A sermon preached on Sunday, December 16, 2013 at Heritage United Methodist Church on John 1:1-18.
Lord Jesus, I know that I do not have all the answers. But you, gracious God, sent your Word, to teach us and make us new. You give us your Spirit so we can understand what you have to say to us. Come to us now and shed light on your word that we may be filled with grace and truth. Amen.
The world is often a dark place. Friday we were reminded of this darkness by a devastating school shooting that left 26 dead. This violent action taken against children, teachers and family leave us with many questions. Why did this happen? What are we supposed to do now? And in the words of the Psalms, “How long, O Lord?” These questions can leave us feeling lost in the darkness, not knowing which way to turn or how we can recover from such a wound. And there are no easy answers.
Sadly, this darkness is nothing new. We have experienced it before. From shootings in other areas of the country to war around the world, violence destroys life each day. There are places where genocide is still common place, where women are raped and abused and simply walking to the grocery store is not safe. We come to these moments not only acknowledging our own losses, but also remembering that our world is in pain and suffering. We are crying out for someone to rescue us from this destruction and terror.
And in the midst of this darkened world, God made a choice. God chose to send Jesus, the Word made flesh, to a people lost in darkness. John 1:14 says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This living among us is a word that means tabernacle, literally, “pitched his tent.” This word tabernacle reminds us of how God dwelt with the people in the desert with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Jesus also made his home and dwelling place among the people. He is God incarnate, embodying the love and knowledge of God. The truth that we find in Christ brings us ultimate freedom. And in times such as these, we need to see and hear the truth. We need to hear that because the Word became flesh- lived, died, and rose again, that we can also have new life in Christ, freeing us from the bonds of sin and death.
In John 1:6 we hear, “There was a man sent by god, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” John the Baptist comes to proclaim that Christ is coming in more ways than one. Not only will he baptize persons later in the gospels before Jesus begins his full time ministry, but John testifies to Christ even in the womb. When Mary visited Elizabeth, the Baby John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb in the presence of Christ. Elizabeth is the first person in the gospels to claim aloud that Jesus is Lord, affirming her son’s excitement and making a way for Christ in the world. John the Baptist points to Christ with his words and actions. John was saying, it’s not about me, it’s about God. It’s not about me, it’s about the Messiah. After all, he himself was not the light, but he was a witness to the light.
A witness is one who testifies to an event or the truth. Those who herald Christ announce God’s presence in the world in Jesus Christ by testifying to his life and ministry. During advent we are all invited to proclaim that Christ is coming into the world. We each have a choice to point to Christ, or to point to something other than Christ- which will we choose? And when we choose to point to Jesus, we are saying that it isn’t about us, but it is about a greater truth that exists in the world. The truth of the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.
There were others who testified and proclaimed Christ’s coming, such as the angels. Angels are messengers of God. An angel named Gabriel is the chief messenger in our advent texts. This angel appears to Zechariah in Luke 1 saying, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” Gabriel visits Mary with the words, “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you” and “do not be afraid.” Another angel appeared to Joseph in a dream saying, “do not be afraid.” Can you see a pattern? God is with you, do not be afraid. And when the angel came to the shepherds in the fields, the angel said, “Do not be afraid, I am bringing you good news, of great joy for all the people.”
Can it be good news? Can we be joyful? But it is the truth, it is the good news. God is with you, do not be afraid. Christ is coming! We desperately need to hear this message this year. Hurricanes? God is with you. Floods? Do not be afraid. School shooting? Christ is coming. Death? Jesus is the light of the world. Destruction? Jesus is Lord. You see the good news is still good. The good news is still good. Repeat this after me, The good news, is still good. I want you to turn to your neighbor and say “the good news, is still good.” Our job is to proclaim this good news from the roof tops, in our homes, in our places of employment, to our friends, and even to ourselves. And we need to hear it often.
Jesus Christ is coming into the world to make everything right. Christ comes to shed light on our fundamental need for God and to invite us to join in the work Christ is doing in the world. We can join in that work by offering love, peace, and hope to a desolate place. We can join in Christ’s work by joining in solidarity and prayer with those who suffer and with those who mourn. We can join in that work by using our power to serve others rather than oppress. We can be a part of Christ’s life by washing our neighbors’ feet and speaking up for those who have no voice.
You are Christ’s heralds. You are the ones who announce that Jesus is coming to release the captives and set at liberty those who are oppressed. You are the ones who have come to this sanctuary to receive light that you might hold out a candle for another.
Today, you get to carry the light into a dark world and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to a hurting world. You get to tell the world that the darkness will never overcome the light. You get to speak the truth- that the good news is still good. Amen.
Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: Year C. (2012). Allen, Andrews, Ottoni-Wilhelm, Editors. Westminster-John Knox.
Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4. Bartlett and Taylor, Editors. Westminster-John Knox.
A sermon preached by Rev. Lindsay Baynham, Fairfax United Methodist Church, on Sunday, December 16, 2012. The words in bold were sung.
If you’re anything like me when it comes to music, you have different music for different occasions. Your daily routine dictates what music you listen to. You have the playlist for when you’re not having the best day. Songs that you put on when you need to get work done. Specific Pandora stations are for specific times like travelling, cleaning the house or just background noise at a gathering. And if you’re thinking “ Pastor Lindsey I don’t listen to that much music by a long shot” – think of it this way. There is certain music that marks different moments of your lifetime. What you listened to in college, the popular music of the time or even now Christmas music can be heard everywhere you go.
We remember moments in our lives by the songs of the season so to speak. But the various types of songs will change, will be more frequent during parts of your life. Or you will evolve from different types of songs to a new form of music.
Our passage from Luke this morning is commonly referred to as the Magnificat or Mary’s Song. She is responding in praise and thanksgiving for this terrifying life that God has called her to. For this moment in her life, these are the words placed in her mouth to share during her visit with her cousin, Elizabeth. These words encompass types of songs that we too experience in our lives of faith.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly hosts, Praise Father, son, and holy ghost. Amen.”
The first kind of song I want to talk about are songs of rejoicing. The doxology is one that we sing every week in the 9:30 service but lends itself to be a song of rejoicing no matter where you are. Mary’s opening lines of her song is a statement of rejoicing- “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name”. This a song of speaking out, of joy, of praising God for what God is doing and will continue to do in the midst of the darkness.
While I was in seminary I served churches during the summers as a part of my field education. My first field education was in Houston, Texas. We were sitting in the office one afternoon when our Youth intern walked in saying that one of the students and his family believed that their house had been cursed by another family. The church was in an area where many people had beliefs from their countries of origin that included the belief in evil spirits. And that was what we were faced with this particular afternoon.
Having recently finished my first year of seminary, I immediately turned to my mentor of what to do. What do Methodists believe about this, how do we approach this? And Justin, very calmly grabbed anointing oil and a candle as we headed to the home. Once there, we read a liturgy about blessing a home and at the end of the service, we sang the Doxology three times. And it was this song of rejoicing that was one of comfort to a family who felt pressed down by the darkness. God’s light is proclaimed in the doxology and God’s goodness is shared through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
“Create in me a clean heart, and purify me, purify me. Create in me a clean heart so I may worship thee. Cast me not away from your presence. Please don’t take your Spirit me. And restore the joy of salvation. So that I may worship thee. “
This is a gospel song based on Psalm 51, David’s Psalm for cleansing after the incident with Bathsheba. This is a song of grief, lament, of longing for the one true God in the midst of trials., of worry about our relationship with God in jeopardy. But an important theme from this psalm is one of a want to please God, to obey God despite the ways of the world.
