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  1. Sermons : Filling Up the Ordinary

    Pentecost Sunday

    Acts 2:1-21
    I Corinthians 12:1-13

    We are defined by our differences.  There are those who have, who are mostly folks like us, and the many who don’t.  The US now has the widest gap between rich and poor since the census began counting.  The top 1/5 of Americans, earning over $100,000 per year, earned half of all income in the US last year, while the bottom 1/5 made just 3%. 1 Those nationwide distinctions remain in place in Durham.  In 2008, 12.8% of Durham County residents lived in poverty – a family of four making less than $22,000 per year.  That number grew to 17% in 2009.  One-fourth of children in this county under 18 live in poverty. 2

    As Winnie Morgan cited last week in the Sharing Our Mission, 1 in 3 African American male babies born in 2011 will have the probability of going to prison in their lifetime. 3 These differences sort themselves out all over the place, from the neighborhoods we live in, the schools we go to, the clubs we are or aren’t a part of so, the places we go to vacation, or not.  Without even thinking about it sometimes we compare and contrast, sizing up what we are doing and what others aren’t.  We do it in our professional lives; we do it with our kids.  Ella Brooks’ kindergarten assessment is this week, and we’ll begin swimming in our educational system that can’t help but define and categorize.  These differences define when we retire, how we struggle through health care options as we age.  These differences shape how we see almost everything.  We live and die by these differences.

    That is why it is so important we hear Paul’s word to the church.  Corinth was a vibrant, cosmopolitan place.  A city of about half a million people, it sat in the center of the narrow isthmus (a thin strip of land) that separated the main part of Greece from the southern Peloponnesus.  Corinth had ports on both the east and west sides of the city, with an elaborate system of boats in between.  You could bring cargo to one port, and have it shuttled over to the other, saving you a trip all the way around the southern tip of Greece.  People from all over the known world ended up in Corinth. 4

    Paul arrived for about an 18-month visit (recounted in Acts 18), and found himself swimming in an unparalleled array of religious practices.  There was an established Jewish community with a synagogue, but also cults of Greek gods, Roman gods, mystery cults, temple prostitution, ritual sacrifice.  Religious differences, personal differences, political, moral and economic differences. 5 And these Christians in Corinth were to maintain some sort of coherent identity amidst it all.  And then, to top it off, after Paul left there were different Christian leaders, claiming the same God, saying very different things about what it meant to be faithful.  In the very first chapter Paul frames his letter by mentioning that word had gotten back to him about divisions among them, struggling to follow together.  From Paul to Cephas to Apollos – he says in the first chapter – from television preachers to conservative to liberal Presbyterians, even, different people were hitching their wagons to different leaders, as the community struggled to live into its mission.

    And so Paul’s word to the church is a strong one.  Strong enough that he seems to make up a word in the process.  In this text Paul switches from their favorite term – pneumatikos in verse 1 – translated spiritual phenomenon, to his own.  This word, charisma, found only in Paul and the literature dependent on him, was probably invented by Paul.  It is undoubtedly related to charis, grace, and points the Corinthians back to the sovereign power of God. 6 They were a bit too caught up in those differences, it seems, about who did what and where – even at the church.  That is why Paul needs to be clear.  While different people have different gifts, he says, those gifts, those charisma, all come from the same place.  We can’t brag or judge based on gifts, Paul says.  God gives, and gives to ALL.

    And those gifts aren’t for us, anyway.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  Paul then dives into a list.  Wisdom, knowledge, miracles, prophecy, tongues.  Organizing, listening, encouraging, including others, prayer.  And Paul goes out of his way to make sure we don’t forget where those gifts come from.  “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit…by the one Spirit.”  He repeats the Spirit with each gift, then pulls it all together again:  “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”  The same Spirit that burst into the room at Pentecost, that sent those disciples running into the streets to tell their good news, continued to be at work in the church.  That same Spirit was giving gifts to EVERYONE to use for the good of all.

    If Paul is right, then church has something wonderful to share with the world!  We need no longer be identified by our differences.  The Spirit of Pentecost continues to inspire us all.  That Spirit calls to those who sit on the sidelines, who prefer to remain on the periphery, that you have been given gifts, and you must use them.  That same Spirit also says to those who do a lot, who do good and important work and might get a little self-righteous about it sometimes, that while everyone’s work is important, no one’s is more valuable than anyone else’s.  The Spirit serves a great leveling function, calling us out to work, side by side, for the good of God’s great world.  It is a matter of stewardship, the broadest possible sense.  You have all been given gifts, Paul says.  You, me, the person next to you, in front and behind, the person who drives you a little crazy.  Those gifts come from the same place, and work for all.

