Week in the Word: Practical Peacemaking

hanks chapel easterThis is the message I preached on Sunday, March 10th,  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.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6:30 PM at our fellowship hall.

Matthew 18:15-35

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins  He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

These are the words of God for the people of God.  May God add God’s blessing to them as we read them, discuss them, and embrace them.  Amen.

What stands out to you in these words of Jesus in the Gospel?

forgive 2(pass out stones, and ask people as they hold the stones to think about someone they have hard feelings toward they have trouble letting go of.)

One of my first memories is of conflict: in particular, of my brother and I having bloody noses from fighting, and us both being dragged upstairs by mom to face my dad for what we’d done.  And boy, we got it! Yet, now that brother – who I fought with cats and dogs my whole childhood – is one of the closest people to me.

Conflict can happen in any relationship!  In our Gospel reading, Jesus deals directly with the way in which conflict can emerge, bringing alienation and pain between people, even severing relationships.  This is why I titled today’s sermon “Making Up is Hard to Do”

argueWhat are ways we are hurt by others in relationships? (allow discussion)

What are ways we hurt ourselves & others in relationships? (allow discussion)

 In today’s Gospel Jesus gives instructions on how to pick up the pieces when kool aid man damagingrelationships become damaged, and things threaten to escalate.  Here Jesus is taking his beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God,  and demonstrating practically what that looks like lived out in real life conflict situations.  What do Jesus’ words teach us about how to handle conflict and broken relationships?

 As we consider Jesus’ instruction, we need to remember that ultimately this path of forgiveness and reconciliation is not a path we can walk on our own.  On our own, we can get so locked into proving we are right that we fail to really hear one another. We also can collapse, exhausted at how far the distance between us and another seems, feeling it is an impossible bridge to cross.

Yet with God all things are possible! The call to be peacemakers in our relationships is exactly one to be who cannot be on our own and do what we cannot do without Christ’s help.  We need to experience God’s mercy, grace, and healing in our own heart every step of the way. This is why Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who died resisting the injustice of Hitler and NAZI Germany said “[Jesus] stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things. He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality … There is no way from one person to another. However loving and sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open our behavior, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other man, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul. Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbors through him… “He is our peace,” says Paul of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:14).” Undoing the damage our conflicts bring requires walking with Christ, letting Him guide us through the Spirit in how to heal damaged or broken lives and relationships.

The first lesson Jesus teaches us about conflict here is that sweeping things underneath the rug is not the solution.  A lot of times in our families, marriages or our partnerships, communities, churches – you name it! – we try to ignore real problems, acting as if they are not there when all we are doing is leaving them simmering in the background.  Yet the more things you push under the rug, the more they just pile higher and higher. The simmer will heat up more if ignored, boiling over into a real mess, all over the place.

sweeping under rug 2This is what has happened with a number of denominations and churches about sexual abuse in the church and abuse of children.  People did the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil approach, pretending everything was fine while more and more people got hurt and now in some churches there are many devastated lives and churches torn asunder.

This is true with less dramatic issues.  I can’t tell you how many people in long-term marriages or partnerships I’ve seen either come to me for couple’s counseling or have their relationship come apart at the seams not from some huge issue but from tons of seemingly smaller issues that never got worked through which simply snowballed into bigger and bigger concerns as they were not addressed.

Facing head-on, honestly yet graciously, the problems in our relationships and churches before they become explosive is a key part of peacemaking.

check you selfYet before going to someone about a perceived problem, we also need to check ourselves. Jesus’ instructions are specific – his call to be pro-active in approaching one who has hurt you directly does not mean we have to confront people for everything they do we disagree with or every way they hurt us.  Jesus says if someone sins against us individually or sins against the community, then we go to them.

Author and civil rights leader James Baldwin once said, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” This is a good line in the sand to draw about what we must confront.

Just as there are some folks who can be too quick to sweep things under the rug in ways that will only reap havoc later on, so some individuals and communities can also be too james baldwin disagreequick to assume another’s choices, beliefs, and actions are ones we must confront. They can forget that Christ is the Judge and the Holy Spirit is the one who convicts our hearts.  They decide anytime anyone makes a choice they disagree with or voices a question or sincere belief they find troubling, that something has gone wrong in their soul and pounce on them.  They also can be folks who are naturally sensitive so deeply hurt or offended by all manner of perceived slights, making every relationship they are in one where those they relate to feel they have to walk on egg-shells.

It is important to notice that Jesus’ instruction is not that we need to confront everything we disagree with in others, nor every time our feelings are hurt.  Sometimes when people hurt us or others, if we pray and pay attention, we will see that maybe it was not intentional, or that we were having a bad day. Sometimes it feels like a pattern of not caring for others that is a sin against us, though.  In Christ we are challenged to seek out our own salvation with fear and trembling and to study to show ourselves approved. Doing that will mean we each come to different points of view and perspectives on faith, making different choices than each other.  A part of having a loving friendship, a loving family, a loving marriage or romantic partnership, a loving community, a loving church, is extending a graciousness that accepts difference, recognizing it not as something to be squashed or corrected but embraced.  The ground is level at the foot of the cross and must have room for all.

We also need to check our own hearts and make sure the reason we are upset is not our own sin – our pride that says we need to be treated special; our prejudice against something about the other person; our desire for power or control that leads us to unintentionally push God and others into boxes.

Yet there are actions that people can engage in and things they can voice that deny another’s basic worth, that disrespect another’s basic humanity, that treat us or others as if we or they are not children of God for whom Christ died and whom God loves.   There are actions and words, as well as patterns of behavior, that don’t just hurt us and others but harm us and others. That’s sin.   Jesus is saying we need to be pro-active about addressing these to have healthy Christ-like relationships with each other.

trianglesThe next thing Jesus’s teaching challenges us to do is to avoid making relationship triangles.  What does is a relationship triangle?

 To triangulate, or create a relationship triangle, is to bring others into a conflict whom it doesn’t involve, making them an unnecessary go-between and often causing rumors, gossip, and other drama to spread.   Often people don’t mean that to happen when they do it, but even unintentionally such triangulation can be like adding gasoline to the flame of a conflict.

Jesus warns us against this way of handling conflict by telling us, if at all possible, to go directly to the person who has harmed us one-on-one without bringing any one else in order to resolve what’s happened.   And when that is impossible – perhaps when the other person is bullying or abusive, or when they hold some power over us like pastor or boss or community leader, when the person harmed is a child being harmed by an adult, or if a part of the problem is they simply don’t ever listen.   If that is the case, Jesus encourages you to tell as few people as you can get by with – ideally just one person, who can help mediate and who will not do anything to spread gossip or rumors or add fuel to the fire – to help you negotiate this situation safely, and in a way that helps resolve it.  Sometimes this might be a mutual trusted friend, a church leader like a deacon or a pastor, a counselor. I’ve known some churches, jobs, and community groups that even have a few folks go through training to become special designated mediators. Even if a church doesn’t have someone special to fill that role, it is a great training for leaders like deacons or council members to have.

I think we’ve all had where we were in a relationship only to discover we were the last one to find out our friend, our partner or spouse, our kid, our fellow church member, had been hurt by something we did and that only by hearing it from someone other than them.  By then what might have been small and manageable has already become more dramatic and hurtful to all involved than necessary.

focus on reconciliation.pngThe goal of coming to another person when a relationship has been damaged in this way, both on your own or with the help of someone else, is to help bring reconciliation and healing in a relationship.

The key thing this affects is how the conversation goes.  If you are focused on steering the conversation to working through issues you can’t, on the one hand, minimize the pain that has been caused.  That only will bring resentment for you and for others affected. But, you also can’t go in wagging a finger, condemning, assuming bad intent.  You have to come using “I” language, talking about how you feel and how you are affected, rather than dictating what they mean. You also have to be willing to be compassionate and listen to understand what is going on with the person who has hurt you.   If you can’t do that, you need a mediator with you who can help keep the conversation open in that way. The focus cannot be on one party or the other proving they are right but rather on healing the relationship for such a conversation to work. There are times when walking in Christ’s way in a relationship means valuing the relationship more than being right.

