Monday, August 4, 2014

Love 'em Like Jesus



John 13:35 - By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

At a high school in the 1960s, one student was a self-proclaimed Civil War enthusiast.  Though he grew up in the Northeast, he was fascinated by the rebel soldiers and generals.  Someone gifted him a coat that resembled General Lee's and he wore it every single day.  When his class voted on senior superlatives, his classmates voted him mostly likely to secede.

Our identities matter.  And those identities are formed by many things.  It matters how we build ours and what that resulting identity is.  If I asked most of you right this minute to identify yourselves, most of you would reach for your wallet and show me your... driver’s license.

In our country, we begin to identify as adults and independent by our society's greatest measure of skill... driving ability. Our teens are very concerned with this passage into adulthood and aging adults often name the loss of license as the biggest feeling of loss in independence. 

Our accomplishments define us, the best... and the worst... of our ACTIONS.  Christ tells us in this passage that his hope, his one and only command to them in the book of John is to LOVE one another.  And that loving each other as HE loved them would be so profound and so evident, that they would be identified by it.

The emperor Julian of Rome was quoted once as saying that, “The Godless Galileans,” (meaning us, as we Christian have one God and the Romans had many), “The Godless Galileans feed our poor in addition to their own.”

The early church was identified by their love for one another and the stranger, the widow and orphan, no matter who they were. 

Is the Church identified that way now?  Is OUR church?  You... and your family?  In your neighborhood, your sports and rec leagues, your social circles?  Is your family known as that family that loves?  “They must be Christians!  They love everyone!  That’s who they are!”

When I went to my grandfather's wake, dozens of people stopped me to tell me what my grandfather meant to them.  Golfing buddies, bowling buddies, members of my grandmother's Catholic Church, his Presbyterian church, his neighbors.  They all said the same thing over and over... "He always had time for me."

Time and again, whether to listen, or to organize, to fix, or to build.  No matter the project or time or purpose, he made time.  My grandfather was not known for being cuddly, fuzzy, and sweet.  But he was known for his love.  Are we?

The youth you just sent to Costa Rica did you proud.  They accomplished a lot, they built a lot, but that's not what you should be most proud of them for.  And it's not what I hope they bring back and make a part of their lives and identities.  What should make your hearts burst with joy and pride is that they LOVED on one another and on the families, the neighbors, the children of the places we worked.  Yes, they built two houses, yes, they helped two extended families, orphans, and missionaries.  They raised over $200 for the local YWAM staff!  But they loved everyone we brought and everyone we met, and they loved them as he loved us.  They loved 'em like Jesus.

It is that love, that identity they took on as individuals and as a group… that represents my greatest hope for them.  And for us.  IN a few short weeks, 6 seniors from that trip will head to college and face an array of challenges, opportunities, and temptations.  They will form new relationships and begin new endeavors, explore new callings and experiences.  I hope and pray they say and do as they did on this trip, forging an identity based on love.  That they will love 'em like Jesus and they will be known as disciples by that love.  The other 16 kids will head to their high schools and face similar challenges with the support of their families and us. 

I challenge you to be a community that challenges them to keep at it, to keep loving others as they have been loved.  To love 'em like Jesus.  To be a community that encourages them and sets the example of kind words, merciful actions, daily kindness, acts of service to those in need.  Be the families they need to be identified by their love.

In recent weeks, we have had a multitude of people come to the church looking for assistance because our church is known to those in need as a place of love.  I challenge each of you as families and individuals to be the same in the places you live and work.  Be known to others as people who love.  Glorify God in the powerfully obvious and tangible way you love everyone who comes into your life, and by the way you enter into the lives of others. 

These youth have been an inspiring example to me this week of Mission trip.  I challenge you to be an example to them, to partner with them, to walk beside them into a world in need here in Salisbury.  And love 'em like Jesus.

Amen.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Light Up the Darkness



Old Testament Reading:  Isaiah 58:8-9
Gospel Readings:  John 8:12-16; Matthew 5:14-16

(Note:  I preached this sermon from memory, so it may be different than what you see below)

A favorite film of mine depicts our world in the very near future. It's based on science that is actually being done right now.  Scientists, in this story, discover how to take a virus and retrain it to attack cancer cells.  The analogy they use is a very fast car driven by a criminal can do tremendous damage, while one driven by a police officer can be safe and do good.  A virus is the same.  They CURE cancer.  But the resulting virus mutates, gets entirely out of hand and takes the lives of most of the world's population, ravaging the minds and bodies of everyone left so badly that they are no longer recognizable as human.

The main protagonist is immune, and he's a physician, a virologist.  Now, stop me if you've heard this story before.  Evil comes into the world and creeps inside of everyone, leaving them just shadows of the people they were meant to be.  A healer, a hero, a physician, comes to save them.

In the midst of the story, he's joined by a woman and a little boy from South America.  They become his adopted family for a short time, since his own family was lost.  He plays his favorite music for them, a song by Bob Marley, a musician they've never heard of.  He explains that Marley had a theory, a theory that was much like that of a virologist.  He believed you could cure evil and hatred by injecting music and love.  This physician says Marley was scheduled one day to play music for a peace rally and the day before, gunmen came to his house and shot him down in his home.

The next day, he walked out on stage at the peace rally.  People asked him why he felt the need to risk that. He said that the people trying to make this world WORSE are not taking a day off... so how can I?  LIGHT UP THE DARKNESS.

The physician does discover a cure, but it's almost too late.  The creatures who used to be human have invaded his home.  And again, for us as believers, the story gets familiar again.  He has realized the cure is in his blood.  "I can save you!" he yells at them.  To no avail.  They can't understand him.  They're too far gone to comprehend.  The physician gives the cure to the boy and his adopted mother.  And like the scene on Calvary, he entrusts the woman and her boy to carry on the mission and tell the world.  And he gives his own life to save them all those in need of a cure.  He LIGHTS UP THE DARKNESS.

The physician believed against all odds that one person could LIGHT UP THE DARKNESS.  He followed the example of his hero who would not take a day off from a world full of people trying to make it worse.  He believed love could cure evil and hatred.  And as believers, SO DO WE.  Christ came as THE LIGHT.  And his final mission to his disciples and to us is to take that light into a world that can be very dark.  LIGHT UP THE DARKNESS.  And Christ came to show us that an individual, a person can do that.  We can do that.  He did it.  He got others to help him.  And we can too.  People do it every day,

Shane Claiborne, a popular young writer and activist went to college in Philadelphia.  As a student, he became involved in outreach and ministry to the homeless in that city.  Like the members of First Pres who helped make Rowan Helping Ministries a reality, he was not content to merely see the homeless, but desired to know them, know their story, and join their struggle.

Many homeless in Philadelphia were living in an abandoned Catholic cathedral.  The local Catholic archdiocese was not happy with this.  It was a huge liability.  Presbyterians never think like this, do we?  Riiiiight.  They warned the homeless to leave on many occasions, but they had nowhere to go.  Finally, the bishop took action and had the building condemned, ready to be demolished.  The homeless were given short notice to be out by 8am the following day.  Shane Claiborne and dozens of his friends heard about this and flocked to the cathedral to stay the night with the homeless and be arrested with those who remained as a protest of solidarity for their plight.

