Shouting all the More

[A sermon preached on Mark 10:46-52 for Reformation Sunday at Hermon Presbyterian Church.]

Ref. Sun

The word “missional” has become somewhat trendy in church circles lately. We hear about “missional communities,” “missional leaders,” “missional worship,” even “missional seating,” and “missional coffee.” It seems like everyone wants to be missional these days! While I agree with this perspective to some degree –mission certainly has its place – I’m also aware that mission work raises its own difficulties.

Take, for instance, the experience of Pippa Biddle. In her book, Ours to Explore: Privilege, Power and The Paradox of Voluntourism, she writes about her experience during a high school mission trip to Tanzania. The goal of the trip was for the students to build a library for a local orphanage.

But as it turned out, this group of highly-educated, private boarding school students was so bad at the most basic construction work that each night local African men would take down the structurally unsound bricks they had laid that day and completely rebuild the structure. Every day, the students would mix cement and lay bricks for 6 or more hours, then after sunset, the men would undo their work, relay the bricks, and act as if nothing had happened so that the students would not be aware of their failure.

It would have been more cost-effective, more beneficial to the local economy, and more efficient for the orphanage to take the same money and hire locals to do the work. So, if the school was concerned about helping people and making a difference, then why didn’t they take that approach?

You see, this is a persistent challenge for short-term mission projects. Often, our methodology and approach reveal our mixed motives. We don’t just want the orphans of Tanzania to have a library; we want the privileged, American students to feel good about themselves while giving their college applications a boost.

In his book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, Robert Lupton explains that our desire to help is well-intentioned, but if we don’t carefully examine our intentions and methodology, we could be doing more harm than good. Effective mission, he asserts, has to begin with deep listening. Though we’re often eager to roll up our sleeves and get to work, if we jump into action without first listening to the needs and perspectives of those we’re serving, we won’t accomplish very much. Before we can be of service, we must first be in relationship.

I wonder what would have happened had Pippa’s group taken this approach. I wonder what might have been different had they first met with the directors of the orphanage and asked them how they could help. Rather than assuming that they knew the best approach, maybe they could have asked the Tanzanian leaders what solutions had already been tried or what strategies they thought might be most successful.

Had the local leaders been empowered in these ways, perhaps they could have redirected the students’ energy and resources to projects that better suited their skillsets. Can you imagine how much more these students could have learned, how much more of an impact they could have had, if they hadn’t seen themselves as all-knowing, self-righteous saviors? Surely, there was a better way!

In our Scripture reading this morning, Jesus shows us the key to effective mission work. The first thing that Jesus does when he’s face to face with someone in need is to stop. He pauses long enough to listen to this man, to hear Bartimaeus’ own assessment of his situation.

In a classic rabbi move, he begins with a question: “What do you want me to do for you?” I don’t hear sternness or frustration in Jesus’ question (e.g. “What do you WANT?”). I don’t hear condescension (i.e. “What do you want me to do for you?”) I here genuineness, humility, and a real desire to help: “What do you want me to do?” “What do you need?” “How can I help?”

Jesus doesn’t assume he knows what Bartimaeus is going to say. He doesn’t impose his own ideas about what Bartimaeus needs. He doesn’t take a paternalistic approach to service. He dignifies and empowers Bartimaeus by allowing him to define his own struggle, encouraging him to share his concerns in his own voice. Jesus knows that ministry begins with deep listening. Though the desire to help is well-intentioned, ultimately, it’s insufficient without first hearing directly from those in need.

I imagine this must have irritated the disciples. After all, they had a job to do. They’re so laser-focused on getting Jesus from one place to another, pushing through the crowds, and coordinating Jesus’ travel itinerary, that they ignore the man in need on the roadside. They have many more important things to do and no time to stop, so ironically, in leading the way for Jesus, they themselves lose their way.

Though many ignore Bartimaeus and rebuke him, telling him to be quiet, to move out of the way, to stop making a scene, to know his place, Scripture tells us that he “shouted all the more.”

Unlike the disciples and the crowd, the point isn’t lost on him. He’s not just shouting nonsense or yelling obscenities or causing a commotion; he’s making a faith claim. Where those around him refer to Christ as “Jesus of Nazareth,” Bartimaeus identifies him as “Jesus, Son of David.” As it turns out, the blind beggar has caught a vision of the truth. His heart discerns what his eyes are incapable of seeing: this Jesus is the Messiah.

While Christian tradition dubs Bartimaeus “the blind beggar,” I propose that we think of him as “the faithful seer.” Bartimaeus has eyes to see and ears to hear and words to proclaim. He knows that this Jesus is worth making a fuss over, worth speaking up about, even worth throwing aside his cloak, one of his only worldly possessions, if it means a chance to meet Jesus face to face.

The miracle here isn’t that Jesus restores sight to the blind; the miracle is that the marginalized refuse to be ignored, that they refuse to be silenced, that they align themselves with Christ, claiming their place in the community of faith. The miracle is that Bartimaeus shouts all the more.

When Jesus says, “Your faith has healed you,” it doesn’t mean that Bartimaeus prayed hard enough or recited the sinner’s prayer or believed the right creeds. When Jesus says “your faith has healed you” it’s as if he’s saying that Bartimaeus believed that there could be more, that things could be different.

Bartimaeus didn’t just settle for the way things were. He didn’t give in to cynicism or the belief that his plight was inevitable. He didn’t shrug his shoulders and say to himself, “I’m a blind beggar. I guess that’s just how it is. Tough luck.” His ability to imagine a better future propelled him to action.

Despite all the naysayers, despite all those telling him to shut up, he “shouted all the more.” He demanded something more, something different, something better, even if it meant being disruptive or causing a scene. He had the audacity to believe in the One who Scripture tells us is “able to do immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine.”

I have to admit, I don’t always feel this way. It’s easy to feel hopeless when we read headlines of yet another mass shooting, yet another act of senseless violence, yet another preventable tragedy. It’s hard to imagine that things could be different, that things could change, that a better future may be on the horizon.

It seems impossible to throw off the cloak of despair weighing us down. It feels as if our cries for mercy have fallen on deaf ears, as if our shouts for reform have been silenced by refrains of “thoughts and prayers.” If you’re anything like me, you’re weary of shouting. Perhaps you’ve been yelling so loud and so long that you’re about to lose your voice. Maybe you wonder if one little voice can make any real difference in a noisy crowd.

Presbyterians often bandy-about the phrase “reformed and always reforming,” without giving it much thought. Always reforming? Always imagining a better future? Always open to more faithful ways of being the church together? Always listening for the whispers of God’s Spirit, the unlikely voice calling out from the crowd?

On this Reformation Sunday, we celebrate the hope that undergirds our conviction that change and growth and transformation are always possible. God is always at work within us, opening our eyes and clarifying our vision.