But though this is the goal, it is important to know this doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes the friendship will end, despite your and their best effort. Sometimes the marriage or partnership will come apart.  Sometimes the broken relationship in the church will lead to a split of some type. Sometimes one person simply isn’t spiritually at a point to hear another out yet – and God needs to work on one or both people’s hearts.  Sometimes such a conversation may lead people to discover that though they were close during this leg of their spiritual journey, what has happened shows that the best way to be loving to each other is to part wishing peace, accepting not everyone is a close person for all of life’s journey.  All come for a reason – some come to last, some just for a season. Also when abuse is involved, it may be being close to another person again may not be a safe possibility.

making amends


Even in such situations, there is a kind of reconciliation that is possible – when you can begin to look another person with compassion, understanding, and respect, seeing that other person as a fellow Child of God, who is of worth, valued by God and valuable.  I can’t speak for you but I have had close friendships, partnerships, and even church relationships that it took us both parting ways to forgive, to understand each other, and to begin to view each other that way. I even know people who say the only way they could reconcile with a certain partner or spouse was through the relationship dissolving.  It ending opened the way for healing to come.

forgiveness I want to point you back to those stones I passed out.  My friend and mentor early on in my ministry, Rev. Jonathan Stepp, told a story of when he was a little boy and collected stones.  He would stuff stones in his pocket whenever he found them. Eventually, his mom got mad at him – the stones that he collected tore holes in his pants.   Resentment is like putting rocks into the pockets of your heart and soul, it tears you from the inside out. As Desmond Tutu, author of No Future without Forgiveness once wrote, Jesus’ command to forgive is your best self interest.  Even if you and another cannot or should not fully reconcile, not forgiving another hurts you.  It is like drinking poison to make another sick; like holding a live coal in your hand because you want another to burn.   Forgiveness is letting go shackles that hold you to the past. Can’t engage the new future for you personally, new relationships, new opportunities , while holding onto that pain that becomes a chip on your shoulder or weapon against others.  Even churches go through pain that, holding onto the resentment and fear surrounding, can keep them from opening up to God’s future.

As we sing our closing hymn, I want to invite you to think about who they need to forgive and, if you are willing to begin to work to let it go, come forward and lay the stone on the altar as symbol of letting go.



Week in the Word: Downward Mobility

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Ash Wednesday,  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.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6:30 PM at our fellowship hall.

Old Testament Reading

Psalm 146:7-10

7 God upholds the cause of the oppressed
   and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
8     the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
   the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the foreigner
   and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
   but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
10 The Lord reigns forever,
   your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord.

New Testament Reading

Matthew 18:1-14, New International Version

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

2 He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

These are the words of God for all God’s people.  May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we might see and hear what God is saying to us this day.  Amen.

Before I share what stands out to me in our readings from Scripture today, what stands out to you?

Annual-Performance-ReviewsRecently I drove to Raleigh for my annual “performance review” with my boss.   No matter how good I know I am doing in a given year at my job, or how well I’m getting along with my more than reasonable boss, I’m always on pins and needles the whole drive there and a little antsy as I wait for the review to be done.

This was especially true at the performance review over three years ago when I asked to be considered for my current position.   I had been hired at the hospice part time after my residency at UNC ended, working weekends and holidays as well as whenever the full-timers had a vacation on the way.  There was an opening for another full timer and I was ready to pounce on that opportunity. When the day to speak to my boss came, I was nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.  It took a moment, but finally I took a deep breath, and blurted out my request – Can I be considered for this new position, full-time with benefits? Well, since I’ve been working in that position some three and a half years now, clearly things worked out!

The disciples were probably in a similar pins and needles place when they struck up their conversation with Jesus in our Gospel reading.  We don’t know what led them to ask how they could get the “best place”, the best job, in this “kingdom of God”, God’s dreamed for new way of being community which Jesus was bringing.  Was it that, in Jesus turning his attention to Jerusalem, they thought the time was on the horizon when he’d be on top, and Rome and the wealthy who crushed ordinary working folks like them would be on the bottom?  Did they not quite know what all his kingdom talk meant, but, having gotten in on the ground floor of his operation, want to know how to work their way to the top? Was it that, having just heard his talk of his eventual death, as Sunday’s Gospel reading described, some were ambitious enough to want to be his right hand man right now so, if he was not (as they all hoped) just speaking in confusing parables again when he talked of death but was actually really bound to die,  they’d be the heir apparent of his work? Who knows? Any way, they, like me in my fateful “productivity review”, wanted to know how they could get ahead in Jesus’ company. If you’ve ever been in that situation, you can sympathize with these guys. Who doesn’t want to get ahead?

As much as we can sympathize with them, they also reflect what the late Christian teacher Henri Nouwen once called our society’s “pervasive drive for upward mobility.” upward mobility“Our whole way of living, “ Nouwen wrote, “is structured around climbing the ladder of success and making it on top.” You see it in TV ads and even career counseling and self-help books, all which challenge us to get the best education, the best job, the youngest and most attractive partner or spouse, the newest car, the most well-balanced and healthy kids, you name it. Some of this is clearly over the top but not all. Yet though not all of this is bad, it can get out of hand and off balance, becoming what I have called before the drive to “super-size” our lives – to live our best life now, judging if we’ve done that not by if we are being our best self but by us comparing how much better off our lives are (or aren’t) than our next door neighbors, or how well we fit (or don’t) some image our society has sent us of the good life that we often cannot achieve without sacrificing what really matters and which may not fit all of us well anyway.

Jesus’ answer shocked his disciples and, if we are really listening, will shock us too.  Jesus tells us that in his way of running things, the way up is down. This is what his language of becoming like a little child means.  It is easy for us to miss this message because, in our day, such talk of welcoming the child or becoming like a child has been repeated to the point of becoming  cliched. The same was not the case in Jesus’ day. Children were to be seen and not heard, or better yet, not seen either. They were often welcomed not for dying child 2their intrinsic worth as loveable children who could play and laugh and wonder at life, but as potential work hands for the fields and the family business.  Until they grew up they were just another mouth to feed, contributing little. They were completely defenseless, thus the ultimate symbol of powerlessness in his society. This is highlighted in Matthew’s Gospel by how King Herod blithely calls for the death of all the male children under two after the Magi pass through on their way to bless a newborn heir to the throne of Israel. Shockingly to us, no one in Herod’s court even bats an eye at this command.  Child death rates are high anyway, and children are the ultimate expendables. No one in Jesus’ day wanted to be so vulnerable and so weak. So by calling us to become like little children and to radically welcome those who are like children around us Jesus is saying the way forward is a kind of downward mobility, an embracing of our vulnerability and by standing in solidarity with the vulnerable around us.

Speaking of this call, Henri Nouwen continues, “In a society in which upward mobility is the norm, downward mobility is not only discouraged but even considered unwise, unhealthy, or downright stupid. Who will freely choose a low-paying job when a high-paying job is being offered? Who will choose poverty when wealth is within reach? Who will choose a hidden place when there is a place in the limelight? Who will choose to be with one person in great need when many people could be helped during the same time? Who will choose to withdraw to a place of solitude and prayer when there are so many upward mobility 2urgent demands made from all sides? My whole life I have been surrounded by well-meaning encouragement to go “higher up,” and the most-used argument was: “You can do so much good there, for so many people.” But these voices calling me to upward mobility are completely absent from the Gospel… This is the way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus. It is the way toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless—toward all who ask for compassion. What do they have to offer? Not success, popularity, or power, but the joy and peace of the children of God.” (Henri Nouwen, Life in the Spirit)

Tonight we begin the season of Lent, a time when we prepare for Easter, often by re-ordering our lives in some way.  Sometimes people will give up some comfort or pleasure, like chocolate or meat, or TV. Other times people will try to take on a new Christian practice, like prayer or meditation, Bible reading or journaling.   I think Jesus’ words challenge us, as we consider whether and how we might reorder our lives this Lent to prepare our hearts for Easter. We are challenged to not just do things that make us feel religious or holy, but to consider: what can we do in our lives to become like little children and better welcome those around us as vulnerable as children?  How can we balance out our drive for upward mobility by living into Christ’s call to also be downwardly mobile?

When Jess talks about cutting off the part of our body that offends Jesus are is making this same challenge: what practices can we lay aside or pick up to cut out some tendency of ours that leads us not to welcome the little ones in our community, not welcome those who are oppressed, and not welcome  that spark within us that makes us also like little children ourselves? What might this look like? Any thoughts?

First, we can begin asking how can I recognize myself and others as beloved, valuable and embraced by God? Our Psalm reading reminds us that it is precisely those the world counts as  the vulnerable, the weak, the oppressed, those without earthly defenders – mother-and-childwhich is what the Bible means by the fatherless and widows – who God keeps a special eye on.  In our day and age, it is these whom we often overlook everyday, not even noticing.  Jesus calls us to recognize, as my late wife often said,  you have to remember everybody you meet is somebody’s precious baby.  She’d go on to say, not only was that because of their parents, but because they each were God’s children.

Yet we often treat ourselves this same way, too – treating our feelings, needs, desires, as worthless.  Wishing if only I had their education. If only I had their talents. Their appearance. Their wisdom and experience on the one hand, or youth and energy on the other.  If only I was someone other than myself. And yet, you too are somebody’s precious baby.   As Marianne Williamson once said, “We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”   This Lent, ask yourselves – how can you change your life to take space to recognize this truth in yourself? How can you slow down from life’s frantic pace that too often leads us to turn others into numbers, into “those people”, and slow down enough to recognize each person you encounter as somebody’s precious child, as God’s own beloved?

