memory for them, or you can leave it with us and we will cherish it for you.

Let’s take a few moments… (write thank you notes)

Taking time to remember, it was the one thing Jesus asked at the Last Supper of this disciples, remember me. May we all take more time in our days, weeks and years.

 

Mr. Rogers the Prophet

This Sermons was preached at Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, MD on June 24, 2018. It is the third in the sermon series, The Gospel According to Mr. Rogers.

Jeremiah 1:4-10

A Prophet is one who proclaims and interprets divine revelation. It is descriptive of one who speaks forth God’s word.

I am not the only one in the congregation who has said this, I have gotten the comment from many of you as well. The confession is this: “You know, I didn’t always like Mr. Rogers.”

It never had anything to do with the message, many of you described how your children loved the show and you would sit in wonder at how this hokey, slow talking man could captivate their attention.

By the time I was born Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood had been on public television for 12 years. I cannot say that as a child I remember specifics about the show and it wasn’t until the Internet and having my own children that I rediscovered “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

For my generation on of the clips that endeared me to Mr. Rogers was not from the show itself, but watching this kind, gentle, albeit nervous man testify before congress. It was the most unlikely of casts. Watching these hard politicians and this soft man talk to each other, I watch it with hope that if we could just listen to each other, and I watch it with the ear of hearing a prophet speak truth to power.

You see of all the things we can call Mr. Rogers’ I feel that Prophet would be way, way down the list, but every day, for almost 50 years he spoke the word of God to children across the world.

In the still, soft voice, he declared “You are special, just by being you.” “Your feelings are real and valid.” “It’s okay to wonder.” “I want to be your friend, I like you.” The Prophet is to be the voice of God in the midst of the harsh world. Jeremiah would walk up and down the streets criticism the King and the people when they would step away from God’s call. But he was also there to reassure them and bring them hope.

When Jeremiah is called by God Jeremiah responds that “no, no God, you must have made a mistake, I am too young” and God proclaims, “no I know you fully, you are special, just by being you.” This message runs contrary to the human angst that in a vast universe our small lives might be meaningless.

They are not.

In a world where the lives of so many children – street children, child laborers, children living in the midst of violence, neglected, detained or abused– appear to assert a different reality. You are special, just by being you. It is an audacious faith in a God who not only affirms, but creates individual human worth and dignity.

The call of a prophet takes on many forms and the unlikeliest characters are called. You too, are called to stand up for your faith, in your own way. Remind people that they are whole and beloved, by shouting in the streets or one person at a time. In song and prayer or through presence and power.

Being who God created and called you to be is your greatest gift to the world, none of us should “hide it under a bushel” to quote another prophet, but embrace without excuse, the reality of being fully known and loved.

You are special, just by being you.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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This sermon was preached at Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, Maryland on June 17, 2018. It is the second week of the Worship Series “The Gospel According to Mr. Rogers”.

Luke 10:25-37

Hello Neighbors!

In 1968 when Fred Rogers started Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood he set out to change children’s television from consumer driven slapstick, to a show teaching children about life, love, and make believe.

He started every show with the song “Won’t you be my Neighbor?” and that was the question he was asking every single day.

Fred was a good neighbor. He was kind and gentle, he was loving and accepting. He never turned away a visitor and always listened to their stories with patience and grace.

One of the things I realized as I dug into this series is that Fred wasn’t teaching us (the viewers) how to be good neighbors by instruction. He was a good neighbor and lead by example. We learned how to be good neighbors by watching him.

Our job, our responsibility, was to respond to the invitation he proposed in mutual relationship at the beginning of each episode: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” And you wanted to say YES! After all, he’s always wanted a neighbor just like us!

In our scripture lesson this morning we get another story of a good neighbor. The story of the man who falls into the hands of robbers is a man in need of help, desperate help, as he is described in bad shape being left half dead.

A priest and a Levite avoided the man, crossing to the other side of the road, but the foreigner, the Samaritan, takes the man, cares for him out of his own pocket and makes sure he gets continued care.