When Luther nailed his 95 these on the doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg, he dared to keep shouting for change. Just as Bartimaeus pressed on despite the rebuke of the crowd, Luther remained steadfast in his convictions and undaunted in his demands for ecclesial reform, even in the face of great pressure and risk.

When the emperor called him before the Diet of Worms, accusing him of heresy and demanding that he recant his charges, Luther boldly declared, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” And just like that, one little voice sparked a movement. One person’s refusal to be silenced changed the course of history. One faithful witness inspired new vision within the church. The miracle was that he shouted all the more.

The faith that heals Bartimaeus, the faith that inspired the Protestant Reformation, is noisy and bold and disruptive. It’s a faith that’s lost all its manners, a faith that cares not for convention, a faith that defies societal expectations and challenges our deeply-held assumptions. It’s a faith that turns the world on its head. It’s a faith born of a stubborn hope that God isn’t finished with us yet.

Emboldened by our forefathers and foremothers in the faith, may we have the courage to raise our voices, the vulnerability to cry out for healing, the audacity to demand reform, and the strength to persist in our witness. May we shout all the more. Amen.

A Different Kind of Armor

[A sermon preached on Ephesians 6:10-20 and John 6:56-69 at Berwyn Presbyterian Church.]

To be honest with you, I never thought I’d preach on this chapter from Ephesians. Not only is it the chapter where Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters – that alone is enough to make us want to close the book in stunned disbelief – but this morning’s reading is also chocked full of militaristic language, with references to helmets and armor, swords and arrows, enemies, darkness, and evil. Suffice it to say, this isn’t the friendliest passage in the Pauline canon.

As I read about women submitting to their husbands, children minding their parents, slaves obeying their masters, and Christians putting on righteous armor, I’d start to get a little nervous about this seemingly aggressive worldview that Paul outlines toward the end of the letter. This sort of Christian community just didn’t square with the God I’d come to believe in.

The God who I’d come to know and love wasn’t a God of rigid hierarchies and moral battlefields. The God I worshiped talked about an upside-down, topsy-turvy kingdom in which the last are first, our weaknesses disclose God’s strength, and wisdom is revealed in the folly of the cross. I’d heard it called the peaceable kingdom, the beloved community, and I’d come to associate it with the stories of the Civil Rights Movement and the power of nonviolent civil disobedience. In light of the peaceful, justice-seeking God I’d come to know, Paul’s militaristic metaphors just didn’t make any sense to me. My thoughts echoed the exclamation of the disciples in our Gospel reading this morning: “This teaching is difficult! Who can accept it?”

The Kingdom of God is supposed to look different than this, I thought.

  • The prophet Isaiah tells us that in the Kingdom of God, people will transform their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war” (Isa. 2:4).
  • Jesus himself tells the crowds, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9) and he instructs his disciples to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), to love their enemies, and to pray for those who persecute them (Matt. 5:44).
  • Even on the night of his arrest, when he was betrayed into the hands of his adversaries, Jesus told one of his followers to put down his sword (Matt. 26:52). Even in this moment of extreme vulnerability, even when his life was in peril, Jesus chose nonviolence.

So, what gives? Has Paul just completely missed the point here? How are we to make sense of this passage? Why read this letter at all? What on earth could it possibly have to say to us today?

Well, we have to remember Paul’s Greco-Roman context. Paul was familiar with military imagery because Paul’s faith took shape in the context of Roman imperialism. Like many of us, he felt that the ideology of empire posed a threat to Christian faith and practice, and he was deeply concerned about the clash between the authority of Rome and the power of the Gospel.

According to New Testament scholar Warren Carter, “by the first century, an important set of theological ideas was at work that expressed and legitimated Rome’s empire and power.”

The story went like this:

  • The gods have chosen Rome.
  • Rome and its emperor are agents of the gods’ rule, will, and presence among human beings.
  • And Rome manifests the gods’ blessings – security, peace, justice, faithfulness, and fertility – among those that submit to Rome’s rule.

The empire actively promoted these claims and attributed its dominant place in the world to the will of the gods. Carter explains that “These [theological] ideas justified efforts to force people into submission to Rome. They justified the empire’s hierarchical society, the elite’s self-enriching rule, and its privileged existence. They also promoted ‘appropriate’ ways of living for inhabitants of the empire, notably submission and cooperation. To submit to Rome was to submit to the will of the gods.”[1]

The Roman elites, whom Paul refers to as the “rulers and authorities,” or in other translations, the “principalities and powers,” broadcast this theo-political worldview everywhere (Eph. 6:12). Coins, which Carter calls the “handheld billboards of the empire,” proclaimed this message in every marketplace with images of imperial figures alongside those of gods and goddesses. Statues of imperial figures and festivals in honor of military victories all served as propaganda promoting the idea that imperial and military personnel were agents of the gods’ will in a divinely-sanctioned empire.[2]

Rome’s imperial, militaristic claims posed a big problem for the early Christians because the tenets of empire directly conflicted with their understanding of the lordship of Christ. Christians understood only Jesus to be Lord. They believed that only Jesus manifested the kingdom or reign or empire of God. No leader or empire could claim such divine authority. No ruler could exercise greater sovereignty that the one, true King.

This was a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, and a dangerous one at that. No one had to remind the early Christians that ideas like this could get folks killed. Becoming a follower of someone deemed an enemy of the state, someone condemned and executed for blasphemy and sedition isn’t exactly the safest proposition.

But despite these dangers, Paul isn’t an isolationist. He doesn’t urge Christians to remove themselves from their cities or avoid civic affairs. He doesn’t advocate escape from or dismissal of the challenges of empire. That being said, Paul also isn’t a revolutionary or a usurper. He doesn’t urge Christians to employ violent tactics to overthrow the empire. Rather, he helps them negotiate these civic settings and imperial claims so as to remain faithful to God’s purposes for the world.[3] He tells them that they’re to be in the world but not of the world, inhabitants of a particular land, residents of a certain community, but ultimately citizens of God’s Kingdom.

This sort of dual citizenship, Paul explains, is going to require a special skillset. While empires and their armies exert their power and authority through the use of weapons and warfare, God’s covenant community draws upon a different set of tools. Elsewhere Paul writes that God’s power is not made perfect in military strength, but in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). He explains that the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).

The tools that God’s people use to establish God’s Kingdom seem ordinary, almost laughable in their apparent ineffectiveness. Truth and peace, faith and righteousness, salvation and Scripture? These are my combat boots? My flak jacket? My semi-automatic assault rifle? Are you kidding me?

Can you imagine how controversial this must have been? Many had hoped that God’s long-awaited Messiah would come with a vengeance to overthrow their Roman oppressors. What a different vision of God’s kingdom this must have been for them! How were these seemingly absurd tools supposed to usher in God’s reign?