At 5am, a knock came at the door.  The fire chief and his men were there in uniform.  The students said, "We have until 8am! you can't kick us out!"  "You misunderstand," said the fire chief. "This building is being condemned because it doesn't meet fire code.  And we're sure we can get it up to code by 8am."  LIGHT UP THE DARKNESS.  You see, it just took a few students to see the plight and make it known that their homeless brothers and sisters were in need.  It just took a few firemen to notice them and to solve the problem, to bring light to the darkness, to the hopelessness of those living in fear and need.

The plight of these homeless is not rare.  People in need have never been rare.  People in need of hope, or food, or housing, or jobs, or love, or mental or physical healthcare, or companionship or family.  There has never been a shortage of children who need families or elderly who need visitors, or people who need a church home.  It's not even hard to find them.  They aren't hiding.  WE ARE.  LIGHT UP THE DARKNESS.  You have a light.  You have THE light.

Our VBS kids and youth spent the week learning, hearing, experiencing, and living the stories of Christ and learning how he lit up the darkness.  They are now prepared to share that with others.  And you can get in their way.  Or you can get out of their way.  Or you can go with them and show them who needs it!


Take a moment RIGHT NOW to think of someone who needs that light, who needs hope, who needs something you have or something you and your family or your friends can provide.  Leave this place, go find them, and bring them that light.  Someone once said... "The world is FULL of kind people.  If you can't find one... BE one."  Say it with me…  LIGHT UP THE DARKNESS.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Green Day - Solar Roadways

Not just a concept.  The idea is currently being implemented.  This news is extremely exciting for all kinds of people.  For an environmentalist, the benefits are obvious.  But when you begin to think of long term cost savings as a nation and as states and municipalities for things like energy, pollution, millions of vehicle accidents caused by snow, ice, downed power lines, wildlife, trees, rocks, and road debris, snow plowing and salting, repaving, painting, signage, and more, it's a no-brainer...

Monday, May 12, 2014

Go Ask Your Mother



Go Ask Your Mother


Luke 19:41-42


Matthew 23:37



As a boy, I was always getting into something. I know, you're shocked.  I would often go to my dad and run things by him or ask for permission to go somewhere or try something.  He was great at that.  He had good advice.  And usually, that advice was... "Go ask your mother."

I see the dads and moms out there nodding their heads.  And I've known many a mom to send a kid to dad for a no or a reason or backup.  It was that REASON that dad was sending me to mom for.  Mom knew the schedule, my friends (who was most likely to get me in trouble)... she knew what was best for me and my sister... and she loved me and my sister enough to tell us no, set boundaries, to make rules, and to teach us right and wrong.  And probably, most importantly, as it is for most of you moms and dads, teachers, and mentors... she longed to instill a love for each other.  Yes, she wanted me and my sister to love and to love her. But she wanted us to love each other.

It's abundantly clear when we read the end of Matthew what God wants from us.  Jesus tells us the only difference between the sheep and the goats on judgment day is who fed, and clothed, and housed, and visited, and loved the least of these.  That's it!  Did we love one another as he loved us?  Jesus came from the Father to show us HOW to be brothers and sisters.  God loves us as a father.  God loves us a mother.

If you doubt for a moment that relationship, that depth of love, you needn't look far in scripture to find it.  I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to visit the Holy Land.  And standing on the hill where it is believed that Jesus looked down on Jerusalem before Holy Week, I read the familiar words in a little chapel built there in the shape of a tear drop.  That passage says that Jesus wept over the city and their treatment of prophets and failures to make peace with one another.  He said he longed to gather them as a mother hen gathers her brood.  A mosaic of that hen and brood adorn the table in that little chapel.  God loves us like that.

When Job flees his God-given call to shepherd Nineveh back to the fold, and then finally gives in begrudgingly, he tells God he shirked this task because he knew our God is "compassionate."  A word that in the Hebrew is a compound word for WOMB LOVE.  God loves us as a mother who carries a child in the WOMB and cares for her and raises her.  God loves us like THAT.

And God wants us to love each other... LIKE THAT.

On this Mother's Day, perhaps we can reflect on the God who is to us as our fathers and our MOTHERS are to us, how we have been loved.  For many of us, our mothers and fathers have similar, but different expectations and hopes and dreams for us.  We make them proud in different ways.  Maybe as a child, you made dad proud doing well at sports and scouts and being a good little entrepreneur.  Maybe mom was most proud when you made friends and sent thank you cards and showed care for your elders.  Have I been a good big brother?  Have I taken care of and cultivated my relationship there?  Does she know I love her?  We age and these measures change.  Is dad proud of our career and job and financial independence?  Is mom proud of the family we've found and the family we've stayed in touch with?  Have you called your sister?  Have you written to her? 

And as I think about my God, my creator, sustainer, and redeemer, do I measure myself by the pride of a father or mother or both?  I find myself thinking about my call and career, my reputation and my home, and decisions.  It is then I have to challenge myself and think about that advice of my father years ago... Go ask your mother.  And if God loves us our mothers do, then have I made God proud?

Have I loved my brothers and sisters?  Have I Been a good brother?  Do my brothers and sisters KNOW I love them?  Have I seen them?  Have I been there for them?  Would they see me as their brother?  Go ask your mother.



I found this clip to be powerful.  Are your brothers or sisters invisible to you?  The world, at its best will challenge you... that homeless person you pass COULD BE YOUR BROTHER OR SISTER.  Jesus says, "that homeless person... IS... YOUR BROTHER OR SISTER."

My challenge to you today, for this week:  SEE everyone.  See your coworker, your client, your problem customer, your deliveryman, your mail woman, your cashier, the obnoxious driver in traffic, that homeless person next to you on the street, that person you haven't met next to you in church today... SEE them... Open your eyes and SEE them as your brother, as your sister.  Love them, hug them, find a way to show it.  Because God loves us LIKE THAT.  Start here today in this place.  Do - not - leave this place not having met a brother or sister you didn't know before you walked in here today.  If you don't do it here, you won't out there.  Linger after this service.  Don't let me catching you headed for the door.  Head for a person before you leave.  And when you do leave... go find your brothers and sisters.  And next week, when you have stories to share with me.  Ask me how you did.  And I'll tell you... go ask _____.  Amen.

Special thanks to Mindy, my pastor friend who first posted this on FB & to my congregation who responded to this video and sermon tremendously with love to really make the effort this week to see new people in their midst.


