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“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. 

Keep Awake

Sermon – November 29, 2020

This morning we turn to the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus and the disciples were leaving the Temple when one of the disciples pointed out the Temple’s large stones and building. In response, Jesus asked (read Mark 13:2-4.)

We pick up midway through Jesus’ answer to their question. Listen again for God’s Word from Mark Chapter 13 beginning with verse 24.

Read Mark 13:24-37. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and I was fifteen years old. My parents had finalized their divorce just a few weeks earlier, so it was sort of a different Christmas for my family that year. My grandparents came to visit us in Atlanta for the holiday week. On Christmas Eve, the four of us had a quiet dinner, went to worship, and then we all went to sleep. 

About 5:00 in the morning, I felt someone nudging my shoulder. It was my grandfather. In all my life, I’ve never known anyone who anticipated Christmas more than my grandfather. My guess is he had been lying awake all night, waiting for Christmas morning to arrive so he could wake up the rest of us – and I was his lucky first victim. “Time to get up,” he said, “it’s Christmas morning! Hurry! You don’t want to miss it!”

I mentioned I was fifteen, right? If you are a teenager or if you’ve ever had a teenager in your home, you know that, given a chance to sleep in, a teenager won’t see morning. So I pulled my blanket over my head and mumbled, “OK, Papa, I’ll get up; just give me about five more hours.” 

Not only was my grandfather enthusiastic, he was also persistent. “Go wake your mother,” he said. I got up, trudged down the hall, and called into my mother’s room, “Mom, Papa says it’s time to get up.” “It’s 5 am,” she said, “Go back to bed.” Never in my teenage years was I ever so eager to obey my mom. I walked back down the hall, passed my grandfather on the way, and said, “Mom said go back to bed, and you know I always do what I’m told.” 

Not to be defeated, my grandfather said, “Fine, I’ll go make breakfast.” Now I’m not much of a cook. I don’t know nearly as much about cooking as my chef of a husband does. But I do know this: Making breakfast does not require pulling every pot and pan out of the cabinet and dropping them on the floor. After about ten minutes of listening to metal clanging, my grandmother, my mom, and I gave in and reluctantly walked down the stairs.  There on the table were hot coffee and Pillsbury biscuits my grandfather had made, and there he was, sitting in a chair, holding a piece of paper on which he had written this poem:

‘Twas Christmas morning and in the town of Atlanta, nothing was moving, not even Santa.  So I got the paper and made me a cup and sat at the table waiting for all to get up. Not a sound could be heard, not even a peep. All were upstairs, trying to sleep. I thought to myself, “Why sleep?  For you know, if you close your eyes, there’re not too many Christmases to go.”

Why sleep? That wasn’t the question the disciples asked Jesus, but it was definitely the question he seemed to want to answer. Upon hearing Jesus tell them that the temple would be thrown down, the disciples asked when these amazing things would happen. Before answering their question, Jesus told them all kinds of horrific things. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes and famines. Oh, and after that suffering, in those days, there will be more suffering: The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will be falling, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

The disciples were thinking, “Gee, sorry I asked.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jesus said.  “About your question: When will all these things happen? Yeah…no one knows.”

The disciples were thinking, “Again, gee, sorry I asked.”

The only answer Jesus gave them was this: “Keep awake.”

They seemed pretty awake to me. They were walking and talking with Jesus. They were awake enough to notice the temple’s large stones and building. They were awake enough to ask him when all this stuff would happen.  

But were they awake enough to hear his response: “Keep awake”?

The disciples asked Jesus about when they could expect these things to happen. Jesus’ response called into question whether they still expected anything to happen. They had been expecting a Messiah for so long. They’d seen many would-be messiahs all of whom had disappointed them. A few Sundays ago, we looked at a passage in Luke where John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:19). You can almost hear the fatigue in their question. They’d been waiting and hoping and expecting so much for so long that, after a while, they’d given up expecting anything at all. 

Lower expectations lead to less disappointments.