We have all felt this way- conflicted by the pressures of the world to be worldly, not to be set apart. Just prior to Mary’s song, we read about her encounter with the angel. Her initial response is worry of what society will say, “How can this be when I am a virgin?” You see Mary knew the laws of the day, she knew that her own life was in danger if she was to become pregnant. She knew that the reputation of her betrothed and his family would be fair game for public scrutiny as well. And Joseph had the option of refusing to have Mary as his wife. There were factors that were cause for worry and I imagine Mary seeking for personal clarity from God, so that she could be faithful to what God was asking of her. And so we hear her responding “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”.
This response calls for a revering of Mary because she boldly steps out in faith amidst the worries of that the world creates. Mary seeks to glorify God, to be created anew so that she may ultimately worship. This is about faith, and trusting in what God has done and will do.
“Come thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free. From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation hope of all the earth thou art. Dear desire of every nation, joy of every wandering heart”
And then there are the songs of hope, songs that point us not only to the future, but also to the reality of the here and now. The songs that make our present time bearable because of what we know of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel God who is with us and promises that to us.
“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength in his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Mary is recalling the covenant that God has made with Israel, and that God will continue to keep this covenant. But in the midst of her pregnancy, Mary acknowledges not only the past and future but that God is currently keeping the covenant made for God’s people. She has hope in the midst of this social taboo that is her pregnancy of the Messiah.
Mary is a different sort of prophet this week as we listen to the powerful words of her song. She embraces all aspects of time, pointing our hearts towards the timeless hope that is God in Jesus Christ. Unlike John the Baptist’s or Isaiah’s words, Mary will embody the light overcoming the darkness in the world through the incarnation.
In the recent events of this country, the untimely death of children and adults in Connecticut, we wonder how this could happen. Our hearts go out to those families, teachers, public service men and women who are dealing with a devastated community. And amongst the deep pain and darkness, there is hope, there is a light who we as the church await with expectant hearts.
In Christ we believe in resurrection, we believe that God is making all things new, and that in Christ we may have resurrection too. Even amidst time of sadness in this nation, we hold on to this truth, that God will come and has come as a child in order to alter the injustice of this world. God is engaged in the struggle for justice, never removed from the present agony when justice is denied.
Mary believed in God’s engagement in the world and so she stepped out in faith to bear the son of God, the Messiah. Mary believed in the hope of resurrection before even seeing the cross. Mary believed and trusted that God who was making all things new in Christ would continue to do so. And as things are continuing to become new in Christ, we also hold on to this hope. The light has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it.
As we continue to wait for the light, the Christ child, may our prayer be one that rejoices in God in Christ our Lord, grieves the injustice in this world, but continues to hope in Emmanuel, God with us who is making all things new by his resurrection. Come thou long-expected Jesus.
A sermon preached Sunday, December 16, 2013 at Peakland United Methodist Church. Scriptures were: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18.
The wilderness. It was the place where the Hebrews wandered for forty years before reaching the Promised Land. It was the place where Jesus would go and be tempted for forty days before officially starting his ministry. And it was the place where John the Baptist lived and preached.
The wilderness is dangerous and inhospitable. It is barren, rough, and rocky. It is a place that is unstructured and chaotic. The wilderness is a place of fear. We have been in the wilderness this weekend. We were forced into the reality that the world is not safe and is unpredictable. We have roamed in fear, grief, and horror after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school.
Sometime Friday, a clergy person I know posted on his facebook, “WHY!?!?!” We have probably all asked the same question at some point. Why did this happen? Why does this keep happening? Will we be safe?
But if we let the words of John echo through our wilderness, we may find the next steps. John calls for repentance and change. He calls for the people of God to bear good fruit. It is not enough, he tells them, to claim your heritage to Abraham, you must act like who you say you are. To us we hear it is not enough for you to say that you are a Christian, you must act like who you say you are.
In the midst of the barren and inhospitable, John calls for reprioritizing. In the midst of chaos, John calls the people to focus their lives on God’s love. And we, like the people in the wilderness of John’s day, ask, “What then should we do?”
John’s answer is preschool worthy. What then should we do? We should share. John gives examples of what to do. If you have a lot, and your neighbor has nothing, you should share what you have. It reminds me of the saying, “Live simply, so others may simply live.” But this sharing goes beyond our material things. We who claim the Christ Child as our Lord and Savior are to share the love of God with others. We are to share grace and forgiveness. We are to share our hugs. We are to share our prayers.
In Philippians 4, Paul tells the church, “do not worry.” At a time like this, that seems like a tall order. If anyone knew anything about what it meant to worry, it was Paul. He had churches that were being bombarded with false theologies and pagan ideas. The churches were infested with conflict and confusion. They were looked down upon by the rest of the society. All of this is tough when you are responsible for one church, but Paul had them scattered all around. Oh, and Paul was in prison. Paul knew about worrying.
But Paul goes on to say in Philippians 4, “but handle everything in prayer.” For Paul, the opposite of worry is prayer. Instead of worrying and being anxious, Paul says, pray! Prayer should not be the last resort when we are panic-stricken. Instead, we should be so tight in our relationship with God, that we open ourselves up to God on a daily basis, so that when we are panic-stricken, we are in a place where we naturally hand things over to God. We do no worry, we give it God. Because, at the end of the day, God is in control, not us.
My Dad was an example of this for me. While he was in the hospital sick with prostate cancer, the meds were leaving him in such disarray that he did not always realize where he was. So, we took turns staying overnight at the hospital with him. On the night I stayed, I was a young 20, Dad thankfully was alert to his surroundings. During our conversation that evening, he lifted his hands as high as he could and said, “It’s in God’s hands now.”
It would be easy to say that my Dad was giving up, and to be honest, that’s what I feared was happening. But the reality was that he was opening himself up to God in such a way that it was natural and easy for him to say, “It’s in God’s hands. I’m not in control. God is in control.”
This experience was a wilderness one for me. It was a time full of fear and uncertainty. It was a time of sorrow, and a time of hopelessness. It was difficult to see my Dad, whom I had never seen sick during my childhood, in a hospital bed, barely able to lift up his own hands.
Every year during Advent we come to the wilderness to hear John’s story and his message of repentance and change. It is a message of transformation and renewal. There is no getting to Bethlehem and the sweet, little, baby born in the manger without first going through the wilderness.
There is a Native American proverb that goes like this. A grandfather told his grandson about two wolves who were constantly battling inside his heart. One wolf was greed, hatred, and fear. The other was love, peace, and kindness. “Which will win?” asked the grandson. The grandfather replied, “The one I feed.” When we open ourselves up to God and live in this tight relationship, we are feeding the wolf of love, peace and kindness.
Paul goes on to say, in Philippians 4, to rejoice! That too seems like a tall order in moments like these. We can rejoice, however, because the Lord is near. One Bible translates as “God lives among you.” This is a word of comfort, no doubt. In the midst of our grieving, God is with us. In the midst of our sorrow, God is with us. In the midst of loss and tragedy, God is with us. In the midst of healing, God is with us. These are all causes for rejoicing. Because God is with us, we discover joy.
