Week in the Word: No Hum-Drum, “Just Ordinary” People

hanks chapel easterThis is the message I preached on Sunday, May 20, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. 

If you are able to join us on May 27th, that is our Homecoming service — and we will begin with bluegrass Gospel at 10 AM, with our service to follow, and a nice meal.  No Sunday school on May 27th.



Acts 2:1-4, 14-21

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

   Your sons and daughters will prophesy.

   Your young will see visions.

   Your elders will dream dreams.

18     Even upon my servants, men and women,

       I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

       and they will prophesy.

19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above

   and signs on the earth below,

       blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.

20 The sun will be changed into darkness,

   and the moon will be changed into blood,

       before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.

21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.


Philippians 4:10-23

Paul’s thanks for gifts

10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.) 11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.14 Still, you have done well to share my distress.

15 You Philippians know from the time of my first mission work in Macedonia how no church shared in supporting my ministry except you. 16 You sent contributions repeatedly to take care of my needs even while I was in Thessalonica. 17 I’m not hoping for a gift, but I am hoping for a profit that accumulates in your account.18 I now have plenty and it is more than enough. I am full to overflowing because I received the gifts that you sent from Epaphroditus. Those gifts give off a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice that pleases God. 19 My God will meet your every need out of his riches in the glory that is found in Christ Jesus. 20 Let glory be given to God our Father forever and always. Amen.

Final greeting

21 Greet all God’s people in Christ Jesus. The brothers and sisters with me send you their greeting. 22 All God’s people here, especially those in Caesar’s household, send you their greeting. 23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirits.

May the still-speaking God open the eyes of hearts and ears of our minds that we might see and know what words God has for us in these words of Holy Scripture, in Christ’s name, Amen.


pentecost sermonWhat an amazing story we read in Acts — of the giving of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church.  

Though none of us have had the exact experience of God the Holy Spirit these first Christians did when the Spirit came down on that first Pentecost Sunday, the Bible promises us that, if we have trusted and committed to follow Christ, we already have this Spirit dwelling in us and empowering us, if we will only listen to and work together with this Spirit.  On Ascension Day, Jesus promised that as John the Baptizer baptized with water, so after He ascended to fill all creation with His presence, Christ would baptize all who came to Him with His Spirit. This is why Romans 8 tells us “So now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death… you are in the Spirit… If anyone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, they don’t belong to him. …  If Christ is in you, the Spirit is your life because of God’s righteousness… [and] the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead .. will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you.”

Take a moment and think about what that means.  God the Holy Spirit dwells in you. Genesis 1 tells us that, at creation, it was God the Holy Spirit moving over the lifeless world like a mother bird brooding over a nest of eggs that brought the breath of life into all things.  Psalm 104 tells us that even now whenever God the Holy Spirit moves over Baptism-of-Christ (1)what has become dead and broken in our lives and world, the Spirit restores it to life, making the world green and vibrant again. In the book of Judges, the same Spirit of God who dwells in you now filled women and men of faith like Deborah  and Gideon. When God the Holy Spirit filled them, they were given strength and courage, wisdom and insight beyond their years, setting them free to perform miracles and do what they never could have dreamed defending the defenseless, fighting for the oppressed, overturning every injustice. In the books of the prophets in the Bible like Isaiah and Jeremiah, it was this same Spirit of God who has come to dwell in you that filled the hearts and minds of the otherwise ordinary people God called to speak as prophets.  When the Spirit filled them, they discovered God’s will, God’s dreams for their community and world, understanding what God was saying about the struggles and questions they face. That same Spirit inspired those who heard these prophets to keep holy spirit 1those words in their hearts and eventually to write them down so that, now, centuries later, their words remain for us today in our Bibles. Through its pages Spirit is still speaking. Whenever we open the Bible’s pages, whether in the prophets, the psalms, the proverbs, the Gospels, or anywhere else, and find its pages speaking to us, there, too, the Spirit is speaking. It is this same Spirit of God who came upon Mary in the books of Matthew and Luke, enabling Jesus to be born to her, as Savior of the world, even though Mary cannot point to an earthly father for him.  This same Spirit came upon Jesus in his baptism, giving him the wisdom to teach the Gospel, the power to heal the sick, to raise the dead, multiply bread and fish to feed the multitude, and most of all giving him courage to welcome the outcast and forgotten, while speaking the truth unflinchingly to those comfortable and complacent folks sitting in power and wealth they hold onto by crushing the poor, the last, the lost, and the least. It is this same Spirit who gives Jesus the power to face temptation in the desert head on for 40 days, and every time after when it raises its head in his life and ministry, and say no to it each time. After Jesus is crucified, Scripture tells us that it it this same Spirit who moves over the lifeless broken body of Jesus, both raising him from the dead and glorifying him so his presence can fill all things at his ascension. This Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, reminds us that this same Spirit of God who moves and acts in such amazing ways throughout the Scripture and in our history is still speaking and moving This icon of the Trinity draws on the feminine images used in Scripture for the Holy Spirit, as a reminder that women as well as men can bear the image of God. in each of us.

God the Holy Spirit, who can bring life and healing in the midst of death and disease, who grants wisdom and direction when our ways are uncertain, who grants strength to speak truth in the midst of confusion, to tear down barriers of injustice and welcome all people in, to multiply resources so all can have enough, to change the world one moment, one life, one community at a time — This same Spirit is within you, within me, within each of us.  The question if we have opened our lives to God is not “does the Spirit dwell within me?” but will you learn to listen and look for the Spirit, and work together with the Spirit as the Spirit leads?

Sometimes it is hard for us to see this, hard for us to believe this same Spirit who came down on the first Pentecost, this same Holy one who did such amazing things throughout history, is still with us, even is within us. Yet God the Spirit is — and through the Holy Spirit, God is still speaking and moving, acting and doing, within us and through us!

One reason it may be hard to believe you and I have this same Spirit within us is because we look for the Spirit to show up today in flashy moments like the first Pentecost: when the Spirit appeared like fire dancing upon our heads and people supernaturally were gifted to speak new languages, dream dreams, or see visions.

Most, though not all, people of faith I know have had their moments like the first Pentecost — though not the exact miracles seen then, definitely moments where they can sense, feel, and know God’s presence is near at hand.  Where they could know without a doubt God was walking with them, guiding them, leading them. Where they saw prayers answered or doors opened and shut for them or others in ways that they knew were miraculous. I bet if I asked each of you stand and share, most of you could share at least one moment you have had in your life just like that.

But most of our lives are not lived there, on the mountaintop of miracles.   Most of our life we feel less certain and a bit more humdrum than in those moments.  Most of our life we simply do the best we can, searching for God’s will and striving to do it, with very little certainty about what it is.  Most of our life is us doing our job, being a neighbor, Everyday-Miracles-of-the-Planetserving friends and family, raising our children and grandchildren, caring for aging relatives, leaning into the aging process ourselves.   Alot of our life is tears, sweat, exhaustion — punctuated by moments of joy. Our life, too, can include some raising of our voices against injustice — which is truly important work that is often done while we uncertain if anything will change even with our great efforts.  Our life can consist of us lending our hand to make our community better, to care for the hurting, while not always knowing what difference our little bit of effort will make.