Secondly, ask yourself, how can I make room for those sides of myself that feel weak and vulnerable and for those around me who are weak and vulnerable in my community?   Often a part of why we shy away from those who are vulnerable and weak is they remind us of our own weakness and vulnerability. I  hear this all the time from folks who are dumbfounded I can really passionately love working with hospice. Doesn’t it get you down? They ask.  I always answer, once you get past the fact that you and those you love too could in a moment get sick like the folks I serve, and that you and those you love too will one day die, it’s great work!   What’s scary about it at first is it reminds people that they and those they love are vulnerable.

Speaking of our vulnerabilities, the poet Rumi once said, “This being human is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival. / A joy, a depression, a meanness, / some guest-housemomentary awareness comes / as an unexpected visitor. / Welcome and entertain them all! / Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, / who violently sweep your house / empty of its furniture, / still, treat each guest honorably. / He may be clearing you out / for some new delight.”  Once we learn to accept our own vulnerabilities, we are able to embrace others who are vulnerable.

Then we don’t have to fear those who are different or shy away from the struggling.  We can embrace them and make room for their needs and their struggles. We can stand side by side with them in speaking up for their rights.   This Lent, ask yourself, how can I pick up and lay down practices to help me deal more gently with my vulnerability and the vulnerabilities of others, accepting the vulnerable and making room for them?

Additionally, Lent challenges you to ask what are ways my life is complicit with ways of oppressing the weak and vulnerable, especially children?  What small daily acts can I stop, or embrace, to put a break on this?

A few years ago I read a biography of William Wilberforce, a powerful voice in the 1800s calling for the end of slavery in England.  His supporters opposed slavery not just by their vote or voice, but also by their wallet: droves of them chose to give up sugar in their tea until slavery ended, because most sugar came from companies that used slave labor.  They chose to limit their comfort to no longer prop up injustice. Similarly, during the days when Cesar Chavez fought for fair treatment of agricultural workers in California, many people gave up eating grapes and drinking wine, until fair labor practices were put in place. They chose to limit their pleasure until it did not prop up unfair labor practices.  Today I know many Christians refusing to eat at Wendy’s and some other fast food places for the same reason — how those businesses buy their food from companies that treat their farm workers unfairly and inhumanely. There are still numerous ways we can think about what we purchase, from where we purchase it, and how to prioritize these questions. We can choose Lenten practice that helps us try on ways we can put the breaks on injustice against others through our daily life choices.

A few years ago a pastoral couple I respect gave up using their automobile and biked or walked to all their appointments during Lent, to remind themselves how their use of fossil fuels contributed to the global warming their children and grandchildren would inherit, which impacts most the most vulnerable in our world.  Although I could not do that with my job — I criss-cross four counties some days — their example challenges me to think of choices I can make every day, to limit my negative impact on the planet, being more mindful of my purchases at the grocery store, about how much waste I produce, about recycling, about my use of electricity and automobiles when I can choose to not burn so many fossil fuels.  For this reason the Episcopal Church is challenging its members to eat Chocolate this Lent and instead give up using nonreusable plastics the next 40 days.

Preparing your heart for Easter can mean asking yourself what ways you unintentionally are propping up injustice in the world that impacts the most vulnerable, especially children. You can engage in a practices for Lent that help you think about how you can pick up or lay down ways of living that promote some injustice you feel called to resist not just now but  all year round .

The fact that our Gospel reading ends by telling the story of the Good Shepherd seeking out the lost sheep gives us good news on this journey.  We will fall down during this journey. We will fall short, not just during Lent, but throughout our lives. Sometimes choices we make which we think will help ourselves and others will also have negative consequences we can’t yet see and never could have expected. Ultimately God knows all this.  As Psalm 103 says, God “knows how we are formed,” and “remembers that we are dust”, and so has compassion on us, extending patience and forgiveness. Ultimately we are called not to be perfect, but to do our best to make what changes we can, even if they feel too small to matter to us. We are called not to worry about changing the whole world, but doing our tiny bit that can send ripples across the pond of our lives, communities, and world.  Ultimately this journey does not depend upon us, but upon the God whose love made us, whose love shapes us, whose love carries us, and whose love shall perfect us and bring us all where we belong now and forever.


Week in the Word: On Top of the World, Looking Down at Creation

hanks chapel easterThis is the message I preached on Sunday, March 3rd,  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.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6:30 PM at our fellowship hall.


Call to Worship, based on poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

 It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.

Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

          And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell:

the soil is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


And for all this, nature is never spent;

          There lives the dearest freshness deep down in all things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World

broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.



Sermon “On Top of the World, Looking Down on Creation”

river songThere is something about mountain tops, isn’t there?  I told our Bible study group about my experience two years ago climbing to the top of Graybeard, with a friend and my muppet of a dog, Riversong.   Seeing my dog come alive in a way she never does in the city, as she scaled each rise and peak with such enthusiasm and ease even while I was slowly moving, huffing and puffing up the mountain, would have been reason enough to scale that mountain.  But when my friend and I reached the top and looked out over the horizon, witnessing the hills, the valleys, the towns all around us and beneath us– it was something else! The panoramic vision of colors and scenes that surround me took my breath away and brought to mind a song my daddy used to have us sing when we drove up the Blue Ridge — “I’m on top of the world, looking down on creation / it’s the only explanation I can find” and the words of Bette Middler’s “From a distance” which imagines how different life must look from God’s perspective.

In our spiritual lives, we also have “mountain top” experiences – those moments when God lifts the veil just a tad bit, giving us a glimpse of ourselves, our lives, our world, from God’s perspective.  And just as North Carolina looks so different from atop Greybeard or Mt. Mitchell, so glimpsing our life and our world, if even for a moment, from God’s perspective, changes how we look at it.

I wonder, Have any of you had such moments in your spiritual life you’d be willing to share?

Our Scripture reading tells of just such a moment in the life of the disciples.  Let’s read it mountaintogether, beginning in Matthew 16, verse 24, continuing down to Matthew 17, verse 8.  I’ll be reading from the New International Version, and I invite you to read along in the Bible of your choice, the pew Bible in front of you, the screen, or just close your eyes and listen while imagining yourself as one of the disciples witnessing this moment.  However you best experience Scripture, let’s read it together.

“24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

transfiguration 217:1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

These are the words of God, for God’s people.   May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we might see and know what God has for us in these words of Scripture.  Amen.

What stands out to you in these words of Scripture, particularly about what we are to do with these mountain top experiences?

Today’s reading describes the Transfiguration, the ultimate Mountaintop experience, where the veil is lifted and people are given a glimpse of how things look from God’s perspective.

I see three lessons this experience of the disciples’ teaches us:

  1.     Such moments are not about the flashiness of our experience but us learning to listen.
  2.     It is easy to build tabernacles or monuments to our past that keep us stuck.   Yet God wants to to drive us down the mountain, into the valleys of present need, to transform ourselves and our community in healing ways that ready us for God’s future.
  3.     The way up to the summit where we fulfill the vision we receive on the mountaintop is by going down the mountain, into the valley of service and sacrifice.

First, it is important to notice when we have a mountaintop experience, the point is not the experience itself, but instead learning from it how to listen better to God.

As a young adult, early in my Christian life, I got swept up in the charismatic movement. holy spirit 1  And maybe “swept up” isn’t a fair description, since it makes my time there sound like a mistake, rather than an experience for which I am thankful.  While among charismatics, I learned some really important things: I learned  to talk to God like a friend, freely and from the heart.  I learned I could be real in worship and worship didn’t need to happen at church, but could happen anywhere I called on God’s name, even in my car or while hiking or by a hospital bed.  I learned that God could touch my heart, anyone’s heart, through the Holy Spirit and so I needed to pay attention to where the Spirit moved in me and in others.   It is among charismatic folks I first learned to embrace a core value we hold in the United Church of Christ – that God is still speaking, and you & I need to look and listen for what God is saying to us each day,and in each person we meet.

But the reason I say swept up when talking about my time among charismatics is, for me at least, getting involved with the charismatic movement also centered a lot on my worship 2experiences –  like loud, upbeat music; like  raising my hands and dancing in worship;like  mystical experiences of God’s presence that are hard to put into words but felt so real in the moment.    And I can’t deny I experienced some real things while a part of that movement!  But I also experienced an ongoing temptation while in the charismatic movement to turn faith into a kind of entertainment – with me seeking one experience after another as if the experiences were ends in themselves.

It’s not just charismatics who can get caught up in seeking experiences as ends in themselves.   All kinds of Christians can jump from one experience to another — one seminar to the next ; one revival to another; one retreat to another; trying on every kind of meditation or prayer practice or yoga, as if the next big thing or next big experience will bring some breakthrough in their life that the everyday ordinary practice of daily prayer, Bible study, service to others, and worship will not do.

The disciples also get caught up in this amazing experience of having the veil lifted to see Jesus, themselves, and the saints of Biblical history through God’s eyes.  Who could blame them?  But when they do, they are reminded almost immediately: these experiences are not ends in themselves.  Rather, the Father in heaven thunders a reminder from the skies: “This is my Son. Listen to Him.”