This is perhaps why the words from the prophet Zephaniah are so profound. The Israelites of this generation were surrounded by destruction and exile. They had failed to listen to God; they had strayed; they had not trusted God. They were need of renewal and change.
What Zephaniah pronounces is that the crises we face are best addressed in community. Change and transformation, healing and renewal happen best in community. Nurturing our relationship with God as well as with others is essential to the Christian faith. We need each other. The Christian faith is not a solo, rather a choral arrangement. And at the center of this community is the God who comforts.
Despite the conditions and challenges we face, the pain and disappointment, God is a God who comforts, consoles, and nurtures. God is a God who hears the cries of God’s children. God has not abandoned God’s people.
The events on Friday showed us that in a moment everything changes. In a moment 15 first-graders were taken from us.
In a moment a teacher, protecting her students, lost her life. In a moment the lives of ten individuals in Chicago ended.
In a moment, a father loses his job and a family struggles. In a moment, an accident leaves a mother in a wheelchair.
In a moment a light begins to shine. In a moment we discover joy.
And it only took a moment for a baby boy to be born. A baby boy who will change everything.
Go from this place and share. Share the love and grace of God. Share your prayers. Share a hug.
A sermon on Job 42:1-6; 10-17 and Mark 10:46-52 preached Sunday, October 28, 2012 at Peakland United Methodist Church.
It had become a tradition in the last church I was at to host the homeless for two weeks in November through a ministry called CARITAS in Richmond. The whole church was transformed into a homeless shelter. Thanksgiving day always fell during this time and we started holding a worship service on Thanksgiving with our guests.
Last year in the worship service we sang the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The second verse of the hymn says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I come.” I had a bowl of water set out with small stones in the bottom. I explained that an Ebenezer was a stone of help and it was often used in the Old Testament to monument where God had helped the people, such as in 1Samuel 7:12.
I invited those worshiping to come up and to remember their baptism – the waters of grace -as they plunged their hand into the water to get an Ebenezer. I told them to hang on to their Ebenezer and let it remind them that God is with them; God is their help in trouble; and God will set them free. I remember saying, “Let this Ebenezer, that was drenched in the waters of grace, represent for you a new beginning.”
Bartimaeus was in need of a new beginning. Mark does not tell us how long Bartimaeus begged on this corner just outside Jericho. But we can imagine that it was probably a long time. He was a blind man, a man of the street, an outsider. And as such, it wasn’t like he had a lot of chances. Day by day he laid his cloak out on the street and chatted up any passerby for the hopes of a few coins.
N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is a New Testament scholar and has been named one of the top five theologians of our time. Thinking about Bartimaeus, Wright tells the story how how an adult son tried desperately to get his ailing and depressed mother into a home where she would be cared for. His own life was being swamped by her needs and demands, and he didn’t have much of a private life. The son came to Wright for assistance. They looked at several options, including nursing homes, sheltered housing, communities of all sizes. But the mother didn’t budge. There was always something wrong with one of the facilities. After about an hour or so, Wright reports, of looking at different homes, the mother turns to her son and with victory in her eyes says, “See, I told you he (Bishop Wright) couldn’t do anything for us.”
The truth is Bishop Wright was helping them. But the mother wasn’t ready for change. She wasn’t willing to see the potential in the different homes and facilities they visited. She wasn’t ready to help herself.
Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus in Mark is a very different encounter than we usually see from Jesus in a healing narrative. Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” is really Jesus asking, as Wright points out, “Are you, Bartimaues, ready to give up begging?” “Are you ready for a new beginning?” “Are you ready to make a change?”
Maybe Jesus is asking us the same question: Are you ready for a new beginning in your life? Are you ready to make a change? Or, Jesus could be asking that question to us the Church? Are we the Church ready for a new beginning? Are we the Church ready to make a change?
Change happens. It was built into the very fiber of creation, and (somewhat ironically) it is built in the very fiber of the Church. Just as the crowd shouted at Bartimaeus to be quiet, we are distracted by the voices yelling at us whenever we speak or think of change. Voices of consumerism. Voices of power and popularity. Voices of influence.
With so many voices trying to get our attention it can be difficult to see things the way they are. Our vision becomes cloudy at best. It becomes difficult to see the pain and hurting around us – maybe even in the same pew. It becomes difficult to see the suffering in our community. And sometimes the loudest voice of all is our own voice, shouting that things are fine the way they are; shouting that if so-and-so hadn’t done us wrong, it wouldn’t be this way; shouting that someone else can do it.
And with all this shouting, it becomes difficult to see as God sees.
So, how can we improve our vision? What does a spiritual eye exam look like? Before Bartimaeus ever asks to be healed of his blindness, he yells out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” This is an unexpected messianic greeting. On the outskirts of Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, by a blind begger. The irony is not lost on Mark. As we have discussed in our Mark Bible study this fall, Mark draws a direct connection between “seeing” and “knowing.” The contrast that Mark draws is that those who have seen, like the disciples, still struggle with knowing, while those who cannot see, like Bartimaeus, know and understand. Despite his blindness, Bartimaeus has vision and knows when he hears that Jesus is coming down the street, that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who can save, the one who can forgive.
We’ve been reading parts of Job’s story the last few weeks, and if you have never read Job I encourage you to take a look, its one of the greatest books. Chapter 42 is the last chapter, bringing the saga to a close. In the verses we read this morning, the turning point is in verse 6. Different Bibles have different translations ranging from “I repent” to “I humble myself” to “I submit.” Did the sight of God and the weight of God’s words humble Job, or did Job just decide it was better to give in and go on with life? When we face troubles in our lives or the life of the Church, do we humble ourselves before God, or do we mime the motions and thought processes of humility to somehow muddle our way through while mutely maintaining that we have been wronged?
Job, like Bartimaeus, seeks mercy from the Lord. When we seek mercy, forgiveness, it is not about who is right or who is wrong. Those things don’t matter anymore. Both Job and Bartimaues serve as a model for us as to what it means to humble ourselves in a way that says we are ready. Repenting, humbling yourself, or submitting to God, means that you are turning away from the things that have separated you or distracted you from God in the first place. It’s turning away from the voices that demand our attention elsewhere, and putting our full attention on God.
Jacob Albright was a preacher in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. After several of his children died, Albright went through a bit of a religious crisis. A new beginning was needed. He attended a Methodist class meeting (what we would call a small group) that met in a home and through that experience felt called to preach to the German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania. In 1790 he converted to Methodism and would later be the founder of the Evangelical Association, one of the denominations that would later become The United Methodist Church. It was through the small group ministry that was so essential to early Methodists, that Albright gained sight for change in his life.
In the Christian Church, today is Reformation Sunday. Martin Luther, the German monk, was filled with remorse over the direction the Church was headed. He compiled a list – The 95 Theses – of ways in which the Church needed to be reformed. In 1517 he nailed this list to the doors of the church. Though the Roman Catholic church would excommunicate him and he would be named an outlaw by the Emperor, Luther would start the Reformation, which would lead to Protestant denominations like Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. Luther had gained sight for change in the church and ignored the voices yelling at him to not take a stand, to do so.
