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What Do You Do When You Lose Jesus?

Sermon from December 26, 2021

On Christmas Eve, we read the beginning of Luke Chapter 2 – the birth of Jesus. Today’s lectionary reading takes us to the end of Luke Chapter 2. Luke was the only gospel writer to include a story of Jesus’ childhood…and it’s less of a story than it is a parent’s worst nightmare…

Listen for God’s Word from Luke 2:41-52.

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. 

Those of you who are parents, how many of you have ever had that terrifying experience of having your child wander off in the grocery store, or of losing sight of your child in a shopping mall or in the middle of a crowd on the street? Whether you look for your child for 30-40 seconds or for 3-4 minutes, it feels like an eternity. And whether you’re exasperated at your child for wandering off or exasperated at yourself for losing sight of your child, the struggle is real. The fear and anxiety are real.

James and I don’t have any children, but as a former Young Life staff person and youth director for many years, I feel like I have a lot of “adopted” children. I led those “adopted” children on many camp trips and mission trips, usually with 20-40 students on each trip. That fear and anxiety always crept in on that last leg of the trip home. 

I’m an educated person. I know how to count to 20. I even know how to count to 40. But when it came to making sure 20 or 40 kids were on that final bus or on that final plane on the way home, I always second guessed my count and tripled counted to make sure all 20-40 were on that final bus or plane – that no child was left behind.

In the case of today’s text, it wasn’t a case of diligent parents’ momentarily losing sight of a child or losing count of children. This was a case of parents’ not knowing a child was missing.

It reminds me of the movie Home Alone. I realize I may be dating myself here, but when that movie came out at Christmas, I was in high school. When I was in high school and college, at Christmas my family always gathered at my aunt and uncle’s house in Augusta. After opening presents and enjoying Christmas dinner, our tradition in the late afternoon was to go to a movie together. There were always one or two hold-outs who didn’t join us for the movie. The year that Home Alone came out, we all went to the movie…because no one wanted to be left home alone. 

If you’ve seen the movie, you may recall the plotline: Much like Mary in our text today, the parents go off on a trip, forgetting to make sure all the kids are in the car. Much like Mary in our text today, after noticing a kid was missing, the mother takes action to locate her lost child.

But unlike the movie, this isn’t just any forgotten or lost child. These parents have lost Jesus. And unlike any movie, this passage asks: What did Mary and Joseph do when they lost Jesus?

And unlike any movie, this passage also asks us: What do we do when we lose Jesus?

To answer those questions, let’s take a look at the text and the conversation between Mary and Jesus. In our text today, Jesus spoke his first words as recorded in the gospels. A child’s first words are always important to parents. At age 12, these weren’t Jesus’ first words to his parents. 

But they were his first words to us, and, therefore, they are important.

Before we get to those words, let’s consider Mary’s words. Mary and Joseph had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Every year they went up as usual to the festival. By age 12, Jesus should be used to this tradition. Yet this time when the festival ended, and Mary and Joseph started to return home, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem

But his parents did not know it.

Assuming he was with the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him. After three days, they found him in the temple. 

So let’s recap…they’d been a day’s journey, and then they began to look for Jesus, and after three days they found him. That meant it’d been 3-4 days since they’d seen their child. When his parents saw him after looking for him for 3-4 days, his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

Here’s one of those times when I wonder if the gospel writers maybe took a bit of editorial license, like “Let’s just give readers the Cliff notes version.” I’m not a parent, but if my child had wandered off or if I’d lost sight of my child in a crowd for 3-4 minutes, let alone 3-4 days, I promise you I would have more words to say than Mary.

On one of those youth mission trips I mentioned earlier, we took a trip to the Dominican Republic. As it was our first trip out of the country, I told students we weren’t just going with the two-buddy system; we were going with the four-buddy system – everyone needed to be in groups of four at all times.

On our tourist afternoon at the market, when one group of four buddies only returned with three buddies, I immediately asked “Where’s Jeff?” The three said they last saw him 30-40 minutes ago near an ice cream parlor, when a small child approached them and asked for an ice cream.

I was well aware of all the risks of violence and child sex trafficking going on in the world at the time. So you can bet that, while I’m not a fast runner, I can promise you the fastest half mile I’ve ever run was when I ran the half mile from that meet up spot to that ice cream spot, with every worst case scenario flashing through my mind with every step I ran.

And when I got there and found Jeff and this child enjoying ice cream together, I can promise you I had more words to say than just, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Your youth leaders and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

Mary may have had more words to say also. This wasn’t a mother who’d lost just any child. This was a woman who’d lost Jesus. 

Mary and Joseph weren’t the only people in history to lose Jesus. As we shared in our children’s message on Christmas Eve, in the midst of all of the presents on Christmas Day, we can lose sight of the fact that the greatest present of all is Jesus. In the midst of all of the busyness of Christmas, we can lose Jesus. In the midst of the highs of Christmas and the sometimes lows or letdown of the days after the holidays, we can lose Jesus. In the midst of all that is going on in our lives, in our nation, in the world, we can lose Jesus. In the midst of the everyday ho-hum routine, we can lose Jesus.

What do we do when we lose Jesus?

We’ve looked at Mary’s question. Now let’s look at Jesus’ response.

Jesus said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’

The phrase “in my Father’s house” can be translated in two different ways. The New Revised Standard Version that we read translates it as “in my Father’s house.” Other versions translate the phrase “involved in my Father’s affairs.” So to restate what Jesus said to them,: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Or, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be involved in my Father’s affairs?”

Or to put it more simply, Jesus said, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in worship and in mission?”

What do we do when we lose Jesus? In his first words to us, Jesus told us the answer: “Why are you searching for me? Do you not know that you must find me in worship and in mission?”

In terms of how we respond to that question, I want to share a story from our Advent Bible study followed by a couple of stories from our Christmas Eve worship services. In our Advent Bible study series, we looked at the prophesies about Jesus – how he would be a prophet, a priest, and a servant king. Each week I asked what came to mind when we heard (the first week) that Jesus was to be a prophet, (the second week) that he was to be a priest, and (the third week) that he was to be a servant king.

When we got to that third week, and I asked what came to mind when we heard that Jesus was to be a servant king, one person said, “This may sound trite, but I always think of Micah 6:8, which says, ‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?'” I responded that those words aren’t trite; they are the heart of who we are as the Church – and who, I pray, we will always be as the Church.

That leads to a couple of stories from our Christmas Eve worship services. I’ll start with some stories from our 11 pm service and conclude with a story from our 5 pm service. A question I’ve asked our Session and congregation on a regular basis has been: What’s an unmet need in our community, and how can we at Clairmont meet that need?  We asked that same question when it came to scheduling the times for our Christmas Eve services. When no congregation in our immediate area was offering an 11 pm service, Clairmont said, “Let’s do it.” So we offered an 11 pm service. We had roughly 30 people in attendance. I’d venture that roughly half of those were not frequent attenders or members. Clearly, we at Clairmont met an unmet need in our community.

That 11 pm service for me provided a good snapshot of the days in which we live as a community. We had arranged for two police officers to provide security at our office and sanctuary entrances. What probably comes as no surprise to any of us given the spread of the Omicron variant, we learned at 10 pm that one officer tested positive, and since the police department didn’t allow officers to work solo, that meant we were without officers at our doors. Like we’ve done throughout the past year and a half plus, our leadership pivoted to find ways to keep our doors open and to allow people to worship safely.

Then when it came to the lighting of the Advent candles, the hope candle wouldn’t light: the wick of the candle had turned inside itself, making it impossible to light, despite our candle lighters Jim and Andrea trying their best to light the candle. So we skipped over hope, and went on to light the candles of peace, joy, love, and ultimately the Christ candle. Still, the hope candle wouldn’t light. As Jim and Andrea lit the Christ candle, they read John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” I thought, “What a great metaphor for this season in which we find ourselves – when many struggle to find hope, when for many hope just won’t light. And what a great reminder that, even when hope seems dim, the light still shines in the darkness.”

Toward the end of the 11 pm service, I saw a woman walk into the sanctuary through the side entrance. She came up to me after worship and introduced herself. She said she had been running late to worship and then was even later because she couldn’t get in the door. (We had locked the doors at 11:15 once it seemed everyone had arrived in order to allow volunteers at the doors to join in worship.) I apologized and explained that we had intended to have security, but one officer, unfortunately, got COVID. She said she had heard and understood. She told me she hadn’t been to worship in a really long time, but she decided to come that night. She arrived just before we started singing our closing hymn, “Joy To The World.” She said, while she had only been able to hear one song in worship, that was exactly what she needed to hear – a word of joy. 

She then asked if we had communion during the service. When I said yes, she lowered her head and said, “I’m sorry I missed communion. That was the only other part of worship I really felt like I needed tonight.” We happened to be standing in front of the communion table when we were talking. I told her, if she’d like, I could offer her the elements right now. She looked up wide-eyed, smiled, and said, “Really? You can do that?” Standing at the table with this sister at midnight on Christmas Day and being able to say to her, “This is the body of Christ given for you and the blood of Christ shed for you,” will forever be one of my most treasured moments in ministry. 

Jesus said, “Why are you searching for me? Do you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? Do you not know that you must find me in worship/”

What do we do when we lose Jesus? Jesus told us where to find him. We find him in worship – by remembering his life given for us, and by proclaiming the promise that, while hope may feel dim, there is joy to the world.

And one of my most treasured – and certainly most humbling – moments in ministry came right before our 5 pm service. Just before worship I was told there was a homeless man at the office entrance looking for coffee. Before I could get to the office door to greet him, he met me at the sanctuary door. He said his name, that he was homeless, and that he often slept on the corner by our church. Assuming he wanted help, I immediately went into autopilot: I told him we normally refer people to Toco Hills Community Alliance, but they are closed; how, unfortunately, we don’t have any grocery gift cards available to give him, and our financial office is also closed, but if he came back on Tuesday when the office was fully open, we’d be happy to find ways to offer assistance. He smiled and said, “I’m not here to ask for help. I just wanted to introduce myself and worship with you.” And he took a seat in one of the front pews. 

Later during the sermon, when I said, “How is God calling you to be a voice to a stranger tonight, and how might God be speaking to you through a stranger?” I looked at this brother and thought, “Yes, God, I hear you.”

Jesus said, “Why are you searching for me? Do you not know that I must be involved in my Father’s affairs? Do you not know that you must find me in mission?”

What do we do when we lose Jesus? Jesus told us where to find him. We find him in mission. 

Sometimes that mission may be welcoming the stranger. Sometimes that mission may be letting the stranger welcome us.

And sometimes that mission may be simply offering ice cream to a child. 

It’s not just Jesus’ first words that always speak to me in this passage. It’s the last words in this passage that also speak to me: ‘Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” It can be tricky to compare ourselves to Jesus in any text, yet at the same time we are called to become more like Jesus…

So may you and I increase in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor, by the way we worship Jesus and by the way we join in his mission. May it be so. Thanks be to God. 

20 Years Later…

Many of us have probably been remembering or asking today, “Where were you 20 years ago?” 

Like many of us, I remember where I was: I’d just moved to Norfolk, Virginia, in July 2001 to begin serving as the Director of Youth Ministries at the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk. It was my first time living in a naval town. After hearing of the attacks on the twin towers, I went to our local high school to ask how I could be of assistance. They directed me to the guidance counselor’s office, which was packed with students. For most of these students, one or both parents served with the Navy. Their parents were immediately called to their ships in case they needed to be immediately deployed. To this day, I still vividly remember a student asking me, “Will I ever see my parents again?” To this day, I still vividly remember how, while I’m normally quick to say, “It’ll be ok,” on that day those words and that assurance didn’t come so quickly…

Fast forward to December 2011, roughly ten years after 9/11…James and I visited the 9/11 Memorial in NYC. In looking at one of the pools, I noticed a faint rainbow shooting out from it. It was a powerful reminder to me that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

We ask, “Where were you 20 years ago?” I might also ask: “Where are you now?” We have some who want to remember; we have others who’d rather forget. May I humbly say: You are heard, you are seen, and you are most definitely loved.