    So I would like to, in the spirit of Pentecost, give you a bit of a summer project.  This is a season when things slow down a bit, when some programs take a break, some groups don’t meet.  We head to the mountains, or the beach.  Don’t let your gifts take a vacation, too.  Some of you are sharing them by teaching a summer Sunday School class.  There are a few Habitat days left, and we need you.  Sign up to keep the nursery, whether you have young children or not.  Haywood and Rebecca and I are trying to get four tables’ worth of folks to come to a Housing for New Hope breakfast in mid-July.  We want you to come learn how your gifts, our gifts as a community, can be put to work for the common good in those places where people are hungry, where they seem so different from us.  Remain keenly aware in these warm and lazy days that you have been given gifts to use for Christ’s purposes in the world.

    The other thing I want you to do is to encourage someone else in the sharing of their gifts.  Maybe it’s someone you know well who needs a place to fit; maybe it’s someone you don’t know as well.  They only way you can draw out someone’s gifts is by getting to know them.  That is one of the many reasons I have continued something Haywood did in officer training, which four elders-elect and seven deacons-elect began last Tuesday.  Each week they have to meet someone they didn’t know, get to know them a bit, then come tell the group about them on Tuesday night.  You can’t lead if you don’t know the people you are leading.  When you come to dig in the garden, invite someone you haven’t seen in awhile.  When you go to sign up to serve the shelter meal, bring someone along with you.  The person on the sidelines, Paul reminds us, is simply someone whose gifts haven’t been put to good use yet.

    Walter Brueggemann, in the Introduction for this season’s Journal for Preachers, writes: “The long preaching season between Easter and Advent goes by two names.  It is the season of Pentecost, which recognizes that the church is powered and led, given courage and freedom, by God’s own Spirit….but we also call the season ordinary time, the time in between, when nothing special is going on.”  Brueggemann goes on to suggest that this juxtaposition of Pentecost and ordinary is something wondrous for the church.  “It is wondrous because of our shared assumption that it is ordinary for the church to be powered by God’s Spirit.” 7 That ordinary time is not, in fact, ordinary at all.  That it is infused, filled, with the Spirit of grace, charis, who gives every single person in the world gifts, charisma, to use for the good of creation.  So that people might be fed and clothed, so the lonely and sick might be nurtured, so that everyone has a chance to use their remarkable gifts.  Don’t let them get stale this summer, friends.  There is much work to do.

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. Data from the 2010 Census, from a report on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, accessed at:
    2. “Durham poverty rate climbs,” by Mark Shultz, in the October 3, 2010 The Durham News, 1A.  Also, “The great divide in household wealth,” by Gene Nichol, also in the 10/3/10 The Durham News, 4A.
    3. Statistics Courtesy Winnie Morgan, Executive Director of the Early Childhood Faith Initiative.
    4. This background comes from the Rev. Elizabeth Goodrich’s immensely helpful paper on this text for the 2011 gathering of The Well in Austin, Texas.
    5. Goodrich again.
    6. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 536.
    7. Walter Brueggemann’s foreward to the Pentecost 2011 Journal for Preachers, Volume XXXIV, Number 4, p 1.

  2. Sermons : Looking in the Wrong Places

    Seventh Sunday of Easter/Ascension of the Lord

    Psalm 68:1-10
    Acts 1:1-11

    You can’t blame them for being anxious.

    After all they had shared with him, since He had called them from their boats, since they had left everything behind to follow.  And they had fished for people, as the crowds gathered, as he healed lepers and slaves, raised a poor widow’s son from the dead. Through parables told, demons cast out, five thousand fed with a five loaves and two measly fish. 1 Even that terrible week in which He was arrested, beaten, nailed to a cross to die.  And then He was alive, again, the tomb empty, and He appeared to them on that road to Emmaus, showing them hope was real.  Luke’s gospel ends in triumph: “And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” 2

    And so you can’t blame them when the scene changes.  Volume one, Luke, ends with the celebrating.  Volume two, Acts, by the same author, opens quite differently.  Luke gives us a few introductory words linking volumes one and two, and in verse four has Jesus give clear instructions: don’t leave Jerusalem, but wait.  Wait for the promise of God, the Holy Spirit, in not too many days, he says.  Waiting is hard enough for the small things, for a ride to show up, for school to end.  Commercials advertise immediate downloads on our fancy phones so we don’t have to wait five whole seconds for a video to play.  What about waiting for that return call about a job, for that pathology report to come back?  And so you can feel the confusion in their question, there in verse six: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Is it now?  Things are getting complicated down here, Jesus, you see how hard things are.  Could it be soon?

    And Jesus doesn’t answer the question.  You will not know, he says.  But as you wait you will be given great power when the Spirit comes, so you can be my witnesses here, and not only here, but in other places, like Judea, like Samaria, people you don’t get along with, disagree with, you will be sent out even to them, to the ends of the earth.  He gives this troubling benediction, and then is gone, Luke says, lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

    One could see how this might not go over well.  Jesus gets them all excited, and then leaves them there, seemingly abandoned, to wait.  And this anxiety builds, and continues to build centuries later.  As families fall apart, as tornadoes blow through, as troops fly off to war and come back in boxes.  As people we know and love, young and old, get sick and die, we want to know.  Lord, what is going on?  Why do these things happen?  Jesus, when are you going to come down here and do something about all of this?  Don’t you SEE?