The Samaritan answers the call of the dying man, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” and responds with a room and fresh bandages and an ongoing relationship of care. And by Jesus emphasizing the priest and the Levite ignoring the man, but the foreigner helping, Jesus is emphasizing to us that our neighbors aren’t simply the people who live down the street or speak our language, or even pray to our same God. All are our neighbors.

So… Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? Jesus asks. The one who showed mercy. And Jesus instructs the lawyer to “go and do likewise.”

Showing mercy, in other words, is being a neighbor.

But this is not a stand alone story, scripture explicitly gives this mandate “Love your neighbor” over 40 times and is implied hundreds. Even Paul in Romans 13 lifting loving your neighbor as the fulfillment of the law.

As we move through this series, we will be looking to embody the gospel through Mr. Rogers, we will strive to, in our own way, become more Mr. Rogers like, more neighborly, which is, merciful and loving.

As we enter this series, we must first start with ourselves:

Am I a good neighbor? Do I show mercy and love? Am I seeking others our in mutual invitation to be in merciful relationships with me?

What would it look like for me to be a good neighbor? And ask others to be our neighbor?

For our church to be a good neighbor? And ask others to be our neighbor?

For our city to be a good neighbor? And ask others to be our neighbor?

For our country to be a good neighbor? And ask others to be our neighbor?

As we watch this popular clip from the show I want you to observe all the ways Mr. Rogers invites Jeff Erlinger to be his neighbor in merciful, mutual relationship.

I want you to notice how he meets Jeff on the steps and sits to look him in the eye.

I want you to notice how he lets Jeff talk about things that may make us or others uncomfortable, but are very natural to him, how he lets him take his time showing off and feeling special.

Being neighborly may mean interacting with people who are different, who look and sound different, who may not be able to do the same things you do, who may sometimes make you uncomfortable.

Being neighborly means breaking out of your comfort in order to extend mercy. It means being vulnerable to learn something new, and accept someone not for what they can give you or do for you, not for what they have, but who they are.

Let’s take a look:

Go and do likewise

God is Watching

This sermon was preached at Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, Maryland on August 20, 2017. You may find the audio file on the church sermons page.

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Psalm 139:7-12

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

There is nowhere we can go to escape God’s sight.

This is one of the most comforting and terrifying sentences of my life. God is always with me, God lives and dwells among us, God is now here. I hold to these statements in the deepest darkest moments of life.

Moments when I felt my life was in danger, moments I was in pain, moments I thought nothing could every get better. God is now here, I am never, you are never, we are never alone.

Jesus is sent to earth and is named Emmanuel, literally God with us. We are the Beloved’s and the Beloved’s is ours. And not only does scripture tell us that there is no where we can go to hide from God, there is also no earthly thing, nothing in all of creation to separate us from the love of God.

“38 For I am convinced” Paul says, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

You are fully know, unconditionally loved, and partnered with the one who adores you. Is there anything better news than that?

And then there are the other times… The times in which I wish I could escape God’s sight.

A colleague reminded me that while this Psalm’s references to “hand” (vss. 5, 10) can be comforting and serve as a guide, they can also weigh heavily. “Being so close to God is as burdensome as it is beautiful.”

The Psalmist admits, one cannot flee (vs. 7) from the one for whom darkness does not overwhelm (vs. 11). Why would we flee from something beautiful? For me the thought that God lurks and works even in dark places might be burdensome.[i

When there is no where I could go, in all of creation or even inside myself that I can hide from God it means I am fully known. It means each thought, each sin, each terrible flash of judgment is known to God

God doesn’t just see the thoughtful, put together, ordered life I present to the world, my perfect selfie taken from just the right angle with just the right amount of smile. God also sees the me I attempt to hide from the world. The messy, chaotic, even hateful self that exists.

Last week I watched as white supremacist marched through the streets with torches and were threatening to burn down a church where clergy were holding worship.