Monday, January 27, 2014

Child of God (Children's Sabbath)



                Airplane!  What is that to you?  A commons means of transportation?  A modern marvel?  A nuisance?  A cause for anxiety?  An incredibly hysterical 1980s comedy?  Surely not.  To me, airplanes are ordinary.  I started flying at a young age and have averaged several flights a year in my adult life.  Almost everywhere I’ve lived has had an international airport nearby.  And I even worked for a summer at the airport location of a rental car company.  Airplanes are not exciting, not an event or an object of fascination.  But for my two year old son, that’s exactly what they are.  Inside or out, if an airplane is overhead, he will tell you the moment he sees it or hears it.  And he notices all of them.
                Now you might think this indicates a special interest in aviation.  But his fascination, his awe, and his wonder are also piqued by balls, dogs, trucks, stairs, lights, and trees.  For a child, everything is extraordinary.  They see absolutely everything.  And as children grow, they don’t see less, they see more.  They begin to develop imaginations.  My friend took his nephew to the first day of Vacation Bible School with all the other parents and families.  The preacher began to tell the families about the theme and all the things they were going to learn and do that week.  My friend sat with his small nephew in his lap who was listening and playing with an action figure.  As the preacher began to really get excited, he said, “We’re going to put God in your heart!”  The little boy didn’t stop playing or skip a beat, and remarked, “That’s gonna hurt.”  That little boys saw better the ramifications of letting God into his heart than any adult there in the room.  Children see the world as it is – in brilliant detail – and as it could be – in radiant hope and possibility.  This is what it is to be child-LIKE… to be a child of God.
                And who are we?  Who are you?  You are a child of God.
                As we become adults, we lose the ability to see the world as it really is, often by choice.  And we lose the ability to see what it could or should be.  How it is… and how it could be… Let the little children come to me, for it is to such as them that the kingdom of heaven belongs.  We don’t have Gospels full of Jesus teaching children how to be better followers and believers in the God of Israel by being more like the adults.  No, instead we have three Gospel accounts of Jesus telling adults that they should be more child-like!
                Today, we have children helping to lead us in worship [at the 11:00 service] and they’ve been chosen not just so they can learn to lead, but to remind us that they are the ones we are called to be more like.  Bess and Berkley have both been in plays and productions.  They have brought this scripture to life in a way we don’t often do when we read from this chancel.  And I chose them because they are the age Jesus was when his parents first found him in the Temple reading and teaching from the scriptures.  Age is not a perquisite for teaching, nor youth a perquisite for learning.  What can we learn from the youngest among us?
                I sat down at dinner with the First Kids a few weeks ago.  A young precocious girl next to me struck up a conversation.  Very suddenly and casually, between bites, without ever breaking eye contact with her food, she asked me, “Know anything about the ozone layer?”  “Yes,” I told her, “a good bit.”  “I’m gonna fix it.”  “Oh,” I said, sort of amused, but intrigued.  “Yeah, and you know the endangered animals.”  “Yes.”  “I’m gonna save them.”  “Which ones?”  “All of them.”  “Even the dinosaurs?” I asked. “No,” she said incredulously.  “It’s too late for them.”
                I think most inspiring to me is that her mother - who was there - has never told her she can’t do either of those things.  I like to think Jonas Sulk had a mother like that.  I like to think the inventor of the polio vaccine was never told he couldn’t cure it.  I like to think the person who cures cancer hasn’t yet been told she can’t do that.  I like to think she has a teacher like this little girl who responds to her request to pick up trash on her recess hour every day, not with a discouraging diatribe, but a pair of rubber gloves.
                She sees the world as it is AND how it could be.  And I firmly believe at its core, this was the mission of Christ.  What more is building the Kingdom of God than showing us the world as it is and what it could be?  What more is redemption than seeing what is and helping it become what it could – what it was meant – to be?  And if redemption is seeing what is, what can be, and working to achieve that… then where is the greatest redemptive power in the world?  In a child.
                And Christ calls us to see children, and become like them.  The kingdom belongs to them and we’re not getting in like this.  The kingdom doesn’t belong to our maturity, our realism, our material accumulation, our wisdom, our insight, our manners or etiquette.  The kingdom doesn’t belong to our rules or denomination, our curriculums and courses, books, or our devotion.  We’ve read for weeks that there is a time for every purpose, and each of those has a time.  But none of those is of value unless we approach them as a child… seeing what is and what can be.  Our ability to be awed and inspired is essential.
                We see this in the words of Christ and even in the person and experience of Jesus and his family.  When Jesus, is no older than Berkley here, Mary and Joseph find him in the temple, reading and teaching.  This is an important moment!  The only one we get of Jesus as a teen, a child.  Mary and Joseph find him.  They find him because they lost him.  Can we appreciate just for a moment that in all of history, God chose these two people to be his only son’s guardians?!  He clearly did not choose them for their observational skills.  They lost their son for days, it tells us.  Whoops.  They wandered Jerusalem like the first Evangelicals going door to door, “Have you found Jesus?”  I like to think God chose them because these were people who could see Jesus for the child of God he was and encourage him to see the world as it is and how it could be.  That they could let him be the one to change it.  As impossible as it may have seemed to them.  And scary for two young parents.
                What if our children told us they were going to change the world?  Fix the ozone layer?  Save every endangered animal?  Bring peace to the Middle East?  End homelessness or world hunger?  What if we believed them?  What if we let them?  What if we followed their example?  How dream killing would it be to encourage our children to only accomplish as much as we have as individuals or as a generation.  Our redeemer didn’t settle.  And our redeemer doesn’t call us to settle.
                When I was just a child, a youth minister at a Presbyterian church in Columbia, SC offered a prayer at a Super Bowl party.  He said in this prayer, “Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat.”  His young people could see this need.  And these children of God could see a world where that need didn’t exist.  Next Sunday, our children will collect cans of soup and monetary donations for Rowan Helping Ministries, as a part of Souper Bowl of Caring, which has now raised over $10 million nation-wide in 24 years for local food pantries.
                Our church, like most churches in Salisbury, and in this country, is in deep need of commitment, the commitment of the time, talent, and treasures of the disciples on our roles.  I could tell you how much our elementary kids need Sunday school teachers, how much our confirmands need mentors, how much our middle and high school kids need youth and mission leaders, and Kathy would probably love it if I made that pitch right now and reminded you our email addresses are in the bulletin.  (wink wink)  But I’m going to tell you right now that the best reason to do any of these things is because that’s who the kingdom belongs to.  You’re not gonna read it in a book or hear it in our sermons.  You will only begin to learn how to be more like them by being with them.  Spend time with them, watch them, love them, soak it up.
                How will you know it’s working?  It’ll be little things at first.  You might find yourself saying, “Wow” more.  When’s the last time you did that?  Maybe you’ll ask more questions.  One study says the average 4 year old asks 437 questions a day.  When did you last do that?  Maybe writing a blue card for someone won’t feel like enough.  You’ll want to make someone a dinner or sit with them and cry.  Maybe you won’t be able to eat your lunch knowing you passed someone on the way to work who probably hasn’t eaten that much in days.  Maybe you’ll start keeping cans of food and socks in your car because seeing someone in need will rip you to shreds if you can’t share the abundance you have.
                We like words like believer, follower, and disciple.  We like them because we think of them as being mature and adult-like.  When – in fact – Jesus defines them as the opposite.  The depth and breadth of the belief of any child cannot be matched by an adult.  The ability and desire to follow a parent or teacher is most profound in a child.  And to be a disciple of the one who always called our Lord, father, to be blessed… was to be a child of God.  Who are you?  Turn to your neighbor and say, “I am a child of God.”  Because brothers and sisters, if that is true, then every word of Jesus makes sense.  Of course we are called to love one another.  Of course we are called to share, to care, to help, to give, to heal, to visit, to seek and to save.  Otherwise, it’s a crazy message.  It’s not for adults.  It’s not for rational people with safety concerns, financial goals and budgets, phobias and fears, a lifetime of hurt, abandonment, rejection, and pity.  The message of grace… undeserved… unearned… unfair… beautiful grace… that’s for us.  And who are you?  I am a child of God. 
                Walk out of this place today and open your eyes.  Spend this week watching children.  Spend this week opening your eyes and heart to being more like a child.  Feel – everything.  See the world as it is, in every painful and beautiful detail, every problem, every miracle.  And see it as it can be.  Every solution, every way you can help, every way someone wants to.  Dare your kids to dream big.  Let them believe they can do anything God calls them to do.  Ask them every day what they see and what they imagine.  Let them believe.  And believe it with them.