And even those Pentecost moments we have — when we can see and feel God’s Spirit near to us, knowing God is present with such certainty — are rarely as dramatic as the description we have of this first Pentecost in our Bible.

Which is why Paul’s words at the end of Philippians are so important to remember on this Pentecost Sunday.    Everything Paul talks about going on through the church of Philippi in this chapter is so much less flashy then what we see in our reading about the original Pentecost in Acts.  But what the members of the church of Philippi are doing is just as much the work of the Spirit as anything that happened at the first Pentecost. Paul views each of these everyday, ordinary works of care, kindness, service, and faithfulness done in Philippi as just as important as his work as an apostle in furthering Christ’s Gospel and making God’s kingdom — heaven breaking out in our every day world — present.

Paul begins talking about the Spirit’s work in him, pointing toward what the Spirit can do within Phillipi and us, if we will be open. Paul tells us that through God’s Spirit, he has learned the gift of being content in any circumstance.   He knows how to go without, and everyday lifeyet still see God’s presence, still know God will provide, still give thanks for the little blessings, and learn lessons from the hardships, not just through good times or times when the bad situation changes for the better but even when he must bear up under trials like his own imprisonment. Paul  has learned too how to have enough, be grateful, be generous, and use what he has been given to make his times without less trying. Paul says he can “can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives … strength.”   

I don’t know about you, but when I have had to learn to go without, to suffer, to go through change, I don’t know that I have always thought about things like Paul.   When I have gone through losing people and relationships, jobs and work, or having people’s reputation of me go down, let alone faced my own health struggles or that of others, I can’t say I have always remembered to be content.  Yet Paul tells me, if I can be open to such situations teaching me to be content in all circumstance that is a gift, a work of the Holy Spirit. Learning to embrace the life I have been given, rather than I want, and to turn it into a source of blessing for myself and others, living with gratitude for each gift that comes in it, is as much a sign of the Holy Spirit in me and in you, as much of a gift of the Spirit, as the fancy flashy signs we read about occuring on the first Pentecost.

Likewise, when Paul talks about where God the Holy Spirit is at work in Philippi, Paul doesn’t point to flashy things like performing miracles, dreaming dreams, seeing visions, speaking new languages. No.  Paul points to how the church in Philippi has continued to show up in hard times to help him and others. He tells how, at points other churches wouldn’t support his ministry, these folks in Phillipi continued to send people, food, resources, money.  They continued to band together to support each other. They continued to share the Good News of God’s love by word and deed.

Earlier in the book of Philippians, when Paul thanks this church for sending Epaphroditus to help him, Epaphroditus had been sent on a journey of many, many miles.  He was sent by this same church to bring food, money, and resources to support Paul while he was chained to Roman soldiers and not able to do his normal job he used to support his ministry —  being a tent-maker — very easily anymore. Epaphroditus comes carrying the help gathered up by everyone at Philippi even though the journey is risky, and leads him to become so sick he nearly dies. He does this all on behalf of the church in Phillipi, bringing the contribution of not just one person but everyone in Philippi, all who pitch in lending a hand, doing what they can, to support the work God has called them to together.


You see, sometimes it is easy to say, “I can’t preach.  I don’t pray fancy words. I don’t sing so well. I don’t have the talents and gifts of so and so”, and think you can’t make a difference for God and for others.   Yet, just because you don’t feel the gifts God gives you are flashy, doesn’t mean you don’t have gifts. It doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference. The Bible tells us the Holy Spirit has filled you, the very Person of God is within you who breathes life into all creation, who spoke through the Prophets, who inspired the words of Scriptures; who performed miracles and overturned injustice and set free the oppressed through the Judges, who did so many signs and wonders through Jesus, and who raised Jesus from the dead.

And that Spirit is there in you picking up your hammer and nail and helping fixing the house of one in need.  That Spirit is there in you lending an ear to a hurting person needing to tell their story. That Spirit is there in you knitting blankets for newborn babies and people that are on hospice, or making winter clothes from the homeless. The Spirit is there in you when you lend rides to someone down on their luck in need of help, or who need a ride to church.  The Spirit is there in you as you put together food for people caring for sick family members, as we are doing in our caregiving ministries. The Spirit is there in many, many countless ways you help others, you work to bring justice and compassion into our world, and you work to share in word and deed God’s love. The Spirit is there in your 9 to 5 job when you do it to the glory of God in ways that demonstrate to those you work with God’s love, compassion, and justice. The Spirit is there in your care for those you love. The Spirit is there in your serving, your doing bulletins, singing in choir, cleaning and keeping up the church here. The countless ways we show up bringing love, help, healing, comfort, liberation, and the message of Christ to others are all ways the Spirit works in us, even if we don’t feel they are flashy.


Let us embrace this Sunday that none of us are just ordinary and hum-drum — each of us here are full of the Holy Spirit, able through the Spirit to help heaven break our all around us.  Let us embrace that none of our gifts and talents are pointless — but all we have and all we are is a gift of God, which can change ourselves, others, and our world in healing ways. Let us remember God is still speaking, through the Spirit, not just through fancy showy miracles but in the tiny everyday wonders we cannot deny, in each person we meet, and even in ourselves.  Amen.


Blessing of the Hands

To remind us to embrace whatever gifts and talents we have as places the Spirit can do Christ’s work of bearing witness, healing, and setting free, I want to invite all who are willing to come and share in a blessing of hands.  In the blessing of hands I will invite you to come forward, naming in your heart or out loud as you do what the work or gifts you see God calling you to do to be, even if it might seem too ordinary or too odd for others — whether it being a parent, serving in the neighborhood, being a nurse, teacher, chaplain, or janitor; farming or gardening; working as a police officer or peace activist; weaving fabric, being a grandmother or caregiver to one who is sick, being a church musician or officer: you name it.  And then you stretch out your hands, which we will anoint with oil as a sign of the Spirit, and say a prayer that your work, whatever it is, be blessed as a way God’s power and love can be known in the world.
(As people come forward, anoint their hands, saying “O Holy Spirit, you have no hands but ours.  Bless the works of these hands that they may bring your healing, beauty, and freedom in our world”)


A Week in the Word: Walking in the footsteps of our Mothers of Faith

hanks chapel easterThis is the message I preached on Sunday, May 13, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. 

In addition to our reading from Philippians, since it is both Mother’s Day Sunday and Ascension Day Sunday, I want to also read an excerpt from Acts’ account of Christ’s ascension, in addition to our reading from Philippians.

Acts 1:7-9

“It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.