The clergy had concluded a non-violent activist training event and were praying. The mob surrounded them, reports and tweets that said, “we are not safe.” When the police tried to get them to their cars through the back door a few were taken and beaten, these young white men with torches were protesting the removal of a monument of Robert E. Lee, violent and hateful from the beginning

They were Nazi’s, they were KKK, they were white supremacist.

They no longer felt the need to wear hoods, as they felt that their government would protect them, because their government, the president’s top advisers was one of them.

This is the moment where I say, God sees you. God sees every hateful moment of your sin, God sees your heart and weeps, and is angered.

It is one of those moments where I wished I believed in a vengeful God. The one my southern Baptist pastors used to talk about. I wished I believed that God would forced them to answer for their crimes as a harsh Ruler, a judge and that when their day comes they would be sentenced to burn in the flames of hell.

And there it is. Right there.

That’s my sin.

Because there is nowhere I can hide from God, but sometimes, occasionally, I wish I could.

Truth is we all want peace but in the face of conflict we want to fight. We sat here last November and talked about our awkward Thanksgiving tables and all the people that said, “how much damage can a president do?”

Some of us here marched in the streets in January and proclaimed slogans of love not hate.

But friends, when I saw White supremacist marching in the streets without hoods, I had hate in my heart in a way that made me want to fight, to throw stones, to turn into some shadow of darkness vigilante and end this now. My sin is, I wanted them to hurt. And this time it was easy, who doesn’t want to fight literal nazi’s and bring them down?

The truth is, I want to spew messages of hate right back at them. I want to use violence on them just as they used on an innocent crowd, I want them and their way of life gone.

But God is watching.

Thank goodness, God is watching.

Praise Jesus there is nowhere I can hide from God.

The path God has laid out for us is a difficult one. The path God has laid out for us is one of painfully slow, incremental changes, because the path God has laid out for us is peace. You got yourselves into this mess, and you have to do the work to get yourselves out.

God is watching.

Over the last week we have relived articles and conversations about the past. About the civil war that ended 152 years ago, conversations that compare modern day America to Nazi Germany and quoting great and inspiring civil rights activists from the 1960’s. And yes, let us learn from our history, but it’s time for us as a society to admit that we cannot hide our sins from God anymore. The sins of yesterday, are still the sins of today.

We can no longer talk about race issues as if they were something in the past. We can no longer look at white supremacy and over 200 registered groups of well armed, self-trained militia carrying assault rifles in the streets and call them fringe groups. They are here, we are a society that helped create them and God sees our sin, it’s about time we did too.

We are asking where God is in all this, and God is asking us where we are? We cannot pretend and say God is nowhere to be found in this, for God is now here. In and among us. Working through us to choose peace, to link arms and sing “This little light of mine.”

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God is in the hard work of leaving sin and hatred in our hearts and not fighting fire with fire. It’s not that being angry itself is wrong, we should be outraged, it’s what we do with it. God is using us, we who are fearfully and wonderfully made, to work all things for good.

Rene is not here this week, he is on a much needed vacation. When he is here Rene blesses us with his faith and leads us in the prayers of the people. He is heartfelt and sincere.

Rene starts the prayers proclaiming that God is good, all the time. And each time we discuss a tragedy he reminds us of what? God works all things for good.

What that looks like, I don’t always know. But I know it happens one person, one relationship at a time.

Diana Butler Bass, a church historian and speaker was in Charlottesville yesterday. Her daughter is a student at the University of Virginia and she gave this update on her FB wall:
When in Charlottesville, we went to the memorials for Heather Heyer. On the street where the car attacked the marchers, there exists an eerie holiness, a sacred sense born of sacrifice and suffering.

We walked mostly in silence. A pilgrimage to the pain of our own time.

At the top of the street, on the downtown mall, a preacher — one of those evangelistic sorts — was proclaiming the Gospel of Mark through a bullhorn, trying to convert passersby.

As we approached, he was nearing the book’s end, reading from chapter 14:

“She has done what she could to anoint My body in advance of My burial. And truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached in all the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

And so, the Spirit moves. An unintended grace. In memory of her.