You see, the disciples had not been listening to Jesus.  Right before this experience, they listenhad been arguing with Jesus, objecting to his mission rather than asking how they could lend a hand, as if they knew better than Jesus what God’s plan for him and for them was.  We can be guilty of that, too, can’t we? Wanting to tell God no, you need to do it my way, and not truly listening to God’s call.

You see, the everyday Christian life is not supposed to be Transfiguration Day.  Nor is it to be Pentecost all day long.  No, God prefers when still speaking to us to use the still small voice of the Holy Spirit whispering in our everyday life.  Miracles, signs, wonders, amazing mystical experiences, revivals – these are the big guns, the megaphones God pulls out when either we aren’t listening even though God has been speaking in a still small voice for a long, long time to us already or when God wants to do something new we might not notice and God really needs to get our attention.   Ultimately if we will just listen to Jesus as He speaks in Scripture, in our daily ordinary prayer life, in our lives on our own and in our church life together, we won’t need flashy or fancy signs from heaven about what we should do except at such huge turning point moments.   Let’s remember, it is not signs and wonders God wants but a listening heart, every day, that we need.

Secondly, this story reminds us how easy it is to build tabernacles or monuments to our past, that keep us stuck.   Yet God does not want us to lock ourselves into the past on some mountain distant from the world’s concerns.  Instead God wants to drive us down the mountain, into the valleys of present need, where we can answer God’s calls to transform ourselves and our community in healing ways that ready us for God’s future for us.

We see this in how the disciples want to build tabernacles to Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.  Moses and Elijah are the past – the Law and rituals given to their ancestors on Mount Sinai; and the prophet who pointed to God in their  toughest times, the prophet who carl-bloch-transfigurationinspired those later prophets who wrote much of the Scriptures of Israel we know as the Old Testament.   By wanting to give them each equal footing, a tabernacle side by side with Jesus, the disciples are showing that they expect Jesus to come and bring things back to  the way things used to be in Israel, to the good old days of Elijah and Moses.   But that’s not what Jesus is about.  Jesus is bringing something new, something they can’t expect unless they listen to God’s still-speaking voice through Jesus and the Spirit.  It flows out of and fulfills what God said through Moses and Elijah in the past, but it is not the past: it is instead a new covenant in his blood written on our hearts, not the old covenant written on tablets of stone.

In a way, a number of churches have made national news  of late – most notably the Southern Baptists and Catholics over how to deal with the crisis of sexual abuse by clergy in their churches; and the United Methodists as they struggle over whether and how to welcome gay people — each by struggling over whether to stay in place, clinging onto their past, to how things have always been done, or whether to embrace new paths responsive to the hurts of so many all around them, ones that are open to new ways God might be opening them up for the future.

Here at Hanks Chapel we can’t throw stones, though, at these other Christians.  We too can  get caught up in this same problem, can’t we, becoming nostalgic for how things have always been done before here or how things used to be, in such golden good old days?  We can hold onto traditions and practices that used to help people in the past but Family-Reunionnow only make us comfortable, without really helping any other people longing for God find their way.  Friends, God does not want us building altars on the mountains of the past, staying stuck there, unresponsive to the needs all around us in the present and to what new things the Spirit may call us to in the future.  No, God wants us looking down into the valleys of the communities all around us, to those people hurting and needing a spiritual home, a word of good news from God, or a helping hand.  We need to ask – How is God still speaking in this moment, today?  How can we change what we do as a church and as Christians to meet those folks where they are with God’s love, and make sure they truly feel welcome here?

Finally, ultimately, this vision is one that propels us onward, finding our way up to its fulfillment by us going downward, right into the valleys of other’s suffering through self-less and sacrificial service  For the point of this vision the disciples are given is to challenge them and us to listen to Jesus say he must go to the cross and so must they, so must we.   As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his Cost of Discipleship, “The cross is laid on bonhoefferevery Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every [person] must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old [person] which is the result of his [or her] encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a [person], he bids [them] come and die.”  “Come and die,” this call to put aside our comfort and ease, to serve and love others, is what it means to take up our cross.  It is the destination our every mountaintop experience is pointing us toward and, if we embrace that path, we are on the right way, no matter how many or few phenomenal experiences we have had.

Let us embrace that call today, and all our days! Amen and Amen.


Week in the Word: Enough is as Good as a Feast

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, February 24th,  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.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6:30 PM at our fellowship hall.



Call to Worship, based on poem by Lillian Susan Thomas


of bread


a song

of fragrance,



feed all

who hunger.

If only it

worked that way,

the world


be full

and hope would

waft on


with bread



Sermon   “Enough is as Good as a Feast”

Matthew 14:13-33 New International Version (NIV)

jesus feeding multitudes13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

29 “Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”


These are the words of God for the people of God.  May we hear God’s voice as we listen to them, discuss them, and embrace them in Christ’s name. Amen.


What stands out to you about these words of Scripture?

As I read these words, my memory goes back to a freezer and fridge overflowing with food.

Before my late wife passed, I don’t believe I had ever seen so much food in my life.  Day griefafter day after her passing, everyone brought by tupperwares of every imaginable food.   In fact, when I moved to Durham a year and a half later, I do believe I still had tupperwares in my fridge left over from kind people who came by my apartment the first few weeks after Kat passed, worried I might be so overcome by grief I didn’t think to cook.   Being raised by folks who taught me “waste not, want not,” cooking again for myself felt like a reward, since I made myself wait until I got some distance into the freezer, reheating meal upon meal until I began to cook for myself again.

Not only was I surrounded by food – but by lots of other kind gestures, like how my Sunday school class pitched in money and bought me a tree for Christmas, knowing how special decorating at the holidays had been for me.   And one friend came over and insisted to clean and reorganize my kitchen, while bringing over a big container of pasta that lasted for weeks.

This was how my community cared for me in a time of grief and trauma.

When we join Jesus and his first followers in our Gospel lesson, they too are in a time of grief and trauma. Jesus’ mentor, John the Baptizer, who had organized a movement of repentance and renewal centered on baptism, the very same baptism Jesus went through earlier in Matthew, had been beheaded by the puppet ruler of Palestine, Herod.   John had called Herod out for his violence, for his license when it came to women, for the way he used and abused others.   Then, in the midst of a lavish party in Herod’s palace, with more food and drink than one could know what to do with, Herod’s niece had done a dance for him and, on behalf of her mother, the wife of Herod’s brother, a woman who Herod had taken as his own lover, she asked for John’s head on a platter.

john baptizerAs we begin today’s reading, John’s head has just been delivered on that platter as promised.  John the Baptizer’s outcry against the sins of the comfortable, powerful, and well-established was finally silenced by the power of Roman state violence.

I can only imagine the shock and pain Jesus must have felt and the questions that must have run through his mind on hearing the news of John’s death.  I can only imagine how heartbroken, confused, and lost those who had gone down with Jesus to the river Jordan to be baptized by John, must have felt to see him killed so brutally.

As individuals, as communities, as families, as a church, as a nation, we go through times of trauma and shock too, times which shake us to the core, leave us hurting and grieving, leaving us wondering what comes next and where to turn.  What does Jesus’ example teach us about how to deal with loss, grief, and trauma?

First, Jesus models our need in the midst of such pain to take a time out, to stop and to simply be.   Jesus knows his disciples are hurting and looking for comfort from him. He knows those who have looked first to John the Baptizer and then also to him for a word from God will be looking to him, hoping he will show them some way forward.  Yet he puts a pause on his need to rush to respond.

meditateIt is easy, in the midst of your own pain, to simply react.  To rush to decisions.  To rush to new plans.  Jesus could have done this.  But he knew he needed to stop, to sit with what had happened, seeing what lessons it had to teach.  He knew his need, as Hebrews 4 invites us, to come boldly before God’s throne of grace where he can find mercy and strength in this time of need.

Before he could help others who were hurting, he knew he had to reach out to the One who heals hurting hearts.  Before he could share a word from God with others, even Jesus had to step away from the noise of what had happened, quiet his own heart, go to God, and listen.   So Jesus begins by leaving the crowd and going away alone, just Him and God.   Likewise, after he ministers to the crowd, he sends his disciples away by themselves so they can do the same; and he then pulls away from both to again pour himself into prayer, plugging into the presence and life of God.

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, in a few weeks I am flying on an airplane to visit my longtime friend  a UCC minister up in Boston.  Likely I will experience what most of daily-choresus do whenever you ride in a plane. Before takeoff usually they do a safety talk where they point out exits, explain seatbelts, and explain what to do if air pressure goes wonky.  They always explain oxygen masks will fall down, and then tell you that, though you might be tempted to rush to put masks on the person beside you first, to secure your own mask first, because only then can you really help another with their own.  What good would it be for both of you to pass out, breathless, while you are trying to help each other?  Jesus models here the need for all of us to put on our own masks first, making sure we are giving ourselves the breathing room to spiritually reconnect with God, when we come out of loss and trial, or face crises of our own.