    And this breeds so much anxiety, that the church deals with in different ways.  One way is by trying to escape.  Someone, like this gentlemen who put all those billboards up that the world was going to end a couple of Saturdays ago, looks through the bible, reading it like a code-book, pulling numbers from Genesis here, Daniel there, some Revelation, spitting out a number. 3 If we know Jesus is going to parachute down and get us out of here, we can hang in there through the hard things, knowing it will end soon.  It also, conveniently, gets them out of working to improve this life.  Why take care of creation, some Christians say, when it’s all going to end soon, anyway?  Every generation since Jesus has had people who have made these calculations.  And in their anxiety they miss that the bible is far more interesting than something you unlock with invisible ink and decoder ring. And that the incarnation, Christ coming into the world, is God blessing the world, warts and all, and calling us to do what we can to improve things down here.

    Others seek certitude through the way they construct their religious system.  Every single thing, they say, is a part of God’s will for each of us.  And while I certainly believe that God is intimately involved, I am troubled by a God who is pulling the trigger on every decision, or that makes hard things happen to me so that I can learning something later.  Many of us have know people who endure terrible pain and come out stronger, who come out with a remarkable wisdom, who were sustained by God in that deep darkness.  But most of them I know would trade all of it, in an instant, to have their loved one back for just one more day.  I don’t believe in a God that has us for little more than entertainment.

    Another way that anxiety gets worked out is a combination of the first two.  My neighbor handed me a book called Heaven is for Real. 4 Todd Burpo is a Wesleyan pastor in Oklahoma whose three year-old son Colton nearly died because of an infection from a ruptured appendix.  He comes back and begins to tell his family about his time with Jesus, showing impressive knowledge of things he shouldn’t be able to know about, that, naturally, line up with some verses in the bible about Jesus and heaven.  While I would never doubt his claims or his faith, it is the worldview that is hard for me to swallow.  While they don’t give a date for the rapture, part of what they are trying to do is to prove something that can’t be proven.  Heaven is real, they say.  These bible verses prove we can get there, and experience confirms it.  The assumption underneath is that if you KNOW heaven is real then, surely, you will profess faith in Jesus the way they want you to.  You won’t be able to do otherwise.  Which is not the worst thing in the world, except then, it seems to me, it’s no longer faith.  Faith is not something to be proven, it is something felt, known, much more deeply than old scrolls and archaeological evidence and impressive philosophical reasoning.

    Because faith, trust, is what Jesus is calling the disciples to here.  Anxiety has a tendency to make us close in on ourselves.  Lord, is this the time you will solve my problems and heal my wounds?  Is this the time you will give me strength, prove me right, tie it all up in a bow?  And Jesus promises POWER to them, and to us, to be a part of the in-breaking of His kingdom, and they, and we, are sent beyond Jerusalem, beyond where we live, to those places that are filled with violence and hunger and pain, those places in our lives that scare us to death.  That is where Easter faith works – not where things are going well, but where and when we worry that sin and divorce and regret and cancer might have actually won.  He promises them this power, and flies away, leaving them, standing, mouths agape, filled with fear.

    But one more thing happens.  It is a replay of a scene from earlier.  In Luke’s resurrection account, the women come, in the morning, and find an empty tomb.  Two men look at them and say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but is risen.”  The angels tell them to go find Him in the world.  The same thing happens here. 5 As they are gazing up, Luke says, two men in white robes, angels, tap them on the shoulder.  Guys!  Why are you looking up there?  He will come back, He has promised, and you won’t be able to miss it.  What Luke is doing, again, is pushing us back into the world, back to each other, to the people who are in the pews right next to you, the coworker or the neighbor you really need to love.  In the midst of the excitement of graduations, as one adventure ends and another begins, as families in Joplin dig through the rubble, as turmoil reigns in the Middle East, as we raise our kids and care for our parents.  Sure, He’s up there, the angels say.  His promises beyond this life undergird all things.  But for you, for the church, now, as long as there are people to be fed, homes to be built, as long as there are lonely people in need of care.  The church must be at work in those places.  Bring your heads down they say.  Look around.  Trust here, and now.  Believe.

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. Largely from Luke 5-9.
    2. Luke 24:52-53.
    3. Harold Camping’s response is in this Washington Post article:
    4. Heaven is for Real, by Todd Burpo, with Lynn Vincent, (Nashville: Thomas Vinson, 2010).
    5. I was reminded of this connection by Justo Gonzalez, “Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit,” (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 24.  “In both cases, what they do is point the disciples in a different direction.”

