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.

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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.

 

Work in Progress

[A sermon on Matthew 16:13-20 and Romans 12: 1-8 preached at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.]

“How long does she have?” Without a doubt, it’s one of the top five questions that hospice clinicians hear on a daily basis, and it’s fairly understandable why. Families want to know when to book plane tickets or if they should call in a co-worker to cover for them or whether to hold-off on that vacation they’d planned. Despite all their responsibilities and commitments, death had the boldness to show up at this family’s doorstep unannounced and the audacity to withhold its date of departure, so naturally, they want to know how best to accommodate such an unruly guest. Though they know, on some level, that the end of life process is individual and varied, they hold onto hope that we can predict that which is ultimately unknowable, that we can help them map the mysterious.

“How long does she have?” Well, we hem and we haw. We acknowledge how difficult it is for them to not know. We explore their methods of coping with uncertainty. We might reference experiences with previous patients or give a general range that’s vague enough to be both honest and unsatisfying. We remind them that they know their loved one better than anyone and that even our best guess is never a guarantee. We pray. And despite these reassurances, it’s still hard. There are just some questions that defy easy explanations, and if I’ve learned anything about hospice or anything about discipleship, it’s that we have to carry those questions along with us as we live our way into the answers.

I think Jesus must have known this when he asked his disciples “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” It’s a doozy of a question. Who is Jesus? What does it mean to be the Christ? Volumes upon volumes would eventually be written on the subject. For centuries, church councils would duke it out over the nuances of this controversy. Jesus isn’t just handing out a little pop quiz; his question merits a doctoral dissertation.

It’s not like we can blame the disciples for their stammering. True, their responses aren’t fully developed, but they’re still in the ballpark. “Some people say you’re John the Baptist,” they posit. “I wonder if you might be Elijah,” another muses. “If you squint really hard and tilt your head a certain direction, maybe you could be something else entirely,” they laugh. (At least that’s the direction the conversation seems to be going – lots of speculation, not a lot of definitive answers.) They might as well admit what they don’t yet know, what they’re still in the process of coming to believe.

I find a lot of encouragement in the fact that even the disciples, those hand-picked by Jesus to be his companions and students, are sometimes so slow to comprehend all that’s been revealed to them. They’ve walked alongside Jesus for some time now, bearing witness to his miraculous healings, listening with rapt attention as his teachings and parables challenge them in new ways, marveling at his boundless compassion for those on the margins of society. They’ve come to know him intimately, not just through word of mouth, but through powerful personal encounters. And still, they hesitate to affirm what it is that they believe, what God has revealed to them.

Like any of us, they’re a work in progress. Their answers remind us that faith formation looks a little different at different ages and stages of discipleship. Sometimes relying upon the words of others or what we’ve been taught is a necessary precursor to claiming one’s own faith or developing a deepening perspective. So, when Jesus presses, “Who do you say that I am?” I imagine he’s not castigating them for parroting back other people’s theories so much as inviting them to stay with the difficulty of the question a little longer.

Like any good question, it yields unexpected blessings when we let it do its work on us. For the disciples, it offers an opportunity to check in with themselves, to take stock of how following Christ all this time has shaped their faith, how it’s deepened their understanding of God, how it’s built a theological foundation that they’ll need as their time together draws shorter. It opens up opportunities for rich conversation and earnest reflection because it affirms the role of spiritual inquiry in the life of discipleship. Jesus offers them a gift, yet only one of his followers musters enough courage to unclench his hands to receive it.

Peter, the only one bold enough to hazard his own viewpoint, declares his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. He takes the risk, he dares to take the conversation to a more intimate level of personal sharing, and not only that, but his answer really seems to resonate. Jesus is effusive in his praise for him, and I wonder if Jesus’ reaction betrays his own sense of relief in knowing that, by the grace of God, at least someone is making the connections. Peter, for one, seems to be getting it. And so, in one fell swoop, Jesus blesses him, appoints him to play a foundational role in the early church, and entrusts him with the authority and responsibility of leadership within the community of faith.

It’s interesting to me that we don’t get to hear Peter’s response to all of this. Part of me wonders if it’s because his jaw is on the floor. Sure, Peter has now become the keeper of the keys, but the humble fisherman is far from perfect. Immediately after Jesus entrusts this great responsibility to Peter, Jesus turns right around and rebukes him a mere five verses later, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” It turns out, Peter hadn’t been able to bear the foretelling of Christ’s suffering and death, and after hearing this first prediction, he cried out “God, forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” All of a sudden, the very rock on which Christ builds his Church has become a stumbling stone on the journey to the Cross. And truth be told, this isn’t Peter’s first offense.