There is nowhere we can go that is not in God’s sight. And thank goodness. With God watching I am given the strength to meet violence with peace, to whisper words of love, which speak louder than hate.

God is now here, working all things for good. May it be so…

 

[i] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2329

Reconciling Jesus

Here’s how my sermon prep really goes. I read the text, I pick liturgy and hymns a few months in advance, then I don’t really look at it again until the week of. Then I read commentaries are the text works on me (yes, works on me) through the Holy Spirit all week. I look for stories and modern day examples to use, but don’t write a lot of words down, maybe an outline.

I knew this week would be hard because it’s the first time divorce has come up in the lectionary since I’ve been divorced. I looked at past sermons, wow… did I not have a clue how hurtful this text was.

So, here’s my sermon from today, the congregation loved it but so did I. I took a deep breath and disagreed with Jesus. Then, I decided to reconcile with him too. God is not black and white friends, and we can’t take scripture that way either.

Have a listen:

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The Story of Life

This sermon was preached on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 at Ashland Presbyterian Church, Hunt Valley, Maryland. 

John 20:1-18

We gather here this morning to tell the story of Jesus. The story of God’s resurrection.  

The authors of the gospel of John understand the power of story, and the absolute necessity of it. They understand that we cannot know God without stories; that we cannot know ourselves without them either.  

We are a people who love story.  

We speak of getting lost in a story, but part of what draws us to a story is the promise of finding: finding a different world, finding another time, finding ourselves.  

There is something in us that hungers for a story, an empty space that is shaped precisely to its contours. We reach for the threads that a story offers, we enter the rooms it opens to us, we inhabit the skin of another and somehow, in the hands of a good story, we are returned to ourselves.  

And we are perhaps holding the threads of our own stories a bit differently, or entering a new space within ourselves, or finding ourselves able to inhabit our own skin more completely. 

Elie Wiesel says that God created us because God loves stories. (Inspired and quotes from Jan Richardson, Where the Story Begins)

The beginning of the Gospel of John begins with one of the great opening lines of all time.  

In the beginning. 

It’s right up there with… Once upon a time, and in a galaxy far, far away. 

We all know that in order to write a great story, you need to have a great story. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

In him was life, and that life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

The opening of John tells us who we are and where we exist in the story. We are the people, we are God’s story in motion. And where does the power of a story lie? What is it about this story that so compels us?

We are God’s people- alive, through Christ.  

Being the Son of God, “in him was life; and the life was the light of all the people” (1:4).   

Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (14:6).   

 His whole purpose for coming to earth “that we might have life, and have it more abundantly” (10:10).    

And this is not a condemning life, but a gift. For God so loved the world that he gave is son so we may have eternal life. (John 3:16)  

He tells Martha in comforting her after Lazarus dies, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) 

 And of course the Easter story begins just as poetically as any other, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…”

We see a woman, exhausted from the week’s events. She’s tired and frail, unable to sleep she gathers her supplies quietly, and makes her way from the place where she was staying to the private garden, the property of the wealthy patron who allowed 

Jesus’ body to be laid at the last minute.  

She has come to anoint the body, come to pay her respects; she has come to mourn the loss of the life of her dearest friend.  

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, he wasn’t supposed to die. Death wasn’t part of 

the deal, life was. He no longer exists in bodily form; all that’s left of him now is story. 

But that story doesn’t end the way Mary thinks it does. 

Death does not have the last word. As readers and studiers of story we are clued in to the fact that she is in a special place, a garden.  

The garden in which Mary stands mimics the one from another story, the story of creation. When God created a lush garden called Eden and we first learned of Godability to bring forth life.  

The garden is different now – not as pure – tainted with death and overgrown plants, touched by human hands. But that cannot stop God. 

In 1 Corinthians Paul tells the readers that resurrection is like a seed that must die to bring forth life. Jesus tells us that whoever wants to keep their life will lose it.  This is the moment of resurrection. The moment we realize that it is within the darkest, bleakest moments of life that we are at our most vulnerable. 