And all God’s children said… “Amen.”

Charge & Benediction:  When I was a teenager going out for the night with my friend, his mother would tell us, "Remember who you are!"  Who are you? (Congregational response: A child of God)  Leave here remembering who and whose you are and that every person you meet is a child of God like you.  Know that you go nowhere alone, but that the Holy Spirit goes with you this day and always.  Amen.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Great THANKSGIVING

                I have a confession to make.  I have never preached under one of these things (the sounding board dangling above my head from a chain in the sanctuary) and I’m super wary about it.  I have someone out there who has promised to give me a signal if it looks like it’s going to fall.  So I do feel like I’m in less danger.  But I can’t say the same for you.  It’s dangerous to ask the pastor who works with the youth to preach.  He might make you… participate.  I’m going to ask you to do something dangerous… for a 7:00 evening service after a large soup supper… I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.  Go ahead.  Close your peepers.
                I want you to think back a very short time to dinner tonight.  I want you to picture what it was like sitting at your table.  In your mind, look around you.  Who is there?  Is it family?  Is it friends from church?  Maybe some new faces?  Are your children there?  Your parents?  Who is swirling about?  Is there a youth in a bright t-shirt asking for your drink order?  Or an adult telling a youth to ask you for your drink order?  What’s in front of you?  Did you get a big bowl of soup?  Some Chili?  Some homemade bread?  Is it warm and inviting?  Are the smells rising up with the warmth and filling your senses?  Try to imagine taking a bite, what it tasted like, how it smelled, how it felt to be warmed by it.
                Now, without opening your eyes, try to imagine tomorrow.  Imagine sitting down to that meal.  Imagine the people there.  Imagine the feeling as you look around at your loved ones, your family and friends, perhaps people you haven’t seen in a while, or people more new to you.  Imagine the food on the table.  Favorite dishes, traditions, things you skip but someone else loves dearly, the side dish or the pie that someone else makes perfectly.  Let those emotions of the day, the highs and the stress, the joy and the busyness fill you for a moment.  Now open your eyes.  Now give a soft elbow to the person on either side of you… just in case.
                I want to suggest a few things.  I want to suggest that the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples, his followers, his brothers, those with whom he’d shared so many meals before, so many homes, so many stories, so much shared joy and misery… was much like what you experienced tonight or what you may experience tomorrow.  We know that Jesus knew what was coming.  We know that could not have been easy.  But I remember my last Thanksgiving with my extended family that my grandfather was present.  I think he knew it was his last.  And I remember him looking around, taking it all in, surrounded by a large family he had loved so well, loved till the end, and I remember the joy in his eyes… And I think THAT is what Christ felt in those moments of his last supper.
                I think too often we are subconsciously influenced even by the term “last supper.”  The only people who have last suppers, last meals… are death row inmates, alone, facing execution for their crimes, unsure of what will come.  But Jesus had committed no crime.  And Jesus was not alone.  And Jesus knew the good that was to come.  I don’t think Jesus faced this meal as a last supper.  I think Jesus celebrated this meal like my grandfather did.  I believe that Jesus looked around the room at those he loved and drank it all in.  I think he ate the food, which must have been so familiar, so steeped in Jewish ritual and tradition.  This was the Jewish Thanksgiving.  It still is.  It’s the meal where they recount the story of their ancestors who escaped bondage and religious persecution and traveled to a new land, a land with new people, a land that was not easy, but full of promise.  And this history was not one of a perfect people making good choices, but of an imperfect people who did not always listen to God.
                The Jews gathered then and now to recount their THANKFULNESS to God for rescuing them, leading them, sparing them, and providing for them in the midst of their hardship and mistakes.  And this makes this story remarkably similar to our own history, and our celebration of thanks, with all its complications and mess.  And like the Jews, we prepare our feasts, our traditional meals, be they turkey or tofurkey, or in the case of my aunt and uncle one year, just side dishes, after they locked their turkey in an oven cleaning cycle…  And we enjoy the company of those we love and reflect on our year and that for which we are most thankful.
                So why does any of this matter, Brian?  Well, you’ve been very good.  You played along with me.  I’m thankful for a room full of Presbyterians who all just played pretend with me and used their imaginations.  J  This matters because this table at which we gather for the Lord’s Supper, for what we call the Great Thanksgiving… is a place of mystery and of imagination.  When we gather, we read words and gather as a people to do this in remembrance of Christ, someone we’ve never met in the corporeal sense, in the flesh.  And how we remember Christ as we come to table matters.  If we only remember the death of Christ, we are only remembering a fraction of the miraculous gift from God.  After it, there is a remarkable resurrection… and before it… well, before it is a humble birth and an amazing life.
And if we are to remember and imagine a part of that meal in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup, perhaps it would serve us to think less of a last supper, and more of a Passover meal… a meal of thanksgiving.  Imagine again with me.  You don’t have to close your eyes.  But imagine… not a last supper before an execution… (this isn’t his funeral) but a thanksgiving meal surrounded by all the comforts of familiar favorite delights, smells, sounds of laughter, and the sight of those you hold most dear.  Hold those feelings from moments ago, those emotions.
When you leave here, I want to ask of you two things.  First, tomorrow, as you sit down with family or friends, or by yourself, I want you to imagine this as your Passover feast.  I want you to imagine what it was like for Jesus and his disciples.  And then… the next time you come to this table, I want you to remember that meal, or any Thanksgiving meal.  And I want you to think not just of the gift of Jesus’ death, but also of his resurrection, his life, his joy, and his love, and the family and friends Jesus held dear in those moments.  We are a people whose identity is shaped by the gathering at this table.  We do this in remembrance of him.  Let us imagine him fully.  Let us remember him well.

Let us pray.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

REMOVED (see: Rescued) from Church (a Thank You for Children's Church)

Thank you!  I want to take a moment to say thank you to my Sunday school teachers, educators, and ministers.  I want to say thank you for Children’s Church.  Why?  Because it’s not in VOGUE among my peers just now.  And it makes me bats-in-the-belfry crazy.

My mother was a GREAT mom.  One her many mommy parenting success secrets was our play pen.  These were also not in vogue when my mother was raising us.  Other parents would give her anything from a look of surprise to a look of disgust when she told them she had and used a play pen.  You really contain/imprison/restrict your children like that?!  No, my mother was a genius.  A play pen wasn’t just containment.  It was safety when she needed to answer the door or the phone or respond to an emergency.  And when my little sister came along, she had safe sanctuary from a rough and tumble boy while she played and imagined.  I was not allowed in or near the play pen by then and it was her world.  And over the years, it was a boat, a fort, a castle, and so many other fun things for us both.  Used with love and creativity to a purpose, it was wonderful.

What does this have to do with Children’s Church?  Children’s church was a time during the worship service when we were removed from the service.  (I’ll wait for all you new age parents to get your jaws off the floor and begin painting your protest signs and preparing your blog reposts about the value of screaming children during the sermon)  You done yet?  Great.