Over and over again throughout the Gospel narrative, he says the wrong thing or asks the wrong question or misses the point or fails to do the right thing.

  • You’ll recall Peter sinking in fear when trying to walk on water, requiring Christ to come to his rescue.
  • We overhear Peter asking Jesus how many times faithful people ought to extend forgiveness and suggesting a measly seven times should be sufficient. I think we all let out a sigh of relief when Jesus multiplies this figure exponentially, affirming the extravagance of grace in response to Peter’s stinginess.
  • We groan as Peter asks what special reward the disciples will get in heaven since they gave up everything to follow Christ, and Jesus has to remind him that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Another teachable moment in this series of missteps.

And that’s not to mention the blunders and betrayals during the week leading up to Christ’s Passion. He botches the foot washing, misunderstands all the predictions and goodbyes, and ultimately denies Christ three times before all is said and done. He fails again and again and again. Yet, if we’re inclined to take Paul’s word for it, Peter is the first person that Christ visits after Easter morning. The Gospel of John records their final conversation in which our living Lord, the Good Shepherd, instructs Peter to care for his sheep.

Clearly, the ministries of the church don’t require perfect people. The foundation upon which Christ builds his church is nothing more and nothing less than folks willing to sit with difficult questions, to risk offering their perspective, to engage thoughtfully in theological reflection, and to follow Christ even when we feel like we’ve messed everything up. And the good news is that every single one of us fits that bill. We’re all works in progress, but each of us still has a vital role to play. To borrow some of Paul’s lingo, we are one body with many members, each with gifts that differ according to the grace given to them. And for God’s healing, transforming, justice-seeking, truth-telling work to fully flourish, we need each other, warts and all.

When our faith feels shaky, we need people like Peter to offer an affirmation for the both of us while we focus on finding our footing. When we’re overwhelmed by the suffering of this world, unmoored by violence, injustice, or loss, we need people who can fan the flames of our hope and reignite our sense of compassion. When worries and fears and unanswerable questions keep us up at night, we need people willing to walk alongside us, holding our concerns close to their hearts. Mostly, we need a community that can hang in there with us through the tough stuff as we each offer whatever grace we’ve been given to help one another make it through. Maybe that’s the key to the kingdom, and maybe Christ issues each of us our own particular copy. Amen.

 

Unexpected Mercies

[A sermon preached on Matthew 10: 40-42 and Genesis 22: 1-14 at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church.]

I know the way you can get
When you have not had a drink of Love:
Your face hardens,
Your sweet muscles cramp.
Children become concerned
About a strange look that appears in your eyes
Which even begins to worry your own mirror
And nose.
Squirrels and birds sense your sadness
And call an important conference in a tall tree.
They decide which secret code to chant
To help your mind and soul.
Even angels fear that brand of madness
That arrays itself against the world
And throws sharp stones and spears into
The innocent
And into one’s self.

 
O I know the way you can get
If you have not been drinking Love:
You might rip apart
Every sentence your friends and teachers say,
Looking for hidden clauses.
You might weigh every word on a scale
Like a dead fish.
You might pull out a ruler to measure
From every angle in your darkness
The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once
Trusted.

 
I know the way you can get
If you have not had a drink from Love’s
Hands.
That is why all the Great Ones speak of
The vital need
To keep remembering God,
So you will come to know and see [God]
As being so Playful
And Wanting,
Just Wanting to help.
That is why [the Poet] says:
Bring your cup near me.
For all I care about
Is quenching your thirst for freedom!
All a Sane [person] can ever care about
Is giving Love!

There are some poems that stick with you – words that you find yourself coming back to again and again because they touch a tender spot deep inside you, turns of phrase that hold you close, refusing to let you go until they’ve left your heart a little bigger and your spirit a little more buoyant. This poem, by the ancient Sufi mystic Hafiz, fits that bill, at least for me. I find myself drawn to these words over and over again because they capture something very true, yet often overlooked.

After all, it’s not like I notice the guy riding my tail up I-81 and muse to myself, “I know the way you can get when you haven’t had a drink of love.” It’s not like I hang in there during a dull, never-ending conversation with a loquacious extended family member thinking, “Oh, I know the way you can get if you have not been drinking Love.” It’s not like I scroll past the friend picking a fight on social media and coo, “I know the way you can get if you have not had a drink from Love’s Hands.”