Philippians 3:17-4:9     

17 Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. 18 As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. 19 Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. 20 Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.
leader man4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.
Loved ones, 2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I’m also asking you, loyal friend, to help these women who have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the scroll of life.
4 Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! 5 Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. 7 Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.
8 From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.9 Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

Still-speaking God who speaks to us through a mother’s touch, a friend’s caring voice, the embrace of loving spouses who stand with us through trials, and in every place true love bursts forth, we know you have yet more light and truth to break forth from your holy Word.  Open the eyes of our minds, and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, my God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.


The Sunday after Easter I was blessed to witness something that speaks right to the text in front of us.   Some of you might remember that I serve as vice president of our denomination’s board for Eastern North Carolina.  In that role, I get called to help with installing new pastors. In the United Church of Christ in our area, due to our churches’ injusticelong tradition of fighting for civil rights, from the days of slavery when many churches fought for abolition, to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s when our denomination was a key voice, many more of our Eastern NC churches are historically black churches than some other denominations. In fact when the diverse churches in our area in the 1960’s met to join to form the United Church of Christ, doing so defied laws on the books then in North Carolina saying black people and white people couldn’t sit at the same table in the way they had to for the vote to form the UCC.

Because of this background, many of the churches I visit through my work in our association, including  the one I was asked to help install a pastor that Sunday after Easter, are historically black.

As happens in installation services, there was alot more pomp and circumstance at this church service than I am ever comfortable with — one pastor after another, including myself, each was asked stand to preach a bit and pray a bit, all while great Gospel music echoed in the background.  This continued unstopped, until something I’ve never seen in a historically white church happened: All at once, suddenly everybody closed their mouths. Suddenly everyone stood at attention. Suddenly the music stopped and you could hear a pin drop, as all eyes turned to a little woman in a wheelchair being pushed up to the altar.

“Let the mother of the church speak” somebody shouted.  Then a 90-some-year old woman who had served that church with God’s love and care her whole life talked about being there in the 1920’s when the church was founded, of the ways she had seen God speak and work there since it first started, and of the lessons she thinks God would never want its new pastor and its members to forget.  There was hardly a dry eye in the room when she had finished. Though we all might have forgotten what the many distinguished preachers said, I don’t think a one of us forgot what this mother of the church did and said that day.

mother-and-childHer title, “mother of church,” is a common one in historically black churches here in the south, but not one I hear alot in historically white ones.  That’s too bad. It is a term worth picking up, especially on this mother’s day Sunday, a term that honors the women who have worked hard for God and God’s people in our midst, often without title, without pay, without thanks.  Our reading from Philippians focuses on two such mothers of the church in Philippi — Euodia and Syntyche. These women, though they have momentarily lost sight of the high calling being mothers of the church brings and so must be reminded of it by Paul and others, were ones who had consistently been such mothers in the church to which Paul is writing.

The church in Philippi was a church whose backbone was strong godly women.  Not only were Euodia and Syntyche such pillars of the church that, when they got at odds with each other, it threw the whole church into turmoil, but the book of Acts also shows us its founding was as much out of the work and contribution of a successful business woman — a dyer of fabrics — named Lydia as it was the tent-making preacher, the apostle Paul.  This was true of Phillippi but also true of other early churches as well, according to Scripture: in Corinth ,there was Priscilla, whom Paul praises in the books of Corinthians as a fellow minister of the Gospel alongside him; in the book of Romans the apostle Paul names a woman, Junia, as a fellow apostle together with him and the twelve, helping spread the Gospel where none had yet heard it and helping plant new churches where none existed.  And no wonder! It is a woman, after all, Mary Magdalene, who first shares mary magdalene easterin the Gospels that Jesus is risen, becoming the lady whom the earliest church called “the apostle to the apostles” for it is she who first confronts the other apostles, those men who had huddled themselves away behind locked doors for fear, with the hopeful message “He is risen!”  Wherever you turn, strong woman, mothers of the faith, pave the way.

A mother of the church is a woman who does as Jesus challenges all people to do on ascension day: they stand hearts open, waiting for and actually receiving the power from on high Jesus promises, the power of God the Holy Spirit.   This is the same Spirit we call to come down and give power on everyone, regardless of their gender, at their baptism, when they confirm their faith as teens or adults, when they join the church, and whenever we take part in communion.  This power Jesus promises, which we pray so often to have poured out in us, is one mothers of the church model having & using. This holy spirit like windPower is pictured in Scripture often in mothering terms too: in the book of Genesis, we are told that at creation, the Spirit brooded over the lifeless world God made like a mother bird brooding over her nest of eggs, warming them with her own body until life fills those eggs and they hatch into new thriving little birds.  Likewise at Jesus’ baptism, the Gospels tell us that the heavens are torn open, and a voice echoes from heaven “this is my Child, Whom I love, in Whom I am well-pleased”. At that very moment the Spirit appears like a mother dove over Jesus, brooding over him like a mother bird seeking to take her baby safely under the shelter of her wing. Even the word that gets translated “Spirit” in our Bible for this One who brings the Power from on High Jesus promises is originally ruach, a feminine name for God in the original Hebrew found in the oldest parts of our Bible.

These Mothers of the church are those who have lived their lives faithfully among God’s people, full of the Spirit who brooded over creation and Jesus, wielding the Spirit’s Power to call people to recognize and grow into their God-given identity as God’s own children, ones whom God loves and ones in whom God is well-pleased.  They are ones who work to allow all such beloved ones to be gathered in, as Psalm 91 says, underneath the shelter of God’s wings, and who labor night and day in that same Spirit until our world treats each person as ones so beloved by God.

Paul paints a great picture of how not just mothers, but also fathers of the church look.  All who act as leaders and mentors, who help others discover their own identity as God’s children, their own calling as God’s people, and their own place in God’s work of healing and setting free, are easy to identify.   Rather than falling into the selfishness to push for their own way, their own pleasure, at any cost, which Paul calls making their stomachs workingwomentheir god, these folk prioritize the values of heaven, their true home. They work to live and act as if their ultimate reward is there and as if the big or little choices they make while on this earth can help make this world a little more a place heaven breaks out here and now.    They don’t let anxiety — fear of what might go wrong, fear of not being or having enough — rule their life. Such anxiety is what leads us to put up walls to keep out others we feel are too different, fearing their difference threatens us all. We fear that God cannot provide for us and also for them at the same time, forgetting we are all part of God’s family, and others being welcomed in need not mean we go without.    It is this anxiety that drives leaders like Euodia and Syntyche to turn on each other, fighting, splitting the church into factions — fear leads us to think it is our way or the highway, forgetting there is a wideness in God’s mercy so that in Christ there is no east or west, north or south, as the old hymn says. 

To live out these values is to be a person who trusts that in God there is more than enough for everyone, to trust that we can turn to prayer for others rather than falling into anxiety about our future or theirs.  When Paul talks about focusing on what is true, noble, excellent, praiseworthy, he is not talking about being like the statues of the three monkeys who cover their eyes, ears, and mouth saying “see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil” you often see at novelty stores — he is not talking about being Polyannas who just put on a happy face, but hide our heads in the sand by not seeing the trouble in front of us, so can’t warn people away from bad choices.  We’ve all seen mothers of the church, like our own mothers, do warn us to avoid dangerous paths, don’t they?

