Friday, May 26, 2017

Right Tool! More Power!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 24th Chapter

Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

We’ve all worked with our hands at some point or another.  In our work life, home life and church life.  Quilting, painting, gardening, shoveling, cooking, baking, counting, word processing, doing the dishes and all sorts of other things.  But no matter what you do, it always goes better when you use the CORRECT tool for the job.  You don’t use a straight screwdriver on a Phillip’s head.  You don’t use a meat cleaver to cut bread and don’t use mom’s fabric scissors to cut paper!  

No matter what the work, use the right tool for the job and (if you all remember Tim the Toolman Taylor) the right tool is always better with… MORE POWER!  Uh, uh, uh!  Even though Jesus lived and was into woodworking before power tools, he understood that.  Jesus knew that it’s one thing to be given a job; but what we really need with the job, are the right tools to get it done!

We’ve got a job to do and it’s time to get to work.  “You WILL BE my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”  YOU will be!  He’s looking at you, ya know?  Does that make you squirm a bit in your seats?   It makes me squirm in my seat and I’m not even sitting down!  If you’re squirming, though, you’re in good company.  

The disciples were squirming too when they heard that from Jesus right before he rose on up into heaven.  I imagine those disciples just stood there with their mouths hanging open and I think it was only PARTLY because they saw the Ascension!  I bet the other thing that had them standing there with their chins on the ground was the thing that Jesus had just asked them to do!  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” 

They were so gob-smacked, they needed a couple of angels to come and pick their jaws up off the ground, tell them to stop catching flies with those open mouths and get on with the job!  Jesus left in a surprising way and Jesus would return in a surprising way at a surprising time.  Worrying about that, however, wasn’t part of their job.  

The job the disciples got and the job we have, is to tell the story of Jesus, and Jesus left a specific action plan for this job.  Start in Jerusalem.  In other words, start right where you are; right where you live; with the people you know best.  Start right here!  In this congregation!  Tell each other the Jesus story and how it makes a difference in our lives.  What would happen if at coffee hour each week, we shared with one another where we saw Jesus at work in our lives in the past week?  From there we're to spread the story just a little wider… in our homes, to our families, to our friends over coffee and to your neighbor out for a walk.  What would happen if we told the Jesus story to our family and friends?  What if we did that FIRST without any words?  What if we SHOWED our next door neighbor the Jesus story by how we took care of them… valued them… and thanked them for just being our neighbor? 

From there, we’re supposed to head out to Judea.  Judea was where the fringe folks lived.  Jesus is calling us to the fringes too… to the homeless and hungry, the imprisoned and impoverished, to the cast outs and left outs.  What would it look like to sit with someone and listen to their story when most of the world doesn’t even see them?  

From the fringe in Judea, out further to Samaria.  Samaria was where the people lived who were close in geography but farther away in culture, tradition, religion, language and story.  Neighbors by address, but still strangers.  Jesus calls us next to show them the Jesus story by lifting them up, building their dignity, treating them with compassion and justice and inviting THEM to become US.

I don’t know about you, but this feels like a GIGANTIC job!  If there was ever a job that needed MORE POWER it’s this one!  Telling the Jesus story.  Living the Jesus story.  Doing what Jesus did by caring for the least, lost and last.  WOW that’s HUGE!!!  If we’re going to do all that, we’re REALLY gonna need MORE POWER!

Jesus told the disciples what he needed them to do and THEN gave them the tools to get the job done.  He opened up their minds to the scriptures THEN sent them the Holy Spirit.  They got the tools, then on Pentecost they got the power and the disciples were set and ready to go… and so are you!  In our Baptisms we’ve each been given a special set of tools and they too have been plugged into the greatest power source in all of creation!  Equipped with the right tools and charged with the power of the Holy Spirit, we too are disciples ready to get to work! 

