A Shepherding Love

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

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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.

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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.

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Beyond Our Fear

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[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.

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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.

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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.

Take Up Your Cross

[A sermon preached on Mark 8: 31-38 at Bush Hill Presbyterian.]

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“Follow me,” Jesus tells them. It’s not the first time that the disciples have heard these words. Just a few weeks ago we read the story of four Galilean fisherman, regular Joes just putting in an honest day’s work, when an itinerant rabbi caught their attention. Simon and his brother Andrew were casting their net out to sea, James and his brother John were on their boat mending their nets, and Jesus called to them, saying, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”

And immediately – immediately – they left their nets, stepped out of their boats, and followed him. For these first followers, the life of discipleship meant leaving behind everything that made them who they were – their families, their livelihoods, the tools of their trade – as they responded in faith to Jesus’ summons. From that first encounter they knew that faith goes beyond things they believe or ideas they hold true; faith demands action, commitment, and sacrifice.

I don’t know about you, but when I read that story, I think, “No way, José!” Yet, Jesus’ words in our Scripture reading today makes this earlier commitment to discipleship sound pretty tame in comparison. After all, it’s a whole lot easier to say “yes” on a sunny seashore than it is in the shadow of the cross. After all this time, the disciples are just beginning to realize that Jesus isn’t just a charismatic teacher or miraculous healer, he’s a suffering servant who will ultimately be rejected and killed by his very own.

Peter, for one, can barely stand this revelation. The one to whom Jesus had entrusted the keys to the kingdom just five verses earlier, the rock on which Jesus would built the Church, has suddenly become a stumbling stone on the journey to the cross. And let me tell you, Jesus doesn’t mince his words in his response! This is something he knows he has to do, yet truth be told, it’s something that we disciples still can barely fathom.

So, Jesus sighs and calls for the disciples and the crowds to gather round, and he begins to elaborate a little more. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Powerful words. Disturbing words, really.

I think Christians today forget how horrifying the cross really was for a first century audience. As it’s become a ubiquitous part of our culture – incorporated into things as varied as jewelry, home décor, bumper stickers, and even tattoos, it’s also become sanitized as it’s lost much of its power to shock us. To really understand what the cross meant for first century Christians, imagine walking into our sanctuary and instead of this cross, seeing a large, illuminated outline of a guillotine or an electric chair or a lynch man’s noose.

Like these instruments of death and torture, the cross is a symbol for the abuse of power. Crucifixion was an instrument of state terrorism that the Roman Empire used to force their colonies into submission. As theologian Rowan Williams writes, in his book The Sign and the Sacrifice, “When Jesus was a small boy there was a revolt in Galilee that was brutally suppressed by the Romans. We’re told that there were thousands of crosses by the roads of Galilee” (Williams, 4). So, from his earliest days, crucifixion would have been, for Jesus, a symbol for any exercise of power that dominates, deforms, or defaces human life or God’s good creation.

Theologians use many different metaphors to describe this. Reformed theologian Serene Jones, in her book Trauma and Grace describes the cross as a mirror that “reflects the story of our suffering back to us” (Jones, 82). In his book Theology from the Trenches, Presbyterian pastor, Roger Gench writes about the cross as an exposé that “enables us to see other crosses, large and small that litter both our external and internal landscapes” (Gench, 6).

Drawing upon the work of Ted Jennings, Gench explains that the cross is “a collision between the way of Jesus and the politics of domination. This collision is unavoidable, and God wills that the roots of suffering and abuse be exposed and brought to an end. At its most basic level, the cross ‘strips the powers of domination and violence of their pretended legitimacy’ and reveals God’s solidarity with the ‘oppressed and humiliated.’ So the cross both unmasks and reveals – it unmasks domination’s pretension to power and reveals God’s sovereign and cruciform covenant love. [Even as the] cross exposes sin, it also discloses the God who is always and already bringing life out of the death-tending ways of our world.” (Gench 6-7).

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Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it a different way. In her book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint, she writes that “God keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life over and over” (Bolz-Weber, 174).