I remember feeling this same sort of ineffectiveness when I was a young seminarian doing some of my very first hospital visits. Walking back to the parking garage one evening after a long day visiting patients on my units, I lamented that doctors have medications to prescribe and tests to run, nurses have pain scales to monitor and vitals to check, physical therapists have strengthening and stretching exercises to employ, social workers have community resources to suggest and coping skills to teach – what did I have to offer? A word of comfort? A prayer? My presence? It hardly seemed like enough.

But the longer I do this work the more I come to understand that God uses humble things for transformative purposes. The Kingdom of God is more focused on loving one’s neighbor than demonstrations of imperial grandeur. It’s more concerned about caring for the least of these than bold displays of martial power. It flourishes not because of military might, but because of small acts of faithfulness offered in response to God’s extravagant love.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, puts it a slightly different way. She writes, “It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found out that life handed you these rusty, bent, old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do.’ And mostly, against all odds, they do.”[4]

Friends, sometimes this task – this work of living out our faith – seems daunting. It feels like we’re under-resourced and over-worked, with only rusty, bent, old tools at our disposal. But Paul offers us a word of hope, a promise of Good News. God has not left us ill-equipped. In Christ, we have received the power and the strength to stand firm even in the face of great challenges. Through Christ, we serve as ambassadors for a new kind of kingdom, a kingdom whose hallmarks are truth and peace, faith and righteousness, salvation and Scripture. It’s a different kind of armor, and believe it or not, it’s enough. Amen.

[1] Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament, 83.

[2] Ibid, 84.

[3] Ibid, 86.

[4] Lamott, Anne. Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.

Realizing Abundance

[A sermon preached on 2 Kings 4:42-44 and John 6:1-21 at Hermon Presbyterian Church.]

Jesuit author and theologian Dennis Linn made the connection between food and faith when he was a young teacher on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation. He had just moved into a housing project there, and he wanted to do something he’d never done before: invite a few of his new students for a meal. Since soup was a customary meal in the community, he spent most of the day in the kitchen, boiling down bones into homemade broth. But when he added a cupful of rice, it seemed to disappear. He worried that it wouldn’t be enough for the eight people who would be coming to dinner, so he added the entire box, but it still didn’t seem sufficient.

Not knowing that rice expands when it cooks, he went to four different neighbors and collected two more boxfuls of rice. With all three boxes in the kettle, he left the soup simmering on the stove as he went to class. He figured that if he didn’t have enough, he could just fill them up with plenty of bread to go with it.

When Dennis returned home with his guests, the rice greeted them at the front door. The inside of his house looked as if a foot of snow had fallen. While some students stayed to help shovel the rice, others went out to invite their family and friends to the feast. Instead of eight Sioux students, that night Dennis fed the whole neighborhood (dogs included)!

For Dennis, this event launched not only his cooking career, but also his relationship with the people in his neighborhood. That evening after dinner, his students as well as their parents, younger brothers and sisters, and other teachers stayed and got to know one another. Together, they went around the table, sharing moments of gratitude and celebration and supporting one another through their stumblings and sorrows. Dennis told them that while he felt humbled and slightly embarrassed by his blunder, he was also deeply grateful that people of every age were meeting in his home to feast and fellowship and pray together.

That night, God used a simple cooking mistake to bring people together as a community. As folks gathered around, God transformed a newcomer’s fears of scarcity into a communal celebration of abundance. Though the soup nourished their bodies, the fellowship nourished their souls, and all were fed in more ways than one. In fact, that evening was so life-giving for Dennis that during the rest of his time on the reservation, he invited his neighbors for dinner every Friday night (though he did decide to stay away from rice).[1]

In our Gospel reading this morning, we encounter another such unexpected feast. The feeding of the five thousand, as we like to call it, is the only one of Jesus’ miracles to be recorded in all four Gospels, so clearly, it made just as much of an impression on the early Christian community as Dennis’ dinner party made on his new neighborhood. It’s a familiar story for many of us, and you probably know it well.

There they were, atop a mountain, where Jesus liked to go to get away from the crowds, but even there he managed to draw a following, and soon a whole crowd was gathered. They had seen the signs and wonders he’d performed, how he’d healed the sick and turned water into wine, and they just had to see and hear more.

When the disciples saw all of the people coming, they panicked. Here they were in the middle of nowhere, folks gathered expectantly with empty bellies and many different needs. There was no way they could meet all of the demand. With no grocery store in sight, no Grub Hub or Uber Eats, no pizza place willing to deliver our that far, they were really in a bind.

But the problem didn’t end there. Where are we going to come up with enough money to feed all these people, Philip asked. Even six months’ wages wouldn’t be enough to give everyone even a small snack! Then Andrew mentioned that a little boy had brought five loaves and two fish along with him, but surely that wouldn’t even put a dent in the need.

I think it’s important to note, here, that the disciples’ response was entirely focused on problem-solving. No one questioned whether the people gathered around were deserving of a meal. No one blamed them for not being responsible enough to pack their own food. No one worried that people would take advantage of the system. No one insisted that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” or suggested that the people gathered “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” No one disparaged the crowd for “asking for a handout.” The disciples were more interested in serving the people than judging their worthiness. When I read their responses, I hear genuine concern for others rather than condemnation or frustration.

Though they’re fearful and worried that there isn’t enough to go around, they know that setting up eligibility criteria isn’t part of Jesus’ Kingdom vision. They’ve walked with Jesus long enough to know that the economy of grace is much more all-encompassing. Surely, Jesus will know what to do.

Indeed, he tells everyone gathered to sit down together, and he takes the loaves and the fish, gives thanks to God for the generous offering, and as he distributed the provisions among the crowd, somehow all were fed. And even after everyone had eaten their fill, as much as they wanted, there were still twelve whole baskets more! Save those leftovers, Jesus told them. None of these good gifts should go to waste. Not only is there enough for everyone – there’s plenty.

Jesus offers all those who come to him an abundance. He gives us more than even seems possible, and his ministry knows no bounds. As we read earlier in John’s Gospel, when he turns water into wine, it’s not just a box or two of Franzia, enough to keep the party going a little while longer; it’s twenty or thirty gallons of the finest wine (John 2:6,10). When he feeds the five thousand men (not to mention the women and children gathered, so who knows how many it could have been), he multiplies a few loaves and fishes with plenty to spare.

In a world where we worry whether there will be enough, Jesus shows us extravagance. In a world where we clamor for scarce resources, Jesus creates an abundance. In a world where we hoard what we have, Jesus calls us to share with one another.

As biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “The conflict between the narratives of abundance and of scarcity is the defining problem confronting us [in our time]. The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal service declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. What we know in the secret recesses of our hearts is that the story of scarcity is a tale of death. And the people of God counter this tale by witnessing to [abundance].”[2]

He goes on to say that, “Jesus demonstrated that the world is filled with abundance and freighted with generosity. The market ideology wants us to believe that life consists of buying and selling, weighing and measuring and trading. But Jesus presents an entirely different economy, one infused with the mystery of abundance and a cruciform kind of generosity. Five thousand are fed and 12 baskets of food are left over – one for every tribe of Israel. Jesus transforms the economy by blessing it and breaking it beyond self-interest. In this account of miraculous feeding, people do not grasp, hoard, resent, or act selfishly; they watch as heaven multiplies the bread of earth. The closer we stay to Jesus, the more we will bring a new economy of abundance to the world.”[3]

This lavishness that God bestows on us often comes in the humblest of forms. Bread and fish, the stuff of daily living, can reveal to us the Kingdom of God, if we have the eyes to see it. A common meal can serve an extraordinary purpose, so long as we’re open and receptive to the moving of the Spirit. As disciples, we don’t have to climb mountains or set sail on stormy seas to encounter deep spiritual truths. The miracle, Jesus tells us, is hidden in the ordinary and tucked away in the everyday.

Preacher and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor explains it like this: “To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone.”[4]

Friends, we’re called to search for the sacred in the commonplace: in a crust of bread, in the face of a new neighbor, in a plate of leftovers, in a pot of soup, in the act of sharing with one another. We’re called to practice abundance in a world obsessed with scarcity. We’re called to remember that we have enough, that we are enough, because God lavishes us with grace upon grace. The miracle of the loaves and fishes wasn’t just about filling empty stomachs; God in Christ was filling hungry hearts, and there will always be plenty to go around. Amen.

[1] Linn, Dennis. Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. Paulist Press: New York, 1995. Pg.3-4.

[2] Brueggemann, Walter. “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity.” The Christian Century, March 24-31, l999.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Harper One: New York, 2009. Pg. xvi.

Seeing the Unexpected

[A sermon preached on 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10 and Mark 6: 1-13 at Hermon Presbyterian Church]

Perception is a funny thing. If you’ve been on social media at all lately, surely you’ve seen the hotly debated Yanny or Laurel video. Countless family members and coworkers and Facebook friends insisted that the clip stated “Laurel,” but alas, I have to say, all I could hear was the name “Yanny.” This frivolous controversy is nothing new.

Before this, we quibbled over whether a photo depicted a blue or gold dress, and I’m sure they’ll be many more optical and auditory illusions to contend with in the future. It’s certainly no surprise, especially in this political climate, that people often see things very differently than one another.

Sometimes our vision is clouded by our context. This lesson became particularly apparent to me in the process of planning my wedding a few years ago. While brainstorming with our family, I remarked that it was a shame that I wouldn’t be able to wear heels to the ceremony. Curious, my family asked why not. I rolled my eyes as I explained that if I wore heels, then Stuart and I would appear to be the same height as me as we stood together at the altar. “Duh, mom!”

As everyone began to smirk, Stuart chimed in, “Hun, how tall do you think I am?” “About my height,” I explained, looking around the room, slightly confused. After some cajoling, both Stuart and I stood up to compare our heights. It turns out, Stuart is taller than me by more than six inches! We had been dating for four years, and somehow, I never realized something this simple! My perception way off the mark!

As we tried to unravel how I could have misjudged so dramatically, we realized that it was all about context! I had played basketball all growing up, even in college, and because I was always undersized for my position, whenever I went out on the floor to match up with my opponent, the player who was closest to “my height” was often six inches taller than me. BINGO!

The context in which I discovered my own height dramatically changed my self-perception. Familiarity with Stuart and with the idea of a taller person being “about my height” created a blind spot. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, I did wear heels . . . once I got over my embarrassment following this conversation.)

I find a lot of comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one who had to learn this lesson the hard way. Early on in his ministry Jesus, too, discovered that perception can play tricks on us. Our Gospel reading this morning presents an unusual sort of homecoming. At this point in his ministry Jesus has changed water into wine and cleansed the leper, calmed the storm and cast out demons, healed the sick and raised the dead to new life. We’d expect him to be the hometown hero, worthy of a welcome parade!

And sure enough, as he enters the synagogue and begins to teach, people were astonished and amazed at all he had said and done. He seemed to teach as one having authority, and they remarked on this wisdom and power that had been given to him.

But then the doubt starts to creep in. Can you hear it? –

“Where’s he getting all this?” “Isn’t he just that scrawny kid from down the street? You know, Mary and Joseph’s boy? Now that I think about it, I remember my kids were in school with his brothers.”

“Who does this guy think he is? He’s getting a little too big for his britches, don’t you think? He’s just a carpenter. One of those blue collar folks. Why on earth would God want to use him, of all people?”

Soon enough, their astonishment turns to rejection, and they take offense at Jesus. Actually, when we look at the Greek word there, it literally reads “they stumbled” or some translators would say “they found him too much for them.” Because their vision was clouded by their assumptions and preconceived notions, they couldn’t see anything other than what they expected to see in him. Their labels and stereotypes blinded them to the truth of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

They reject Jesus because they’re not able to see the unexpected. They cannot perceive God at work in the commonplace. Maybe they echoed the Pharisees’ demand for signs (8:11), searching for God in the exotic when God is much more likely to show up in the form of a regular guy from their neighborhood.

Nevertheless, this misunderstanding will be costly. It’s not just a stumbling block for them, it’s an impediment to Jesus’ healing ministry. The text tells us that he could do no mighty deeds among his own people. Their blindness limits Jesus’ power. Their unbelief creates missed opportunities. Their stubborn attitude and their unwillingness to partner with him constrains his effectiveness.

As New Testament scholar Lamar Williamson writes, “The spiritual climate of a congregation, its sense of expectancy, its openness to the power of God at work through Jesus Christ, will in fact have a great deal to do with how much God’s power can accomplish in that particular community. Our unbelief does not render God impotent, but when it is dominant in a congregation its dampening effect on the mighty acts of God in that time and place is evident and sad.”

As I read this passage, I’m left wondering “if only.” And I can’t help but feel sorry for the people of Nazareth. Truly, they didn’t know what they were missing. Their hearts and minds just weren’t ready to receive this Good News. As Jesus says, “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown and among their own family and in their own house.”

That being said, I don’t think Jesus expected this to be such a tough crowd. Scripture tells us that he was amazed at their unbelief, almost as if he couldn’t see it coming. One would hope the people closest to us wouldn’t be the same folks whose misunderstanding runs the deepest. Rejection always stings, there’s no way around it, but I can only imagine how hurtful this must have been coming from Jesus’ own friends and neighbors, even his family. How lonely that must have felt!

But Jesus doesn’t dwell on it. He doesn’t argue or try to convince him. He simply moves on. He doesn’t have time to wallow in self-pity or stew in anger; he has people to heal and sermons to preach and ministry to do. He doesn’t have the energy to carry a grudge or hoist a chip onto his shoulder; in fact, he tells the disciples to take nothing for the journey except a staff. No food, no bags, no money in their wallets.