On a Presbytery Zoom call on Wednesday, we talked about that phrase: “It’ll be ok.” It was a phrase I had a hard time saying 20 years ago. I may still have a hard time saying it today, when the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, when we’re still trying to emerge out of a pandemic. But even if my heart doesn’t always know it’s true, my head does: “It’s going to be ok.” Why? Well, at the risk of sounding trite, because Jesus said so: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose….What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:28, 31).

As for that photo and the rainbow? I still firmly believe the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, cannot, and will never overcome it. 

I conclude with this prayer, a prayer we will pray after tolling the hour 20 times tomorrow in worship:

Prayer for International Crisis  

Eternal God, our only hope, 
our help in times of trouble: 
show nations ways to work out differences. 

Do not let threats multiply 
or power be used without compassion. 
May your will overrule human willfulness, 
so that people may agree and settle claims peacefully. 

Hold back those who are impulsive, 
lest desire for vengeance overwhelm our common welfare.  
Bring peace to earth, through Jesus Christ, 
the Prince of Peace and Savior of us all.  

“A Double Change of Heart” – The Fifth in Our Worship Series: “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life”

We’re coming to the end of this series. Next week Jeremy Zach will share with us from Revelation Chapter 21, where John saw a vision of a new heaven and new earth. That’s the ultimate goal toward which we are working as we seek to love our neighbors – to bring about that new heaven and new earth. It’s that’s for which we pray every week: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The week after next, Pentecost Sunday, we’ll read from Acts Chapter 2 about the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that empowers us to strive for that goal of ushering in God’s Kingdom on earth.

But first, this week we turn to a passage in Acts where we find ourselves on a road to Damascus. If you’ve ever heard people talk about having a “Damascus Road” experience in their faith, this is the passage from which that phrase comes. A man named Saul had been persecuting Christians, that is, those who belonged to the Way. In our text today, Saul was taking letters to the synagogues in Damascus, letters which would permit him to arrest Christians. On the way to Damascus, he encountered Jesus.

This passage is typically referred to as the conversion of Saul, later to be named Paul. It’s a dramatic scene, and so, for understandable reasons, Saul is typically the focal point in this passage. Yet there’s another man named in the passage on whom I want us to focus this morning. Listen to the story of Saul from Acts 9:1-9 and in verses 10-19 the story of a man named Ananias.

Read Acts 9:1-19.

The way this worship series came together was through one of our elders and our study of the book The Post-Quarantine Church by Thom Rainer. The elder asked if I had considered a worship series on change. The idea intrigued me, so much so that I posted on Facebook asking people to comment with biblical characters who had experienced a change in their lives by God. One friend suggested, without any explanation or commentary, Acts 9:1-19. She could have chosen to end her suggested text at verse 9. Just verses 1-9 alone would have made for an outstanding example of change, as Saul certainly experienced a change in his life when he went from being a persecutor of Christians to one of the most well-known leaders of the Church. Instead, she chose to suggest continuing through verse 19. I love that she included, not just Saul’s encounter with Jesus, but also Ananias’ encounter with Jesus, for both men experienced a conversion. 

Imagine being in Ananias’ shoes. He was just minding his own business at home in Damascus when suddenly Jesus appeared to him in a vision. Jesus called his name, and Ananias responded, “Here I am, Lord.” Then Jesus said, “You know that man Saul who’s been persecuting you and all my followers? I want you to go and visit him.”

In our Wednesday night Bible study on the Book of Acts, we’ve said many times that the disciples had seen some pretty wild and crazy stuff the past couple of months. Let’s start with the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Pretty wild and crazy. Then he ascended into the sky right before their very eyes. Then they saw what was like – I mean, Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, can’t even describe it; he can only use similes – a sound like the rush of a violent wind and divided tongues as of fire (Acts 2:2-3). The people were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to speak in other languages, yet they all understood each other. And 3,000 people came to faith that day (Acts 2:41). Wild and crazy stuff.

Then Jesus appeared to Ananias and told him to go visit Saul. I imagine Ananias was thinking, “OK, rising from the dead and ascending to heaven? That’s pretty wild and crazy. This Spirit showing up and causing this revival among the people? That’s pretty crazy also. But now you want me to go visit my worst enemy, the man who has orders to have me arrested and – let’s face it – then likely killed? Jesus, you’ve really done and gone crazy this time!”

Yet, as crazy as it was, just as quickly as Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” and started praying, so Ananias got up, went to Saul’s house, laid hands on him, and called him brother.

Both men had experienced a change of heart, a conversion. Saul experienced a change of heart toward Jesus, which led to a change of heart toward Christians. Ananias had already experienced that change of heart toward Jesus. Now Jesus was calling him to go through another conversion – a change of heart toward his enemies. 

Which is the greater conversion?

This past year we haven’t had much of a choice in terms of the people with whom we’ve hung out. We’ve been quarantined at home. We’ve had no choice but to be with our families. As we said a couple of months ago, depending on the week, the day, the hour, the minute, sometimes we’ve said with a loving tone, “It’s been so great to be able to spend so much quality time with my family.” Other times we’ve said with a more sarcastic tone, “It’s been so great to be able to spend so much quality time with my family.” 

This coming Thursday my husband James and I will celebrate fifteen years of marriage. If you’re married to a road warrior like I am, a husband who is normally away on business trips two to three nights per week, we’ve realized we’ve been together more this past year than we have in all fifteen years of our marriage combined – and we’ve survived! Dare I say, we’ve even enjoyed it for the most past!

This past year we haven’t had much of a choice in terms of the people with whom we hung out – and yet we have. This past year many of us have grown in our appreciation for our family and loved ones. We got to choose to be with the ones we love. 

As things began to open up, we continued to make choices about those with whom we were willing to hang out. Often those choices were based on whether others had made the same choices we had during the pandemic. If people made different choices, we chose not to hang out with them – and those choices go far beyond just a pandemic. 

There’ve been many lines that have divided us this year, haven’t there? Maskers and anti-maskers. Vaxers and anti-vaxers. We judged one another based on whether we chose to stay at home or go out. We judged people based on whether they chose to participate in a mass public protest or whether they stayed socially distanced and sought less pubic ways to fight for racial justice. We judged people based on the person for whom they voted. Back in November, there was no shortage of social media posts that said something like, “If you don’t vote the way I do, I will never forgive you.”

One of the more frequent conversations I’ve had the past year is with people who found themselves struggling more than ever with Jesus’ command to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). Choosing to love Jesus is one thing. Choosing to love our enemy is another thing.

Yet Jesus says: They are one and the same thing. Jesus says, when you choose to love me, you choose to love your enemy.

I referenced a few weeks ago a devotional by my friend Allen Hilton. I became acquainted with Allen a few months ago when I took an online seminary class he taught. The class was titled, “Being Christian and a Leader in an Election Year.” Allen is a pastor who travels around the nation leading seminars for congregations and communities about how to navigate their differences. One of his favorite exercises is to invite people to pair up with someone who is different from them. They may be different in terms of race, ethnicity, economic or social background, political views, or other demographic. The two take turns sharing their story with one another. When they come back together as a larger group, each of the two introduces the other to the larger group by sharing that person’s story – in the first person. Allen said, when you share someone’s story in the first person, as if it were your story, three things happen. There are a lot of tears, there are a lot of hugs, and, most importantly, empathy happens.

Allen concluded, “What we the Church most needs to understand is how to see our differences, not as liabilities, but as assets.”

In our quest to be the future Clairmont Christ is calling us to be, we might see some unexpected people come to know Christ. We might have to let go of our assumptions, our presuppositions, and judgments about some people and be open to God’s work in their lives – and even be open to God’s raising them up to lead us.

It’s been said that, when we get to heaven, we may be surprised at who’s there. Who knows – some may even be surprised you and I are there. But God won’t be surprised. God doesn’t call the equipped. God equips the called – and God often calls the least likely. 

God’s never chosen perfect people. Since the first day of creation, God’s only chosen imperfect people to carry out God’s mission. Jacob lied. Moses was a murderer. Rahab was a prostitute. David was an adulterer. The Samaritan woman was divorced – more than once. Peter denied Christ. Lazarus was dead – and still God found a way to use him!

Saul persecuted and even murdered Christians, and God found a way to use him. Ananias was scared to love his enemy, and God found a way to use him, too. 

God used each of them, and God can use each of us, if we are open to God’s call – if we remember that saying “yes” to loving Jesus also means saying “yes” to loving our enemy. 

That leads us to our questions and applications for this week. First, who’s someone with whom you disagree that you can reach out to this week? Someone who thinks differently than you, who is different from you? Who’s someone not like you that you can reach out to this week? 

Try having a conversation with them with the goal, not of being understood, but of understanding. So often we enter into a conversation with the opposite goal, don’t we – that of being understood, not of understanding? We enter into it listening to respond, not listening to understand. We may think we’re thinking about what the other person is saying when really what we’re thinking about is what we’re going to say next in response. 

When we enter into conversation with someone who differs from us, often we aren’t looking for a dialogue. We’re looking for a debate. We’re looking to prove who’s right and who’s wrong.

I did a sermon series on marriage a few years back. As part of the series, I interviewed a few marriage counselors. In talking about marital arguments, one counselor wisely asked, “If someone has to be right and someone else has to be wrong, then who gets to be loved?” I think that question applies to more relationships than just marriage.

If someone has to be right and someone else has to be wrong, then who gets to be loved?

Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

Who’s someone who’s different from you that you can reach out to and have a conversation with this week?

Question two: When you can’t get past your differences, what can you do? You can pray. Jesus said it himself: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. Pray asking, “God, help me to love this person. Until I can, will you love them for me? Would you help me to remember that I will never meet someone who is not loved by you?”

“God, help me to love this person. Until I can, will you love them for me? And will you help me to see them as my brother?””

That leads to our third and final question: What if you were to see that person with whom you disagree as your brother? The word that struck me most in our passage this week is that Ananias called Saul “Brother Saul” (Acts 9:17).

When Jesus told Ananias to go and meet Saul, Ananias thought he couldn’t. He wouldn’t. Saul saw Ananias as his enemy, and therefore Ananias saw Saul as his enemy. 

Yet when Jesus convinced him to go, Ananias didn’t call him his enemy. He called him his brother.

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to see someone as my enemy when I call them my brother. My sister.

What if this week every time you encountered someone with whom you disagree, before you said a word, you were to pray, “Jesus, this is my brother; Jesus, this is my sister”?

Both Saul and Ananias experienced a change of heart, a conversion. Saul experienced a change of heart toward Jesus. Ananias experienced a change of heart towards his enemy. 

Which was the greater conversion? 

May this week you and I experience both. 

God, it’s been said no one can claim to worship you and yet also hate his brother. Lord, we confess we do both all the time. Help our hypocrisy. Jesus, help us to remember that, when asked, what’s the greatest commandment, you said “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).  Holy Spirit, teach us to love as you have loved us. In the strong name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

“Do You Want To Get Well?” – The Fourth in Our Worship Series “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life”

We are at the midway point in our worship series called “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life,” where we’ve been taking a look at some of our biblical ancestors who experienced a change in their lives and what their story can teach us about how to respond to changes in our own lives. Thus far, each of the stories we’ve read and each of the changes our ancestors faced have all dealt with some external challenge. Even when it came to the Israelites and Peter and the internal threat of their fears and how they saw themselves, there was still some external element involved: Would the Israelites face their enemies and enter the land God promised them? Would Peter ever risk trying to walk on water again?

Today’s text takes a deeper look at those internal threats – when the threat isn’t the enemy outside, but the enemy inside. What do we do when we’re our own worst enemy – and Jesus calls us to be something more? 

Read John 5:1-9.

Many of you know I’m a marathon runner – one of those crazy people who runs 26.2 miles for fun. There’s this joke among marathoners that goes like this: If you don’t end up in the medical tent after you cross the finish line, then you didn’t try hard enough. Well, if that’s true, I don’t know what it says about how hard I try when I tell you that I’ve run six marathons and only ended up in the medical tent…once. It was back in 2018 at the Publix Marathon in Atlanta. I was on the final two miles when my right quad and calf started cramping up. I knew I was on track to hit my personal best finish time and was determined I would reach that goal even if I had to crawl across the finish line. 