This week in particular it makes me shudder to think about “the graves we dig ourselves through our violence.” In Parkland, Florida, the bereaved families of the 17 people gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are digging literal graves and lamenting the crucifying role of gun violence in our country. It’s unimaginable, and yet here we are, almost 20 years since Columbine, over 10 years since Virginia Tech, and five years since Sandy Hook, and still we wait for legislation that will keep our schools and communities safe. “How long, O Lord? How long?”

Yet, the God we proclaim, our crucified God, is particularly present wherever there is suffering in our world. The cross displays God’s solidarity with the suffering and oppressed and calls us to stand with God alongside them as we work together for justice.

And we need not look beyond the mere shape of the cross itself to remind us of the importance of this task. Gench describes the horizontal bar of the cross as the “ways in which fear, violence, and death preoccupy and oppress our lives” and the vertical bar as the “ways in which God is intersecting our death preoccupied lives in order to bring resurrection and life” (Gench, 7). If we want to follow Jesus, if we want to be his disciples, our calling is to stand at those intersections.

As our Scripture reading reminds us this morning, the way of Christ is to stand with those whom the world crucifies, to take up our cross and follow. And I think that begins with telling the truth about those things that keep us up at two in the morning, fearful for the world we live in, the world God calls good. It means bearing witness to suffering, and instead of looking away in shame or helplessness or apathy, looking a little deeper so that we can roll up our sleeves and get to work.

The decision to take up one’s cross and follow is risky, it’s uncomfortable. It calls us to open ourselves to the truth of the brokenness and brutality of our world in order to shine God’s light in the darkest places.

When I see the students across this country advocating for safer schools, staging protests against gun violence, and demanding reform, I see people taking up their cross and following. When I see elite gymnasts courageously standing up in open court and testifying against a serial abuser, I see people taking up their cross and following. When I see the faithful of First Presbyterian Church of Spokane holding a candlelight vigil, despite icy, below-freezing temperatures, to pray for the DACA Dreamers, I see people taking up their cross and following.

But I don’t have to look very far beyond these pews to see people who are willing to take up their cross and follow. Whenever we head over to Miriam’s Kitchen to prepare and serve a hot meal for DC’s homeless men and women, we’re standing at the cruciform intersection of abject poverty and boundless love. Whenever we pick up a hammer for RJP Housing’s Rebuild Together work project, we find ourselves at the cross-shaped intersection of human need and helping hands. Whenever we work for justice, healing, and peace in the midst of all that threatens to dominate, deform, or deface, we’re taking up our cross and following in the footsteps of our suffering savior.

As we walk alongside Jesus as he journeys to the cross, Lent is a time in our church year where we’re called to confess, grieve, and amend our brokenness and the brokenness of our world. Our news cycle reminds us that this sort of truth-telling is often comingled with tears and this sort of justice-seeking is fraught with righteous indignation, and both are deeply sacred tasks. Tears water the seeds of justice that will one day take root. Anger fertilizes the first sprouts of transformation that will one day shoot up from the manure of our sin-sick world.

And on that day, the day when justice and peace, redemption and reconciliation finally come into full blossom, there will be no more suffering, no more tears, no more violence, and no more fear. On that day God’s kingdom will be made manifest, and with the Apostle Paul, we will finally see that “the message about the cross is foolishness to [some], but to us . . . it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

May we be so foolish, so faithful as to take up our cross and follow. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, for [Christ’s] sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Amen.

Beyond Our Knowing

[A sermon preached on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and Mark 1: 21-28 at Bush Hill Presbyterian Church.]

I thought I knew where I was going, who I wanted to be, what direction I wanted my career to take. As a young seminary student, I felt sure that parish ministry wasn’t for me and by no means did I see myself in healthcare chaplaincy; I knew I was headed straight for academia. I had it all figured out: I would finish my doctorate in Hebrew Bible, become a tenured professor of biblical studies, and publish erudite books and articles which would solidify my place in the ivory tower.

With these ambitious goals in mind, I headed to Baltimore to attend my first Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion conference. At these yearly meetings, the best and the brightest religious scholars from all over the world would gather to present papers, debate the latest developments in the field, and share their most recent work. I was so excited – and more than a little star-struck. Scholars whose work I’d only read in books would be right there in front of me, talking about the most cutting-edge research, and hosting panel discussions. I was going to learn so much!