Jesus knew the art of traveling light: not just physically, but emotionally. He gently explains to his disciples that when people aren’t ready to welcome them and can’t seem to hear the message, they don’t have to take it personally. The journey is hard enough as it is without carrying the extra weight of all that baggage. He assures them that they don’t have to take personal responsibility for other people’s perceptions. The disciples are called to preach the message, but whether or not people receive it is beyond their control.

Jesus tells us that we can bear witness to what we’ve seen and come to believe, but ultimately, it’s God who opens eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to respond in faith. Jesus’ experience in Nazareth reminds us that sometimes people just aren’t ready to see anything other than what they’re expecting. Sometimes an unfamiliar tune takes awhile before it catches our ear and begins to grow on us. And when that’s the case, Jesus tells us to shake off our sandals and keep on moving.

I love this imagine because it reminds me of both our missional responsibility and our human limits. As disciples, we’re called to shake off our sandals, stirring up dust that was once settled and kicking up sand that many footsteps may have trampled down. In other words, we can speak truth to power and serve as a prophetic witness to the Gospel, even if it’s messy or inconvenient or unlikely to be well-received. We can challenge the status quo and give voice to that which seems unbelievable.

Yet, we can also let that same dust fall to the ground so that it we don’t carry it too far with us. After all, sandy shoes lead to blistered feet sooner than we tend to realize. We have to know when to let go of that which isn’t ours to begin with in order to fulfill the work that God has called us to do.

Jesus’ teaching reminds me of that line in the Talmud that (loosely paraphrased) reads, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

So much of life is beyond our control. I don’t have to tell you that. Just opening a newspaper brings us to our knees as we contemplate the brokenness of our world and our own helplessness in the face of so many heartbreaking situations both here and abroad. Some days it’s hard to know where we should even start. So, we begin where we are. Even when it feels like it won’t make a difference. Even when it feels like no one is listening. Even when we feel powerless and misunderstood on the deepest levels. Even still, we press on, because like the Apostle Paul, we know that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness and God’s grace is sufficient unto the task.

So, like the prophets before us, we open our eyes and raise our voices. Empowered by the Spirit, we see beyond our assumptions and expectations, the stereotypes and labels we apply so unconsciously sometimes. We allow our limited and biased perceptions to expand as we consider others’ perspectives and learn from their experiences. We open ourselves to encounter Jesus in unexpected people and unexpected places, but most of all in the face of the vulnerable and marginalized. We hear him calling us to lives of humble service as we break down dividing walls of hostility that prevent us from recognizing the presence of God in the face of our neighbors. That’s the message that comes out of Nazareth. Will we hear it? Amen.

Affirmation of Faith

(Adapted from the PCUSA NEXT Church Sarasota Statement)

We trust our Lord and Savior who calls disciples to love unconditionally, who confronts brutality by refusing to take arms, and who defies racism by forming a community out of every tribe, people, and nation. Jesus aligns with people who are poor, meek, persecuted, and reviled, and calls the church to do the same. To be a Christian is to be continuously undone and remade by a Savior who encounters us in ways we might not expect, through a collection of people we might otherwise reject, screen, or censor. We commit to move beyond like-minded choruses that reinforce our biases, joining the community that reflects God’s grace, Christ’s kingdom, and the Spirit’s action. We trust that God is always at work in our world and in our lives, giving us joy and calling us to be faithful to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom. We commit to continuously rededicate ourselves to this work and strive, with hearty faith, to live this Kingdom on earth, proclaiming: Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

A Shepherding Love

[A sermon preached on Psalm 23 and John 10:1-18 at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.]

NYA sign

One of the best things about spring is the return of baseball season! I have to admit, I don’t follow baseball all that closely – I’m more of a football and basketball fan, personally – but the other day, I clicked into a sports article to see how the Nationals are faring so far this season. As I read about losing streaks, injuries, and unfortunate series sweeps, I was eager for any excuse to take my mind off these early season struggles. So, down the Internet rabbit hole I went until I found myself watching a video of the “Best MLB Brawls.”

Looking on as punches were thrown, opponents wrestled to the ground, and seas of blue and red converged on the field, I couldn’t help but think of our current political climate. It’s no secret that we live in deeply polarizing times. Partisan politics carves up our country, our community, and even our dinner tables into teams of “us” and “them.” Policy debates, once characterized by respectful dialogue and ideological disagreements, devolve into shouting matches, stereotyping, and name-calling. We are constantly at odds with one another, and just as the dugout always clears whenever a fight breaks out, we can’t help but get swept up into the melee.

It’s surprising to think that the world of the early church wasn’t all that different than the world we inhabit. First century Christians lived in a pluralistic society, with many different groups and ideologies in constant conflict with one another. Our Gospel reading this morning was written within the context of a community forged in the fire of religious conflict.

New Testament scholar M. Eugene Boring (Isn’t that a great name for a professor?) explains that the Johannine community began as Jews within the synagogue who came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. They continued to be observant Jews, and there’s no suggestion that there were any sorts of disputes with the synagogue leaders. Everything was great . . . at first.

But as the Christian understanding of Jesus developed further, the Jewish leaders grew more and more concerned that Jesus was being exalted to a level that challenged the Oneness of God, a belief that set them apart from the various other religions in the Greco-Roman world, giving them a distinct identify. Not only was this blasphemy, but it was a serious threat to their self-understanding.

These disputes between the Johannine Christians and the Jewish leaders intensified until the Johannine Christians were excluded from the synagogue. It would have been simple if this were just a matter of building use, but unfortunately, this was a much larger problem for these early Christians.

While the Christians were still within the synagogue, the Romans regarded them with toleration, as they did the other Jews. Once they became a separate community, the Christians no longer enjoyed the protection of belonging to a legal religion” (Boring, An Introduction to the New Testament, 636). This put them at risk for harassment, persecution, and even death.

Given this backdrop, it’s no wonder that our Gospel reading depicts a flock surrounded by threats. From thieves and bandits to wandering strangers and careless hirelings to ravenous wolves, the sheep are constantly under attack. Of course, these early Christians were hypervigilant about who comes inside the gates! Like the psalmist before them, who spoke of dark valleys and enemy threats, these early Christians knew what it meant to live amidst danger and conflict.

NYA preaching

Even in this day and age, it can sometimes feel like we’re surrounded by threats. We needn’t look past our news headlines to see the carnage of our own political and religious conflicts. Last weekend, we looked on as the US launched air strikes against Syria as a deterrent against the use of chemical weapons in their ongoing civil war. As tensions escalate and innocent lives are lost in the midst of bitter conflict, we fear for our war-torn world, and we wonder if a lasting peace will ever be possible.