I made it across the finish line standing upright, at least for a second – until those cramps in my right leg suddenly released, and my leg went limp. Fortunately, the EMTs at the finish line saw me and caught me in one of their wheelchairs. Unfortunately, the photographers at the finish line also saw me and caught my downfall on camera. Needless to say, I chose not to post those race photos on Instagram.

I was taken to the medical tent and released a few minutes later when I was steady enough to stand. The next day I made an appointment with my doctor, who diagnosed me with a compressed sciatic nerve and referred me to a physical therapist. After a couple of months of physical therapy, my doctor said he was now going to refer me to a running form specialist. I didn’t know what that was, let alone why I needed such a specialist. My doctor explained, “You need to learn how to run again.” I got a little indignant and said, “I know how to run. I’ve run six marathons. Just because I sometimes can’t even walk after a marathon, that doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m doing.”

My doctor responded, “You have some weaknesses, and you’ve been compensating for them for so long that you don’t know how to address them.” 

I think that wisdom applies to more than just leg cramps. How many of us have some weakness for which we’ve been compensating for so long that we don’t know how to address it?

I thought about that running experience as I reflected on our text this week. I was going to say that this is one of my favorite passages in Scripture. But I realize I call a lot of passages my favorite. So maybe it’s more accurate to say this is one of my favorite passages – and also sometimes one of my least favorite passages. Because when we take a deep look at this text, it’s not necessarily an easy text to read. But it’s an honest text to read – because it’s a text about you and me. It’s a text about our past and the excuses we make for our future, and it’s a text about one of the most important questions Jesus will ever ask us: “Do you want to be made well?”

Jesus encountered a man at a pool who’d been ill for 38 years. That’s a long time. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be made well?” You’d think, after 38 years, his answer would be, “Well, yeah! Of course, I want to be made well I’ve been waiting 38 years for this moment!”

But that’s not how the man answered the question. In fact…the man never answered the question. 

Whenever someone is not named in Scripture, I often think it’s intentional, that by not naming the person, God is inviting us to put ourselves in that person’s shoes, to give the person our name. So let’s put ourselves in this man’s shoes and imagine: Why not answer the question? Wouldn’t you want to be made well? And if not, why not?

Well, for starters, sometimes it’s easier just to live with the pain than to address the pain. This man had been living with this illness for 38 years. To be suddenly made well would not just mean he would be given a whole new way of life. It would also mean he’d be required to live a whole new way of life. 

Sometimes living with our wounds is easier than doing the hard work of getting well. In the words of my doctor, we learn to compensate for our pain and weakness, rather than addressing them. We learn to accept and live with discomfort to the point that discomfort becomes our comfort zone.

I recall an experience many years ago when I was serving at a homeless shelter overnight. We had blankets and foam mats on which our guests could sleep. One man looked at the mat and then asked for a metal folding chair. Rather than the comfort of a soft mat and warm blanket, the man chose to sleep sitting upright on a hard surface – because those were the sleeping conditions to which he’d grown accustomed: sleeping sitting upright on a park bench. 

How quickly that to which we’ve grown accustomed becomes that which is comfortable, even when it’s not comfortable. When discomfort becomes our comfort zone, it can be hard to respond to an invitation to real comfort: Do you want to get well?

When discomfort becomes our comfort zone and the chance for real comfort requires us to move out of our comfort zone, it can be more paralyzing than a 38-year-old illness.

The man didn’t answer the question. Instead, the man explained to Jesus why he wasn’t well. On the surface, his explanations sound like excuses. I have no one to help me. Someone else always gets there first.

Excuses can also be paralyzing. I‘m too old. I’m too young. I’m too busy. I don’t have time. Making excuses is easier than standing up, taking our mat, and walking. Making excuses is easier than taking action steps. And that which is easy can be a mighty fine comfort zone.

Nevertheless, it seems there’s something deeper still in this conversation. Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be made well?” After being ill for 38 years, you’d think the man would jump at the chance to be healthy. Yet the man didn’t answer the question. Instead, the man told Jesus everything that had happened to him in the past when he’d tried to go into the pool. In short, the man told Jesus his story and why he was still ill. 

Whether you are 38 or younger or older, whether you’ve been struggling with an illness for years, or have enjoyed good health all of your life, this story is about you and me. 

No matter how healthy you are, there’s always that call to greater wholeness. There’s always that question: Do you want to get well?

Like this man, each of us has a story, a history, a past that affects who we are today. We’ve been looking at our spiritual ancestors. Let’s take a quick look at our very first ancestors, Adam and Eve, and how their story affects our story. 

In Genesis Chapter 3, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, what’s the first thing they did? Their eyes were opened, they saw that they were naked, and they made clothes for themselves. When God came looking for them, they hid. When God found them and asked why they hid, Adam said, “I was afraid, because I was naked” (Genesis 3:10). 

That fear has been passed on from generation to generation. We don’t like to feel naked. We don’t like for God or anyone else for that matter to see us for who we really are. That goal of protecting ourselves from God and others manifests itself in different ways – hiding, withdrawing, fearing, ignoring, denying, fixing, pacifying. Loneliness, anxiety, frustration, resentment, and blame.

Oh, and that blame game has been around since the beginning, too, hasn’t it? In that same chapter from Genesis, when God asked Adam, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”, the man said, “The woman! The woman whom you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Genesis 3:12).

Let’s not get too into gender roles here – how the man blamed the woman – because, women, just as men sometimes blame us, we sometimes blame men, don’t we? 

We blame one another. We even blame God. “The woman, whom you, God, put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

We see that blame game in our text today. Notice in all of the excuses the man listed, they all have to do with someone else. “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and when I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

The man saw himself as the victim, when Jesus saw he could be the victor: Do you want to get well?

Each of us has a story. Our stories are made of up stories others have told us. Maybe we’ve been told, “You’re not good enough” or “you’ll never amount to anything.” We may say of someone else, “That’s just who he is. He’ll never change.” We may even say of ourselves, “That’s just who I am. I can’t change.”

Let me tell us something: I would never want someone to say of me, “That’s just who she is. She’ll never change.” I’d never want any of us to say that about someone else, and I’d never want any of us to say that of ourselves, “That’s just who I am. I’ll never change.” 

Why would I never want anyone to say that’s our story? Because the gospel tells us a different story.

The gospel tells us there is grace. The gospel tells us that our God is the God of second and third and hundredth chances. The gospel tells us God loves us just as we are, and God loves us enough not to leave us where we are. 

When I was working on my Doctor of Ministry degree, I read a lot of the writings of James. K.A. Smith. Smith talks about worship in terms of story. He says that each of us comes into worship with our individual stories from the past week – what the others have told us is our story, what we’ve believed is our story. We come to worship where we discover we are not a whole bunch of individual stories, but a common story. We come to worship and hear Scripture – God’s story – which is our collective story. In hearing God’s story, Smith says we are re-storied – that is, we are restored. We’re reminded that, no matter what story the world tells us or what story we’ve told ourselves, God’s story is our true story. As we are re-storied and restored, we hear God’s call to go and restore the world. To re-story the world. That is, to show the world that, no matter what story they have bought into, God’s story is their true story, and we’re all invited to join in that grand adventure of a story together.

To re-story the world, to be God’s change agents in the world, we have first to let God re-story us. In order to transform the world, we have first to let God transform us. That transformation begins with a question: Do you want to get well?

Our questions this week focus on our personal transformation: Where do you hear God calling you to do something and you find yourself making excuses why you can’t? What if you reframed that? What if instead of saying, “No, I can’t” you heard God say, “Yes, you can – with my help?”

What’s your comfort zone right now? What’s one thing you can do this week to take a step out of your comfort zone?

In what situations are you tempted to act like the victim – when God has already claimed for you the victory?

In what area of your life do you need to ask for and receive Jesus’ grace?

Years ago, Jesus encountered a man who, when faced with the opportunity for wholeness, saw only the obstacles. He saw only the excuses. He saw only the past, what went wrong, and who’s to blame for it. And all of those things kept him from answering Jesus’ question: Do you want to be made well?

We can take our past and let it be a stumbling block. Or we can let God turn it into a stepping stone to a better future. 

So the question remains: Do we want to get well?

Here’s the good news: Even though the man never answered that question, Jesus still healed him. Even though he never answered the question, still when Jesus said, “Stand up, take up your mat, and walk,” the man did. Maybe the question isn’t: Do you want to get well? Maybe the question is: Will you stand up, take up your mat, and walk – and in the process discover you are being made well?”

“What’s Our ‘For Such a Time as This’?” – The Third in Our Worship Series “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life”

We’re continuing in our sermon series called, “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life,” where we’re looking at the stories of how some of our biblical ancestors responded to changes in their lives. The first two weeks of the series we’ve looked at two individuals and then a group of people and an individual. Today we’re honing in on just one person: a woman named Esther. 

As our text drops us right into the middle of Esther’s story, let me catch us up on what’s happened so far. King Ahasuerus lived in the citadel of Susa where he ruled over a large number of provinces from India to Egypt. One day the king threw a banquet in the palace. He and his party guests were having a grand ol’ time. At one point he called for Queen Vashti to come and join them in order to show the people her beauty, for she was fair to behold, Scripture says (Esther 1:11).When the queen refused to come at the king’s command, the king was outraged. He called on his sages and asked them, according to the law, what was to be done to the queen for not obeying the king’s command. The sages agreed that, if the queen went unpunished and word got out, there would be a rebellion among the people, particularly the women, who might also decide to rebel against their husbands. His officials advised the king to issue a decree that the queen was to banished from the king’s palace and that her royal position was to be given to another woman. The king issued the decree.

Later, young women were brought to him from throughout the region so that the king could select another queen. Scripture says there was a Jew in the citadel of Susa whose name was Mordecai (Esther 2:5). Mordecai brought his cousin Esther to the king’s palace. Esther was an orphan whom Mordecai had adopted after her parents died. When Esther was taken into the palace, Mordecai advised her not to reveal her people or her kindred, for they were Jews living as a minority in a foreign, often pagan land. 

Every day Mordecai would walk by the palace gates to learn how Esther was doing. 

One day the king promoted Haman to be his top official and commanded that everyone at the king’s gate bow down to Haman. Mordecai refused to bow and worship him. When asked why, Mordecai said because he was a faithful Jew.

Haman was furious that Mordecai wouldn’t bow down to him. Out of revenge, Haman told the king that there were a certain people whose laws were different from those of every other people. These people refused to obey the king’s laws, and, therefore, the king should not tolerate them. Haman said, if it pleased the king, let a decree be issued to destroy the Jews. The king issued the decree.

When Mordecai heard the news, he and his people tore their clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and wept bitterly. Esther’s maids told her about Mordecai, and Esther sent garments for Mordecai to wear. But he wouldn’t accept them. So Esther asked a man named Hathach to go to Mordecai and find out what was going on. Mordecai told Hathach everything that had happened. He gave him a copy of the decree to give to Esther and beg her to ask the king to have mercy on her people.

We pick up the story when Hathach returned to report back to Esther.

Before we get to that, I want to highlight a curious, even controversial detail about the Book of Esther. God is not mentioned anywhere in the book. Some have argued that a book that doesn’t mention God shouldn’t be included in the Bible. Others have argued that, while God isn’t named explicitly, God’s presence is implied in Esther’s story. I believe our text today is one of those places where God’s Spirit and calling are present – in the words of Mordecai. John Calvin, one of the great Reformers of our faith, said we often hear God’s calling in community – through the voice of others. Listen for God’s Word. 

Read Esther 4:9-17. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

We’re focusing on one phrase of our text today – “for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). It may be one of the most quoted phrases in Scripture. It’s used a lot when talking about God’s providence – how God seems to put us in the right place at the right time. God puts us in a position “for such a time as this.”