Almost nine months into the pandemic, I can relate. I imagine you can, too. When everything first shut down in March, we expected life would return to normal soon. But then one day turned into the next and the next – until we couldn’t distinguish one day from the next, and every day began to feel like what a friend of mine calls “blursday.” I mean, when we’re stuck at home all week, how many of us have forgotten at some point this year – or maybe multiple points this year – what day of the week it is? When Monday is just the same as Tuesday, and Tuesday is just the same as Wednesday…every day is blursday. 

When every day is blursday, it’s easy to get lulled into a stupor.

And that’s just what’s going on in our individual lives and our individual homes. Then we turn on the news. We hear of vaccines and rumors of vaccines and think, “Are you the vaccine that is to come, or are we to wait for another?” We hear of ongoing vote recounts and ongoing virus counts. With every political update and COVID update, we wonder when the other shoe is going to drop. Many of us have started tuning it out, thinking, “If we close our eyes, there’re not too many 2020 days to go.”

When we’re most tempted to tune out, that’s when Jesus says tune in: “Keep awake.”

I remember in seminary preaching classes we were taught always to find the good news in a Scripture passage. Some passages were harder than others. Like this text, when what Mark calls “those days” feels more like “these days.” When we may not be experiencing nation against nation, but it feels like we are a nation against ourselves as a nation. When we’re not just experiencing earthquakes and famine, but we’re experiencing West coast fires, East coast hurricanes, and coast-to-coast sickness and death. Then to read in Mark about more suffering and no end in sight? Where’s the “good news” in that?

It’s there. It may be hard to see, but maybe that’s the point: Jesus said, “Keep awake, and you will see it.”

Jesus gave us three ways, or rather, three reasons to keep awake and believe the good news. First, Jesus flat out tells us the good news: The Son of Man is coming in clouds, with great power and glory, and he will gather up all of his beloved and beleaguered disciples from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. Who knows when all these things will happen? No one knows – except for one: the Father. In ways we can’t understand, in ways we can’t even see, God has planned the perfect time for all these things to take place. We may not know when that time is here, but we know that time is near, for Jesus told us so. “Keep awake,” Jesus said, “for I am near.”

Jesus next told the disciples a way to see that he is near. He told them to take a lesson from the fig tree. When its branches become tender and it puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is coming. 

It sounds like a “take time to stop and smell the roses” moment, but it isn’t. It’s something much more powerful. I don’t know about you, but in this year of sickness and death, fires and hurricanes, nation against nation and nation against itself, it’s been so easy to get preoccupied with the bad news and miss any sign of good news. Every now and then God gives us glimpses of it. 

On Friday, May 29th, protests and riots broke out downtown near the CNN Center and throughout our city in reaction to George Floyd’s death. As we live not far from CNN, my husband James and I were awake most of the night listening to sirens and screeching cars. The following afternoon I was sitting on our back deck praying about the racial injustice in our nation when I heard a rustling sound. It was the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. The leaves were that of a tree that has been sick and on the verge of dying for quite a while. But, by golly, that tree keeps on standing – it just won’t give up – and the wind blowing its leaves was a reminder that, no matter how dark or lost things may seem, new life is blowing where we least expect it.       

Jesus said, “Keep awake, and see that I am near.”

The past few weeks I’ve seen several signs that Jesus is near, two in particular. First, over the weekend our Children’s and Family Ministry Team delivered an Advent devotional, calendar, crafts, cake mix, frosting, sprinkles, and candles – the makings of a “Happy Birthday, Jesus” cake – to the children in our congregation, as well as the children in our Azalea Village and LaAmistad missions. We normally would do these things together in person at our “Advent-ure” event. We can’t this year due to COVID-19. But that didn’t stop our ministry team from celebrating his coming because they know God’s presence and power are bigger than a pandemic. God’s Spirit is more widespread than a virus We may be six feet apart, but by God’s spirit we can be closer than ever.

A second and similar sign of Jesus’ presence is our poinsettia mission. We set a goal to collect funds to give out 20 poinsettias to homebound members of our community. This Sunday we will give out three times that amount – over 60 poinsettias. God once again showed he can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.

Jesus said, “Keep awake, and I will show you that I am near.”