But a few days into the conference, I was walking down the street to get to the next lecture, and I noticed something that would change my entire sense of call and vocation. The sidewalk was crowded with SBL and AAR participants, most of whom were dressed in business attire and carrying the same, green conference tote bag. A disheveled bystander called out to the passersby, not to ask for money, not to give anyone a hard time, not to cause a scene, just to ask them what event was going on downtown that afternoon.

Assuming her to be homeless or mentally ill, assuming that her inquiries might turn into pleas for assistance, assuming the presence of ulterior motives, most people just walked quickly past her, avoided making eye contact, and ignored her completely. Her presence and her attention made them uncomfortable, and they were in a hurry to get to the next presentation.

In that disillusioning moment it felt like my whole world came crashing down. How could people who claimed to know so much about God fall so short when presented with an opportunity to put their ideas into practice? How could they see this situation and not be reminded of the stories of the Good Samaritan or of the people who called out to Jesus from the crowd? These religious scholars, these people who’d spent decades of their lives devoted to the study of sacred truths and holy texts, had clearly missed the whole point. As the Apostle Paul explains to the church at Corinth, “knowledge puffs up” but it’s love that “builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

There’s a difference, you see, between knowing things about God and experiencing God in the present moment. Sure, we can memorize Scripture verses or recite the Lord’s prayer or maybe even translate some Hebrew or Greek in preparation for a sermon or Bible study, but are we really attuned to God’s presence in our daily lives? Are we open to experiencing God in unlikely places and unexpected people? Are we looking for God in the flesh, the Christ who came and dwelt among us? Or are we, too, missing something essential in the life of discipleship?

The Jesus that we meet in today’s Scripture reading calls us out beyond our knowing. Like those who were on hand in Capernaum that day, Jesus teaches us something that can’t be found in any textbook. Gathered around him in the synagogue were the learned scribes, faithful men who had spent their whole lives studying God’s word. Yet, nothing they’d ever read, no teaching or interpretation they’d ever heard, prepared them for what they were about to see with their own two eyes.

This Jesus was one who not only talked the talk but walked the walk. With a few simple words Jesus brought healing and wholeness to a man in deep need, one others had written off in judgement and fear. Jesus, the One who would later still even the stormy seas, was able to quiet this man’s inner turmoil and silence the voice of self-loathing within him. Is it any wonder that Mark tells us on both bookends of this story that all those who saw this were amazed and astounded at this new teaching.

The scribes and religious scholars taught with erudition, but Jesus taught as one having authority. It’s important to remember that we’re still in this first, introductory chapter to Mark’s Gospel. We’re just starting to get to know Jesus here. He’s fresh out of the Baptismal waters and the desert wilderness. He’s just begun his Galilean ministry and called his first disciples. This is the first of many healings, and it’s the first time we realize that Jesus’ life and teachings have the power to change things. His words offer more than a clarification of doctrine or a final answer to a theological debate; he is, himself, the living Word, and his teachings make things happen, both personally and publicly.

For the man with the disturbed spirit, this teaching was life-giving, soul-repairing, and transformative – a moment that would change his life forever. Yet, the miracle goes beyond the healing of one single man on a particular day at a certain time in a specific place. Jesus’ authority transcends particularities of circumstances and speaks to all of us in a much broader sense. Not only does Jesus have the authority to redeem us as individuals, Jesus has power to transform our collective consciousness and heal our societal sins.

Healing, in this passage, isn’t just restoring this man to wholeness, it’s creating a community that acknowledges and meets his need rather than shunning or shaming him for it. Healing is seeing past our differences and recognizing the presence of God in one another. Healing is demonstrating how to take faith beyond our words and into our actions, showing us how to open our hearts when we’d rather just think with our heads. Healing invites us into a deeper way of knowing and experiencing God. And it’s precisely through this healing work that Jesus is first identified as “the Holy one of God” (Mark 1:24). When we look to the very first verse of this chapter, which is the very first verse of Mark’s Gospel, we understand that this healing, transformative work is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), and boy, does it catch on quick in Galilee.