Next, Jesus models our need to let the tragedy or trauma we’ve faced from a situation open us up to welcome in other hurting people and share with them, rather than closing ourselves behind walls out of fear.

In large part because of the people who surrounded me with not just tupperwares of food but also companionship, listening ears, and love, I was able to take my own pain from being widowed and let it teach me how to have compassion on people losing loved ones during my work with hospice.  Rather than breaking me in two, the experience broke me open to love and serve others in new ways.

Yet, like many of you, I have seen people broken by their pain in such ways that they become jaded, afraid to open to others, busily protecting themselves from ever getting hurt again.

In a way that response of fear seems to be the one the disciples have when they are over-run by those hurting people who cannot figure out how to move on after John’s death, who come and crash Jesus’ retreat to be alone and pray.   The disciples see them and are worried they will run out: there is not only not enough food, but not enough energy, time, room, or resources, for such a crowd that have crossed the borders they felt Jesus’ retreat had marked off.   Send them away, the disciples say.   We have to protect our own food, time, space, energy.   If we share, there will not be enough, they think.

And to be sure, resources are limited, from a human standpoint.   This story centers on fishingfish and water – the disciples go out on a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee and people share fish that had been pulled out of the waters of that same Sea.   The reason people flock to the Sea of Galilee to fish there, was that food in general was scarce.   Most ordinary working people in Palestine had been pushed off the farm lands where their ancestors raised crops for food by Roman leaders like Herod and wealthy aristocrats like the temple priests, both of whom John had called out to repent for how they had built great wealth by gobbling up those lands and generally mistreating the poor.  Now many people had no land on which to farm.  If they still lived on the lands their ancestors farmed, they weren’t able to keep the food they grew but had to hand it over to these wealthy folks who now owned that land and sold its crops for a profit.   So food was hard to come by – and people had to fish the waters of Galilee just to get enough to eat.  Add to this the real threat that John’s death brought — that the might of Rome might come for the lives John’s followers too – and you can see why the disciples might want to put walls up, to hoard what little freedom, food, energy, and resources they had just for themselves, and most of all not let in crowds of people who drew attention from Herod and his government.

It is easy to let pain become fear, distrust of others.  For it to lead us to put up walls to keep out others who are hurting, who are different.   To lead us to turn inward.  Ultimately that just creates a situation where we hurt more, are lonely and isolated, and we multiply that hurt in the lives of others around us by pushing away from them when they need us most.

You can see how this can happen in our personal lives, and in families, but we see this tendency writ large in communities across our country right now, whether churches or towns; and across the country as a whole.  People are feeling threatened and afraid by the borderchanges in our society, by people who are different, by the economic struggles they are going through, and so not only put up metaphoric walls but are arguing to put up literal walls, afraid of the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the struggling and in need.  That fear can lead us to think there is not enough to go around, and we must hoard what little we have from others.

Jesus chooses another path.  When the crowd comes seeking words of comfort and direction, he welcomes them.  He is moved with compassion for them, his heart breaking at their situation.  The Biblical Greek used to describe what we translate “heal the sick” here literally means strengthen the weak.   Jesus shares his time, his energy, his prayers, his attention and what good words he has for them, to strengthen them in this time of weakness.   And, rather than sending them back to fend for themselves, he instructs the disciples to take what little food they have – just a bit of bread and fish, and let him bless it, and then have them distribute it to the crowd.

When he does so, everyone is fed and comforted by eating together.  And much more bread and food is gathered than is ever passed out.  The Bible does not explain how this happens.  Was it like when Elijah went to the widow in his journeys and blessed her oil container, so so it never ran out, all based on God’s generous provision despite every law of nature , because she was generous and gave more than she thought she could afford to him, choosing generosity rather than fear?  Or was it that everyone there had a bit of homeless in jesus armsfood with them already— some only a tiny bit and some a lot more than they could ever use— which they were all keeping to themselves out of fear, yet when those people saw  the disciples sharing what little they had it inspired them, the  whole crowd,  to each chip in a bit?   Either way, we are reminded that if we embrace the idea that we don’t need extravagance, but enough is as good as a feast, and that if, rather than seeking extravagance, we share with others, we will be amazed at the ripple effect it makes, leading others to pay it forward in ways that are truly miraculous!   As I’ve said before, Jesus models that God’s way is not about building higher walls to keep others out but wider tables, where more can be welcomed.

Which leads us to the final message of this text.   Which is how this is all possible.   You see ,this call out of fear into openness and faith is frightening.  Like the disciples at the end of our reading, we can feel that we are on shaky, uncertain ground.  It can feel like we are about to be knocked over by waves, drowned.  It can feel like being called onto choppy seas, called to walk on the water like Peter is called by Jesus.

In a way, it is.  It is a call beyond who we can be and what we can do on our own.  It is only possible because we follow one who can walk on the water, one whom the wind and wave obey – Jesus the Christ.

This would have been very clear to those who first read the Gospel of Matthew.  The Gospels were all written as one of the last parts of the Bible.   While the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life lived, people simply went to them to hear the stories of Jesus.   These all seem to have been written in responses to persecutions in which Christians died, as a way of keeping the story of Jesus around.

In particular, the Gospels began to be written after the persecutions of emperors Domitian and Nero, under whose reigns the apostles John the Revelator and Paul both Caesar-crossing-the-rubiconwere killed.  Nero in particular was known for throwing parties like the party Herod threw – full of piles upon piles of food, and pitchers upon pitchers of wine, all while the people of the empire starved.  And, like Herod killed John the Baptizer as a part of his festivities, Nero was known for stringing up Christians and lighting them afire like Tiki torches to keep his parties well lit at night.

If ever there was a time for fear, it was in that time period when this persecution went on, which is the time period around which the Gospels were written.  And yet, history tells us it was the great generosity in the giving of food and clothes, the care for the sick and abandoned, service to others, and other acts of people whose hearts were moved with compassion, offered by these first Christians in the midst of such persecutions that led the poor, suffering, and outcast to flock to the church.   Those followers of Jesus chose to let their experience of suffering and loss, trauma and threat, not cause them to withdraw from the world and set up walls to exclude others who were different but instead to be moved with compassion for the world around them, and openly share with and serve others.  Historians tells us it is this choice made by those persecuted Christians which ultimately caused the church to grow and thrive.

jesus on waterThey could do this because they knew it was not up to them.  They depended on the one who can make the most tempestuous storms and waves as still as pavement, as sturdy as the mountains, and easier to walk on than a sidewalk with just a Word.  And in that one they could trust and rest secure.

And the same is true for you, and is true for me.

May we choose to trust, to follow Christ onto the waters, by living lives of faith rather than fear, compassion rather than closed mindedness, sharing and service rather than shrinking behind walls.  Amen and Amen.

Week in the Word: Love Stories by Jesus


hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, February 17th,  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.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.


As we’ve been doing since the New Year, today we continue looking at Matthew’s Gospel, this time by turning from the Sermon on the Mount to another part of Jesus’ teachings, his parables, looking at Matthew 13.


Matthew 13:24-35

planting seeds24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables,       I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

These are God’s words for God’s people.  May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we can see and know what God is saying to us through them this day.  Amen.

Does anything stand out to you about Jesus’ words?

Love romance perforated paper heart

We are in that time of year when folks get into love stories, aren’t we?   Cupid has been about and love is in the air!  Maybe you were  curled up Thursday night to a Lifetime story or classic romance novel.  Maybe you took out a special someone this week either hoping for love to spark or celebrating your own love story with them.  Perhaps as a single person like myself you either wished you had a love story to tell or you  were glad to not be in the midst of a story that had started out  looking alot like love but had become  something else entirely.   For good or ill — and I hope good for each of you — it’s pretty hard to avoid thinking about love this week.

Today,  in our Scripture reflection time, we turn from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which we’ve been studying the last few weeks to his main form of teaching, parables,.  Parables are stories Jesus told to teach us about what he called “God’s kingdom” or “heaven’s kingdom”.  And though we often don’t realize it, and — goodness knows! —  these stories sure don’t appear alot like the ones we see on Lifetime or at the movie theater, there is a real sense in which these stories Jesus tells are, in their own way, all love stories.

You see, in the Bible, love is not just about candles or candy, nor is it only about romance.  Sure, those things are great, as far as they go, but love in the Bible is a deeper, stronger, thing that that. Love is in fact where we came from and where we all ultimately are headed.  It is God’s love and care for us that births us into this world.  It is to God’s love we all are headed on our great homecoming day, whenever that is. And, in that time between, it is that some love that lifts us up and carries us through all of our lives, on days of joy and wonder, as well as on days that are hard and trying. As 1 John tells us, God is love, and we are called to live out and reflect that love in every aspect of our lives.