And like every good story, we have learned that the sweetest joy and the purest love comes from vulnerability. 

Mary is raw, the disciples are exposed. They are living in darkness and scarcity, facing a new reality that they never anticipated, and it came in the most cruel and violent ways.  

But it is within of that moment they find life. Real life. The life that Jesus spoke of, a live of abundant grace, and life of love and mercy, a renewed spirit.  

And they learn this lesson in a garden, the setting of our story. Because, we’re not the only thing God because God loves a good story.  

The garden reminds us that life is renewing, that we must become vulnerable, exposed to death, before we can resurrect into the next thing.  

The garden has a story in and of itself- it teaches us that life will find a way, no matter what.  

We plant a tree and suffocate it with cement.  

  
At it’s most vulnerable it not only survives it adapts to it’s environment. 

a seed scattered to the wind lands in mortar. 

  
We create suburban sprawl and waste fully abandon it, but life finds a way. 

  

Death will not have the last word, but it will have it’s day, for Jesus, it was 3 of them in fact. But on the third he was raised to new life.  

 Out of the depth of vulnerability — resurrection.  

So the story continues, and Mary mistakes Jesus as a gardener (poetic isn’t it?) Upon discovering who he is, he tells her not to cling to who he was. He’s different now, transformed by hardship, pain, and a journey.  

 

It’s a story unlike any other, the greatest story of all time the ending yet to be written, a story of relationship between God and creation that continues even to this day. 

May it live on through you and through me. And all God’s people said…Amen. 

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Yesterday, through my great powers of manipulation, a small miracle, or perhaps just dumb luck, I somehow convinced our Director of Christian Education to preach on Rally Day (the day Sunday School returns). Because she is a people pleaser and cannot say no to me, (and because she somewhere must have a deep seeded need to be punished for something she did in a past life) Katie said yes. As if she didn’t have enough to do that day…(FYI- Katie is our Christian Educator, she is a Pastoral Counselor, and has the voice of an angel)

Anyway, Katie, a double PK (meaning both of her parents are ministers) did a beautiful job, really. And as she preached about forgiveness and reconciliation Using Matthew 18:15-20 she preached about how to be the church together, how to be communal. On one hand I felt proud of Katie, I felt happy for the congregation, and I admit, it was also nice to hear a word from our pulpit that is so similar to one I would have given, but as she preached, I felt myself being moved, being preached to, being “fed” by the word. (yes, “fed” is problematic for me, but it’s the only word I can come up with- hold on, I’ll get more coffee).

This is an interesting thing as a preacher. I preach to myself most often. It just happens sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. But I am preaching the word God is wanting me to hear. I often get comments on the way out the door like “You can stop talking directly to me now!” or “How did you know?” or “That was exactly what I needed to hear.” These are high compliments as a preacher, but what I really want to say is, “Yeah… that’s great, but that word the Spirit was bringing, it was for me too.”

But then Katie preached, and I heard the gospel in a new way, I asked her to send me the sermon, she did some good exegesis that I wanted to share:

In the Old Testament there is salach, which most of us would understand as pardoning or freeing from the constraints of guilt. Salach is the forgiveness that God offers as it is exclusively used in instances where God is the subject. Kipper or atonement is related to the journey from sin to forgiveness, again usually between a person or people and God. And then there’s nasa’, which is used in the context of expelling sin from the individual, usually by way of communal sacrifice.  Did we catch that? Individual sin, communal sacrifice. The remedy for one person’s wrongdoing is reconciled within community.

community prayer

Did you catch that? I talk a lot about community here on this blog, it is vital to my faith. But think about this: The way to be reconciled to God, to yourself, to your neighbor is through a communal act. Individual sin. Communal Forgiveness.