One of the reasons why we’re gathered here today is that, personally and collectively, we’re in need of this kind of good news, this kind of healing, this kind of teaching. So many things claim hold on our lives and clamor for authority. We’re beholden to schedules: the daily grind of our 9-5, the endless school schedules and snack calendars and carpool arrangements. We’re targeted by the latest fashion trends, the newest technology, and the increasingly clever marketing schemes. We’re gripped by our inner desire to do more and have more and be more. We’re held captive by circumstances beyond our control – illness, loss, violence, disaster. And even beautiful, fulfilling things have a certain kind of power over us – the love of family and friends, the value and sense of purpose we find in our work, the good that we do in our community, the desire to be a good parent or a hardworking employee or a person of integrity.

The reason that Christ is the ultimate authority in our lives is that the hope we have in him transcends our fears, the love and belonging we find in him calls us into connection, the peace we experience through him offers courage in every moment of anxiety or despair, and the abundance we meet in him fills our deepest needs. Christ’s teachings have authority because they pour out grace upon grace in our lives. His words are powerful when they’re no longer just dried ink in a dusty old book, but when they’ve become a living, breathing reality in and through us.

I’d like to say this was the case on that Baltimore street on a windy and cold afternoon in late November. I’d like to say that unlike the other conference attendees, I stopped to speak to the woman who called out to us, offering her the dignity of meeting her eyes as I responded to her inquiry. But I didn’t. I hurried on to the next session, more concerned about meeting my personal goals than honoring the humanity of this child of God standing before me. I knew I had a lot to learn, but I mistakenly believed that the teaching was buried in some prestigious academic’s latest paper rather than right there on the street in front of me. As I scurried past her, I glanced over my shoulder only to see another woman stoop down to meet her gaze, reach out to shake her hand and introduce herself, and begin to tell her about the event taking place. “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!” (Mark 1:27). May God open our ears to hear and our hearts to believe. Amen.

Room in the Inn

[An Advent devotional piece written for the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.]

“Into this world, this demented inn
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ comes uninvited.

But because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
and yet he must be in it,
His place is with the others for whom
there is no room.

His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power, because
they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied status of persons,
who are tortured, bombed and exterminated.

With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.”
– Thomas Merton

While the weary masses crowded the streets of Bethlehem, filling every inn and household to overflowing, the shepherds were probably the only ones left on the outskirts of town, keeping watch over their flocks as darkness descended and a hush settled over the fields. I imagine it was quite the contrast – the hubbub of a town swollen to accommodate the imperial decree and the silence of what appeared to be another unremarkable night spent watching and waiting. It’s no wonder that a city already over its capacity couldn’t offer a space of welcome or that bleary eyed travelers didn’t have eyes to see the miraculous or that the clamor of the marketplace drowned out the angelic announcement of good news of great joy. After all, we miss a great deal when we’re standing at the center of a story. Those with ears to hear are more often the people on the margins, people with a bit more perspective, people who have a little more room in their hearts for the unexpected.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that when the angels appeared and the glory of the Lord shone around them, God chose the lowly shepherds to be the awe-struck audience. “For unto you a Savior is born,” the angels proclaimed. God became flesh and dwelt among us for people just like you, people who find themselves on the underside of the powers and principalities of this world, people who are disadvantaged or oppressed, people who long for God’s justice and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s why the angels began with the reminder not to be afraid. They knew that the One whose birth they lauded would upend our human systems of power and privilege, the percussive politics of domination on which our world turns. As we sing in the Canticle of the Turning (G2G #100): “From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears every tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more for the food they can never earn. There are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.” The angels knew there would be a reckoning, and they understood that only those already on the outside would have the nerve to hear such news, let alone call it good. Their words to the shepherds echo through the ages, giving us the courage to welcome Christ into a broken and fearful world as we hear the voices of peoples long silenced and work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. “Don’t be afraid,” they tell us, “God’s begun something miraculous, and believe it or not, you’ve got a part to play!” Amen.