  3. Sermons : What Do We Worship?

    Sixth Sunday of Easter

    John 14:15-21
    Acts 17:22-34

    Say what you will about Paul the Apostle – and there seem to be some very strong feelings of love or hate for the Paul we get to know from his writings in the letters of the New Testament – but this passage highlights how good Paul was at assessing his audience and applying his message just to them. Paul most often spoke at synagogues or gatherings of new Christians. In this chapter of Acts, he started by speaking at the synagogue in Athens. Those in attendance at the synagogue actually thought Paul was talking about two gods, one named Jesus, and a female god Anastasias (which is Greek for “resurrection”).  And some Epicureans and Stoics began to deride him and debate with him as he spoke.

    Epicureans were atheists, who saw no purpose in any belief in gods, especially in light of all the suffering in life. If gods existed, Epicureans thought they must not think much of humans to allow such awful things to happen. And they certainly did not believe in miracles, like the resurrection. Stoics based their theology around the mind of Zeus, the greatest and highest of the gods, and saw Zeus as reason (or logos, as the Gospel of John calls Jesus).  Stoics saw virtue as the only good, and vice as the only evil. The wise Stoic would be indifferent to pain or pleasure, wealth or poverty, success or misfortune.  They aimed to be self-sufficient and reasonable in any and all circumstances.

    As we begin our passage, Paul had moved to a smaller, more intimate place, the Areopagus, or marketplace, to continue conversation with the Greek philosophers.  This actually must have been quite an honor for Paul, a rare and unique opportunity.  In verse 16 of this chapter, we find that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”  Yet, he had found a way to address that by the time he began speaking at the marketplace, praising them for how “religious” they were with all these objects of worship.  He had seen the inscription, “To an unknown god,” and he used that to proclaim the one God as creator and Lord of all heaven and earth.  He said that God creates humans with the need to search for God.  And, instead of using scriptures that these philosophers would not know, Paul quoted poets they would know, and appealed to the Stoic reasoning in his argument. God commands people to repent in light of the judgment, Paul said, “by a man God has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”  He never mentioned Jesus by name, but rather described what God did through this man.

    At this point, the Epicureans, who did not believe in resurrection, may have interrupted Paul, though the text simply says “some scoffed.”  Others, perhaps the Stoics, were willing to continue in conversation at another time.  Some even joined Paul and became believers in Christ.

    Contrast this Acts passage with the John passage, which is just a tidbit of Jesus’ address to his disciples in chapters 15-17 before his impending trial and death.  Paul was addressing an audience of non-believers and those who ruled their lives by reasoning.  Jesus was addressing the people who had gotten to know him best, who had followed and marveled and learned, but who did not understand when Jesus said, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now; but you will follow afterward”  (John 13:36).  Jesus, knowing the course he would take to the cross, said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  He told them that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, would come to be with them forever, and that the world would not understand, because the Spirit was not something that could be seen or known in a physical sense, but only by faith.  “In a little while,” he said, “the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (14:19). This would have been impossible for the Athenian philosophers to understand, and must have been hard for the disciples as well. We understand because we live beyond the resurrection.  The universal language of Jesus’ words here would be, for all perhaps except the Stoics, the language of love.  Jesus appealed to the disciples for their love for him, and, out of his love for them, he promised not to leave them alone even though he would not physically be with them anymore.  We, of course, also accept these promises of love, as we read such passages as Jesus’ followers today.

    But the Acts passage can cause us to reflect upon what, or whom, we worship.  To whom do we erect statues or make idols?  What is most important in our lives? What, or who, rules our lives?

    When I preach on a holiday, I try to research the holiday a bit, and this week, I ran across some editorial cartoons about Memorial Day, the day when we remember those who have died in the service of our country’s military.  “Thanksgiving,” said one, “is a day when we pause to give thanks for the things we have.  Memorial Day is a day when we pause to give thanks for the people who fought for what we have.”  Another showed a family loaded up in a car, with surfboard, tennis rackets, fishing pole, and a cooler.  Mom was assessing supplies, saying, “Hamburgers, hot dogs, buns, mustard, ketchup, beer, soft drinks,…Honey, what are the flowers for?”  The next scene shows the Dad out of the car at the military cemetery putting the flowers on a grave and saying, “To say thanks.”  But the one that really struck me, especially after we have watched a North Carolina boy win on “The American Idol” this week, was one depicting a grandfather, with his military cap on and holding a cane, taking his grandson to the cemetery, where American flags dot each grave, and saying to the grandson, “I’d like to introduce you to a real ‘American Idol.’”

    It is right and good that we honor those who have died in service for our country and for freedom for all peoples.  Honoring, respecting is not quite the same as worshiping.  Go to a Thesaurus to look up “worship,” “honor,” and “respect,” and you will find that “honor” and “respect” list similar synonyms, and each appears in the list of the other.  “Exalt, regard, esteem, recognize, venerate, admire, adore,” and even “worship” also appear in these lists.  “Adore” is also a synonym for “worship,” but there is a word that appears under “worship” that does not appear in these other lists.  And it is “love.”