Cuellar-Daru Mother and ChildWhat Paul is talking about is being people who focus with each person they meet, not on what makes them too wrong or different, but in what it is within them that reflects the  image of God.  It is being able to see and call out their identity as ones God looks at and says as God did over Jesus: this one is the the one I love, this one is the one in whom I am well pleased. It is being able to not just see the problems in front of us but asking ourselves and others, “how will you be part of the solution?”   The mothers of the church we have known — and fathers too — have lived out these values, and in their example, called us to be more fully who God made us to be. They do deserve to be celebrated — and, as Paul says, emulated.

I wonder if any of you have examples of such mothers of the church you have seen live this out in your life — or in our life together here at Hanks Chapel?

Of course the challenge we have is not just to be thankful and remember these role models in our life, but also to take up their mantles.  Whether we have biological children of our own or not, we can be mothers and fathers of the faith for others, when we choose to intentionally point others to who they are in Christ, to their unique gifts and callings, to the ways they can live out that calling intentionally, to how they can find their place in being agents of healing and setting free others in our world.

May we hear and answer that call together!

The Ascension as the Breaking out of the Rule of the Cosmic Christ

This week is the time we tend to remember Christ’s Ascension, which Scriptures describe occurring 10 days before Pentecost Sunday.   I am sharing some old blog posts about this theme, to help turn our minds toward it.  I hope they bless you!



As we pass through this time of Ascension-tide, the 10 days between Ascension Day and Pentecost Sunday, I think it is good to devote some time to reflect on what this experience of Christ ascendant over us and all things means.

I am struck by the powerful words of United Church of Christ theologian and preacher Walter Brueggemann, who writes in his Mandate To Difference:

“… the same Jesus who was known in the Gospel narrative is able to do on a cosmic scale what Jesus of Nazareth had done locally:

“He feeds the hungry multitude.

He touches lepers and they are healed.

He welcomes children who are vulnerable.

He enjoys the company of those disapproved of by proper society…


“We may confess the creed: ‘He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right of God the Father. ‘  But we may do more than confess.  We may move our life into coherence with the new rule of Jesus…

“[In light of Christ’s ascension over all of life] … our common practices of greed, of the pursuit of consumer goods, of the frantic efforts to acquire more, are both inappropriate and unnecessary…

“[the same Christ ascendant over all of life was the very] Jesus [who] went to great length to identity ‘sister and brother’ as everyone, including those most unlike us, those who do not fit, those who upset us and make us uncomfortable.   What a gospel word in a society that is increasingly given over to exclusion, to hate, and to vengeance!  There is an ideology at work among us that wants to make the world very small, in order to make it safe for us, and to exclude and eliminate everyone who is not like us…

jesus holds the world

“[Since the ascendance of Christ over all of life means] this is God’s world and … the rule of love is at work, then our mandate is not to draw into a cocoon of safety; rather it is to be out and alive in the world in concrete acts and policies whereby the fearful anxiety among us is dispatched and adversaries can be turned to allies and friends.”

We can imagine ascension as Christ seated “on a cloud of glory, keeping the world under caring surveillance” and from there that he has declared the following edict by press release, according to Brueggemann:

“The newly ascended power has decreed that there is more than enough, and greed iss inappropriate in a world of God’s generosity.

“Here is a new act of legislation from the government of God that says,

Perfect love casts out hate, that we are not free for vengeance but must leave such matters to the wise Father.

“Here is an edict from the government that says,

“Do not fear for I am with you and the world will hold”

I find Brueggemann’s reflection of what this experiences the disciples and early believers re-tell — of Jesus ascendant over all of life and our world — means very compelling.  I think if i wrote out my own version I would add the sense of Psalm 24 that we are reminded by it that the earth is God’s, the fullness thereof, and we are called to treat all of life as bearing the image of the Christ who rose, according to Ephesians, to fill all things with Christ’s presence.   And thus, also, we must change our relationships with the land, air, water, soil, and other living things, learning to see the whole world as the temple of God — as well as our own and others’ bodies.

What experiences have led you, like the early believers both on Ascension Day itself and in the early days of the Jesus movement, to experience a sense that Christ is ascendant over all of your life and all the concerns of our world?  In what ways does it inspire and challenge you?

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Christ’s Ascension and Disability Rights

This week is the time we tend to remember Christ’s Ascension, which Scriptures describe occurring 10 days before Pentecost Sunday.   I am sharing some old blog posts about this theme, to help turn our minds toward it.  I hope they bless you!


I was researching the ascension texts in Acts and Ephesians, and came across a thought-provoking sermon on the ascension which discusses how Christ ascends with his scars, and its connection to a needed change in perspective around the concerns of people with disabilities in the church:  http://day1.org/5794-aaron_coylecarr_he_ascended_with_scars_fte_series_5  

I find that sadly persons with disabilities are one of the most oppressed and mistreated groups in the church.  In far too many churches, across denominational and theological grounds, they are excluded from participation both for architectural and attitudinal reasons.   I have found even in otherwise liberal groups that advertise themselves as “accepting of all”, often this group is still excluded.  The irony is we do this even in large gatherings focused on issues of justice which, despite talks about justice, are often organized in a way with very limited options for inclusion of people with disabilities in the event.  And I know many talented ministers and leaders in groups where other minorities are welcomed with open arms, who face exclusion from leadership opportunities due to their disability.

This discrimination flows out into ongoing experiences of marginalization and exclusion from opportunities in work and housing in the wider society.

I have been glad to be a part of some churches over the years which is being very intentional both about working toward more full inclusion of people with disabilities in its ministries and activities, as well as combating able-ism in its life and in its surrounding community.  I pray more churches an Christian ministries in the south-land will work toward living out this call of the ascension.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here

your progressive redneck preacher,


Bob Marley and Ascension Day

This week is the time we tend to remember Christ’s Ascension, which Scriptures describe occurring 10 days before Pentecost Sunday.   I am sharing some old blog posts about this theme, to help turn our minds toward it.  I hope they bless you!



The more I reflect on Ascension Day,  the more I see the way in which, perhaps unaware of this connection himself, the musician Bob Marley connected with the heart of the meaning of the experience of Jesus ascendant over all of life and our world which the early Christians remembered in the ascension story.