The Invisible String

[From the Children’s Message, The Invisible String by Patrice Karst]

Liza and Jeremy, the twins, were asleep one calm and quiet night. Suddenly, it began to rain very hard. Thunder rumbled until it got so loud that it woke them up. “Mommy, Mommy!” they cried out as they ran to her. “Don’t worry, you two! It’s just the storm making all that noise. Go back to bed.” “We want to stay close to you,” said Jeremy. “We’re scared!” Mom said, “You know we’re always together, no matter what.” “But how can we be together when you’re out here and we’re in bed?” said Liza. Mom held something right in front of them and said, “This is how.”

Rubbing their sleepy eyes, the twins came closer to see what Mom was holding. “I was about your age when my Mommy first told me about the INVISIBLE STRING.” “I don’t see a string,” said Jeremy. “You don’t need to see the Invisible String. People who love each other are always connected by a very special String made of love.” “But if you can’t see it, how do you know it’s there?” asked Liza. “Even though you can’t see it with your eyes, you can feel it with your heart and know that you are always connected to everyone you love.” “When you’re at school and you miss me, your love travels all the way along with String until I feel it tug on my heart.” “And when you tug it right back, we feel it in our hearts,” said Jeremy.

“Does Jasper the cat have an Invisible String?” Liza asked. “She sure does,” said Mom. “And best friends like me and Lucy?” asked Liza. “Best friends too!” “How far can the string reach?” “Anywhere and everywhere,” Mom said. “Would it reach me if I were a submarine captain deep in the ocean?” asked Jeremy. “Yes,” Mom said. “Even there.” “Or a mountain climber?” “Even there.” “A ballerina in France?” “Even there.” “A jungle explorer?” “Even there.” “How about an astronaut in space?” “Yes, even there.” Then Jeremy quietly asked, “Can my string reach all the way to Uncle Brian in Heaven?” “Yes . . . even there.” “Does the string go away when you’re mad at us?” “Never,” said Mom. “Love is stronger than anger, and as long as love is in your heart, the String will always be there.” “Even when you get older and can’t agree about things like what movie to see . . . or who gets to ride in the front seat . . . or what time to go to bed. Oh! That’s right! You two should be in bed!”

And with that, they all laughed as Mom chased the twins back to their beds. Within a few minutes, they were asleep even though the storm was still making the same noise outside. As they slept, they started dreaming of all the Invisible Strings they have, and all the Strings their friends have and their friends have and their friends have until everyone in the whole world was connected by Invisible Strings. And from deep inside, they now could clearly see, no one is ever alone.

[A sermon preached on Revelation 7: 9-17 and Matthew 5:4 at Bush Hill Presbyterian Church on All Saints’ Sunday.]

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. Admittedly, I have a pretty major sweet tooth, but as I joined in the celebrations this week, my excitement went far beyond my love of all things chocolate. For me, it’s all about the costumes! Of course, there’s something to be said for the classics – pirates, witches, pumpkins, cowboys – they’re all tried and true. But if your neighborhood was anything like mine this year, we saw quite a few Wonder Women and many a Moana. And I have to tell you, it got me thinking. . .

Halloween is one of the few opportunities we have to try on a totally different identity. For one night and one night only, we can be anyone we want to be. It’s a chance to say who we are, to imagine who we might be, to share what frightens us or makes us laugh, to show off our cleverness and creativity or to pay homage to our heroes. In some ways, picking out a Halloween costume lends itself to even larger questions as we consider who we are and who we want to be, questions that require contextualization and an awareness of our past in order to understand our present, questions that we wrestle with today as part of All Saints’ Sunday.

As we gather to worship today, we remember who we’ve been as people of faith throughout the ages in order to envision who we will be as the church in our own time and place. In order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been, and so remembering and celebrating the lessons passed down to us by those who’ve guided and shaped us along the way is a critical step in paving our path forward.