In answer to the disciples’ question as to when these things would happen, Jesus closed with a second parable: that of a doorkeeper. A doorkeeper’s number-one job is to keep awake. But the doorkeeper doesn’t just keep awake for his own sake. He keeps awake for others’ sakes. If he sees danger, his job is to go and tell the others in the house. If he sees good things on the horizon – in this case, if he sees the master is coming back – his job is to go and tell the others in the house. 

The disciples had expected so much. After expecting so much and being disappointed too often, they’d probably forgotten to expect much of anything anymore. They’re like many of us, and they’re like many of those around us. We live in a world that hopes for little and expects less. We live in a world that desperately needs a door keeper to alert it to God’s presence among us.

Jesus said, “Keep awake. Be that door keeper. And when you see signs of me, go tell someone.”

It is the first Sunday of Advent, the season when we celebrate that the Lord has come and look forward to his coming again. In this year 2020, perhaps most fervently we long for that coming again. That’s God’s greatest promise and our greatest hope. So keep awake, for the Lord is near. Keep awake, and see that he is near. Keep awake, that the world may know he is near. 

Our True Allegiance

Our Old Testament Scripture reading comes from Psalm 146. We read the first two verses as our Call to Worship. Listen again to those verses and the ones that follow. Listen for God’s Word. Read Psalm 146.

In the New Testament, we turn to a scene in Matthew. Last week we talked about our baptismal questions: “Is Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior? Do you trust him?” In our text today, Jesus asks the disciples a similar question. Listen again for God’s Word from Matthew Chapter 16, verses 13-20. Read Matthew 16:13-20. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

On November 9, 2016, a friend posted the following as her Facebook status: “Jesus is Lord. Live like it.” That Facebook status would be true and powerful on any day, but particularly that day. November 9, 2016, was a Wednesday, more specifically the day after the 2016 Presidential Election. 

When my friend made that Facebook post, she wasn’t making a political statement. “Jesus is Lord. Live like it” could be said any day, any week, any year. 

But perhaps the time when we most need to be reminded of that great truth is the week of an election, such as this week.

Jesus is Lord. Live like it.

Back in July I listened to the sermon that same friend preached on November 13, 2016, the first Sunday after the election. At one point I had to pause the podcast to make sure I had clicked on the right sermon and that I hadn’t accidentally clicked on a sermon from 2020. Because the way she was describing the state of things in 2016 sounded remarkably similar to how one might describe the state of things today. Political division. Racial tension. Economic disparities. Healthcare struggles. Disease. Poverty. And so on. And so on.

As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Of course, this year we might put it differently: The more things change, the more it seems nothing is the same anymore.

Scripture would put it differently still. Scripture would say to us: The more things change, the more we need to remind ourselves of the one thing that will always be the same

Scripture says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8.)

Jesus is Lord. Live like it.

When I heard about that Facebook post, I thought, “Yes! Amen, Jesus is Lord. Yes, I live like it! … Er, I mean, I try to live like it. … I hope I live like it. … Do I live like it?”

It’s one thing to know Jesus is Lord. It’s another thing to live like it. And some days it’s harder to live like it than it is on other days. 

That’s why this scene in Matthew is so important. Not just because of what Peter said, which is one of the first professions of faith in the gospels. Not just because of what Peter said, but because of where he said it. 

Peter is one of my favorite disciples. Why? Because I can relate to Peter a lot. Like me, Peter suffers from foot-in-mouth disease. Anyone else suffer from that disease? You open your mouth and somehow immediately insert your foot? Peter was famous for blurting out answers to questions, no matter how rash or ridiculous they were. 

Every now and then, Peter got it right. 

Like he did in this scene.

Jesus asked Peter one of the most important questions of life, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” I can almost imagine Jesus looking at him and smiling, like, “Yes! You’re catching on!”

As great as Peter’s response was, this scene is important, not just because of what Peter said, but because of where he said it. 

Jesus could have held this teaching moment in the quiet sanctuary of the Temple or in the privacy of a boat in the middle of the water or in an upper room away from the crowd – all places where he had taught the disciples many times before. Instead, he intentionally chose to have this conversation in Caesarea Philippi. 