Now, it’s important to keep in mind…we all have a unique set of tools.  Some have hammers, others a saw.  You might have a socket wrench while someone else has a 300 horse power V8 screw driver!  Together we have all sorts of different tools and that’s why Jesus calls us to work together, each of working on our unique piece of the same big job and all plugged into the power of the Holy Spirit… a power source that will NEVER run out!  What’s in the tool box God has given you?  They’re all plugged in and powered up!  So don’t just stand there with your mouth hanging open, catchin’ flies like some bunch of disciples on a hill!  Get to work!   Amen

Friday, May 19, 2017

Special Delivery

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 14th Chapter

”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

I went to a Lutheran seminary in South Carolina.  Most of us, as you might expect, were Lutherans… but not everyone.  There were some Methodists, some AME folks and even some Baptists.  Not Southern Baptists… mostly African American Baptists like Clyde.  Clyde was 6’ 4” and probably 350 pounds or so and he was mostly bald.  He was older than most of us and he had been the pastor of a nearby, rural, Baptist church for years but was working on his seminary degree, one course at a time.  

Clyde was in my very first preaching class.  Our preaching professor, Dr. Ridenhour gave us some VERY clear expectations… every sermon BETTER have a “Word from the Lord” in it.  That meant it needed to have Gospel in it… Good News… It needed to remind folks of the GIFT of God’s love and grace, given freely to us in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.  It needed to remind folks of what God has done, is doing and promises yet to do and it BETTER do all that in language the folks could understand and not with any highfalutin, seminary words, either!  After all, Dr. Ridenhour was known to stand up during a student’s sermon and hike up his pant legs if it was getting “too deep” in there and it was rumored that one time he had even climbed up on his desk and hiked up his pant legs when he thought it had gotten REALLY deep! 

So, for the first few weeks, Dr. Ridenhour taught us some things about preaching, gave us techniques we could use.  He warned us about some common pit falls and maybe even scared us just a little bit and then, for the rest of the semester, we preached.  After each sermon, those who listened shared their thoughts with the preacher.  Two sermons per class… a bunch of white, German and Scandinavian descendant Lutherans… and Clyde.  

The first time it was Clyde’s turn to preach, he tried to preach like the rest of us did… like a white Lutheran.  It was painful to watch.  But more than that, it was heartbreaking.  Heartbreaking because clearly he had figured that he would have to preach “our way” to make it though this class and clearly he had learned in his life to expect, that in a room full of white folks, he would be expected to do it “our way.”  We apologized for our part in continuing to create a world that led him to assume that in the first place and then we asked him to PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE be who God is calling YOU to be the next time you preach.  

As we all talked about Clyde’s sermon with him after he was finished, we were all taught the lesson Jesus was trying to teach the disciples in the Gospel for today.  Jesus was reminding the disciples that the Gospel… the Good News… God’s care for them… God’s love for them… God being present with them… would not change… BUT… There’s always a BUT… BUT the WAY that care, that love and that presence would be DELIVERED to them would be different.  

For the last three years, God’s care, God’s love and God’s presence had been delivered to the disciples by way of Jesus… Immanuel… God with them in flesh and bone.  Soon though, God’s care, God’s love and God’s presence would be given to them by another, different, Advocate… by the Holy Spirit.  The delivery method would look and sound and work DRAMATICALLY differently, but WHAT was being delivered would not change.  

The next time it was Clyde’s turn to preach in class, he felt free to be the preacher God had called him to be.  He had his floppy Bible and his handkerchief to wipe the perspiration from his balding head and he gave us a Word from the Lord!  He preached it!  The core was there.  He proclaimed the Gospel.  It had Good News.  It reminded us of the gift of God’s love and grace, given freely to us in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.  It reminded us of what God has done, is doing and promises yet to do and it did it without any highfalutin, seminary words, either!  Now, I’m POSITIVE that if it hadn’t had all that at it's core, Dr. Ridenhour would have had no hesitation to climb up on his desk and hike up his pant legs as he would have for any of the rest of us!  But that wasn’t necessary that day!  The Good News was delivered and Jesus was revealed in his words and we all got “A Word from the Lord.”  The CORE was the same.  The DELIVERY was different. 

This wasn’t just a lesson for the disciples to learn as Jesus talked to them about his death in the upper room and it wasn’t just a lesson for a seminary class full of a bunch of white Lutherans and our Baptist brother Clyde.  This is a lesson for all of us, in every place and in every time.  Things change.  The way we do ministry, the way the church looks, the style of delivery, the faces in the congregation, the gifts of the pastor, the talents of the priest, the places in the community we are called to go… ALL of it HAS changed, is changing and WILL continue to change… over and over and over again.  HOW we love God will look different.  But loving God won’t stop.  How we love our neighbor will look different.  But loving our neighbor won’t stop.  