In a way, all we have been studying so far in the Sermon on the Mount, with its calls for sermon on the mountus to be caring for all kinds of people, even enemy and outcast, even those who use and mistreat us, even when that means forgiving them, going the extra mile for them, turning the other cheek, or sharing with others without expectation of “thank you” or a return of the favor — all of this is a picture Jesus has been painting of what God’s love looks like when it is put into action.  Speaking of the importance of such love in our life, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once said “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” Cornel West picked up where King left off by adding, “We have to recognise that there cannot be relationships unless there is commitment, unless there is loyalty, unless there is love, patience, persistence…” — the very things Jesus calls us to in his Sermon on the Mount! And Dr. West continues, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

In a way, just as the Sermon on the Mount is kind of a roadmap or blueprint for what a life of reflecting God’s love in every corner of our life can look like, so these parables are short stories that picture what love lived out together in a community and love lived out in public looks like: Jesus is showing us what it would be like for a community to change the world by the power of love, by working to tear down every barrier that stands in the way of love, so that here and now we can see love lived out among us as it already is being lived out in heaven.  This life-transforming and world-changing love lived out in community together and lived out in public is part of what Jesus means by saying the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God has come near and by teaching us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, here on earth as in heaven”.


What do today’s love stories by Jesus teach us about how God changes us and our world through the power of love?  And what love lived out in community, and in public, looks like?   I think we can learn something from what Jesus looks to in order to tell us how to love, as well as how Jesus says God’s love changes things, and finally how these stories suggest we can respond to God’s work of love within and all around us.

First, notice what Jesus looks to: ordinary everyday life.

Most of you know that a few years ago I was widowed.   At first the pain of that was so hard I could never imagine ever thinking of dating or finding love again.  Then when I realized that was a possibility, my very nerdy and bookish self decided, first, look at what the experts say!  And before I would even try to seriously date, I decided had to read book upon book about dating in the modern world, which (not surprisingly) I discovered had changed alot since my 20s.

Jesus does something different when he paints a picture of how God’s love works in the world.  Jesus does not quote hard to decipher Bible verses to explain how God’s kingdom skillet cornbreadof love breaks forth here and now.  He doesn’t quote the experts either, the philosophers or theologians.  In his parables Jesus points to everyday life – he talks about women baking bread, he talks about planting seeds, growing plants, and farming.   Though for some of us, such things may seem far removed from our daily lives, working at universities, doctor’s offices, nursing homes, construction sites, this likely is not the case for all of us here.  And it couldn’t have been less true for his first audience.  For them the stories Jesus gives are of what they did every single day.

You know, sometimes we can get the message that our lives here and now – our work with its frustrations and joys, our families with their laughter and fighting, our play and rest – don’t matter.   They aren’t the things of Lifetime movies, nor of political arguments, let alone the stuff of fancy theologians, are they?  But it is exactly in the midst of those things that Jesus is teaching us to look for and expect to see God’s hand and handiwork, God at work guiding us into how to receive and give, reflect and share God’s love.  And any of you who have ever had a marriage or partnership of any real length, let alone raised children or cared for older parents, you know what Jesus knows: it is in how you do the daily and the ordinary  in your life that everything piles up, which makes your relationships work smoothly and with grace, struggle, or grind to a clanging halt.

If we will slow down and pay attention to our every day lives, we can find signs of God in each day and each moment.  We can see where God is at work, where we and others are reflecting, and point out God’s love in action, and also where love is breaking down in our individual lives, our relationships, our church, our world, and our community.  This is part of why I encourage us in worship to pause, be quiet, and pay attention to what God is saying in our lives each Sunday.  Each day God is showing up, in each encounter we have, if we learn to pay attention.


Questions for Discussion

            What difference does it make to see God as at work in your everyday life?

            What are places or people you’ve not expected to see God?  What would it look like to look for God there?

            What examples do you have of times that you learned lessons about what God wants through paying attention to people, places, or experiences in your everyday life?


Next, these love stories by Jesus suggest that love’s way of changing the world is slow and messy. Love is patient because love takes time.

All three parables are stories of growth and change.  A field grows from seed to harvest.   A seed grows into a shrub so big all the birds of the air can rest in its branches.   A tiny speck of yeast grows, spreading through dough until it can help create 60 lbs of dough. Such growth takes time.

koinonia farms qYet each is messy.  They discover weeds are growing alongside the wheat and have to decide whether to risk pulling up wheat alongside weeds by weeding before harvest time, or to risk weeds choking out some of the wheat’s resources in the meantime, possibly damaging the harvest.   The yeast the woman  does not just mix into but, in the original Greek literally hides within, the dough is not the sweet sanitized packets you buy in a store, but a smelly bubbly mix of old dough that has developed all kinds of bacteria and, though effective for its purpose, would seem very gross to us.  And mustard plants kind of got mixed reviews – some people used them for food, but others treated them like pernicious weeds that weren’t good for much.  So, messy business indeed!

I am reminded by these stories of seeing the end result of surprising growth that took time while serving in Los Angeles at a historically black church.  About once a month one of the older members would bring in bags full of collards, ready to hand them out to anyone who would take them.   Folks would tell me “you gotta try some of these collards from Elder Felix’s collard tree”.  Now I grew up in the south and if I knew one thing it was that collards don’t grow on trees.  They grow just like cabbages, near the ground.   Finally I got invited by Felix and Melba to their house and I could not wait until I could ask to see their fabled collard trees.  “Sure, I’d be happy to show them to you,” Felix told me,  and lo and behold there were enormous, tall, collard plants growing straight up to my neck.  Felix explained that he didn’t pull them up out of the ground or cut them down when he harvested his collards, but plucked off a few leaves at a time.  With no frost, the things just kept growing.  I was seeing decades of growth on his collard plants.   And it truly did make collard plants — not that different from mustard in the big scheme of things — which, after years upon years of growth, were tall enough you could imagine birds roosting in their leaves.

Jesus is letting us in on a secret – love doesn’t often come in a neat easy to wrap package and love takes time. Such love can be messy.  The messiness of love can lead us to withdraw and not open up, but Jesus would have us know that is not the path to life.   As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  Yet the alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation,” since God is love and heaven is the unrestricted presence of that God who is love.   “The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” So the way to life means embracing the risks and vulnerabilities, the measures of being open to others through love.


Not only this, but the change God’s love brings doesn’t happen overnight or happen easily.   If God shows us as individuals, as families, as partners or spouses, as a church, as friends, as a community, some way we are supposed to be a part of God’s change in this Everyday-Miracles-of-the-Planetworld, making it more like it is in heaven, and making love happen in community or in public, we need patience and understanding.  If we open ourselves to others — whether friend or partner, family member or church member, neighbor or someone we are called to serve, even the best relationships with them will be messy and take time.  And sometimes God calls us to love, serve, and care for people we don’t naturally find easy, with that commitment to love being how the kingdom breaks out in our midst. Although God could choose to just snap God’s fingers and make it  all work out at once, God doesn’t.  Love takes time, even God’s love.  God works slowly, over time.   God spreads changes little by little, person by person, in this love lived in public, love lived in community.


Discussion Questions

            What are changes you feel called to help happen in your community, your church, or family that may take time?

            In what ways is it is easy or hard to patient for them?

            In what ways can such changes be messy at first?


Finally, the way we get to God’s destination, the way we live out God’s love together, is not by judging but by hospitality and discernment.  God’s way of loving in public and loving in community casts a wide net, where everyone, folks from all walks of life, can find a welcome.

Our natural impulse is that of the workers in the farm – let’s pull up what we think are weeds as soon as we see them.  Yet their master says, no, make room until things are full grown, because you never know if you might mistake wheat for weeds and pull up something worth saving.  Such a slowness to judge and exclude those God brings along our path on this journey of being a people who help change this world to be more as it is in heaven through the slow work of love is key.

Often church folks have pet sins they use as boundary markers to exclude – perhaps it is drinking too much, perhaps it is being divorced, or being gay, or loving Jesus but cussing a bit, or not dressing right – whatever that means! – or having tattoos and piercings.  And perhaps we should put sin in quotes, for not all or even most of what I just described is in fact a sin in God’s eyes, is it?, though there are folks ready to call it so and throw the first stone!  But perhaps that person you say is just too much this or that is one God has called to be a part of the solution.

And sometimes the people who come off as most opposed to what you feel God calling you to  in fact become in the long run your biggest asset in helping love’s long work be done in community and in public , because if you build a relationship with them and you both truly hear each other out, you might find you have more in common than different and become allies.

This is why the other two parables have images of welcome and inclusion.  The mustard tree becomes a welcoming spot, where all kinds of birds can take roost.   A woman, often kept out of the center of decision making and the life of the community, is brought in by Jesus to be welcomed as an image for God.  That woman makes enough dough to bake bread to share with everyone she knows and many she does not yet.   And as Irvin Milton, a patriarch in our UCC Conference has often said, you can’t really sit down and eat bread with another person –maybe just eating from the same table but not really dining together with them– and truly remain enemies.  There is something about breaking bread that tears down walls and includes. Such is the way of God’s love.