Albright gained sight and vision to change his spiritual life. Luther gained sight and vision to change his church. Understanding what we really need is necessary for change. If Bartimaeus was not ready to put an end to his life on the street, than seeking change was not going to be beneficial. When Jesus asked him What do you want me to do for you?, Bartimaeus could have asked for money, a warm meal, or even a place to stay.
People in need have been conditioned to ask for things that will alleviate, but not eliminate their troubles. This is at the heart of the United Methodist Church’s emphasis on ministry with the poor verses ministry to the poor. Bartimaeus’ request of Jesus was to eliminate his trouble, and he could ask this because he was ready to take that step, to make that stand, to seek change.
This past Mother’s Day, Megan and I went with my mom and another family to serve a meal at Freedom House’s Community Shelter in Richmond. The Community Shelter offers more than just shelter and food to the 40 residents. The program is open to those homeless individuals who show signs of readiness for change in their lives and prepares them for that change during the 12-month program.
As we gathered to offer a blessing before the meal, there was an African-American woman that looked very familiar to me. But I could not place her. After a few minutes of trying to figure it out, I let it go and we served the meal and ate with the residents.
When the dining area had cleared out and us volunteers were starting to clean up, the woman came back into the dining space. She hesitated for a moment, and then looked at me and said, “I know you. You’re from that church in Hanover. You gave my my Ebenezer.” As soon as she said this, it finally clicked with me. She was a part of CARITAS and was living in our church for two weeks and was at the Thanksgiving day worship service. When I acknowledged that I remembered her, her face lit up as she remembered that day and she began to dance right there in the kitchen.
She even pulled her Ebenezer stone out of her pocket to show it to me. It had become for her a symbol for her readiness to change her life and her vision for a new beginning.
It is time for us to do the same. It is time for us to recognize our need. It is time for us to humble ourselves before Christ. It is time for us to change. Amen.
Scripture readings: Job 23:1-9; 16-17 and Mark 10:17-27
It was a Sunday morning, but something seemed different. As Erin drove to church, she noticed that the roads were more crowded than they normally were. And then she saw it. Instead of an abandoned parking lot at the Toys-R-Us like it was every other Sunday morning, the parking lot was full!
It looked like hundreds of children and their parents wrapped around the building and lined up in anticipation of something – a new Elmo toy, perhaps. Erin couldn’t help but think, “WOW.” All of these families lined up outside of a toy store just to get the newest toy.
As I reflected on Erin’s experience, I found myself thinking of all the children in our community who will never have that experience. Children who struggle to get by each day and who don’t know what the next day will bring. These children are not lined up outside of a Toys-R-Us waiting to take advantage of a sale or release of a new toy on a Sunday morning.
Take Renee for example. Renee is a client at United Methodist Family Services and she doesn’t consider herself anyone’s child. She is a ward of the state. Renee’s biological mother was 17 when Renee was born and living in poverty. Her troubled life involved convictions for theft, cocaine possession, and carrying a concealed weapon. After her mother was arrested for forgery, 7-year-old Renee was scooped up by a social worker and placed in the foster care system. Renee is not waiting outside Toys-R-Us to buy the latest and greatest toy on sale.
Renee is waiting for a forever family who will love and care for her.
Erin’s experience at Toys-R-Us and Renee’s story leaves me wondering, what is it that we the church are seeking for children? Are we seeking and pursuing justice and love for all children? Or are we focusing so much on teaching what we think Christians should believe while neglecting to show how Christians should live by actively pursuing justice?
Job doesn’t quite ask it this way in our Old Testament reading this morning, but he gets there. Job is the Biblical example of what it means to suffer. God and Satan set a bet on the table to see if Job would curse God or not if Job was no longer under God’s protection. God removes his protection from Job and Job loses everything. He loses the family farm, his children die, his wife leaves him because she can’t handle it anymore. His friends try to help, but all they offer are ways in which Job caused this suffering on himself. The verses we read this morning are often looked at by scholars as Job’s complaint to God. Complaint often has a negative tone to it. But challenge your thinking on that. Job is complaining because there is no sense of justice. Job feels that it is not right that he should suffer in the ways in which he has suffered.
Shane Claiborne, a well-known Christian author and speaker, who defines himself as an “ordinary radical,” describes his own experience as a youth growing up in the United Methodist Church this way:
I began to wonder if anybody still believed Jesus meant the things he said. Jesus was crazy enough to suggest that if you want to become the greatest, you should become the least. Jesus declared God’s blessing on the poor rather than the rich and insisted it wasn’t enough to love just your friends. I thought that if we really lived like Jesus taught, it would turn the world upside down and that it was a shame Christians had become so normal. I learned in Confirmation class about the fiery beginnings of the Methodist Church, but where had the fire gone? I learned about John Wesley who said that if they didn’t kick him out of town after he spoke, he wondered if he had really preached the Gospel. Then I watched as the congregation built a $120,000 stained glass window. Wesley would not have been happy. I stared at that window. I longed for Jesus to break out of it, to free himself, to come to rise from the dead . . .again.
Claiborne’s words remind me of the story of two old men talking to each other and one of them says he has a question for God. He wants to know why God allows such injustices, poverty, suffering, and hunger to exist in the world. His friend says, “Well, why don’t you ask God?” The fellow shakes his head and says he is scared too. When his friend asks him why, he answers, “I’m scared God will ask me the same question.”
It is quite possible that the rich man in Mark’s gospel today could have felt the same way that this old man did. The rich man comes to Jesus inquiring what he must DO to inherit eternal life. For Mark, eternal life is a synonym for the Kingdom of God. He uses the two terms interchangeably. In Jesus’ time it was widely believed that the rich were more likely to inherit the Kingdom of God. Their wealth was something that they had worked hard to accumulate over time or they had inherited. The rich man was most likely used to doing something in order to inherit great wealth (aka the Kingdom of God).
Jesus’ response is enough to jar us as it exposes the shakiness that is the bridge between the have’s and the have-not’s. Jesus flips the understanding of what it means to belong to the Kingdom of God.
Remember last week when we read from the Gospel of Mark, the disciples were trying to keep the children away from Jesus? Jesus said, “Let them come to me, because the Kingdom of God belongs to ones such as these.” Remember how Edwin told us a few times that in Jesus’ day, children were expected to not be seen and not be heard. They had no social status what so ever. They were the least of these. And Jesus says that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. Jesus has flipped the understanding of how to enter the Kingdom. He does the same this week, with the rich man.
Jesus calls the rich man to give up all of his possessions and follow Him. The man, as Lamar Williamson, points out, was mostly awe-struck, astonished at what Jesus was asking of him. And the man walked away.
This is the part of the story where we usually yell out like we were watching our favorite TV show, “Dude, what are you doing?? You’re walking away from Jesus??” In Mark’s gospel this is the only time someone is called to follow Jesus and does not immediately do so. But, as Megan, who is also preaching on this text today, pointed out to me, we don’t know what the man does when he leaves. Maybe he was disappointed. Maybe he was angry and bitter. We really don’t know, Mark does not tell us, that’s another story for another book for another day. The question it raises for us is, where are we walking? Where are we going when Jesus calls us?
Today is Children’s Sabbath which is sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund who works tirelessly to ensure every child is healthy, is educated, and has an equal start. They challenge faith communities, like this one, to transform our communities and our nation as they defend and care for the youngest, weakest, poorest, and most vulnerable. The least of these.