In his classic song, “Get Up, Stand Up,” Bob riffs about themes at the heart of the message of this experience of Christ.  Notice his words:

“Ey, get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!
Preacher man, don’t tell me
Heaven is under the earth
I know you don’t know
What life is really worth
It’s not all that glitters is gold
Half the story has never been told
And now you see the light
You stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!
You see, most people think
Great God will come from the sky
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You would look for yours on earth
And now you see the light
You stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!
We sick an’ tired of your ‘ism-schism game
Dyin’, goin’ to heaven in-a Jesus’ name, Lord
We know when we understand
Almighty God is a living man
You can fool some people sometimes
But you couldn’t fool all the people all the time
And now we see the light
You stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!
Don’t give up the fight
Don’t give up the fight
Don’t give up the fight
Don’t give up the fight
Don’t give up the fight
Don’t give up the fight
Don’t give up the fight
Don’t give up the fight
Don’t give up the fight
Don’t give up the fight
Don’t give up the fight
Don’t give up the fight
I say now (don’t give up the fight) whooa-oh, ooh-oh
Whooa-oh, ooh-oh
Whooa-oh, ooh-oh
Whooa-oh, ooh-oh
Oh, yo-yo-yo (oh, yo-yo-yo)
Oh, yo-yo-yo (oh, yo-yo-yo)
Oh, yo (oh, yo)
Oh, yo (oh, yo)
Oh, yo-yo-yo (oh, yo-yo-yo)
Oh, yo-yo-yo (oh, yo-yo-yo)
Ethiopia (Ethiopia)
Yo-o (yo-o)
Yo, Jah-Jah (yo Jah-Jah)
Yo-o (yo-o)
Yo, Jah-Jah (yo Jah-Jah)
So we won’t give up the fight
So we won’t give up the fight
So we won’t give up the fight
So we won’t give up the fight
So we won’t give up the fight
So we won’t give up the fight
So we won’t give up the fight
So we won’t give up the fight
I said now, whoa-a (whoa-a)
Whoa-a (whoa-a)
Oh, yo-yo-yo (oh, yo-yo-yo)
Oh, yo-yo-yo (oh, yo-yo-yo)
So we won’t give up the fight
So we won’t give up the fight
So we won’t give up the fight
So we won’t give up the fight
You see, most people think
Great God will come from the sky
Take away everything
Make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You would look for yours on earth
And now you see the light
You stand up for your rights
Oh, yo (oh, yo)
Oh, yo-yo-yo (oh, yo-yo-yo)
Oh, yo (oh, yo)
Oh, yo-yo-yo (oh, yo-yo-yo)
Stand up for your rights!
Stand up for your rights!
Stand up for your rights!
Stand up for your rights!
Stand up for your rights!
Stand up for your rights!
Stand up for your rights!
Stand up for your rights!
Stand up for your rights!
Stand up for your rights!
Stand up for your rights!”

As most fans of Marley know, Bob doesn’t write as a mainline Christian like myself, but instead as a follower of Rastafarianism, which viewed the then-living King of Ethiopia as a re-inarnaction of Jesus, and thus a living avatar of God.   This idea of Jesus becoming reincarnated is rejected by mainline Christianity and in fact kind of flies in the face on the idea of the ascension.

That said, it inspires words that connect directly with the message of Ascension Day.   Marley calls into question preachers who tell people to live for some heaven after they die, and the ways in which the church lies divided by “ism-schism”.   He says instead if the Mighty God exists as a living man that means we should expect God to work within us, we flesh and blood folks, to empower us to not just wait for God returning in the skies, but instead to work to seek God’s justice here on this earth.   Faith in God as present in a living human inspires him to call his hearers to not just roll over against life’s struggle but instead to get up, stand up, fighting for their rights.

How similar the ascension story!

cosmic christ

When the early believers surround the risen Jesus, asking him when Jesus would set right the injustices around them by establishing “the kingdom”, the alternative community of justice, peace, and abundance for all in which there will be no poor among us and no sick without access to health and healing, Jesus points them back to their responsibility: they will receive power, literally dynamos — the sort of explosive energy found in dynamite which since we have used to literally move mountains — a spiritual power to shake the structures of society, turning unjust systems on their head.   They are to use this in being witnesses to the different life, different world, Jesus proclaimed in his teachings like the Sermon on the Mount.

When Jesus rises ascendant over all of life and they stand, mouths agape, the message of the angels is not “sit waiting” but instead “get up, stand up, fight”.  They ask why these bearers of Jesus’ message stand waiting, when they have been given work to do.

And most interesting to me, the reason they can trust that God is giving them this power is that they have witnessed that the mighty God is a living Man.  In some way I at least cannot fully understand, God united God’s self with humanity.  In Jesus, they saw a human life fully aflame with God’s power, presence, and love.   So much so that they called Jesus “Son of God”, “Savior”, “Lord”, and one of their number founded a community that talks about Jesus as being God  having”became flesh and lived among us, …  full of grace and truth” (John 1).

black sacred heart of jesus

In their experience of ascension, the disciples did not experience what I do in those moments I experience Jesus ascendant over all of my life — a vague sense that my life is held in God’s hands, a sense that Christ is carrying and leading me, a comforting knowing that I need not fear for the future.  They experienced that and more: they saw the body of an earthly man, afire with God’s presence, rise up to the realm where God is, so that who God is now is united forever with who we are as human beings.

I like to say Ascension Day is something like a woman choosing to become pregnant.  Now her body alone is not all she bears in mind.  Rather she is united now, with the life of another.  Her life and fate is now tied up, intermingled, with the life and fate of the growing life in her body.  So that forever she cannot imagine her future without also considering the future of that child’s.

Ascension Day means that in some way beyond words, which can only be depicted in symbolic language like riding on clouds through the sky, ascending to a throne room, filling all things with one’s life like the ocean, God and humanity have become united.   God has not future without us, and we have no future without God.   God has bound up God’s future, God’s plans, God’s life, with that of flesh and blood people like you and me and our world, from the tiniest hair on our head to the star-spangled galaxies that surround us.

mother holding baby 1

This gives great hope.  As the creed of the Uniting Church of Canada says, we can trust that this is God’s world and in life, in death, and in life beyond death we are God’s, held safe in our Creator’s hands.

Yet it is also a challenge to not just stand, staring up in wonder, mouths agape.   Rather, this should inspire a wonder that leads us to set our hand to the plow.   We are called as Deitrich Bonhoeffer once said, to be engaged: yes in bandaging up the wounded from the crushing wheel of the world’s injustice — a bandaging both of other people but even other living things and God’s earth.  But not just such bandaging.  Also, as Jesus did, driving a spoke into the wheel of injustice itself.

This path — the path of servant love, the path of nonresistance to evil, the path of giving up materialism for sharing resources together for the common good, the path of welcoming all at table as God’s very own no matter how different they are — is also what we see ascendant above us.   In other words, we see a love above us that conquers death.   A power of grace that shatters evil.

Let us embrace that power today, taking it in our hands.

Get up, stand up, fight!