Discussion questions

            What are groups of people you feel the church sometimes struggles to include?  How can we work to include them better?

            Do you have an example of someone you did not expect who became a good ally when working to make a good change or make a difference?


Loving God, you created life in us and all around us,

Help us to encounter you in our daily lives, with hearts and and minds open,

Embrace the call you give us there to live love together, to live love in public,

Week in the Word: The Path is Made by Walking

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, February 10th,  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.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.


Call to Worship,  based on poem by Antonia Machado



your footprints are the path, and nothing else;

wanderer, there is no path,

the path is made by walking.

Walking makes the path,

and on glancing back

one sees the path

that must never be trod again.

Wanderer, there is no path—

Just your wake in the sea.



SERMON  The Path is Made By Walking



Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29

sermon on the mount laura james“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

6 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

These are the words of God for God’s people.  May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we might see and hear what God is saying to us in these words of holy Scripture.  Amen.

What stands out to you in these words?

U-Turns are often the best way to move life forward.One of the most life- and trouble-saving inventions in my life was the GPS.  Before I got one in my car, and then later now in my phone, I took missing my turn and getting lost on a trip to epic proportions.

My late wife Kat never let me live down the time when we were driving home to just outside Los Angeles from a trip to the beach in san Diego and I made just one wrong turn, ending up accidentally in Mexico.

Not that getting lost was all bad, I would always remind her.

One time getting lost landed me to exactly the perfect retreat center for a gathering I was planning.

More importantly, I would say, it was me getting royally lost that sparked the friendship which became a romance that became a marriage with her when, just weeks after moving into southern California, my friend John asked her and me on a road trip and handed me the map for a quick 2 hour drive.   Somehow I so misread the map that I turned the 2 hour trip into 5 and got us smack dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert, which let me tell you, was nowhere near where we were headed.  Lucky for us, Kat had the job of packing snacks and we had our fill for the trip – and that trip sparked a fun conversation which really never ended between Kat and me until the day she died some 3 years ago.

Looking back, I have to ask myself is it any wonder my dad would barrage me with questions before starting a trip as a teenager or a young adult – have you checked tire brokencarpressure?  Have you checked the oil?  Have checked and double checked the maps?  I guess deep down he knew I was one apt to make a wrong turn and end up stranded in the desert.

In a way Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading, as he reaches the end of his Sermon on the Mount, are just that kind of advice and those kinds of questions.   Following the example of Moses who climbed atop Mount Sinai to give a roadmap or a blueprint for how the rag tag band of just freed slaves who stood gathered around Moses could become a nation of free people, so Jesus had climbed atop a mountain too to give his directions on how it would look for people to live out the heart of God in our world, becoming a people through whom God’s kingdom breaks out in our world, so this earth became more as it is in heaven.

And what a roadmap or blueprint he gives!: he describes a life defined not by the righteousness of the religious teachers of his day, a life lived not by a blind obedience to heartless rules that leads to forcing others into boxes that may cause harm.  A righteousness defined instead by rejecting treating others as objects.  A path defined by the kind of peacemaking that does not return evil for evil but instead loves enemies, prays for those that use and abuse you, and does good to all people even those who mistreat you.       It Is a way of living that he says gives generously of time, of talent, of resources, of treasure, to those in need without expecting either a congratulations or that gesture of giving to be returned.  He describes a way of sharing well expressed by Dorothy Day, a Christian leader in the last century who organized communities aimed at helping the abject poor and the working class find their way to break the cycle of poverty.  Day said first “What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in


other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend” and, perhaps most importantly, she always added that “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”

Jesus paints a vivid picture in this Sermon of a way of living that goes even further – and rejects the idea of an outsider at all.   Edwin Markham’s classic poem “Outwitted” puts Jesus’ way for all of us well when it says “He drew a circle that shut me out– / Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout. / But Love and I had the wit to win: / We drew a circle that took him in!”

Jesus has been inviting his hearers, and by extension, each of us, through his Sermon on the Mount to embrace living a whole different pattern of life, a way of living that bucks against the messages our world surrounds us with every day.  He calls us too to join together, to build a different way of being community, whether that community is churches, neighborhoods, families, marriages or life partnerships, you name it.   This is why Jesus’ way is through a narrow gate, along a narrow path, and few there be that make it.  As the late G. K. Chesterton one said, by and large true “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and” left “not tried”.  And, as Jesus warned when talking of those who cry out “Lord, Lord”, yet to whom he will say “I don’t even recognize you”, even many of us may go through times when, though we call ourselves Christian, though we go to church and pray, we may be busy going through all the outward motions of worshipping Jesus while, in our hearts, not really be listening to anything he is saying at all.  It is easy to keep up appearances rather than listening to his voice and following where it leads.

Not only so, but it is easy to get distracted.  It almost sounds contradictory at first that Jesus follows the command Dorothy Day referenced in saying we had no right to judge who was deserving and not deserving among us by then saying for us to not cast our stranger and pilgrimpearls before swine, but in truth he is warning us, that the path we are on is one it is easy to become distracted from, and thus from which to wander off.  Jesus’ warning echoes the challenge of the prophet Isaiah who asked those who heard him in his day, “Why spend money on what is not bread,  and your labor on what does not satisfy? “  The world bombards us with the messages to give our time, talent, and treasure, our hearts and lives into things that truly don’t fulfill, into projects that will not give us the return they promise on our investment, into people and relationships that won’t last.  And we find ourselves forgetting the higher calling, losing our way, and wandering off in the desert like the one I got Kat, my friend John, and me lost in so many years ago,  as we follow rabbit trails off the beaten path Christ is laying out for us.

And of course this path is hard.  I don’t know about you, but when I hear the kind of life Jesus calls us to if we want to be his hands and feet in this world today and I compare it with my own life, I sometimes want to throw up my hands.  How can anyone live this straight and narrow path Jesus has given us in his teachings and example?

And, you know what, we can’t.   We can’t in our own strength.  We can’t in our own power.  We can’t in our own will power, or our own wisdom.

We can only do it by God’s grace, strength, and help.

To return to the story of Moses and Israel, which Jesus is intentionally pointing back to by delivering this message on a mountain, even though the journey from Egypt to the Holy Land was not really that far, it took Moses and Israel 40 years of wandering lost in the desert to get there.   The Scriptures tell us that the reason why is that they kept getting distracted, not listening to God, and wandering off the trail.

Yet, guess what? It may have taken 40 years, but they finally made it.   They were able to make it that far not because they were good at following directions.  They weren’t!  God was with them, appearing as a fire by night and a cloud of smoke by day, guiding their steps whenever they were willing to listen.   They did not get through the desert because they were good at foraging and hunting, nor good at finding good sources of water.  They weren’t!   They made it to the other side of their wilderness journey in one piece, all the way to the holy land, because God provided – bringing springs in the desert, sending quail like snowfall on the ground, and manna or bread from heaven every morning.  God was faithful.  God led, God fed, God provided.  God pulled them through.

This is a reminder to each of us.   We will not be able to find our way on the narrow road to being people who reflect God’s image, God’s heart, like Jesus because of how smart, or good, or holy we are.  We won’t be able to build the house of lives, communities, families, churches, marriages or partnerships, that make heaven break out here in this world because we are so strong, or so smart, or so kind, or so spiritual, or so well-versed in our Bibles.  No, it will happen because God will lead and feed.  God will provide.  We will get there because we let the Holy Spirit guide us like God did as fire and cloud to Israel.  We will make it as we listen to and follow Christ’s still speaking voice, and trust he can give us what drink and bread to strengthen us until the end through our every desert.

And this is a part of what communion means.   When we break the bread and drink the cup, we remember that the lives and callings we have from God are exactly who we cannot be and what we cannot do, on our own that is.  We remember that to get where God has called us individually, as families, as couples, as singles, as a church, and as a community, we need bread from heaven, too.  We need the strength, grace, wisdom, and guidance only God can bring.  It depends on God, not on us.  On our own, we will find ourselves stranded in the desert.  But with God, we will make it.

And so my challenge to you and me is the same challenge Isaiah gave Israel, which Jesus echoes in these words, to not despair for the path is what we cannot do on our own, nor to become distracted by what will not nourish, but instead to come each day, seeking the strength, wisdom, and sustenance God alone offers, which alone can give us strength for this journey.

Amen and Amen.


Week in the Word: Connecting with the Hub of Life

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, February 3rd,  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.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall. 


Call to Worship,                   based on poem by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.



Connecting with the Hub of Life

sermon on the mount laura jamesMatthew 6:7-21, New International Version

7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  11 Give us today our daily bread.  12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’  14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

These are the words of God for God’s people.  May God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we might see and hear what God is saying to us in these words of holy Scripture.