So, while we are here in this beautiful place of worship and not in line at the Toys-R-Us, we must tackle some tough questions. Are we engaging in our Christian education in spiritual disciplines that lead to the practice of risk-taking mission and deep authentic community to seek justice for all children? Are we engaging people in our ministries in leadership to equip them to be the change they wish to see in the world? As we consider the millions of children in our own country who live in poverty, who are homeless, abused, neglected, without health insurance, or who are hungry, we must think about how we can be the body, the hands, and the feet of Christ for these children to work for – to pursue – justice on their behalf.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel knew something about pursuing justice. He said once, after marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, “It felt as if my feet were praying.” Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King were walking with purpose and intent. To pursue is to hold purpose, there is nothing accidental or incidental about what we are doing. Rabbi Heschel would write, “The term ‘pursue’ carries strong connotations of effort, eagerness. This implies more than merely respecting or following justice”; in other words, justice is something we actively pursue. We don’t just sit back and say oh, that’s a great idea. The talk the talk and we walk the walk.
When a child is in absolute jeopardy, mortal danger, we put out an Amber Alert – we tell the whole community that we are in pursuit of the child and the one who is endangering that child, it is a time of utmost urgency and everyone has to get involved, everyone is expected to be aware, to look out for the child, to do what they can to help rescue the child in danger.
Brothers and sisters, this is our Amber Alert. We as a community of faith, as ones who follow the Christ, need to be on the lookout for children in danger, we need to be in pursuit for safety, to see that justice is done. In an Amber Alert, we get all kinds of information about the child, including their face, name, and story plastered everywhere!
There are countless faces of children lining up, not at Toys-R-Us, but at soup kitchens and other churches and agencies to get one hot meal or one box of food or for the lucky chance of getting to see a doctor at the free clinic. They are lining up all over Africa, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Dominic Republic, Washington D. C., and Lynchburg, Virginia.
We most likely will not get to see the faces of the 16.4 million children in this country who live in poverty, or the millions without needed health care, or the countless faces of children who go to bed hungry. We most likely won’t see the faces of the 5, 367 children and youth who are in foster care in Virginia and the 1, 372 who are waiting to be adopted by a forever family.
But some of us will. 25% of the population in Lynchburg is made up of children living below the poverty level. It is easy to look out and not see, but chances are with 25% of the population being children below the poverty level, we’ve met them. We’ve see them somewhere. How are we going to respond? Are we going to walk away?
Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment was, and he answered two-fold: “Love God. Love each other.” We are called to love our neighbors are ourselves. We are called to love our enemies. We are called to love all people. And because we love, we pursue justice. When we pursue justice we are showing others our love.
We can rest assured that the faces we don’t see, God does. God knows each of their names, each of their faces, and each of their stories, just as God knows each of ours. And God has called us to go in pursuit of justice and love on their behalf – the nameless/faceless children of our community and our world. I challenge you this week to consider how God is calling you to be in ministry with children and youth whether that is here at Peakland or in our community of Lynchburg, or beyond. How is God calling you and how fast are you willing to go?
A sermon preached on John 6:35, 41-51 on Sunday, August 12, 2012 at Peakland United Methodist Church.
Dust was flying through the air as the children ran back and forth kicking a soccer ball. Spanish and English floated above heads as college students from the United States were playing futbol with Costa Rican children while on a mission trip to the shantytown Los Diques. As the ball flew past Paul, one of the American college students, the Costa Rican children laughed that they had gotten the ball past him. But Paul’s attention had left the soccer game.
In the distance, Paul noticed something. Or, rather, someone. Sitting next to an electrical pole that didn’t work, in tall green grass that hadn’t been cut, was a toddler. Paul walked over to the electrical pole as the soccer game continued. He picked up the small boy who was wearing only a diaper, and carried him into the church.
This was the first time I met Jabel. He was two at the time. He lived in a small two-room house that sat across the dirt road from a church and next to the shantytown’s trash pile. At random times during the week someone would come by and set the trash on fire to burn down the pile. The smell of burnt trash would drift into Jabel’s house
His single mother worked in coffee fields all day. She would walk about 20 minutes from the shantytown into the nearest city to ride the bus thirty minutes to the coffee fields. During the day, she left her three boys, Jabel and his two older brothers, at home by themselves.
Even though Jabel’s mother loves him deeply, she struggles to put bread on the table.
The average person in the world will eat one small meal today, and this was true for Jabel and others like him in the shantytown of Los Diques. Hunger is a reality that hurts.
In Biblical times, hunger was a reality that was not overlooked. And it is this context of hunger – a universal experience – that Jesus spoke what became controversial words: “I am the bread that comes from heaven.”
In verse 41, John tells us that the Jews started complaining because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came from heaven.” This statement aroused anger and anxiety in the people. This is in contrast to the response Jesus got in last week’s reading from John 6, where the people wanted more of Jesus. They sought him out. But not this week! Here they complain!
They didn’t seek understanding or clarification. Instead they murmur and complain. “How can this be?” they ask. These words from Jesus cause them to remember how their ancestors wandered around in the wilderness (murmuring and complaining, none the less), and how Moses provided them with manna from heaven. “The giving of the manna,” Biblical scholar William Barclay writes, “was held to be the supreme work in the life of Moses and the Messiah was bound to surpass it.” And so, here is this Jesus who claims to be the Messiah, with no manna from heaven. Instead, he calls himself that bread from heaven.
With this one statement, Jesus calls into question everything the people had believed and held as truth. Not only was Jesus changing their way of understanding “bread from heaven,” but he was changing their understanding of being in relationship with God. To be in relationship with God meant believing in Jesus as the Christ.
And their way of coping with this, was to complain. And why not? It’s so easy.
A monk joined a monastery and took a vow of silence. After the first 10 years his superior called him in and asked, “Do you have anything to say?” The monk replied, “Food bad.” After another 10 years the monk again had opportunity to voice his thoughts. He said, “Bed hard.” Another 10 years went by and again he was called in before his superior. When asked if he had anything to say, he responded, “I quit.” “It doesn’t surprise me a bit. You’ve done nothing but complain ever since you got here.”
But seriously, when it comes to growing in our faith and in our relationship with God, complaining gets in the way. You know why the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years? Because they were complaining so much. Look at Jesus’ answer in verse 43: “Do not complain among yourselves.” The Message puts it this way, “Don’t bicker among yourselves.”
Jesus calls it as he sees it. Complaining gets in the way of spiritual growth. Jesus offers to us the Bread of Life, the nourishment that will keep us individually and as a community of faith, from wandering in the wilderness.
Irenaeus, an early church theologian, was asked what new thing has Christ brought that others do not give us, he replied, “He brought himself.” The bread from heaven that Jesus brings is himself for the spiritual self of humanity. “He is,” Irenaeus says, “as necessary to us as our food.”
We may not be hungering for bread like Jabel, but we hunger in a spiritual way. And Jesus says that he is the bread that came from heaven, those who eat of this bread will live forever, and be hungry no more. A hunger that can be fed through Jesus Christ.
For it is through a relationship IN Christ that we, as the workmanship of God, are able to share the Bread of Life with those who are hungering. We, as the Apostle Paul tells us through his letter to the Ephesians are to live the life which we are called. Those of us who claim Christ as Savior are called to be Christians, which can be simply translated as “little Christs.”