We do not sin alone, even if the sin is to ourselves. Say I self hate, that still effects the community. Think about what self hate does to my work, my children, the people I encounter at the checkout line in Target. “Working on myself” is a communal act. We need the community to be free from sin. This is even easier to understand if I sin against another. Then I don’t just effect my bubble, I effect another’s as well.

It was a beautiful message, one worth sharing. One my heart needed to be reminded of, and one that we all need to remember. There is hope for me, me who tries to make it all happen myself. There is nothing wrong with needing others, needing them in order to reconcile with God, with my neighbor, and especially, with myself.

Thanks Katie, and Thanks be to God!

Can I get a Witness?

This sermon was preached on July 28, 2013 at Ashland Presbyterian Church, Hunt Valley, Maryland. I admit, I get lost when I write a sermon in narrative form (I usually preach from an outline). Actually that’s not true, I write a narrative or an outline and then I ignore them completely. So I tried to record it but somehow didn’t get it… So I’m posting the narrative because it was an important sermon in the life of our church and community, an opportunity to BE the Body of Christ in the world.

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Daniel 6:1-28

We don’t know much about the book of Daniel in all honesty.

We lift up Daniel and the Lion’s Den as something we teach our children, mainly. The bad King through Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Daniel prayed, and God saved Daniel.

Sound about right? Okay then, thank you…

Now, if we’re really good, we might know a little more about Daniel, that three chapters ago he and three friends refused to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar and were sentenced to deal by fiery furnace.

Daniel, got a stay of execution, but his friends- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not so lucky.

They were thrown into the furnace but were not consumed and as the king watched he saw 4 figures and the God of Israel is credited at saving them.

Daniel is found in our Bible in the section of the Old Testament called prophetic literature, but the style of the book of Daniel is actually what’s called “apocalyptic”. Think the book of revelation.

The stories take place during the Babylonian Captivity, although now scholars agree it was actually written in the 2nd century BCE (200 years before Christ).

And if you’re REALLY you might have remembering hearing chapter 7 with the vision of the great beasts, which comes up in lectionary every 3 years but no one ever reads it because it’s weird.

So let’s talk a little about what’s going on, the Book of Daniel is split into two parts, the first (ch. 1-6) is a narrative, story of Daniel, his friends, and relationships with the Kings.

The second (chapter 7-12) are a series of 4 visions Daniel has about Babylonian captivity.

The story begins with a brief reference to king Nebuchadnezzar robbing the Jerusalem temple and carrying its treasures back to Babylon.

It goes on to describe how some young members of the Judean nobility, including Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are inducted into the king’s service.

The book teaches the Jews in captivity of a foreign king, that it is possible to remain faithful to the God of Israel all the while serving an earthly king that is not sympathetic to your faith.

Which brings us to the story of the Lion’s Den.

Daniel has climbed the ranks in the Babylonian Empire; in fact he is now the third most powerful person in government position. He and the king have a good relationship, Daniel has proven himself not just politically to the king but also personally.

This cannot be said for the rest of the royalty of the Babylonians.

The other princes and persons in power to not look favorably on Daniel’s success, him being a foreigner and all.

So they scheme together and make a plan to get the king to declare a month of celebration and prayer to him, the king.

Now in polytheistic cultures, royalty and kings were considered god-like, so as the people prayed to multiple gods, this month of prayer devoted to the king would make it illegal to pray to any other God.

Including the God of Israel.

Daniel is aware of the decree, and was probably there when the king signed it into law. He is not ignorant, he knows exactly what this means.

Yet, Daniel does what a faithful follower does. He goes home, opens his window that faces toward Jerusalem and prays.

What’s interesting to me about this is that Daniel doesn’t go ingot the streets and protest, knowing for sure he would probably be killed. Daniel, as far as we know, doesn’t try to stop the law. He simply follows in his routine, following God’s will.

A trap has been set of course and those that wanted Daniel caught now have their proof. They run and tell the king that someone has broken his law and they should be punished.

“Absolutely, says the king, throw them in the lion’s den”

“Great, they say, because it’s Daniel”

This week we had a profound experience in the life of the church. For the last 6 months we have been praying for Rob, his recovery, and what might happen in court regarding his future and jail time.