Yet, this violence isn’t just something that happens halfway around the world. Our nation barely has time to grieve from one mass shooting to the next, with their predictable news cycles of shock, grief, outrage, debate, calls for change, and the inevitable inaction of our legislators. Whether home or abroad, there seems to be ample cause for despair. The big bad wolf growls indiscriminately at all of our doors, and the thief threatens to steal, kill, and destroy.

Nevertheless, it’s into just this context that the Good Shepherd speaks. He doesn’t say, “let’s kill the wolf with our semi-automatic weapons and bump stocks” or “let’s enforce international law through the use of our high-powered missiles.” Instead, the Good Shepherd lays down his own life for the sheep. Our shepherding God doesn’t give us a sword to intimidate and threaten our enemies. Instead, God sets us a table in their presence and invites us into dialogue and fellowship with them as we seek mutual understanding.

Admittedly, it’s a pretty risky strategy. In the real world, if a shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, the sheep would be even more vulnerable than they were before. After killing the shepherd, who’s to stop the wolf from hunting down and gobbling up the flock? Surely, it’s not a good game plan!

Yet, there’s something uniquely transformative about God’s self-sacrificial love. It’s a love that looks beyond the lines of us and them, a love that breaks down the dividing walls of hostility between us, a love that transcends conflict and invites us into the work of reconciliation. It’s a love that risks everything.

We know this love when we see it, Jesus tells us. It’s a love that is abundantly life-giving, a love that calls to us in the familiar voice of grace, a love that knows us more intimately than we know ourselves, a love that offers goodness and mercy and follows us all the days of our lives.

It’s a love that’s both deeply personal and unapologetically political, a love that doesn’t shy away from the conflicts of our time. As I prayed for the people of Syria this week, I couldn’t help but think about the way the Confessions of this church describe this power of self-sacrificing love in times of political conflict. Though our Confession of 1967 was written in the heat of the Cold War, in a context of widespread fear and escalating geopolitical tension, its authors still had the audacity to challenge people of faith to practice a shepherding, self-sacrificing love.

It prophetically states that, “The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding. Reconciliation among nations becomes peculiarly urgent as countries develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, diverting their [energy] and resources from constructive uses and risking the annihilation of [humankind]” (The Confession of 1967, 9.45, adapted for inclusive language).


Even in the midst of the Cold War, the Church recognized that Christ calls us out beyond our fear, out beyond our immediate self-interest, out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, and into mutual healing and reconciliation. It was a time in our history where it’d seem easy to pick out the thieves and bandits and wolves, easy to label some people as bad guys, deserving of disdain. But there’s very little interpretive humility in that approach, and very little room for grace. Instead, the Good Shepherd sees beyond the artificial categories we create for ourselves and reminds us that “there are other sheep, not of this fold” and that no one, not even those other sheep will be excluded from God’s loving gaze.

That sort of all-encompassing love is alive and active in our world despite all the wolves that continue to prowl. Though the bombings continue to decimate Syria, we can’t help but think of people like the White Helmets, volunteers from the Syria Civil Defense who serve as first responders and search for signs of life amidst the rubble. These unarmed, ordinary citizens risk their lives to render aid to others. Bakers, tailors, engineers, pharmacists, carpenters, students, these are regular folks, just like you and me, who reach out a hand to help their neighbors despite grave danger. Like our Good Shepherd, they don’t declare anyone outside the fold, they offer their support regardless of religion or politics, because they know that everyone is worthy of help and care. In fact, many of them have laid down their lives for their neighbors, over 200 have been killed while trying to save others. That’s a risky, life-giving, shepherding kind of love.

And the good news is that we don’t have to go all the way to Syria to do our part. The work of being a good neighbor starts right here, in this congregation. We participate in God’s self-sacrificing love when we spend time with our friends in the Radcliff Room or when we play BINGO with our guests at 7-2-9 or when we mentor a student in our Community Club. We’ve also been listening for the voice of our Shepherd this weekend as our church hosted the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s 2018 Compassion, Peace, and Justice Training Day. This years’ theme focused on responding to migrants, refugees, and displaced people as we heed our Shepherd’s call to self-sacrificial love in service to the most vulnerable among us. As our churches join together to offer comfort and hospitality to people walking through the darkest valleys, each one of us has an opportunity to consider our role in creating greener pastures and more peaceful waters here in our community.

Where do you hear the Shepherd’s voice? What prowling wolves keep you up at night worrying for the safety of the flock? Where might we be called to offer life in abundance? May our Shepherding God guide us to the cruciform place where our fears meet God’s invitation, and may we know that goodness and mercy will meet us there. Amen.

Beyond Our Fear


[A sermon preached on John 20:19-31 for Presbyterian Women’s Sunday on the Second Sunday of Easter at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church.]

We were up bright and early on Easter morning. The cinnamon rolls were ready to go, our Easter baskets were waiting to be opened, and I even had hopes of snagging a chocolate bunny before making my way to worship. Easter is the most joyous day of our Christian calendar; it’s a celebratory season following the introspection and repentance of Lent. Triumphant hymns, jubilant alleluias, and traditional Easter lilies set the stage for a vibrant worship service. Families, all decked out in their Sunday best, fill our pews with faces old and new, and the congregation becomes a lively sea of seersucker and soft pastels. Sure, folks may have satisfied their sweet tooths by the time the prelude begins, but somehow, we know that the energy descending upon us is more than just a sugar buzz. Jesus is risen! Hope casts out despair, and love claims victory over death itself! Easter is grace upon grace.

So, imagine my dismay, when I walk out to my car early that Sunday morning, to find my tire flat as a pancake. “Today of all days,” I thought to myself as a I sighed and looked up the number for AAA. The outer rim had been pierced by a nail, appropriately enough, and I found myself stranded on the busiest liturgical holiday of the year. Things weren’t off to a great start, and as the worry and dread began to build in the pit of my stomach, I realized those feelings were uncomfortably familiar to me.


Lately, my tires weren’t the only ones feeling a little deflated. As I watched news coverage of the latest school shootings, I worried for the safety of my community even as familiar feelings of shock and numbness quickly took hold. Remembering back to Columbine and Newtown and Virginia Tech, I lamented that not enough has changed in the wake of such tragedies, and my sadness quickly gave way to cynicism that we might ever find a way forward. And yet, even in the midst of great despair, hope seemed to rise from the rubble. Students raised their voices. Our youth created a movement. Hundreds of thousands of people in DC as well as other cities came together to March for Our Lives, looking on as traumatized children turned their pain into action, into change.

It reminded me of other student-led protests during the Vietnam War era and the Civil Rights Movement. These were dark periods of our history, moments when hope seemed far off and justice looked like a lost cause. As we remembered the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination this past week, I found it hard to stomach the juxtaposition of his dream-filled legacy and the unrelenting pattern of police shootings of unarmed black men in our communities. The violence we inflict on people of color remains the same even as it grows more subtle and nebulous, hiding behind plausible deniability, the myth of colorblindness, and thinly-veiled law and order rhetoric. Even as we celebrated how far we’ve come, we still realized how far this country still has to go to achieve true racial justice and reconciliation.