In the 1992 Walt Disney film, Aladdin, the title character goes through some extreme measures to get a loaf of bread, including running away from the Sultan’s guards. As an adolescent living on the streets, Aladdin knows that this loaf of bread could possibly be the only food he’ll have that day.
As he’s about to bite into the bread Aladdin notices two small children digging through trash, searching for something to eat. In that moment, Aladdin becomes a “little Christ,” generously giving his bread to the children. As Frances Taylor Gench, of Union Seminary in Richmond says, “No image could convey more clearly Jesus’ power to nourish and sustain human life and to address our ultimate hunger – the hunger in every human heart for relationship with God.”
We are called to do the same – to share the Bread the Life with those who are hungering. When Paul says in Ephesians 5:1 that we should be “imitators of God,” this is what he means. We – in every way, on every day – are to imitate the God we say we love. Whether that be in Central America, right here in Lynchburg, or even within the walls here at Peakland; packing lunches or giving money to support a feeding program; we are called to imitate the Christ.
So, I ask you how – where – are you being called to imitate Christ by sharing the Bread of Life?
This is the wordle version of my Pentecost sermon from a few weeks ago.
A sermon preached January 1, 2012 at Lebanon United Methodist Church on Matthew 2:1-12 and Ephesians 3:1-12.
This week our church will be a part of the 7th mission trip to Los Diques, Costa Rica. I have had the privilege, by the grace of God and the generosity of others, to be a part of all 7 mission trips. Since the first trip in 2006, my experiences in Diques have influenced my preaching and my teaching in various ways. It’s not uncommon for me to share a story about Don Victor, the pastor at the Church of the Light of the New Day in Diques, or his family. Or about different children we’ve meet over the years and how their stories impacted our lives.
Don Victor and his story came to mind as I pondered today’s worship service. About 25 years ago, Don Victor moved his family into Los Diques, leaving behind a comfortable lifestyle to live in a place with no electricity, no running water, and streets and floors made of dirt. Why? That’s the question that so many Costa Ricans and Americans have asked for years. Why would he do this?
Don Victor saw something in Diques that few others did, and few still do to this day. Where others saw prostitutes and drug dealers, Don Victor saw children of God. Where others saw a collection of run down shacks, Don Victor saw the Kingdom of God. Even with this new perspective, Don Victor’s story is not a warm, cuddly one. He was met with a lot of resistance. He received very little support from other Christians because he was doing ministry in such a ghetto. During worship services, neighbors would play loud music or run loud machinery. At times rocks would rain down on the building during services. There were days when dead dogs were thrown at the building, landing right at the front gate.
As Don Victor was welcoming the outcasts of Diques into the Body of Christ, he was unwelcomed.
The Apostle Paul knew something about not being welcomed. It is believed that Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians while in prison. Paul’s preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ was not welcomed. Yet, the gospel was not the only thing not welcomed in the first century church. There was a major controversy in the first church, something I know we are not accustomed to today. Luke documents the controversy well in Acts 15. In Paul’s day, there was one major division among people – Jew or Gentile.
In the simplest definition, a Gentile is a non-Jew. The Acts 15 controversy centered on whether Gentile Christians should go through the same rituals that the Jewish Christians did. In a sense, it became an issue of membership. The Jewish Christians were not recognizing the Gentile Christians membership in the church. The issue was not limited to just Acts 15. It was a problem that would rear its ugly head throughout the early church.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul’s major theme is that God’s plan of salvation is evident through the unified – the oneness – of the body of the church – the body of Christ. Many of the mission trips to Costa Rica have had the theme of “Somos Uno” – We are one. Don Victor preached about how we are all different, different languages, colors, and hair styles, with different abilities, skills, and gifts, and when we come together we make up the Body of Christ and together accomplish the work of the Kingdom of God.
This idea – this theology – is sprinkled throughout Paul’s letters, including in Ephesians. Yet, there is this division between Jews and Gentiles. Paul, in essence, tells the Ephesians what he tells so many others, “Get over it.” Yes, there are differences. And that happens. But don’t let those differences become stumbling blocks to doing Kingdom work. What Paul is saying is that we all – Jews and Gentiles – can live together in this new Christian community to do the work of the kindgom.
Yet, the notion that Gentiles were to be included and participate on an equal basis with Jewish people was still quite controversial at the time. Paul had a goal to unite Jew and Gentile in equal grace. The bottom line for Paul is this: Christ simply HAS been made manifest to all, and the good news about him WILL go out from all who are committed to him and to all the world, including the Gentiles.
Including the unwelcomed.
This is just one of the themes we uncover in Matthew’s birth narrative, where the final pieces of the Nativity Set – the arrival of the wise men – are put into place. Iraqi or Iranian star gazers were not normally seen waltzing into Jerusalem looking for a newborn king. “If they did,” as one observer has noted, “they would have known enough protocol from their own culture that they wouldn’t normally start by asking common people and maybe a priest or two where this child might be. Matters of state like this would usually have been handled by an official delegation working through all the ‘right’ channels. In short, what these men were doing in Jerusalem and how they did it was bound – and maybe even intended – to draw suspicion from the powers that be.” And suspicion it did draw.
Here are men most likely dressed in clothing that is very different from the cultural norm of Jerusalem, they probably have different facial features, and the gifts they bring with them suggest they are of a higher economic means than the average Jerusalem citizen. These men are different.
Of the four Gospels, Matthew’s Gospel is the most Jewish. It’s possible that the faith community that Matthew is writing his gospel for is the first Jewish Christian community in the first century. There is a strong sense in this gospel to follow the Mosaic law; to hear Jesus teach in the tradition of the great Hebrew rabbis; and the importance of spiritual practices. In Matthew’s view, this rich tradition of the Jewish faith are items that should be continued in the Christian faith. Yet, with all this Jewishness, Matthew’s birth narrative has the least amount of Jewish characters.
It seems that the Jewish-Gentile tension is present in this early faith community as well. I don’t think that it was a mere chance that Matthew includes the Magi in his gospel account. Matthew is saying that there are traditions that are important and will guide us to growth, but that does not mean that we should keep Gentiles out, because they don’t fit into that tradition. Mike Slaughter, a Methodist minister, points out that it was these nameless travelers who are the committed ones in Matthew’s narrative. It was not the Jews, the ones inside the faith community, it was the Gentiles, those outside the community of faith. Upon arrival, they bow down and worship Christ; they open their treasures and present them to the King; and they leave by a different way – transformed – changed.
From the beginning, Matthew is telling his faith community that tradition is important and valued, but that does not mean we exclude those who are different from us. Christ is for all. That is the message of the Manger. The Christ child was not born in a palace with plush pillows, but rather in a barn surrounded by manure. The Christ child was not visited by great political leaders, but rather was surrounded by barn yard animals, smelly shepherds, and foreigners. Christ does the unexpected, and welcomes the unexpected.
The shantytown that is Los Diques is a place where people with no other means go. Families escaping abusive fathers. Mothers addicted to drugs. Grandmothers raising her grandchildren. Young boys whose only way out is to join a gang; young girls whose only way out is to sell herself. This is a place the government would rather not exist, which is why they have been so reluctant over the years to provide the basic necessities for these people.