Finally on Tuesday we would have our answer (and in case you are wondering, yes, I do have Rob’s permission to talk about this, although he asked permission not to be present).

Several of us (about 20) gathered at the District Court House in Towson to show our support and to show a judge that Rob had a strong community. What happened was amazing.

The king was ready to throw whoever had broken the law into jail, or honestly a fate worse than jail, the lion’s Den, certain death, and a slow and painful one at that. Until he found out it was Daniel.

The text tells us that the king spent the rest of the day trying to get Daniel acquitted because they were friends, he was a good man. The king didn’t want to hurt someone as good and faithful as Daniel.

Knowing Daniel, his story, seeing his humanity made all the difference to the king.

As we filed into the courtroom on Tuesday the judge was in recess. It was a small room and we filled the seats. I was standing off to the side with the Rob’s lawyer. And I started to pray.

I prayed that the judge’s heart would be softened. I prayed for love to surround Rob. I prayed for the spirit to move in this place.

When the judge entered everyone came forward and where I was standing I realized that the judge could not look at Rob without looking at me.

Now, those of you who were there were there were commenting because not only was Rob in a tie (Katie walked right by him) but I was in my collar! Which of course never happens.

I was very aware of my feelings at the moment and the prayers continued. The judge felt cold, harsh, as if decision had already been made. Or maybe that’s what I was simply anticipating.

The king was unsuccessful in trying to get a stay of execution for Daniel and the time came for him to enter the Lion’s Den. The king’s only words were “May the king you so faithfully serve deliver you!”

This was indeed the king’s prayer.

Daniel was thrown into a cage with a starved lion and left for dead.

The next morning the king reappears and tentatively called out for Daniel. And he answers. The text tells us the Lord had sent angels causing the lion’s mouth to close so he would be unharmed.

Something amazing happened on Tuesday in that courtroom. The proceedings lasted about a half hour, and it was a pray without ceasing moment. The judge was moved by the presence of community, we humanized Rob for the judge.

As the proceedings went on not only did the mood in the room lighten, but we could feel the spirit moving, grace and mercy were abundant.

There is no doubt that the judge was impressed and moved by the community and our being there made all the difference. The judge decided no jail time was necessary.

In the end when Rob thanked the judge he said, “thank your pastor, and these people.”

Now there is no doubt in our part in all this, but saying ‘we’ saved Rob is like thanking the lion for Daniel’s life. No, it was the will and the call of God that we responded to.

We responded in love, love which scripture tells us, all love- is from God.

All that was needed was a chance to witness to that love.

Daniel did it through prayer, discernment, and life. The king does it through advocacy, and even when he couldn’t change the other’s minds, he believes and is respectful of Daniel’s God. Even to the point of undoing an unjust law.

Through the Spirit, King Darius decrees:

“For he is the living God

and he endures forever;

his kingdom will not be destroyed,

his dominion will never end.

27 He rescues and he saves;

he performs signs and wonders

in the heavens and on the earth.

He has rescued Daniel

from the power of the lions.”

God is moving in this place, in the lives of others, and we pray to follow that spirit wherever she may go. We responded this week by witnessing the love of God in a courtroom, and it was a beautiful and profound experience for us all.

So how will we continue this week?

God delivers us from a fate worse than death, God delivers us from the mouth of the lion, and the cages- real or imaginary- this world puts us in. We cannot save each other, only God can do that.

We can stand up and be the love of Christ in the world for each other, we can witness to the world that God is love, that every one of us has a story, that God created us unique and we deserve the respect to have our stories heard.

So, where and to whom is God calling us next? It is not us who brings salvation, but the one, true and living God. And for that, we are truly thankful. Yet how and for whom will God call us to witness to next?

For Daniel it was to a king, for us it was to a judge, where else might the spirit lead? Friends, the possibilities are endless.

May it be so for you and for me… And all God’s people said, Amen.