    So to worship goes beyond to honor or to respect.  Worship goes well beyond the reasoning that the Stoics hold so highly.  To worship means to love.  Worship also describes what we do here, of course, with a worship service, including elements such as prayer and song, Scripture and preaching, baptism and communion.  But we worship because we love God.

    So Jesus had it right, of course.  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  And because I love you, he said, I will send the Advocate to be with you in my absence.

    In our busy, busy lives, there is much to adore, to honor, to even pursue. We can adore television and movie stars, or athletes; we can honor our vets and those serving in the military, our President and other world leaders; we can pursue success, wealth, or fame.  When it comes to what or whom we love, we like to “find” love, or to “fall in love,” in some magical kind of way.  But think about those things or people we may love or adore, or even “worship.”  We want to know all about them, either by talking with them or by reading all about them.  We put up pictures or posters of them.  We go to their movies or ballgames, their concerts and gymnastic meets.  We put a lot of time and energy into this kind of love or worship. You do, and I do. We all have things and people we love and adore.

    But hopefully, such a study as of today’s passages makes us stop to think:  Shouldn’t we put just as much time and energy into worshiping God?

    After all, if we look at the John passage, we know that God loves us.  “I will not leave you orphaned,” said Jesus, “I am coming to you….On that day you will know that I am in God, and you in me, and I in you”  (14:18, 20). That is love expressed, my friends.  The Bible is, of course, full of the language of love.  God IS love, the Bible tells us.  So if God loves us, we should also love God.  And to truly love takes work.  As many of you know, marriage takes work to keep it going.  Relationships with our friends take work.  So does our relationship with God.

    The Epicureans and Stoics whom Paul addressed were far from understanding what it means to worship the one true God.  Paul worked hard to meet them where they were, to appeal to what they would understand.  And we can learn from him as we interact with others who do not think or believe as we do.  Paul left behind his distress, perhaps even his anger, at seeing their idols, to talk with them in ways they would understand.  Paul even left out direct references to God and Jesus.  Yet we knew what he meant because we know God and Jesus.  When we talk with the unchurched, or those of other faiths, we can respect their beliefs and work to address them in ways they might understand, even as we listen to them share their beliefs and thoughts.  When we engage in conversation with those who differ in political or other views from our own, maybe we can take a lesson from Paul as well, to strive to understand them and respect them where they are.

    To prepare ourselves to engage in such dialogues about our faith, though, means that we need to really know the God whom we profess.  Paul, after a startling conversion on the road to Damscus, fell in love with the religion he had been persecuting before that experience.  He fell in love with Jesus, one might say, and he spent the rest of his life teaching and preaching so that others might also know and love the same God. “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” he said in I Corinthians (12:13), “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”  “There is one body and one Spirit,” says the letter to the Ephesians, “just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” Eph. 5:4-6).

    All peoples, all faiths, perhaps even those, in some sense, who claim not to believe in any faith, may be seeking and worshiping the same God.  We have different names, differing ways of following, and different forms of worship.  But it is the same God that we all worship.  Our God is not “unknown.”  Our God is love.  Love may be the universal language that makes us all truly one.

    On this Memorial Day, as we honor those who have fought wars to save others, let us also worship the one God who cares for all creation, who asks but that we love God and one another.

    All glory be to God.  Amen.

  4. Sermons : Which Way Do We Go?

    Fifth Sunday of Easter

    1 Peter 2:4-10
    John 14:1-14

    What would you do if you knew it was your last night on earth?  Who would be there? What would you say?  What would you do?

    Remember with me back to Maundy Thursday.  Jesus was troubled, John tells us. 1 So many things moved towards this moment, as the disciples made their way to an upper room.  It was that last supper, before His arrest, the beatings, his tragic death the next day.  And it was His last chance.  John sets aside chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 for this farewell discourse, for these things Jesus says to his friends around the table.  He sets the tone early on by taking off his outer robe, wrapping a towel around his waist, pouring water from a bowl over their dusty feet.  He warns them of the coming trials, of one of their betrayal, and offers a new commandment, that they love one another: “Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also should love one another.” 2 After that comes the interchange recorded in today’s text.

    And while it is a wonderful one, too often this is a text you hear shouted.  At a gathering last fall a friend of the family sat down, eager to pick the brain of the preacher.  ‘What do you think of the Muslim threat?’ he asked.  When I told him I didn’t feel particularly threatened as a Christian in the southeastern US, and that people of all faiths needed to work together to root out radical elements within all of their communities, a confused look spread over his face.  I had not satisfied him.  And then it came.  ‘Well, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life,’ he said.  And the verse just sat there, hanging over us.