Your progressive redneck preacher,




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Week in the Word: Laying Aside Your Past to Embrace God’s Future

This is the message I preached on Sunday, May 6, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. 
Philippians 3:1-16         

So then, my brothers and sisters, be glad in the Lord. It’s no trouble for me to repeat the same things to you because they will help keep you on track. 2 Watch out for the “dogs.” paul chainedWatch out for people who do evil things. Watch out for those who insist on circumcision, which is really mutilation. 3 We are the circumcision. We are the ones who serve by God’s Spirit and who boast in Christ Jesus. We don’t put our confidence in rituals performed on the body, 4 though I have good reason to have this kind of confidence. If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:

5 I was circumcised on the eighth day.

I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.

I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.

With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee.

6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.

With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.

7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.

12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one press on 2thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. 15 So all of us who are spiritually mature should think this way, and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal it to him or her. 16 Only let’s live in a way that is consistent with whatever level we have reached.

Still-speaking God who does not just speak in our pasts, in our comfortable places, but who also brings mercy that is new every morning, speaking in new places and times we do not expect words as fresh as sunrise over the horizon, we know you have yet more light and truth to break forth from your holy Word.  Open the eyes of our minds, and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, my God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

In his song “Unanswered Prayers”, Garth Brooks sings about moments in his life he prayed for God to keep things as they were – to keep that job, that relationship, that unanswered prayerssituation right in front of him remaining the same. In particular, Garth croons about a lost love, a woman he had prayed and prayed things would work out with, even though he saw no hope of things improving.    Despite all his prayers and efforts, things don’t work out in that relationship so long ago. As the song continues, he describes running into her years later.  When he does, he is struck by a sense of gratitude that God had not let him stay locked in his past with her which, when he had been in the midst of it years earlier, had seemed so wonderful he could not imagine it ending.  Now he sees that past pales in significance to the wonderful new doors God opened for him once that first door was fully shut.


“She wasn’t quite the angel,” he sings, “that I remembered in my dreams

And I could tell that time had changed me

In her eyes too it seemed

We tried to talk about the old days

There wasn’t much we could recall

I guess the Lord knows what he’s doin’ after all

And as she walked away and I looked at my wife

And then and there I thanked the good Lord

For the gifts in my life

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers

Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs

That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care

Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers”.

unanswered prayers 2In a way, Garth Brook’s words echo the words the apostle Paul gives us in our Scripture reading today.   Paul points to many things in his life which, at one point, he had prized and wanted to hold onto. Paul could point to a long list of accomplishments that, at one point in his life, led him to believe he was a better person than others, closer to God than others, and more deserving of respect.  And unlike some of the things we often try to hold onto from our pasts – our high school sports accomplishments, attachments to old relationships that have died out, resentments or griefs that weigh us down – what Paul once held onto were accomplishments in terms of strictly obeying the Bible’s rules.

These rules, found in what we would call the Old Testament today, were what marked out Jewish people as different than others – things like not eating shellfish, keeping Saturday as a Sabbath, wearing the appropriate fringe on your clothes, and a long list of other rules that, by and large, most Christians today never have heard of, let alone kept.  Keeping all these rules so well, knowing his Scripture so well, had once been a point of pride for Paul. He had felt it made him better than others, closer to God and able to look down on those who were different. This pride even inspired him to persecute people who believed differently than him – including the early Christians, who followed Jesus’ example of welcoming all people to God’s table as equally children of God, loved and embraced by God, just as they are.  These early Christians welcomed everyone into God’s family, whether they were Jewish or not, whether they were poor or rich, whether they were the insider or the outsider, whether they kept all the rules as well as Paul or not.

unanswered prayers 4To Paul as he used to be, opening up the faith for all people, as these early Christians did, watered it down.  If the Bible says it, then God spoke it, and that settles it for me, Paul probably had said. To him, saying people who didn’t obey the letter of every law in the Old Testament, the only Bible there yet for anybody, since the letters of the apostles and Gospels which make up our New Testament had yet to be written, saying such people could be welcomed as much as a part of God’s family as people like him, who spent their whole life studying Scripture and trying to follow its guidelines strictly and literally, felt like tearing down everything he stood for.  What gave those liberal minded Christians the right?

Paul’s commitment to hold onto this identity – as a good, Bible believing, Jewish man – and to hold onto how things had always been done, including who had always been excluded from faith, led him not only to avoid joining up when the Gospel began to be preached in his community, but even to go one step further: Paul worked to stamp out those early Christians, organizing others to persecute and even kill them.

letter writingHow ironic it is, that as Paul writes today’s Scripture reading, he does so now in chains for being a Christian.  As Paul writes, Paul himself is being persecuted for the same faith he once had tried to wipe out. How ironic that now, writing years later, Paul has become to loudest voice in the faith calling out for the church to tear down every wall that kept out those before deemed as too different, too strange, too lost, too last, and too least.  How ironic that Paul became the one crying out, as he does in 2 Corinthians, warning all who will listen that the letter of the law kills, but the Spirit of the law which Jesus revealed gives life, warning people to not judge others who do not obey the exact letter of the law in the Bible, if they are following the spirit of its message.

The book of Acts tells us what happened between between these early days Paul counts as “sewer trash” and today, while he writes in prison – Paul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus.  In that encounter, Jesus challenges Paul, asking him “Saul, Saul,” which is the Hebrew form of his name “Paul”, “why do you persecute me?”.  Paul’s eyes are damascus roadopened.  He no longer can see others as people to persecute or put down, no matter how different they are for him.  For to persecute another person is to persecute Christ himself. After all, did Jesus not say, “Whatever you have done to the least of these… you have don to me”?   Paul becomes a changed man out of this encounter, now speaking out and fighting against every voice that puts down other children of God, against every power that forces them to jump through a thousand hoops to get to God, against every message that says people can only be welcome into God’s family if they fit another’s predetermined image of what God’s people must look like or be.

Paul spends the rest of his life reaching out to those who until then had been overlooked by the people of God.  Paul goes to the ends of the known world to do it. Whenever and wherever he can, Paul continues to call God’s people to lay down the walls they have built up to hold out those they deem as too different.

Now, chained for this message, and facing possible execution, Paul can look back at his life and see –- losing how he had always looked at life, losing his comfortable assumptions, losing his black and white way of looking at God, faith, and the Bible had been worth it.   Through this journey of following Christ, of working to widen the welcome of God’s people, Paul had encountered God in ways he never could have before.

I don’t know fully all the ways in which Paul had seen his life open up since this, even in the face of trials, but I imagine it is like what I have heard some fellow pastors describe  at our United Church of Christ association meeting this past fall as having happened in their mostly white, English speaking churches when those churches began to intentionally welcome and reach out to Spanish speaking and Latino neighbors in reconciliation-artvarious ways.  Each of these ministers shared how they saw their churches become more alive, more aware of ways God was working in their lives, and more open to God’s Spirit. These churches laid aside their sense of comfort and privilege, choosing to welcome people their communities said were so different from them, and in some of these churches, this included even welcoming some under threat of being sent out of our country, dragged away by immigration, cut off from their spouses and children here.     Each of these ministers shared how through the lives and stories of those they built relationships with through their Spanish-language ministries, their eyes were opened to see Christ in ways they never could have if they clung to their comfortable way of always doing church.