Yet, none of this matters to Don Victor. Never has. People are people. And all people need grace.
I remember once walking through Los Diques with Don Victor and we came upon a teenage boy, who was 15 or 16. Don Victor looked him right in the eyes and began to rattle off in his mumbling kind of Spanish. I couldn’t understand a word Don Victor was saying, but I did know from context clues he offered earlier on our walk that we were in the area of Diques where pot was being grown – marjurnia. While I couldn’t understand, I knew from the young man’s facial expression that he understood what Don Victor was saying. I noticed his arms abused like a cutting board from the drugs he had been taking. Don Victor knew this young man, knew that no matter what he had done that day, he needed to know that there was a place for him at the church, that he was valued by Don Victor and Jesus, and that grace was for him too.
The fact that these Magi, studiers of the stars from a foreign land, visited the Christ Child is a bit of foreshadowing into the ministry of Christ. Jesus welcomed all. The tax collector that nobody wanted to have lunch with; the children everyone wanted to keep in their place; the leper that no one dared touch; the bleeding woman everyone had forgotten about. And Jesus stills welcomes all, no matter where you have been or what you have done.
Whenever we gather around this Table, Spencer (or any other Elder) will say that this table is not Lebanon’s table – it is not the UMC’s table – it is Christ’s Table, and as such, all are welcomed. All are welcomed at Christ’s table. The bottom line of Paul’s message to the Ephesians is the bottom line of Christ’s table: Christ simply has been made manifest to all, and to all there is equal grace.
That’s the lesson I have learned from Don Victor – that all are welcomed – all receive grace. That is the message of Paul’s ministry and the message of the Manger. . . and the Cross. And we who claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to follow in those footsteps to welcome all to share the good news of an equal grace to all.
The following meditation was written and delivered for the Community Thanksgiving Eve Service at St. Paul’s Church in Hanover on Wednesday, November 23, 2005.
Read Psalm 65:9-14.
Shouts of joy! And why not? They have been blessed with abundance. There’s flocks in the pastures, and grain in the valley. There should be shouts of joy!
I got a phone call today from a church member looking for someone who could benefit from a cooked Thanksgiving meal. We found someone. I talked with the same church member later today, and she told me how the individual shouted for joy over the blessing that had been brought to her.
“God is good!” I can hear the woman saying. And He is. He has blessed us with many opportunities of thankful praise for the blessings bestowed upon us daily.
But today I was also reminded of those who are not shouting. A man came by my office today, as well, looking for some assistance. The last few weeks have been rough and he didn’t have enough money to pay his bills and buy groceries. I made some phone calls and worked something out for him so that he would be able to go to the store and get food for him and his family. As he sat in my office, though, he began to share with me some of this life story. How he missed his parents, especially at this time of year, who have both passed on. How he tries to make ends meet and do the best he can. How he has struggled to take care of his ill son for the past few years. And how work has not been the best since the weather has gotten colder. He wasn’t shouting. He was tired and worn and hungry.
But he was thankful. Thankful for a comfortable place to sit and reflect. Thankful for the family he has. Thankful to find someone who would listen. Thankful for his faith in Jesus Christ.
C. A. Hall has been attributed to saying, “Sow a thought, and you reap an act. Sow an act, and you reap a character. Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.” This man’s destiny lies in his faith in God. His thoughts, actions, and character are all reflections of his faith. Though he may not know where his next meal is coming from, he knows the Bread of Life. Though he may not know where his next job will be, he knows Who holds tomorrow.
A Latin American theologian tells this story:
“A woman of forty, but who looked as old as seventy, went up to the priest after Mass and said sorrowfully: ‘Father, I went to communion without going to confession first.’ ‘How come, my daughter?’ asked the priest. ‘Father,’ she replied, ‘I arrived rather late, after you had begun the offertory. For three days I have had only water and nothing to eat; I’m dying of hunger. When I saw you handing out the hosts, those little pieces of white bread, I went to communion just out of hunger for that little bit of bread.’ The priest’s eyes filled with tears. He recalled the words of Jesus: ‘My flesh is real food . . . whoever feeds on me will draw life from me’ (John 6:55, 57).”
During this season of thanks, may our prayers and meditations reflect those things which are blessings, but also with those who are not shouting. Amen.
A sermon preached on Children’s Sabbath in October of 2008 at Lebanon United Methodist.
In the 2006 film Around the Bend, the death of the main character’s grandfather, brings him and his estranged father back together. The grandfather’s final wishes were for his son, grandson, and great-grandson to go on a journey together spreading his ashes at various locations as he had indicated on a map and series of sticky notes in KFC bags. As they continue on this journey, they begin to realize that the grandfather’s intention was more than just spreading ashes. His intention was to bring a family torn apart back together, and begin a journey of reconciliation.
Along the journey, the grandson finds an old billfold photo of himself when he was a child that his father still had. Because of their shattered relationship, he didn’t expect his father to have such a picture. When he turns the picture over, written on the back in his father’s handwriting were the words, “My boy.”
In her book, Thus Far on the Way, the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner recalls such billfold photos that many of us may carry of our children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, or godchildren. We look at the photos and we see similarities between family members. He has his father’s nose. She has her mother’s chin. It is easy, gazing at the faces of those we love, to see them as made and beloved by God. But what, muses Lindner, must God’s billfold look like?
As I pondered on this question this week, I wondered who among us has God’s nose or God’s chin or God’s hairline. Looking through old billfold photos is like looking through a persevered history of a family. I imagine that the children of this community are in God’s billfold.
I imagine the children of Uganda born with AIDS -
The children of Iraq and Afghanistan of Israel and Lebanon, suffering from a war that is not theirs -
The children of this country, where every 51 seconds a child is born without health insurance. The children of this country, where every 35 seconds a child is abused or neglected -
The children of Asia, Central America, India, and Africa without parents, living in orphanages ..
The children of New Orleans left homeless by Hurricane Katrina -
The children who make up 4% of Hanover County’s population who are living in poverty and the children we have met through the Angel Tree program who are parent-less because their parents are incarnated.
The children of Diques, Costa Rica living in poverty, poor in material things, but rich in faith. These are the images I imagine are in God’s billfold.
Many of these children worry about where their next meal will come from. Many worry about where their water will come from. Many worry about having clothes to fit. Yet, despite these worries, as we saw in Costa Rica, these children and their families were able to put aside those worries and trust in God. For they understood that through it all, every worry, every doubt, every injustice, every thing that goes the wrong way, God will see them through. They’ve learned to trust and depend on God.
The writer of Genesis clearly tells us that humanity was created in the image of God. This either says a lot about humanity or a lot about God. As it has been suggested, being created in the image of God does not mean a physical mirror image of God, but rather that the image of God within humanity is reflected by the words, actions, thoughts, and behaviors of humanity.
An example of God’s image on earth can be found in the form of Jesus Christ. Jesus modeled a way to be God-like for the rest of humanity. Whether it was sitting down and eating lunch with the tax collector, sharing the Way with the Samaritan woman, or allowing the little children to come to Him. Jesus shows and tells us that in order to inherit the Kingdom of God, we must become like little children. We must trust and depend on God as a child trusts and depends on a parent.
When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus answered two fold. Love God and love each other. If we are to truly love God and love each other, we are called to respond to the needs and injustices of all God’s children. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” What are you doing to show your love for God and for each other?