It’s an often used phrase because it helps us consider intentionally and prayerfully the positions in which we find ourselves. Not to play devil’s advocate – but to play devil’s advocate – as colleagues and I have sometimes debated, do we use the phrase too much? Don’t get me wrong – I fully believe in God’s providence. I believe that many things are not coincidences, but Godcidences. I also believe there can be just pure coincidences and that to see everything as a “for just such a time as this” moment may sometimes mean we are reading too much into the situation. 

When I was in college, the parking lot closest to campus only had about 20 parking spaces. For a campus of 1600 students, that meant it was rare to catch an open spot in that lot. Whenever a friend found a parking spot there, she would say it was a sign God loved her, that that spot was open for just such a time as her car. We’d humor her and say, “Well, maybe so. Or maybe you’re just a little luckier than the rest of us.

There are a lot of Godcidences. There are also some coincidences. 

In Esther’s case, it was definitely no coincidence. It seemed like God’s calling, for through her God did save the Jewish people. As Mordecai said, had she kept silent at such a time as this, disaster would have befallen her and all the people. But because God appointed her to her royal position for such a time as this, the people were saved.

Does that mean the takeaway from this passage is that every moment is a “for such a time” as this moment? That every situation is a time not to keep silent, but to speak out? Not necessarily. For then what do we do with passages like Ecclesiastes that say there’s a time to speak and a time to keep silence (Ecclesiastes 3:7)? Or passages like Acts Chapter 1 when the disciples were eager to take action and help Jesus restore his Kingdom, and Jesus said, “Wait. It’s not the time” (Acts 1:7)?

The takeaway from this passage isn’t always to speak out and never to keep silent. There’s a time to speak and a time to keep silent. A time to act and a time wait. 

The takeaway from this passage is: How do we know when we’re in a “for such a time as this” moment? And what do we do when we find ourselves in a “for such a time as this” moment?

While I believe that not every moment is a “for just such a time as this” moment, if ever I believed we were in a “for just such a time as this” moment, it’s the moment we’re in right now. It’s this moment we’ve been experiencing during COVID – and it’s this moment we’re about to experience right now as we begin to move into post-pandemic life.

Our officers and staff have been reading The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation by Thom Rainer. In his introduction, Rainer writes, “The pandemic was a wake-up call like none other. The post-quarantine era is an opportunity to make the necessary positive changes to move us forward.” He later talks about how, for some of us, we’d fallen into a rut or gotten off course, and the pandemic has provided an opportunity to make some course corrections.

Rainer’s talking specifically about congregations, but his insights can also apply to us personally. If you’re like me, you’ve learned a lot about yourself this past year. What you value. What’s most important. Your strengths and your growing edges.

When because of the shutdown the list of things we couldn’t do became a lot longer than the list of things we could do, we learned to simplify our lives and appreciate the little things. Before March of last year, my husband and I had a weekly routine of going out to a fun new restaurant every Friday night. I’ve missed restaurants, but not as much as I thought I would. Who would have thought that throwing together leftovers, eating on our back deck, and playing Scrabble could be just as fun? (Especially when I was winning, but that’s another story.)

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. That’s been another positive change that’s come from the pandemic. In not just the absence of activities, but more importantly, the absence of people, we’ve rediscovered our need for human connection. Whereas before we may have taken for granted that we’d see one another, now we’ve had to be intentional in connecting with one another. I’ve heard countless stories of how people have called or texted friends more this past year than any prior year. Not just our pre-COVID friends, but the friends we’ve made during COVID. We said two weeks ago that many of us met our neighbors for the first time during quarantine. In the words of Thom Rainer, “Something wonderfully ironic transpired during the pandemic: Churches became more people-oriented as their freedom to gather people together was taken away.”

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about our becoming more people-oriented has been, not just our getting to know our neighbors, but our getting to know the needs of our neighbors. When schools moved to virtual and we realized that move left vulnerable children who depended on free breakfast and lunch at school, we saw dozens of grassroots efforts to provide food for our students. And, while, yes, the news told stories of “toilet-paper hoarders,” we also heard stories of those offering to share whatever they had to any in need.

Just like we met neighbors we’ve never met before, we saw needs of our neighbors we’d never seen before. I shared back in November a conversation I had with Tony Sundermeier, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. First Atlanta is a very mission-oriented congregation with a food pantry and other services traditionally offered by churches. During the pandemic, they started a new mission – that of providing port-a-potties for those experiencing homelessness. Not just any port-a-potties, but the nice, fancy port-a-potty trailers – those that came with individual stalls and, most importantly, sinks 

When I asked Tony about this new mission, Tony said, “Until this pandemic, we never knew our greatest ministry might be to provide a place where people could wash their hands.” 

We often assume we know what the needs of our neighbors are. The past year has allowed us to discover what those needs actually are.

More specifically, this past year we saw in new and humbling ways the need for racial justice. The day after the verdict was announced in the George Floyd murder trial, I read a devotional written by a friend of mine Allen Hilton. Allen wrote about how the pandemic has contributed to the long-overdue racial reckoning in our nation. Whereas before many of us have been preoccupied with our own lives, being at home during quarantine allowed us, not just to stop and get to know the needs of our immediate neighbors, but to be more tuned into the news on TV and online, where we saw videos of racial violence and the need for justice across our nation. In Allen’s words, “If a global pandemic, with its confinements and separations, had not produced the odd alchemy of cabin-bound restlessness and diversion-deprived focus, the nation and world might not have stopped long enough to grieve and protest such a death.” 

Those are just a few of the many wake-up calls of the pandemic. Those are just a few of the profound gifts we’ve been given this year. That’s why I believe we are in a “for just such as a time as this” moment. 

The question is: Now what do we do in response to this moment? 

In response to the wake-up call we’ve been given, what are the necessary positive changes we need to make? In response to what we’ve learned about ourselves, what we’ve learned about our neighbors and our neighbors’ needs, now that we’ve discovered in new ways Jesus’ call to love our neighbor, how do we respond? Specifically, when it comes to our congregation, now that we’ve been given the unique gift of being the church outside our building, as we move back into our buildings, God has given us another great gift – the gift of being able to ask: What kind of church do we want to be now?

That leads us to this week’s reflection questions – and even an activity – for us this week.

First, how do we continue to get to know the needs of our neighbors? Again, we often assume we know our neighbors’ needs and how best to meet those needs. We tend to live by the “Field of Dreams” motto: “If you build it, they will come.” If we build a program, people will come. If we just open the doors, people will come.

Someone once said: If the 1950’s ever came back, the church would be ready. Because back then, when people moved to a new town or city, one of the first things they did was find a church. That’s not true anymore, nor is it true that just starting more and more programs will make people come to church. People won’t come to church unless it meets a felt need.

More importantly, Jesus never said, “Tell people to come to church.” He said, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

One of the most important questions Rainer asks is, “What if instead of assuming we knew the needs of our community, we asked our community how our church could best serve them?”

Just like Esther listened to Mordecai share about the needs of her community, so we need to listen to the needs of our community. 

So here’s our first activity. You actually get to choose one of two activities. For you overachievers who want extra credit, you can do both. Option #1: Spend 30 minutes this week listening to your community. Sit in a park or walk around a store with no agenda other than to listen. Don’t bring a book to read. Don’t think, “Well, I need to go grocery shopping, so I’ll just walk around Publix for a half hour and do my shopping at the same time.” 

It’s hard to listen well when you’re multi-tasking. I don’t know about you, but when I’m distracted by something else when someone is trying to talk to me, I may think I’ve heard them, but often I find I didn’t really hear them.

Spend half an hour this week somewhere in our community just listening. I’ve done this a few times in ministry, and I guarantee you it will be eye-opening what you hear and the needs you hear.

Second question and activity: As part of our study of this book, our Session has been brainstorming: Who are key leaders we know in our community that we can contact and ask: What needs do you see in our community, and how might Clairmont help meet those needs? I encourage you to do the same. Think of three people you know that you’d feel comfortable contacting and asking what they see as the needs of our community. Then…go and ask them.

After we’ve’ve taken time to listen, pray about those needs. Esther listened to Mordecai share the needs of their people. Before she acted, she called on the people to fast and pray for three days. Why is prayer an important step? Because we can’t be all things to all people. We can’t meet all of these needs. Not every need is a “for such a time as this” moment for us. Prayer helps focus our calling. It helps us discern: What are the needs of our community, and which of those needs has God uniquely equipped us to meet? 

Finally, once we’ve listened, once we’ve prayed,…it’s time to act. What’s the point of listening and praying if we’re not going to act on what we’ve heard from our neighbors and from God? In fact, there’s an accountability that comes with listening. When we take the time to listen to people, they trust we will hear them and respond accordingly, right? The same is true of our community: If we take the time to ask people what are the needs of our community and how can Clairmont help meet those needs, our community will likely be grateful we asked. They will also likely expect us to respond. 

One of the ways Rainer encourages us to consider how we might meet the needs of our neighbors is through the use of our buildings. We’ve proven this year the church is not a building. As we return to our amazing campus, what’s the highest and best use of our buildings? How can we best use our buildings to meet the needs of our community? 

That’s not a new question for us at Clairmont. I asked Nancy Miranda to share with me the story of our Azalea Village Ministry. She told me the beautiful story about how back in 2006 the Session began praying about what God would have us do with those houses instead of sell them. About that time Hurricane Katrina hit, and many families were displaced to cities throughout the South, including Atlanta. Clairmont approached area churches about sponsoring families and housing them in Azalea Village. Later that ministry expanded by partnering with mission agencies, housing refugees, immigrants, missionary families, seminary students, and more. What a beautiful, beautiful story about how Clairmont once asked: What are the needs of our community, and how is God calling us to meet those needs?

That’s not a question we’re called to ask just once, but a question we are called to ask continually. As we listen to our community and as we consider our buildings, what do we think God would have us do with our buildings today? What’s the most creative, craziest, God-sized way we could invite our neighbors to use our property? What are the needs of our community today, and how is God calling us to meet those needs…for just such a time as this?

In closing, let me ask another question that might help us begin to look at Clairmont through our neighbors’ eyes: If Clairmont Presbyterian Church suddenly ceased to exist, would anyone miss us? If tomorrow our community woke up and we were no longer at the corner of Clairmont and North Druid Hills, would the community notice we were gone? Sure, they’d notice our big, beautiful steeple and sanctuary were missing, and there was now an empty lot. But would they notice anything else was missing? 

If Clairmont were to disappear tomorrow, is there a need in our community that would no longer be met?

Thanks be to God, Clairmont isn’t going to disappear tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next week or month or year. As we said our very first week, let me say again today: We see a future Clairmont. Jesus sees a future Clairmont. Still, the question of that first week remains our question today: What is Jesus’ Kingdom-oriented future for our congregation?

Graciously Heavenly Father, open our ears to listen to our neighbors this week. Open our hearts to listen to you this week. Jesus, help us to hear your unique calling for us today. Then, Holy Spirit, give us courage to act. Through the strong name of Jesus we pray, Amen. 

“Obstacles or Opportunities” – The Second in Our Worship Series “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life”

We are continuing in our worship series called “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life.” Last week we looked at the journey of Abram when God called him to travel to an unknown place. This week’s travelers are going to a known place: the promised land. God delivered God’s people out of slavery in Egypt to go to the land God promised to give them. There they would worship God and be God’s holy nation. Unlike Abram, they knew the geographic coordinates for the land. Like Abram, they didn’t know what the land was like – what the terrain and agriculture were like and, more importantly, who were the land’s current tenants. When they got to their destination, the Lord told Moses to send some spies to check out the land – is it good or bad, are the people few or many, strong or weak – and then report back. Listen to their report, beginning in Numbers Chapter 13, verse 25. Listen for God’s Word. Read Numbers 13:25-14:4.