For years Caesarea Philippi was a Canaanite site for the worship of Baal. When Herod the Great conquered the city, he turned it into a different place of worship, building a temple for Caesar Augustus, a Roman emperor whose preferred title wasn’t emperor, but rather the Greek title for a divine leader. Caesar Augustus’ preferred title wasn’t emperor: it was son of god. 

In this place where people had worshipped the gods of their culture for centuries, in the shadow of the temple of the emperor who called himself the son of god, Peter professed his faith in another Son of God, the true Son of God. 

On the surface, Peter’s confession may sound like just good ol’ polite church talk. It sounds a lot like some of the creeds we often say in worship.

But when spoken in this location, it’s a bold, courageous statement. 

Caesarea Philippi was a bold, courageous place – a risky place – for Peter to call Jesus the Messiah. To go against the culture of his day usually came at a high price. Yet that’s exactly where Jesus calls his disciples to go and speak this truth. 

That was his call for Peter – and that’s his call for us today.

You and I each have our own Caesarea Philippis – those places where Jesus calls us to declare he is Lord in a world that tempts us to believe otherwise. The Caesarea Philippi of school, where we’re tempted to go along with the crowd or make the grade at any cost. The Caesarea Philippi of the workplace, where the pressure to make a buck and get ahead may clash with who Jesus calls us to be. 

Maybe that Caesarea Philippi for us is the comfort of our churches, when it’s tempting to do things the way we’ve always done them, instead of hearing a fresh call from the Lord.

We all have our own Caesarea Philippiss today, those places where Jesus calls us to declare he is Lord in a world that tempts us to believe otherwise.

This Tuesday is a Caesarea Philippi moment for us. No matter who you vote for, no matter whether you’ve already voted or are waiting ‘til Election Day, this Tuesday is a Caesarea Philippi moment. 

This Tuesday is a chance for us to declare that Jesus is Lord and to choose to live like it.

Like many of us, I’m looking forward to the election being over so that the robocalls, texts, and political mail will stop. To read some of the political ads, you’d think some people believe their candidate is the Messiah – and some in fact do. Actually, to read some of the political ads, you’d think some people believe their candidate’s opponent is Satan incarnate – and some in fact do. The other day I was scanning some of the political mail we received. Every postcard had one word in common. The one word they had in common? The word “destroy.” So and so is going to destroy our economy. So and so is going to destroy healthcare.

It’s sad to me that in so much of our discourse today, political or otherwise, we’ve begun to speak more about what we’re against than about what we’re for.

The church isn’t immune to that temptation. The world has heard for too long what the church is against. It’s time we spoke about who and what we are for

A frequent prayer request shared during our Facebook Live worship services recently has been a prayer for healing and unity for our nation that is divided in so many ways. That healing and unity comes by declaring who we are for, and this Tuesday is our chance to make that declaration. 

Many people are heading into this week with a lot of anticipation, maybe even some fear and uncertainty. Some people, maybe even some of us, are putting a lot of hope and faith in certain candidates, hoping their election will bring some of that healing and unity for which we’ve been praying.

If we are putting all of our hope and faith in a political candidate or party, Scripture has a word for that, and that word is idolatry.

Does that mean we shouldn’t even bother with voting? Of course not! We’ve been given the freedom to vote. God calls us to be good and faithful citizens of our nation, even while we remember our true citizenship is in heaven. God calls us to pray for our leaders – all of our leaders – whether we voted for them or not. Scripture is clear about that.

But Scripture is equally clear that we aren’t to put our trust in princes or mortals. There is only one Messiah, only one son of God. It’s not Caesar Augustus. It’s not Donald Trump or Joe Biden or any other candidate.

There is only one son of God, and his name is Jesus. Jesus alone is Lord.

And because he is Lord, we are free to live like it.

Because we know who alone is Lord, we can go into this week with confidence, even boldness. No matter what happens on Tuesday, we know Jesus still sits on the throne. No matter what we face at school or work, we know God’s got us in the palm of his hand and that God’s got a plan. No matter if our holidays aren’t quite the same this year, we know Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. No matter what the rest of this crazy 2020 year brings, still we can say through faith it is the year of our Lord.