My own experience mirrors their own.  I have found whenever I let go my own expectations about others that kept those who seemed different to me at bay — when I would get to know them, really hearing their story, and really accepting the gifts God had given them in their life, I would begin to encounter sides of God I never would have otherwise.

let go 2By letting go of his past, with its rules and regulations that kept others at bay, Paul opened himself up to see God in new ways, to grow closer to God.

This is the challenge our Scripture reading gives us today:

What are you holding onto personally?  What am I? What are we holding onto as a church?

What parts of our past are we refusing to let go, which keep us bound in our personal lives, preventing us from looking ahead to what doors God might be opening for us?  What about in our families? Our communities? Our church?

let go 3What labels or identities for ourselves are becoming more important than being a follower of Christ who welcomes and serves all people in Christ’s love, or being the family of God as a church, open to all?  What are we holding onto that keeps some person or group at bay as an “other”, too different to be welcome?

It is a funny thing about holding onto something.  To hold onto something, we have to keep our hands closed tight around it.  While your hands are tight around whatever it is you refuse to let go, they cannot at the same time be open, palms out, ready to receive what new thing God has for us.

This is why Paul challenges us to follow his example, to let go what has come before, and press onto what future God is opening before us as individuals.

That grievance or grief you are holding onto, that past job or relationship you cannot let go of after losing it, those people whose hard words about you or actions toward you left you in pain, that way you have always done things or way you’ve always been told church had to be done –God is calling you, calling me, to let it go.  What is your holding onto these things keeping you back from being open to embracing? Only in letting it go, can you become open to God’s bright future, God’s new beginning for you.

open doorI have to admit, I am not there either.  Even as I preach, there are areas I am trying to let go personally in my life, as some of you are, that I must lay down to God before I can embrace God’s good future for me.   If we are honest, many of us are in that situation, aren’t we? But ultimately to embrace the bright future God is opening up for you and me, we must be willing to let go and step out with God’s help.

In closing I want to ask you to close your eyes and stretch out your hands, held in fists.  Around what has your hand been wrapped, unable to let go? Around what has the church’s hands?

Take a moment and quietly name this to God.

Now, I want to encourage you to turn hands over, palm down, opening them like you are dropping a pebble on the pavement.  As you do so, imagine yourself letting go of whatever you have been holding onto that is holding you back.

open door 3Now, as you feel the weight of that drop off, I want to invite you to open your hands, palms up to the sky, as if you are open to whatever God has for you.

As you do so, express your openness to God.

Let us pray – God, who shuts doors no one can open and opens doors no can shut, who at times calls us to lay aside our past and all the entangles us, so we can run with endurance the race set before us, help us to lay aside every weight that keeps us from moving forward into your future for us.  Amen.

I want to encourage you – if you are like me, one day saying a prayer isn’t the end.  It is easy to pick back up what you thought you have laid in God’s hands. Let’s commit to focusing on whatever we have been holding onto individually and as a church that keeps us from being open to God’s future, in prayer like this, each day, until we find that burden lifted and us opening like flowers to the sun to God’s bright future.  Amen. And Amen.

May God now send us out into our communities,
not clinging to tattered rags of our faded pasts,
but open to share all the new things God is doing.
And now, may Jesus calls us to notice those around us,
to shower them with hope,
to feed them from our deep pantries,
to welcome them in as family.
And now, may the Spirit anoints us with grace,
to make a way through the injustices around us
so we might walk with our sisters and brothers
into the kingdom springing forth in our midst. Amen.

Week in the Word: Growing God’s Garden of Justice and Peace

hanks chapel easter

This is the message I preached on Sunday, April 22, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. 

Philippians 2:12-2:30

12 Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes. 14 Do everything without grumbling and arguing 15 so that you may be blameless and pure, innocent children of God surrounded by people who are crooked and corrupt. Among these people you shine like stars in the world 16 because you hold on to the word of life. This will allow me to say on the day of Christ that I haven’t run for nothing or worked for nothing. 17 But even if I am poured out like a drink offering upon the altar of service for your faith, I am glad. I’m glad with all of you. 18 You should be glad about this in the same way. Be glad with me!

19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to see you soon so that I may be encouraged by hearing about you. 20 I have no one like him. He is a person who genuinely cares about your well-being. 21 All the others put their own business ahead of Jesus Christ’s business. 22 You know his character, how he labors with me for the gospel like a son works with his father. 23 So he is the one that I hope to send as soon as I find out how things turn out here for me. 24 I trust in the Lord that I also will visit you soon.

25 I think it is also necessary to send Epaphroditus to you. He is my brother, coworker, and fellow soldier; and he is your representative who serves my needs.26 He misses you all, and he was upset because you heard he was sick. 27 In fact, he was so sick that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him—and not just on him but also on me, because his death would have caused me great sorrow.28 Therefore, I am sending him immediately so that when you see him again you can be glad and I won’t worry. 29 So welcome him in the Lord with great joy and show great respect for people like him. 30 He risked his life and almost died for the work of Christ, and he did this to make up for the help you couldn’t give me.

Still-speaking God whose voice echoes through all you have made and whose fingerprints can be found upon all life , we know you have yet more light and truth to break forth from your holy Word.  Open the eyes of our minds, and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, my God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

gardening 2One of my favorite memories of my mother growing up was her working in her garden.  She liked to make the world beautiful — often painting, sewing clothing, helping others.  But in her garden I got to be a part of her work of beautifying God’s world. She would often ask me to come and lend a hand, digging into the ground and helping her plant and water in her garden. Sometimes she would even have me help her gather up lady bugs to sprinkle on the plants – telling me each time how lady bugs were good luck because they killed the bugs that would eat her flowers and plants.   When I was older I remember helping her move stones, dig deep to set aside spots for plants to grow, and even helping her install a fish pond in that garden. Even to this day when I grab a fresh ripe tomato from the vine, or even from a table at the farmer’s market, and bite in to taste of its juice, I am flooded with memories of times I got to taste the tomatoes from her garden after a busy afternoon helping momma make life beautiful there and I feel for a moment I am there with her, gardening again.

lady bug

This image of gardening shows up again in the Gospel story.  If you will remember, on Easter Sunday when Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus, tears in her eyes, she does not recognize him as Christ risen from the dead until he calls her name.  Instead, she thinks he is the gardener who tends the garden where Jesus was buried. The song “I come to the Garden alone,” one of my favorite Easter hymns, celebrates this encounter.

Yet that image of the risen Christ who opens us up to new life and new futures as a gardener, who working to add new beauty, life, and vibrancy into our lives and world, and who calls us like the first people were called, to help tend the garden of our world so it thrives, flourishes, and is full of beauty and peace with more than enough for everyone,this image of the risen Christ as gardener is so appropriate, isn’t it?

mary magdalene easterIt is especially appropriate when we consider the call of today’s Scripture — “carry out”, or as some translations put it, “work at” or “work out”, “ your own salvation with fear and trembling” for “God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.”