What stands out to you in these words?

dr kingThis Scripture reminds me of a story by my good friend Chuck. Chuck Fager often tells people of his experience eating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s dinner.  Chuck is retired and lives in Durham now, but when he was younger was a student worker helping with Dr. King’s fight for Civil Rights in Selma.  Chuck tells how, he was gathered up by the police with Dr. King and others while they were speaking up against segregation.   Chuck had only been there a month and had no idea what to expect.   He ended up being tossed in a jail cell together with Martin Luther King and some of those other key leaders in the civil rights movement there.

The wardens of the jail were mainly black citizens of Selma themselves who were supportive of Dr. King.   Quietly, in a way that didn’t draw attention to themselves, these wardens put together a meal for King, to express their appreciation for his work.   After a long day of marching, speaking, and ultimately being processed by the police and put in jail, everyone who had been working with Dr. King was famished and exhausted.   Despite this, when the meal that was the best these wardens had to offer was brought out, King graciously turned it down.  His reason?  Long before this imprisonment, King and the other civil rights leaders in Selma, most of whom were pastors and other Christian leaders, had decided to follow the example of others who fought for Civil Rights before them and, when put in jail, to set it aside as a time of spiritual retreat where they would fast, going without food to focus on prayer, Bible study, and reflection.  So in order to nourish themselves spiritually, he and his closest associates in the jail had to turn down the specially made meal.   My friend Chuck knew nothing about this agreement, being just a student worker and not that active in church beforehand himself.  So Chuck was heartbroken, with his mouth already salivating as he eyed the delicious meal, to think of it going to waste.  Stuttering and embarrassed, Chuck let them know he had made no such commitment, and would hate for all that good food to go to waste.  King, the other leaders, and the wardens all agreed.

That Dr. King chose when jailed to focus his time there on prayer, fasting, and Bible study, is important. He and other Civil Rights leaders recognized that, as important as walter winktheir work for civil rights and equality for all was, something more was needed.  They need to be able to also to put away the business, stress, and constant going, going, going, that this work brought into their lives at times and simply to be in the presence of God.  As Walter Wink says in his book Prayer and the Powers, “Unprotected by prayer, our social activism runs the danger of becoming self-justifying good works, as our inner resources atrophy, the wells of love run dry, and we are slowly changed into the likeness of” what we fight against; “prayer…is the field hospital in which the diseased spirituality that we have contracted from” the injustice all around us “can most directly be diagnosed and treated.”

This is also true with all our work and callings – from our work serving in the church to our own activism in the community, to our careers to caring for family members, to being parents or grandparents or spouses.   Ultimately, unprotected by prayer, such work can cause our wells to run dry, and us to become people very different than who God made and called us to be.

Jesus’ words challenge us, like King, to pause and put away the need for more and bigger in our lives, pulling away from the noisy and public, from our constant going, going, going, to turn instead to seek a deep inner connection with God and within ourselves.   Full of worry we can become tempted to pile up treasures, power, privilege, popularity, comfort, for ourselves.  We can become tempted to Super-size our lives – having to have the biggest and best careers, homes, cars, the youngest and most attractive partner, you name it.  Our world bombards us with the temptation to invest so much in that material side of things that we don’t make the time and space for lasts and what really matters.

This doesn’t just happen with things that seem suspect right away but can even happen with otherwise seemingly good pursuits.  Dr. King’s work for civil rights was good, but he MLK prayingknew he needed to drink deep of the waters of life God offers to sustain himself and keep his perspective.  This is something I have to constantly remind myself as someone who works with ministry: ultimately though that work is important, it cannot become an end in itself.  If I am not myself connecting with God each day, working at caring for and loving the people around me, and working to be the person God has called me to be, even so-called “holy work” can be a kind of keeping up appearances.

We don’t have to be ministers for this to happen.  Caring for our children, for people who are sick or in need, working for social justice, or even our jobs we work to provide for our families, all can stretch us without taking time to connect to spiritual resources.  Even prayer, Jesus says, can become something we Super-size, something we make more about saying pretty words or appearing holy before others than us honestly, truthfully, coming before God just as you are.  Fasting too can become about putting on a show to be seen by others.  Even things we claim we are doing for God or out of faith can be used just to prop up ourselves, rather than truly connecting with God.  Any spiritual practice, when it becomes about looking good, about how great we are, and not coming before God in honesty to really encounter God as God is, developing a personal relationship with God that changes you, even that can be a dead end.

The kind of connection Jesus is calling us to is exactly about taking us out of ourselves – and hence done best when not on display.  This is why we read Wendell Berry’s poem as our responsive reading.  When it says, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do / we have come to our real work, / and that when we no longer know which way to go / we have come to our real journey”, it is highlighting that connecting with God is about real honesty where we open up to God showing us who we really are, what we really need, and even how we must change our lives.  To do so we must be willing to admit what we don’t know, and what our limits are.

Ultimately this is kind of prayer which Jesus calls us to, which is the real work we are called to, first and foremost.  This is inner work and an inner journey.

One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, explains this well.  He likens prayer to the sort of large wagon wheels that are used in his home country for decoration – with wide rims, strong wooden spoke, and big hubs in the center.  “These wheels help me to understand the importance of a life lived from the center,” he said.  “When I move along wagon wheel 1the rim, I can reach one spoke after the other, but when I stay at the hub, I am in touch with all the spokes at once. To pray is to move to the center of all life and all love. The closer I come to the hub of life, the closer I come to all that receives its strength and energy from there. My tendency is to get so distracted by the diversity of the many spokes of life, that I am busy but not truly life-giving, all over the place but not focused. By directing my attention to the heart of life, I am connected with its rich variety while remaining centered. What does the hub represent? I think of it as my own heart, the heart of God, and the heart of the world. When I pray, I enter into the depth of my own heart and find there the heart of God, who speaks to me of love. And I recognize, right there, the place where all of my sisters and brothers are in communion with one another. The great paradox of the spiritual life is, indeed, that the most personal is most universal, that the most intimate, is most communal, and that the most contemplative is most active. The wagon wheel shows that the hub is the center of all energy and movement, even when it often seems not to be moving at all. In God all action and all rest are one. So too prayer!”

When you pay careful attention to how Jesus teaches us to connect with this hub or center of life, we see that not only does doing this help us find renewal and center, not only does it help us see the world from the bigger perspective Nouwen talks about by connecting us with others and their perspectives, but also it transforms how we look at and live here and now.

By praying our Father, we recognize each of us and every person we meet are children of God, that the ground is level at the foot of the cross, and that none of us are better or worse than others from God’s perspective.   Each of us are loved, embraced, cared for by our God equally.   Not only that, but in the Psalms “our Father” is the name of God used to say God is the father of the fatherless, who sheds special attention on the poor, and who is the protector of the orphaned, the widowed, and the immigrant.  Saying “our Father” in prayer is inviting God to help those priorities, God’s priorities for our world, praybecome our own.  We are inviting God to widen our vision so that we can see ourselves and others as God does.  When we pray your kingdom come, your will be done, we are signing our names on the dotted line and agreeing to be partners with God in God’s work of setting right our world.   When you pray for God to give us our daily bread, you pray not just saying “give me my bread” but “give us”, recognizing that the needs of each person matter, and you are intended to be a part of God’s answer to this prayer for daily bread for others.  And Jesus makes it clear in his words after he introduces this prayer that praying for God to forgive your debts challenges you to forgive others who have wronged and harmed you.  The language Jesus uses is peculiar too – he does not say forgive us our sins or harms,  but forgive us our debt.  In his day and age, like ours, debts could wreck a person’s life.   Praying this prayer also involves an obligation to help accept God’s clearing of the slate while also committing to help clear the slate for others.  This does include forgiving people and seeking reconciliation.  But such prayer should also challenge us to ask, Do we set up a system in our society where people are pushed into debts like ones falling into the bottom of a well, without a way up, when they face health problems, disasters, poor choices early in life?  Does our world throw those people, whoever that is, into cycles of poverty or into the criminal justice system without a way to right their wrongs?

Since this Lord’s Prayer is Jesus’ model prayer, even if it is not exactly these words you pray, prayer that follows after Jesus’ heart, opens you this sort of change in perspective.

Even fasting, which Jesus describes here and which Dr. King was practicing in front of my surprised friend Chuck, fasting is also intended to shape our perspective into one that considers others, leading us to recognize the struggle of the neediest around us who Rustic-Wagon-Wheel-Main-imagemay go without food or comfort not by choice.   As Isaiah 58 challenges us, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? … [to] spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed…”  This why such fasting as follows after the footsteps of Jesus cannot be for show.  Its point is not to make you feel or seem big and important.  It is to challenge you to see yourself and others as God does, and be moved to respond to them at their point of need.

Any thoughts about ways we can respond to this call as individuals?  As a church?

May we follow Christ’s words, Dr. King’s example, and make time and space to return to the center, the hub of life, where our hearts connect with God’s heart and the heart of the world, so we might be renewed and transformed there by God’s presence, love, and grace.  Amen and Amen.