In the New Testament, we read about a journey on water – first by boat, then by foot. Jesus had just miraculously fed 5,000 people. Then immediately he told the disciples to get in the boat and go to the other side of the water while he dismissed the crowd. The disciples probably expected Jesus to charter another boat and meet up with them later on the far shore. But Jesus had other means of transportation. Listen again for God’s Word. Read Matthew 14:22-33. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Whenever I travel, I always look forward to visiting other congregations and hearing other preachers preach. One of my favorite preachers I’ve had the opportunity to hear several times is a man named Father Tom, a Catholic priest in Kenya. I’ve had the privilege of going on several missions to Kenya, and each time I look forward to being with Father Tom and his congregation. 

The congregation’s sanctuary is a little unique. They meet in the corridor of a Catholic hospital located about an hour’s drive from Nairobi. One of my favorite parts of worship in general and especially in that setting is the pastoral prayer. It feels like holy ground. There’s something powerful about praying for healing for the sick or comfort for those who mourn when at any moment someone might be wheeled on a gurney right through the center aisle of the worship space on the way to surgery or sometimes the morgue. 

That’s the context in which Father Tom preaches every week. I always glean some wonderful insight from his sermons that tends to stick with me for a while. My favorite of all time is this: “In life, it’s not about what you do. It’s about what you see, out of which you do.”

In our texts today, we have various people who saw things, and what they saw prompted what they did. The Israelite spies went to see the promised land, and the land was everything God promised it would be – it was a land flowing with milk and honey. But rather than talking about all the great things of the land, their report focused on the people they saw. They were strong, agile, mobile, and surely hostile. 

Only one of the spies Caleb was convinced that they could overcome them and take the land. God promised them the land, and God would keep God’s promise, no matter how strong their opponents were. 

The others weren’t so convinced. After Caleb dared to interrupt them with his little Pollyanna pep talk, they continued their report, this time focusing, not on what they saw in the land’s inhabitants, but what they saw in themselves. “To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers.” 

And here’s my favorite part: Without likely having had any conversation with the people in this foreign land and certainly without having asked them, “Hey, what do you think – do you think you could take us in a fight?” they assumed they knew what the people thought of them: “To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Numbers 13:33).

To assess an organization, leaders often perform what’s called a SWOT analysis – an in-depth study of the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. When considering the threats to an organization, good leaders look at both external and internal threats – often finding that the internal threats are the bigger obstacle. 

Such was the case for the spies and, in turn, the entire congregation of Israel. 

We each have two faith tanks: Faith in God and faith in ourselves. When one or both faith tanks is low, we see everything through a lens of fear. 

Such was the case for the spies and, in turn, the entire congregation of Israel. 

They may have had faith in God, at least in theory. But they didn’t have faith in themselves. When one or both faith tanks is low, we see everything through a lens of fear. That’s how they saw the future and how they saw themselves – through a lens of fear: “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we. To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

While they saw the future and themselves through a lens of fear, they saw the past through rose-colored glasses. What was once their biggest fear now didn’t seem so scary in comparison to what they were about to face. “Remember Egypt?” they said. “Slavery wasn’t all that bad. Let’s go back there!”

They could easily have gone back to where they had been. It wasn’t that far. People often ask, “Why did it take the Israelites forty years to get to the promised land?” It didn’t. The most direct route was about an eleven-day journey. They took a more scenic route and traveled for sixty days, not counting the very important, roughly two years they spent at Sinai where they received God’s law and learned how they were called to live as a people of faith in God. 

After those roughly two years and sixty days, they arrived at the promised land – hence, their ability to send out spies because they were in close proximity. Because of the spies’ lack of faith and the resulting lack of faith of the people – based on what they’d been told by human naysayers, not based on what they’d been told by God – they were to wander in that wilderness for forty years until the present generation was gone. The present generation never saw the promised land; only the future generations did. 

It may sound like punishment. But as a parent disciplines a child for a purpose, so God disciplines God’s children for a purpose. They’d already spent two years learning what it meant to be a people of faith in God. Now they needed to spend time learning, not just about faith in God, but about faith in themselves. They needed to learn to see, not how they or others saw them, but how God saw them.

Peter at times seemed to think a lot of himself. Of all the disciples, I think Peter is my favorite. Yes, we read a lot more about him in Scripture and, thus, know more about him. But he’s also very relatable. Like me, Peter, suffered from foot-in-mouth disease. You know, “Open mouth, insert foot”? Peter had a tendency to speak before he thought. In passages of Scripture we read during Lent, Jesus predicted Peter’s denial of him, and Peter said, “I’ll never deny you” (Mark 14:31). Never say never, right? 

Here I can imagine Peter’s words coming from one of two – or perhaps both – mentalities. He was with his buddies. He liked to sound confident and self-assured in front of them. So when Jesus told Peter, “It is I,” Peter thought, maybe even whispered to his buddies, “Watch this!” and then said to Jesus, “OK, Jesus, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 

Or perhaps he was lacking confidence, but he didn’t want anyone to know he was lacking confidence. (Again, someone we can all relate to sometimes, right?) So he asked what sounded like a brazen statement, but also was a cry for a sign: “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Whatever the motive, Jesus called his bluff. “Come.” And Peter started to walk on the water. 

He was doing just fine for a while …when suddenly he began to sink. Notice when he started to sink. It’s found in verse 30, and to me it’s one of the most significant phrases in all of Scripture, in all of faith. “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened.” 

The previous verse talks about his walking on water and coming toward Jesus. He was doing fine when his eyes were on Jesus. But when the wind picked up, he had to make a choice about what he saw. Everything hinged on whether he focused his eyes on the Savior – or whether he focused hie eyes on the storm. 

When he took his eyes off the Savior and turned his eyes to the storm, fear crept in, and sinking began.

Do you remember the first time you jumped off the high diving board at the pool? I don’t remember my exact age, but I remember the feeling. Do you? All your friends were doing it. You wanted to look cool and confident – even if you were anything but – so you climbed up that ladder, walked the length of the board, and then looked down. Somehow, when looking up from down below, the board didn’t seem that high. But when looking down…whew!….that’s a big jump! The longer I stood on the end of the board, the more my knees started shaking, which made the board start shaking, which, in turn, made both my knees and the board start shaking all the more. That first time I probably didn’t so much jump off as I did fall off. Either way, the result was the same – I got through that first jump, which made every jump after that a little easier. 

Pastor and author John Ortberg says jumping into a pool is a parable of courage. In his book titled If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (the title is a sermon in and of itself), Ortberg tells the story of a two-year-old girl standing by the side of the pool. “Jump!” her father says with open arms. ”You can trust me. I won’t let you fall. Jump!”

She is, in that moment, a bundle of inner conflict. On the one hand, everything inside her is screaming to stay put. The water is deep, cold, and dangerous. She’s never done this before. What if something were to go wrong? Bad things could happen. After all, it’s her life at stake here. On the other hand, that’s her daddy in the water. He’s bigger and stronger than she is and has been relatively trustworthy up to this point for the past two years. He seems to be quite confident about the outcome: “Jump! You can trust me!”

The battle is between fear and trust. Trust says, “Jump!” Fear says, “No!”

She cannot stand on the side of the pool forever. Eventually she comes to the moment of decision. She is more than just her fears – or her confidence, for that matter. Inside is a tiny spark of will, and with that little spark she determines her destiny: She will jump, or she will back away. Whichever this little girl chooses will lead to significant consequences. If she chooses to jump, she will become a little more confident of her father’s ability to catch her. She’ll be more likely to take the leap the next time. The water will hold less terror for her. Ultimately, she will come to see herself as the kind of person who will not be held back by fear. 

If she decides not to jump, that will also have consequences. She will lose the opportunity to discover that her father can be trusted. She will be a little more inclined toward safety next time. She might learn to see herself as the kind of person who does not respond bravely to challenges. She will work hard to make sure she avoids being faced with decisions involving fear in the future. 

Ortberg concludes the parable by saying, “I want my children to have an appropriate fear of the water. There is a place for fear. But I want trust to be stronger. I never want the ‘no’ of fear to trump the ‘yes’ of faith.”

My childhood fear of water may have been overcome on a diving board. My adulthood experience of water has come from learning how to do stand-up paddle boarding. If you ever want to grow in both humility and confidence (it’s funny how those two often go together), I encourage you to try stand-up paddle boarding. Two life lessons I’ve learned from it: The faster you decide to take a stand, the better off you are. And if you keep worrying too much that you might fall, chances are you will.

“In life, it’s not about what you do. It’s about what you see, out of which you do.” 

Which do you and I see? Do we see the storm – or do we see the Savior? 

Don’t let the “no” of fear trump the “yes” of faith. 

But when we do…know that the Savior is still there. Jesus has more faith in us than we do in ourselves. When Peter saw the storm, not the Savior, and began to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” When we find ourselves neck deep in water, sometimes that’s all we can think to cry out – “Lord, save me!” – and all the time, that’s all we have to cry out. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 

Sometimes in our fears, our fallings, and our doubts, we, too, discover new faith. 

Fear says no. Faith says yes. To what will our faith say yes today? 

That overarching question “To what will our faith say yes today?” leads to this week’s application questions. Question #1: In what situations right now do you see yourself as a grasshopper? Think of some big, new, maybe even scary situation or change or decision that you are facing or that your family is facing or that our congregation is facing. Some situation that makes you think, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that. That’s too risky. I don’t have what it takes. What if people laugh? I don’t want to embarrass myself. What if I fail?” Think of some situation in your life that makes you, like the Israelites, feel like a grasshopper compared to how ginormous that situation or change or decision is. 

Now listen to how God sees you. A child of God. His chosen one. God’s servant with whom God is well pleased. The light of the world. By God’s mercy God has commissioned us to carry out God’s mission. You and I are plan A. There is no plan B. 

If that causes your knees to shake, then consider Paul’s words when he faced persecution and even death in his quest to carry out God’s mission. Paul wrote to the Romans, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” He wrote to the Philippians, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Now think again of that big, scary situation, change, or decision you are facing. When you are tempted to see yourself as a grasshopper, repeat Paul’s words to yourself: “If God is for us, who can against us? I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

A related, but similar, question: Question #2: What’s your diving board right now? What’s that crossroads in your life that seems like a defining moment – a moment where you have to choose between faith and fear? Like that little girl standing on the edge of the pool, to choose to jump means to grow a little more confident in her father’s ability to catch her. To choose not to jump means to lose an opportunity to discover that her father can be trusted. 

If there’s anyone who can be trusted, it’s our Heavenly Father. And the only way to grow in our trust and faith is to take that jump. 

Now put yourself in Peter’s shoes. When you’re tempted to focus more on the storm than on the Savior – there’s no if we’re tempted to focus more on the storm than on the Savior, because we all do it – when you’re tempted to focus more on the storm than on the Savior, what do you need to do to turn your eyes back to Jesus? What’s one thing you can do this week to focus your vision more on Jesus?

What’s one step you can take this week to say “no” to fear and “yes” to faith?

God, just like our Israelite ancestors, we often see ourselves like grasshoppers when it comes to the challenges that we face. Help us to see ourselves the way You see us. Help us to see You for who You truly are: The Mighty God, the Lord of the universe, the One for whom nothing is impossible. May we trust You with new possibilities today. In the strong name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

“Destination Unknown” – The First in Our Worship Series “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life”

We’re starting a new worship series this morning that I think is quite timely and that I hope will be helpful to all of us. The series is called “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life.” Each week we’ll take a look at one or more of our spiritual ancestors – that is, people in the Bible – who experienced a change. Some of those changes were wanted. Some were not so wanted. As we look at the changes in their lives, we’ll explore what the application is for us and how we respond to changes in our own lives.

Why do I think a series on change is so timely and important right now? Well, I’m sure it comes as no surprise to any of us when I say: We’re going through a lot of changes right now. The entire world is going through a change as we begin to move into post-pandemic life. In addition to that significant change, we at Clairmont are going through some changes. We’re going through a change in pastoral leadership as we discern: Whom is God calling to serve as our next installed pastor? Asking whom God is calling to serve as our next pastor naturally raises the question: What does the future look like for Clairmont?