We were never removed for the whole service (infants were never there for the whole service, but were cared for by very happy folks in the church, many of whom were grandparent age or not yet parents and got their baby fix during this time).  We, as children, were there for all the call to worship, singing, reading of scripture, and children’s sermon (which included baptisms whenever they happened).  Then, we left before the sermon.  Brilliant.

Why?  Because I (and so many kids) were distracting, disruptive, loud, and a handful during the sermon?  YES.  AND… no.  That was a huge help, yes.  My mom, who often attended by herself, was able to sit and focus on the sermon and her adult walk in faith.  And when I hit middle school or thereabouts, I could begin doing the same.  There was plenty of rambunctious activity all during the beginning of the service, awkward loud questions, outbursts, messes.  And yes, that made a joyful noise and was part of us being the whole body of Christ.  It was a joyous cacophony.  But that wasn’t the only reason to have Children’s Church.  It wasn’t just to clear out the distractions at half time.

Having Children’s Church DID teach me.  And it didn’t teach me OR the parents that I wasn’t welcome in church.  My teachers used that time to teach me ABOUT church.  They taught me Bible stories and songs.  They taught me how to sing with my friends, how to play with them, how to respect them, how to listen when someone else was telling us all something important, how to share, how to pass things, how to be kind, why we worship, who we worship, how we worship.  It PREPARED me to actually worship.  It was the Mr. Rogers time I needed as a kid to learn how to be me in my church.  I was taught how to prepare my heart and mind, something lacking in so many.  I see so many teens and young adults tuned out, bored, on their phone, reading a book during worship.  It’s often not because they don’t believe or they’re bored.  They and their parents often tell me that it’s because they don’t know how to focus those hearts and minds or to spend that community time attuned.  It’s so rarely simply a lack of respect, but a lack of awareness.


We have a Sunday school class for confirmands, our eighth graders at my church.  Are most of them mentally and emotionally prepared to attend the high school class?  Could they grasp the material intellectually and even behave well enough to not be a distraction?  Most of them, yes.  But we don’t give them a separate class just to not be a distraction from the lesson in the high school class.  We pull them aside for a year to PREPARE them for the high school class, the high school youth group.  They are not excluded from youth activities or worship or the life of the whole church.  But they are pulled aside for part of the time in order to teach them what it means to be an adult in the Church, to grow them in their faith at this important time, to help them mature.

This is why I am so deeply thankful to my teachers and ministers.  They showed me love, and they helped me grow by using the time in worship to prepare me.  I got to participate in the full worship time more and more as I grew from an infant to a child to an adult in my church.  When my mother taught us to swim, she started us in the kiddy pool and then the shallow end and eventually the deep end and diving board.  As an adult, I do not begrudge her for limiting my access to the entire pool before I learned to swim.  It wasn’t about the splashing and ruckus I might cause that would impede divers or lap swimmers, though I would have, and that would be a good enough reason!  It was about preparing me for greater and greater participation as I learned and grew, with more and more responsibility at each step.  Maybe we could begin thinking of children in worship like that.  Their participation is desired and a joy, and to make it meaningful, we should prepare them and teach them and ready them as they mature and grow.  Loving our kids requires patience and preparation beyond exposure.  I am glad so many people in my young life recognized that.  It has served me well.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mercy is a Risk