Jesus shows us, not just by his words, but by his actions, that being created in the image of God has a great deal of responsibility attached with it. As Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben tells him in the Spider Man movies, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” If we trust and depend on God than we have entered into a relationship with God. Through that relationship we have a responsibility to do for God and others as James says we can be doers of the Word – we can be doers of justice – we can be the miracle. For though we may not have God’s nose or chin or hairline, we have God’s eyes and hands and feet.
Imagine, for a moment, God’s billfold with the image of every single child in it – including yourself – including those who have wandered away from God for awhile, God still has their picture in his billfold, with their name on the back – the children of Hanover, the children of Africa, the children of Costa Rica, the children of Iraq. Imagine this billfold unfolded until it circles the world. Each one of those faces, every child, held in God’s hands is beloved by God. We who love God are meant to love not just our own children, but all of God’s children.
A sermon on Acts 1:1-11, preached Sunday, June 5, 2011 at Lebanon United Methodist Church.
It’s that time of year. We are in the season of graduations. Many colleges have already had their graduations and not too long from now, high school seniors will graduate. This week Morgan and Ashley met me to get gag gifts for our seniors for this afternoon’s picnic. Our ritual at Lebanon has been to get the youth together at the end of the school year to mark this milestone. While we fellowship and eat good food, we gather to share stories about what impact those who are graduating may have left on us.
Graduation is that time when we say good-bye to the world that we came to know so well before we embark on a journey into a new world. It’s that time where we receive words of wisdom from our classmates, Principals, Presidents, Professors, and Teachers. At graduation our relationships with these individuals change. Those who had guided us through are no longer going to be with us. But, the words they gave us, the lessons they taught us, and the things we learned about ourselves because of them, we can take that with us.
When I read our text for this morning from Acts, I thought about graduations. These verses tell the Ascension story, where Jesus ascends, or goes up, into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. According to Luke, Jesus has spent 40 days with the disciples speaking about and teaching about the kingdom of God. This was the disciples’ last semester with Jesus. And now, as he is about to ascend, Jesus gives his final address to them. “John baptized you with water, but you will soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus is foreshadowing what will happen during the Feast of Pentecost.
The disciples interrupt Jesus’ graduation speech with a question: “Is this the time when you will restore the king-dom to Israel?” This is a question that they asked multiple times in the Gospels. Their understanding of the Messiah was one who would come riding in on a great white horse and stomp out the evil Romans and restore the land back to the way it was. But that’s not quite what they got. I find it interesting that the disciples ask this question after they spend 40 days talking to Jesus, Luke says, about the kingdom of God. Despite all that, they are still clinging just a little bit to the tradition that taught them who the Messiah would be and what he would do for Israel.
Jesus’ reply to their question, the rest of this graduation speech, wasn’t in the form of a cryptic metaphor that would leave the disciples going, “What you talking about, Jesus?” Instead, Jesus shifts their emphasis to refocus them. We need that ourselves every once and awhile. We can get caught up in thinking about something or doing something a certain way that we end up with blinders on and we miss what’s going on around us in the present. Jesus realizes that is what the disciples are doing here. Jesus sees them put an emphasis on speculation about the future – “Is this the time?” – and an emphasis on the restoration of the past – “Will you restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Jesus shifts their emphasis from speculation about the future to demonstration in the present. He calls the disciples to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Do you hear echoes of the Great Commission in Matthew 28? “Be my witnesses,” Jesus tells them. Tell people the story. Let the world see a demonstration of what the power of God can do when it works through the community of faith – through those who trust in God. And, begin now.
Jesus also shifts their emphasis from the restoration of the past to the transformation of the present. Most scholars believe that when the disciples were asking about the restoring of the kingdom they were remembering back to David’s day. During David’s reign as Israel’s king, Israel was united – all twelve tribes – in a way they had never been before, or since. They were longing for the “good ole days.” A time when things were simpler. A time when things were less chaotic. A time when there was less to be fearful of. History has taught us that history is nothing but a steady stream of events that move forward. Yes, we would like to turn the clock back some days, but we can’t. We have to move forward. We cannot restore what was, but we can transform what is. And how does Jesus propose we transform the present? By being witnesses.
At some point in the life of the Church, “witness” became the replacement for “evangelism.” Most likely because when we hear the word “evangelism” it conjures up all kinds of crazy images that are challenging and, frankly, scary. So, we replaced “Evangelism” with “Witness.” It’s more comfortable that way. But the idea is the still the same. As one pastor put it, “We are called through baptism, a great common denominator to all Christians, to witness to Christ’s presence and love.” A witness is someone who has first-hand knowledge of an event and gives testimony to what they have seen and/or heard. And as we learned through Esther’s story, God seems to disappear; to not be around. But, as we know from Esther’s story, God is always around and always at work. Being witnesses to His Majesty means training our eyes to see what others do not see. And it means living, like Esther did, boldly and courageously Christ-like lives. This is the work of all people – all of us – and it is to be carried out in our daily day-to-day lives. It’s living into our graduated disciple selves.
A month ago I went to Blackstone for an event and one of the workshops I attended was on evangelism. The bulk of the workshop was spent talking about hospitality. Professor Christine Pohl writes this, “Hospitality is not optional for Christians, nor is it limited to those who are gifted for it. It is, instead, a necessary practice in the community of faith.” Spiritual practices are disciplines like daily Bible reading, prayer, worshiping with a community of faith. Hospitality as a spiritual practice may seem like a new idea, but it really isn’t. It’s a very old idea. We see Abraham practicing it in Genesis. Being welcoming to others – people you know and people don’t know – is a spiritual practice. In other words, when we are being welcoming, we are witnessing to the presence and love of Christ.
And that means we do not stand around gazing on the heavens. The two men in white robes, after Jesus has ascended – he’s left the building – asks the disciples, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” We could easily reword that question to say, “Why do you stay in your comfortable pews?” We are a people who like comfort. Comfort brings us security. Think Linus and his blanket. Yet, we serve a God who calls us out of our comfort zones. We serve a God who spoke peace to the storm. We serve a God who parted the waters. We serve a God rolled the stone away. And this God calls us to go . . .to go . . .to witness to his presence, power, and love throughout the world right here, right now. Yes, the gospel will be carried to the ends of the earth, but the command starts with Jerusalem, where they are right now. The same is true for us. We start witnessing right here to each other, to visitors on Sunday mornings being welcoming to all.
Will Willimon, a United Methodist Bishop, points out that “The time between Easter and the restoration of the kingdom is the gracious interim for witness.” And so, he says, “There is work to be done.” And done by whom? The church, Willimon says. The church secure in the promises of Jesus must be about the work of witnessing to the presence, power, and love of Jesus Christ.
It’s almost as if the two men in white robes are telling the disciples, you don’t need to stand here starring up at the heavens – you don’t need to stay here in your comfortable pews – you don’t need to try and calculate when Jesus will return – you don’t need restore things to way they were – you have graduated. Live as one who has graduated. Be secure, not in things of this world, but in the One whom you claim as Lord and Savior. Be secure that the promises made by Jesus will be kept. Be secure that in all you do, every day, Jesus Christ is with you through the power of the Holy Spirit. And go be welcoming, tell the story, share the love. Be witnesses.