Notice – and this is really important – if you hear nothing else in worship today, hear this: Notice the question we are notasking. We’re not asking: Is there a future for Clairmont? Our Session and I are unanimous in wanting to communicate to our congregation: We see a future Clairmont. The question is not: Is there a future for our congregation? The question is: What is Jesus’ Kingdom-oriented future for Clairmont? My prayer is that, through this worship series, we’ll begin to answer that question.

Something else I want us to hear clearly at the start of our series. We know that over the course of the past year we’ve had some new people join us for worship online both here in Georgia and across the country, and we’re so grateful that you have chosen to worship with us. If you’re not a member of Clairmont or a member of our local community, you might be wondering: Is this a series just about Clairmont? No, it’s not. Why? Because change is not just something Clairmont is experiencing. Change is something everyone experiences. While at times in this series we might address issues specifically related to Clairmont, this series is for anyone and everyone who wants to discover how best to respond to the changes we face both individually and collectively. Because ultimately how we respond to change isn’t about Clairmont. It’s about Jesus’ Kingdom. It’s about how all of us as disciples – whether here in Decatur or in another state or another nation – it’s about how all of us together are called to bring about Jesus’ Kingdom on earth just as it is in heaven.

So let’s jump right into our seriesWe’ll be looking at two passages in Scripture this morning. In both texts, our spiritual ancestors are called to follow God to an unknown destination. Listen for God’s Word first from Genesis Chapter 12. Read Genesis 12:1-4.

Now turning to the New Testament, listen again for God’s Word from Matthew Chapter 4. Read Matthew 4:18-22. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

When I read passages like this in the Bible, I think, “Is this the Cliff Notes version? If so, can I see the unedited version? Because surely there was more to the conversation than this.” God told Abram to go to a land that God would show him, and without saying a word Abram just got up and went? Surely Abram said something in response, like, “Being blessed sounds pretty good. And blessing all the families of the earth? That sounds pretty good, too. But before I pack my bags, can you tell me a little about this new land – like, for starters, where is it?” 

Whenever you or I have moved, we probably knew the exact address to which we were moving. Even if we hadn’t picked out our new home yet, we at least knew the city and state to which we were moving – or, at the very least, we knew the country to which we were moving. Abram didn’t even know that much. Surely, he asked a few questions.      

Likewise, when Jesus called the disciples to follow him, surely they said something in response, like, “OK, first of all, who are you? Before I just quit my job and follow you, shouldn’t I know a little more about you? And shouldn’t I make sure I’ve got another job lined up so I can provide for myself and my family or have something to fall back on just in case this new gig doesn’t work out?” 

But no. Without saying a word Abram left his country and his family, the disciples left their nets, their boats, and their father, and they all followed God. No questions. No hesitation. They just went. 

My wondering about their side of the conversation probably betrays my own tendency to question God or hesitate to follow God’s call at times. I’ve been in Abram’s and the disciples’ shoes before, and, let me assure you…there was a lotmore to the conversation. After I graduated from Davidson College, I served on the Young Life staff in Shelby, North Carolina, for two years and then as a Director of Youth Ministries in Charlotte for three years – and I loved it. Yet as I grew in my relationship with Christ and my sense of call, I found myself thinking, “You know, I’ve played it pretty safe so far. I’ve spent the past nine years of college and ministry all within about a sixty-mile geographic range. If this really is God’s call on my life, then I need to be willing to go wherever God sends me.” 

So I put my résumé on a youth ministries job site that night, as a sign to God that I was willing to go wherever He sent me. But I knew I really wasn’t. I was basically bargaining with God. I prayed, “God, I’m putting my résumé on this website to say I’m willing to go anywhere, but I don’t really want to go anywhere. So as long as we have a mutual understanding about that, we’re all good.”

As some may have experienced, when we begin to offer ourselves up to God’s call, God tends to take us up on the offer. The next day a search committee from First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk, Virginia, called me, and soon thereafter Jesus would call me to be their youth director. Now moving from Charlotte to Norfolk wasn’t exactly the same as moving to another country, though it felt like it at first. If you know anything about Virginia, you know that Norfolk is right on that invisible geographic line that divides our nation between the land of sweet tea and the land of unsweet tea. I practically had to learn another language just to order at a restaurant. No longer could I order sweet tea. I had to ask for something called “presweetened iced tea.”

Change is hard for many of us. Change is a four-letter word to some of us. There’s no shortage of jokes about how many people it takes from a certain segment of the population to change a light bulb. The version of the joke for Presbyterians – the so-called “frozen chosen” – goes like this: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Change? What do you mean change?!

Some of us may like change. But how many of us can say we always like change? Probably not many. In fact, it’s been said that the only person who always likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.

And yet change is a constant in life. More specifically, it’s a constant in the life of faith. In Hebrews Chapter 11, verse 1, faith is defined as follows: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Later in that same chapter, a chapter sometimes referred to as the Hall of Faith where the author lists examples of faith, the author cites Abraham as a prime example: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance, and he set out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). Being obedient even when you don’t know where you’re going? That’s faith.

Change is a constant in life. It’s a constant in faith. So how do we learn to accept change, even if we don’t like it?

I chose these texts to start our series because I believe the changes we’re experiencing are a lot like moving to an unknown land. Unless you are 103 years old, none of us has ever lived in a post-pandemic country. Like other congregations, we’ve learned to live in a virtual land the past year. As we emerge from the pandemic and return to in-person ministry, we’re going to have to learn to live in a different land once again – a hybrid land of both in-person ministry and virtual ministry, where we are together in person while also seeking to remain connected with those we’ve reached through Zoom and social media the past year.

This past year we’ve proven that the church is not a building. As we return to the use of our buildings, how might God be calling us to use our buildings in new ways?

This past year we’ve gotten to know our neighbors in new ways. When we’ve been sheltered in place and when one of the few activities that was safe to do outside our homes was to walk around our neighborhoods, we’ve interacted with our neighbors more than ever before. Many of us met neighbors we’ve never met before. We’ve found new and creative ways to love our neighbor. As we move into a post-quarantine life, how will we continue to let that creative energy flow? How will continue to be an active presence in our neighborhoods? 

As you’ve probably learned by now, when it comes to sermons, I tend to ask more questions than I provide answers. If ever that were true, it’s this worship series. Because if we’ve never lived in this new land before, that means there are more questions than answers. And if we’ve never lived in this new land before, that means I don’t know the answers. You don’t know the answers. None of us knows the answers.

But I’m convinced we can discover the answers together. 

Here’s why I’m convinced. First, the title of this series “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life”? Thanks be to God, that’s not the full story. There’s another constant, and His name is Jesus. Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). No matter what changes we face, Jesus remains the constant in our lives.

The second reason I’m convinced we can discover the answers together is because of another truth of Scripture. Colossians 1:17 tells us Jesus is the head of the body, the church. That means I’m not the head of our church. Our Session isn’t the head of our church. Jesus – and Jesus alone – is head of the church. As head of the church, Jesus has the church’s best interests in mind. He’s got a bright future in store for us. Jeremiah 29:11, says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” The reason our Session and I see a future Clairmont is because Jesus sees a future Clairmont. It’s part of His plan.

But that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. When quoting that passage in Jeremiah, we tend to stop at verse 11. But God doesn’t stop speaking in verse 11. God continues in verses 12-13, “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart” (italics mine).

Just like Abraham, we don’t know where we’re going. But Jesus does. Jesus has a future for us. He has plans for us. Now we have to do our part: We have to seek him with all of our heart. We have to obey, even and especially when we don’t know where we’re going or don’t know what we’re doing. That’s called faith.

We’re moving into new uncharted territory with more questions than answers. As we move forward, if we make this our constant prayer – “Jesus, you and you alone are head of the church. Help us to obey and follow you” – I am convinced God will show us the way.

Each week of this series we’ll ask some questions for us to reflect on that week. I encourage you to spend some time each week of this series in prayer, beginning with the prayer we just said – “Jesus, you and you alone are head of the church. Help us to obey and follow you” – and then prayerfully considering that week’s reflection questions and how to apply them both individually and together as disciples. This series continues through Pentecost Sunday, a day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and birth of the church. Pentecost is a day when we consider the question: What are God’s visions and dreams for us a congregation? My prayer is that, as we journey through these texts on change and prayerfully consider the questions they raise for us, the Spirit will reveal God’s dreams and visions to us.

So here are our questions for this week. Let’s start with some questions Abram’s story raises for us, starting with where we left off in Abram’s story. He’d just headed out for this unknown land. As he made the long journey, he probably had all kinds of emotions – we will, too. The excitement and anticipation of this new place and new adventure. The fear of the unknown. He probably also had some dreams: What might this next chapter look like?

Question #1 for us: As you imagine Clairmont’s next chapter, what do you dream it could look like? If we had a blank slate, if money or other resources were no object, if nothing is impossible with God – or rather, since nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37) – what do you dream Clairmont’s next chapter could look like?

The second question might help us answer the first. God didn’t tell Abram much about what the future held. But God did tell Abram the purpose of that future: “I will bless you….so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). God didn’t bless Abram just for Abram’s own sake, but for the sake of all the families of the earth.

Abram was blessed to be a blessing. You and I are blessed to be a blessing. Our Clairmont family is blessed to be a blessing. 

Question #2: What are the blessings God has given Clairmont, and how might we use those blessings to be a blessing to our community?

Now let’s look at the calling of the first disciples. To me the most significant line in the text we read in Matthew is this: “Immediately, they left their nets and followed him” (Mathew 4:20). What’s a net to a fisherman? A net was their job. Their livelihood. Their paycheck. If they couldn’t catch fish, they couldn’t eat. Neither could their dependents. As evidenced by the fact that their father Zebedee was also a fisherman, it was a family trade. A net represented the only life they’d ever known. The only thing they knew how to do. The only way they knew how to do things.

Here’s where they say we go from preachin’ to meddlin.’ Each of us has a net. Maybe more than one. Ever caught yourself saying, “We’ve always done it this way” or “We’ve never done it that way”? If a net to those first disciples was the only way they knew how to do things, so, too, our net today is the way we’ve always done things. 

Listen to that verse from Matthew again: “Immediately, they left their nets and followed him.”

Question #3: What nets do we need to drop? What nets do you personally need to drop in order to follow Jesus? What nets do we as a Clairmont family need to drop in order to follow of Jesus? What are those “the ways we’ve always done things” that we need to drop in order that Jesus might show us a new way to be a blessing to our community?

To recap our questions for this week:

  • As you imagine the future/the next chapter, what do you imagine it could look like? 
  • What blessings has God given you/us, and how might you/we use those blessings to be a blessing to our community? 
  • What nets do you/we need to drop in order to follow Jesus and be that blessing to our community?

We don’t know what the future holds, but we know we have a future. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know the One who does. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He alone is the head of the church. May we call on him, pray to him, search for him, and seek him. May we have the courage to obey and follow, trusting that He will show us the way forward. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Prayer: Jesus, we do not know where we are going. But we trust that you do. Help us to keep in step with your Spirit – not to fall behind or rush ahead, but to keep in perfect step with you. Spirit of the Living God, melt us, mold us, fill us, use us. In the strong name of Jesus we pray, Amen. 

Easter: The Morning After

The Easter dresses and ties have been put in the hamper. The Easter ham has been turned into leftover sandwiches. The last Easter egg has been found – or, if it hasn’t, the nose will find it on the next hot day. The Peep-induced sugar crash has (almost) subsided. Easter is over.

It’s the morning after. 

We can now indulge in chocolate or social media or whatever else we gave up for Lent and go back to our normal routine (or whatever our “normal” routine looks like right now…)

Even we church leaders may find ourselves relieved to go back to life as normal, now that the work of Easter is over. 

But, thanks be to God, it is not.

Every year around Easter many documentaries and news articles, secular and otherwise, address the question: Do we believe Jesus rose from the dead? It’s an important question. But Duke Divinity School professor and author Stanley Hauerwas challenges us to consider another question that is equally important, if not more so: “The problem, after all, is not belief in the resurrection, but whether we live lives that would make no sense if, in fact, Jesus has not been raised from the dead.”