Do you see?  God loves us LIKE Jesus loved the woman at the well.  God doesn’t ONLY love women at wells.  God opens our eyes LIKE Jesus did for the man born blind.  God doesn’t ONLY open the eyes of men born blind.  God turns death into life LIKE God raised Jesus from the dead.  But God doesn’t ONLY give Jesus new life… God gives us ALL new life as well… “Because I live”, said Jesus, “you will live also.”

HOW the love, compassion, presence and new life is delivered into each of our lives, in each of the places we live and over the years of our lives will continue to adapt and change all the time.  WHAT gets delivered… The Gospel… the Good News of God’s unconditional love, compassion, presence and the new life we have been given in Christ… THAT will never change.  And THAT, my friends, is a Word from the Lord!  Amen.  

Thursday, May 11, 2017


The Holy Gospel According to St. John the 14th Chapter

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 

And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. 

Over the years I’ve preached on this text more than 30 times.  Only six of those have been on a Sunday morning like this.  The rest have been for funerals.  One of those funerals, I can’t remember where any more, I showed the family the bulletin and after a minute I could see that one of the family members from out of town was suddenly devastated!  Not just sad that their family member had died, but he was devastated by something he had read in the bulletin.  

Eventually I figured out that he had just discovered that sometime between the last time he had heard this gospel lesson and this time, the promise of eternal life had been significantly downgraded.  Because the promise that he clearly remembered was for a “mansion” but somewhere along the way, apparently, the promise had been reduced.  Now, it was just a “dwelling place.”  

So, I told him yes, not enough people go to church anymore so they’ve wrecked it for everyone, and God’s downgraded all of heaven from mansions to dwelling places.  Thanks a lot!  No, I didn’t really say that but clearly the last time he’d been in church, the readings were from the King James Version!  

I didn’t do THAT, but I did try… unsuccessfully to undo the picture in his head of a promised giant estate, that we would have in heaven after we died.  Telling him the Olde English word “mansion” meant any sort of dwelling place back in the day, so even Olde King James himself wouldn’t have thought of this as a mansion the way we think of mansions today… none of it worked.  Trying to tell him NOT to think of this as a giant, million square foot, estate didn’t work either.  In fact it worked just as well as me telling you to NOT think about a purple unicorn for the next ten seconds!  

You’re thinking about a purple unicorn right now, aren’t you?  Now, whatever you do, don’t think about adding wings to the purple unicorn you’re not supposed to be thinking about.  You just did it!  Didn’t you? You added wings!  Even though I told you not to!  Well, I never!  

Actually, the truth of the matter is that the human brain doesn’t mentally un-think things very well.  It can mentally ADD stuff like big elephant-style ears to a purple unicorn with wings without even hardly trying… see you just did that too didn’t you?  But just try and STOP thinking about it for even a few seconds… well, there’s just really not a very good reverse gear in there. 

Smarter people than me call this “framing.”  We humans can easily add a new “frame” to the pictures in our minds.  In fact we can do it as fast as a cartoon character riding a toy train can add tracks in front of them.  

But once a frame is there, it’s nearly impossible to take it out.  That’s why when something bad happens and someone says, “Just forget it!”  It NEVER works.  That’s why when people say, “Let’s not talk about that terrible time and maybe it will go away!”  It NEVER goes away!  Instead, by doing that you’ve actually added a “guilty of thinking about it” frame as well.  Not that helpful.  

The thing the human brain DOES do well, is to add new frames which opens the possibility of making old frames take on a new shape and a new meaning.  In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Lupin teaches his class how to fight a magical creature called a bogart.  A bogart is a shape shifter and they take on the shape of the thing you fear the most.  The way to fight a bogart is NOT to try to stop thinking about what you fear.  Instead, the way you fight a bogart is to imagine the thing you fear in a new, humorous way.  One of the student's greatest fears was another professor, professor Snape, so he imagined Snape in his grandmother’s clothes. Another student's greatest fear was spiders, so when the bogart turned into a giant spider, he imagined it with roller skates on each of it’s eight legs.  