“Jesus is Lord. Live like it,” said my friend.

The question is not whether Jesus is Lord. He is. 

The question is: Will we choose to live like he is Lord? Will we choose to live like it on Tuesday, throughout this week, the rest of this year? Will we choose to live like he is Lord today? Will we?

An Easter (Un)like Any Other

It is an Easter unlike any other, isn’t it?

No sanctuaries filled with people in their Sunday best sitting, not six feet apart, but shoulder to shoulder. No large Easter gatherings with family and friends to feast on honey-baked ham, deviled eggs, and the like. None of our usual traditions to which we look forward every year.

Many have likened this Easter to that very first Easter, noting there wasn’t a huge crowd gathered then either. Depending on the gospel writer’s account, there were no more than two or three present.

The others, like us, were sheltered in place in their homes. They, like some of us, were struggling to feel any Easter joy that morning.

The difference between that first Easter and today is the reason they stayed in their homes.

They sheltered in place out of fear. We are sheltered in place out of love.

Jesus’ first disciples holed up in their homes out of fear for good reasons. Having just seen their master arrested, tortured, and crucified by those in power, they feared for their own lives. Having left family and jobs for three years to follow Jesus, they may have been afraid of how to return back to normal life – or if there even was a normal life to which to return.

Some of us today may be holed up in our homes out of fear for similar good reasons. In the midst of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, we fear for our lives and the lives of those dear to us. Many of us have begun to fear if and when we will ever return to normal life and what that normal life might look like.

Yet the ultimate reason we are called to shelter in place is not fear. It’s not because of a command from those in power.

The ultimate reason we are sheltered in place is because of a command from the One who is ultimately in power.

We are sheltered in place out of love.

We are sheltered in place because Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor. We are sheltered in place to care for the most vulnerable among us. We’re checking in on one another, offering resources to help one another. We’re laying aside our normal routines and lifestyles to ensure life for another.

What better way to celebrate the message of Easter?

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

When we were at our most vulnerable, Jesus laid down His life for us. We are now called to do the same. Not our of fear, but out of love. As those living on the other side of the cross and the other side of the empty tomb, we know that in the end there is no reason to fear. There is every reason to love.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we know that sickness and death are not the end. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we know that, though we grieve sickness and death among us today, we do not grieve as those who have no hope (I Thessalonians 4:13). If ever there were a picture of that hope that we need to hear – perhaps especially today – it is John’s vision as recorded in Revelation Chapter 21: “‘Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.'”

I do miss my Easter traditions. I’ve heard many pastors and congregations say that, whenever we are able to gather again as a large group, we will have traditional “Easter” worship, complete with a brass ensemble and the most joyful singing ever of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.”

Rightly so.

While today is the Day of Resurrection, because of today, every Sunday – indeed every day – is a day of resurrection.

I look forward to that day when we get to have our normal Easter traditions again. At the same time, I pray, on this Easter unlike any other, that we claim a new Easter tradition – or rather, reclaim that first Easter tradition: Easter is about the One who laid down His life out of love for us. Today He has given us the great privilege of doing the same for one another, for “greater love has no one than this…”

May every Easter be like it.

A Good Friday to Acknowledge Grief and Death

I’ve had several conversations the past two weeks with pastoral colleagues about how to navigate this unique Holy Week. Typically on Palm Sunday, we encourage our congregations not to rush forward to Easter, but instead to walk through the events of Jesus’ last week – his suffering, crucifixion, death, and burial. Yet in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s tempting to gloss over Good Friday and opt for a spoiler alert: it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

Who wants to focus on suffering and death when we’re surrounded by so much suffering and death? Who’s ready to move forward to brighter, more hopeful days ahead? Who’s wrestling with how to hope for those brighter days when we’re surrounded by so much suffering and death?

In talking with colleagues, one conversation in particular helped bridge some of these questions. She, her husband, and children had a sabbatical scheduled, beginning next month. A large portion of their sabbatical was to be spent traveling to Europe and South America. While they are still taking a sabbatical, obviously, their travel plans have changed. She said that on Good Friday they planned to bury – literally – their sabbatical plans in their backyard. Then on Easter Monday they will start fresh and design a new sabbatical.