On the secular calendar, Easter is just a day. On the church calendar, it is a season. But for the follower of Jesus, Easter is a lifestyle. In other words, Easter is our normal routine.

Because Jesus calls us, not just to believe the resurrection, but to live it.

He even gives us a specific place where we are to live the resurrection. When the women arrived at the tomb and heard that Jesus had been raised, they were told: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (Mark 16:7).

Why Galilee?

Galilee was the hometown of the women and the disciples. It was the place of their daily routine – their chores, their work, their studies, their mealtimes, their family relationships, their waking and their sleeping. But in addition to being their home base, “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:15) was also the launch pad for Jesus’ mission to make disciples of all nations. That’s where we are sent to live the resurrection – in the Galilee’s of our homes and the Galilee’s of our community and world. In the places in our lives and in the world’s lives, in every place where hope seems dead, we are called to declare the tomb is empty – there is hope to be found – by daring to live in ways that make no earthly sense, save that the Savior lives. 

Howard Thurman’s powerful poem “The Work of Christmas” reminds us that Christmas does not end on the day after Epiphany. His message is equally timely on this day after Easter:

When the last note of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” has been sung, 

When the last chocolate bunny has been eaten,

When the lilies begin to wilt,

…the work of Easter begins.

It’s time to go meet Jesus in Galilee. 

See you there!

Easter Sunday: “The Way of the Cross: The Way Forward” – The Conclusion of Our Series “The Way of the Cross”

The past few weeks, during the season we call Lent, we’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Mark and through Jesus’ last week. Today we turn to the last chapter of Mark and to the first day of a new week, a day that changed every day and every week ever since. Listen for God’s Word from Mark Chapter 16.

Read Mark 16:1-8. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Back in 1998 I had the privilege of participating in a two-week study tour of Israel. I was so excited to see the sites of biblical times that I think I actually expected to see them in biblical times. Somehow in my mind I imagined that, when I got on that plane and traveled forward several time zones, I would also travel back in time – back to the first century and see Israel the way those first disciples saw it, with dusty roads and with people walking around in long, flowing tunics and sandals – the whole nine yards. 

But, of course, it wasn’t that way. Jerusalem advanced those two thousand years just like any other city, with paved interstates replacing dirt roads and with people walking around, not with tunics and sandals, but with cameras and tourist maps. Everywhere we went there were crowds of tourists waiting to see the same sites we were there to see. 

The longest line was outside the empty tomb. We waited in line for well over an hour just to take a quick peek inside. If you like people-watching as much as I do, this was primetime people-watching. It was absolutely fascinating watching people’s reactions to the tomb. Some bowed their heads in prayer. Others shook their heads in disbelief. A few quietly sang a hymn with tears in their eyes. One man walked out of the tomb, turned to his wife, and said, “(Harumph) Well, that was a waste of time. There was nothing to see in there!” When he saw the sign marked “empty tomb,” I wonder what part of the word “empty” he didn’t understand…

What’s your response to the empty tomb this morning?

Today our response as a congregation is one of celebration. We’ve gathered together – in person and virtually – to say, yes– alleluia! – there is nothing to see in there! The empty tomb is exactly that – empty! Our Savior is alive! Easter is a day of great joy for us today.

Yet for those first disciples, their reaction was quite different. Instead of joy, Mark says their response was alarm. Terror. Amazement. Silence. And fear. 

Then suddenly the story ends right in the middle of a sentence. In the original Greek, the last verse ends with a preposition, “They were afraid for…” The end. 

That’s it? Come on, Mark, you not only clearly failed Basic Grammar 101, but you also failed Story Telling 101. 

What kind of a story ends with an empty tomb and a dead guy who’s M.I.A.?

We all like cliffhanger endings – to an extent. Take, for instance, your favorite show on Netflix. How many of us have binge-watched a series on Netflix this past year? You’ve probably binged more than one, right? Why is that? Well, one reason is, of course, that we’ve been in a pandemic. What else did you have to do? But beyond that, TV producers know we like cliff hangers. That’s how they hook us. You start an episode, it ends with a cliff hanger, you think, “OK, I have to find out what happens next,” so you say, “Just one more episode,” and the next thing you know you’ve watched the full series. 

We all like cliff hangers, but only when we know closure is coming – whether in the next episode of a TV show or the next chapter of a book. We like to have life’s dramas resolve themselves all packaged up nice and neat with a pretty bow on top, and preferably within a 60-minute segment or less.

Even when it comes to the Bible.

I’ve heard some say they like Mark’s account of the resurrection the least of all four gospels because, unlike the other gospels, Mark doesn’t give us much of a conclusion. Mark’s account is actually my favorite – because, like Mark, life often has more questions than answers. Like Mark, life often throws us more plot twists than predictable outcomes. 

Mark helps us consider: What do you do when life goes off script?

Now, if you have a Bible or Bible app open, you might think, “Wait…the story does continue beyond what we just read, and it does have a nice conclusion.” Verses 9-20 were not part of the original ending. The biblical writers were no different than any of us who don’t like unfinished business. Seeing no closure in Mark’s original ending, they would later add, not one, but two endings of their own. They, along with the other gospel writers – including Mark himself – knew the rest of the story. They knew the women eventually got over their fears. They knew they went on to tell the disciples and Peter and to meet Jesus in Galilee. So they took the liberty of finishing Mark’s gospel for him, assuming that’s probably what Mark meant to do, but…perhaps he ran out of ink…or got lazy…or fell asleep on the job…

But what if he didn’t?

What if Mark intentionally finished his book the way he did? Why would Mark – whose goal was to write a biography of Jesus, to proclaim his life, death, and resurrection to generations of readers to come – why would he end the story with no sign of the risen Savior and no sound from the disciples? 

Let me suggest a couple of reasons. First, fear is not an unreasonable reaction. All throughout Mark’s Gospel, people are constantly responding to Jesus with fear and amazement. Why should this scene – of all scenes – be any different? When these women are expecting to find Jesus’ body and instead find an empty tomb, it’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t be a little shaken up.

It takes some time to deal with the resurrection. It takes a big adjustment in one’s thinking to believe that someone who once was dead is now alive.

Maybe some of us can relate. Maybe you find yourself struggling to believe, whether it’s a lifelong struggle or just something today is causing you to wonder: Could it really be true?

Many scholars have offered various proofs of the resurrection over the years. Mark gives us at least two. In the days leading up to his crucifixion, Mark tells us that the disciples deserted Jesus, Peter denied him, and now we’re left with just a handful of faithful followers – and in the end they fail, too. 

And not just any followers – but women of all people! In a male-dominated culture like the first century, if you were trying to write a book to convince people of the good news, why would you make up a story where failure was the outcome and where women were the first to discover the empty tomb? Such a story would only leave the door wide open to scandal – unless such a story were true…and eyewitnesses made it impossible to say otherwise.

But aside from these and other facts, there’s another perspective to consider: Even if you find it hard to believe the resurrection is true, at the very least you should want it to be true. Because if Jesus has risen, just as he told us, then that means that everything else will also happen just as he told us. 

It means death is no longer the end. Any wife who has ever buried her husband, any parent who has ever lost a child…anyone who has lost a loved one to COVID this year…their grief will one day be swallowed up in God’s glory because of the hope of the resurrection. 

It means sickness is no longer the end. One day there will be no need for overcrowded hospitals or quarantines or vaccines because Jesus will resurrect our bodies and make them whole. 

It means poverty and injustice do not have the final say. All the hatred and racial injustice we’ve witnessed in our nation or maybe experienced personally ourselves? One day God will turn all of that on its head. One day people of all nations and all races will sit together at a heavenly banquet table that surpasses even the greatest Easter lunch we can ever imagine. 

It means violence won’t have the last word. One day there’ll be no more mass shootings. No war or rumors of war abroad or at home, or even in your own home. If, as Isaiah says in Chapter 11, God is able to cause natural enemies like a lion and a lamb to live peaceably together, then surely God can bring peace between unnatural enemies like two warring nations, two divided races, two fighting spouses or siblings, two fighting parents and a child.

And not just a temporary ceasefire kind of peace – that’s the kind of peace that the world gives. Jesus says, “I do not give as the world gives.” His peace is a peace that passes all understanding. If Jesus rose from the dead just as he said he did, then he is able to bring that kind of peace just as he said he would – and is bringing – even now.

But there’s more still: The truth of Jesus’ resurrection means that nothing in your story or mine is the end.

The question that dominated the women’s conversation that first Easter morning was, “Who will roll away the stone for us?” There have been some who’ve said that question shows their lack of faith. How many times did Jesus tell them he would rise again on the third day? Yet they still didn’t believe. Instead, they asked: Who will roll away the stone for us?

Maybe their question did show a lack of faith. But as we said earlier, if you’d never seen someone rise from the dead, if you’d expected to find a dead body to anoint, and you knew there’d be a stone at the entrance of the tomb, who of us wouldn’t ask, “Who will roll away the stone for us?”

It’s a question that spoke to their reality, and it’s a question that speaks to our reality: “Who will roll away the stone for us?” 

It’s a question that speaks to a mindset where miracles are impossible, hope is nothing more than wishful thinking, and obstacles are too heavy to overcome.

But in an instant, when Jesus conquered death, he also conquered that question once and for all. There is no longer any stone in our lives that he can’t roll away.

Easter assures us that none of the mistakes we’ve made have the final say. All our failures, all the times we’ve wondered if God could possibly still love us, they’re all dead and buried – because the Savior lives. All the times we’ve turned our backs on God or failed to be faithful to God or to someone else, they are not the final chapter. 

Disgrace will not have the final word in our lives. Grace will.

Easter is not only about Jesus’ victory over the grave, but about his victory over any experience that would seek to rob us of life on this side of the grave. 

In fact, the way we know that our story isn’t finished…is because Mark’s story wasn’t finished. That’s the second reason I believe Mark ended his gospel the way he did. Rather than putting down his pen, Mark hands the pen to us and says, “Here. The pen is in your hands. You write the next chapter.”

So what chapter will you and I write today? 

I believe we have three options. We can say no. We can refuse to pick up the pen because life has taught us that either Jesus’ story or our story or both are nothing more than dead ends. If that’s where you find yourself today, allow me to invite you to try a little exercise. We said earlier that Mark’s Gospel ends in the middle of a sentence. Try completing the sentence yourself: “I am afraid for…” Fill in the blank. What’s your greatest fear? Then ask yourself: What would it take for me to trust that Jesus could roll away that stone of fear in my life? What would it take for me to live more by faith and less by fear? 

After all, even those first disciples eventually moved past their fears – because they knew there’s a big difference between being afraid and choosing to live the rest of your life in fear.

Or we can say yes. Many of us have said yes, but perhaps we still keep Jesus at an arm’s length. Like a vaccine, we want just enough of Jesus to keep us safe, but not enough to make us contagious. For those of us who have said yes, I encourage us to try the same exercise by asking: What fears keep me from fully trusting and following Jesus? Where do I find myself moving forward in my relationship with God, and where do I find myself just coasting?

Because there’s an awkward truth about coasting. As any bicycle can teach us, the only way to coast is downhill.

But there’s a third option, one that transcends both the “yes” and the “no.” That third option is best summarized in the words of Duke Divinity School professor and author Stanley Hauerwas. He writes, “The problem, after all, is not belief in the resurrection, but whether we live lives that would make no sense if, in fact, Jesus has not been raised.” 

See, when Mark hands us the pen, he doesn’t do so simply so we can check a box – yes or no – as to whether we believe. He doesn’t hand us the pen just so we can rewrite the stories of our individual lives in Christ. Mark hands us the pen so that we can re-write the world’s story by the power of the resurrection.

Scripture tells us that the same power of the Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead now lives in us. That’s the great and terrifying comfort of the resurrection. Easter assures us, not only of Jesus’ victory over the grave, but of his victory over anything that would seek to rob us of life on this side of the grave. Easter also challenges us: What will we do with the new life and new power we’ve been given today?