                I had the privilege to befriend David Bailey several years ago before his passing.  David, an amazing singer-song writer, fought a long battle with brain cancer, much, much longer than the doctors told him he would.  David was an insightful and wonderful storyteller, much like the wandering carpenter of Luke’s gospel.  The Jesus of Luke’s account is a storyteller, and his mission?  To seek and save the lost.  His concern is the least of these.
                My friend, David, wrote many songs about this mission.  He wrote a modern adaptation of the story we read today from Luke, a story meant to de-familiarize the poetry and prettiness of a favorite scripture.  In his story, a young Latino man is mugged and left for dead in an alley, passed up by a priest and a skateboarder.  Keesha from the diner is the only one to show mercy and drag him several blocks on a piece of cardboard to rescue.
                Now the story is familiar, and even with the modern American flourishes, we can still be comfortable so long as we don’t listen too carefully.  David told us at a concert a few years back that he played this song in rural Alabama, at a Presbyterian church.  During the song, a woman got up and walked out.  David said he thought then, “Well, you can’t win ‘em all.”  After that concert, he got talking to the pastor and expressed his disappointment that he’d upset the woman.  The pastor told David, “No, no, that was my wife.  On the way in to the concert tonight, we saw a homeless woman outside across the street with a shopping cart asking for money to do her laundry.  My wife got up to go help her.”
                David confessed quietly to us that what really hit him, was not just that he had judged this woman as being unreceptive to his message, but as he told us, “I had seen that woman too… And I hadn’t stopped either.”  You see, brothers and sisters, we can easily get wrapped up in telling the Good News of the Gospel and forget to do what it calls us to do.   The young lawyer in this Gospel lesson is familiar with scripture, with the Law.  He knows verbatim… Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.  Bam!  Got it, Jesus.  I paid attention in Sunday school.  This guy KNOWS the Word.  He knows what Moses said.  As a ‘lawyer’ or teacher of the law, this guy knows what ALL the teachers and prophets and judges have said.  He knows his Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel.
                Jesus pats him on the back and says, “Great, go do it.”  But smart-aleck as this guy is, and much like I was in Sunday school as I recall… he says, “Who is my neighbor anyway?” Big mistake.  You see, if your neighbor is your fellow Jew, you’re off the hook for the Romans and the Greeks and the Samaritans, the Babylonians and Egyptians, and everyone else who was ever at odds with the Jews.  You’re probably off the hook for non-practicing Jews too!  He knows how to treat his neighbor.  Love them as himself, and he’s got a whole stack of scrolls that tell him what that means.  And so do we.  That Bible in the pew, that Kindle in your lap, that smartphone in your pocket.  It’s full of commands, calls, expectations, and examples of how to love your neighbor.
                But as usual, Jesus calls us to a higher mission than we’ve ever been called before.  He tells a story in which he not only makes it clear that absolutely everyone is your neighbor… it’s not enough to simply be aware that everyone is your neighbor… he charges us that we are to be a neighbor to everyone we will ever encounter.  To notice everyone, to believe they are our neighbor, and to have mercy on them… no matter the risk.    Mercy is a risk.    Show mercy anyway (congregation was prompted to respond repeatedly with “show mercy anyway” on a slide and by me).
                Listen to me carefully.  Mercy… is always a risk.  You risk at the very least, being taken for granted, possibly taken advantage of, but perhaps even being harmed or killed.  The road to Jericho was known to be dangerous.  Even to travel alone was a risk.  Stopping to help someone who’d been hurt?  Very likely a trap.  There was a very real risk of harm or death.  The priest and the Levite were not necessarily cold or callous people.  Few of us would wander down an alley or a dark corner of a bus or subway station in a bad part of town, adding peril to danger.  It’s risky.  Mercy… is risk.    Show mercy anyway.
                This past week in Vacation Bible School, we’ve been teaching the kids who their neighbor is and what the Bible says they should do for their neighbors.  And that’s taking a risk.  Because the risk is that they may believe us.  The risk is that they might believe what God has told them in these stories.  The risk is that they may start wanting to have mercy on all kinds of people and in all kinds of places.  The risk is that if you believe what’s in this book, you will have to show them what mercy looks like in this world, and it is far from safe.
                As Americans, we are obsessed with safety.  We have a Food and Drug Administration and health inspectors to keep us safe when we eat, traffic laws and police to keep us safe in our cities and homes, OSHA and Unions and regulations to keep us safe at work, and even the Environmental Protection Agency and park rangers to keep us safe in the wild outdoors.  You can’t even use toothpaste or laundry detergent without being warned how not to use it or who to keep it away from.  Here at the church, we even have locked doors most of the week, safety plans, and emergency procedures.  But the Bible isn’t a safety manual.  Far from it.    Mercy is a risk.    Show mercy anyway.
                The Bible might be one of the most dangerous books you could ever let your kids get their hands on.  Forget about locking up harsh chemicals or your prescription drugs.  Forget worrying about driver’s ed and the party school they’re looking at for college.  The most dangerous thing your kid can get into is the Bible.  Because if they believe it… they will do dangerous things.  They will risk much.  The words of Jesus are disturbing and challenging and full of risk.  Much of the debate in the Church these days is over taking the Bible literally… but the minute you start taking it seriously… you are in trouble deep… trouble you’ve not known.
                You want an adrenaline rush?  You could go sky diving or ride with your teenage driver.  You want a real risk?  Go read Isaiah.  I’m serious.  Isaiah is the dangerous neighborhood of the Bible.  If you have grade schooler who watches Reading Rainbow and reads Ranger Rick like my parents had, then you might get a kid who brings home stray pets and turtles and snakes.  If you have a kid who has read Luke, they’re likely to give their lunch you packed to a homeless person… or worse, if they’ve read Isaiah, they’ll bring the homeless person home to stay with you.  And if you’ve read Isaiah, he’ll be staying with you a little while because that crazy prophet didn’t just say God wants us to feed hungry people and sponsor homeless shelters.  That lunatic claims God calls us to bring them right in our front door and share our roof.
                In fact, I dare you to find a verse that supports our comfortable and isolated safe American dream, and I’ll show you ten that say mercy doesn’t look like safety.  Mercy looks like risk.  I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s lawyers who constantly stand up and challenge Jesus.  Because no lawyer then or now would sign off on the message delivered by our God and his prophets.  “Take out all this mercy-related stuff!  It puts you at risk.”  Brothers and sisters, mercy is risk.  Show mercy anyway.
                If I were to ask you where you see the least of these in Salisbury, where you find the hungry and homeless… would you think of Rowan Helping Ministries… maybe the last time you volunteered there… or would you think of 100 feet out that door in front of the public library?  Maybe both?  The nearest restaurant to the church is Go Burrito.  I know because I go there about twice a week.  Most days, most nights… it would be hard to walk from here to there and not pass someone hungry.  Half a dozen families walking to lunch after this service or home from VBS or Youth Group or choir practice could feed every hungry person from here to there, if they invited a hungry person along with them.
                You see, Isaiah knew… what every person who has ever been to Rowan Helping Ministries or Overton, or Mexico or Costa Rica knows… he knew that the principal difference between donating money and bringing people into your meals, into your lives, into your homes… the difference is that you will never be the same… and that you will want… you will need to do more.  I’ve never had a kid go on a mission trip and never go on another.  I’ve never met an adult who volunteered at a shelter only once.  I’ve never met a family who fostered a child and never did so again.  God has not only called us to take risks.  He has crafted our hearts in such a way that we cannot show mercy without becoming addicted.  Mercy is risk, and it is irresistible.  You will never again be content with what you had and who you were before taking that risk.  Mercy is a risk… Show mercy anyway.
                “But Brian, I don’t do risk.  Brian, I will not risk my family, or my kids.”  I understand.  Truly.  You wouldn’t be a good parent if you didn’t teach your kids to look both ways before crossing the street.  But you also wouldn’t be a good parent if you never let them cross a street.  You can do things with great risk with that in mind.  In college, I wanted to take homeless people with me to dinner.  I was not afraid I couldn’t find any homeless people.  At Chapel Hill, the street above campus is full of homeless people.  I was afraid they’d say yes and I wouldn’t be safe.  So I recruited my friend Frank.  We called Frank, Frank the Tank.  Frank was even bigger and more muscular than I am.  I know, hard to imagine.  Frank was 6’2 and built for either rugby or breaking down drawbridges.  And Frank and I would go out on Friday nights and invite the homeless to dinner with us and learn their stories.  It was still risky, but less.  You see, mercy is a risk… Show mercy anyway.
                Driving is dangerous, but we don’t outlaw cars.  We post speed limits, stop signs, traffic lights.  We invented seat belts and air bags and car seats.  We send the youth to Costa Rica, but we do have age limits and leaders and we go as a group and we go with people we trust.  We don’t eliminate the risk, but we find ways to say the mission is so important that we will find ways to make it safer.  We will show mercy.  And we will take the risk.  Because mercy is a risk… Show mercy anyway.
                So this week, you’ve got homework.  Turn to the person next to you.  Go ahead.  Say, “You have homework this week.”    Jim and Randy would tell you that you have homework every week.  And they’d be right.  This week, I want you to be a neighbor.  I want you to show mercy.  Maybe it’s taking an extra lunch with you to work to give to someone along the way.  Maybe it’s inviting a hungry person to lunch or dinner with your family.  Maybe it’s taking your kids to the shelter or Overton.  Maybe it’s making room in your house, your family, your hearts… for a kid who needs mercy… taking a risk.  This is your homework.  Don’t just think about it.  Decide now, and this week, do it, take steps… this week.  Turn to that neighbor again.  Everybody turn.  Look them right in the eyes.  I am going to prompt you one last time, but I don’t want you to tell me.  I already know the answer.  Tell your neighbor with enthusiasm...  Mercy is a risk… Show mercy anyway!  Do this… and you shall live.  Amen.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Green Day


Metro threatens Phantom Planter with arrest if he tends his Dupont Circle station flowers

The Washington Post

Quirky garden artist Henry Docter has been surreptitiously planting flowers in public places on four continents since 1979. His unauthorized beautification efforts have frequently aroused surprise and delight — but never a problem until this month, when he ran afoul of Washington’s Metro transit system.
Metro threatened Docter with “arrest, fines and imprisonment” if he dared to weed, water or otherwise tend to more than 1,000 morning glories and other flowers whose seeds he planted in 176 barren flower boxes alongside the top stretch of the north escalators at the Dupont Circle station.

Metro said it’s only concerned about safety. The boxes are set in steep, cobblestoned inclines, so Metro fears that Docter could hurt himself or others if he fell.
That doesn’t impress the man who calls himself the Phantom Planter. He said Metro is exaggerating the risk. He’s had little difficulty walking up and down two narrow service ramps to get to the boxes since he started planting there in October.
In addition, Docter has told Metro that he’s willing to use a harness as Metro workers do. He’d sign a liability waiver saying he wouldn’t sue Metro if he’s hurt.
“I’ve never gotten in trouble for planting flowers,” Docter, 52, said last week. “Never has anyone overreacted with such an absence of common sense.”
Docter spoke in the first interview in which he openly discussed 34 years of clandestine horticulture. The District resident estimated that he’s planted more than 40,000 flowers in spots ranging from the Israeli Embassy and Navy Memorial in the District to faraway locales, including Argentina, Spain and Cambodia.
He has newspaper clips to support his account. The Israeli Embassy acknowledged that it has tolerated his plantings in security barriers on the street for four years.
“I’m not denying that I’m a little nuts,” Docter said. He calls his plantings a form of performance art, saying, “Flowers are nature’s way of affirming how beautiful life can be.”
Continue reading full article here on The Washington Post..