    Because everyone is scared.  He knew it, so he begins with words of comfort.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, he says, by your fear, by the guards you know that are coming.  Believe in.  Trust in.  Lean into my strength as the bills mount and the doctor calls back.  In my Father’s house, he says, hospitality abounds, as does grace.  And there are many dwelling places, he says, plenty of room, Lamar Williamson says, for those who find in Jesus the way to God. 3 He reminds them of promises made – that He is preparing a place, that He will come and take us to Himself.  That Christ will gather us all together.  This is welcoming, invitational language spoken at table with his dear friends.  You know, he says to them, you know.

    And then comes Thomas’s question.  Thomas has gained a reputation because of his later questions, after the resurrection, when he needed to know if Jesus was really alive. 4 Thomas knew this was important.  So much swirled around him, violence, economic anxiety, pressure, pressure, pressure.  Lord, tell me.  So much is unclear.  Tell us.  We HAVE to nail it down.  We have to be sure.  We have to know.  This is the point at which I am sure Jesus smiled.  He knew these friends, knew who was going to ask the question, who was going to shy away.  Like the committees we are on – we know who is reliable, who has great ideas but forgets things, who is always fired up about something that no one else worries about.  That’s what it’s like working with people, and we love them, we do.  And Jesus leans in and looks him in the eye.  Thomas, I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life.  I have been here with you the whole time.  In what is an amazing statement, He says that you don’t find God any other way, through something different that what you have known of us together.  “There is an exclusive quality to this love,” Williamson says, again.  “Like Israel’s walk with the God who would not tolerate the worship of other gods, and like life together in a faithful marriage whose partners forswear intimacy with all others.” 5 Not everywhere, not anywhere, but here.

    We, as followers of this Jesus, are caught in a difficult bind when it comes to texts such as these.  We want, so desperately, to be faithful to what we believe is true, but we also don’t want to shut ourselves off from the world He is even now transforming.  We don’t want to compromise what we believe – nor should we.  But too often Christians have used this text to put up walls instead of to break them down.  I have a hard time believing that the most important thing this text has to tell me is that the Mormon family I sat with at the baseball game on Tuesday, or my Jewish friend from college, or my neighbor who confessed shortly after we moved in that she couldn’t remember ever actually walking in a church, are all destined for eternal damnation.  That is why I will readily proclaim, with the church, that “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him.”  But we must also say, right after that, that “Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.” 6 We work as hard as we can, and we trust.  This text comes as good, good news, and it is important that we let it be that good news, and not try and make it something it isn’t.

    That is why the rest of the conversation, often left out, is so useful.  After Thomas’ first question, Phillip keeps pushing.  Show us, he says, and we’ll be satisfied.  I have been with you this whole time, Jesus says.  Whoever has seen me has seen God.  And then comes something extraordinary.  Jesus says, even if you don’t believe because I say so, if that is not enough; believe because of what you have seen – of blind healed, of lepers cleansed, of Lazarus walking out of the tomb.  Believe, he says, because you have seen my work, because it is unmistakable, as children sing, as youth ask great questions, as we work in the shelter line and sawing up trees in yards in Raleigh, as we hammer nails for Habitat.  Jesus looks into the disciples’ eyes, and says, “Thomas, you have just seen the way when I knelt and washed your feet.  You have felt the truth in the Spirit at work around this table as we ate together.  You have experienced real life through the words I have spoken.  Phillip, I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  Live like I do, love like I do, and you will experience everlasting life.”

    I don’t know how to explain love to you.  I don’t have the words to describe it.  I don’t know anything about love apart from the way the way my parents cared for me, from the embrace of a good friend, what I know from the feeling that gripped me when I saw my wife begin to walk down the aisle.  When Ella Brooks, then Heath, were placed in my hands.  As far as I know you can’t know love in theory, in any meaningful way, at least.  I wonder if Jesus is saying something similar to His disciples here.  Maybe that is what He is trying to help Thomas and Philip see.  God is not something, someone far, away, Jesus says.  God is here.  I am here.  You don’t get God any other way, out there – God in theory.  That cannot be the way.  God cannot be understood in isolation from the depth of human relationships, as God is, in the essence of God’s own self, love in action, embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And this Christ bears fruit among us as we gather together, laughing over meals, clutching each other in hospital rooms or beside the grave.  When we sit together and listen and talk through something hard.  The way isn’t out there, Jesus says.  Look at me.  Hold my hands.  Feel, in your gut, our relationship.  That is love, He says.  And that is God.