And on this Presbyterian women’s Sunday, as I survey the landscape of the challenges we face as justice-seeking disciples in this day and age, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the #metoo movement and the pervasive culture of sexualized violence in this country. As news reports rolled in with stunning regularity – Harvey Winestein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Larry Nassar, and so many others – it seemed like none of our most powerful cultural icons could claim a clean conscience. By exposing these abuses of power and knocking these men off the pedestals our culture erected in their honor, a small group of courageous women inspired a movement. In the wake of this reckoning, we logged in to our social media platforms only to see a flood of women disclosing their own experiences of harassment and abuse. Many of us couldn’t help but wonder if anyone was untouched by the effects of this type of violence. Even as I despaired over the prevalence of such experiences, I also found hope at the growing awareness of these issues. There seemed to be little glimmers of light breaking through the darkness. Yes, the tire may be flat, but at least AAA is on their way.


Maybe like me, you’ve watched some of these developments unfold, and you’ve felt similarly deflated lately. Opening a newspaper or turning on the television often feels like an exercise in re-traumatization. Whether it’s gun violence, racialized violence, or sexual violence, we live in the midst of traumatized communities. These are all different iterations of the same violence that cost Dr. King his life, the same violence that crucified our God. How could we not feel like the air is continually being let out of us?

I imagine that’s probably how the disciples felt as they gathered together in the immediate aftermath of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Our Gospel reading this morning tells us that they were shut up tight behind closed, locked doors, because they were fearful for their lives. We see this same sort of reaction in Mark’s Gospel when he tells us that the first witnesses to the resurrection “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). In both of these accounts, the trauma to which Jesus’ followers had born witness threatened to overwhelm their capacity to cope, let alone their ability to fulfill the Great Commission.

Theologian Serene Jones paints us a detailed picture of the disciples’ fearful gathering, suggesting we might “imagine that [the disciples] are talking rather frantically, talking fast and at times confusedly. A barely suppressed hysteria registers in their voices: their leader has just been tortured and executed, and they are trying to make sense of it . . . In the process they are probably replaying the scene of the crucifixion again and again. As they recall – [perhaps fuzzily] – the violent events that happened just days before, they seem to be stuck in a playback loop, having lost both their hope and their future” (Jones, Trauma and Grace, 38). “These disciples,” Jones writes, “these disoriented witnesses to a devastating event, are trauma survivors” just like survivors of school shootings or sexual violence or police brutality. “Even though [the disciples] were not themselves tortured and nailed to a cross, they bear in their speech and in their bodies the reality of the horror that unfolded before them and forever pulled their lives into its drama. (Jones, Trauma and Grace, 39).

It’s no wonder that their fear is palpable as they gather together. Sure, there had been resurrection sightings, a stone rolled away to reveal an empty tomb, but could they really trust their own eyes in the midst of such grief? What if it had just been wishful thinking? Their minds playing tricks on them? And what if Rome came after them next? Yet, it’s into their shocked disbelief that Jesus speaks the words “Peace be with you.” As Serene Jones points out, “Notice that it is Jesus who comes to them. The disciples in their pain and fear, do not have to figure out how to reach him. He simply appears, full-bodied and present. Here, then, is God coming to us, even in this moment of violence as we babble in fear. This coming of God into the place of disordering violence is crucial to our understanding of the events around us; as [disciples], could it be that our call is primarily to announce God’s already-enacted advent, the diving coming? If so, then we need to remember that as we seek to minister in a world too full of violence, we do not need to make God appear, for God is here already. Our task is to proclaim God’s [risen, wounded] presence” (Jones, Trauma and Grace, 39).

Now, I say God’s risen, wounded presence, in particular, because that’s exactly what it took for these disciples to move beyond their fear. I’ve always felt particularly bad for Thomas in this narrative because we’re quick to dub him “Doubting Thomas.” It seems like he gets an unfair appraisal compared to the others. I wonder if it might be more appropriate to think of him as “Traumatized Thomas.” I mean, how could we reasonably expect him to believe after the horrors he’d witnessed? All the other disciples had gotten to see the risen Christ, noting wounds in his hands and side, before they could recognize him and rejoice. They found healing and hope through restored connection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus called our Helper, Comforter, and Advocate. Jesus had given them the tools they needed to re-integrate their experience of trauma and embrace the gift of the resurrection. Thomas just happened to be out of the room, and so unlike the rest, he remained stuck in the narrative of fear and violence. Of course, he stood in need of healing, of course he found himself experiencing a crisis of faith, of course he must have felt like all the air had been let out of him!

It isn’t until he examines the wounds caused by this trauma, until he draws in closer and reaches out his hands to place his fingers in the brokenness, that he can start to heal. The God that he recognizes in the risen Christ is a wounded healer, one who uses his own deepest brokenness as a source of healing for others. In these appearances, Christ demonstrates for Thomas, and for all of us who seek to be disciples, that the work of ministry requires all of who we are, even the broken, tender places in us.

That’s what I saw when I looked on as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took the microphone and women all cross the country tweeted out #me too and churches and other groups began hosting conversations focused on dismantling institutional racism. I saw students leading from their wounds when they spoke out despite tears streaming down their faces. I saw women leading from their wounds when they were vulnerable enough to speak hard truths in service to change. I saw my presbytery leading from its wounds when we decided to read Growing Up White together in our churches, as we sought to become more aware of our own complicity in injustice.

I also see us leading from our wounds here, at BPC, in so many different ways, but particularly on this Presbyterian Women’s Sunday through our 2018 Birthday Offering. One of the causes that Mary tells me our PW feel especially passionate about is our support of The Dwelling Place, a shelter that provides for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of women and their children following their escape from a violent partner.

As we celebrate our risen Lord this Easter season, we give thanks that resurrection doesn’t mean ignoring the wounded places in ourselves and our communities. It doesn’t mean sweeping those things under our shiny, white paraments or drowning out our songs of lament with half-hearted alleluias. Resurrection means looking a little deeper at the brokenness that tugs at our heart strings and finding a way to offer the peace of Christ into those situations. It means showing up with a lug wrench and some elbow grease and getting to work on that flat, lifeless tire.

Resurrection isn’t just a one-time event; it’s the daily spiritual practice of bringing healing to our hurting world. Only then can our Hosannas hold meaning. Only then can our alleluias resound through our communities. Only then is Christ alive in and through us. Only then do we experience the miracle that is Easter. Alleluia, Amen.

Growing in Grace

[A sermon preached on John 3:1-21 at Hermon Presbyterian Church.]