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"Present Face"



Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to preach at a neutral puplit in Sydney, Nebraska.  I just now am getting the opportunity to post a copy of that sermon here.

Before the sermon, I delivered a children's sermon to the 15 or so kids there that morning.  I lined them all up facing the congregation and had them close their eyes and open their hands to receive a gift.  I had bought packages of salt and pepper and sweet and low, and even a can of potted meat.  Then I asked them to open their eyes.  The looks on their faces were hysterical.  The congregation got a good look at what a "present face" looks like.  And we discussed how giving a gift isn't really very nice, if we know the person won't like it...

Matthew 2:1-12 The Visit of the Wise Men

“Thank you for not hugging me.” The relief and the gratitude in my sister’s voice when she said that one night, was a strange joy to witness as an older brother. Our college ministry group took time one night to take the Love Languages survey, a tool from the book The Five Love Languages. When we were done, we all had a greater insight into how each of us best received love from others. If you’re unfamiliar with the Love Languages, it refers to how you best feel loved by others, whether through quality time, acts of service, words of affirmation, gifts or physical touch. It also tells you what sorts of things do not feel like love to you. For me, hours of quality time have always spoken volumes to me, while words of affirmation and gifts have always been less important.


For my sister, physical touch makes her uncomfortable. Our campus ministry… was full of huggers. It was a part of the culture, long-ingrained. And as Presbyterians, “we’ve always done it this way!” it didn’t occur to us that maybe it wasn’t what everyone wanted. When we shared our results, my sister had the chance to explain that she’d always been uncomfortable with hugs and she’d feel far more loved having her personal space respected and warm, “how was your day?” extended to her. The first time someone had the opportunity to hug her and didn’t, I saw my little sister breathe a huge sigh of relief, smile and offer a sincere thank you. She… felt… loved. The look on her face? Priceless.

We all react differently to different gifts of love, offered by others. We react to hugs, to acts of service, intrusion into our personal space and time, to gifts. I often wish I had a camera to capture each face made as my youth open white elephant gifts each year. The reactions to something totally unexpected or unwanted is always amusing to me as the leader, and not just to me. One late night show host encouraged parents to give their kids a horrible early Christmas present and video their reactions for YouTube. The results were hysterical. And a duo of comedian musicians known as Garfunkel and Oates recorded a YouTube smash hit song known as… Present Face.

In the song, the duo sings about that face we all make and try to hide when we receive an unwanted gift. As they say…

Your smile is frozen open

There’s a crazed look in your eye

You overflow with compliments

While trying to deny

That you loathe the gift you opened

Though you try to keep your grace

Your scary grin is frozen

Don’t you know you’ve got a case... of… Present Face.



They go on to describe how we all get disappointed from time to time and when we get let down, most of us do a lousy job of covering it up. Graciousness is not second nature, nor is gratefulness. And we justify this, perhaps rightly so sometimes. If only they knew me better. They’d know what to get me. Or at least what NOT to. Right? It’s ok, you can admit it. You’re in church. ;-) God knows.

And that brings us to it. What is it God desires? The wise men of the first century… it had just changed over that night… the big BC/AD change over… and everyone was still getting used to it... ;-) Those wise men showed up with the gifts we all know so well. Nowhere in scripture does it ever say there were only three wise men. We assume that because of all the songs and because there were three types of gifts. But perhaps there were several kings bearing gold. It’s impossible to know now. But in the words of Garfunkel and Oates… “Baby Jesus got some gold… which most infants prefer… but I bet he got the Present Face with frankincense and myrrh.” And… with his birthday and Christmas both being on the 25th… “it must not have been fun to open combination gifts.”

It’s a silly a line, but it does point out how strange the gifts were to us as people of the 21st century. What use has a baby for gold and what on earth are frankincense and myrrh? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were common gifts to royalty, and especially in the case of Jesus, the frankincense represented his priestly role and anointing, while likely myrrh represented a foreshadowing of his death and embalming. They brought what would honor a king. And the part we often forget, that also seems odd when we turn our attention to it… they fell down and worshipped… a child. And while this may have been or looked odd… it was what God desired and still does… adoration and the best of what we have to offer, our riches… not our leftovers.

How often do the things we say, the way we represent God, the amount of attention or joy we show in worship, in prayer, in our daily lives, in our gifts to God in our treasures and time show a lack of effort? How often do we give God a bad case of Present Face?

The familiar song, Little Drummer Boy, was written in the Great Depression, when a tale of someone offering a homemade gift with all the love they had, was a common one.
The wonderful lesson we teach our children in that song is that the gift of song given so enthusiastically and lovingly by the drummer boy is no less worthy a gift to the child king. But the lesson we can also learn as adults is that the gifts given by the wise men are no less worthy than that of the boy and his drum. They have given the best they have to offer, given their time to search and have bowed before him. Our gifts are between us and God, but they are a testimony to all who witness what and how we give. They are an example to our children, our peers, to nonbelievers who question and believers who need encouragement.

I carry canned food in my car for the homeless. I try to find what is on sale so I can buy lots of it, but I won’t buy anything I wouldn’t want myself. I have a strong suspicion that God’s present face looks a lot like a homeless teenage girl when you give her a can of store brand cream of spinach soup. When church choir becomes a chore instead of a joy... When delivering communion to someone homebound becomes an extra commitment keeping you from your Sunday football… When giving to the church or your charity is the first item you look to trim when you have a big expensive toy in mind… When we continue to do and give what is expected, but not out of joy or because it’s the best, or it’s what God actually wants of us… I challenge you to try to ignore the sneaking suspicion you’ve give God a case of… Present Face.

I can’t tell you how many young adults I’ve spoken to who have told me the best gift their parents ever gave them was to quit smoking, to quit drinking, or to take them to church every week or to drive them to completing a degree or gain a skill or deepen an appreciation of something beautiful or worthwhile, to open their eyes to people in need. And how marvelous a gift is to our creator and sustainer to gift our children, our brothers and sisters in this world with the gift ourselves in love and sincerity that points to the glory of the one who sends us. At every turn in the ministry of Christ and in his final words and Great Commission, he admonishes his disciples, his followers, those he encounters and us… to love one another… to love the people in our lives more fully and more boldly, to know and make known the love of Christ.