My go- to responses, my gut reactions, aren’t usually that generous. That guy on the interstate? He’s just a jerk, he’s being stupid and unsafe. That chatty Cathy? She’s irritating and socially inept. That Twitter troll? He gets his kicks by riling people up and causing trouble. If you’re anything like me, your inner commentary is quick to label and slow to understand.

It’s far easier to see that other driver as a menace than to see him as someone who’s rushing to the hospital or running late for his kid’s first dance recital or simply suffering the consequences of never learning to manage his rage any other way. There’s something self-protective in rolling our eyes and gritting our teeth while grandma gabs away, something that prefers to keep an arms’ length between us and the profound loneliness she feels and her longing for companionship. It’s safer to deem that Facebook friend a hothead looking to ruffle feathers than to see the magnitude of their insecurity and their need for external validation of their perspective. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t surprise me that we label and stereotype and judge in order to avoid asking the more difficult question, “Where are there unmet needs here? Where might this person need a drink of love? How could I offer a cup?”

In our Gospel reading this morning, we overhear Jesus giving his disciples a snack for the road – advice and warnings that will sustain them on the journey as they’re sent out as messengers of God’s Kingdom. It’ll be hard, he tells them. Earlier in this chapter, he reminds them of all the perils that await them: persecution, beatings, betrayal, alienation from friends and family, and all for little to no pay. And yet, even in the midst of this very real danger and even though there is great cause for fear, he assures them that there will be unexpected mercies along the way. People will open their homes. Strangers will offer the cup of refreshment. Hospitality will come in astonishing ways, often from the least likely people. Challenge and hardship are non-negotiables in the life of discipleship, but Christ assures us that grace, sufficient unto our deepest needs, will meet us on the way.

And as we read just a few minutes ago, in the unsettling story of Abraham and Isaac, sometimes that grace comes at the eleventh hour. With dagger poised and ready to strike, sometimes Grace says, “Hold on a minute! I’m right here with you. Let’s look around and broaden our view of the situation. Maybe together we can find a different solution.” When our cursor hovers over the send button, sometimes Wisdom reminds us, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Maybe we shouldn’t send that email while we’re still angry. Let’s call a friend to vent and decide how to respond when we’re a little calmer.” When the lunch bell rings and your growling stomach reminds you that you left your lunch bag on the kitchen counter, sometimes Mercy calls to us from down the hall, “Hey, wait up! I packed extra. Do you want to share?”

With his Twelve beloved students gathered around him, Jesus discerns that what they most need to hear before they’re launched into the throes of ministry is a gentle reminder that they are both the ones who give the cup of water to the little ones in need and equally so the parched ones who stretch out their hands to receive. I am sending you out to be a blessing to a world in need, Christ tells them. But part of that very work is allowing yourself to receive the blessings of others along the way.

Many of us like to think of ourselves as giving people – we volunteer in the community, we give to the church, we shovel snow for our elderly neighbor or bring a meal to a friend who’s been sick. Oftentimes, we’re so attached to this view of ourselves as competent, capable, independent helpers that we really struggle to open ourselves to the unexpected mercies that are right there waiting for us, if only we had eyes to see them.

A few years ago, when I was first getting my start as a chaplain, I had just a few minutes left before heading home for the day, and I thought it’d be a great time to pop in to see one last patient, an elderly woman at the end of the hall, whom the nurses told me was deeply faithful and would really enjoy a visit. I’d be in and out, twenty minutes tops, one of those hit and run prayer visits with someone who’d probably be drowsy and eager to go back to sleep. (Isn’t it funny how the Spirit seizes upon moments like these to offer us a heaping helping of humility?) I certainly found myself in need.

Well, we talked and talked as she told me about her life and the role that faith had played over so many years. She spoke about her illness in hopeful terms and had only kind things to say about the hospital staff. She asked what drew me to this work and shared about her own sense of vocation and how it had changed as she’d entered her senior years. But the joyful surprise, the moment that had me blinking back tears, was when I concluded my prayer for her, and she reached out to grab my hand, offering a prayer for my ministry, that God’s presence would sustain me on the journey.

It was a humble gift, yet profoundly nourishing and more needed than either of us probably knew. A lifetime of faithful discipleship had taught this woman the art of blessing and the intimacy of both giving and receiving. It was an unexpected mercy, but I suspect that no one left her hospital room without being offered a drink of Love.