Have you ever experienced one of those awkward moments at a wedding? If you’re anything like me, you’ve been to a fair share of weddings where you only know the bride or the groom, and so inevitably, you’re left mingling with strangers at the reception, struggling to make small talk, while waiting for the couple to make their grand entrance. Now, if there’s one rule for these sorts of conversations, it’s never mention money, politics, or religion, otherwise things are bound to go wrong. But I can remember one such occasion, sitting with five or six folks I’d just met, when my neighbor turns to me and, completely out of the blue, asks “So, when was your spiritual birthday?”

Since I’ve never had the best poker face, I’m sure I gave her a quizzical look or maybe even took a sip of my drink to stifle a giggle. Perhaps she didn’t know I was a Presbyterian pastor? Maybe if I had answered, “excuse me, what?” or asked for clarification she would have attempted to proselytize or share the Gospel? It’s possible that this was a less-than-tactful attempt at ferreting out my religious background or expressing concern for my salvation (a lead-in akin to the cliché question, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you’re going?”). I have to confess that these types of conversations aren’t my preferred method of evangelism. It’s an awkward and impersonal way to delve into what’s often a sensitive subject. It’s presumptive, particularly when it’s a stranger posing the question.

Nevertheless, these types of uncomfortable conversations are often what we think of when we hear this familiar text. Many of us can quote John 3:16 by heart: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We find it on bumper stickers and billboards, Sunday night football and chain emails. Often this verse is cited as an evangelism tool, something that lays out the Gospel and reinforces the need to profess one’s faith in Jesus in order to avoid hellfire and damnation. But in addition to being pushy and preachy, my neighbor’s “gotcha” approach, likely buoyed by this verse, completely misses the point of our text this morning.

Believing in Christ, trusting in him, and becoming a disciple is often more of a process than a single, one-time event. To tell you the truth, I probably couldn’t answer my neighbor’s question about the exact date I “made a decision for Christ” because that’s not typically the way Christians in the Reformed tradition articulate their beliefs about salvation. Presbyterians tend to emphasize the Love of God seeking us out even before we’re ever aware of God or are capable of turning to Christ. We trust in a God who actively pursues us and claims us, not a God who waits on our decisions and whims. Drawing closer to God is the work of a lifetime, and throughout the journey there are ups and downs, faith and doubt, moments of clarity and assurance and moments of uncertainty. Like the saints before us, we believe that the prayer of the faithful is “Lord, we believe; help our unbelief!”

Nicodemus, the Pharisee who seeks out Jesus in this morning’s Gospel reading, provides a compelling example of what this incremental process of becoming a disciple can look like. In this passage, we overhear the first of his three encounters with Jesus, and afterwards we’re left scratching our heads as to where Nicodemus stands. On one hand, he affirms Jesus as a teacher and expresses his belief that God is at work in and through Jesus. Throughout the conversation, he asks honest questions and wrestles with his faith, though Jesus is seemingly speaking in riddles and metaphors as he tends to do with his disciples. On the other hand, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night for fear of losing his status as a religious leader. Jesus also comments on his lack of understanding, and we wonder if he might be so wrapped up in his religious training that he doesn’t have ears to hear Jesus’ message. At this point in the story, Nicodemus is an ambiguous character at best, but this encounter is only act one, and God isn’t done with him yet.

Later on in chapter seven, the crowds in Jerusalem are divided in their perspectives on Jesus. Some called him a prophet, others thought he was the Messiah, and some assumed he was just a hoax, a fraud, like the other magicians and street preachers of their age. The religious leaders had already sent temple police to arrest him multiple times, but they had come back empty handed and the Pharisees were at a loss. They look around the room and ask “Has any one of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?” (7:48). I can just picture Nicodemus sweating in his seat, wanting to speak up about his clandestine conversation with Jesus, longing to share his mixed feelings about him – his doubts and hopes, his struggle and curiosity, yet fearing the reaction of his peers. Does any one of you believe in him?

Remember those words of John 3:16 – “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16)? Unable to say “Yes, I believe,” nor able to say “No way, arrest him,” Nicodemus argues for a middle ground. “What about due process?” he blurts. Taking a deep breath as a hush settles over their assembly and all eyes turn to look at him, he explains that it’s not their custom to judge people without at least giving them a hearing. It’s not the answer we’re all rooting for – the hero’s answer wherein he stands up for this condemned man, this unlikely Savior, this one to whom he’s entrusted his life. But by the grace of God, he’s a step closer than he was in act one, and Jesus is off the hook yet again, free to teach and heal and serve God’s people for ten more chapters. Nicodemus, it seems, is no longer hiding in the shadows, but not yet basking in the light.

The next time we see Nicodemus, though, things have drastically changed. Jesus has succumbed to those who had plotted against him. He has died a horrible, agonizing death, surely not a fate befitting a Savior. And as chapter nineteen draws to a close, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who John tells us is one of Jesus’ secret disciples, show up to prepare Christ’s body for burial. Commentators explain that after crucifixion, most bodies were left to rot on their crosses as dogs and vultures took their fill – a warning to those who would dare to defy the powers-at-be. Yet, Nicodemus tenderly prepares Christ’s body for burial, bringing a costly gift, a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe to anoint his body. Here we can see the care he takes in cleaning the body and wrapping it in spiced linens, then finding a fitting resting place – a garden tomb rather than a hangman’s display.

In this achingly beautiful Good Friday scene, Jesus is so intimately cared for, so lavishly attended to, that we can’t help but wonder if Nicodemus has transitioned from skeptical seeker to devoted disciple – flawed and fearful as he might be. We can’t help but notice that every encounter with Jesus has brought forth transformation. Journeying with Jesus on the way to the Cross, Nicodemus draws closer and closer to the very heart of God. One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, often reminds me that grace meets us where we are but never leaves us there. I think that’s true for Nicodemus and for all of us.

If we take anything from Nicodemus’ faith story, it’s that God’s transforming work in our lives doesn’t come with prerequisites. Nowhere in the story do we hear a clear articulation of what Nicodemus believes about God. He hasn’t exactly penned a treatise enumerating his perspective on the essential tenets of the Christian faith. But believing in Christ – trusting him, following him, losing ourselves in service to him – is a whole lot different than believing facts about him. Jesus isn’t asking us to pass an entrance exam; he’s simply inviting us to walk alongside him in love.

With that being said, I invite you to hear again Christ’s words to Nicodemus, his message to all those who pray, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Christ assures us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This self-sacrificing love is unconditional. As I read with the children just a few moments ago, it’s a love that welcomes our inside and our outside, our happy side and our sad side, our silly side and our mad side, our fears and our hopes, our faith and our doubt. It’s a love that goes through and through, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, too. A love that bears with us as we grow in grace, calling us deeper and deeper into God’s eternal embrace. It’s a love wherein find a voice that speaks out, a boldness that enables us to show up for others, and a heart attuned to the movement of the Spirit in our midst. And the process of writing that love story within each of our lives never ends. Thanks be to God. Amen.