If you’ve seen the recent adaptation of Les Miserables or have ever seen an older version or read the novel, you know the line… to love another is to see the face of God. And when you do, that face is not… a Present Face… for it is the greatest gift we can give.
The Gift of the Magi is a well-known Christmas classic novel. My favorite adaptation is the Sesame Street Christmas special from my childhood. In it, Ernie gives up his most prized possession, Rubber Ducky, in order to buy a cigar box for Burt to house his prized paperclip collection from Mr. Hooper. Naturally, unbeknownst to Ernie, Burt trades Mr. Hooper his prized paperclip collection for a soap dish for Ernie’s Rubber Ducky. On Christmas Eve, they are both so eager to see the look on their dear friend’s face, they dive into their gifts. And their faces drop when they realize what they’ve each given and that they can’t make one another happy. That’s when Mr. Hooper arrives. Mr. Hooper, like Jesus and his family… is Jewish. He arrives with a present for each of them. Naturally… it’s Rubber Ducky and the paperclip collection. After the confusion dissipates and deep gratitude sets in, they turn realizing they don’t have anything for Mr. Hooper. And Mr. Hooper beams. Seeing the two of them give the possession most dear to each of them in order to bring joy to the person most dear to them is all the gift Mr. Hooper needs. And I believe so it is with God. When we seek with all our hearts, with all we have and all we are… we turn to find God beaming… devoid of present face, we have given the greatest of gifts… the gift of the magi.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Regurgitated Gospel




Mark 5: 1-20

    On my way up here, I was going to pull a Jennifer Lawrence and see if you’d cut me some extra slack while I preach today.   Show of hands, how many of you got that reference?  Now keep your hands up, if you got that reference from seeing the Oscars live.  Ah, many of you didn't see that live.  For those of you who didn't get it, the winner of this year's best actress Oscar was the lovely and talented and very young Jennifer Lawrence.  On her way up the steps to the stage to accept her award, she tripped and fell on her dress.  Embarrassing, to be sure, but the old adage in Hollywood is that there is no such thing as 'bad' press.  In fact, it's possibly the most talked about moment of the evening.  And for those of you who didn't see it live, myself included, you knew about it anyways.  And now, all of you do.

    Millions tuned into the Oscars and about 5 million more watched YouTube clips of her fall in the following days.  Far fewer people saw the miracles of Jesus and while first century YouTube statistics are unreliable at best, we can assume few people caught the replay.  Everyone heard about his miraculous deeds by word of mouth.  And by and large, Jesus seemed unconcerned with bad press either.  And Jesus couldn't count on reliable PR, at least not to begin with.  His first agents were not really his disciples.  His first agents... were the recipients of his miracles and the witnesses thereof.

    Everyone who witnessed the incident with the demon-possessed man immediately began to recount to others what had occurred.  And then when the now-healed man tries to follow Jesus, he sends him out to tell others his own account.  And there's a natural human compulsion to tell others the amazing things we've seen.  And on this compulsion, Jesus relies heavily to spread the good news.  How frustrated I imagine he is then when the busyness of our lives drowns out the miracles we witness every day.  When we don't share the buzz with our neighbors, with those we love and those we are called to love, we suppress what built the Church in its first days and what could grow it now.

    And buzz is exactly what it was.  In fact, one of the earliest symbols of Christianity is the honeybee.  The imagery goes as far back as the Old Testament and lands of milk and honey.  Many monks were beekeepers.  Bees adorn paintings and art throughout the Church, even the altar in the Vatican and the robes of the Pope.  But for the early Church, and more recently, the bee has represented resurrection.  Bees hibernate and are reborn.  The beehive is full of bees with many different jobs, much like the metaphors of the body of Christ and the many functions we all perform.  The honeybee is actually an excellent example for us as Christians.

    When Jesus is tempted in the desert to make stones into bread, he responds that man does not live on bread alone but on every word from the mouth of God.  The food God provides for honeybees... is pollen.  But a bee's job is not merely to gather pollen and consume it, or even to gather and share it with the hive.  A bee does far more.  And it is the more that makes the honeybee what it is.  Bees take the pollen God provides and carry it from flower to flower.  That pollen provides life and growth.  And does some pollen naturally spread by the wind, by sheer proximity of one flower being near another?  Certainly.  But honeybees provide the means to spread that pollen far and wide in great quantity.  Apple orchards, even the small one in my parents' backyard, suffered greatly a few years ago because small bee mites were attacking honeybees.  A lack of honeybees led to a lack of pollination and apple trees did not yield their usual crop.

    And honeybees do more than encourage that growth, flowers and apples and all we can see.  Honeybees make... ______.  Honey.  Right.  Honeybees take the raw gifts from God and they digest them.  Then those bees gather and regurgitate that pollen.  Honey.  Honey... is bee vomit.  We think very negatively of regurgitating.  As humans, it’s an indication of illness at best, and of a lack of creativity at worst, in its academic sense.  In nature though, it’s typically an act of nourishment.  Mothers digest and regurgitate because their young cannot gather or consume the raw sustenance themselves. Regurgitating is in fact a creative and sacrificial act that requires emptying one’s self for another repeatedly.   The product of this creativity and sacrifice for the bee is the honey.  And honey is the first natural sweetener.  From honey, we get the first fermented beverage ever created... mead. Scientists and physicians still tout the healing properties of honey, even though they do not fully understand them.  Honey is a miracle in and of itself.

    Bees take the pollen... the gift of God, their food... and they spread it, they digest it, and they regur... share it as a community... creating the honeycomb.  What could we learn from the example of bees?  What does God provide us?  God gives us his Word, his scripture, his prophets and teachers, his Son.  God gives us salvation, the good news we learn in Sunday school and as children from our parents and elders.  Those people in our life, do what honeybees do.  Honey Bees return to the hive and do a dance to show the other bees where they found their pollen, the source of what they bear.  Holly, and her team of teachers don't just share the gospel with our kids.  They give them Bibles, they show the books, they teach them to pray.  They do the dance that shows our children how to find the source.

    Bees carry pollen on their legs.  What falls off is what is spread to others flowers as they travel.  The bees may never know what a gift it is that they visited a flower, the gift of life they leave behind just by being there.  As Christians, perhaps we too can bring life with us when we visit those in need.

    And perhaps, most importantly, and so very exciting for us as Presbyterian, deep-thinking-theologically-pondering Presbyterians... is the concept of digesting and regurgitating.  For few of us would be interested in the honeycomb if it were merely a depository of collected pollen.  You can get that by sweeping your car off in the spring.  The treasure of the honeycomb is what the bees make as a community of what God provides.  At our best, we take the words and wisdom and experience of the Gospel in the scriptures and our lives and we digest them and share the result as a community of believers.  We come together in church, in Bible studies, in Sunday school, Lenten studies, seminaries, in our homes, on the streets of our communities... and we share what God has put on our hearts and what our minds, our intellects, our imaginations, which God has given us... and we see what they have yielded.  We regurgitate the Gospel.  We regurgitate the hope and the love God gives to us in its most raw and pure form.


    I’ll resist the urge to leave you with some punny command like “Bee the change you wish to see in the world,” or “share the buzz,” or “bee-hive like the disciples and comb your neighborhood and make bee-lievers in some huge sting operation.”  But I will say that bees can teach us a great deal about balancing our workload in the Church and out in the world, about traveling far, coming home to share, to dance, to digest, and to regurgitate.  As believers, we are incomplete if we never venture out, or never return; if we never dance for others to show them the way, the source; if we never empty ourselves of what we’ve learned and how we’ve interpreted the good news and made it our own; if we never venture out once more, spreading what we gather, and gleaning from others.

    It is my deep hope that as you fly from here today, you will go far, see much, digest, and return to dance with those here and those out there... that you will never be content to simply gather pollen, but to make honey, and that you will share it selflessly with others as your gift to all of creation. And that whenever you tell someone you are as busy as a bee... you are also busy like a bee as well.  Amen.