Jesus did just that in this lesson.  He added new frames, one after the other like little stepping stones to get the disciples to take the things that seemed to them to be an unavoidable and tragic end, and begin to see in those things new possibilities, in a new light, with brand new frames.  What Jesus was telling the disciples in this lesson happened in that upper room on the night of the Last Supper.  Jesus had just washed their feet, predicted Judas would betray him, given them the new commandment to “love one another” and then told Peter that he would deny even knowing Jesus three times.  

Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to stop thinking about his impending death.  That would have been impossible. Instead he added new frames to his death, to begin to give his death new meaning.  With those new frames, he began to show them that somehow his death would prepare a place for everyone.  Worried that they would get lost trying to find this new, literal, physical, destination, Jesus doesn’t tell them to STOP thinking about it that way.  Instead he adds yet another frame, telling them that they won’t have to find it on their own, but that Jesus will return to lead them there himself.  STILL worried that they would never be able to make it to that promised mansion or even a downgraded dwelling place, Jesus adds yet another frame, asking them simply to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, on taking one Jesus-like step and then another, always toward the truth, just as Jesus did throughout his ministry.  Then, step after step after step they would eventually discover, not in the end after death, but NOW as they walked along the way, that they ALREADY had a place in God’s heart.  Even before death, walking this walk along the Jesus way would reveal to them the truth that they already were living an abundant, eternal life.  

Being transformed from a disciple who feels scared, alone, and unsure of the future, into a disciple that feels safely gathered into the eternal care of God’s tender embrace, is not something that can only happen after our physical deaths.  It turns out that all of us disciples have a place that has been prepared for us by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection deep within God’s loving and compassionate heart RIGHT NOW!  It’s a place that Jesus prepared for us.  We didn’t create it.  Nor CAN we create it.  But Jesus has already formed it for you and me and all of creation.  It's been made for us… not just after death, but for us to live in, in peace right now and it’s a gift we already possess!  We have, in fact already been placed there in our Baptisms… it’s a place we already live… the only question is whether or not we realize it.  

You and I can help one another realize that truth, that we all already rest, safe in God’s embrace, by walking together in the world along the Jesus way.  Taking a step together to love one another.  Taking a step together to show compassion to the world.  Taking a step together to care for the least and the lost and the last.  Taking a step together to come to the table and be fed along the way.  When the world feels hard and cold and final, it's impossible to tune it out, but it's easy to add a frame and love one another.  When life closes in with darkness, it's impossible to forget the darkness, but it's easy to add a frame that shines God's light into the darkness.  When the future looks grim, add a frame and together fall more deeply into God’s eternal care.  Amen.  

Thursday, May 4, 2017


The Holy Gospel According to St. John the 10th Chapter

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Toilet paper, coffee, chicken, green beans and maybe some of those crispy cookies.  That’s the kind of list I might get before I head home from Augusta.  The least important item is at the bottom and the item I simply can’t forget or I’ll be headed right out the door again to get it… THAT item is at the tippy top!  TOILET PAPER, Coffee, chicken, beans and cookies… in that order.  
In Jesus’ day and culture though, that’s not how lists were made.  If Jesus was to text me this same list for the grocery store he would text it the other way ‘round, which would mean… eh, maybe some of those crispy cookies, green beans, chicken breasts, COFFEE is important and in the name of all that is holy, please don’t forget TOILET PAPER!  

This Gospel lesson was written the way Jesus made lists, with the vital, most important, do NOT forget piece, right at the very end.  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  But read from the perspective of our time and culture, Jesus buried the lead, while in his time and culture he was building to this quadruple forte, pinnacle, crescendo of the entire symphony… “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” 

I’ve been fairly obsessed with this verse for a while now.  I think this is our core… it is WHY we do what we do, as Christians in general, but very specifically, I think this is the core “WHY” of the Church @ 209.  There are other churches out there with this core as well, which is good, but I think this is the core that persists, through all the colorful history that happened in both our congregations, through downsizing, through vacancies and moving and coming together and all the rest.  All of that colorful history and all the rest… that’s not our core.  That stuff is all thief and bandit stuff.  Our CORE is the most important part, right there at the end, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  THAT’S Jesus’ core.  OUR core matches Jesus’ core.  Jesus came that they may have life and have it abundantly.  That’s WHY Jesus came and YOU come week after week so that THEY may have life and have it abundantly too.  It’s like little balls of mercury rolling around until they find another ball that’s just the same and IMMEDIATELY, they become one!  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  That’s WHY we do what we do.