    I can think of few better ways that God’s love is made flesh than in the teachers we appreciate today.  Those of us up front tend get all the glory, but it is these folks, on Sundays and Wednesdays, that form the backbone of faithfulness here.  That way becomes real as art supplies are gathered, as behavior issues are tended to, as a teacher sits up late on a Saturday with curriculum and bible, struggling, learning.  I learned of Jesus as the Truth through folks like Gene and Smith Wilson, and Tommy and Ed Hay.  These retired couples sat with me, often the only kid in Sunday School those first few years in Black Mountain.  In 5th grade, and much of 6th grade.  I don’t have any idea what we talked about, but I know of their faithfulness as they kept showing up, over and over again.  One summer, years later, when I was escorting some 6th graders of my own in clubs in Montreat, a car pulled up alongside.  It was Tommy, Ed’s wife.  He had just died.  And she rolled down her window and held out a book, an old Greek Lexicon, well used.  Ed was a retired Presbyterian minister, had taken Greek at Davidson and done so well they asked him to help teach it when he enrolled at Louisville Seminary.  She wanted me to have it.  I think he would want you to have it, she said, and drove off quickly as the tears came.  And we feel this life embodied in those relationships.  I know how much my kids adore guitar man, how Heath looks forward to Daddy and Sissy Ketch, as he calls Susan and Jim, as Ella Brooks sits with Helen and Muff, Julie, Angela and Alice.  These relationships are so meaningful, and they change things.

    “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” He says.  He does not say the church is the way.  He says He Himself is the way.  And He says that the truth is not words, neither his nor anyone else’s.  It is love embodied – love in action – that comes to us, and to the world, most fully in the person of Jesus the Christ.  And through it all, as the unanswered questions grow, I believe that we are still called, each day, to follow.  Not to hurl these words as a dart, not to decide things for others that are not ours to decide.  But to lean into His promises, to trust, to believe.

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. I am grateful to Lamar Williamson, who pointed this out in his book, “Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word,” (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 178.  When his friend Lazarus died (11:33), as His own death approached (12:27), and knowing that one of His disciples would betray Him (13:21). 
    2. John 13:34. 
    3. Williamson, 179. 
    4. John 20:19-31. 
    5. Williamson 182. 
    6. From “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ”, a document commended to the church at the 2002 General Assembly, lines 155-168.

  5. Sermons : Filled With the Spirit

    Fourth Sunday of Easter

    Psalm 23
    Ephesians 5:15-20

    Texts like this make me immediately skeptical.

    “Be careful then how you live,” Paul says.  Don’t be foolish, “but understand what the will of the Lord is.”  It sounds like a stump speech, as the politician bounds up to the stage. And we are told that America is great as long as she is good, or we must protect our values for our children, or our increasing debt means we are going to have to make some sacrifices.  And we nod, agreeing, until someone raises their hand:  “Which values do you mean?  Which thing that we are passionate about must get cut? ”  We all want to follow the will of the Lord, just as soon as we know what that is, exactly.

    We struggle with this wisdom in the church.  A presbytery in Minnesota voted on Tuesday to approve amendment 10-A to the constitution of the PC (USA), putting the total number of affirmative votes over the threshold for passage.  This amendment, once it takes effect this summer, replaces some of our church’s language about ordination standards.  The present standards speak of officers in the church living in obedience to scripture and our confessions.  Then there is a special note about our sexuality, added 14 years ago:  “Among these standards is the requirement to live in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness…” (G-6.0106b).

    Now, we ought to agree that the way one lives in relationship is an important arena in which we live out our faith.  We don’t get to wall off portions of our lives that God doesn’t get access to.  But the mechanics get tricky.  The church actually amended the Westminster Confession of Faith some 50 years ago to sanction people getting remarried, and to grant some grace on divorce. 1 While I am sure there are couples who have gotten divorced too quickly, who didn’t try hard enough to work it out, most of the couples I know did so through deep pain, praying to the very end that things could be otherwise.  Paul says, ‘be careful how you live,’ and ‘understand the will of the Lord.’  And then we step out the door, and it is infinitely more difficult.

    And Paul’s language sounds like a stump speech because, in many ways, it is.  First of all, most scholars doubt this letter was written by Paul.  The language and writing style is different.  And it might not have been written to the Ephesians.  The phrase in 1:1 ‘in Ephesus’ is missing from several early and trustworthy manuscripts. 2 The author repeats a lot of Colossians, and the book lacks any specific mention of problems in the community that prompted Paul’s writing.  In so many of his letters the context is unmistakable.  Paul writes his first letter to the Thessalonians who are worried about their loved ones who have died, to assure them of the hope they have in Christ.  He writes to the Christians in Corinth because factions threaten their unity.  He follows up with a second letter seeking reconciliation, and in gratitude for an offering the church sent for Christians in Jerusalem.  Galatians is about circumcision, about identity and being the rightful heirs of Christ’s promise.  Paul is in prison and writes to the Philippians to endure against persecution, similar things to Colossians.