The poet William Blake says it best, I think, when he writes that “we are put on earth . . . that we may learn to bear the beams of love.” And part of that learning process happens right here, in community with one another, as we gather at Christ’s table. Here we are offered the bread of life and the cup of refreshment, and we practice opening our hands wide to receive grace for the journey. Here we find a Host whose hospitality knows no end, who bids us come just as we are, who sees and sanctifies even the parts of us that we struggle to welcome in ourselves. At Christ’s holy feast, we are invited to take a long, deep drink of Love, to taste mercies unexpected, and to practice tending to the hungers buried within our own hearts so that we can offer our gifts to a world that is incredibly malnourished. This is the ministry to which Jesus calls us as those who seek to follow him. This is the inner foundation upon which God builds the Kingdom. This is the soul work that the Spirit has already begun in us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Deep Roots and Home Cookin’

[A Maundy Thursday reflection written for New York Avenue Presbyterian Church based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and John 13:1-15.]

grandparents

As I stared out the backseat window of my family’s old Plymouth Voyager, watching the highway wind its way through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, I sometimes felt as if these trips to my grandparents’ house were an adventure in time travel. For a Pokémon-obsessed, Nickelodeon-watching, Tamagotchi-toting 90s kid, my grandparents’ Mennonite community, nestled quaintly in the Shenandoah Valley, was something of a culture shock to say the least. Weekends like these meant playing checkers rather than Nintendo, singing hymns around the piano rather than cranking up the volume on my Walkman, and enjoying Sunday supper compliments of Granddad’s garden rather than a McDonald’s drive-thru. But even as I dreaded the slower pace and the “old-fashioned fun” my parents always promised, I inevitably found that the values of simplicity and hospitality struck a chord with me even as a youngster. No place was this clearer for me than my grandparents’ kitchen table. I never knew how she did it, but no matter what she was cooking or who came vistin’, Grandma always managed to have room for one more. She’d welcome you in with a smile and a glass of sweet tea, quickly setting another place without so much as a sigh or a raised eyebrow. After a long car ride, we knew we’d always be greeted with her specialty: meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, and shoo-fly pie. It was a meal my great-grandmother would often make for her guests — beloved recipes passed down from generation to generation, a family’s story recorded in flour and egg, potato peels and pie crust.

 
I like to think that Jesus was doing something akin to this when he gathered with his disciples on the night before his arrest. Sitting around a table, he shared not just any meal with them, but a recipe with deep roots – one that connected them to their family history through the foundational story of the Passover feast and the liberation of God’s chosen people. Stooping down to wash their feet, he extended radical hospitality, and in doing so, opened their eyes to a wholly unexpected though profoundly sacred way of living in the world. Christ knew that they would need these gifts to sustain them through the days ahead. In the Gospel of John we read that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world” and “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Out of this great love, Christ offers them bread for the journey and a ritual of remembrance to nourish their grieving hearts. He tells them that these gifts of bread, water, and wine are not just for them, but for those who come after them, the community of saints whom this ancient yet ongoing story has claimed as its own. “So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” he tells them. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). Reflecting on this ritual, this feast passed down through the Church in every age, Paul also writes, “For I have received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:23). In other words, this holy meal, this undeserved hospitality, these final moments with Christ’s most intimate companions, they’re part of us, part of our Christian story, part of what holds us all together and reminds us who we are. This, Christ tells us, is the recipe which nourished our past and sustains our future.

 

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These days my grandparents’ home looks a little different. Years ago they traded in their ranch and its mountain view for a spot in a senior care facility. As Grandma’s multiple sclerosis progressed, standing at the kitchen counter started to become too much, and Granddad, likewise, found that the ache in his back and the shuffle in his steps began to overshadow even the joy-filled perfection of biting into one of his homegrown tomatoes. Each of these little losses felt like a crack in the foundation of our family and an assurance that things will never be as they once were. And yet, as I stand in my own tiny kitchen, in a fast-paced city far from the silent gaze of those mountains which hold such deep history, I don’t have to pull out my cookbook. Four generations later, these recipes are etched indelibly on my heart. As it turns out, grief, seasoned with teardrops and paired with sides of ritual, legacy, and nostalgia, tastes a whole lot like meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, and shoo-fly pie. But then again, at least I know what to take with me when I go to visit next time.