It does take some time to deal with the resurrection. In fact, it takes a lifetime. Jesus calls us, not just to believe in the resurrection, but to live it. To live it by going to those places of death and grief, those places of sickness and poverty and injustice and violence, to go to any place in our community, in our world, in our church, any place in our own homes or in our own lives. To go to any place that wreaks of death and decay and hopelessness and to declare that the tomb is empty – there is hope to be found – by daring to live lives that make no sense…save that the Savior lives. 

That’s the charge that the gospel gives us. It also gives us a promise – the promise that Jesus always goes before us, calling us to meet him in those places, with the assurance that we, too, will see him – just as he told us. 

Prayer: Lord Jesus, you once told someone who came to you, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” That person responded, “I believe; help my unbelief!” So we would pray the same: “We believe; help our unbelief.” Help us to believe. Help us to live what we believe. And by our living may the world come to believe in you. Through your powerful name we pray, Amen.

Moving Back Into Our Neighborhoods

Sermon – December 6, 2020

New Testament Scripture Reading – John 1:1-14

Last Sunday we read about Jesus’ predicting the fall of the temple and the disciples’ asking when all this would happen (Mark 13:1-4, 24-37.) Today’s Scripture puts us on the other side of that question. By the time John wrote his gospel somewhere around 90 A.D., the temple had been destroyed, and John’s audience was trying to come to terms with that loss. The temple was the center of their life. From the days when God led them out of slavery in Egypt, when they carried the ark of the covenant through that long journey in the wilderness to the promised land, the temple was tied to the presence of God. Now that the temple was gone, it felt like God’s presence was also gone. The temple was where they gathered every week to worship. It’s where they saw family and friends. The temple was the center of their life. To lose one’s center is disorienting, to say the least.

For many of us, the temple, the church, is the center of our lives as well. Thanks be to God, our temple has not been destroyed. And yet, while it hasn’t been destroyed, it may feel like the church has been displaced. Our buildings aren’t open. We can’t go into them on Sunday as part of our weekly lives, or for some of us our daily lives. Like John’s audience, many of us also associate God’s presence with the sanctuary. When we can’t gather here and be reminded of God’s presence, that’s disorienting, to say the least.

This year a lot of us may feel like John’s audience – displaced and disoriented. Not just in terms of losing our church life, but in terms of other things we’ve lost. Economically, we’ve lost jobs, profits, and sales. Personally, we’ve lost loved ones. We’ve lost our sense of security. Maybe we haven’t had a physical temple displaced, but we’ve had so many other things displaced that it makes us wonder: Where is God?

When we feel displaced and disoriented, how do we find our center again? 

Scholars believe that John was the last of the gospels to be written and that John was aware of the other gospels. John didn’t want to write a fourth version of the other gospels. Instead, he chose to write a different gospel. We could list the differences between his gospel and the others, but most notable for this Advent season would be the difference in the way John described the birth of Jesus.

Luke is most known for his birth narrative. From the lead-up to his birth to his actual birth, Luke gives Jesus’ birth two full chapters. Matthew comes in a close second in length, with an emphasis on Joseph and the wise men. As for Mark, he’s kind of the fast-and-furious “just the facts, ma’am” kind of gospel writer. The most common word he uses is “immediately.” He doesn’t go into a lot of detail about Jesus’ birth. He talks about John the Baptist, saying, “The one who is more powerful is coming after me….“ (Mark 1:7-8),  and then in the next verse, this one who is coming came into Nazareth – not as a baby, but as a grown man.

John’s account doesn’t have a baby Jesus either. John’s account of the birth of Jesus is this: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). 

When writing to a people grieving the loss of their temple, John knew the people didn’t necessarily want to hear any baby talk. They could hear about that from the other gospel writers. When grieving the loss of the temple, what John’s audience wanted most is reassurance: Will we ever be back in the temple again?

John wasted no time but got straight to the point: The temple is still here. It’s in Jesus, he said. The temple was never just a building; it’s a living human being, God walking among us. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The Greek can literally be translated, “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” 

Pitched his tent. That phrase may not mean much to us, but it meant a lot to John’s audience. It echoed back to those days in Exodus, those days in the wilderness, when their ancestors were making their way to the promised land. When they set up camp to rest, they set up a tent for the ark of the covenant. They set up a tent for God. 

God pitched his tent among them.

John wrote to remind them that, just as God pitched his tent among their ancestors when they were wandering in the wilderness and trying to find their way forward, God was with them now, when they had lost their temple and were trying to figure out how to live life without a temple. The temple isn’t gone, he said. It’s more present than ever, not as a building, but as a living human being, God walking among you. 

The Word became flesh and lived among us.

We call God’s Word a living Word, an ancient and modern Word. That means these words, these promises of God spoken through John some 1900 years ago are just as fresh and new and true today. Just as God spoke through John years ago to remind the people that the temple isn’t gone, it’s more present than ever, so God speaks through John todayto remind us that the Temple isn’t gone – it’s more present than ever. 

The Temple has never been about a building. It’s always been about a living person. That was true at Jesus’ birth. It’s still true today.

Christ came as the Temple, the Word made flesh. Before this Temple left the earth and ascended into heaven, Jesus breathed his Holy Spirit on the disciples. After he did so, he gave them their marching orders in John chapter 20, verse 21: “Just as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In John’s Temple language, you might translate that this way: Jesus said, “I am THE Temple; now YOU are temples.” Just as the Father has sent me, so I send you.

And where did the Father send the Son? To live among us. The Word became flesh and lived among us.

I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this verse in The Message: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” 

In the context of those marching orders from John Chapter 20, you might translate that this way: Jesus said, “I moved into the neighborhood; now I’m sending you to move into your neighborhood.”

Jesus is the Temple; now we are the temples. Just as the Father sent the Temple to move into the neighborhood, now the Son sends us to be the Temple, the Church, in our neighborhoods.

That’s not news. It’s old news. Ancient news. We the Church have always been called to go out into our neighborhoods. That’s old news. 

And yet at the same time, it’s new news. During this season of sheltering in place, we’ve had to be in our neighborhoods. We haven’t had a choice. For a while, we were even mandated to stay in our neighborhoods. 

What if we reframed that?

What if we saw being stuck at home in our neighborhoods, not as a mandate – at least not one from a government official? Could it be that this year Jesus has given us the gift of remembering his mandate to love our neighbor? Could it be that it’s not that we have to be in our neighborhoods, but that we’ve been given the privilege of being in our neighborhoods?

In this second wave of the virus, it seems we’re having a second wave of the same debates. More specifically, we’re having a second wave of national debates about whether the church should be open or closed. We had these conversations back in March when we debated what is and is not considered an essential business. Now with the Supreme Court case ruling and various reactions to it, we’re having some of the same conversations. 

What I said in March I still say and believe now: The Church is not closed. The church building may be closed. But the Church is not closed. In fact, it’s not really possible to close the Church so long as we believe that Jesus Christ is alive. 

The Temple, the Church, has never been about a building. It’s about Jesus Christ and his presence among us.

The Temple, the Church, has never been about a building. It’s always been about a living person.

It’s not really possible to close the Church so long as we believe that Jesus is alive. And it’s not really possible to close the church so long we take seriously Jesus’ marching orders: Jesus said, “I am THE Temple. Now I’m sending YOU to be temples.” Jesus said, “I moved into your neighborhood. Now I’m sending YOU to move back into your neighborhoods.”

This passage in John celebrates what theologians call the incarnation – God becoming flesh for us. It also celebrates our call to be incarnational – God in the flesh for others. 

The Temple, the Church, has never been about a building. It’s always been about a living person, God walking among us. It’s always been about Christians – that is, little Christs – moving into our neighborhood. 

Over the past two months that I’ve had the privilege of serving as your interim pastor, I’ve asked various groups, “What’s been one positive thing for you that has come out of this pandemic?” I’ve heard some amazing stories with two common themes: First, we’re in this together, and second, when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” he meant it.

Some have shared stories about taking walks – many, many walks – in your neighborhood. Because when you can’t do anything else, what do you do? You go for a walk. On those walks, many of us have met neighbors we’ve never met before. Because when we can’t hang out and talk with our normal circle of friends, suddenly we talk to our neighbors. It’s amazing how it took a pandemic for us to get to know our neighbor…

Some have shared stories about the difficult decisions we’ve all had to make about Thanksgiving celebrations. How when COVID-19 meant our family gatherings of 20-30 suddenly got reduced to a gathering of two or three, but we still had food for that 20-30, those two or three took food to a neighbor. And for some of those neighbors from other countries or cultures, you learned it was the first Thanksgiving dinner they had ever had. 

What might God do through our Christmas dinners of two or three? 

Jesus said, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

This week I’ve witnessed firsthand a great example of God at work, not just in our individual neighborhoods, but in our Clairmont neighborhood. The past few weeks a young couple has been sleeping under the portico outside our office, along with their rescue kitten. We’ve affectionately begun calling them the “Kitten Couple.” They moved to the area a year ago, he found a job, and they began trying to get established here. But they’ve been hit hard by COVID-19. He lost one job, found a second job, and then lost that job also in the pandemic. They began living out of their car. Then their car broke down, which is how they ended up here. 

Many of our members and staff have noticed them and asked what we can do to help. A commonly heard question is, “What is it about this one couple that I keep feeling God prompting me to help them?” Andrea and Lady T got some initial information about housing possibilities. We told the couple last week that, once we had more details, we’d pass it along to them, if they were interested. “Yes, please. Thank you,” they said. 

On Sunday morning, I arrived at the office with a list of resources and gift cards we had collected, but they had already left. Don, Barbara, and I arrived early Monday morning in the hopes of finding them at the office. No luck. Don and I drove around the area in search of them. Still no luck. Knowing the temperature was going to drop significantly overnight, Don and I said we’d come back again at sunset to try one more time to find them. 

Later that day, while talking with our Preschool Director Barbara, she said to me, “By the way, one of our teachers Stacy happened to mention she saw the couple head behind a store earlier this afternoon. Perhaps they found a way inside and are staying there.” I’d already looked around the store that morning, but I said I’d check one more time that evening. The store was locked up tight – no way anyone was in there. But as I rounded the corner to head back to church to meet Don and continue searching, I noticed a familiar-looking bag behind a dumpster. Don and I walked back to look at the bag more closely. That’s when Don noticed a litter box scoop sticking out of the bag. 

That bag had not been there earlier that morning. Had Stacy not “happened to” notice the couple heading behind the store, had she not “happened to” mention it to Barbara, and had Barbara not “happened to” mention it to me, I would never have gone back and looked there a second time. And had Don not noticed the litter box scoop, we might never have known it was the couple’s bag. We left the list of resources, protein bars, and, yes, cans of cat food by their belongings, along with a note saying, “Come to Clairmont Presbyterian tomorrow! We want to help!” Our administrative assistant Linda arrived extra early on Tuesday to make sure she saw them if they stopped by. Around 8:30 Tuesday morning, she texted me: “The Kitten Couple came back! They saw our note, and they came back!” While we’re working on more long-term solutions, they are currently settling into a warm hotel for the week, and they have been telling us repeatedly, “Thank you. Thank you. We cannot thank you enough.” 

It takes a village, as they say. In this case, it takes the body of Christ working together to be the body of Christ, God made flesh, in our neighborhood.

That’s what God did in our neighborhoods last week. I can’t wait to see what God might do in our neighborhoods this week.

This week I encourage you to take a walk in your neighborhood. I know, I know – you’re thinking, “I’m already taking lots of walks in my neighborhood.” What else is there to do, right? Take a walk in your neighborhood. Not just any old walk. But a quiet, observant walk. If you typically walk with someone in your family, don’t talk. Don’t listen to music. Just walk in silence and observe your neighborhood. Maybe go for a walk at a different time of day or take a different route than you normally would. And look around. What do you see? Whom do you see? What needs do you see? Then pray, “Lord, how are you calling me to respond to this need?

The Temple, the Church, has never been about a building. It has always been about a living person. God became flesh for us. Now God sends us to be God in the flesh for others. Go be that church.