This verse is not saying that you and I have to live in fear that if we don’t live perfect lives, don’t have all the right beliefs about God, don’t study our Bibles enough, somehow we won’t have done enough work to earn God’s love, God’s forgiveness, or a place in God’s heaven.  As we heard last week, God went to the ultimate length — becoming one of us, humbling serving us, offering up his own life in Jesus on the cross for each of us — so that we might know we are welcomed, embraced, and known as God’s own children both now and forever. God would not go to those lengths to simply forget us, forsake us, or cast us aside, for being imperfect.  No, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 2, “ For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” God’s love, God’s forgiveness, being known as God’s own child, and having a place in heaven is something God gives as a free gift to all who will accept it not because of how good or bad they have lived their life, not because they are perfect Bible students or have it all figured out, but simply because God loves each of us freely and indiscriminately.  And that is a gift God doesn’t take back — but gives unconditionally.

gardening 3Yet the “salvation”  we are called to work out is not just about us individually being loved, us individually being forgiven, and us individually going to heaven.   The word we translate save or salvation in the Bible — which comes from sozo in Greek — means to heal, the make whole, to liberate, to free. Working out our salvation is also about us all — individually, in our families, in our communities — growing into the people God made us to be.  It is about us finding our place in God’s dream or plan for our lives and our world. And this is why the book of Ephesians which I quoted a moment ago does not end things by saying God’s salvation is a free gift we cannot earn or deserve, nor disqualify ourselves from by our failings. It does say that, but then adds immediately in the next verse — “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

We are not just forgiven, accepted as God’s children, and given a place forever with God in heaven in order to sit comfortably on our couches all on by our lonesome selves watching Netflix, with no more responsibility.  No, God gives us these gifts to call us into the work of helping God’s dream of healing, liberating, and setting free others in our world. This is what Paul means in Philippians when he calls us citizens of heaven, when he says we are to shine like stars in a dark and crooked world.  We are invited to join God in gardening, in picking up our shovels, our spades, and shaping the little plot of earth we are put in to bring beauty. We are to make it like a place where heaven is breaking out in the here and now.

This is what Paul is talking about when he is saying we are to work out or carry out our own salvation since God is already at work within us to bring it about.   When Paul talks about “salvation” here he isn’t just talking about forgiveness and going to heaven; he is talking about the dream of God’s Jesus spoke about using the language “the kingdom of heaven has come near.  Repent and believe”. He is talking about what Jesus meant when Jesus told people “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  When the Bible uses the word peace it means the Hebrew word shalom which is not just a truce — not just people stopping fighting.  This kind of peace is the peace that comes when every person, all living things, can fully thrive and blossom as what God made them to be. peaceable kingdom When everyone can find a place in our communities to be their fullest selves, and where no one is struggling to get by but everyone has more than enough.   It is the dream the Gardens that are bookends to the Bible story — the Garden of Eden where Genesis says life began, and the Garden of Heaven which Revelation says all who are willing to walk together with God will be welcomed — point toward.   It is working together with God to help make the prayer Jesus taught us — “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” a reality here and now.

Ultimately such a huge calling — to be ones through whom heaven breaks out in our families, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities — is not something we can do on our own.  God has to be at work within us, as Zechariah says — “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Paul promises God already is at work within us, just as the breath of life is already at work in the seeds we plant in the earth, the ground itself, the water and air and sunlight, when we work our in own gardens.  It is that breath of life working within them, the gift of the Holy Spirit, that makes those plants thrive in our garden — and the same is true with what we are called to here.

In some ways, much of the Bible is aimed at pointing toward what this looks like.  If you get a chance sometime, read Jesus’ teachings — especially the Sermon on the Mount. gardening 4 Jesus paints a picture — if we want to live like heaven can break out in this real world — like swords can be beaten into plowshares, guns into garden tools, like everyone can have more than enough and not be excluded, which is what the prophets of Scripture say heaven looks like — what does that look like here and now?  Jesus tells us how to live if we want to live as if heaven can break out here and now through our lives. As we saw last week, his words and example are our blueprint and roadmap to get there.

When the Old Testament imagines a better world, it is painting this same picture.  In fact, the verse I was named for, Micah 6:8, shows us the key ingredients our daily gardening needs: “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Do we want to be people who work out our salvation together with the one who is already working it out within us?  If so, we need to act justly. We need to work every day to tear down walls that keep people out, that push people down, that kick them when they are hurting, no matter how different they are to us.  This is what we need to plant, water, and grow. We need to act justly — leveling the playing field for all, wherever we are: at home, at work, in our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, our churches.  This is what we need to harvest.

micah 6 8We need to to love mercy — when we see someone hurting, we need to show up, individually and as families, neighborhoods, communities, and most of all as God’s church.  This is what we need to plant, water, and grow. We need to offer our companionship, lend listening ears and shoulders to cry on, and when we see a practical need, not just look away, but work to meet it. This is what we need to harvest.

We need to walk humbly with God.  This means not assuming we have the answers, not pushing our way around, but being willing to listen, to learn, to hear others’ stories and most of all listen for where God is still speaking in the situations we face — knowing if God spoken through a donkey to Balaam on the road, it is as often in the unlikely and overlooked we find God’s voice as in the long-time Christian, the person with power and authority, and even preachers like me.  This humble walking with God is what we need to plant, water, and grow.

We need to be willing to lay aside our pride and work together with each other, and others God calls to join us in this work of healing, setting free, and making beautiful our little part of God’s world so everyone and every thing in it can flourish, grow, and fully express who and what God made them to be. This is what we need to harvest.

gardening 6This is why Paul spends so much time talking about Timothy and Epaphroditus.  These two men really get it. They understand that when God saves us, sets us free, and calls us, God is not doing it just for us.  God is also calling us to engage in what our Jewish brothers and sisters call tikkun olam, the perfecting or mending of our world.  Timothy and Epaphroditus have put their hands to the plow at this cause, together with Paul, at great personal cost.  Being people who perfect or mend our world, who work out salvation with God, means being people of healing, people who use the new life Christ has given us to help God’s new resurrection life spread to others who also need to encounter new life in different ways themselves, in helping bring healing, wholeness, care and compassion, and fairness to those desperately needing it all around us.  Timothy and Epaphroditus realize this means putting aside our need to be right, to be comfortable, to do things the way we always did it. They know it means working together with each other, with others, and with God.

Friends, what an amazing calling we have!  To be people of healing, people who take the love and mercy God has given us, take the ways God has and is healing our hearts and lives — the ways God is setting us free — to help spread that healing, love, forgiveness, and beauty everywhere we touch.

May we hear that call, pick up our spades and shovels, and join Christ, the Gardener, in helping God’s garden of compassion, justice, love, and beauty grow & thrive today and all our days.  Amen and Amen.