One of the reasons those popular Moana costumes got me thinking, actually, is that her story seems to demonstrate this better than any of the other Disney heroines to date. At every critical juncture of Moana’s journey, reminders of the past inspire her and propel her onward even in the face of great obstacles. For those of you unfamiliar with this past year’s family favorite, let me give you a little background. Moana is the daughter of the island’s chief, and her father is focused on helping her become the leader her people will need, even if that means sacrificing the part of herself that loves the ocean. Though Moana is drawn to the sea and longs to set sail, her father insists that the water beyond the reef is far too dangerous and forbids her from going near it. Yet, as the island falls prey to an evil curse, Moana realizes that her people’s only hope is for her to sail across the sea to set things right.

What ultimately gives her the courage to ignore her father’s warnings and set off on this perilous adventure is the influence of her grandmother, who shares Moana’s love for the sea. Throughout the film, Grandma Tala is a source of inspiration as Moana wrestles with her identity as a leader. Grandma Tala passes the story of creation and the mythical stories of the gods down to Moana. She reminds her that she is part of a long line of navigators who sailed to farthest corners of the world. She encourages her calling and grounds her in the rich history of their tribe. Her dying words are a charge to Moana to venture beyond the reef in order to dispel the curse and restore the island’s verdant splendor. Her necklace equips Moana for the task alongside Grandma Tala’s promise to always be with her. And true to her word, when Moana is at her most discouraged, when all hope is lost and she’s about to give up, Grandma Tala’s spirit comes to her and sings her the “Song of the Ancestors,” inviting her to remember who she is, to hear afresh the story of her people, and to claim her place alongside the great voyagers who have gone before her.

What Grandma Tala and Moana both know is that our past deeply informs our future. What sustains Moana on the journey is the witness of the saints who have spoken words of truth, guidance, encouragement, and hope into her life. And what she learns, what we discover through her story, is that even in our moments of greatest need and deepest doubt, the wisdom and love of those who have gone before will always remain with us. After all, I’m willing to bet that all of us have a Grandma Tala in our lives, someone who’s nurtured us and mentored us and cheered us on, someone who believed in us when we didn’t believe in ourselves, someone whose presence remains with us and whose legacy lives on through us.

As theologian Frederick Buechner writes, “Although death can put an end to them right enough, it can never put an end to our relationship with them. Wherever or however else they may have come to life since, it is beyond a doubt that they still live in us. Who knows what ‘the communion of the saints’ means, but surely it means more than just that we are all of us haunted by ghosts because they are not ghosts, these people we once knew, not just echoes of voices that have years since ceased to speak, but saints in the sense that through them something of the power and richness of life itself not only touched us once long ago, but continues to touch us.”

Like the invisible string that connects us beyond time and space, the love and the lessons that the saints have offered us tug at our hearts and call us into continued community with those who have passed on, those whose absence remains heart-wrenching no matter how many years pass or how far removed we are from the grieving process. I’m convinced that’s why Jesus tells us in his Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” These memories we hold in our hearts continually connect us to those we love, offering comfort, reassurance, peace, and blessing, even as we grieve.

And one place where that connection is particularly poignant is here at Christ’s table. Sharing the Lord’s Supper with one another is one of the ways that, through Christ, we are united with one another and with the great cloud of witnesses that’s gone before us. The bread and the cup are those invisible strings of love that cut across that great dividing line to bring us into communion with the heavenly host as we receive a foretaste of the world to come. Like John’s great vision in the passage from Revelation that we read this morning, Christ meets us here at table and offers us a glimpse of the heavenly realm. Here we remember the story of our faith, passed down from generation to generation. Here we ourselves join with the company of saints surrounding the throne, sharing a meal together, and proclaiming God’s glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might.

God will gather to this table saints living and dead, people of every nation, tribe, and language, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, people of every race, socio-economic background, gender identity and sexual orientation, people who’ve been marginalized and people in positions of power and privilege, everyone, everywhere, united as one people and gathered together as one worshiping community, through Christ our Lord. It’s a vision of unity, of a world free of division, free of hatred and oppression, free of hunger and thirst and tears. It’s a vision of God’s heart wherein we all find welcome. Friends, within this simple meal, there is an abundant feast. Within this fleeting glimpse, there is an inner homecoming. But only through this act of great remembrance can we find our place in the story, proclaiming a hope that is greater than death and a love that will not let us go. Amen.