    But not in Ephesians.  Paul, or someone writing in Paul’s name, begins with a long section of gratitude that turns into a prayer, and then calls the people to seek a brand new life in Christ.  Its language is rich, with a lot of great stuff about the church as the body of Christ, about being called to bear witness to him in the world.  It is filled with exhortation.  A stump speech, what many scholars think is likely a sermon that traveling preachers would share, from pulpit to pulpit.  Our preacher reminds his hearers that Christ is our peace, that he has broken down the dividing walls between us (2:14); he tells us that we are no longer strangers and aliens, but are citizens, saints in the household of God (2:19).  He challenges us all to lead a life worthy of our calling (4:1), and not to be tossed about, back and forth, blown about by winds of doctrine, by following our impulses instead of doing the deep discernment to which we are called.

    And so our preacher, to this church in Ephesus and to many others, dares to reuse some of his material because he believes it is important.  He does this because he believes that how we live in all of our relationships, that how we conduct ourselves as a church, matters profoundly to each other, to the world, and to God.  Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.  We are summoned to live with intentionality, to live into opportunities for ministry placed before us.  All of that can certainly mean different things to different people, just as this vote does for the larger church.  There are many who have been blasting away, who would argue that the PC(USA) has given into the values of these evil days, have been batted about by the winds of culture, who are simply following along and tossing scripture out along the way.  This wasn’t a debate in the church for many centuries, so why toss all that out?

    It is because, I believe, that at the core of our Christian and Reformed tradition is that we are always being reformed by the Spirit of God.  That the moment things stay the same, we are in fact heading backwards, missing opportunities to be at work in the world.  I am not going to re-litigate this whole thing for you, though I would – either Betty or I – would love to sit and talk with you, would love to sit and listen to you.  I do believe, though, that this dynamic Spirit calls us to seek faithfulness in every age, as our church has been seeking for the last 33 years.  These new standards do not throw open the door for every broken sinful person to be an officer in the church, any more than broken and sinful people are leaders – pastors and elders and deacons – in the church already.  We are they.  What the church has done is remove a categorical condemnation that was inconsistently enforced, and that ignored that fact that we all fall short in countless ways.  I tend to think we focus on sins of sex because we like to believe that those are sins that other people do.  They can’t pertain to us.  And we point the finger, ignoring the log in our own eye, when scripture says some pretty powerful things about greed, about idolatry, about honesty and gossip and forgiveness that we don’t seem to worry about so much.  This new language, while offering freedom for bodies to no longer exclude gifted gay and lesbian people who have been called to serve the church, more importantly focuses us not on each other, not on your sins and mine, but on the Christ who is the Lord of all.

    And the new language points us to God, in ways that the preacher of Ephesians would appreciate.  “Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000).” 3 We lean on scripture and the confessions, and our local governing bodies – sessions and presbyteries – who will decide for themselves, and for the church, through deep discernment and prayer, who will lead and serve the church.  This is what our preacher encourages us to do: to be filled with the Spirit, to seek her everywhere.  The Spirit of boundless hope and joy, laughter and love, who is the Spirit of the Risen Christ, who broke down boundaries over and over again, who extended compassion and love to all He met, who called all people to repent, to turn around, to stop following themselves and their own gods, and seek the One God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Deborah, Isaiah and Micah, of Mary and Joseph and Paul, of Augustine and Calvin, of Knox and Witherspoon, of our grandparents, of pastors we knew growing up, the Christ that seeks YOU, that seeks ME.

    And then our preacher, finally, at every stop in every little coastal town, points the people to worship.  We work and study and struggle with these hard issues, then we worship.  We sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God, so we might give thanks and praise.  And we do it here, on this day in which we give thanks to God for the musicians that lead us in this central act of the church.  It is through worship, through these songs, that we are lifted up, beyond and through our pain, the tedium of our lives, and pointed yet again to the divine.  In hospital rooms, as the words come to us… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  Through this Lenten season, I would hear myself singing, rejoice, and be glad, blessed are You, Holy are You…as sung by our chancel and junior choirs.  Holy Darkness, blessed light…as the choir sang on Maundy Thursday: as we await You, O God of silence, we embrace Your holy night. As we worship with the anthem the choir will sing today, which they sang so powerfully at Mickey Henriquez’s funeral in January.

    And we’ll do as we always do, circling back to worship, with remarkable music by such talented and generous people.  But even more so beyond and through the music, through our exhaustion and pain, through a world filled with violence, to the Christ who comes among us, who is making all things new.  And who fills us with His Spirit, so we might live joyfully, serving in Sunday School and with Habitat, in the choir, at the dinner table and in the shelter line.  As we remember, through all things, that in Him, in Christ, we find our hope.

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church, USA, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1999), “The Westminster Confession of Faith,” Chapter XXVI, 6.133.
    2. Charles B Cousar, An Introduction to the New Testament: Witnesses to God’s New Work, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2006), p 81.  I found additional background in Pheme Perkins’ introductory section in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), pp 351-355, and 441-443.
    3. Find out more at

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