How do you do that?  HOW does Jesus bring us life and not just regular life, but abundant life?  And HOW do we JOIN with Jesus to make it so that those around us have life, and have it abundantly?  How Jesus does that is by being being God’s Son… through his life, death and resurrection.  HOW we do it is to come in and go out by way of Jesus who is the gate… and the shepherd.  

A quick aside to answer how Jesus can both be a gate and a shepherd… In Jesus’ day and where Jesus lived, sheep were put into a stone walled pen at night.  The pen had one opening.  The shepherd would herd the sheep into the pen and then they would lie down across that opening and sleep right there.  The shepherd used his body as the gate with a built in alarm.  If anything stepped on them going in or out, the shepherd woke up!  That’s how you can be a shepherd and a gate… and a high tech alarm system all at the same time.  

So HOW do we join with Jesus in bringing abundant life?  We go in and out through Jesus.  We follow Jesus’ voice, not just with our ears, but with our feet as well!  Jesus goes ahead and we sheep fall in line behind him, one foot in front of the other… out to new, unknown pastures to be fed, back into the familiar safety of our pen and through all the rocky hills and shadowy valleys that lie in between.  

WHY did Jesus come?  It’s right here, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”  How do we, with the same core, also wanting to bring abundant life to the world, join Jesus in doing that?  He tells us right here, “we follow, because we know his voice” in and out of pen, to green pastures and also through the valley of the shadow of death… we follow.  And WHAT does following Jesus and bringing abundant life to the world look like?  What are the steps we take?  The steps are striving for justice and peace in all the world.  Building the dignity of every human being.  Doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God.  Those steps look like putting clothes into a bag at Addie’s Attic.  It looks like a fabulous cityscape made of a thousand boxes of Mac & Cheese.  It looks like toilet paper and shampoo and making space for people of place, religion and ability.  

Here’s the thing I want you to hear today… I think this group of sheep… YOU… I think YOU do BEAUTIFULLY what Jesus calls his sheep to do.  I think this group of sheep does those things beautifully because YOU hear the Good Shepherd’s voice and you go in and out to pasture and pen and through all the dark valleys in between and I think this group of sheep does ALL OF THAT because at your CORE... you share Jesus’ core.  BECAUSE you have received abundant life from God as a gracious, free and generous gift through Jesus… YOUR core matches with Jesus’ core and you too can't help it but to pass that on and do ministry and live your lives, “So they may have life and have it abundantly.”  

I also believe that because we live in our culture and in our time… because we build lists with the most important thing at the top and the throw-away thing at the bottom, we have, for much too long, inadvertently buried the lead when we talk to others about our church and our faith.  The lead is, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly!”  That is WHY we do what we do!  THAT is what Jesus wanted us to understand as THE…MOST…IMPORTANT…THING!  THAT is what we need to share with our friends and families and neighbors as the VERY FIRST THING!  

We've been burying the lead less and less, which is good.  But it’s time for us to start every conversation among ourselves and out there in our day to day lives with WHY we do what we do.  Because God gave us abundant life, we do what we do so that everyone may have life, and have it abundantly as well!  I've seen it work in our collaborations with the city, the faith community, the United Way and others.  It's working!  People hear our core, it resonates with their core and they join us in bringing life to the world.  

When we start there, the people in our community who are not yet here, but who share the passion of bringing abundant life to the world at their core... Those folks will roll together, like little balls of mercury and join us in following the Good Shepherd, out of the pen, out to good pastures and into, not just life, and not just eternal life, but into an ABUNDANT life filled with meaning and purpose and joy for all of creation.  Amen.