There’s something powerful and deeply theological in that for me.

On that first Good Friday when Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb, the disciples thought all of their plans, their hopes, their dreams were buried right there with him.

But then on Sunday, they discovered all those plans, hopes, and dreams were alive and well again. Not the way they expected. Something far better.

Like my friend and those first disciples, each of us has experienced the death of some of our own plans and aspirations as a result of the pandemic. The loss of a job. A reduction in our retirement savings. A canceled commencement. The loss of a sports season. No end-of-year school activities. A postponed road race. The inability to gather in a hospital room or at a wedding or funeral. The inability to go out to eat or get a haircut. The loss of routine and “normal” life.

Each of us has experienced a loss, and each of us is grieving that loss. As a way of acknowledging that grief, what if today, like my friend, we took time to bury that which we have lost?

What do you need to bury today?

Whether you literally bury something – a vacation itinerary, an unused sports ticket, an invitation, an old business card – or figuratively bury it through journaling, meditation, or prayer, take time today to acknowledge the loss and allow yourself to grieve. Then take time to consider what new thing God might have in store for you in the future…

…for it is Friday, but Sunday is surely coming.

To Love Is To Stay And Listen

Like many of us, my husband James and I celebrated the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper tonight at home while worshipping via Zoom. Before worship, we read today’s Daily Lectionary Gospel text Mark 14:12-25. We then read John’s account of that fateful night. I love John’s account for two reasons. First, because his way of recounting Jesus’ offering his body and blood was by recounting Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet. Second, because that’s when Jesus gave us a new command: “Love one another.”

I love John’s account for two reasons. First, because he reminds us that to lay down one’s life for another often takes the form of humbly serving another. Second, because he reminds us that this “new” command is one we need to hear anew: “Love one another.”

In reading these words from John that I’ve read hundreds of times, what struck me anew tonight was what took place between his washing the disciples’ feet and his giving the disciples this new commandment: He spoke to one disciple in particular. He spoke to Judas.

Jesus spoke of one who would betray him. In identifying who it was by dipping a piece of bread into the dish and offering it to Judas, Jesus said to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Judas left, and the other disciples immediately began speculating as to why. Maybe Judas left to be practical and tend to their practical needs. (What do we need for our Passover/Easter celebration?) Maybe Judas left to be charitable and tend to their charitable needs. (What can I do to tend to the needs of others?)

Whatever the reason, Judas left.

To those who were left, to those who stayed, Jesus gave his new command: “Love one another.”

When I think about Jesus’ words to Judas and the disciples’ speculations as to why he left, I realize I’m a lot like Judas. I tend to think of what’s the practical thing (even when it’s not the most practical thing to do in the moment), and I tend to think of what’s the charitable thing (even when it’s not the most charitable thing to do in the moment.)

Like Judas, I, too, am tempted to run off and do what I want to do rather than sticking around to hear what God calls me to do.

What if the most practical and charitable thing to do right now is to sit and stay and listen to Jesus’ command: “Love one another”? What if the most practical and charitable thing to do right now is to sit and stay and listen anew to Jesus’ new command: “Love one another”?

And for those of us Judases who don’t always make the right choice when it comes to those questions, remember anew: Jesus spoke to Judas, and Jesus gave him a choice: “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

Jesus gives us the same choice tonight: What are we going to do? Will we get up and leave this night to do whatever it is we planned to do? Or will we sit up and stay and listen this night to God’s call to love one another?

Especially in the midst of a global pandemic, there’s a lot at stake in our choosing to obey that command. Indeed, there always has been. As Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35.) May it be so.

In our Presbyterian tradition, we offer a prayer of confession before partaking of communion. One of my favorite prayers of confession is the following from the Book of Common Worship. Join me in this prayer prayed by thousands tonight across centuries of years:

Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name, through Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Sisters and brothers, hear the good news! Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone; a new life has begun. Know that you are forgiven, and be at peace. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

God’s story – and our story – continues tomorrow.